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 2

(The horror story continues.)

“Yeah,” Colin said, “it is.  That’s all part of the charm, of course.”

     “Are there any neighbours close by?”

     Colin pressed his memory.  The family did not really mix much with friends or neighbours in the area.  That sort of thing only started after the move to New York.  The closest thing he could recall was an older, farming couple that were a short drive away; and, even then, he was under the impression that their property had since been added to the Hardwick estate.

     “Not close by, for sure,” he said.  “The house itself is huge, and the property extends a few miles or so around it.  It is an old estate.  Not many like it, anymore.”

     “You figure it was built about two hundred years ago?” Macy asked, enjoying the start of their chat.

     “The original part of the house was built right before the Revolution,” he said, remembering what his grandparents had explained to him a million times as a boy.  “The exact date is not known because they added the rest of the house about ten years later, when the British were gone and things had calmed down.  So, technically, the building is about two hundred years old.”

     “The Hardwick’s must have made good money,” she said, suddenly into new territory with the history of the mansion.  “What did they do?”

     “Well, the official, family line is has it as a combination of old money from Europe and a mix of local business interests.  We know they owned sawmills, forges and several general stores, but it gets murky beyond that.”

     “Ah,” she laughed, “finally some juicy stuff.  Do tell.”

     Colin smiled.  The conversation was actually enjoyable to him, as well.  “There is a ton of rumour that they smuggled just about anything and everything you can imagine.  It is said this brought the Hardwick’s to the colonies, in the first place.  During the revolution, their smuggling operations went into overdrive.  The expansion to Hardwick House was a result.”

     “So they smuggled goods past the British,” Macy laughed, her knowledge of history quite limited.  Her understanding of the American Revolution was that the British had high taxes, the Americans revolted and won.  George Washington and Thomas Edison were mixed into it, somehow, too.  “You come from patriotic roots,” Macy added.

     “Not likely,” Colin said, half smiling.  “Rumour has it that the Hardwicks smuggled for both sides, until it was clear the British were finished.  Then, they sided exclusively with the American cause.  Business probably trumped politics.”

     “Scandalous,” Macy said, looking at their surroundings.  She noticed, rather suddenly, that there were no power lines flanking the road side.  She glanced at her phone, noticing the reception was at zero bars.  A glance at the GPS showed it was searching for satellites.  She waited a few minutes before bringing her growing angst to her fiancé, who seemed oblivious to it all.

     “You do know where you are going, right?” she asked.

     “Absolutely,” Colin said, suddenly noting the state of the GPS.  “Don’t worry about that, I looked the map over before we left.  The area has always lagged behind with technology.  Your phone probably doesn’t have much reception out here, either.”

     “Are you from a Quaker family or something?” Macy asked, suddenly unsure of what was coming.  “This place does have electricity, right?”

     Colin laughed, almost choking from it.  “Not Quakers, no,” he said, trying to calm down, “but suspicious of new things, yes.  The land is in a bit of a valley and there are no cell towers on or near it.  I am not even sure if Uncle Cyril owned a cell phone; and if he did, he was the first in the family to live at the house with one.”

     “And the electricity?” she asked with growing suspicion of her own.

     “They have a private line running off the grid,” Colin explained.  “My grandparents were very suspicious of outsider access to the property, so they cut some deals to make sure the lines were off limits to government people.  It was only installed after I was born, in fact.”

     “And it is working now?”

     “I am told so,” Colin said, “but the power was never reliable, even after it was installed.  A rural reality.”

     “The charm of the weekend is sure rubbing off quickly,” she muttered.

     “It will all be over before you know it, dear,” he said, lacing in his best charm.

     They did not drive much further when they reached the turn to the property.  It was a private road, complete with a gate and no trespassing sign.  Colin pulled up to the gate, got out and unlocked the padlock with one of the keys that had been mailed to him.  After driving through, he locked the gate behind them.

     “Why bother?” Macy asked when he returned to the car.

     “A minor precaution against trespassers,” Colin said, “and it helps with any insurance issues that might come up.  Stupid, I know.”

     The private road to the house was not much different than the last few miles of dirt road.  It was rutted and worn, probably one of the first things needing repair.  The trees were a little closer and the light seemed a bit dimmer, especially for noon.  Macy’s sense of distance was worse than her history, but it was quite a distance from the gate before they reached Hardwick House.

     The building was vaguely Victorian, though it had almost gothic elements on the exterior.  Built on a small rise, just clear of the forest line, the house stood three stories and seemed to sprawl out like a monster on a rock.  The final approach was covered with paving stones, lined with cherry trees.  It was almost beautiful.

     “Wow,” Macy said, taking in the building and grounds.  There were statues and a small fountain in front of the building, now a touch mossy and entangled with vines.  The building exterior showed signs of both weathering and recent repair.  Colin was growing distracted as they came to a stop in front of the main door.  When they stepped out of the car, the world was silent; no sound, wild or otherwise, was to be heard.  The sudden change was almost palpable, and Colin filled the gap awkwardly, despite being awash in his own thoughts.

     “Welcome to Hardwick House!” he exclaimed in a mock showy tone.

     If it had not been for the newest concerns of electricity, cell service, and complete isolation, Macy might have found the place quaint.  The charm was there, yet her mood was off; and she was not confident she would shake it.

Sacrifice, Part 1

(I return from holidays a little refreshed and ready to kick off 2020. I hope everyone had a happy and restful time. Thought I would switch gears from the long, sci-fi and jump back to some shorter, spooky stuff. This is a horror/ghost story with just a hint of mystery thrown in. Hope you enjoy.)

“You have been putting this off for forever, Colin,” Macy nagged playfully.  “Like so many other things.”

            Colin was getting used to the nagging; it was growing more frequent as the wedding day approached.  He put up with it, on account of the bigger picture.  “The old house isn’t going anywhere, so a few more minutes will be okay.”

            “I guess so,” she agreed, keeping things playful.

            The car was already packed and ready for the short drive to the Hardwick House.  Even though he had only brought up the family house recently, the trip to see it was high on both their priority lists.  Macy already knew she liked Colin; he fit her check list so well that it sometimes scared her.  His family had dwindled from several accidents and tremendous ill luck, true, but that also meant fewer in-laws to interfere or quarrel with.  Colin was a junior partner in a mediocre law firm, clean cut and God-fearing.  He was a little older than she had hoped for; that being the worst thing about him.  He had not immediately told her about the family estate in the heart of New England he had recently inherited, perhaps concerned that she was a gold digger, yet this seemed a reasonable precaution to her.  She had not accepted his proposal for his money, but the additional security it provided was welcome.

            For Colin, the house had some value beyond childhood memories.  He had been raised there until he was nine, when his father whisked Colin and his mother away to New York City.  Life had been good at the Hardwick House, a remote, Victorian mansion in a magnificent state of upkeep; especially compared to a busy, loud and crowded New York City.  Twenty five years later, Colin was in a tight spot.  Despite relative success as a business lawyer, his lifestyle and some questionable investments had set his finances back.  Debts were crippling, nearly to the point of breaking.  The family estate came to him as an early surprise; the recent passing of an estranged uncle being the last in a string of unusual deaths.  The place was worth a fair chunk of change; at least, enough to pay his mounting debts and give him a fresh start.  Still, there was always a price, even for an unexpected gift.

            The plan was to spend Saturday night at the house in order to check it out.  Colin’s Uncle Cyril had been keeping the place as a summer residence.  Uncle Cyril had been carrying out some upkeep toward selling the place, so the property would keep them dry enough for a weekend.  They brought camping gear, just in case.

            “How long since your uncle stayed there?” Macy asked as they got underway.

            “Almost a year,” Colin said, sure he had told her before.

            “I still can’t believe it took so long for the will to go through,” she said, mostly to make conversation.  Colin had only told her about it a month ago.  She had been dying to see Colin’s childhood home ever since.

            “It was a pretty screwy will,” Colin said, playing along with the idle conversation.  “I think he probably didn’t want the place going to me.  He did everything except exclude me from the will.  If he had, there would be an auction right now.”  Cyril had willed his entire estate to a series of friends who turned out to have passed away or disappeared.  The will was clearly old; the old man had not expected to kick off so soon.  When it was clear that no one in the will was available to take it, Hardwick House passed to the next available family member.

            “You were kind of vague about his break with the family,” Macy went on.  “He didn’t get along with your dad, somehow?”

            “The reason I was vague is because I never had it explained to me, either,” Colin explained.  “No one talked about it, really.  What I know came in bits and pieces.  Mom and dad were already dead before I left law school, so there wasn’t a lot of adult discussion of family politics.  Who knows, they might never have told me, anyway.”

            “Your uncle was mad that your dad left the estate,” Macy probed.  “Seems like a weird thing to fight over.”

            Colin smiled.  He had wondered about the full connection to his own understanding of the house and Uncle Cyril’s rift with his father.  “It could be anything, I guess.  For all I know, dad left because of the fight.  The bits and pieces suggest Cyril felt dad owed it to my grandparents to stay.  I just don’t have enough information to say, really.”

            Macy smiled and put her hand Colin’s shoulder.  “You’re funny,” she said, almost giggling, “with your legal need to have it all evidenced out.  You don’t even want to try a few theories?”

            “Not really,” Colin said, really not caring about the details of an event that no longer mattered.

            “Okay,” she said, trying to find a new angle to keep the conversation going.  “What did your uncle do for a living?”

            “He was a building contractor,” Colin said.  “As far as I know, that was all he ever did.”

            Macy nodded.  “And did he have much money of his own?  He was keeping up a pretty expensive property for a few years.”

            “He was planning on selling it in a few years, according to the paperwork.  His contracting business didn’t make a ton of money, but he seemed to manage.  For all I know, he was selling family heirlooms to make the difference.  As it stands, I already sold his business to one of his senior employees to cover the legal costs related to the stupid will.  He was worth that much, at least.”

            “Hopefully he kept the plumbing up,” Macy said, looking to lighten things.  “I don’t really want to do my business in a pot all weekend.”

            “I think the place is livable, including plumbing,” Colin said, checking his blind spot as he pulled onto the interstate.  “A local caretaker was keeping the place up until a couple of weeks ago.  Another provision of the will.”

            “Why did he stop?” Macy asked.  A caretaker was news to her.

            “A short term contract provided for in the will,” Colin said.  “It’s part of why I wanted to see the place now.  If the place is good enough to sell, as is, I may hire him on again until a deal closes.”  He had already explained his intention to fix the house up, if needed, to maximize the price.

            “Would you ever consider keeping it?” she asked.  She had brought it up before, briefly, but never really discussed it beyond that.

            Colin smirked.  “Part of me wouldn’t mind.  The truth is that my life is based in the city.  The commute is almost manageable, except for the winters.  I couldn’t justify the place as a summer residence, considering what year round taxes and insurance would cost.  Besides, just keeping the place up would be a job.  There must be a dozen bedrooms alone.”

            Macy smiled again, suddenly feeling close to him.  “Maybe, when we finally stop waiting to do the deed,” she said, half serious, “we could work on filling those rooms.”  She had casually referenced their state of celibacy.  Macy was not altogether the most religious girl, however she had a strong desire to remain celibate until her wedding night; which was, for Colin, the only thing that mattered.

            Colin looked away to hide the look crossing his face, obvious sadness and regret.  When he turned back, smiling, she seemed not to have noticed.  “That’s a lot of rooms,” was all he said.

            The expressway gave way to a short run on a secondary highway before leading to a genuine side road.  The road was hilly and winding at stops, seeming to hug the landscape.  Irregular intervals of houses and farms quickly gave way to trees and brush.  For Macy, a true city girl, they were suddenly in a wilderness; and she was uncomfortable with it.  They had been fairly quiet for a while, and she needed the comfort of conversation.

            “You weren’t kidding about the place being in the middle of nowhere,” she said, hoping he would converse.

Even More Casserole

(The holiday season looms. My posting frequency may be erratic through the end of the year. It is so good to be my own boss on this. I will try for something different on the next post. There is such a thing as too much casserole)

The drive took us off the main highway and onto a secondary road until noon.  We were in the heart of farm country and the world suddenly seemed far away.  Mal took a side road for several minutes, coming to a place called Bhrycal Corners, with all of an independent gas station, family restaurant and antique shop to differentiate it from any other country crossroad.  Mal slowed and pulled into the gas station.

“This doesn’t look much like a meeting place,” I observed.

“No,” Mal said, getting out of the car.  “We could use some gas and more food, though.”

The meeting was clearly some time into the future.  I didn’t object.  After gassing the car, Mal parked and insisted we try the local cuisine.  The Quiet Corners Family Restaurant was true to its name, we were the only guests and it was not yet one o’clock.  The menu was limited but Mal found a way to order a feast.  An appetiser of cheesy garlic bread was followed with a hot turkey sandwich and an order of apple pie for desert.  I was hungry enough to order a similar quantity of food.

“It always makes me sad to see places like this,” she said while stirring the sugar into her coffee.  “The people work hard to build a business, even out in the boondocks, and it too often sits empty.  The owners don’t want to make a million dollars, they only want to make a decent living.  Sad.”

Her attempt at chit chat felt forced, awkward.  I didn’t care much for talking when I only wanted to find out more about why I was being called in, and what was wrong with Corbin.  Mal did not take the hint, or chose to ignore it.

“I hope places like this last forever,” Mal went on.  “It’s not fair that they go out of business and fail.  There must be a way to fix that, you know?”

“Places like this tend to fail because they are not properly planned or managed,” I said, anxious for the silence of our car trip.  “I could care less if they make it or not.  Not my problem.”

“Charming,” Mal said, flashing her smile for the first time in a while.  “You should write a motivational column or something.”

“I’m not feeling very chatty,” I grumbled.  “This was not how my day was supposed to go.”

“Ah, yes.  You were supposed to go back to your boss and make a delivery; a worthy use of your skills and responsible contribution to society.  Somehow, I am not bothered about disturbing your day.”

“You can spare me the crap about doing the world a favour,” I said, feeling resentful again.  “I did enough.  All I wanted was a full extraction, and they couldn’t do it, so I left.  It’s a free country, the last time I checked.”

“Then why didn’t you take a labour job?  Or anything other than crime?” Mal rose to the challenge.

“Because labour jobs that pay well don’t exist, and the pension the program offers doesn’t exist,” I shot back.  “And I lost too much time playing secret agent to jump back into a normal life”

“Let me get this straight,” she said, getting more agitated, “you want a pension for ten years of work?  Fuck!  How about a gold watch and a retirement party?  You can’t be that selfish.”

“Oh, but I can.”

“You would be dead if it weren’t for Corbin,” she said, crossing into sensitive territory.  “The only reason you can handle this insane life of yours is because of him, too.  You know how he is, how do you think he feels about your career choice after what he gave you?”

I was pissed off by this point.  “I got over that a while back.  Corbin saved my life, and I can only thank him for it, but I didn’t sign up to be a slave.  I’m not only one to leave the program, either.”  The truth went deeper than this, really, but I just wanted to stop talking about it.  Mal had opposed my leaving from the moment I first mentioned it, before I chose a criminal life.

“Don’t give me that bull shit!” she kept on going.  “Paul became a police officer and Nancy got an office job.”

“Listen, Mal,” I said, working very hard to keep my voice down, “I just don’t give a shit.  I haven’t given a shit for while.  So how about not talking about it?”

Our server saved me from more distress with the prompt arrival of our garlic bread.  I engaged in a brief, and awkward, conversation with the woman.  She was a chubby lady in her early fifties with pleasant features and work-worn hands.  Mal’s earlier point about the plight of little businesses like this hit me, just a little, when I looked at the woman.  She was polite, and friendly, but clearly wanted to leave our table.  Mal was bubbling over, searing anger obvious in her eyes; stoked hotter as I obviously extended a meaningless conversation with our server.

Mal leaned in after the server was out of earshot, looking like pure venom.  “You don’t want to fucking talk?” she hissed.  “Fine.  Then you can save it for the meeting because I’m done talking, too.”

“That’s the best thing you’ve said since you showed up,” I said, not contented to let her off too easily.

“Fuck you,” she responded.

Our meal was very ordinary, other than being too salty.  True to her word, Mal not only stayed quiet but she never once looked at me.  She even told the server that I would be paying.  I had clearly struck a nerve.

The rest of the drive took us into a remote area of southern Ontario; even the farming seemed to peter out.  At one point, it was clear that Mal was doubling back and circling a certain area to check if we were being followed.  Some of the roads we took were hard on the car, not being much better than pairs of ruts in the bush.  The car was a right-off, anyway, as Mal had put out several cigarettes on the dash since lunch.  It was nearly dusk when she finally turned down a particularly rough track.  The overgrown track jostled us in the car, the undercarriage taking a beating as branches scratched the exterior.  Mal drove on with a satisfied look on her face as the car took a beating.  When the bush around us cleared, we were at the edge of cliff.  Mal stopped the car and got out.  I had a bad feeling about her intentions toward the car and got out quickly.  As expected, Mal gave the car a shove over the edge, ending about fifty feet below and into watery grave.

She didn’t even look back as she headed into the surrounding woods.  I had one final temptation to run for it before I followed her in.  She kept a quick pace, not quite jogging, through the woods until we broke into a field dotted with patches of bush.  It felt like an abandoned farm area, dotted with stones, thistles and trees.  In the early twilight, it felt very remote, as if the world outside didn’t exist.

Our path kept us in the direction of a distant barn.  The closer we got, the clearer it was that the place was nearly a ruin.  It was deathly quiet, other than the crickets and occasional bird chirping.  When we were about fifty feet from the barn, Mal slowed her pace and changed her course to circle around.  I followed carefully, it being obvious that we had reached the meeting place.  A complete circle later, we went toward the barn.  The door hung open enough to slip through; the outside twilight just barely illuminating the interior through the damaged roof and walls.  I immediately noted the smells of gun oil, perspiration and fabric.  Years of living a dangerous life made me want to reach for my weapon, which might have been fatal in the company I was meeting with.

A tiny light, the same colour made by fireflies, flashed before us in some unknown, coded pattern.  I was familiar with this type of coded communication, only the code had probably changed many times since I had last used it.  Mal signaled back with a penlight of her own, the firefly colour matching.  We moved forward to what looked like a tent, turning out to be an ancient tractor under a tarp.  Beneath the tractor was a trap door to a cramped basement below.  The basement was only just high enough to stand straight in.  The lights were dim, but I recognised everyone there.  Palmer, Smith, Jarredsson and several others I knew too well.  Good, upstanding members of the program.  In all, there were a dozen of them; I estimated another two or three in the barn above us.  I was acknowledged with a combination of silent nods and a variety of mumbled greetings; none of it felt terribly friendly.

More Casserole

(Just adding a bit more to the last post here. Enjoy)

     I had parked in an alley between a hardware store and a junk shop.  When I reached the car, Mallory was already behind the wheel, smiling mischievously and certainly pleased with herself.

     “Hop in,” she said through the open window, before I could speak, “I’m driving.”

     “Like hell you are,” I snapped.  “Get out.”

     “Listen, Peters,” she said, smirking.  “If you really want to make a scene on a quiet, northern morning, after seriously fucking up a pair of local gangsters, go for it.  Otherwise, I’m driving.”

     She had me, and knew it.  The last thing I could afford was unwanted attention.  Besides, a physical fight between the two of us would be more than noticeable.

     I got in and buckled up, instructing Mal to do the same.  “You already look like a freak,” I told her, “so we won’t be giving the police any more reasons to stop us today.”

     “Fine,” she said, and laughed.  She started the car out of town, driving by Foundation Street.  Two cruisers had already arrived, cherries blazing and sirens silent.

     “They sure took their time,” she commented.

     “For a town like this, they did alright,” I said.  “No gunshots or screaming reported.  They were like lightning.”

     We drove in silence for a while.  Mal kept us heading to the main roads out of town while I nervously tried to appreciate the rural scenery.  I was content to stay quiet; I didn’t want to know why she was here.  Before we reached the last turnoff to the major highway, she pulled into a coffee shop drive thru.

     “We’re barely twenty minutes out of town,” I spoke up.  “This is a bad idea.”

     “I’m hungry now,” Mal said, as if I had not spoken.  “And we were already seen by several people.  You must be peckish, too, unless you stuffed yourself this morning.”

     A dozen doughnuts and two coffees with three sugars were ordered.  Mal smiled at the disinterested clerk like we were out for a Sunday drive.  She hit the highway and set the cruise at one twenty.  She started packing down the doughnuts.

     “Sure you don’t want one?” she asked after the sixth one disappeared.  “They aren’t the best, but I’ve had a lot worse.”

     “I’m fine.  Just keep your eyes on the road.”  The coffee just tasted like sugar.  The calorie value was the only thing that mattered.

     Mallory left two in the box for me.  I would be hungry soon and she knew it.

     “You know,” she continued, sipping her coffee, “if I ever revert to normal I think I’m going to let myself go.  I couldn’t manage a diet if I tried.  Food is just too good, you know, especially the crap stuff.  How could I live on healthy food?”  She paused to light a cigarette.

     “This is a rental,” I spoke harshly.

     She looked at me with a smile, cigarette hanging from her lips.  She took a few insolent puffs before stubbing it out on the dash.  “There,” she challenged.  “Happy now?”

     I rubbed my temples.  I had forgotten how difficult Mal could be when she wanted to.  I settled myself enough to accept two important facts: Mal was here to tell me something and I probably didn’t want to know it.  The rest were details.  The sooner I got this out of the way, the more likely she was to go away.

     “Okay,” I spoke calmly, rubbing the frustration from my temples, “what is it?  Why did you come here?”

     “Long story,” she said, a hint of seriousness creeping in.  “It’s a good thing we have time.  There is a crisis, but not the usual kind.  This one affects us directly.  The timing of it sucks, too, so all the rogues are being called in.”

     “This sounds awfully familiar, Mal.  Am I going to get the usual lines about saving the world and living up to my potential?”  These were the type of lines they fed you, making it feel like a superhero moment when they needed your skills in action.  It was rarely a minor intervention or casual job; high pressure was the intended motivator, as though it were enticing.

     “Except this is the real deal,” Mal answered, a distant look on her face spooking me at the same time.  “I’m not shitting you in any way.”

     “You went through all this trouble,” I said, ready to call her bluff, “so I’ll nibble at the bait.  Let’s hear it.”

     Mal pursed her lips slightly before speaking.  “The Program, our cooperative arrangement with the federal security agencies, and even our own necks are in deep trouble.  Technically, it affects us all, which is why they are calling everyone in.”

     “What kind of threat are we talking about?”

     “I’m not supposed to give you any more than I already have,” Mal sighed.  “Unfortunately, you are as predictable as hell and I know you’ll fight me the whole way if I don’t do better.  So here is the teaser: the government is making moves to eliminate the program and us with it.”

     “That talk was in the wind even before I left,” I countered.  “Corbin has always handled that end, anyway.  You have to do better than that.”

     “Corbin is…”  The word caught in her throat, her tone somber.  “…is not well.”  She popped another cigarette into her mouth and lit it.  This time I said nothing.  She took a long drag and continued.

     “I won’t go into much more detail, Peters.  The information about our elimination came to us accidentally.  There is more to it, of course.  All I can say is that the intelligence we have right now is extremely legit.”

     “What is wrong with Corbin?” I asked abruptly.

“You already know more than you should,” she snapped back.  “Just go with this for once, will you?”

I wasn’t feeling like going back.  It was a part of my life that I remembered too well and despised too much.  Still, Corbin was Corbin.  He was something of a father figure to the members of the program.  In most cases, he had either saved our lives or made them worth living.  It was unlikely that Mal would use his health as a ploy to bring me in, not like this.  I was stuck, and however much I hated it, I knew it.

“Fine,” I said, angrier than intended, “I will go.”

“Good.”

“Where exactly is this meeting?” I asked, more gently.

“Not far, actually,” she said.  “Just enjoy the drive.”

This was not likely to happen.  I had too much to think about to just enjoy a drive to an unknown place, to meet people I would rather avoid and see a man I cared about in a state of illness.  My plans for an easy fortune and a quiet retirement seemed gone already.  What the hell could I do?  Even if I could ditch Mal, with violence or not, neither of which were foregone conclusions, where would I go?  Where could I hide that they wouldn’t find me, eventually?  And then, how would I feel about abandoning Corbin when he might need me?  It was not worth thinking about.  I reclined the seat slightly and reached for the remaining doughnuts.  I had a feeling I would need the calories.

To Be Named Later, or The Casserole

(This is the beginning of a much longer story. Call it very near future. Loosely speaking, it is a spy/underworld/perhaps-alternate-timeline story with all sorts of science fiction bits and pieces thrown in. A casserole of fun stuff. It is definitely gritty, not lacking in violence, and involves characters with questionable ethics. It is also unfinished, unedited and untitled, but I work on it between other things.)

               The downtown had the usual, dingy, rundown look of every small, northern town I had ever seen.  Patchy attempts to improve the visual rot only made it worse.  The waterfront was probably the only decent place in the downtown core, though the rot was seeping into it, as well.  The place was dead and just hadn’t noticed; a zombie town.

               I strolled to the docks, discovering the harbour area was smaller than it looked from a distance.   Really, it was a parking lot set next to a walkway along the water, with a restaurant on one side and a very industrial looking complex on the other.  Charming.

               If autumn had an upside, it was in being cold enough to keep riff-raff from sleeping outside during the night.  I had seen two distant joggers earlier but the place was otherwise deserted.  I continued along the larger of two main docks, figuring it was as good a place as any to do some thinking while I waited.  A car sped past in the distance, an ancient hatchback, rotting away like the town, and disappeared into a side street.  As quickly as that, I was alone.

               The waterfront was on a bay off the great lake.  The water was icy still and dark; the predawn light seemed to cast shadows on everything, and those shadows seemed to collect in the water.  It had a peaceful quality, all the same.  I kept my back to the town, enjoying the view across the bay, a mostly undeveloped area that gave an illusion of purity.

               Time passed and I fell into a deep, thoughtful state, almost a trance, aware of my surroundings yet deep within my own mind.  There was no ritualistic or spiritual element to it.  I had learned to do it as a boy and got into the habit.  The opportunity was sometimes scarce, though I never lost the knack.  It was like being awake and dreaming at the same time.  Thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations swirled in a gentle maelstrom; they crossed, merged and sometimes settled with each other, creating a kaleidoscope vision of my mind.  I had found that the longer I was able to hold myself in this state, the more likely it was for the elements to generate the semblance of a message, or concept, or something meaningful.  It had a dreamlike quality, without the random, shifting and confusing nonsense.  The maelstrom had inertia, yet I could guide it along with gentle pressure; I always envisioned it as the same sort of pressure a tugboat exerted on a large ship.  The trick to holding the state and manipulating the storm was in not putting too much or too little pressure; too much pressure caused the elements of the maelstrom to weaken and fade, eventually breaking it; too little pressure made the intensity strong, but made it more difficult to find guidance from the mess.

               Minor distractions were another weak spot.  The solitude and tranquility made it easy to form the whirlwind; the increasing wakefulness of the town, rotted and sluggish as it was, wore down my focus.  It was difficult to estimate the passage of time, just like in a dream, so I was unsure of it when the final straw fell.  The light suggested that the sun had been up for a little while.

               “Fine morning,” a voice offered, sounding old, attempting to engage me in conversation.  My maelstrom collapsed into itself and disappeared, a fading memory in an instant.  I turned to the old voice, extending my hand to it.  Energy surged through me, nearly unbidden.  An elderly man, looking shocked at my quick, aggressive motion, stood a few feet away.  He had been right behind me.  The flicker of rage I felt at his interruption spiraled away in time for me to collect myself.  I had wanted to harm him for his lack of manners and inconvenient presence but it would do no good; I had my own business to attend to, and it would not serve to draw attention to myself.

               The man was a little scared, judging by his reaction.  I guessed his age at sixty.  He wore tan slacks, a plaid shirt and a windbreaker.  Just an old man with a big mouth, taking a morning walk because he had nothing better to do.  “Whoa,” he said, holding up his hands defensively.  “I didn’t mean to –“

               “Shut up,” I snapped, venting my ebbing anger at him without attempting to soften my words.  “You shouldn’t sneak around and surprise people like that.  It could go badly for you.”  I lowered my arm and walked away.  The old man simply stood there, too frightened to speak.

               Downtown closed around me before I was a block in.  It was a new town but a familiar place.  I had worked the central northern beat for Porter long enough to recognise the same old thing in a different place.  I had studied the map enough to know where I was going in this new piss hole.  My dawdling was wasted, anyway.  The maelstrom had yielded nothing, even before I lost it.  Something was not right in this place, only I could not place it.  Normally, I would have come away with something.

               I was in a pissy mood when I arrived, three blocks later, at 119 Foundation Street.  The Pawn Prince was a dismal sight; it was another relic, only brightened the slightest with a cheery, white banner proclaiming Cash for Gold in red letters.  The building had a second floor of apartments that merged with the adjacent buildings.  The entrance to the 119 apartments was a heavily abused wooden door to the right of the pawn shop.  The door handle had broken off, probably years earlier, and been replaced with a small length of rope.  It was already open a crack, which made it a bit more convenient for me.  The stairs were solid but filthy.  I turned left at the top of the stairs and made my way down the hall.  The lighting was dim, likely a by-product of cheap, low wattage bulbs and never-cleaned light fixtures.  The smell of stale cigarette, pot and beer almost masked the undercurrent of stale mop water, garbage and urine.  If it had been unexpected, I might have been thrown off.

               As it was, I felt my energy flow through me, accumulating like a charge.  It was doubtful I would need a lot, but apartment 2C had to know a visit was coming; and it was tough to say what countermeasures there would be.  The door to 2C was open, just slightly.

               I let my energy level build a bit more before I made my move.  A hard kick flung the door wide open, exposing a smoky room within.  Two men jumped up from a moldy couch, knocking over a coffee table in front of them; they both looked high as kites, one of them made a clumsy move for something inside his belt.  I unleashed a blast of energy that hit him square in the chest, knocking him through the wall; heavy bruises, broken ribs and a mild concussion were guaranteed, unless he was unlucky and I had collapsed his lungs and damaged his spine.  It didn’t matter.  The second man was the subject of my visit, and he was already on his knees and in shock.

               I kept a solid reserve of energy at the ready.  Something still felt wrong.  A quick check revealed no other guests in 2C.  Bobby O’Mara was on his knees begging me not to kill him.  Someone in a neighbouring apartment was hollering about keeping the noise down.

               “For Christ’s sake, shut the fuck up,” I said, closing the apartment door.  “I don’t have much time for this, so pay fucking attention.  You should know better than to disrespect Porter the way you have.  You are way behind this year and you don’t even bother to call last month when you pay nothing.  That’s not cool, Bobby.  So this…”  My attention trailed off as I felt something familiar, something dangerously familiar, from behind me.  Someone was building up their energy and they were damn close.  Instinct took over and I formed my energy into a shield, encasing me in a protective cocoon.  A blast zipped past me and struck Bobby O’Mara squarely in the head, pulping it in one strike.

               I wheeled around, stirring up energy as fast as I could for a fight.  Standing at the back of the room was Mallory Stelton, an old associate who I thought I was finished with years ago.  She had changed her look, but was recognisable despite the Goth-ish wardrobe and makeup.  “What the hell, Mal?” was all I could think to say.

               “Nice to see you, Peters,” she said with a grin.  I had not dropped the shield.  Mallory was releasing her energy passively as she strolled forward.

               “Why are you here?” I asked bluntly.  “This bullshit is going to make things awkward for me back in the city.”

               “When did you get so sloppy?” she asked back.  “I couldn’t have got this close to you before without getting noticed.”

               “Fuck,” I growled, partly at Mal, partly at the mess in front of me.  It would take some explaining to keep Porter off my ass.

               “So,” Mal said, getting up and lighting a cigarette, “you are some sort of hit man, or something like that?”

               “Collections, actually,” I said, realising there would be no easy out.  I began a quick search of the place in the hopes I could find enough cash or dope to mitigate the screw up.

               “What a waste,” Mal said.  She was clearly amused by my frantic search.  Her nonchalant attitude had not changed in the years since I last saw her.

               “Is there something you want from me?” I asked, distracted by my search.  “This is a long way from Montreal, isn’t it?”

               “You always were a suspicious one,” she said with a smirk, watching me rifle through a putrid bathroom.  “Can’t a girl just stop by and say hello?”

               “Probably better you don’t tell me,” I responded, pushing by her and into the kitchen.  All I really wanted was to find a giant stash of dope, get out before the authorities arrived and ditch Mallory.  The last part would be the trickiest; she wasn’t here by chance.

               “Listen, tough guy,” she said, still toying with me, “why don’t we have a little chat?  There has got to be a place that serves coffee around here.”

               “Not interested,” I said without a blink.  I had left the world she belonged to, and that had taken some doing.  I had been left alone for some time, yet Mallory was a sign that world wanted me back.

               “Come on.  What is the rush?  One cup of coffee.”

               “The rush is,” I growled as I headed from the fruitless kitchen to the bedroom, “that I am supposed to have supper with my boss today.  If not, I owe him an advance phone call.”

               “Right,” she chuckled, “the collections thing.  You will be delivering from this run.”  She paused and finished her cigarette.  “Well, the city isn’t more than a couple of hours and it is morning.  That leaves time for a coffee, or do I have that wrong?”

               The fellow I had knocked through the wall was breathing.  He had a badly broken arm and numerous lesser injuries.  He didn’t look much like hired muscle.  A quick search of him produced a knife, about five thousand in cash and fifty dollars in weed.  It was chump change, in the big picture, but covered most of what O’Mara owed.  It also suggested he was here to buy, which meant there was another five grand in product in the apartment.  I was willing to press my luck by extending the search.  An even ten Gs would cover the debt, plus a little for the hassle.  Porter wouldn’t be happy; but he would understand a situation gone wrong.  It happened, from time to time, and life would go on.

               “Time is money, Mal,” I said, tearing the room apart.  “So if you have something to say, say it.  I am out of here soon.”

               She was uncharacteristically quiet.  I found a very sturdy little end table; heavy oak, bolted together like it was made to survive a bomb blast and locked tight.  I drew up a bit of energy, which got Mallory’s attention.  Fine work like this was not my forte, and I was distracted, so my attempt to blow the lock resulted in smashing up the entire thing.  The contents spilled out, mostly unharmed: bags of pills, powder and a bit of cash.  I grabbed it up and stuffed it into my jacket; big, inside pockets were gold in the collections business.

               “Time’s up,” I said, taking my turn to be funny.  “I got what I…”

               Mallory was gone.  It was hard to sense if she was still nearby or not.  Something was definitely going on and I didn’t like it in the least.  Keeping myself in the moment, I went for the window.  The same neighbour who hollered about the noise was hollering again, and this was the type of place that attracted police attention.  The window had a rusting fire escape to a partly overgrown parking area below.  I made my way down and got moving.  Once I was sure my trail was clear, I only needed to get back to the car; then I was home free.