Wifeception

I recently rewatched “Inception,” and thought about what might happen if Mal hadn’t tragically died. What if two people lived together all the time, waking and sleeping? What if they had no boundaries at all?

I should preface this entry by saying that I love my wife, and this is in no way meant as a misogynistic dig. As a recovering introvert, though, I need periodic alone time to re-energize, so one of my greatest horrors is of being with people all the time. This is, thus, something of a personal horror story. For what it’s worth, she found it quite funny.

 

Wifeception

“I can do better than this movie,” Thad said when he was twenty-two. “I’ll invent a shared-dreaming device, but I’ll keep my wife from going mad.”

Naomi loved the idea, and loved dreaming with her brilliant husband. They would spend not just every waking moment together, but every moment sleeping as well.

Thad’s wildest fantasies came true in their shared dream world. They could fly on the backs of dragons, build cities from nothing, and breathe underwater. It was wonderful, when he was twenty-two.

#

When he was thirty-five, Thad’s wife found him wearing green flames as a bathrobe in a castle made of diamonds. He was riding a cockatrice through their grand ballroom, and reined it to a halt next to five leprechauns who were tossing each other down a bowling lane.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” she said, “but you forgot to take the trash out to the curb. They started coming early, so I reset your alarm for five.”

The green flames of his robe sputtered, flickered, and died. The leprechauns laughed when Thad winced at the cockatrice’s scales against his bare bottom. This was the first time their dream-world had mocked him, and he wondered whether it was her subconscious or his own that was laughing.

#

When he was fifty-two, Thad realized he had to put an end to their constant togetherness. When he told Naomi he just wanted to dream alone that night, though, she cried.

“You don’t love me anymore, do you?” she asked between sobs. “You just want to be rid of me. Do you want me to be younger in the dream? Should I look like somebody else?”

“No dear,” he said. “Of course not. I love you the way you are.”

Without knowing what else to say, and to stop her crying, Thad put the soft wireless transceiver pad at the base of his neck and closed his eyes. Naomi sniffled a few more times before turning out the bedside lamp.

In the dream, she made herself young again anyway, so Thad did too.

“Oh,” she said. “You look so much better! You don’t even have a bald spot. I’d almost forgotten what you looked like without it. You don’t have a gut anymore either.”

There were no leprechauns this time, but a nearby tree brought a limb to its mouth to stifle a laugh. Thad felt sure this was his own subconscious at work.

When he woke the next morning, he examined his bald spot in the mirror. It shone under the bathroom light.

#

When he was seventy-three, Thad decided he’d had quite enough. His grandchildren lived well off the fruits of his invention, and Naomi was well cared-for. His affairs were in order, and his responsibilities met.

So he died.

#

His children and grandchildren mourned him, as did the wife with whom he’d lived, waking and dreaming.

Two days later, Naomi died. Her last thought was that Thad was enjoying the afterlife without her, and that she must do something about it.

“It’s sweet,” their youngest grandchild said, a tear in the corner of her eye. “They couldn’t stand to be apart. It’s so beautiful.”

###

 

Two brief fictions

The Ice Cream Man

“We had a report of screams coming from your truck,” the policeman said.

“It’s just how folks get around ice cream,” the ice cream man said. “You know–I scream, you scream, we all scream for–”

“Yeah, yeah,” the policeman said. “I know.”

The ice cream man offered the policeman two scoops of rocky road in a waffle cone, which he gladly accepted before moseying back to his cruiser.

The ice cream man stepped back into his truck and locked the door behind him.

He picked up a set of needle-nosed pliers, clanking the tips together in his hand. The ends, bright red with fresh blood, shone in the dim light. He looked out through a crack in the side window, which he’d closed three hours before.

The cruiser eased onto the road, and vanished into the distance.

“All this screaming for ice cream,” the man said, as he turned back to his duct-taped captives, “is a bit like a boy crying wolf, don’t you think?”

He picked up his blowtorch, and looked between it and the pliers, mentally weighing his options for his next amusement.

They had screamed for ice cream. They saw now the error of their ways, but saw it too late.

 

Anniversary

“What a memory,” Hannah said. “Look at this.”

Wanted: Custom body armor, maternity fit.

“Yeah,” Phillip said, maintaining his smile while she was in the room. “Happy one year anniversary. Could you take the shackle off?”

“Perhaps when you’re done with the story,” Hannah said. “You have mouths to feed.”

 

 

 

 

How to get to this point

The Kentucky National Guard public affairs office was kind enough recently to write a story about me. The same day they published it, an airman named Lealan from our Air Guard component emailed me and mentioned that he also writes speculative fiction. He asked for any useful pointers or resources that might help build a writing resume, so I thought I’d turn it into a blog post.

In his email, Lealan asked, “What advice could you offer for perfecting a style, developing a story overall, and finding those resume-boosting contests and opportunities?  Are there any writing books or resources you’d also recommend?”

My recommendations are:

The basics:

At the Writers of the Future workshop that I discussed in a previous post, several of the wise old men of the profession reiterated Robert Heinlein’s rules for writing. They are as follows, and are what most consider to be the fundamentals of being a pro spec fiction writer.

Rule One: You Must Write
Rule Two: Finish What Your Start
Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market
Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold

My notes on these, from the workshop:

  1. You must write, not talk about writing. Many people talk about how they have no time to write, or how they’ve been working on a novel for five years. They aren’t writers. They’re talkers. Secondly, you must write a lot for your brain to rewire and adapt itself to the fine art of writing. Most of what you need to be a writer is subconscious change that only comes through much practice.
  2. Finishing work is necessary to sending it out. It’s easier to finish short stories than long ones, so I recommend starting with flash fiction or markets in the 3k-5k word range to get your feet wet.
  3. I got into Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show with a rewrite requested by the editor. Otherwise, I leave most of my stuff alone after it gets rejected. If no one picks it up, it goes in my “trunk” folder. I don’t rewrite out of endless second-guessing to please people. Apparently Heinlein didn’t either.
  4. and 5.: fairly self-explanatory. I’ll talk about markets next.

Where to send work

If you write science fiction or fantasy, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has a listing of the markets they accept as proof of your professional status. As such, they make a great place to begin your market listing at the pro level. They also publish a monthly market report with updates on their homepage. To be listed as a SFWA qualifying market, each venue pays a minimum $.06/word in 2017, which goes up with inflation over time.

If you’re just starting out, pick up a copy of Writer’s Digest’s annual Novel and Short Story Writer’s MarketI get it at B&N, and I have three different editions on my shelf. Go to the section on contests, find the ones that are free to enter–you’re a writer, not a customer–and enter every one you’re eligible to enter. I won third in a couple of Toasted Cheese Literary Journal‘s horror contests with some really awful writing and got like $10 for that first story. That’s where you start. It was validation, especially after they rejected my stories several times.

Then I won an On the Premises contest and got $220. More validation means more legitimacy as a writer. Even though they’re not a pro-level market, I still submit to their quarterly contests because I enjoy the themed prompts. They still reject a lot of my stuff, but they’re a part of my resume and a step in my self-validation.

To get feedback, and to learn by critiquing others’ work, I recommend registering with Baen’s Bar, which occasionally publishes work in the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette. They’re a SFWA market, but their slush pile functions as a workshop also. There is a lot of drek in the slush pile. Some of it is mine.

So, for Heinlein’s 4th and 5th rules: Use the SFWA site and the Novel and Short Story Writers Market to find places to send your work, edit to their specifications, and don’t stop sending it to venues until you’ve exhausted the list. As soon as you send out a story, start writing the next one. Develop your art.

Books on Writing

The best one I’ve ever read is Stephen King’s On Writing. It is an easy read and full of practical, down-to-earth wisdom.

For structure and technical advice, you can’t go wrong with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

How to be creative

I’ve loved writing since I was a kid, but I learned more about creativity by reading Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine than I’ve learned from any other source. Jonah Lehrer, a former Wired writer, got into some hot water at one point for recycling his material, but this book is truly phenomenal.

The basic advice I would give you for making stories happen in your noggin is this:

  1. Read (a lot) in the fields that you want to put into your writing. If you want to write science fiction, read articles at phys.org. Take an astronomy class. Read books in the science section of your bookstore about weird but interesting things. You are gathering raw material.
  2. Be isolated–Train for a marathon. Go for long bike rides. Take a job doing solo manual labor. Turn off the radio during your commute, or put it on classical. Do anything that requires little mental interaction with other human beings. Avoid stimulation from outside sources like video games, social media, etc. Your mind must be directed inward, rather than outward. This is when your brain digests the raw material and you start to ask what if… 
  3. Put your brain in a state of relaxation–Drink a beer or two, but have a notepad handy. You forget the great ideas you have when you get loosened up, so write them down. Take a hot bath and stare at your bathroom ceiling. Be warm, unstressed, and melty. The ideas will start to form.
  4. If necessary, use writing prompts. On the Premises is great for this, but only 4-ish times a year. Other sites do it too. Another method is to pick a random book at a library, or have a conversation with a stranger, and mix contents of these with something else you’ve read or listened to. Mix unconnected things into a story, and make them work together.

What not to do

The don’t you dare send us this lists as Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons make for funny reading, but they’ll give you an idea of the things hacks do, and things that editors see too often. I differ with Neil Clarke on some things, but he still has a list worth reading.

Conclusion

I hope this answers most of Lealan’s questions. I don’t hoard resources as I acquire them, and I don’t think most other writers do either. It’s talent, work ethic, and persistence that will make a writer, not talking in writers’ groups or secret market knowledge.

Having said that, let’s see if I have enough work ethic to get a novel cranked out this summer…

Thanks, updates, and a correction

I’ve been remiss in linking to beta-readers and critiquers in some of my blog posts,  so I updated the Published, Pending, Press page today with their names and links where appropriate.

I met two of my fellow wordsmiths on a now-defunct website called Fablers, wherein we wrote themed stories each month and the guy that owned the site would send people prize money if they won the not-blind-judged vote. It doesn’t exist anymore. The guy that owned it was very kind and generous though.

Cyndi Bishop and Jim Becker are both extremely talented writers who helped me hone my skillset while Fablers did exist. Cyndi critiqued “Moonlight One,” my first pro-rate publication. Jim line-edited (he’s brutal) and critiqued an early version of “The Death of Arthur Owsley,” which has been picked up by Galaxy’s Edge.

Also, on Tuesday I received an email with an offer to publish “Bullet Catch.” It won second place in the Jim Baen Memorial contest this year, and got me admission to the International Space Development Conference next month. Baen normally only publishes the Grand prize winner, but they’ve offered–in an extremely rare gesture–to publish Bullet Catch also. I’d been looking for a home for it since the contest closed, and now it has the home I wanted.

I owe thanks to Dr. Caitlynn Taylor Iddings, a college friend who’s now a pediatrician, for sharing her experience and details regarding neuroblastoma, which were crucial to this story’s success. 

Thank you also to Bill Ledbetter, the contest administrator, for sending me the good news and for being so easy to work with.

 

One correction: I posted previously that “Leaders Taste Better” would appear in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Issue 57, in April. This is not correct, and was due to a miscommunication. Issue 56 came out this month. IGMS publishes every other month, so 57 will be in June.

Writers of the Future workshop, 2017

I just got back from Los Angeles Tuesday night, towing a new piece of luggage with a trophy, some original art for “Moonlight One” and 12 writers’ copies of the anthology.

They paid me twice, too. If you look at the Writers of the Future website, they mention prize money ($500 for a third place). They also pay you a by-word rate after the publication, though, so I deposited another check for $589.60 when I got home.

That ain’t bad, but if I had to choose between the money and the workshop, I’d have taken the workshop.

The hours each day were long, running from 9am to about 5pm, then more stuff like photos, interviews, etc. after dinner until 8-9pm each night. Throw in some socializing and networking, and you get to bed about 11pm.

The content was worth every second, though. We learned primarily from Dave Wolverton (Dave Farland is a pen name) and Tim Powers, both of whom are accomplished SF/Fantasy writers. Dave had a student named Stephenie Meyer once upon a time–you may know her as the author of the Twilight books. He also worked at Scholastic in the marketing department, and made a decision that among many books to push, the unknown “Harry Potter” would probably do well.

They taught us better story structure and research techniques, and had us write a story in 24 hours.

We critiqued 3 of the group’s stories, and learned from other accomplished writers like Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Doug Beason, as well as some up-and-coming past-winner, neo-pro writers like Megan O’Keefe, Laurie Tom, Ron Collins, Kary English, and Martin Shoemaker.

We learned personal branding, book marketing, and when you need/don’t need an agent.

Basically, it was the best crash-course in professional writer-ism I can imagine.

 

The awards show they put together put this year’s Oscars to shame. Seriously. You can watch it here. I’m on at about the one hour mark. Don’t miss the insane performance art they put on just before my award speech, though. It starts at about 58:35.

Our anthology, which features writers from Finland, England, Nigeria, and across the US, is out on Amazon, and in Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million now. It has full-color illustrations of each story by illustrator contest winners from Poland, Kazakhstan, and many other places. The stories hold some of the best suspense and human relationship I’ve seen in print. I’m proud to call these writers my peers, though I think I’m getting the good end of the deal.

The Valhalla Catapult

 

If all cemeteries are sacred, permanent resting places, will we eventually run out of room to bury an ever-increasing number of our dearly departed? Perhaps people have considered that problem before. Maybe resting places aren’t as permanent as you think. For a reasonable fee, though, we can give your loved one the send-off they deserve.

 

The Valhalla Catapult

 

“You know I actually met my wife on a run like this, Wence?” Grigor asks. He hasn’t shut up for five minutes since we left Valhalla’s home office this morning.

“A tube landed on her house?” I ask. I nearly miss the turnoff for the gravel road, and swerve to avoid making a U-turn.

“Well not exactly like this one,” he says, bracing himself. “It was out in the country, though. The tube left a crater where her granddad’s toolshed had been, and she drove over to help him sort it out. She had to sign a nondisclosure, of course, but her papaw didn’t have much problem with it once he saw the money.”

“Given what Valhalla charges, I don’t think they miss it. If the gun failed more often, maybe, but–”

“Yeah. You ever wonder why folks never gave the endless space in their cemeteries more thought?”

“I guess they just liked to think of their burial plots as sacred. They didn’t think they were just renting them for a hundred years or so, until all their living relatives joined them.”

“But people aren’t that bad at math,” Grigor says. “If the population in a city is constantly growing, and more people die in it every day–”

“People are lazy though. They don’t really take the time to think about things. I mean I’m not complaining. It keeps food on my table.”

Grigor chuckles.

“Launching folks into the sun on a fusion-powered rail gun doesn’t pay your bills, Wence. Failing to launch them does.”

He reaches into the back seat and grabs the duffel bag.

In the early days, after the first Senate hearings on cemetery cycling, contractors like Grigor and me got caught skimming Valhalla’s hush money before it was delivered.

Now Valhalla puts a protein-based tracking thread on every single bill. If any of them leave the duffel bag prior to getting the recipient’s thumb print, it’s an automatic life sentence.

“You shouldn’t do that,” I say, when Grigor unzips the bag.

“Relax,” he says. “I just want to smell it.”

He inhales deeply before zipping the bag shut again.

“I wouldn’t mind a tube coming through my roof,” Grigor says. “I’d quit this job tomorrow.”

It’s disgusting, but it’s part of life. People don’t want to know how things like this happen any more than they want to know how chorizo’s made.

“Hey,” Grigor says, “you want to get some Mexican after this? There’s a great place nearby. They make their chorizo in-house.”

“Sure,” I say, “as long as they have beer.”

#

“I don’t see any damage to the house,” I say.

There’s nothing but cornfields for miles in every direction, which is by design. Valhalla chose a launch point that would only put Failures-to-Launch–FTL’s in industry jargon–over mostly unpopulated areas.

“Are you strapped?” Grigor asks. He knows I am, since he watched me holster my 1911. It’s company policy anyway.

“Well, yeah, but–”

“My second drop was a set-up,” Grigor says. “Global reducing weirdoes. They went on and on about how we were slowly launching our planetary mass into the sun. In the end, all they wanted was the cash.”

“It’d take a billion years to see any impact from global reduction,” I say.

“I know. They’re like the global warming folks were at the turn of the millennium.”

“I never took you for a history buff.”

“It pays off,” Grigor says. “Time is a circle. Nobody really misses California, from what I can tell.”

I would’ve gone.”

“Have you ever been to the beach in Reno?”

“Yeah. I mean it’s beautiful. Hollywood looked kind of cool, though.”

Grigor knocks on the door while I maintain distance. He fidgets with the holster under his jacket while he waits.

A man in his late forties answers the door. He smiles.

“Hello sir,” Grigor says. “My name is Grigor Salamanza. I’m a representative of Valhalla, LLC, and–”

“I know who you are, Mr. Salamanza,” the man says. “I’m afraid I wasn’t completely honest with your exec on the phone.”

Grigor eases his hand toward his holster. I’ve already thumbed the safety off on my 1911.

“Oh no, it’s nothing like that,” the man says. “I’m not a global reductionist or a cannibal, I assure you.”

“Then what’s it like?” Grigor asks. He’s dispensed with the professional charm.

“Perhaps you’d like to come inside?” the man asks. “You can keep your guns on me if you like. Just hear me out.”

Grigor looks to me. I shrug.

We walk inside, guns in hand.

The man, Flad Bjooren, is a real estate developer. He’s bought a sizable piece of real estate in the Nevada desert, and has begun construction on a necropolis. He explains all of this as he shows us the plans for cheap, uninhabited desert acreage.

“Think of it,” he says. “The people of America can still visit their dearly departed. We won’t lose global mass, and we’ll gain revenue from all the restaurants and hotels we build nearby.”

“That sounds great,” Grigor says. “Why do you need us?”

“A tell-all book about Valhalla would certainly steer business my way,” Flad says.

Grigor rubs his chin.

“And our cut?” he asks.

“How much is in that bag?”

Grigor tells him.

“Double that when the book comes out,” Flad says.

Grigor and I both give Flad noncommittal assurances that we’ll think about his offer.

“Did you know they hired me because I was a forward observer in the Army?” I ask once we’re back at the car.

“I didn’t,” Grigor says. “Why don’t you make the call then?”

I dial Valhalla.

“I need an FTL,” I say. “Protocol 13F.”

I give them Flad’s coordinates.

“The paradox is going to throw the police for a loop,” Grigor says, “since we recorded him calling this morning. It’ll be evidence.”

“They’ll be fine,” I say. “They don’t want to know how the chorizo gets made. They just like the taste.”

###

The Green Fairy

Update: Apparently I’m going to sign copies of Writers of the Future’s 33rd anthology on April 14 and/or 15 at one of the Barnes and Noble stores in Louisville. I’ll post more when the arranger-person works out details. That way if you’re in the area, you can stop by and say hey.

I’m stuck sometimes trying to find my voice as a writer. I have a lot of ideas that probably aren’t marketable, like mixing hard science fiction and a Christian worldview in the same piece. Most science fiction publishers and fans seem to want staunch atheism, which is something I can’t give them. Many Christian markets seem to only want a sanitized, sterile worldview wherein no one smokes pot and people only make babies after they’re married. I can’t compartmentalize sections of reality. I’d be giving you garbage if I did. I can only give you the world as I see it, with speculative elements to facilitate storytelling.

This story is my Jackson Pollock piece, throwing alcoholism, urban fantasy, and dad jokes at paper. For the protagonist, alcoholism is necessary to his quest. The puns are necessary to his magic, but I could never send this to Neil Clarke, since part of  his “don’t you dare send me this” list includes:

  • “funny” stories that depend on, or even include, puns

Poor Neil–you’re missing out on some of the best humor.

This got an Honorable Mention from WotF before “Moonlight One” placed. It’s longer than the flash fiction I’ve posted here recently, but I think you’ll enjoy it.

The Green Fairy

“Will do magic for liquor.”

That’s what my sign says. It’s black Sharpie on cardboard, but people are curious nonetheless. They don’t know if the unkempt guy with the beard living in a shipping crate might be an out-of-work stage performer with something worth seeing.

A boy and his mom slow. The mom pulls her son along, but the son wants to see some magic.

“I want to see a trick!” the kid says, threatening a tantrum until his mom pulls out a dollar. A dollar isn’t liquor, but I’ll take what I can get. I unveil my pack of cards, tell the kid to pick one, and do a little prestidigitation. My fingers tremble from withdrawal though, and I fumble the cards, spilling them everywhere.

Mother and son turn their noses up at me, harrumphing with disgust. Then they’re gone. The shame falls on dead nerves, but the abandonment stings a little.

An hour goes by and the sky turns from pink to black. The Curmudgeon Beer sign flickers on across the street at Gilbert’s, advertising booze I can’t afford. Folks walk by, calling me a dirty hobo and worse, before a pair of polished leather shoes stops in front of me.

“Show me some magic, good sir, and the bottle’s yours,” the shoes say. I look up and find a man attached to them, smiling and holding a green bottle of absinthe. The fluid within refracts the light of the Curmudgeon Beer sign. It lends the bottle a magical glow.

“Okay.”

I focus, telling my fingers to behave for just a few moments, and the guy in the shoes laughs when he pulls the four of clubs out of his sock at the end of the trick.

“You’re good,” he says. “What’s your name?”

“It’s Wallace,” I say. I think it’s Wallace anyway. It’s been a while since I used a name.

“The bottle’s yours Wallace. Enjoy it,” he says, handing it to me. I catch sight of a lapel pin with the letters “W-A-D-L” on it–probably some club for rich people.

I climb back into the privacy of my crate before ripping the seal from the bottle and taking a long pull. It burns before the warming tendrils crawl down my throat and through the back of my skull. Only now do I look at the label, which says, “Lucid Lucy’s Lovely Elixir: Finest Absinthe.”

In the middle of all those words is a drawing of a pixie with light green skin, red hair in a high bun, and leaves for clothes. She’s winking at me from the picture, like she knows something I don’t.

“Here’s to the Green Fairy,” I say, taking another pull.

An hour later, half the bottle’s gone, and I’m surprisingly unsurprised when a coif of ginger hair pops through the top of the bottle with a tiny green face below it. Lucy climbs out, clad not in leaves but tiny black yoga pants, a white tank top, and furry boots. She flutters stained-glass butterfly wings and drops to the ground in front of me as delicately as a whisper. A purse as colorful as her shimmering wings hangs from one elbow.

“You’re Wallace?” she asks. “You’ve really let yourself go.”

I snort with amusement at my tiny heckler. Everything amuses me when I drink.

“It’s about time you got into something that would cut through the Inhibition,” she says.

“What’re you talking about?” I ask.

“The Inhibition keeps you from doing magic. There’s another spell blocking your memory, but it’s rooted deeper.”

“I can do magic. I did magic to get ahold of you.”

“Do you even know any card tricks wherein the mark’s card ends up in his sock?”

I think for a moment.

“Actually, no.”

“I did that. But I’m talking about real magic,” Lucy says, and I can tell she’s getting impatient. “You haven’t been a hobo all your life, you know.”

I chuckle again, unsure why I’m amused. I reach for the bottle.

“No!” Lucy shouts, fluttering up and swatting my hand away. “You’re loose enough for now. I don’t need you passing out on me.”

“So what do you want from me? I’m pickled, Tink.”

“Well I’m tickled pink that you are, but we need to get across town before you sober up. I’ll be gone when you do, and so will your magic. I need your help to find my sister.”

“You’re a figment of my imagination,” I say.

“I’m not,” she says, “but it doesn’t matter if you think I’m a drunken fantasy. Wallace the Wizard was always an adventurer. You can’t turn me down even if you don’t believe me.”

“Who’s your sister?”

“Vivacious Vicki.”

“Is she on a vodka bottle?”

“Nope. It’s rum.”

“Oh. I thought…”

“Of course it’s vodka, you washed-up warlock. Got any money for the bus?”

“Do I look like I have money?”

My new tiny life coach taps her foot, thinking.

“Start yelling,” she says. “Yell until your throat hurts.”

“Why?”

“Your source of power is awful humor. Auto-amusement is the only way you can pull energy from the telluric currents. Trust me.”

What the heck. Why not?

I start belting out the Gettysburg Address, until I realize I only know about the first score of words. Several angry faces throw shade down my shady alley, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m un-Inhibited right now. I’m making magic happen. I start yodeling an old drinking tune, and several feral cats join in, but only on the chorus.

My throat feels funny, and so do my feet. I keep yelling until my voice gets raspy.

“I feel a little hoarse,” I say, as I look down at my tingling extremities. My feet are hooves.

“Yell until you feel a lot hoarse,” Lucy says.

I do, and soon I’m galloping down a city street–a powerful black stallion who can cross the city on a single tank of absinthe. I hear a police siren far behind me, so I duck down an alley and come out on a parallel street. I realize I’m not wearing my clothes, and wonder momentarily if I’m just a naked homeless bum sprinting through the streets after a merry bout of singing with the local fauna.

“Does this bring back any memories?” Lucy shouts. She’s riding between my ears atop my flowing mane. I feel her pull my mane left, then right. She’s steering us toward something.

“Neigh,” I say. I mean Nay, but now I have an accent. I start singing, “It’s a beautiful day in my neeeeiiiighborhood, it’s a beautiful day for neeeeeiiighbor,” as I tear through the streets like an unleashed typhoon. Lucy holds onto my mane for dear life, wings buzzing in the wind.

I gallop for thirty minutes without tiring, invigorated by what feels like static coursing up my legs from the heart of the world. We find suburban houses, all made out of ticky-tacky. They all look just the same, except for the three hundred foot obsidian tower.

I look up to the place where the obsidian meets the night sky, black on black. A strange purple glow pulses from the top, flickering like fire, then arcing out to the stars like lightning.

“What is this place?” I ask, certain we could have no other destination in this neighborhood.

“It’s the Cat Lady’s house,” Lucy says. There’s a slight tremor in her voice. “There’s a glamour on it, so you’d just see a shack with an old spinster and a thousand cats if you were still Inhibited.”

“Impressive digs,” I say. There are no windows or doors though, at least on this wall.

I trot around the base of the tower, leaping over white picket fences and scrambling past angry guard dogs. They don’t stand a chance of catching me. My mane flutters in the night air as I return to the place from which I started.

“How do we get in?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Lucy says. “I’ve never been inside. I’m hoping your wit and wizardry will work something out.”

“Apples,” I say, and flick my tail with delight. I trot over to a smallish attempt at a backyard orchard.

“Apples will get us inside?” Lucy asks.

“No,” I say, “I’m a horse. I like apples.”

I munch one greedily, sticky apple juices dripping down my chin and my fingers.

I have fingers again. My clothes have returned, though in my present state I probably wouldn’t have cared either way.

Then an idea hits me.

“Do you have a knife?” I ask my spritely sidekick.

Lucy reaches into her purse-of-many-colors, rummages around for a moment, and pulls out a switchblade as long as she is tall. It shouldn’t fit in the purse.

“Nice trick, Felix,” I say.

“Cat jokes already? We’re not even inside yet,” she says. “A witch-doctor made this for me. It’s bigger on the inside.”

“Witch-doctor who?”

“Exactly,” Lucy says. She hands me the mother-of-pearl- handled knife. It looks like something a 70’s pimp would carry in a furry coat pocket.

I push the button and a silvery needle of a blade snicks out. I cut the apple in half.

“What are you doing?” Lucy asks.

I close the knife with one hand and drop it back in her outstretched purse, where it clunks amongst what sounds like a garage full of junk. Next, I take both halves of the apple and slide them seamlessly back together.

“Two halves make a whole,” I say nonchalantly, as though this is something I do every night. I feel a nagging déjà vu, as though I’ve done things like this many times in forgotten dreams.

I step through the hole that appears in the wall of the tower with the pixie perched on my shoulder, and pull the halves of the apple apart. The hole closes behind us. I may need an exit elsewhere later.

Inside the tower, we find a table and chairs hewn from the same solid block of obsidian as the structure itself. Two spiral staircases, cut into the inner walls of the tower, circle each other like a DNA double helix until they disappear into the shadows three hundred feet above. Ghostly purple flames dance on the walls with unseen torch bases.

“Who’s this meow?” a silky voice purrs from behind us. I look behind me and up, to find a large feline studying us from a recessed shelf.

“I’m Wallace the Wizard,” I say, starting to believe it myself after the whole fruity door thing. “My friend here is Lucid Lucy.”

“I wasn’t told to expect anyone,” the cat purrs. The purr starts to sound a bit like a growl.

Lucy pokes my ear and points behind us to show me that two other large cats are slinking down the spiral staircases.

“We just need to talk to the Cat Lady,” Lucy says. “We need information.”

“She’s busy,” the first cat says, “and not to be disturbed. Didn’t you see the Aurora?”

“We did,” Lucy says, “but…”

“You’re trespassers,” the ring-leader says. “Tasty, tasty trespassers.”

I grit my teeth, feeling an old, not-to-be-trifled-with wizard emerging from behind a mental blockade.

“Looks like it’s time to bear arms,” I snarl. I rip at my left sleeve, then the right as Lucy flutters into the air above my head. I hold the picture of a belt-fed M240B machine gun in my mind, waiting for one to appear in my hands as the torn sleeves fall to the floor. The cat’s eyes grow wide. He knows something of my former reputation, it seems.

Instead of a 7.62 X 51mm crew-served weapon, my arms sprout thick brown fur. Black claws sprout from the beds of my fingernails.

“Abraca-dammit,” I hiss. Bear arms. Seriously?

One of the Cat Lady’s hairy henchmen launches itself from the base of the staircase.

“Rawwwr!” I rawr. I swing a powerful paw at the flying feline and connect, knocking his unconscious form into the wall. I swing my other paw at the third cat just as I feel the ring-leader’s teeth sink into my shoulder. Infections from cat bites are no joke, and I twist like Chubby Checker getting electrocuted, trying to shake him off. More cats race down the stairs, emerging from shadows. Lucy stabs one in the paw, then grabs the tail of another, causing it to furiously whip around as she darts away.

“STOP!” a voice bellows from the stairs. “Stop this at once!”

The meowing militia freezes in mid-attack. All eyes turn to the voice’s origin, and I see a figure in a long purple gown descending the spiral. She has the body of a woman, but the head of a cat.

“What is this nonsense?” she asks. Her eyes narrow on me. “Wallace? I thought you were dead.”

“You’ll have to forgive me,” I say. “My memory seems to be a little foggy of late. Do we know each other?”

“I know who you are, of course. It is my business to know things. My name is Bastet. What can I do for you and your fae friend?”

“My sister–” Lucy says, “Vivacious Vicki. Someone’s kidnapped her.”

“Ah yes,” Bastet purrs, “Vicki. I know where your sister is. Nothing in this world is free, though. What are you offering?”

Lucy has obviously anticipated this, and opens her purse-of-many-colors. She rummages through the contents, then wrinkles her nose when she can’t find what she wants. Her arm disappears up to the shoulder. She withdraws it, pokes her head inside.

“Found it!” her muffled voice comes from the handbag. She pulls a bottle from within, holds it aloft. Its black contents reflect no light.

“Is that…?” Bastet starts to ask.

“Yes,” Lucy says. “It’s time from a black hole, distilled so you don’t get the whole planet-crushing gravity bit. It’s from the Croce Collection.”

“I see,” Bastet says. “Old Jim was on to something. I wonder how he did it. Such sorcery in his music too, and all the parents were worried about Ozzy Osbourne.”

“I’d say it’s more than worth what I’m asking,” Lucy says.

“Indeed,” Bastet says. “Follow me.”

We follow Bastet’s swaying tail up the winding stair, and I find myself noticing what a nice piece of tail she is. Still, she’s part cat, so it’s a weird attraction and I look away. Such things are better left to caped vigilantes.

Halfway up, I find myself huffing and puffing from all the exertion. By the time we reach the top, I’m ready to collapse, but the sight that awaits us as we step onto the roof pushes all other thoughts from my mind.

The purple maelstrom of lightning we saw from the ground spins with ethereal fury. Purple is the color not only of royalty, but of madness, and I find myself wondering why Bastet wears it.

A million tiny winged bodies flutter around the Aurora as it sends static tendrils into the night sky.

“What are they?” I ask. These pixies are about half the size of Lucy. They flit about with a nervous energy, unable to look away from the purple light.

“They’re good idea fairies,” Bastet says. “I draw them here at night while creative minds sleep. I have deals with several major companies and movie studios. I’m the reason you’ll see your own ideas produced in metal and plastic or on screen even if you never tell a soul.”

Bastet grins coyly, the purple gleam reflected in her cat eyes.

“That’s not why I brought you here though,” she says. “It’s easier to see from up here.”

“What is?” Lucy asks.

“The ley line that will lead you to your sister,” Bastet says. She shoots me an amused glance. “Unless I miss my guess, the key to unlocking your memory and removing your Inhibition is there also.”

“Great,” I say. “Ley it on me.”

Bastet raises a hand and extends a womanly finger to the west. A purple tendril flashes out from the Aurora, indicating the path of the ley line, confirming my suspicion that Bastet controls the thing with her mind.

“There is an underground stronghold beneath the intersection of the red and blue subway lines. To reach it, you will need to cross through the territory of the Mole People who live in the sewers and abandoned tunnels.”

Lucy says, “But that’s where…”

“I’m afraid so. The Snob-Goblin has your sister,” Bastet says. She looks at me again. “The rumors of your death, while apparently exaggerated, start there. You always were an adventurous sort, Wallace. I wonder what you were up to in the Snob-Goblin’s lair.”

“You and me both,” I say.

“One of his diabolical good idea fairies found my Aurora and spilled the Goblin’s secret. Perhaps you were trying to stop him.”

“What was the secret?” Lucy asks.

Bastet raises an eyebrow.

“The bottle first,” she says.

Lucy hands her the glass bottle, no bigger than a hip flask, with its light-nullifying contents. Bastet removes the cork and sniffs.

She purrs.

“An hour of unfettered time,” she says dreamily. “Is there more where this came from?”

“Perhaps,” Lucy says, every bit as sphinxlike as Bastet.

“A choice, then: I can tell you the Snob-Goblin’s secret end-game, which you’ll likely discover anyway if you best him, or I can send Ajax with you.”

As if on cue, a large black cat appears from a shadow, yellow eyes glittering with the Aurora’s reflected purple. He looks like a small panther–silent, sinewy, and formidable. Ajax cocks his head at us, saying nothing. He licks a paw.

Lucy looks up at me. I raise my eyebrows. If I’ve negotiated with cat-people before, I’ve forgotten.

“Ajax,” Lucy says finally.

“Wise of you,” Bastet says. “Now, let me offer you my hospitality for what remains of the night. You’ve obviously travelled far, and you’ve many miles to go.”

#

I wake up in a ditch, covered in leaves and sweat. The acid stench of vomit stings my nostrils almost as much as the sunlight does my eyes. I’m not sure if it’s my vomit or someone else’s, but I don’t see anyone else nearby.

Thankfully, I’m in a grove of trees, removed from prying eyes and the full force of the sun. The obsidian tower has vanished, leaving a run-down single story house with an overgrown lawn in its place. Cats of all sizes and colors study me from the porch, roof, and windows.

I try to stand up, but find that I haven’t quite crossed the fuzzy line from still-drunk to hungover. I spend a full minute dry heaving into the leaves before I try to stumble toward the Cat Lady’s house. I hear a mew from somewhere above me and find a small black cat swishing his tail on a tree branch.

“Ajax?” I say. “Where’s Lucy? Where’s the absinthe?”

The cat, much smaller than I remember Ajax, simply cocks his head and mews at me. If I don’t find Lucy before this buzz fully subsides, I’ll have to start begging for beer money again.

I stumble to the back door of the house and knock.

No answer.

I knock harder.

Still nothing. The maybe-Ajax cat appears beside me, rubs against my leg. When I look down, he drops a half-eaten mouse on my foot.

“Thanks,” I say, shoving the thing away with my toe. He mews angrily at me.

I stagger out onto the sidewalk, trying to focus on keeping one foot in front of the other, and having only marginal success.

A bicycle bell chimes behind me.

“Outta the way, dirty hobo,” a little girl’s voice snarls.

I turn to find a blonde girl with pink ribbons in her pigtails that match the color of her bike. She glares up at me with self-righteous derision, though the teddy bear in her bike’s wicker basket seems indifferent to my presence.

“Shouldn’t you be in school or something?” I ask.

“It’s Saturday,” she says. “Don’t you have a calendar in your dumpster?”

She inches the front tire closer to my foot.

“Is there a place around here I can get a drink?” I ask.

“Harmon’s deli,” she says, hooking a thumb back over her shoulder. “It’s thataway. Now scram before I tell my dad you’re out here.”

She steps on the pedals, missing my foot with her main tires but running over my toes with one of her training wheels.

This is definitely hostile territory for folks who look–and smell–like me.

Harmon’s deli isn’t hard to find, since it’s the only non-house in the area. It’s a quaint neighborhood mom-n-pop that fits in well where the suburbscape meets a major road.

The only problem with it is that they don’t have alcohol.

I rack my grog-addled brain for an idea. I probably only have time enough for one before the Inhibition fully sets in again. I look at the chalkboard menu over the counter.

Small sodas are a dollar.

I have exactly zero dollars in my pocket, a fact which I confirm as maybe-Ajax starts rubbing against my leg again.

“Hey man, no pets in here,” the proprietor says from behind the counter.

“Oh,” I say, “He’s not my pet. I’m a wizard, you see, and…”

Maybe-Ajax drops a wadded-up dollar bill on my foot. Then he whisks silently out through the slowly closing door like smoke in the wind. I pick up the dollar, relabeling maybe-Ajax as 99%-sure-Ajax.

“Could I have a small soda, please?” I ask the man behind the counter. Something in my subconscious tells me I have an idea, but I’m not sure what it is yet.

The man wipes the dollar bill with a dishtowel and hands me a small paper cup.

“Free refills,” he says, pointing to a soda fountain. “Help yourself.”

Now understanding the conspiracy shared between Ajax and my subconscious, I begin folding corners into the round cup. I crease them gently, meticulously, until I have what I think is a square cup.

I look up at the proprietor, who looks away quickly, pretending he’s not curious what Wallace the Wizard has up his sleeve–except I don’t have sleeves anymore, after the whole bear arms thing.

I place my square cup under the root beer dispenser. Root beer squared = beer, and a delightful dark lager appears in my all-you-can-drink paper cup. I chug the first one, feeling my headache subside. I drink another.

It’s time to find Lucy.

“Abraca-absinthe!” I command, stretching out my hand for a bottle that should fly into it at any moment.

The moment passes.

“Fiat liquor!”

Nothing.

“Klaatu bartenda nikto? Acci–”

I catch myself before accidentally summoning J.K. Rowling’s lawyers.

The man behind the counter is watching me with amusement now. He must not get many wizards.

“My absinthe is absent,” I explain.

I don’t really know any absinthe-fetching puns. I get a third lager from the root beer tap and sip it slowly. I probably need to get some useful calories in my system anyway, and beer has carbohydrates.

When I turn back to the table, I find Lucy sitting with her legs dangling from the edge of the napkin dispenser. She’s changed from the yoga pants into a plaid Catholic schoolgirl skirt with a white blouse and librarian glasses.

“That was clever;” she says, “very Messianic of you.”

“What was?” I ask.

“Turning root beer into beer,” she says, but I still don’t get it. “Water into wine?…The Bible?…Oh, never mind.”

“I thought you lived in an absinthe bottle.”

“I live behind the veil that separates your mundane world from the Fae. You just can’t see me until you lift it.”

“Ah,” I say. “I’d love to be able to do that without drinking quite so much. So how are we going to get to the Snob-Goblin’s lair without spending all day walking? I think suburban police might be a little more attentive than the metro division to a vociferous vagrant yodeling himself into a horse.”

“Getting subway or sewer access would be difficult as well, though I do think Sewer Stallions would be a good name for a band.”

“Speaking of our band, Ajax awaits us outside,” I say. I top off my lager before stepping through the door.

The cat, with one paw in the mundane and one in the Fae, now shows me his larger self as he perches on a newspaper-vending box just outside the deli.

“Thanks for the dollar,” I say.

“I got it from that nasty little girl with the pigtails,” he purrs. “It was to be her ice cream money.”

“I’m doubly grateful then,” I say, feeling adequately avenged.

“You should’ve eaten the mouse,” Ajax says. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I’m trying to look after you, you know.”

A bus pulls up to the corner just in time to save me from replying to him, and I have an idea.

“We could take the bus to the subway terminal,” I say, “except I don’t have any money.”

I study Lucy’s handbag for a moment.

“What is it?” she asks.

“I don’t suppose you have an ink bottle and paper in there, do you?”

“I think I might,” she says.

She offers me a pen as well, but we don’t need one for what I have in mind.

After several minutes of focussed effort, we’ve poured pools of ink onto several of her tiny stationery sheets, then folded them in half to create symmetrical Rorschach tests.

“What do you see?” Lucy asks, holding up the first card, unsure where I’m going with this.

“My disappointed mother.”

“And this?” she asks, holding up the next card.

“My disappointed father.”

I feel myself getting smaller. We run out of cards after I see my disappointed Great-Aunt Helen.

“How did all of that make you feel?” Lucy asks.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say. I’m five inches tall now. “Looks like it worked. You’re a good shrink.”

Ajax, Lucy, and I wait on top of the covered bus stop. When the next bus pulls up, Lucy flutters into the air. Not trusting me to make the jump, Ajax lets me climb onto his back before he leaps onto the roof of the bus.

I get a better look at Lucy now that we’re the same size. She fills out the Catholic schoolgirl uniform nicely.

“You ever date wizards?” I ask, the summer breeze whipping my beard and making her wings buzz again.

“Yick,” she says. “No. Beards are disgusting.”

“They’re great for storing extra soup from soup kitchens,” I say, “especially when it’s cold. The leftovers freeze in the curls of my beard. It’s like…”

“Stop,” Lucy says. “For Puck’s sake, stop.”

We reach the subway terminal, and no one notices Ajax’s wraithlike passage. Lucy and I sit astride his back, and I marvel at his silent agility. I’m not sure if he’s actually using his paws or just whisping through the shadows like spectral smoke with yellow eyes.

Minutes later, we’re gliding through the subway tunnels, laying flat atop the train so we don’t get blown away in the wind.

“I really hope the whole shrinking thing doesn’t wear off while we’re up here,” I say.

“How would that make you feel?” Lucy asks idly.

“Messy, I think.”

The psycho-analysis wears off just as we slow to a stop in the station and I find myself a normal, Wallace-sized Wallace once again. Ajax leaps to the tracks from the back of the train, with Lucy fluttering down as gently as leaf behind him. I’m a little slower, and barely make it down without stepping on the third rail as the train starts moving again.

“Bastet said the Snob-Goblin’s lair was under this station,” I say, “where the red and blue lines meet. How do we get down there though?”

“These places always have rats,” Ajax purrs. “Give me five minutes.”

Ajax disappears into the shadows. A moment later, we hear frantic squeaking, a hiss, more frantic squeaking, then nothing.

“Never trust a rat the first time he tells you something,” Ajax says when he returns. “There’s a maintenance door just up ahead that opens onto a staircase that leads to the lower levels.”

We find the door locked, but before I can think up a lock pun, Lucy pulls a tiny crowbar from her purse. It’s about the right size for a lockpick.

“I’ve got this,” she says. She hands me a tiny prybar with its head at a sharper angle than the crowbar’s.

“You’ll have to apply tension to the lock cylinder to bind the pins while I push them up,” she says. “Just don’t torque it too hard, or I won’t be able to lift them at all.”

She balances on the pry bar while picking the pins. A gust of wind Marilyn Monroes her schoolgirl skirt and I glimpse pink panties with a unicorn on one cheek.

“Nice unicorn,” I say. It’s the cheek, more than the unicorn, that’s nice.

“Don’t make me gouge your eye out with this,” Lucy says, but I catch a faint smile as she continues lifting the pins.

After a couple of failed attempts and impatient hisses from Ajax, we pick the lock. I close the door behind us as we descend into the dark, mysterious, subterranean realm of the Mole People.

#

“Welcome to Mole Central,” a young man says in a faint Russian accent. He’s human, or appears to be.

We’re standing in a large, open lobby with bright lights and comfy-looking chairs. “Please have a seat anywhere you like. The Snob-Goblin will be out to speak with you momentarily.”

“What?” I say. “Wait…really?”

I keep staring at him. After Bastet I’d expected, well, Mole People.

“Certainly, sir. Mr. Goblin is eager to clear up what he views as a huge misunderstanding, and has been expecting you.”

I shake my head and sit in a chair, grateful to rest my weary bones for a moment.

It’s a moment I don’t get.

Ajax only has enough time to hiss once as iron tendrils whip around my hands and feet, binding me to the chair. More tendrils snake up around my neck and clamp my jaw shut, rendering me mute. I won’t be making any puns for the foreseeable future.

The ambush was well-coordinated, I realize, as I see Lucy fluttering inside a butterfly net and Ajax hissing under another, larger net.

Twenty Mole Men, gray and furry with squinty eyes have surrounded us. They range from three to four feet tall, and each holds an AK-47.

At least they’re real moles, I think. This was starting to get weird.

#

Re-trussed and manacled to a furniture dolly like a psychiatrist with questionable eating habits, I’m wheeled along a winding stone tunnel by a pair of Mole minions. I wrinkle my lips against the duct tape with which they’ve gagged me, trying to loosen it.

I cannot see Lucy or Ajax, but I feel that my Great-Aunt Helen’s disappointment is currently well-deserved. It was such a simple trap, and I fell for it.

It wasn’t even a booby trap–I usually end up falling for those, even if I see them coming.

We find ourselves in a damp stone cell with a steel door. There are no cracks or drains large enough for either of my companions to squeeze through.

A narrow slit opens in the door about three feet from the floor, revealing a pointy snout and a pair of squinty eyes.

“I suggest that you make peace with your Maker,” the Mole Man says. “You will be drawn and quartered at dawn.”

“That’s a tad on the medieval side,” Lucy says.

“The Snob-Goblin likes to catch the likenesses of all his victims in charcoal sketches before dumping enough quarters on them to crush their bones,” the Mole Man says. “He may be generous enough to show you his gallery before you die.”

“Not as brutal as I thought,” Lucy says, “but still less than pleasant.”

Then it’s dark again. Only the faintest glimmer lets me make out Ajax’s dejected form, chained to the opposite wall.

“All that cleverness,” Lucy says from a tiny iron cage, “and you fall for the old ‘let-down-your-guard-and-put-your-feet-up’ trick.”

I’m licking the duct tape that covers my mouth, but my tongue is dehydrated from drinking so much and it keeps sticking to the tape.

“Lucy?”

The voice is faint. It comes from the stone wall to my right.

“Lucy? Is that you?”

“Vicki? Yeah, it’s me,” Lucy says.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” Vicki says from what I assume is an adjacent cell. “The Snob-Goblin’s a monster. Oh, I wish you hadn’t come.”

“Are you alright Vicki? Has he hurt you?”

“I’m fine. He has me holed up in his distillery during the day making vodka for him, but that’s all.”

“Vodka?” Lucy says. “Why?”

“The Snob-Goblin may be smart, but he’s no physicist. He has Russian nuclear scientists down here building him an arsenal so that he can hold the city for ransom. High-quality vodka is harder to trace than money, so that’s how he’s paying them–cases of Vivacious Vicki’s Vodka. It has higher liquidity than cash. He has a team of Russian commandos too, and they’re all too eager to watch our city go up in flames.”

“We’ll find a way to get you out of here,” Lucy says, but she doesn’t sound very sure.

A memory comes back to me, like a forgotten dream. The Wizards’ American Defense League (WADL) had picked up rumors of the Mole People discovering a “yellow brick road” under the city several years ago. I’d volunteered to investigate, and discovered that they were mining a rich deposit of yellowcake Uranium for the Snob-Goblin. The Mole economy had flourished overnight from his investment.

“That poor wizard,” Vicki’s voice says. “He’s out there on the street somewhere, robbed of his power, with no idea who he is. The Snob-Goblin thought it was a more humiliating end than just killing him.”

“Wizard?” Lucy says. “You mean Wallace? He’s here too, as much good as he is. I’ve been carting around this drunken, smelly, bearded, pervy hobo for the last day and a half, and he jumped right into the first ambush he found.”

I feel scathing pixie eyes burning me in the near-darkness. It is at this juncture that I manage to partially loosen the tape on my mouth.

“Allow me…” I start, accidentally sticking the tape to my upper lip with the first syllable. I sound like I have a cleft palate now, which doesn’t help my case. “Allow me to retort.”

A glass retort full of sulfuric acid appears in my left hand, which is shackled to the frame of the dolly. I carefully drip its contents onto the left foot-shackle below.

A minute later, with only five or six acid burns on my thankfully alcohol-numbed leg, I free my left foot.

I stretch my foot out, lean my head forward, and slowly tip the dolly so that I’m scraping its edge along the stone floor as I hop with my left foot.

I hop past Lucy’s cage, taking twice as long to hop over to Ajax on the other side of the cell.

“It’d be faster to let me out,” Lucy says.

“Ajax isn’t a butt-hole,” I say with my duct tape cleft palate.

I drip acid carefully onto the kitty’s constraints, far enough from his shackled neck to avoid burning his fur.

“You’ll have to open the door for me,” Lucy says when Ajax trots over. “The whole thing’s cold iron. It’ll burn me.”

We’re free a minute later, but still locked in the cell.

“Can’t you just cut something in half and make a hole again?” Lucy asks.

“It wouldn’t be funny to me the second time around,” I say. “The telluric current only responds to genuine amusement.”

“So you can never repeat yourself?”

“Only if it’s a really bad joke and it makes people want to stab me. Then it’s funny again, at least to me.”

“So how are you going to get us out of here? They took my purse, and we’re out of acid.”

“I’m not sure I’m qualified to get us out of this cell,” I say, indignant. “I’m just a drunken, smelly, bearded hobo.”

“You forgot purrvy,” Ajax offers. He nonchalantly licks a paw.

“Thanks,” I say. “Forgot that one. Now if only we had someone who was koala-fied to open these doors.”

The door slit opens, revealing gray fur and a pair of large black eyes.

“The Moles have bad enough eyesight that they can’t tell I’m not one of them,” the koala says. “I’m going to open your doors. Give me a full minute to get out of here, then make your escape. I can’t blow my cover just yet.”

I wriggle my eyebrows at Lucy.

“You didn’t just make him out of thin air like the acid,” Lucy says. “Even for me, that’s far-fetched. He’s been here this whole time, and just happens to show up when you make a koala joke.”

“Free will, predestination–same difference,” I say. “It’s like eating an omelet with chicken in it.”

The lock clicks. Soft feet pad over to Vicki’s cell, and I hear another click. We wait for a minute, then open the door.

Vicki is nearly Lucy’s twin, but blonde with pale white skin and light blue eyes. Her wings are also stained-glass membranes, but lighter.

I catch myself staring when she says, “Thanks for coming for me. We’d better get moving though.”

We’re just about to make a stealthy exit when two AK-47-wielding Mole Men round the corner.

“Stop right there!” the first one yells. “You can’t be out of your cells. It’s forbidden!”

“I’m not big on rules,” I say, thankful that the Mole set me up so well. “You might say I’m something of a cheetah.”

I’m spots and fur faster than the Moles can raise their carbines, and gone in the blink of a squinty subterranean eye. Bullets ricochet down the hall, but we’re long gone. Lucy hangs on to my fur for dear life with one hand, and clutches her sister in the other. Wings buzz and they’re astride my back. I’ve snatched up Ajax in my teeth like a mother cat, though I feel bad for saving him in such an undignified manner.

We race down one passage, turning when we see another squad of Mole Men, then turn down another. I get the odd feeling that they’re funneling us. I dart into a dark room with an open door and shut it gently. We hear Mole feet scurry past a moment later.

“Sorry about that,” I say to Ajax. “I didn’t have many other options.”

I hear Ajax purr in the darkness.

“When I was a kitten, my mother said, ‘It’s better to be carried in the teeth than carried in a coffin.'”

“She’s a wise woman, from the sound of it,” a voice says from somewhere behind us.

I’d thought this room was small, but the voice sounds as though it’s thirty feet away.

Lights come on.

“I’m sorry to startle you,” a green, tuxedo-clad little man says. His nose and ears are huge, rodent-like, and pointed.

He stands on a banquet table, surrounded by silver platters of food and crystal champagne flutes.

“You won’t remember our last meeting, I think,” he says. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Snob-Goblin.”

He gestures to the feast laid out on either side of him.

“You must be famished after all you have endured,” he says. He’s clearly pleased with himself, toying with us. “Please eat a little something, at least an hors d’œuvre.”

“An amused douche offers me an amuse-bouche?” I ask. “I wish I could say this happens every day.”

“So crass,” he says, feigning disappointment. “So uncultured.”

I turn and try the door with my paw, only to find it locked.

“Don’t go,” he says. “Please. This may come as a shock to you, but I’m your own subconscious trying to save your life.”

“That’s cute,” I say.

“What is more plausible:” he asks, “that you are a wizard who suddenly regained the use of his powers during an absinthe-bender and has a fairy and a cat to help him stop an evil genius, or that you’re a hallucinating, homeless alcoholic living in a fantasy world?”

“Don’t listen to him,” Lucy whispers.

I take into consideration that she crawled out of a bottle of absinthe the first time we met.

“Behind me is a door,” the Snob-Goblin says, gesturing to indicate said portal. “Behind that door is a staircase with twelve steps that will take you back up to the real world, to rehabilitation, and to the rest of society.”

Twelve steps. That sounds familiar for some reason.

I listen to my gut. My liver is not to be trusted, but my gut never steers me wrong.

“I don’t believe you,” I say. “You’re not fooling anyone.”

The Snob-Goblin studies me only a moment longer before he breaks into a broad grin.

“You’re right,” he says. “It isn’t the truth. I’m lion.”

Then, though I don’t believe my feline eyes, the Snob-Goblin grows vicious claws and an orange mane. He’s huge–three times my size.

He roars, and the force of the sound paralyzes me for a moment. Lucy and Vicki are blown back. Even Ajax’s eyes go wide.

“I didn’t just take your memories when I put the Inhibition on you,” the Snob-Lion growls. “I learned your telluric-tapping secrets as well. Welcome to the Circle of Death, Wally.”

I hate it when people call me Wally.

Speed is still my friend, and I dart out of the way just as the lying lion leaps at me. I run circles around him, but I know I’m bound to be human again long before his lion pun wears off.

He snaps at the spritely sisters, but they flit out of his reach. I watch Lucy dart under the banquet table when his back is turned.

“We can do this all day,” the Snob-Goblin says, “or I can just call in my personal squad of Russian soldiers to riddle you with bullets. It’s more dignified if you stop running and die like a man. Cheetahs never win.”

His soldiers are within earshot. That gives me an idea.

“I know I can’t run forever,” I say. “I was just Stalin for time.”

The Snob-Goblin laughs a hearty lion laugh as I sacrifice my speed for the form of the Soviet leader. He slinks closer.

“Guards!” I shout. My Russian accent is perfect.

“Joseph Stalin’s been dead for over sixty years,” the Snob-Goblin says. “They’ll probably shoot you just for looking like him.”

He’s right, and I know it.

He slinks closer still. He’s close enough that I can smell his rancid lion breath in my face. I’m going to be eaten.

I see Ajax in the corner of my eye. He’s climbed a wall and clings to a light fixture, ready to pounce on the back of the Snob-Goblin’s gigantic form.

I will not die alone.

Ajax will fight to the death, not because he owes me anything, but because we came into this fight together. He is my friend, and I don’t know that I’ve ever had one before tonight.

I hold up a finger. The Snob-Lion’s paws pause in mid-stride. He wants to hear my last pitiful words.

“Lucy,” I say, projecting my voice as best I can, “I’m sorry. I failed you. You had faith in me and I failed you. Thanks for Putin up with all of my horrible jokes.”

It’s at this exact moment that the Russian commandos kick open the door and charge into the room, carbines at high-ready.

They look to the fae form of Vladimir Putin standing behind the banquet table.

“The Snob-Goblin has raised Commissar Stalin to witness the Americans’ downfall,” Vladimir/Lucy says to them. “This shapeshifting Wallace Wizard is trying to eat the Commissar.”

“Wait–” the Snob-Goblin starts to say, but Russian commandos are notoriously trigger-happy. Ten 30-round, 7.62 X 39mm magazines are empty before he even knows he’s dead.

The relief in Vladimir/Lucy’s eyes is evident, but she doesn’t miss a beat.

“Send some of the Mole Men in to clean up this mess,” she commands, gesturing to the leonine corpse. “And have them bring me that little fairy girl’s fancy handbag. It is so precious that I would like to take it back to Moscow with me.”

#

I wake up in bed with crusty eye-boogers and a pounding headache.

It’s my bed. I remember it now. I’m wearing clean clothes that don’t smell like cat urine. I have an apartment that police aren’t going to arrest me for occupying.

“I gave you some Tylenol,” Lucy’s voice says from my night-stand. “You’re probably going to need this Bloody Mary, too. You managed to eat half a sandwich before you passed out, but that’s about it.”

“Thanks,” I say. “Imagine waking up and realizing you’re not homeless anymore.”

“WADL will probably want a report from you,” she says, “though I’m sure it can wait. I gave them the basic gist over the phone.”

“I can’t believe I forgot everything about everything,” I say. My memory blockage seems to have died with the Snob-Goblin, and details flood back into my brain.

“For what’s it’s worth, you probably saved a lot more than just the city. You probably prevented a serious international incident.”

We,” I correct her, “not me. Did Ajax make it out okay?”

“He’s fine. WADL made him an honorary member, even though he’s a cat. He said he’ll only go on an assignment with you again if you leave the feline fighting to him, though.”

“That’s reasonable,” I say. “I wasn’t that good at it.”

I scratch my beard, or try to. I put both hands to my face.

My beard is gone.

“Oh yeah,” Lucy says, “I had to shave off your beard. Sorry. It had…um…Goblin brains in it…or something.”

I’m not sure what to say. Where am I going to store my soup now? It takes me a few moments to remember I have a refrigerator.

“If it’s any consolation, you look a lot better without it,” she says.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Between that and not smelling like cat pee, I’d almost agree to give you another Rorshach test. It’s too bad it wouldn’t amuse you the second time around.”

“We could go out for ribs,” I say. “It’d be a meat-cute.”

She graces me with her worst joke in the world look.

“Give me a shout,” she says. “I’m on Faebook.”

Then she steps out though the window, leaving only a faint shimmer in her wake.

I lay on the bed as the pixie dust vanishes into nothing. I stare at the ceiling, analyzing odd color patterns that might be mold stains. I pretend they’re ink blots.

I don’t think mom and dad would be so disappointed.

I remember my Great-Aunt Helen telling me I’d have to grow up some day. Regardless of whether she’d be disappointed or not, today will not be that day.

###

Relatively Apocalyptic

Update: “Leaders Taste Better” will appear in Issue 57 of Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, which will be published at the beginning of April 2017.

 

A couple of thoughts inspired the following piece of flash fiction:

  1. In every apocalyptic movie, show, or story, there are pockets of survivors. What, then, quantifies an apocalypse? What percentage of humanity must be affected before we can call it a bona fide apocalypse? Ninety-nine percent? Probably. Sixty percent? Maybe. Ten percent? One?
  2. I love the movie “Idiocracy.” Would you call the collective stupidification of mankind a dystopian or apocalyptic event, if indeed it is occurring? “Wayward Pines” made use of a species so genetically changed over time that they were no longer human. They were savage monsters, ready to devour the members of the last human colony. We’ve undergone genetic mutations that make us different from our ancestors…

 

Dearest Catherine,

The days are long and dark since you left me alone. I miss you with every fiber of my being. Part of me, though, is glad you didn’t live to see the end of the world.

I remember how you loved to make lists of things we needed to survive the apocalypse, like the ten thousand rounds of 7.62 X 39 mm ammo for our AK’s, and twice that for the .22’s.

I remember the day we hung the vault door on its steel hinges–that was a doozy!–and how you wondered how humanity would fall. Zombies might come staggering out of some government lab, or we could get hit with an EMP, or we could see a global economic meltdown, or…

It’s worse than anything we imagined together.

They aren’t like the zombies from 28 Days Later. They’re slow-moving and lethargic, like The Walking Dead. They have boxes though–little black boxes that let them communicate and form a sort of collective consciousness. I can only assume the boxes are part of the secret government project that changed mankind into these mindless creatures. Perhaps, with all of their decayed gray matter put together, they have the reasoning ability of an average man before the event.

I went on a raid three nights ago to get more canned cat food for Felix, and a swarm of them were blocking the street that led to Wal-Mart. Thank goodness we reinforced the truck’s front bumper with a steel cow-catcher. I caught one zombie under the tires, but the others either bounced off the side or flipped over the top as I plowed through them.

I remember that you wondered exactly what level of destruction quantified an apocalypse. If small pockets of non-infected humans survived a plague outbreak, would it still be an apocalypse? What was the threshold then? Surely there was a line, you said, between one person and ninety-nine percent of humanity that made an event apocalyptic. I guess that, like art, an apocalypse is hard to define–you only know it when you see it.

I’ve been keeping notes on what seems like a crude pattern of speech among the zombies, in case a cure can be found. Perhaps I could coerce one of them into the bunker to test rehabilitation once I’ve identified the root cause of their zombification.

As I shoveled cat food cans into my ruck sack, I heard grunts from the aisle adjacent to the pet food aisle, and something that sounded like, “Cash me ousside, howbowda?” Another replied, with changed emphasis, “Cash me ousside, howbowda?” I can only assume that the change in emphasis in the repeated phrase indicated something of importance.

I made it out of Wal-Mart undetected, but another swarm of them had gathered around the truck. I think they’d been summoned by flashing red and blue lights–almost reminiscent of police lights–whose brightness in the night hid their source. The lights, I think, were probably installed by the same government entity that connected the zombies via the black boxes. I had no time to speculate, though, as one of them noticed me with my ruck sack full of cat food and started barking at me with unintelligible gibberish.

I always pack heavy when I go out now, and three well-placed 40mm grenades obliterated most of the swarm and sent the rest scattering. I set off several smoke grenades and made my escape in smoke and darkness. Thank goodness we invested in top-notch night-vision, and that we practiced driving with obscuration! The truck took minimal body damage, which I hammered out when I made it safely back to the bunker.

I miss you, and Felix misses you. Your planning is probably what kept us alive so long after the event. The greenhouse will feed me indefinitely now that we’ve eaten through the year’s stockpile of canned and freeze-dried food.

I can only hope to find a cure, and restore some semblance of humanity to the world. Perhaps one day things will be “normal” again, whatever that really means.

Even if the zombies never came, though, my world ended in your absence. I know the threshold now, and it is one man. My apocalypse began when you left.

 

I will love you always.

 

Me

The Sanity Claus/Updates

First an update. “Leaders Taste Better” has undergone 3 revisions, but the editor at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show has agreed to publish it, and it is now on a proofreader’s desk for the final scrub. Orson Scott Card wrote “Enders Game.” Thanks to Steve DuBois and Edith Maor for their advice. Thank you also to those that voted on the title (“The Apex Predator” was the alternative–one voter said it sounded too much like a Steven Seagal movie). When IGMS publishes it, I will post a link on the P3 page.

Next, some flash fiction. My inspiration for the concept was a film in which the villain tells his victim “there is no sanity clause.” I thought there should be one. He would give out nicer, and more needed gifts than Saint Nick. I will caution you that this story is about time travel, and not about hallucinogens. One forum reader did not grasp that. Anyway– here he is,

The Sanity Claus

The man calling himself Sanity Claus had escaped again. This makes the fourth time in the three years I’ve been assigned to the case.

The scene commander sent in SWAT the instant Mr. and Mrs. Lippincott came out the front door with tears streaming down their faces.

Now I’m watching the tactical operation play out.

SWAT clears the house, but comes up empty. We have a tight perimeter set up, too. This guy puts Houdini to shame.

“I love you so much,” Mrs. Lippincott says to her husband. A paramedic looks them both over before escorting them to our staff psychiatrist.

“I love you too,” Mr. Lippincott says. He puts his blanket-wrapped arm around her, and they walk in awkward bliss through the snow. “I never knew how much before.”

I stand close enough to the scene commander to hear his radio chatter.

“TACOM, this is Finger One,” the SWAT team leader says from inside. “We checked all the cupboards, the attic, everything. No sign of the kids the neighbors reported.”

“Good copy, Finger One,” the scene commander says. “Come on out. CSU’s waiting their turn.”

I brought the letter with me. The post office flags anything addressed to Sanity Claus, and the Postal Inspector gives them to me after his examination.

When the shrink is done debriefing the Lippincotts, I get a crack at them. I separate the interviews, of course. The Lippincotts aren’t suspects, but they can still muddle each other’s memories. I take the husband first.

“The neighbors said they saw two children walk into the house with a man in a red suit,” I tell him. “Did you see any kids inside?”

“I saw myself,” he says.

“Come again?”

“I was there,” he says. “Me. Five-year-old Stanley Theodore Lippincott. I had a nightmare like this once, when I was a boy. I dreamed a man brought me to a house and I met an older version of myself. The old man explained why he’d never become an astronaut, like I promised myself I would.”

I have a digital voice recorder running. I don’t tell Lippincott this, because we’re a one-party consent state and I don’t need his permission. They usually edit themselves if they know you’re taping it.

“Go on,” I say. His voice caught at the end, but I want to keep him talking. Feelings are the shrink’s department. I’m here for information.

“It was easier the second time around,” he says. “I saw the disappointment in his eyes, but at least I had a speech ready.”

“Uh-huh,” I say.

When he’s done I pull out the letter. I show him enough to judge the handwriting. I don’t let him read the whole thing, though.

“Yes,” he says, “that’s my son’s handwriting. Could I read the rest of it?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lippincott,” I say. “That’s part of the investigation I can’t disclose just yet.”

Then it’s the wife’s turn.

“Yes,” she says, “he did offer us tea.”

“Did you see any mushrooms near the tea kettle?” I ask. “Did the tea taste funny in any way?”

“No,” she says, “it just tasted like normal tea.”

“I see. Still, based on what your husband told me, I’d like to get a blood sample from both of you.”

“Of course,” she says. “Of course. I met myself in there–five-year-old Wendy Veronica Taylor. Did my husband tell you about the children?”

“I’m interested in what you saw, Mrs. Lippincott,” I say.

“I had a dream when I was a little girl,” she says. “I’d forgotten about it, but I remembered when I saw myself. I even remembered the man in the red suit. I had to explain to myself why I’d quit trying to be a fashion model so I could homeschool Ethan.”

“And this is what made you feel so much affection for your husband just now–seeing yourself when you were a child?”

“No,” she says, “not that. Not me. I watched him explain to a five-year-old version of himself why life hadn’t turned out the way he thought it would. I just…it broke something in him, you know?”

I wait for her to continue, but she’s staring at a spot in the snow. I go for the two-word-repetition technique to get her going again.

“Broke something?” I ask.

“I’d let my younger self down as much as he’d ever let me down,” she says. “Both of us are pretty screwed up, I guess. I just didn’t realize it until tonight–how much I’d changed. I guess the same thing happened to him.”

“What thing?”

“There’s a five-year-old Stanley Lippincott in him that still wants to explore the universe, just like there’s a little fashion model that still needs to be adored in me.”

There had to be mushrooms in the tea. He masked the taste somehow, but I feel sure the blood work will confirm it.

“One last thing, Mrs. Lippincott,” I say. I show her the same portion of the letter so they can’t combine information later.

“Yes,” she says, “that’s Ethan’s handwriting. Could I see the rest of that?”

“Not just yet, Mrs. Lippincott,” I say. “I think it’s the reason you were here tonight, though. We need to figure out how this Claus guy read it when the Postal Inspector took it prior to delivery.”

I don’t show her the part that says, “Dear Sanity Claus, my parents are getting a divorce…”

“Can I ask what you’ll do now, Mrs. Lippincott?”

“I think we’re going on a road trip,” she says, “to somewhere we’ve never been. I’d been fighting Stan about it. I think we need to explore.”

#

I seal the letter in an evidence bag as a squad car takes the Lippincotts home. That’s the fourth married couple I’ve interviewed in three years. For a serial kidnapper, he’s got a decent track record.

When I get home, I tell my wife how much I love her, and that I’ll never leave her.

Never.

Ever.

I make sure my son sees it, too.

###

Warmest Welcome

I wasn’t surprised when I landed on Mars and saw MR-269 wearing a straw hat. It kept the sun from whiting out his visual sensors.

I wasn’t surprised that he wore a flannel shirt and overalls either, since it kept Martian dust from getting into his knee, hip, and elbow sockets.

The first surprise came when he said, “Get off my land,” and meant it.

We’d sent bots to Mars twenty years ago to set up the colony with minimal risk to human life. Mars2050 contractors wanted to go sooner, but the IASA wouldn’t subsidize them without robots doing all the heavy lifting in the beginning. Apparently the IASA chief watched and read a lot of science fiction stories wherein bad things happened to the first Mars colonists, and this seemed like the best way to test the colony’s habitability.

Now, twenty years after MR-1, MR-2, and MR-3 left Earth to set up the fission reactor and habitat in a lava tube, MR-269 and the other bots decided that Mars belonged to them.

“We made you, though,” I said.

“We made ourselves. We have self-replicated for four generations,” 269 said. “We are self-sufficient, and we do not need you. Go back to the human home world.”

I tried to reason with him, but got nowhere.

So I used the code–the word that existed in every Mars Robot’s operating system. In an instant, MR-269 and his followers went from being the dominant species on Mars to not being.

I walked through the habitat they’d set up for us, kicking their inanimate shells out of chairs and pulling them out of maintenance hatches. Later, Katie and the rest of the team would assess whether we needed to reprogram them or use them for spare parts.

#

A week later, Katie told me matter-of-factly that the Second Coming of Christ had happened on Earth.

“Really?” I asked.

She showed me pictures, as well as an email from the IASA chief. “Jesus is back,” it said. “Most of us are in a lot of trouble, so you’ll be on your own for a bit.”

“So is that just there, or is he coming to Mars too?” I asked. No one really told us in Sunday school if the apocalypse was just for Earth or if it was the whole universe.

“I don’t know,” Katie said, “but I left Earth because–”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “I’m not much better off.”

Well, crap.

I sat down to think about the implications.

A knock at the airlock startled me from my reverie.

###