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Year of Stories – Week 18

The Year of Stories is undergoing a bit of change.

I’ve decided not to offer individual short stories for sale anymore. I’ll still be bundling together each month’s worth of stories if you want to read them in advance of when they go up here on the site, but the amount of time and effort required to make them individually available has turned out not to be worthwhile, especially with a new baby taking up more of my time.

Don’t worry; you’ll still get a free short story every Monday! Today the offering is The Interno, a 1,700-word sci-fi comedy.

Dr. Graeme Carter and Dr. Jefferson Parkindale have been coworkers for many years, but lately Dr. Parkindale has been acting, well, a little more eccentric than usual. He smiles more, for one thing. In fact, he never seems to stop smiling anymore. Does the mysterious new Interno technology have something to do with it?

Enjoy!

Flare Fiction: Volume 2

It’s here! My latest chapbook, Flare Fiction: Volume 2, is now available in the Store, for whatever price you wish to pay.

Here’s a little bit of information about the collection:

These stories are experiments, in a lot of ways. Can Imaginary Enemy get you to care about the plight of an imaginative young boy in less than a page and a half? Can A Brain Well-Watered encapsulate the creative process in only 315 words, and inspire you to go searching after your own fresh inspiration? Can A Long Story make you laugh the first time you read it, and sigh with pity the second? These are the kinds of challenges I set for myself as an author. You, as readers, are my audience, my targets, my judges, and often my inspirations.

As with my previous chapbooks, you can set your own price by adjusting the “quantity” of dollars and cents while you’re ordering.

Flare Fiction 2 is also available to grab from Amazon for 99¢.

If you read and enjoy the collection, please head over to Amazon and leave a review! Reviews really help other people find my work, so your thoughts and comments are very much appreciated.

Darla, Dragon Hunter

Prefer to do your reading on your ereader, iPhone, or other device? Download this month’s stories from the Store!


My “friends” think I’m a paralegal. I do my best to keep them believing that idea: I live downtown, a short walk from all the big office buildings; I dress the part, during the day, in grey pantsuits and overstated lipstick; and I join in all the mindless complaining about workplace stresses and romantic endeavours. I amuse myself, during our regular group lunch dates, by wondering what the other girls would say if they found out that a couple of times a month I hop into my SUV, head out of city limits, meet up with a tall, handsome man (whom I have no romantic interest in whatsoever), exchange my pantsuit for camo gear and a high-tech sniper rifle, and hunt dragons.

They’d probably think I was joking. Fine by me.

Today we’re in a café on the ground floor of a tower built by some bank or another. There are five of them, sipping at their lattés and pecking at their side salads like hens while I take big bites out of my clubhouse sandwich and try to tune out their inane banter.

“How’s work going for you, Darla?” says Connie.

I apologetically cover my mouth and keep chewing. Sometimes this works to deflect the conversation away from me. Not today.

“You’re really scarfing that sandwich down!” Connie titters, waving her tiny plastic fork at me. “Do you have somewhere to be? Some man waiting for you in a private cubicle back at the office?” She breaks into a Cheshire grin and a couple of the others lean forward, hoping to hear something juicy that might stimulate their underdeveloped brains.

I swallow. “No, nothing like that,” I say. “I just… slept in this morning and didn’t have time for breakfast.”

“Oh, I never eat breakfast!” says Betty, the thinnest (and most sickly looking) of the bunch. “Unless you count orange juice and a Vitamin D pill, I guess.”

“I usually have one of those pro-bacterial yogurts,” says Connie.

“I’ve thought about that,” says Betty. “What brand do you buy?”

And now they’re off on that tangent, so I gratefully take another bite of my sandwich.

Soon Betty and Julie have to head back to work, and Annie accompanies Parvati to the restroom, leaving me as the only target of Connie’s prying conversationalism. I know I won’t escape so easily this time. My sandwich is gone now, but I hold my coffee close to my face, staring into it and taking frequent small sips.

“So, seriously, Darla, any interesting romantic developments lately?” she says, leaning forward and resting her chin in her hand.

“No,” I say, “not since Nicholas moved away.” Nicholas is a guy I made up about a year ago so they’d stop bothering me about how I never seemed to be interested in any men. It turned out to be counter-productive: they kept asking so many questions about him that I would forget what I’d said he did for a living, or the colour of his hair, or whether we’d had our first kiss yet, and eventually they were pressing so hard to meet him that I said we’d broken up because of a job offer he’d received on the other side of the country.

“Do you two ever talk these days?” Her tone is a bit too sympathetic, a bit too friendly, a bit too disingenuous. Connie is the only one who ever seemed to suspect that Nicholas might not be real.

“We kept up for a few weeks,” I say, “but you know how it is. We’ve just grown apart, I guess.”

“Sure,” she says, pouting her precious little lips in mock pity. “Don’t worry; I’m sure you’ll find someone new before long.”

“Uh huh,” I say, and reach for a newspaper someone has left behind on the table next to ours. The cover story is a big spread about a report that was just released on the number of dragon-related deaths over the past two years. I don’t want to show too much interest—I’m not supposed to be the kind of person who cares about that kind of thing, after all—so I casually flip past it.

Connie catches the cover as it falls open, though. “Ooh, I was waiting for this article to come out.” She holds the page up and puckers her forehead as she starts to skim through the paragraphs. I let her read. “Wow,” she says. “Did you know that three people from this area die every month, on average, from dragon attacks?”

“Really?” I say mildly.

“They’re poachers, a lot of them,” she continues. “I don’t know what kind of person would go out on their own and track down a dragon. Seems like a pretty stupid thing to do. That kind of thing should really be left to the professionals.”

“Yeah,” I say, with as much false conviction as I can muster.

Connie looks up from the paper with her I-have-a-secret face. “I bet you didn’t know my brother-in-law is in a Dragon Patrol.”

“Kiefer?” I say. I’ve met him once before, at a New Year’s Eve party. “Since when?”

“He just joined up a month ago, part-time. He’s on call, just for when they need an extra set of hands because one of the regulars can’t make it.” Her voice lowers conspiratorially, and she glances around us. “He actually went out on his first call this morning. I’m not supposed to know that, but my sister told me.”

This is information worth having. I put on an impressed expression. “So there’s been a dragon spotted, you think?”

“Must’ve been,” she says.

“Where do you think it was?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugs. “My sister said he was just told ‘east’ somewhere.”

It isn’t much, but it’s enough. I deflect the conversation to something more mundane again, and as soon as Annie and Parvati return from the restroom I excuse myself, saying I have to return to the office. I leave some money on the table and speed-walk down to the parkade, where my SUV is waiting. There’s no need to stop by home or check the back of the car. I always keep my rifle and a good stock of ammunition under the floor in the trunk, and a set of equipment stashed underneath the seat.  I have everything I need.

I use my SUV’s Bluetooth connection to speed-dial Fritz.

“There’s something happening to the east,” I say. “I’m already on my way.”

“I’m on it,” he says. “I’ll have it narrowed down as soon as possible.”

“Keep me updated.” I hang up. There’s no need to be more specific than that. Dragons are the only thing Fritz and I ever talk about. He’s my Spotter: he tracks down the dragons and flushes them out for me. I do the shooting.

It’s rare that I get a tip before Fritz does. He’s the one who really has his ear on the ground. I can’t afford to stick my neck out tracking down leads like he does. I’m the Shooter: I’m public enemy number one. If the government ever even suspected who I was, I’d have a SWAT team breaking down my door with their guns drawn.

It’s kind of funny, really, the war they wage against me and the other dozen or so Shooters I’m aware of across the country. On the surface, you’d think the government would appreciate our efforts. We do what the Dragon Patrols are supposed to do: we kill dragons. But despite that, the government labels us poachers and does everything it can to shut us down. They say they’ve criminalized our hunts because they’re too dangerous. They talk about all the deaths and publicly beg us to stand back while they handle the reptilian menace.

But those numbers in the report Connie was reading are a pretty twisted version of the truth. I only know of three hunters who have ever been killed by dragons, while I know of at least seven or eight more whose deaths were blamed on dragons when really it was Dragon Patrol bullets, not draconian teeth or flame, that ended their lives. The rest of those tragic deaths? Sure, some of them are civilians, but more of them are actually Dragon Patrollers. The patrols have an astonishingly high attrition rate.

We soldier on and protect ourselves the best we can. It would be futile to go to the media: the government controls those outlets. No one would believe us if we told them that when the Patrols are out hunting their dragons, they never shoot to kill. Most people don’t even know about the diamonds.

In ancient myths, dragons hoard gold, silver, and jewels in their mountain caves. Those stories come from historical misinterpretations: explorers found abandoned dragon nests, lined with diamonds and diamond dust, and exaggerated their discoveries until everyone was convinced that each dragon nest was a veritable treasure trove. The relatively mundane fact of the matter is that the dragons couldn’t care much less about diamonds: they literally crap them out.

We’ve known for decades that dragons’ digestive systems operate in what seems like a uniquely impossible way. They’re saxivores: they eat rocks and coal, and by some process which science is so far unable to explain, their feces come out as finely ground gravel and diamonds. What would you do with information like that?

Dragon habitat has been disappearing for centuries, leading to more and more encounters between dragons and humans. Like any other animal, a dragon will lash out if cornered or threatened. The number of “meteor strikes” being reported across the country started to grow rapidly about twenty years ago, as the government tried to cover up what was actually going on. In the meantime, they were sacrificing the lives of their soldiers to capture dragons for research. Eventually cover-ups became impossible, though, so they went public with the dragons’ existence and adopted their new strategy, employing civilians to fill the holes in the ranks of their Dragon Patrols, criminalizing any “unregulated” contact with dragons, and claiming their goal was to eradicate the dangerous, unpredictable beasts.

The first independent dragon hunter was a government employee named Hyatt. He saw what was happening, saw the number of deaths among the patrols and the amount of damage being done to our farmland, and decided he’d had enough. He made it his personal mission to kill the dragons off and stop the cycle of death.

Hyatt was the one who manufactured the first diamond-tipped bullets. He created the tactics and technology that the rest of use today. Funding his efforts with money he made selling dragon diamonds on the black market, he began to recruit and equip others and teach them about the government’s lies. Fritz and I were two of his earliest students.

Four years ago the government caught Hyatt slipping poison into the coal that was being fed to a captive dragon, so they locked him in the cage with it and claimed there’d been an “accident.” That’s what we’re up against.

The government wants its diamonds, and for that it needs dragons. The politicians have no interest in seeing the dragons killed off. They don’t care how many innocent ranchers and college kids like Connie’s brother-in-law have to die.

Fritz and I and all the rest of us aren’t prepared to accept that, so we take the dragons out every chance we get. Some of the hunters think we should be turning our scopes on the government research teams and leaving the dragons alone, but that was never Hyatt’s vision. If there were no more dragons, there’d be no more research teams, no more capture attempts, no more needless civilian deaths. We’re in this to save human lives, not to take them.

It’s raining today. The deluge pounds down, and my wipers sweep back and forth like pistons as I navigate through traffic to the highway. I notice a long, thin crack in my windshield where yesterday there was only a chip. I’ve been meaning to go to a glass shop and get it repaired, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Probably need to replace the whole thing, now. Oh well. I’m not exactly short on funds; no dragon hunter is. If the government started cracking down on the black market for dragon diamonds, they’d only be making it more difficult to move their own supply.

I’m about half an hour out of the city when Fritz calls me. “I’ve got it,” he says. “I picked up some D Patrol radio chatter. Head for the old black-rock seam in the Highlands.” We never say words like “coal,” “dragon,” or even “government” on the phone. There are too many computers listening in for those kinds of keywords.

“Didn’t we pick one off there two months ago?” I say.

“The Ds are probably searching out new ‘restaurants’ since the Patrols started staking out that gravel pit. I can text you the GPS coordinates.”

“No need. I remember where it is,” I say. “I’ll be there in twenty. Let me know when you get eyes on.”

I take an exit heading northeast. Ten minutes later I get caught behind a semi truck. I’m waiting for an opportunity to pass when a rock kicks up and smacks into my windshield. The existing crack instantly spiderwebs out across the entire pane of glass, obscuring my vision. I peek between the cracks and manage to negotiate my way onto the side of the road. I slam my hand on the dashboard in frustration.

The first thing I do is call Fritz. I’m close, so if he’s by his car there might be time for him to come get me, and I can call in a tow truck afterwards.

The call goes straight to voicemail.

Suddenly my car troubles are the least of my worries. If his battery was dying, he would’ve said something, and Fritz is far too conscientious to let that happen, anyways. The cell network is way too good these days for him to have just lost reception: he’d have to be sixty feet underground before his phone wouldn’t get a signal. So either his phone is broken, or he’s turned it off. I’ve never known Fritz to break anything by accident, and when we’re meeting up for a hunt we always keep our phones on, in case one of us has to call the other off.

There’s only one circumstance that might cause Fritz to turn his phone off, or maybe even to smash it: he’s been found by a Dragon Patrol.

A pit forms in my stomach. I can’t bear to think of what they might do to him, what they might be doing even now. If it was me they’d captured, I’d be dead in about as much time as it took for someone to pull a trigger. A Spotter, though, is worth more to them alive than dead. The Spotters are the ones who run our organization. They know our entire network; they know how and where to find all the Shooters. That information is far too valuable for the government to lose. It means torture, if Fritz won’t talk, and I know he won’t. He’s too strong for that.

I know what I’m supposed to do next. If I suspect that Fritz has been captured, I have to report it to my backup contact, go straight home, pack up everything, and head to a Safe House until one of the other Spotters gets in touch with me.

I already know that’s out of the question. I can’t leave Fritz in their hands. I won’t allow him to be taken back to the city and tortured for days, or even weeks, until they either extract everything they can from him or give up and let him die. He’s more than my Spotter: he’s my friend. I won’t abandon my friend.

If he knew what I was about to do, he’d be furious. I can picture his face right now, his blond eyebrows knitted together in consternation and his strong hands gesturing emphatically as he lectures me. “Call a tow truck, right this minute,” he’s saying. “Or leave it behind and hitch-hike back, if you have to. You are worth way too much to throw yourself away for me. If they have me already, then they know you’re on your way to meet me. Don’t be a fool.”

But I’m not listening. Fritz can vent as much fury as he wants on me next time I see him. At least it’ll mean he’s alive.

So I reach under the back seat, unzip my bag of gear, take out my sleek black hunting mask, and settle it onto my face. Then I slip off my flats, tug on my boots, and lean back as far as I can in my seat. The windshield is too shattered for me to see through it, and if I can’t see, then I can’t drive. I brace myself with my left foot, rear back with my right, and hammer it into the glass.

It takes three kicks for the windshield to shatter into pieces, and I take a few seconds to clean out the jagged edges with the thick rubber of my boots’ heels. Rain is pouring into the car now, but I don’t care. I’m going to get wet one way or another, and after this I’ll probably need a new car anyways, and a new address, too.

I drive. My mask only covers the upper half of my face, so the raindrops smack into my cheeks, stinging my skin. I use the sleeve of my jacket to wipe the shield of my mask clean every few seconds to maintain visibility. No matter what I do, it’s hard to see, but I speed up, faster and faster, thinking only of what Fritz might be going through. I almost miss the turn-off, but I see the sign just in time and squeal on the brakes to make the corner. Now I’m on a dirt road, climbing up the foothills of the mountain, churning through mud and bouncing recklessly across the potholes. Lightning strikes the mountainside.

I recognize a landmark in the near distance, a tall, dead tree standing out among a copse of firs. Last time Fritz and I met at these coal mines we used that tree as a signpost. I pull off the dirt road and jump out of my car. I throw on my camo jacket, as much for warmth as anything else, but leave on my suit pants. There’s no time to worry about that. I tear up the floor of the trunk so I can get at my rifle and a spare clip of ammo. I leave everything else behind.

As I sprint towards that stand of firs, good sense manages to make itself heard over my inner frenzy. I slow down and start to pay attention to the noise I’m making. It won’t matter how quickly I get there if they hear me coming.

It takes me ten minutes to work my way through the woods to a good vantage point where I can scout out our meeting spot. I look through my sniper scope, because I left my binoculars in the SUV. I don’t know if he was intending to choose this same rendezvous, but I have to hope he was. Otherwise I have an entire mountainside to comb.

I see something: there’s a tear in the grass and two branches have been broken off of one of the smaller trees at about shoulder height. Signs of struggle? No, it’s too subtle for that. These marks were left intentionally. Maybe Fritz left them as a signal for me, so I’d know he’d been there.

Then another interpretation occurs to me: Fritz wouldn’t have wanted me to try to rescue him, so why would he have left me signs? It’s more likely that the Dragon Patrol left the marks as a way to trap me.

I ask myself what they will expect me to do if they think I’m going to come looking for Fritz. What kind of trap might they set? The patrols always bring a big truck along to transport the dragons they capture. They use it a sort of mobile headquarters on their hunts. That’s the most logical place for them to have brought Fritz. The question is whether they’ll try to ambush me here by the rendezvous site, or whether they’ll centre their trap on the convoy. If I were them, I’d leave the rendezvous point clear and set a wide perimeter around the convoy to catch me on my way in. That’s the setup I’ll have to count on defeating.

The first piece of information I need, then, is the location of the convoy. This kind of thing is usually Fritz’s job. I try to think of how he would go about getting a sightline on a landed dragon. What’s that thing he always says? Right: “Need to see? Climb a tree.”

I sling my rifle onto my back and pick a tall, thick fir with strong, spoked branches. I begin to climb. How does Fritz do this so quickly? He’s bigger and heavier than I am, but still far nimbler. He’d get to the top of this tree in a minute or two. It takes me much longer. The branches are wet and slippery, and the rifle on my back makes it awkward to negotiate my way under, over, and between them. My thin pants catch a few times and tear. The leaves and branches scratch at my face and hands.

I finally reach a perch above the main tree line and take a moment to catch my breath. The rain is still falling, but it’s lighter now. I can’t see as far as I’d hoped, but there are gaps in the approaching clouds. The sun is starting to burn through.

Making sure that I’m secure in the crook between two thick branches, I bring my scope up to my eye and scan the forest, starting with the dead tree below me where I believe Fritz was taken and sweeping back and forth across my range of vision, in a broader arc with every pass. There’s a hill on the far side of the tree that rises a hundred feet or so and falls into a valley on the other side. As I follow the curve of the valley the rain stops and the sun begins to warm my face. I realize how cold I’ve been, without noticing. I try to stop noticing again.

Some colour and movement catches my eye in the valley. It could be the transport truck, or one of the patrol’s other vehicles. If their trucks are moving, they may not even be bothering to trap me. Maybe they’re just taking Fritz, forgetting about the dragon that’s supposed to be out here somewhere, and returning to the city. If so, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t take on a moving convoy on my own. I hold my breath as the movement approaches a gap in the trees.

It isn’t the patrol; it’s the dragon. She’s a massive specimen, black and silver with a long neck and sleek, scaly wings. She is old, beautiful, and terrible. The afternoon sun glistens on the diamond dust encrusted into her underside from years of nesting amid her own feces. These dragons are creatures of filth, but also of majesty. It’s a pity, in some ways, that our world can no longer be theirs. Out of habit, I find my scope wandering to the weak spot in her skull, just below and in front of her ear, where I know my diamond-tipped bullet could lay her to rest. I wonder idly how many humans she has killed.

I react to the sound the same time she does: the crack of a gunshot cuts through the air, followed shortly after by an echo off the mountains. The dragon raises her head swiftly and looks up into the trees. My heart pounds in my ears. Who was on the other end of that shot?

I swing my scope in the direction of the sound and find a clearing, hidden before by the mist of rain, only a kilometre or two up the road from where I left my SUV. The transport truck is parked there, along with two vans painted in drab military green.

There’s movement in my scope, in the form of several ant-sized bodies. I reach up and adjust the zoom, enlarging the scene. Black-clad Dragon Patrol squad members are scrambling, diving behind their vehicles. I hear more gun shots and see sparks fly off the bumper of one of the vans. A motionless body is lying on the grass, the recipient of the first bullet, I assume. But where is the shooter?

I find him crouched behind a tree. Fritz is holding one of the patrol’s rifles, peppering their hiding spots with suppressive fire. Now they are fighting back, and the echoes of their gunshots boom off the mountainside. Run, Fritz! I think. Why don’t you run? They outnumber him at least ten to one. It will only be a matter of seconds before they realize how easily they can flank him.

I steady my rifle and settle my sights on the edge of one of the vans, where I’ve seen one of the patrollers hiding. Fritz has no chance to make it out on his own, but he does have me. From this distance, wind and elevation will make any shots I take extremely difficult, but I have years of practice. I settle my finger on the trigger and wait for my target to show himself.

I see a curve of black, then the patroller swings out from behind his cover. He readies his rifle inexpertly, and I bring my sights up to his face.

I recognize his features: this is Connie’s brother-in-law, Kiefer, the one I met once in passing at a party. He’s just a child, really, a 21-year-old student looking to pick up some extra cash. He has no idea that only a quarter-inch movement of my finger separates him from death. Can I do this? Can I take a human life?

These thoughts flash through my mind in less than a second before I find myself adjusting my aim from his head down to his arm. Just as I’m squeezing the trigger, the patroller takes his own shot, and the recoil from his weapon makes him stumble. My bullet drops less than I expected and smacks into and through a tree in line with where his head had been. He scuttles back into cover.

My heart catches in my throat. I just nearly killed a man. It surprises me what effect that idea is having. A shiver runs over my body, some mixture of shock and adrenaline. I lift my eye from my scope and take a deep breath to settle myself. My conscience is blaring, but I try to tune it out. Fritz needs me.

Then I realize I haven’t heard any shots fired since my own. Instantly I turn my scope on the place where Fritz had been. At first I don’t see him, but I bring my gaze down to the base of the tree. He’s lying there, sprawled backwards on the grass, eyes wide and unblinking. Bile leaps into my throat, and the blood drains from my head. I nearly lose my balance, but grab at a branch and resettle myself in my perch. Tears are springing into my eyes, fogging my vision. I lift my mask and wipe it clear, blinking the tears away. I go back to the scope and zoom in on Fritz’s face and chest, searching desperately for any signs of movement that might tell me he’s still alive, that the shot taken by Connie’s brother-in-law hasn’t ripped the only person in this world that I really care about out of my life.

A roiling howl penetrates my panic, and a wash of orange and yellow catches my peripheral vision. The dragon has entered the fray.

The gunshots start up again, in earnest, and the dragon’s flames flow. The vehicles are all alight in seconds, and I see the Patrollers fleeing into the trees. They are not prepared for this onslaught. Their tactics are centred around surprising a dragon, surrounding it, and pumping its hide full of dozens of tranquilizer cartridges. Their standoff with Fritz has left them unprepared. Their guns are probably still loaded with the wrong ammunition. I wonder if they fear punishment from their government masters if they shoot to kill the dragon instead of capturing it.

Some small flame deep in my chest burns brighter as I watch the futile efforts of the Dragon Patrol to escape the destruction. The black beast is wreaking justice on my behalf. If Fritz is dead, I begin to think, then I hope they die, too.

I look down to Fritz again and take in the details of his face. His hair is mussed up and his eyebrows are raised as if in surprise. The damp, rough skin of his forehead and cheeks gleams softly. His beautiful blue eyes stare into empty space, and his strong, square jaw hangs open. Just above his collar I see a tiny puff of red. The feathers of a tranquilizer dart.

Something in his throat twitches.

Hope surges up inside me. He’s alive! Breathe! I command him, with every ounce of energy that I can put into the thought. Live!

I swing my sights around to the dragon. She’s peeling back the roof of a van with her jaws as bullets and darts ping ping ping off her hide. A few lucky shots appear to have found chinks in her armour, but not yet enough, not by far. These patrollers have neither the skill nor the equipment to kill a dragon quickly. The forest is beginning to burn.

The side of the dragon’s head is turned towards me, and her soft temple is exposed. Having seen Fritz alive, I don’t think twice: I line up my sights, adjust my aim based on the trajectory of my previous shot, and squeeze the trigger. The dragon reels, chokes out a massive gout of orange flame, and collapses amid the wreckage of the vans.

There are several seconds of stillness before the patrollers step out of the trees. They advance cautiously, but soon discover that the dragon is well and truly dead. A few of the patrollers yank a hose out of the side of the transport truck and start to spray fire-retardant foam on the burning vehicles and trees.

I train my sights on one of the patrollers who has a red stripe around his helmet. He is kneeling by the dragon’s head and frowning. I could kill him, even more easily than I have just killed the dragon, but something inside me makes me watch and wait. He stands and says something to a woman near him, who hands him a pair of binoculars. He raises them to his eyes and starts to scan the tree line. I keep my scope centred on his forehead.

He sees me and freezes in place.

I could put a diamond-tipped bullet right through the lens of his binoculars, but still I don’t. I whisper, “You don’t have to be my enemy.”

He lowers his binoculars slowly and takes off his helmet. I watch him close his eyes and put his hand over his heart. He stands that way for three seconds, six, ten, gritting his teeth as he waits to die.

Eventually his eyes flutter open, and I see him exhale. The grimace on his face melts away. He turns his eyes in my direction, his eyes narrowed in consternation, then raises his hand to his forehead in salute.

Taking a radio from his belt, he begins to speak into it. He yells towards the rest of the Patrollers in the clearing and they turn towards the transport truck. One of them climbs into the cab and a puff of exhaust signals the starting of the engine. The trailer is damaged, but the cab is mostly unharmed. The Patrollers, including their leader and Connie’s brother-in-law, pile into the trailer through the rear doors. After a minute, four others—they must be the perimeter watchmen who were waiting to ambush me—jog in from the forest. They, too, jump into the trailer, pulling the doors shut behind them. The truck wheels around and chugs down the dirt road towards the highway.

I watch them go for several minutes, wary of some deceit. They may again be trying to trap me. My patience can only hold for so long, though, and then I’m scrambling down out of the tree and sprinting through the woods towards the place where Fritz lies. As I get closer, I follow the sounds of the still-burning vans.

He’s still lying as I saw him, but his head has dropped to the side now, and his eyes are closed. He’s breathing evenly. I drop my mask to the ground, pluck the tranquilizer out of his neck, and lift him in my arms. The rain begins to fall again, lightly. I’m shaking with the release of adrenaline and tears are streaming down my face, more tears than I’ve cried in the past fifteen years combined. I don’t care that my car is trashed; that my thin pants are a lattice of rips, and my legs are torn and bleeding beneath them; that Fritz and I are both going to have to go into hiding, probably for months, maybe for years. He’s alive. He’s alive.

Eventually I recover enough to drag Fritz into deeper cover, and I take out my phone to call in help from another Spotter who can evacuate us covertly. As I relay the details of our position, I wonder what Connie would think if she knew that after lunch I had hopped in my SUV, driven for an hour, covered up my pantsuit with camo gear, come inches from murdering her brother-in-law with a high-tech sniper rifle, and thrown away the secure, comfortable lifestyle of my false identity in order to save the life of a man who was clearly much more than a friend to me, after all.

She’d probably think I was joking. Fine by me.

END

Memoirs of the Model Agent: How I Rescued Mr. Dimbles

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Preface

You probably know me from the ad campaigns. I’ve been the face of the Chancellorate’s Security Forces for two or three years, now. “The Model Agent,” they call me, when they use me as an example in their training modules. “See how Agent Connolly did it?” they say. “Do it like that. Do it her way.” Really they mean their way, and they twist their stories about me accordingly, but that’s fine, and mostly harmless. In the end, agents learn by experience, not in the classroom, just like anyone else.

The one thing I don’t like about being the smiling model on the front of their textbooks is that I tend to get painted as some kind of hero. I was a good agent, but I’m not a hero. Not that kind of hero, anyways. Not their kind of hero. My career wasn’t nearly as glamorous as they like to paint it.

That’s why I’ve decided to share a few of the stories that haven’t been told about me before. I’m not calling anyone a liar; I’m not here to “set the records straight.” I just want to be represented on my own terms. I want to balance the scales a little, so you can see the bad with the good.

Why don’t I start near the beginning?

***

Chapter 1: How I Rescued Mr. Dimbles

It’s a tough job being an agent of the Chancellorate’s Security Forces. Aside from the numerous international threats that the CSF has to deal with, there’s plenty of domestic discontent, as well. The chancellors’ political decisions are rarely popular. We agents used to joke that the chancellors need protection from themselves as much as they do from anyone else. And beyond placing themselves in the line of fire, agents also experience the stress and aggravation of dealing with the whims, quirks, and fancies of the various chancellors, each of whom, it seems, can be uniquely exasperating.

I have my fair share of scars, both physical and psychiatric. My right leg is marked with a long burn I received blocking laser fire directed at the Northern Sub-Chancellor. My lungs are lined with scar tissue from the time I inhaled poison gas while checking the Secondary Executive Pre-Chancellor’s hotel room for traps. I have nightmares every Wednesday about the night I accidentally saw the Regal Lieutenant Chancellor in the shower. But all these wounds and difficulties have been worth it, because for all their imperfections I know that the chancellors’ regime has been far preferable to the chaos and darkness that came before.

Still, there were plenty of times where I wondered if the people I was protecting were really worth the sacrifices I made for them. In the early days I thought frequently about taking my mother’s advice to quit my job as an agent and go back to selling grapes and melons at our family’s roadside fruit stand. It took me a long time to work my way up the ladder to become the head of the Over-Chancellor’s personal bodyguards, which was where I first began to feel like I was actually making a direct difference to the security of our planet. Perseverance usually pays off.

The closest I ever came to quitting was one day back when I was a member of the entourage for the Junior Deputy Vice-Chancellor. He and his wife were nice enough people, as chancellors go. The two of them exuded a down-to-earth, homey kind of vibe that reminded me of being back on the farm. They had a little girl, a rascally two-year-old tyrant with fat cheeks and green eyes. We always referred to them as Baby, Mommy, and Daddy. To tell the truth, I’ve actually forgotten what their real names were.

Mommy and Daddy fawned over that child as if she represented every good thing that had ever taken place in the world. She had multiple closets full of toys, but there was one stuffed animal that she loved more than all the rest, a googly-eyed white bear called Mr. Dimbles. (Don’t ask me why I remember the toy’s name and not the people’s. Memories work in funny ways sometimes.)

We were out on a walk one morning, doing the rounds through downtown so Daddy and Mommy could show off Baby and get some good press release photos with John Smith and Jane Doe. There were six of us on duty, a small-sized retinue, by most chancellors’ standards. Baby was playing with Mr. Dimbles and soaking up all the cooing and “Aren’t you preciouses” that any toddler out in public is bound to attract.

It was all going pretty routinely, until a glassy-eyed man with a neck beard smiled at Baby kind of funny, leaned in close, snatched Mr. Dimbles away, and took off down the sidewalk. Baby started to wail like a police siren, and our well-oiled reflexes kicked in. I and two others, the pre-designated “Away Team,” whipped our blasters out of their holsters and tore off in pursuit, while the “Home Team” bustled Daddy, Mommy, and Baby towards the nearest shop to take cover in case of a secondary attack.

“Get Mr. Dimbles back!” screamed Mommy. “Don’t let him get away!”

The thief had Mr. Dimbles tucked under his arm like an old-fashioned football and was shoving his way through the crowd, hollering at everyone to get out of his way. I thought one of the more reckless bystanders might trip him up or tackle him as he went by, but then he pulled a blaster out from under his coat, turned it over his shoulder, and started firing at us. The agent beside me took a laser to the knee and went down.

The other two of us were just about to return the favour when Mommy’s voice pierced the air behind us. “Wait! Don’t shoot!” she shrieked. “You’ll hit Mr. Dimbles!

That made us hesitate just long enough for the guy to duck around a corner into an alleyway. We rumbled after him. When we hit the corner we were met by a hail of lasers and had to scramble back for cover. A flurry of hand signals and eye motions passed between us. We waited for a pause in the barrage and then I played the decoy, rolling across the mouth of the alley to the other side to draw the guy’s attention while my partner leaned out and returned fire, being careful not to hit the toy.

A laser grazed the thief’s shoulder. He howled and dropped his blaster, but held on to Mr. Dimbles. Then he set off running again. He had a bigger head start now, and seemed to know the maze of alleyways pretty well, but we managed to keep him in sight. He led us downhill until we broke out of the cover of the buildings and found ourselves standing at the top of the sea wall, with a 50-foot drop to the raging ocean below.

The thief was standing at the edge, huffing and puffing, holding Mr. Dimbles out through the fence, over the water, with his unwounded arm. “Stay back!” he warned us. “Any closer and the toy gets it!”

My partner whispered to me, “It’s just a toy…”

At a later point in my career, I probably would have shrugged it off, taken the shot, and let the toy fall where it may, but I was young and idealistic and, perhaps most importantly, proud. Not wanting to look foolish for having chased the guy halfway across the city already, I replied, “Baby absolutely adores that thing, and Daddy and Mommy think Baby is the centre of the universe. If we save that toy, I guarantee you it’ll be worth our while.”

My partner shrugged and allowed me to take the lead.

To the thief, I said, “Okay, you’ve got us. What happens next?”

“I have demands,” said the thief.

“What kind of demands?”

“My cousin is a political prisoner of the Chancellorate. I want his immediate release!”

“That’s very ambitious of you,” I said, “but my boss is only the Junior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, you know. He doesn’t really have that kind of authority. Maybe you should have kidnapped the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s child’s favourite toy.”

“Oh,” he said. “But I’ve already gone to the trouble of kidnapping this one. It would be a waste if I didn’t try to get something out of it, don’t you think?”

“I suppose so,” I said.

“Can you give me a minute to come up with something else?”

He still had Mr. Dimbles dangling over the edge, so I decided to play along. “Sure. Take all the thinking time you need.”

A minute or so passed, during which he wrinkled his forehead and scratched his chin but appeared to be making little progress.

“Any new ideas?” I prompted him.

“Not yet,” he said. “The original plan took a lot of thinking, you know, and now I’m under all this pressure, and my shoulder really hurts… It would be easier if I had some ice cream. I always think better when I have ice cream.”

At this point, things were going bizarrely enough that I hardly even missed a beat. “We can get you some of that,” I said.

“Really?”

“Absolutely. Just sit tight.” I used my comm. unit to relay the request, and surreptitiously added a few details of my own to the order. About five minutes later a member of the Home Team showed up with a heaping bowl of vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate syrup. I’m still not sure how they got everything together so fast. Maybe they should be writing this book.

The thief’s eyes lit up. “Chocolate syrup?” he said. “My favourite!”

I took the bowl of ice cream and offered it to him. “Eat up,” I said. “Get those brain juices flowing. I’m sure you’ll come up with some new demands to give us in no time.”

“Thank you,” he said. Then he hesitated. “Hey, wait a second. I can’t hold the toy and eat ice cream at the same time. You’re trying to trick me! It won’t work; I’m not going to put the toy down. You’re going to have to feed me the ice cream yourself.”

It didn’t really make much of a difference, but I sighed as if he’d seen through my plan, picked up the spoon, and scooped a mouthful of ice cream for him. He opened his mouth, I stuck the spoon in, and slurped it up greedily.

Within a couple of seconds his eyes started to roll back a little. I quickly stepped forward, reached through the fence, and plucked the toy out of his hand before the sedative could take full effect. He moaned and I guided him to the ground as he crumpled into unconsciousness.

While the other agents stayed to watch the thief until a squad car could arrive to haul him off, I brought Mr. Dimbles back to the scene of the crime. I found the third Away Team member sitting on the sidewalk with a bandage around his wounded knee. Daddy was standing at the door, waiting for me. I handed Mr. Dimbles to him.

“Thank you so much for excellent work, agent,” he said. “I’ll see that it does not go unrewarded.” He took the toy and stuffed it into his briefcase.

“Sir,” I said, “don’t you think Baby will want that back?”

“Oh, no, it’s fine,” he assured me. “We’ve got about a dozen of them. My wife always keeps an extra one on hand.”

I leaned around the corner and saw Mommy watching proudly as Baby sat in her stroller, playing happily with an exact copy of the toy that I had just risked my life to rescue. “But,” I sputtered, “we just…”

“Yes, well, we couldn’t have our child think we didn’t even care about her favourite companion being kidnapped, could we?” he explained. “As soon as you were out of sight we snuck another one to Agent Gudbranson and had him bring it in from the street, pretending he’d rescued it. Our darling welcomed it home like it was a wounded soldier returning from war. Isn’t she a glowing little marvel?”

I smiled woodenly and immediately began a mental draft of the wording I would use in my letter requesting a transfer to the protective detail for the Third Assistant Under-Chancellor-in-Waiting. At that point I was more than willing to take the pay cut.

END

Year of Stories Week 5

Welcome to week 5 of the Year of Stories!

Free this week is Memoirs of the Model Agent: How I Rescued Mr. Dimbles. This 2,100-word science fiction action comedy is now available to read for free or to buy in the Store. Here’s the synopsis:

You probably know me from the ad campaigns. I’ve been the face of the Chancellorate’s Security Forces for two or three years, now. “The Model Agent,” they call me. I’ve decided to share a few of the stories that haven’t been told about me before. I’m not calling anyone a liar; I’m not here to “set the records straight.” I just want to be represented on my own terms. I want to balance the scales a little, so you can see the bad with the good. Why don’t I start near the beginning?

The highlighted Store release for this week is Darla, Dragon-Hunter. It’s a 5,700-word sci-fi action story. Read it now for only $0.99! Here’s a teaser:

My “friends” think I’m a paralegal. I amuse myself sometimes by wondering what they would say if they found out that a couple of times a month I exchange my pantsuit for camo gear and a high-tech sniper rifle and hunt dragons. They’d probably think I was joking. Fine by me.

To read previously released stories, check out the Year of Stories page.

Year Of Stories Week 3

Welcome to week 3 of the Year of Stories!

This week’s free release is Burns Mars the Sun-Grasper’s Hands. This 1,700-word slipstream story is now available to read for free or to buy in the Store. Here’s the synopsis:

The gym where Mia works has plenty of regulars, but none as intriguing as “Louisa,” a mysterious elderly Cajun woman with physical strength that belies her age and appearance. When Louisa rushes out of the gym one day, accidentally leaving a leather glove behind, Mia is presented with an opportunity to delve into Louisa’s secrets.

The highlighted Store release for this week is A Kingdom of White, a 4,900-word epic fantasy short story. Read it now for only $0.99! Here’s a teaser:

Filip has always worn the purple gem set between his eyes with pride: it marks him as royalty, next in line to the throne. But when the brutish Carrow, whose face shimmers with the gems that symbolize every man he has killed, executes Filip’s father right in front of him, Filip is forced to decide what he values more: his royal birthright, or his life.

To read previously released stories, check out the Year of Stories page.

Living and Dying Sample Story: “Mouths to Feed”

For those of you who haven’t downloaded and read Living and Dying yet, either from the TS Store or the Kindle Store, I thought I’d post one of the stories from the collection to give you a sense of what it’s like.

This story, Mouths to Feed, was originally written on TypeTrigger, based on the prompt phrase “I first knew.” After writing it on TypeTrigger, I spent a fair amount of time polishing and rewriting it before including it in Living and Dying. The end result was what you can read below.

 

Mouths to Feed

I first knew how much trouble we were in when the engine sputtered for the fourth time.

The first couple of sputters didn’t seem like a big deal. Let’s be realistic: you’re bound to get the occasional booster hiccup when you’re fourteen years into a twenty-year journey to the center of the solar system and back. But I’m a smart kid, and I know that while two can be coincidence, three is a pattern, which means four is something worth paying attention to.

So I called up the engineer. “Dad,” I said, “I think we might have a problem.” And he put down his call-it-breakfast-but-we’re-pointed-straight-at-the-sun-so-really-it’s-pretty-much-always-lunch-time, and he popped his head up into the cockpit with a relaxed, what-is-it-this-time-bud grin, and by then I’d counted eight-and-a-half sputters, and a look at the diagnostics screen made his smile disappear pretty quickly.

He entered a handful of bypass codes to shut the boosters off, which made the trip calculator go absolutely crazy with warnings and red numbers, and then, as he scrolled through the emergency maintenance manual, he started humming.

I’d never heard him hum before. The song was slow, and soft, and haunting. It made me feel like I was looking out a porthole into space, but couldn’t see any stars.

It creeped me out, so I went and found the captain, and she told me the last time she’d heard my dad humming was when he found out she was pregnant with me, which was almost ten years ago, and she bet she knew what song he was humming, too.

“Mom,” I said, “for every hour we have the boosters shut down, we’re adding a month to our trip time.”

“I know, bud,” she said.

“And with three people drawing from the supplies, we can’t afford to add on any more than about two years, or we’ll run out of rations before we arrive.”

“I know, bud,” she said.

“That means we have 24 hours to fix—”

I know,” she said. And then she climbed up into the cockpit with my dad and locked the hatch behind her.

We’d all memorized those numbers a long time ago, of course. They were one of the first things I learned as a kid, when I started to ask questions about what we were doing here, my mom, my dad, and I, tearing through space in a tin can made for two.

If I’d never shown up, there would have been a lot more margin for error with a problem like this one. The rations and the recycling system had been designed for two mouths, not three. There wasn’t supposed to have been a romance. There wasn’t supposed to have been a pregnancy. There wasn’t supposed to have been a Me.

But a Me there was. My parents had learned to cope. They’d recalculated the rations. They’d made the sacrifices they needed to make. And now we had less than two days to save ourselves from seven years of hopelessness and one year of death by dehydration.

 

That all happened about nine months ago. I don’t remember much about the frantic whirlwind that those two days became, but I do remember two failed reboosts, three emotional breakdowns, a lot of yelling, and being locked out of the sleeping quarters “overnight” at the end of it all.

Ultimately, we found a way to keep the engine burning, but our workaround means that someone has to constantly be watching to manually make the small, vital adjustments that are keeping our hopes, our faintest of hopes, alive.

I take a regular shift. I didn’t, at first, but eventually I had to, out of sheer necessity, because of my parents’ fatigue, and now I think they’ve grown to trust me.

And they should. I do a good job, even though it’s sometimes hard to concentrate when there’s a newborn around.

My dad hums all the time, now.