Tag Archives: science fiction

Year of Stories – Week 21

Check out this week’s free short story, We Dragons.

Mel Yung is a hero of humanity, responsible for the discovery and exploration of three human-habitable planets. When a young, enthusiastic explorer gets a chance to go with Yung to explore planet Glyna, he sees it as the opportunity of a lifetime. But he has no idea what they’re really about to discover…

This story has previously been published by Ray Gun Revival.

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We Dragons

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Calvin inhaled deeply through his nose and held the air inside his lungs for a few seconds before slowly releasing it, trying to force his heartbeat to slow to a normal rhythm. Be calm, he instructed himself. Cool. Collected. Sure, you’re about to step onto the surface of a planet that has never before been visited by humanity, but hey, you’re an expert. You’ve got a wall full of diplomas that say so hanging in your office. Of course, that office is sixty light years away right now…

Be calm.

“Everything okay, Calvin?”

“Everything’s fine, sir. Just, uh, giving my equipment a final check.” Calvin tightened the straps of his backpack, adjusted the attached oxygen tank, and lifted the mouthpiece to cover his lips and nose. He sucked in a quick breath. “Good to go, sir.”

Mel Yung smiled, and a network of wrinkles spread out from behind his pale brown eyes, drawing a roadmap of experiences across his leathery face. Yung only really looked his age when he was smiling. Calvin wished he wouldn’t do it quite so often.

“We aren’t in the office today, kid,” said Yung. “Out here in the field, you can call me Mel.”

“Okay. Mel.”

“Is this your first field deployment, Calvin?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, yes, Mel. To tell you the truth, I’ve been dreaming of this day since I was a kid, watching you do it on TV.”

Mel smiled again, and Calvin cringed inwardly. “Hey, relax,” said the older man. “It’s just a job.”

“I don’t think that’s how the millions of settlers on the three habitable planets you’ve identified feel about it.”

“Three? Oh, you’re including that oversized moon in the Delna system, aren’t you? I don’t really deserve top billing for that one. Herman Nerole did most of the work. I was just the one who made it back alive.”

“Still,” said Calvin, not willing to let his idol off the hook so easily, “you’re living history!”

“The funny thing about history,” said Mel, hoisting his own oxygen tank backpack, “is that it’s all old news.” He flashed another wry smile and palmed a large, flat button beside the airlock. The hatch swung open, revealing a mountainous, rust-colored landscape that fell away from the narrow plateau they had landed on by leaps and bounds, descending to a series of rocky plains that extended for miles until they curved away into a fading horizon. Above it all was a dimly monotonous grey sky.

“Now, before we head out there,” Yung continued, “a couple of reminders. Don’t waste your oxygen until it starts getting tougher to catch your breath. The oxygen from the geyser up here should provide us with plenty of breathable air until we’re about halfway down the mountain. After that, we go to our tanks. The atmosphere on Glyna isn’t poisonous, so you can drop your mask whenever you need to talk, but try not to inhale too much of the local air all at once.”

Calvin nodded. He’d read the briefings and gone over all of the data from the probes. In fact, he was the one who had sent out the probe that found the oxygen geysers on planet Glyna in the first place, and it was that discovery that had earned him a place on this exploration alongside his childhood hero.

“This is your baby,” said Mel. “Why don’t you go first?”

Show him you deserve this, Calvin encouraged himself. Be calm. Cool. Collected. He wiped his sweaty palms on the rubbery fabric of his thermasuit, set his teeth, stepped out onto the powdered, burgundy dust of planet Glyna, and sucked in a lungful of alien air.

Yung followed him out and closed the hatch of their shuttle behind him. Written on the hatch in bold, friendly letters was the shuttle’s name, Peace III, a reminder that wherever they went, the Explorer Corps “came in peace”.

“Well,” said Mel, “let’s go scout an alien landscape!”

#

Calvin let Yung lead the way as they began their descent of what they’d come to call New Faithful. The mountainous oxygen geyser was the key feature that had brought them to Glyna: it was the clue that had revealed the immense stores of oxygen beneath the planet’s surface that were gradually escaping all over the planet, slowly transforming the atmosphere into a human-breathable environment. New Faithful was the largest, and probably the oldest, of these geysers, and probes had identified the accelerated growth of certain species of local organisms and plant life around its basin, suggesting that parts of Glyna’s ecosystem were already prepared to respond favorably to the planet’s evolution. At the current rate of release, Calvin and his research team had estimated, it would be a thousand years before enough oxygen would be released to make Glyna broadly habitable by humans, assuming the other elements of the ecosystem evolved appropriately.

Humanity didn’t have the luxury of quite so much patience, however, so Calvin had been trying to gather support for a proposal to artificially widen some of the largest oxygen geysers, drastically speeding Glyna’s transformation. Part of what he was here to discover was whether there were any sentient locals who would be negatively affected by Glyna’s oxygenation. Humanity might be desperate for living space, but thanks to the work of Mel Yung and others like him, it wasn’t xenocidally desperate. Not anymore.

Glyna’s gravity was about half that of Earth’s, and Calvin found himself enjoying the freedom of movement as he leapt and bounced down the mountainside. For the first hour, he and Mel kept up a light banter, pointing out interesting formations in the rocks or stopping to cut samples of the various oxygen-friendly brown grasses they came across. The further they went, however, the thinner the air seemed, the sparser the vegetation grew, and the less breath they had to spare for conversation.

Eventually they paused, panting, under an outcropping, and Mel signaled to put the oxygen masks on. Fresh, cool, breathable air flooded into Calvin’s lungs, and he gave a thumbs-up. After swallowing a bit of water, they continued on, sucking on their mouthpieces and surveying the red landscape around them in silent wonder.

#

Soon the explorers arrived at the foot of the mountain. Calvin stopped to take a scraping of a delicate brownish mold growing on the underside of a boulder. At this distance from the geyser, oxygen levels were low enough that only the most basic oxygen-friendly molds and fungi could grow.

Within a few miles of the base of New Faithful, plant life almost entirely ceased to exist, replaced by dry rocks and dust. The explorers spent half an hour traversing the dead terrain before Calvin spotted more vegetation, in the form of scraggly bits of bluish grass and moss growing in cracks and crevices. “Non-oxygen-dependent species,” Calvin explained. “The dead zone we’ve just passed through suggests that too much atmospheric oxygen may be poisonous to these plants. That’s one strike against my proposal.”

“Only if we find sentient species that are the same way,” Mel pointed out, “and we haven’t seen any sign of that.”

“Not yet,” Calvin added.

#

As they continued on, Calvin watched as the moss and grass gave way to scrub brush and small trees, all tinged with the same shades of blue amid the browns and reds of the soil. He had stopped to pull a branch from a twisted, shoulder-high tree with a wrist-width trunk and thin, veiny blue leaves when Mel said, “Look!”

Standing several yards away were a dozen knee-height, hairless, two-legged creatures with wide, terrified eyes, bulbous noses, tiny mouths, and six-fingered, two-thumbed hands. They were wearing clothing made out of some type of fabric that was similarly colored to their pale, reddish-brown skin. Some had brown, crusty paint smeared on their broad faces. One of the aliens, a relatively tall one with a swirling pattern painted on its chin, was holding a thin wooden staff with a pointed tip. The same swirling pattern was painted onto the garment that covered its chest.

Most of the aliens were holding rocks that they had picked up from the ground. Several had their arms cocked, apparently ready to throw at the first sign of danger.

“Try to appear non-threatening,” Mel whispered.

The two men knelt, making themselves small.

The creatures came a little closer, and a few began to speak back and forth. Their speech was a high chittering noise, a cross between the sounds made by a squirrel and a chimpanzee.

The loudest conversation seemed to be between the alien with the spear and a short, squat one with a diamond shape on its forehead and a loud, gruff voice. The squat alien was gesturing excitedly with its hands, speaking very quickly and beating its thin torso with a rock.

Finally the tall alien–Calvin thought of it as the chief–stomped its foot on the ground and the rest of the creatures, including the loud, squat one, all fell silent.

The chief turned to the explorers, raised its arms towards them, and launched into a speech that lasted for several minutes. Yung seemed bemused by the situation, but Calvin couldn’t help sneaking glances at the rocks held in the rest of the tribe’s hands. He had no interest in finding out how strong their arms were…

At length, the chief concluded its speech and stood expectantly, awaiting a response.

“These little guys seem pretty primitive,” Mel said. “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to learn anything from them through direct communication.”

“So what do we do?”

“How about a little experiment? You think the oxygen levels of the planet have been steadily increasing over hundreds of thousands of years, right?”

Calvin nodded.

“So what if these guys, and whatever animals they make those clothes out of, have evolved to function on whatever trace amounts of oxygen their lungs can filter out of the air?”

“Why wouldn’t they live closer to the geyser, then?”

“Superstition, maybe. Mountains are highly symbolic to the tribal mindset. Or there might be another, smaller geyser nearby.”

“They might also breathe something else entirely,” Calvin said, “like nitrogen, maybe, or CO2. Oxygen could even be harmful to them.”

The aliens were beginning to whisper to each other as they watched the humans talk. Calvin saw a few of them mime the way the humans removed their oxygen masks whenever they spoke.

“I’ve been to a lot of planets,” said Yung. “I haven’t yet come across anything that breathes nitrogen.”

“Maybe not, but…”

“Listen, kid. One thing I’ve learned is that in the field, you’ve got to rely on your instincts. I’ve got a hunch.” Yung took a deep breath from his mouthpiece, then gently, carefully held it out in front of him, offering it to the chief.

The chief took a few cautious steps towards them, and the squat alien chittered at it ferociously. Turning to the squat one, the chief barked a few short, angry words, then strode determinedly up to Mel, lifted its face to the mouthpiece, and applied its tiny mouth to the valve. Mel thumbed the manual discharge.

The chief’s eyes widened, and its swollen nose wrinkled.

“I think he likes it!” said Mel.

Then the chief choked, retched, and collapsed.

The aliens burst into a cacophony of chittering and the squat one leapt towards the humans, its gruff voice raised above all the others.

“Is it dead?” asked Calvin.

Yung shrugged. “So much for that hunch.”

“Sir, did we just murder an alien? That’s against all kinds of regulations!”

“Relax,” said Yung.

The aliens were getting louder, and coming closer.

Calvin was livid. “We could lose our jobs for this!”

Yung was staring intently at the approaching aliens. “Hey, it’s just a job.”

Suddenly Yung pulled his mask from his face, thumb on the manual discharge, and sprayed a long burst of oxygen towards the nearest creatures. They recoiled in panic, and a few dropped to their hands and knees, retching.

A stone whizzed past Yung’s ear. The explorers leapt to their feet, and Yung shouted, “Run!”

The humans bounded away across the plain, setting their sights on the distant peak of New Faithful. The aliens raced after them. Despite their short legs, the aliens were better adapted to Glyna’s gravity, and they easily outpaced the explorers. As they ran, they hurled rocks, bruising the humans’ legs and backs and pinging shots off the oxygen tanks. Some of the braver aliens grabbed at their feet or hammered at their knees.

Between breaths, Yung sprayed oxygen in the faces of any aliens that got close enough. The aliens retched and gagged, and a few that swallowed direct bursts collapsed and didn’t get up again. Calvin kept his mask on his face, but fought back with his feet and hands, kicking the aliens away and dodging their missiles, doing his best not to hurt them too badly.

After several minutes of running, the aliens fell back and chittered angrily after them. Looking over his shoulder, Calvin saw a few of them kneeling beside one of their fallen friends who had taken a blast of oxygen from Yung’s tank.

The humans slowed their escape, but continued to jog towards their ship at the fastest speed they could maintain.

“Can’t stop,” said Yung between gasps at his mouthpiece. “They’ll follow,” gasp, “they always follow.”

“How do you know that?”

“Experience.”

Calvin tried to put himself in the aliens’ place. “Sir,” he said, “they must think we’re dragons.”

Yung looked at him quizzically, and kept on running.

But Calvin couldn’t get the thought out of his mind. To these aliens, the oxygen geysers probably symbolize supernatural dangers. To us, hell is a place of fire, like a volcano. What if their version of hell is a lake of poison instead of brimstone? We came to them from the poison mountain, breathing poison. That would make us dragons, or worse… Demons.

“The geysers are accelerating, Mel.” Gasp. “These aliens are going to get wiped out, and soon.” Gasp. “We can save them!”

“Forget them,” retorted Yung. “How about saving us?”

Calvin ran on, newly motivated. We can’t seal the oxygen geysers permanently, but maybe we can buy them time to build their civilization and technology to the point where they can save themselves.

Of course, before they could do that, they had to make it back to the Peace III and off the planet.

#

The explorers’ pace had slowed almost to a walk by the time they finally reached the feet of New Faithful. Even in the lower gravity, they couldn’t run forever.

Calvin collapsed in fatigue. Yung’s chest was heaving, and the redness in his face highlighted his wrinkles. In this state, he did indeed look dragon-like. “Can’t afford to stop,” he rasped, but he, too, allowed himself to sit and rest on a moss-covered rock.

A minute passed while they sat, gulping oxygen through their mouthpieces and staring at the ground, heads between their legs.

There was an eruption of chittering.

Calvin whipped around to look behind him. Less than half a mile away, the ground was teeming with what looked like hundreds of the beige aliens, approaching fast. Where did they come from? Calvin thought. Why didn’t we see them coming?

“Camouflaged!” growled Yung. “Run! Run!”

Calvin scrambled back to his feet and took off up the mountainside. The veteran explorer was right: even now, Calvin could only see the aliens because of their movement. Their skin and their clothing blended in to the colors of the landscape. They must have been following at a distance, waiting for their quarry to slow so they could catch them by surprise.

The humans dove uphill, putting every ounce of remaining energy into their legs. Behind them, their pursuers were gaining, gaining. The explorers’ only hope, Calvin realized, was to climb high enough that the atmosphere became too poisonous for the aliens. Even now, it must be having an effect on them… Was it enough?

A stone thunked into the ground ahead of Yung, followed closely by another. One caught Calvin on the hand, and he cried out in pain from behind his oxygen mask.

“Gotta fight it out!” roared Yung.

Calvin spun around just in time as the first wave of attackers reached them. Leading the pack was the squat alien with the diamond on its forehead. It was brandishing the chief’s painted wooden spear in its many-fingered hand. With a blood-curdling screech, it leapt towards Calvin and thrust the spear out in front of it.

Desperately, Calvin pulled the mask from his face and fired off a long burst of oxygen from his tank. The stream of oxygen caught the creature in its open, snarling mouth, and it dropped, gagging and wheezing, to the ground. A dozen more took its place, flinging rocks and jabbing with spears.

Five or six of the aliens gripped Calvin by the knees and held their breath as Calvin doused them with oxygen. Closing their eyes and puffing out their cheeks, they struggled to topple him. Two others dove at his chest, knocking him to the ground. Some of the aliens turned from their assault on Yung and piled on top of Calvin, beating and pounding and piercing.

Calvin fought for his life, lashing out with all his limbs, adrenaline surging, blood flowing from the many places he had been stabbed. “Let me go,” he howled, “or you’ll all be dead in 500 years!” Only as he heard the words pass through his lips did he realize that they sounded like a threat.

Suddenly Yung emerged from a press of bodies, spraying a broad swath of oxygen over Calvin and driving the attackers back for a few seconds. Yung grabbed Calvin under his arms and hauled him to his feet. Together, they ran again.

“Almost,” gasp, “there,” said Yung. His mask was dangling from his face now. The air was oxygenated enough to breathe.

Calvin limped and stumbled. The pain in his legs was too much. He could feel blood oozing out into his suit from dozens of different wounds. He collapsed.

Mel stood over Calvin, taking stock of the younger man’s injuries. “I can’t carry you, kid,” he said. He looked up, and started to back away.

“Mel, please!” Calvin choked. He saw the aliens a few hundred meters down the hill, panting and gasping in the poisonous air as they tried to come up with some way to reach the humans and finish them off.

“You’re a hero, son,” said Mel. “Fifty years from now they’re gonna name this rock’s first human city after you, I promise.” Then he turned and jogged towards the ship.

“Mel, no!” Calvin cried. He tried to stand, fought with every scrap of strength he had left, but the damage was too great. He could only lie on his face and wait to bleed out, as the man he had once called his idol abandoned him and condemned an entire fledgling civilization to death.

END

Adaptations

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Tenney pressed in on a wide, flat button set into a stone outcropping and a ten-foot-square section of the stony ground shuddered into movement. Gears crunched and spun and a cavernous entrance opened, revealing a tunnel that faded downwards into the earth.

Holding his arm in front of his face to block out the blowing sand, Tenney scrambled back into the driver’s seat of the crawler. He slammed the door shut, dulling the howl of the desert wind, and shook the dust out of his beard. “No wonder they built everything underground… It’s terrifying out there!”

“And double the radiation levels of anything we’re used to,” added quiet, brooding, clean-shaven Raltar from the back seat.

Tenney shuddered, fidgeted in his pocket for a small plastic tube, popped the cap off, and turned it upside-down over his open mouth. A fat, wriggling worm fell out and he swallowed it smoothly.

“Careful how many of those things you take in at once,” said Boss Osman, who was checking over some paperwork in the passenger’s seat. “We don’t wanna run out on the way back.”

“Not much point making it back if we’re getting bombarded with deadly radiation the whole way,” said Tenney, “so it’s a few more of these things or a permanent home in a HazMat suit. Besides, we’ve got dozens of boxes full of grubs stowed in the back. We can always keep a few extra.”

“Those aren’t for us,” said Osman. “Those are for the client.”

“I know,” said Tenney, “but—”

“But nothing. We don’t consume our cash crops. It’s bad business. Get us inside. I can feel my skin burning darker every second. If the radiation doesn’t kill me, the sun might, instead…”

“Yeah, Boss,” said Tenney. He put the crawler into gear and drove it forward, down the ramp into the gaping maw of the cave. As the entrance whirred closed behind them, shutting out the sand, the wind, and the sun, artificial lights flickered on, illuminating their path.

“Anyways, kid,” continued Boss Osman, “you don’t want to suck down one of our mod-worms. We haven’t tested this batch enough yet.”

“Ah, what does it matter?” said Tenney. “They all come out the exact same, even at the genetic level. Isn’t that the whole point of the process? We couldn’t mass-produce ’em otherwise.”

Boss Osman shook his head. “If they all came out the exact same, then how did the worms start absorbing radiation from hosts’ cells in the first place? They had to change to get this way, and it only took them a few years after the wars to do it. Put ’em in a lab environment like we have and who knows what’s been happening to their innards from generation to generation… Not like we test ’em each individually or anything. No, I wouldn’t eat one if you paid me. Give me the natural ones from back home, I say.”

Raltar chimed in from the back seat. “But you’ve got no problem selling mod-worms to someone else?”

Boss Osman shrugged. “The way I see it, we’re doing them a service. Way too dry out here for the worms to breed on their own. These poor souls are so desperate they’ll take any kind of grub they can get.” Osman chewed on his beard for a minute while Tenney drove, glancing down occasionally at the paperwork in his lap. He spied a side tunnel up ahead and pointed it out. “That way, Tenney, then take the first left afterwards.”

“Yeah, boss,” said Tenney. The whispering hum of the crawler’s electric engine echoed faintly along the cave walls.

Raltar was quiet as he massaged his bare cheeks and chin. He fidgeted with the radiation monitor hanging around his neck. “I still don’t get why we couldn’t just can some natural worms and bring ’em out here, like other traders do. There’s plenty of good money to be made in that.”

“Oh, sure, plenty of money,” said Boss Osman. “And you’ve gotta spend weeks and weeks crawling around among the tree roots to gather the grubs, and then fill out something like thirty-five separate forms to get the trader’s permits, and pay tax on your earnings…”

“Eugh, taxes,” said Tenney. “Don’t get me started on taxes. You know what taxes are? They’re oppression, man. They’re what—”

“Tenney,” said Boss Osman, “shut up.”

Tenney swallowed his diatribe. “Yeah, Boss.”

They soon came across a branch in the tunnel. To the left was a low cavern lit by long strings of fluorescent lights; to the right was a steeper slope heading down towards the main network of tunnels that made up the underground city of Hwanij, the largest remaining population centre this side of the ScrapTop Mountains.

Tenney turned the crawler into the cavern and parked along the wall.

Boss Osman checked his watch. “They should be here in a few minutes. Remember, leave the talking to me. Your job is to unload the crates and inspect the cactus mush. Just keep smiles on your faces and make sure they can see that you’re packing heat.”

Tenney nodded and reached into his pocket for another worm tube.

“Put that away,” growled Osman.

“C’mon, Boss!” said Tenney. “Have you checked your monitor down here? The rad levels are off the charts!”

Before he had time to do any further complaining, Tenney was interrupted by the hum of another engine approaching. A long, sleek crawler turned into the cavern and pulled up alongside them. Four people piled out, dressed in colourful vests and flowing pants.

“Who’s Osman?” grunted one of them, a short woman with well-muscled arms and a shaved head.

“That’s me,” said Osman.

“Call me Mara,” said the woman. They shook hands. “You’ve got the grubs?”

“In the back,” said Osman. “Two thousand per box, and we’ve got sixty boxes.”

“So that’s…” Mara calculated quickly in her head. “A hundred and twenty thousand? I’ll give you four tubs of cactus juice.”

“Four?” protested Boss Osman. “Is that a joke? I could get twelve if I took this load to someone else.”

“No, you couldn’t,” said Mara.

“Last trip out here the Durban brothers gave me a tub per ten thousand, no questions asked.”

“Maybe,” said Mara, “but two weeks ago I shoved the Durbans into a mixing vat. I didn’t need that kind of price inflation, you know?” She smiled crookedly.

“Er,” said Boss Osman. “I see. Still, I need at least eight to make this trip worth my while. Any less than that and there’s no point in me coming back again. That’ll drive your prices up, too.”

“Six, and I’m not budging from there.”

Osman looked back at Raltar and Tenney. Raltar shrugged. Tenney, following the instructions he had received, smiled and pulled his jacket back to show off his holstered gun. Osman subtly gestured to him to back down.

“Take it or leave it,” said Mara.

“Fine,” said Boss Osman. “Six tubs, but no guarantees we’ll be back again after this. I gotta make a profit somehow… And before my guys unload anything, I want to make sure sure your stuff is legit. If you’ve watered it down at all, deal’s off. The grubs love the stuff, but they only drink it in high concentrations.”

Mara snapped her fingers and two of her men hauled a massive blue tub out of the back of their crawler. They set it down in front of Boss Osman. Raltar and Tenney came forward and covered their mouths with simple breathing masks. They pried open the lid of the tub and looked inside. It was filled with viscous green sludge. The fumes brought tears into their eyes.

Raltar took a small beaker out of a case and scooped up a bit of the cactus juice. He dropped a pinch of some chemical into it and waited a few seconds. Nothing happened. He gave Boss Osman the thumbs up, and he and Tenney sealed the lid back onto the tub.

“Okay, we’re good,” said Boss Osman. “You can stack the tubs here for now. Where do you want the worms?”

“Not so fast,” snapped Mara. “You tested my wares, and I’m going to test yours.”

Boss Osman held his hands up innocently. “What’s to test?”

“Yeah,” said Tenney. “A grub’s a grub, right? They all come out the same.” Osman glared at him to shut him up.

“Maybe,” said Mara, “maybe not. These are mod-worms, and I always test the mod-worms.”

Osman held his hands out appeasingly. “That really isn’t necess—”

“Save it. Cheefo, bring her out.” One of Mara’s men reached into their crawler and hauled out a woman with a bruised face and tied wrists. She looked pleadingly from Mara to Osman and Tenney, and her eyes opened wide when she saw Raltar. “Okay, Gem,” said Mara, “time to make yourself useful. Just gulp down a couple of mod-worms and see what happens. If you come through okay, who knows, maybe I’ll decide you really aren’t a government rat, after all.”

Gem tried to squirm free, but Mara’s man forced her to her knees.

“Grab me a sample,” Mara ordered.

Boss Osman nodded to Tenney, who stepped around to the back of the crawler and pried open a box of worms. He fished out a tube with a fat, juicy lab worm in it. “Looks like this one’s been nice and hungry,” he said. “All the food in the bottom of the tube is gone.”

“These guys had a long trip,” said Osman.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Mara. She took the tube from Tenney, popped the cap off, and approached Gem. The henchman forced Gem’s mouth open, and Mara took out the worm, which writhed and wriggled madly. “Active little nematode, isn’t it?” She lowered it towards Gem’s mouth.

“No!” shouted Raltar, drawing his gun from his holster. His shout startled Mara, and she dropped the worm into Gem’s mouth. It immediately squirmed straight down her throat.

“Let her go,” demanded Raltar, training his gun on Mara’s forehead. Mara’s men reached for their weapons, but Raltar cocked his gun and again shouted, “Let her go! And drop your guns.”

There were a few seconds of tense silence.

Mara said, “Do it.”

The men placed their guns on the floor, raised their hands, and stepped back from Gem.

“Raltar, what are you doing?” said Boss Osman.

“You, too,” growled Raltar, turning his gun on Osman and Tenney.

“What? But—”

“Guns down and back away!”

Osman and Tenney did as they were told, with puzzled looks on their faces. “This is a pretty stupid place for a hold-up, bud,” said Osman. “You can’t drive away two vehicles at once, and there’s no way you can get everything onto one crawler on your own. Plus you’re outnumbered ten to one.”

Raltar helped Gem to her feet. As he untied her wrists, she said, “You have no idea how happy I am to see you, Vic.”

Mara laughed. “So that’s what’s going on here. This isn’t a hold-up. You’re the Annelid Kid!”

“The who?” said Boss Osman. “Raltar, who are you?”

“He’s an undercover agent,” said Mara. “He busted half our network last year. I thought we had put him down, but I recognize those eyes now…”

“Should’ve made sure I was dead,” said Vic. He pressed a sequence of buttons on his radiation monitor. “Don’t worry, Gem. These tunnels are going to be swarming with agents soon.”

Gem opened her mouth to reply, but suddenly her eyes rolled back and a feral moan erupted from her throat. She dropped out of Vic’s arms and flopped onto the ground, clutching her stomach. “Gem!” cried Vic, kneeling beside her.

Seizing the opportunity, Mara sprang on Vic and knocked him down. His gun clattered across the stone floor, and chaos erupted as Mara’s men came to her aid. They grappled with Vic and tried to pin him to the ground, but he fought with desperate strength. Boss Osman and Tenney yanked open the doors of their crawler and leapt inside, and Tenney fired up the engine.

“Don’t let them escape!” shouted Mara, as her men scrambled for their weapons.

Before they could fire, Gem let out an unearthly howl and sprang to her feet. Her lips were foaming and there was fire in her eyes. One of Mara’s men turned his gun towards her, but before he could pull the trigger she took two swift steps and batted the gun out of his hand. It flew across the cavern and shattered on the wall. She bore down on the man and knocked him to the floor, then loomed over him and sniffed him. His scent didn’t appear to be to her liking: she stomped hard on his chest, cracking his ribs, then shook her head and howled.

“What are you doing!?” yelled Mara to the rest of her men. “Shoot her!”

Gem bounded towards the nearest standing henchman, renewing her ferocious assault. In a matter of seconds, she had scattered Mara and her men around the cavern. They lay bleeding and groaning.

Osman and Tenney watched in horror from the relative safety of the crawler, too shocked by what they were seeing to drive away.

“What’s happening to her?” said Tenney.

“Good thing I didn’t let you eat one of those things, eh?” said Osman.

The back door of the crawler opened as Vic crawled inside. “Get us out of here!” he yelled.

Boss Osman turned on him with a frown. “You can’t just—”

The crawler rocked and Osman looked up to see Gem staring in at him through the windshield, mouth open like a hissing snake. She slammed the palm of her hand against the windshield. It shuddered, but didn’t crack. Gem crawled up onto the crawler’s roof. The three men heard her footsteps as she walked to the rear of the crawler, and saw her drop down on top of the crates of mod-worms. She sniffed at them and seemed pleased. Leaning down, she set her teeth into the straps holding the crates and began gnawing through them.

Tenney didn’t need any more encouragement: he stomped on the gas and spun the crawler’s treads into motion. The crawler lurched forward and Gem rolled off onto the ground. The strap broke, and several of the crates came free, tumbling down with her. Tenney turned the crawler out of the cavern and up the tunnel towards the desert surface.

***

The government crawlers arrived, sirens blaring through the tunnels as they emerged from the subterranean network of the city. They found Gem sitting peacefully in the middle of the cavern. There was an open tub of cactus juice on her right and a box of lab worms on her left. She was freeing the worms from their tubes one by one and dropping them into the tub.

As the police stepped out of their crawlers, Gem looked up at them with a benign smile. She reached into the tub, withdrew a handful of massive, wriggling worms, and held them out like a gift.

The radiation monitors twitched.

Year of Stories – Week 19

Check out this week’s free short story, Adaptations.

An apocalypse has ravaged the planet, dousing the world in deadly radiation. But nature has a way of rolling with the punches, and humans are pretty resilient, themselves, when they have to be. Certain species of worms have turned out to absorb radiation while they’re passing through the intestines, and a new industry has grown up around the incredible creatures. Now Boss Osman and his crew have taken to breeding the grubs in illegal labs and exporting their crop to the desert. They’re going to be rich! What could possibly go wrong?

Thank you to everyone who watched me live-write the first draft of this story, and who provided feedback and suggestions throughout that process.

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The Interno

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Spring sunshine was filtering through the Venetian blinds that covered Dr. Jefferson Parkindale’s office windows, throwing thin, evenly spaced rectangles of light across his desk and the floor. The scientist was reclining in his comfortable computer chair, feet up on the corner of his desk, shoes off, fingers interlocked behind his head. He sighed happily.

“I’m telling you,” he said to his guest, “signing up for the Interno program was the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s a wonderful technology.”

His guest was Dr. Graeme Carter, a longtime colleague and companion. They had worked on many research projects together over the past two decades, though their friendship had never truly extended beyond the walls of their offices and laboratories. “I’m happy for you,” said Carter. “You’ve done nothing but smile over the past three weeks! I’ve almost come to miss that old contemplative frown of yours.”

“Oh?” said Parkindale. His face drooped into a flatter, duller, somewhat distant expression, with a hint of a grimace. “This one?”

“That’s the one,” said Carter. “But on second thought, maybe I haven’t really missed it at all. If you’re happy, why not look happy, eh?”

Parkindale brightened up with another smile. “Precisely! Exactly! Still, what’s the saying? All things in moderation?”

“I suppose.”

Parkindale turned his eyes towards the ceiling and muttered to himself for a moment. “Too much smiling… Too much smiling… Yes, that’s helpful.”

“Er,” said Dr. Carter, regarding his friend somewhat quizzically, “so, I’ve been wondering… How does the Interno program work? I’ve only heard bits and pieces about it. When I heard you were having the procedure done I went online to do some research, but there’s very little information available, surprisingly.”

“Oh, the Interno is wonderful!”

“So you’ve said. But what is it?”

Parkindale swung his feet off of the desk and onto the floor and sat up straight in his chair. “What time is it?”

“Five past two,” said Carter. “Why?”

“That’s been two hours, then,” muttered Parkindale. “Sufficient for today, I think.” He reached over and twisted the blinds closed. “Too much sun time gets me hyper,” he said with a wink.

“Really? Sugar and caffeine do it for me. Have you had yourself fitted with a solar panel or something?” joked Dr. Carter.

Parkindale’s smile faltered for a moment. “Oh. No! How silly. Of course not. We humans function on chemical energy harvested through eating, not on solar power… What an idea! Have you ever been to Europe? Nice weather we’re having today!”

“Whoa,” said Carter, “relax. I was only joking.” He fixed Parkindale with a curious stare.

Parkindale smiled benignly.

“Anyways,” said Carter, “the Interno?”

“Ah, yes. In layman’s terms, the Interno is an expansion device for your subconscious mind.”

“You mean… an implant?”

“Precisely,” said Parkindale. “Exactly. It’s small, noninvasive, safe, reliable—”

“—and a long list of other marketing buzzwords, I’m sure,” said Dr. Carter. “But what does it do? How does it work? Beyond making you such a persistent smiler, I mean.”

“It’s marvelous,” said Parkindale. “Brilliant. To put it simply, the Interno automates all of the most boring, mundane, tedious tasks and chores of your daily life, freeing your full brain power up so that you can focus on what’s truly important.”

Carter stroked his chin. “What sorts of tasks do you mean?”

“Oh, the obvious ones, to start,” said Parkindale. “Brushing your teeth, combing your hair, other elements of personal hygiene. Taking out the trash. Scratching itches. Eating, if you want.” Opening a drawer in his desk he took out a bottle of lotion, rolled up his shirt sleeves, squeezed a little lotion into his hands, and began to rub it onto his elbows, and then his neck.

“And what does it look like, on a practical level, when you ‘automate’ those tasks? Can you still taste your food, or do you just ignore it altogether?”

“That depends on the food!” said Parkindale with a wink. “I rarely pay attention to my breakfast cereal, for example, but at the company barbecue yesterday I made sure I was experiencing the full pleasure of the steaks and hamburgers. Some of the small talk, on the other hand…”

“Are you saying you can even automate conversations?”

“Almost flawlessly!” grinned Parkindale. “Chit-chat is really pretty predictable, most of the time. There are a few gaps in the Interno’s social programming—it might toss out an occasional nonsequitor—but when you’re talking to someone like Susie-May Buttons from the BioChem department it’s doubtful she’ll even notice, honestly.”

“Fair enough,” said Carter. “So how do I know you aren’t automating this conversation right now?”

“Does it feel like you’re talking to the real me?”

“Well…” said Carter. He gazed intently at Parkindale’s face, studying his colleague’s somewhat plastic smile.

Parkindale raised his eyebrows and kept smiling.

Carter studied his colleague’s glassy eyes.

Parkindale smiled.

Carter studied his colleague’s even-as-clockwork breathing.

Parkindale smiled.

“Well,” said Carter again, “you seem real enough, I guess…”

“Then what’s the difference either way?”

“Um,” said Carter.

Parkindale laughed. “I’m pulling your leg, of course, Graeme. Of course you’re talking to the ‘real me’. I only use the Interno to get out of boring conversations.”

“Right…” said Carter, squirming a little in his chair. “Still, the whole concept of this ‘Interno’ does bring up some awkward questions, doesn’t it?”

“Like what?”

“Well, what happens your ‘conscious’ brain while you’ve got yourself set on ‘autpilot’?”

Parkindale leaned back again in his chair and surveyed the ceiling. “It’s a little bit hard to describe. I guess you could call it a sort of ‘out-of-body’ sensation. Depending on what you’re automating, you feel detached from your physical senses, and your brain is set free to wander where it will, or to focus intently on whatever it chooses. My scientific work has never been more productive, and my leisure time has never been more relaxing. I’ve begun to write poetry, Graeme. Me, writing poetry. Can you believe it? Granted, it isn’t very good poetry…”

“So does the Interno affect your personality, then?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t think so,” said Parkindale, “not significantly. Do you think it has affected mine?”

“Hmm.” Carter thought about this for a moment. “It’s hard to say, to be completely honest. You’ve always been a bit, er… eccentric. If anything, you’ve been eccentric in some different ways recently, that’s all.”

Parkindale furrowed his brow, while continuing to smile. “How so? Can you be specific?”

“Oh, it’s nothing too big,” Carter assured him. “You’re a bit dreamier, a bit more absent, and I suppose that makes sense. The constant smiling… Again, I’m not complaining about it! Simply observing. And your habits have changed. There’s, er, the lotion, for one. I don’t remember you ever using the stuff before.”

“Always good to keep your skin and joints well lubricated!” said Parkindale.

“‘Lubricated’?” said Carter.

“Moisturized, I mean,” said Parkindale.

“Right… And you’re always perfectly punctual now.”

“The Interno has some very useful clock and day planner software!”

“And this one’s a bit weird, but when you walk, you always seem to go the exact same speed… The rhythm of your footsteps lines up pretty much perfectly with this one song I keep hearing on the radio, actually.”

“Do people normally walk at inconsistent speeds?” said Parkindale.

“Well, sometimes people are in a hurry, or sometimes people are just kind of strolling gently along. You always seem to be on kind of a steady march.”

“Interesting,” said Parkindale. “Like this, you mean?” He stood, stepped out from behind his desk, and paced the length of the office, his socked feet marking a very distinct and even beat across the carpet, thap, thap, thap, thap. He spun on his heel when he reached the wall and paced back, thap, thap, thap, thap.

“Yes,” said Dr. Carter. “Just like that. I can hear the song in my head.” He hummed a little melody softly.

“I see,” said Parkindale. He swung his feet back up onto his desk, rolled his pant legs up, and began applying lotion to his knees. Staring at the ceiling, he muttered, “Varying walking speeds… Varying walking speeds… I’ll have to see if I can get myself a firmware update for that. I mean, get the Interno a firmware update, of course.”

Dr. Carter shifted in his seat awkwardly. “I do have one other question,” he said.

“Oh?”

“What happens if, hypothetically, the Interno gets stuck somehow, say there’s a glitch in its software, and it doesn’t turn the autopilot off when you want it to? I’m speaking purely hypothetically, of course.”

Dr. Parkindale waved one hand dismissively. “You’ve been reading too much science fiction,” he scoffed. “That article in the Enquirer was complete speculation and sensationalism. The Interno is very well programmed. It’s loaded with fail-safes and auto-quits and resets and antivirus programs. It’s virtually impossible for the Interno’s systems to break, or be defeated. You’re statistically more likely to be hit by a hovercar than have something go wrong with your Interno.”

“Yes, but—”

“Really, Graeme, there’s no need to be so paranoid. If there’s one thing I’ve been learning more and more, it’s that you should really try to approach life from a positive perspective rather than a negative one. Don’t think about risks or drawbacks or worst-case scenarios. Think about opportunities, benefits, goals, targets, dreams… Being fitted with an Interno has definitely shifted my perspective towards the positive things. I’m sure it would work for you, too!”

“Er, maybe,” said Dr. Carter, standing.

“Think about it,” said Parkindale. “Consider it. I can get you a good referral, help you jump the waiting list. It’s not too expensive, either. Just $5,000 for installation and $500 per year afterwards for regular maintenance and software updates. It’s a bargain!”

“I should really talk it over with my wife, but I’ll let you know what I decide,” said Dr. Carter, stepping towards the door.

“Tell her there’s a couples’ discount—the second unit is 50% off!”

“I will,” said Carter, as he exited into the hallway and bustled off.

Dr. Parkindale smiled at the closed door.

He smiled.

He smiled.

He squeezed some lotion onto his elbow.

Behind his smile, deep inside himself, some fading part of him screamed.

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!

Memoirs of the Model Agent 2: The Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor and Her Daughter

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There are a lot of things the Chancellorate’s Security Forces won’t tell you when you’re considering signing up. They won’t tell you about the extended shifts, the lack of sleep, or the post-traumatic stress disorder; they won’t tell you about the long, slow descent into insanity that you’ll suffer as a result of being forced to work so closely with politicians; and they won’t tell you about the somewhat ironic lack of job security.

Agents quit. Agents die. Agents get fired because their boss is having a bad hair day. Some agents are even lucky enough to retire.

New agents are brought in to replace them. There’s a lot of turnover in the Security Forces, one way or another. The speed with which new recruits are hired and trained can make your head spin. On one particularly crazy day I showed up for work in the morning as part of a team of eight, finished the day’s mission as the second-in-command of a team of four, and clocked out two hours later as the leader of a team of fifteen.

The downside of the system is that you never know when you’re about to meet your replacement. The upside is that if you know what you’re doing, it shouldn’t take you too long to start climbing the ladder.

As I mentioned at the end of the previous chapter, after the incident with Mr. Dimbles I transferred to the protective detail for the Third Assistant Under-Chancellor-in-Waiting. I only spent two months there before I took my next upwards step.

I was hand-selected by the Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor to be a personal bodyguard for her daughter, Dorothy. My duties involved accompanying Dorothy to and from high school and sitting in on her classes and cheer squad practices. It wasn’t the worst position I’d ever held. Teenagers can be insufferable, but I did my best to blend in and even befriend a few of them.

For weeks, my most pressing security concern was trying to keep the teenage boys’ grubby little hands away from my holster. They wheedled and whined at me, tried to bribe me, tried to butter me up. “Come on, Ms. Connolly,” they would say. “You’re so pretty. You’re so nice. We just wanna hold your blaster! We just wanna see it! We won’t do anything. We’ll take you out to a movie if you let us touch it.” On a certain level it was flattering to have that much male attention—being an agent hadn’t afforded me much of a social or romantic life for a few years—but I wasn’t yet that desperate for entertainment, so I continually disappointed them.

During my time with Dorothy I directed more of my attention towards protecting her from bullies, blondes, and bad boys than towards keeping her safe from political dissidents and assassins. The girl was much more likely to be struck by heartbreak than a bullet, especially with the desperate, headstrong way that incorrigible flirt pursued her male classmates. I think that may have been one reason her mother hired me to work with her. She was a scandal waiting to happen.

There eventually came a day, though, early one May, when I was required to put away the “don’t-you-look-at-her-that-way,-punk” glare I used on the boys and the “shoulder-to-cry-on” attitude I held towards Dorothy and had to exercise my agent training in a more legitimate way.

It was the day of a big track and field meet between Dorothy’s school and three of the neighbouring schools. Everywhere you looked the students were dressed in purple and gold, showing off their team spirit, and earnest-looking teenagers were running and jumping and flipping and cheering and crying and throwing popcorn at one another. It was chaos, the kind of scenario a well-trained agent really hates.

Dorothy’s cheer squad was in high demand. They were being pulled all over the campus, from the track to the gym to the stands to the cafeteria. I was trekking along after them, keeping a dutiful eye out for anything unusual or threatening.

There were a few quiet minutes between the long jump and the pole vault, and the coach decided it was a good opportunity to get some photos of the cheer squad taken for the yearbook. She dragged the gaggle of girls over to where the photography teacher was taking some wide shots from a verge of grass just inside the 12-foot chain link fence that surrounded most of the school.

The girls began assembling into various team poses on the grass, formations and glamour shots and human pyramids. The school mascot, a big purple teddy bear with enormous googly eyes, was wandering by and decided to join in and ham it up with them. The group’s laughing and chattering and posing began to draw a small crowd, which made me more than a little nervous.

Then Dorothy’s mother showed up, her own entourage of three agents in tow. The Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor was a typical politician, which meant she was never one to miss a photo opportunity. She had come by to watch a few events from the stands, but apparently she hadn’t been receiving enough personal attention up there—the Vice-Prime Chancellor of Education was hogging the spotlight, I think. She convinced the photographer to include her in a few shots and joined in with her daughter, striking what she must have thought was a comedic yet dignified pose. She looked like a turkey in a tuxedo. Dorothy was more embarrassed than the time I kicked in the door of her bathroom stall and found her taking a nap to avoid Chemistry class. She was scowling at her mom with the dark ferocity only a 16-year-old can generate.

“Oh!” said the Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor when the photographer seemed to be getting tired of her. “I have an excellent idea! Why don’t I pose shaking hands with the mascot? It would look great in the papers.”

The photography teacher was clearly reluctant, and seemed ready to go back to covering the sports—the discus throw was about to begin—but after some wheedling and cajoling he agreed to snap a couple of quick photos. The mascot was game for it, so they stood by the fence and struck a pose together.

The cheer squad was getting together and trundling off back to the field to cheer on the discus throwers and shot putters. My attention was turned towards fighting through the crowd to get back close to Dorothy when the shot was fired.

The Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor was the first to react, diving to her stomach on the grass and covering her head. In moments her three security agents were at her side, checking for injuries and scanning the panicking crowds for the source of the shot.

I drew my blaster and sprinted towards Dorothy, putting myself between her and the direction I thought the shot had come from. It sounded to me like it had come from underneath the bleachers. Pushing Dorothy to the ground, I stood over her and scanned the bleachers for any gleam of sun on metal that might betray the shooter.

When no further immediate threat presented itself, I grabbed Dorothy under the arms and half-carried, half-dragged her over to where her mother was being guarded by her own three agents. The teddy bear mascot was sprawled out beside them on the grass.

“Is she all right?” I asked.

“The shot missed,” reported one of the other agents. “It got the mascot, instead.”

Another agent was on the phone already, calling for help. I heard an ambulance’s sirens start up somewhere not far off.

“Watch her,” I told the other agents, handing Dorothy over. Then I knelt down beside the mascot to assess the situation. There was an obvious bullet hole at the base of the mascot’s neck, right about where the head of the person wearing the costume would be. The mascot wasn’t moving. I couldn’t hear any breathing, but I didn’t see any blood, either. “Help me get this mask off,” I said, reaching to pull off the bear’s head.

“No, wait!” said one of the agents. “It’s, uh… We might do more harm for good! We should wait for the ambulance.”

The recommendation didn’t make any sense to me, but before I could retort I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye, on the other side of the fence. I looked up and saw a man sprinting towards the road, holding a violin case.

I drew my blaster and shouted, “Hey, stop!”

He turned to look over his shoulder, saw me standing with my drawn blaster, yelped, and tripped in a gopher hole. He went sprawling and his violin case flew open. The pieces of a sniper blaster tumbled out into the grass.

I looked left, then right, and saw no quick way through or around the fence, so I jammed my blaster into its holster, took a run up, leapt up onto the fence, and started climbing. The shooter was frantically gathering up the pieces of his sniper blaster and stuffing them back into the violin case. There was panic in his eyes when he saw me climbing. He hugged the violin case shut, jumped back to his feet, and began to run again.

A black car pulled up on the shoulder of the road and honked its horn as I crested the fence and dropped hard onto the ground on the other side. Someone inside the car pushed the rear door open and a hand beckoned the runner on. He only had 50 yards to go, and I had to cover twice that distance to catch him, but I had been a track-and-field athlete myself, back in high school, and the 100-yard dash had been my best event. I dug my toes in, raised my head, and took off running.

The shooter saw me coming and yelped and stumbled again. The driver of the getaway car honked and yelled something. I was making up ground. I reached for my blaster, just in case, but he was only 20 yards away now, 10, 5…

I planted my foot and propelled myself through the air like a long jumper, piling onto the shooter and driving him to the ground. The getaway car squealed off before I could get my blaster up to take a shot at its tires.

The shooter was whimpering like a lazy kid in gym class. “Don’t hurt me! …Not supposed to catch me… Just following orders! Not my fault!”

I wasn’t having it. “You took a shot at a member of the Chancellorate. You may have just killed a kid in a bear suit. If it’s not your fault, then whose is it?” I grabbed him by the elbow and hauled him to his feet. His tears were turning the dirt on his face into trails of mud, but behind all the mess and the contortion of his features something twigged my memory. “Vizak?” I said. “Is that you?”

His eyes flew open. “No!” he said. “No no no! I’m not… No!”

But I was sure I recognized him now. “It is you. Pokur Vizak. We went through training together a few years ago. What happened to you?”

“I, uh… I went bad!” he declared. “Bad guys kidnapped me and brainwashed me into being a bad guy, too. Nice guys finish last! Down with the Chancellorate! I’m sad and confused and dangerous. You’d better take me to jail.”

One of the Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor’s agents caught up to us. “Oh!” said the agent. “You caught the guy. Uh, nice work. I guess we should, uh, bring him in, then.”

“How’s the mascot?” I asked.

“Oh, fine, fine,” said the agent. “I mean, well, hurt pretty bad, probably. Might be dead. Ambulance is picking it up right now. Don’t worry about it.”

Don’t worry about it? A kid might be dead inside that suit, maybe a kid I’ve been seeing every weekday for the past few months, and you’re telling me not to worry about it?” Grabbing my prisoner by the wrist, I hauled him back towards where Dorothy and her mother were being watched. Through the fence I saw the ambulance coming to a stop, and two paramedics stepped out nonchalantly, one carrying a stretcher. I rounded the far end of the fence, near the bleachers, and arrived as they were sliding the mascot on the stretcher into the back of the ambulance.

I handed the prisoner to the other two agents and stomped up to the ambulance. “What’s going on?” I demanded. “Aren’t you even going to look inside the suit?”

The paramedics looked sheepish. “Er, no need,” said one. “I’m afraid it’s dead, so… No need.”

It?” I was furious. “What is with you people and calling this person an it? That is a human being in there.”

The paramedics cast glances at each other and at the ground. “Er,” they said. “Sorry.”

I wasn’t appeased. Something about the whole scenario wasn’t sitting right with me. The behaviour of the paramedics, the other agents, even the shooter… It was all wrong.

The paramedics took advantage of my momentary silence to begin closing the rear doors of the ambulance, but I reached out and grabbed the door to stop them. I pushed them back and climbed into the ambulance where the mascot was lying. Sliding forward to the mascot’s head, I slipped my fingers around the edges of the mask and pulled on it.

“No!” said the other agents.

“Wait!” said the paramedics.

“Stop!” said the Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor.

The mask came off smoothly and fell to the floor. Underneath was a mass of gears, servos, wires, and circuit boards.

“What in the world?” I said.

Then the ambulance doors slammed shut on me, locking me in, and the paramedics jumped into the front of the ambulance, started it up, and drove off.

***

You won’t have heard this story before. You might not even believe it. Their plan worked. The Associate Bilateral Forthchancellor was able to spin the “assassination attempt” into a ton of great press and earned three consecutive promotions in the span of 18 months, eventually spending two full terms as Unilateral Forthchancellor, directly advising the Over-Chancellor on public relations and media issues.

I could have retired young on the money they paid me to keep my mouth shut. Instead I bought a house, went back to school for a Master’s degree in Security Operations, and invested what was left.

Sure, I could have blown the whistle, but it wouldn’t have accomplished much. I was already feeling pretty jaded about the entire Chancellorate at that point, anyways, and to be honest that hasn’t really changed. I still think the Chancellorate is filled with idiots and crooks, and I’m not the only person who holds that opinion, not by far. Nobody seems to want to do anything about it, though. Even publishing a story like this one in this book won’t cause much of a stir, probably.

The next two chapters might.