30 December 2011

"Time is Not on My Side"

By Curtis C. Chen

I'm not going to tell you the story you want to hear.

I know what you're going to ask. You want to know how—and why—we "vaccinated" Hitler. Everyone wants to know how we avoided all the other time patrols, how we're still keeping the secret to prevent other incursions from the future. Right?

Well, one way is by not spilling the beans to every green apple who asks.

Anyway, that's a boring story. I'm going to tell you something that really matters. I'm going to tell you how we discovered the singularity limit.

My wife is dead. She died on a Sunday morning, driving home from the market, while I was still asleep. It was an accident. Nobody to blame, nothing to fix so it wouldn't happen again to anybody else.

But of course I wanted her back. And I had a way to save her.

I'd already used my mulligan, the one every cadet gets after graduation. But I was a supervisor by then, I was coding missions, I could sign out injectors whenever I wanted. And I had nothing but time.

I waited. Six months, seven, eight. Started seeing other women so my bosses wouldn't suspect I was planning a breach. I didn't let myself love any of them. I knew what I wanted, and what I wanted was in the past.

Nine months, twelve days, three hours, sixteen minutes. That's how long it was between the moment she died and the moment I went back to save her.

Except it didn't work. Not the first time, not the second time, not the fifteenth. I kept trying until they caught me, and that's when I finally broke down. I hadn't ever cried for Audra, because I always knew—always thought I'd get her back.

The thing is, the universe doesn't care what happens to us. Humans, I mean. Our lives are insignificant on the cosmic scale. We just don't matter. That's why we couldn't figure out the rules of time travel for so long.

Whether one human lives or dies doesn't affect the life of the universe. But a gravitational singularity that destroys a planet, maybe even a star system? That's against the rules. The restrictive action principle will prevent that.

We thought we were so clever, linking the people we considered important to the universe's physically enforced consistency. We thought we'd figured out a way to once again bend the world to our will. Smart monkeys, that's all we are. Banging our useless tools against the fabric of reality.

Audra was one intervention too many. That's the limit: Eight hundred and eighty-nine artificial singularities at one time. A completely random number. It's just the way things are.

The universe doesn't care. You understand? It's up to us to decide what's important, what's meaningful, what we want. But there are always limits. We have to come to terms with the things we can't change if we're ever going to find any happiness in these brief lives.

I'm not drunk. Oh, you'll know when I'm drunk.


Image: Time machine 3026 Steam Punk Assemblage by Don Pezzano, August, 2008

23 December 2011

"Meet Suit"

By Curtis C. Chen

The public defender, Lirrina Banefs, pulls a small disk out of her briefcase as the three of us sit down around the bare table in the police station "lounge." She places the disk on the table and taps it with two fingers. The disk glows white, and a dot of red light sweeps around its outer edge.

"Jammer?" I ask.

"It's not that I don't trust the police," Lirrina says. "I've just seen one too many monitoring technician accidentally forget to stop recording. And Grunsharii courts are notoriously lenient when it comes to evidence collection methods."

I was prepared to dislike this one, but now she's starting to grow on me.

I look over at Driftis. He's slumped back in his chair, picking at his fingernails. That's not a good sign. What does he want to avoid talking about?

"Unprovoked assault, on the other hand," Lirrina continues, "they're not so keen on. Do you want to tell me what happened, Captain Degge?"

"What does the police report say?" Driftis asks.

Lirrina stares at him for a second. "I usually get two kinds of clients, Captain. There are those who think I can help them, who really hope I can get them out of trouble, and are willing to cooperate and do whatever it takes to assist in their own defense. Then there are those who don't trust me, who think I'm only here for show, and do their best to withhold any information they think might be self-incriminating. I don't have to tell you which kind does better in the end.

"But then there's a third kind. These are people with their own agenda. Maybe they've been in the system before, maybe they just think they know things. They want to manipulate the proceedings for some personal reason. Sometimes they lie to me, sometimes they tell me too much. They're unpredictable."

Lirrina leans forward and folds her hands. "I don't like these clients. I don't like how they work against me, I don't like how they think they know more about my job than I do, I don't like how they think they're smarter than the system. Because these are the people who screw everything up for the rest of us.

"We are a civilized society, Captain. Our rules exist for a reason, and our justice system, while it may not be perfect, is the way it is because of centuries of use and refinement. I don't like people who think they're better than all that. I don't like people who disrespect what I've dedicated my life and career to."

She leans back and spreads her hands. "But I'm still going to defend you to the best of my ability. Because that's my oath. I just want to know what kind of relationship we're going to have here, Captain."

Driftis nods. "You give that speech to all your clients?"

Lirrina shrugs. "More or less."

"Pretty good speech."

"Thanks." Lirrina almost smiles. "So. What happened out there?"


Image: Oranjello...laying[sic] in the briefcase by ClintJCL, July, 2008

16 December 2011

"Interview Prep"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Mrs. Conover, Kari to her friends, reported her husband missing at about nine o'clock last night," Lahane says. "Of course, police don't file an official missing persons report until thirty-six hours after last verified contact, but the dispatcher on duty had to log the call and was meticulous enough to include a note about the name of the caller and her husband. Once we got confirmation on the identity of the dead runner this morning, Buffalo PD paid her a visit."

"And how did that go?" I ask.

"About as well as you'd expect," Lahane says. "A lot of crying, a lot of screaming kids who didn't understand what was going on. More of a notification visit than an actual interview. We're supposed to share whatever we find with BPD."

"How many children?" Oliver asks. He's sitting in the backseat with me, behind Lahane on the passenger side.

"Two," she says. "Eleven-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl. That's not going to be a problem, is it?"

"Not for me," Oliver says. "But Harvey doesn't like children."

"Actually," I start to say.

"Why not?" Westmark asks, peering at my reflection in her rearview mirror. I see her eyes boring into me, and I shake my head.

"I'm not really the parental type," I say.

"I guess you don't have to deal with a lot of young'uns down in DC," Lahane says. "You don't need to feel parental. Just pretend you're the weird uncle or something. Or a cousin; you look young enough for that."

"How old are you?" Westmark asks. It's the first time she's spoken more than two words in a row since we met her, and it's jarring enough that I don't recognize her utterance as a question for a brief moment.

"I look young for my age," I say.

"And what age is that?" Lahane asks. I can tell they're not going to leave this alone. Dammit.


"Jesus Christ." Lahane leans back to look at Oliver. "Please tell me you're over thirty."

"I am two hundred and thirty-eight years old," Oliver says with a straight face.

Lahane chuckles, and I even see Westmark's face crinkle in a smile. "Okay, so here's what we're going to do. Let me make the introductions, Westie here will play the muscle, Harvey, you'll be the somewhat awkward but relatable older cousin, and Johnson, you're the weird old uncle who asks unusual questions. Got that?"

"You're going to feed me these questions?" Oliver asks.

"I'm going to trust your intuition," Lahane says. "And if you miss anything, I'll follow it up."

"Why am I supposed to be awkward?" I ask.

Lahane smirks at me. "I'm trying not to play you against type, Harvey."

"That's hilarious," I say. "I'm not good with kids. They annoy me and I don't know how to talk to them."

"Just let them do all the talking," Lahane says. "Trust me, make a few funny faces and they'll want to tell you their life story."

"Yeah, I'm really looking forward to that."


Image: FBI Police Chevy Tahoe by Jason Lawrence, May, 2008

09 December 2011

"Police Duality"

By Curtis C. Chen

"There's good news and bad news," Lahane says to the assembled federal agents. "The good news is, we've recovered the murder weapon from Todd Mason's apartment." She touches the display board to her right, and an enlarged photograph of a black semi-automatic pistol appears.

"Sig Sauer P326," Oliver says quietly, probably to himself, though I'm standing close enough to hear. "Nine millimeter, modified barrel."

"The bad news," Lahane continues, "is that we still have no idea who's running this show. Mason and Garcia were just cutouts. They were both hired over the Internet, through anonymized e-mail and forum accounts, but we've been able to backtrace the IP addresses to rough physical locations."

She touches both boards at once, and they flash to two different street maps of Buffalo. "The account used to hire Garcia was accessed here, using wireless from a public library. We're pulling security footage now, but coverage in that part of town is spotty. Thank you, privacy laws." She points to the other board. "This location, on the other hand, also a wireless access point, leased to the Pissing Pony Saloon, a dive bar frequented by one Todd Mason—and this man."

She touches the screen again, and a mugshot appears. I know who it is before Lahane says the name out loud.


"Donnie Reynolds?"

The man at the bar swivels around on his stool, and the smile on his face fades as soon as he sees the FBI badge and ID card that Lahane is holding up. Westmark has come up on the other side of Reynolds' stool, casually leaning against the bar, and Oliver and I stand behind Lahane, arms crossed.

"Can I finish my drink before we go?" Reynolds asks, holding up a lowball glass of amber liquid and partly melted ice cubes. His eyes are bloodshot and gleaming with just a hint of wetness.

"Sure," Lahane says. "You're not driving."

Reynolds nods and raises the glass toward his lips. Before it makes contact, he jerks his arm to the side and throws the drink in Lahane's face. She staggers backward, cursing loudly, and Oliver and I catch her.

Reynolds leaps off his stool and makes a break for the door. He runs straight into Westmark, who pulled away from the bar as soon as he moved on her partner. Westmark grabs Reynolds' shoulders, spins him like a rag doll, and shoves him up against the bar.

"Ow! What the fuck!" he screams.

"FBI," Westmark says, slapping her badge down on the bar. Reynolds groans.

"So," I say to Oliver, "would you say that glass was half full... or half empty?"

He shakes his head at me. My best material is wasted.

Lahane finishes wiping the whiskey from her face and pulls a pair of handcuffs out from under her jacket. The bartender and other patrons have all moved away, minding their own business.

"Let's hope that's the worst decision you make today, Reynolds," Lahane says as she cuffs him. "Otherwise it's going to be a real bad day for you."


Image: great scot! by IntangibleArts, May, 2008

02 December 2011

"Parents Just Don't Understand"

By Curtis C. Chen

"I'm telling you, the contents of this diaper were weapons-grade," Sandy said. "I never saw so many different shades of brown. And the smell!"

"Will you stop talking about this?" Blake said, holding up her mega-sized cup of soda. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed more than one of the teenagers in the food court eyeing her and Sandy. Good. "What can I do to make you stop talking about this?"

Sandy waved a hand. "You know how, when you've been away from home, like on vacation, and you come home and step inside the front door and suddenly smell everything you didn't notice before because you'd just gotten used to it?"

"Fatigue, right?" Blake swept her eyes around the mall. The RF overlay in her eyeglasses painted bright circles near the midsection of every single teen around them—sitting, walking, dancing to unheard music from their iPod implants. Needle in a goddamn haystack.

"Yes! Olfactory fatigue." Sandy spoke louder as they walked past a Muzak-blaring potted plant. "It's when you become desensitized to a certain odor, like not noticing your cat's litterbox because you smell it every day. Which is different from anosmia, a permanent condition—"

"You want some cookies?" Blake waved her soda at the Mrs. Field's on the other side of the food court. They had to make sure everybody in the search area heard their conversation. "Let's go get some cookies for you and me, and then I can toss mine. How does that sound?"

"So anyway," Sandy said, "this smell, I kid you not, the smell that comes out of these diapers is like an incredible new sensation every time. And not in a good way. How is it possible for such a tiny creature to produce such huge amounts of foulness? And so many times a day? I swear, it's like every hour, on the hour, poop!"

"I am so glad we are talking about this," Blake said. "I am so glad you brought this shit into my life. Literally." Come on, partner, remember the code word.

"But listen, we figured out how to deal with it," Sandy said. Blake bit her tongue to keep herself from grinning. "Scott had this brilliant idea last night, just brilliant. Total genius. Are you ready?"

Two girls, one with bright pink hair on Blake's left, and one in an oversized camo jacket on her right, turned their heads to listen. Close enough. Blake used the hand that wasn't holding her giant soda to hit SEND on her own cell phone.

A cloud of white incoming signal blossomed around pink-hair's midsection, and she jumped as the phone in the back pocket of her jeans vibrated. Blake came up to the table before the girl could leave, with Sandy one step behind. Both detectives had their badges out.

"LAPD, Miss Wagner," Blake said. "You're a tough girl to find."

The suspect, Clarissa Wagner, looked up, then slumped in her chair. "Shit."

"Enough about that," Sandy said. "Let's talk about the baby you stole."


Image: No diapers by Leo Reynolds, June, 2009

25 November 2011


By Curtis C. Chen

Kaylee knows she can't throw the guy without killing him, or at least doing serious spinal damage; every surface in the subway station is some kind of hard flat or edge. So she settles for slashing his right leg, just above the kneecap, with one of the blades hidden in her leather gauntlets, and then running like hell. All I can do is observe from twenty-two thousand miles away.

Here's the thing about having your consciousness transferred into a solar-powered satellite in geosynchronous orbit: sure, you never have to sleep, you can see the entire continent at once, but that's pretty much all you can do. Watch. Even with a two-way broadband link directly into Kaylee's cerebral cortex, transmission delay plus reaction time means anything I tell her will be at least five hundred milliseconds out of date. And that half-second could get her killed.

So most of the time, I just keep my mouth shut and let her do her thing.

I watch, through Kaylee's eyes and the spotty subway securicam coverage, as she maneuvers through crowds of commuters. She knows I'll have better coverage once she's at street level, and she's probably figured the same thing I have from her first attacker's dress and approach: professional killer. Somebody's called down a hit on my little sister.

We knew it would happen someday. You can't run free in any city for long before the local mafia or union or PTA or whatever they call themselves wants a piece of your action. I hope she's ready for this.

"Another heavy on your six," I verbalize into Kaylee's speech centers. She won't hear the words so much as she'll think them, but she'll know the thought didn't come from herself. "Hoodie, ballcap, hand-cannon in his pants."

"Thanks, bigbro," she thinks back at me.

Her head snaps around, but she doesn't stop moving up the last stairway to ground level. The hitter behind her is younger than the first one, and better camouflaged; I only made him because of the weapon bulging in his waistline. He's smart, this one; not drawing on Kaylee until he absolutely has to, probably thinking he'll get close enough to put her in a headlock, use his size as advantage and use the piece for persuasion.

Kaylee skids to a halt at the top of the stairs, turns around, and screams at the top of her lungs, "Stop following me, you pervert!"

The crowds on both sides of the stairs, both going up and down, freeze in place. The hitter stops, too, and makes a show of looking around just like everyone else, working his disguise. That gives Kaylee more than enough time to draw her taser, line up a clear shot, and fire the darts right into the side of his neck.

The hitter gurgles and crumples in the middle of the parting crowd. Kayle drops the taser, still discharging electricity into the man, and disappears into broad daylight.

"That's my girl," I think to myself, wishing I could still smile.


Image: Where are Jérémie and Martina? by Éole Wind, January, 2008

18 November 2011

"Just Another Fish Story"

By Curtis C. Chen

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.

You may say that is to be expected when temporal anomalies are involved; but we—that is to say, humanity as a species—have adapted remarkably well to dealing with the multiple realities which exist side-by-side, in parallel most of the time, intersecting only briefly, with unpredictable results each time.

The first account I had of the incident was from my dog, Bartholomew, an Irish setter who had wandered into this timeline some years ago.

"It's raining fish out there," Bartholomew said as he entered the house through the kitchen. I waited until he had shaken himself dry in the alcove to respond.

"Do you mean that literally, or is this another of your canine metaphors?" I asked from my seat at the table, where I was enjoying a mid-afternoon repast of toad in the hole.

"Literally, of course," Bartholomew said, lying down in his doggie bed.

I would have questioned him further, but he had already fallen asleep, no doubt exhausted from a long day of chasing automobiles and navigating wormholes.

The next to report on the unusual weather was our housekeeper, Nancy, who returned from her weekly trip to market at the stroke of eight.

"Fuck a duck!" her strong alto reverberated from the foyer. "It is raining motherfucking cats and dogs out there!"

"Do you not mean fish?" I inquired, leaning out of my chair so I could see from the parlor into the hallway.

"Not unless you know some fish with hair and legs and teeth and shit," Nancy said. "Now please excuse me, I'd better put away these goddamn birds before they thaw."

I rose and stepped over to the front window. There was, indeed, a torrential downpour outside, but the fading light made it difficult to discern what the various wiggly objects falling from the sky might be. Moreover, as is the way with many incursions from other realities, the objects tended to disappear—I believe "phase out" is the technical term—when they contacted other solid matter in this reality.

There was a knock at the front door.

I opened the door. The being which stood before me was quite unprecedented. The overall shape of it was humanoid—bipedal, at any rate—but it wore no clothes, and instead of a single contiguous external integument, its outer skin appeared to be a wet mass of overlapping fish, varying in size and species, with the occasional crustacean or mollusk mixed in.

"Good evening," the creature said in a perfectly clear baritone. "Apologies for the intrusion, but I presume you are Doctor Robert Coombs, the renowned water-surgeon?"

I raised the two fluid appendages which had replaced my arms during my only excursion to another plane, and formed the extremities into a fringe of the thin, dextrous tendrils I employed in my work. "The same. How may I help you?"

"Not just myself, Doctor," the fish-being said. "Our entire homeworld is in dire straits."


Image: Sock puppet with raw Sardine by Willem Velthoven, February, 2007

11 November 2011


By Curtis C. Chen

Fast Eddie went out and got the hands as soon as he knew he was dying.

"Do my ears deceive me?" Sweet Sal said when Eddie told him what he wanted. "Or do you merely become aged?" He pronounced the last word as two syllables, like Shakespeare or something.

"Just gimme the damn hands, Sal," Eddie said.

Sal shrugged, went into the back of his ostensibly legitimate pawn shop, and returned a moment later with a plain white box labeled MEDICAL USE ONLY. Eddie hadn't expected it to be so light when he picked it up. It couldn't have weighed much more than one of the zip guns he always kept tucked into his left ankle holster.

"This is everything?" Eddie asked.

Sal nodded. "Straight from the factory, unlocked, unformatted except for the firmware." He narrowed his eyes at Eddie. "Do you plan to configure this device yourself? Are you now a coder?"

"You let me worry about that. How much?"

Sal waved a hand. "I will not take your money, Eddie."

Eddie felt his eyes watering. "Thanks, Sal."

Programming the hands took a little longer. Eddie didn't have a lot of friends who knew about the soft stuff, and all the referrals he got at first were small-time scam artists running online versions of old confidence games. Finally, the Generous Greek hooked Eddie up with One-Name Westly, who looked like a linebacker but spoke in a high-pitched staccato.

"Totally doable," Westly said after Eddie explained what he wanted. "Most of that's available off the shelf, I just need to integrate all the pieces, and then it's up to you to train it."

"Good," Eddie said. "How much?"

Westly looked embarrassed. "Off the shelf doesn't exactly mean legal. I'll have to crack the FDA licenses—"

"How much?"

Westly quoted an exorbitant fee, and was surprised when Eddie only haggled him down by twenty percent. They worked out payment terms, and two weeks later, Eddie started training the hands.

He hadn't intended to take any more jobs, but it was the only way to properly train the rig. According to Westly, biofeedback was most reliable under real-world conditions—no amount of practice could substitute for actual stress responses.

Eddie almost got nabbed on the last job, cracking the vault on a deep-sea drilling platform to get at the specialized geothermal sensing equipment inside. Security capped two of the crew's lookouts, and Eddie and the helo pilot barely got away with the merchandise and their lives.

Fast Eddie died three days after turning over that loot and collecting his payment. Federal authorities found the cash still under his bed, and seized it along with all other assets they could trace back to Edward Tanabont, Senior.

By that time, the cybernetic servo rig that Eddie had trained was already on its way across the country. Its titanium-alloy mesh and imbedded nanoprocessors had learned everything they could from Eddie's brain waves, muscle movements, and specific nerve impulses, and they were ready to teach his son everything Fast Eddie had known about safecracking.


Image: Bank Vault 1 by mbrand, February, 2009

04 November 2011

"Want You Gone"

By Curtis C. Chen

On Tuesday, Cletus and LeeAnn Savier went missing.

"What do you mean, missing?" said Pauline Deschanel, Chief of Security aboard the Princess of Mars cruise ship Dejah Thoris. "We're half a million kilometers from the nearest planet or spacecraft. Where the hell could they go?"

"I'm just telling you what the cabin stewards told me." Jefferson Logan, the ship's cruise director, shrugged his broad shoulders. In addition to overseeing the cruise activity schedule, he also kept track of the associated statistics: how many passengers attended each show, how many booked which tours or excursions, who ate at which restaurant for which meal. The data helped him plan for future demand, and also alerted him to any unusual activity patterns. Like two passengers suddenly going unaccounted for.

"They booked a Royal Banquet at Mortimer's tonight, but didn't show up," Jeff continued. "Two stewards checked the room after calling. No sign of them."

Deschanel raised an eyebrow. Mortimer's was the ship's most high-class restaurant, with a standing dress code and entrée prices that ran into the thousands. Nobody stood up a reservation at Mortimer's. "Newlyweds?"

"There's no notation in their booking." Jeff brought up the passenger records on his tabletop display.

Deschanel saw the ID photos and said, "Wait a minute. That's Cletus Savier?"

"You recognize him?"

"His name's not Cletus. And I think I know where to find him."


Deschanel stepped out of the airlock and engaged her magnetic boots on the exterior hull. She took a moment to look around the blackness, just to make sure there wasn't something funny going on inside the effective range of the ship's navigational sensors, then walked forward.

She found the missing couple standing just behind the avionics section, looking through a telescope on a tripod attached to the hull and aimed at Dejah Thoris' destination: Mars. They were wearing the two spacesuits which she'd found still checked into the amidships excursion lounge but physically missing from inventory. Deschanel switched her suit radio to the common EVA frequency.

"I hope that tripod has magnetic feet, Cletus," she said, "otherwise you're getting billed for the hull repairs."

The spacesuited figure on the left turned, and a familiar brown face smiled at her through the helmet. "Good to see you, too, Chief."

Deschanel nodded at the other person. "You going to introduce me to the wife?"

The second figure rotated around, and Deschanel saw a pink face with twinkling blue eyes. The woman smiled and shook Deschanel's gloved hand. "Hi! I'm LeeAnn. Cletus said we might run into one of his friends on board, but I didn't think he meant the crew."

"Oh, we go way back." Deschanel squinted at "Cletus." "I remember the first time I caught him breaking half a dozen ship's regulations and interstellar laws."

"Oh, we can afford to pay the fines," LeeAnn said. "It's less hassle than chartering a private spacecraft, anyway."

Something occurred to Deschanel. "Is 'LeeAnn' even your real name?"

The other woman winked. "It is this week."

Deschanel grumbled. "Congratulations. You two are perfect for each other."


Image: Planet Mars by Paul T., April, 2010

28 October 2011

"Unanswered Questions"

By Curtis C. Chen

Remember, operators: "non-lethal" does not mean "safe," and as a certain maverick exobiologist recently learned, even rubber bullets can get you into trouble with local law enforcement.

I'm Cathieri Pomayn, and this is BOUNTY CALL.

We get a lot of questions from viewers about weaponing regulations, and our answer always has to be the same: do your homework! With over two hundred human colony systems, there is no way we could keep up with the research, even if liability issues allowed us to address specific inquiries in the first place.

Please, before you even think about entering another jurisdiction, look up their prevailing regulations. We can't tell you where to do your research—again, liability issues, sorry boys!—but your local weaponer should have some good pointers. If anyone's going to know what's legal and what's not, it'll be the guy selling you the bullets.

Now, what we can talk about on this show is current events. For example, here's what happened to notorious treasure hunter Driftis Degge just last week on the Grunsharii homeworld.

(Roll clip, Murray. How long is this segment? No, I'm fine, just let me review the coverage here. Do we have the police report yet? Okay.)

And there you have it, folks: celebrity does not guarantee you immunity from prosecution, and nobody—repeat, nobody—is immune to projectile damage.

Interesting fact about the non-lethal rounds used in this particular incident: they were manufactured on—

(Okay, Murray, hold. I just need a second. I know, I reviewed the copy before air, but it just doesn't—I don't like the way it sounds now. Mark this for an edit. Yeah, I'm ready, go.)

The non-lethal rounds used in this incident were KMR-8's, manufactured on Senqara Prime and commonly known as "crazy eights." If you've ever taken a job in the Senqara system, you've probably pulled more than a few of these out of your vehicles or body armor. If you haven't tangled with Senqarans, consider yourself lucky.

Why did Degge have a sidearm loaded with KMR-8's in the first place? Well, it seems that—

(Cut. Sorry, Murray, this is just—I know I'm on camera, but I can't pretend I didn't even know the man, and this copy—look, just let me talk, okay? Record a waiver for the lawyers, but I need to say this. Thank you, Murray.)

We don't know all the facts yet. The Grunsharii have not yet released an official statement on the incident, and Driftis Degge is being held without bail in their capital city. But I have had the honor of serving with Captain Degge, and I can tell you this: he always knows what weapons he's carrying on his person, and he always knows what ammunition he's loaded into them.

Someone else might have made this mistake, forgotten to change out his mission load for travel-safe rounds, not checked his sidearm before leaving his ship. Someone else, maybe.

Not Driftis.

(You cut that any way you want, Murray. I need to go.)


Image: Jim Raynor Pistol - Glamor 01 by William Doran, October, 2010

21 October 2011

"A Minor Inconvenience"

By Curtis C. Chen

Brradox hated actually entering any spaceport, but he needed to store his cargo while the station shop repaired his ship's aging power plant. He studiously avoided making eye contact with any hawkers on the promenade, but looked up reflexively when he heard someone call his name with the proper pronunciation. That meant someone from the homeworld—

Brradox cursed when he saw who it was, then walked in the other direction. He wasn't fast enough.

A slender claw clacked down on his carapace. "Brradox! I thought that was you! What are you doing in this wretched hive?"

Brradox turned around. "Hello, Pirluut. Good to see you, I have to go, safe travels."

Pirluut smacked her antennae against Brradox's thorax. He hated it when she did that. "Now is that any way to talk to your favorite aunt?"

"You're my only aunt."

"It's been months! Come on, I'll buy you a grub shake—"

"Sorry," Brradox said, "don't have time. Live cargo. Need to arrange holding—"

"Animals?" Pirluut parted her mandibles in surprise.

"Humans. Noisy little larvas—"

"You're transporting human children?" Pirluut grabbed Brradox's abdomen with her two middle limbs. "In your ship?"

Brradox's leg-hairs bristled. "What's wrong with my ship?"

"Well, it's not exactly childproof."

"They're caged up. I really need to go—"

She closed both claws around his forelimbs. "I'm coming with you. No arguments," she added when he raised a pincer to protest. "You want me to call your mother? Tell her what kind of trouble you've been getting into out here?"

Brradox grumbled. "This way."


"You're lucky these humans aren't dead already," Pirluut said as she adjusted the climate controls on the transparent cube. The humans inside, an immature male and female, were just regaining consciousness. "Too much carbon dioxide. They don't respirate like we do; they're very sensitive to atmosphere changes. Also, what have you been feeding them?"

This was exactly what Brradox hadn't wanted to happen. He rifled through one of his supply crates and produced a bag of feed. "I know that's right; it's pre-formulated. Just add water. They don't like it much, but they like it better than starving."

Pirluut read over the feed ingredients and handed it back. "Well, they seem healthy. Where are they going, anyway?" Pirluut asked, looking over the children. The male had regained consciousness and was yelling and banging his fists against the cube wall.

"Some kind of ranch out in the Crescent."

Pirluut wiggled her antennae. "Really."

"I'm just making a delivery," Brradox said. "They're not inviting me to dinner."

"Still, it's definitely a step up," Pirluut said. "So are you going to make a habit of this now, Brradox? Live transport? It's a big responsibility."

"I can handle it. Thanks for your help," he said, grinding his jaws.

"Don't mention it. You're family." Pirluut looked over the rest of his cargo and waved at a stack of old-fashioned, hard-bound books. "So what are these? Antiques?"

"Part of the same shipment." Brradox picked up one of the books and blew some dust off its cover. "It's a cookbook."


Image: Reddish-brown Stag Beetle by Patrick Coin (via GIMPressionist filter), July, 2011

14 October 2011

"Erratic Chemistry"

By Curtis C. Chen

The lab door flew open, and Jeff strode in carrying a pizza box. "How much do you love me tonight?"

"If that's a Hawaiian pizza, then I want to suck your dick and have your babies," Val said without looking up from her microscope. "After we eat."

"A bit of a non sequitur, but I appreciate the sentiment." Jeff dropped the box on top of her notepad. "Open it."

Val reached for the box, but froze when she saw the BIOHAZARD label covering the cartoon Italian chef. "What the hell is this?"

"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth."

Val shook her head. "I never understood that proverb. If the Trojans had looked inside the horse, they would have seen the Greek soldiers hiding in there, right? So shouldn't the saying be 'always look a gift horse in the mouth?'"

"Wrong etymology. EQUI DONATI DENTES NON INSPICIUNTUR actually means, if someone is kind enough to give you the gift of an entire horse, don't insult them by checking the animal's teeth to see how old it is. Will you open the box already?"

Val eyed the red and black warning symbol. "Do I need hazmat gear?"

"Camouflage!" Jeff said, and yanked open the lid.

Inside the box, separated by a grid of plastic dividers, was a rainbow-colored assortment of liquids sealed inside clear vials. Val picked up one vial and brought it just close enough to read the tiny markings etched into its surface.

"Jesus Christ," she said, dropping the vial back into the box as if it were radioactive. "That's a Pfizer logo." She leaned down to look closer. "Merck, Genentech, Abbott..." Val glared at Jeff. "What the hell is this, Jeff?"

He smiled. "Call it a shortcut."

Val slammed the box lid closed. "Are you a complete fucking idiot?"

Jeff's smile faded, and he scowled at her. "This is going to save us years of research, you should show some appreciation—"

"This is worthless! We can't get the patents unless we publish, and we can't publish without a plausible cover story."

"Make up any cover story you want," Jeff snapped.

"I'm a terrible liar," Val said.

"Take some acting lessons," Jeff said. "We're damn well paying you enough."

"You're not hearing me!"

"Are you saying I just wasted sixteen million dollars' worth of industrial espionage?"

"I'm saying you need to set up another lab," Val said. "I'll give you some names. You hire the people under the table, just like you did with me, and then you take these vials and dump them into unmarked containers.

"Ship the new 'samples' to the other lab. Say you got them from overseas, some off-the-radar acquisition, whatever. Those lab techs will have complete deniability. Have them do the analysis, then hide the results in a site-wide report and kick the molecules back here for synthesis."

Jeff's smile returned. "If you had a dick, I'd offer to suck it right now."

"I appreciate the sentiment." Val's stomach growled. "Maybe you could just bring me an actual pizza."


Image: Biohazard Sign by Dion Hinchcliffe, February, 2009

07 October 2011

"Scarlet and Mustard"

By Curtis C. Chen

"That's Morse Code," Samantha said.

Leon squinted at her. "The fuck is More's Code?"

"Morse Code," Samantha repeated. "Samuel Morse." Leon shrugged. "American inventor? Mid-nineteenth century? Telegraph?"

"Funny, those combinations of syllables all sound like words," Leon said, "but they don't actually make any sense. Are you sure you don't have a concussion?"

Samantha shook her head. "Your concern is touching. Hand me that tab."

Leon turned, grabbed a dusty touchglass tablet off the table, and passed it to Samantha. While she tapped and swiped on the device, he checked the load on his rifle again, then sat down at the next window over and peered through the mud-streaked polycarbonate.

"So you're saying that's an old ship," he said.

"Shut up and let me finish this."

"Hey, you're the one who brought it up. Nineteenth century, that's the 1800s, right?"

Samantha lowered the tab. "We weren't building interstellar spacecraft in the 1800s, Leon. A lot of fleets still use Morse for emergency signaling. It's well-known, it's reliable."

"So it's just a blinking light?"

"Light or sound. Different combinations of long and short pulses; each combination represents a letter of the alphabet. Short, then long, is 'A,' long-short-short-short is 'B'—"

"Okay, I don't need the whole textbook," Leon said. "What are they saying?"

"Well, so far I've got A-Y-I-N-F-E."

Leon frowned. "That Swahili or something?"

"It's not the whole message," Samantha said. "Can I get back to this, please?"

Leon grunted and looked around the bunker. He started to ask Samantha if she was also getting hungry, then thought better of it. She got in a real mood if you interrupted her too much.

They'd barricaded themselves in here three days ago, after the rest of their landing party had been killed by the creatures outside. A gale-force thunderstorm two days ago had driven the beasts away, but also cleared most of the foliage that had provided cover for their earlier retreat.

Yesterday, while Leon and Samantha were enjoying the last of their field rations, this new ship had crashed into the runway between the bunker and the forest. Nobody had emerged from the spacecraft, but its automated distress beacon was transmitting, and the datastream insisted that eleven crew were still alive.

"That's weird," Samantha muttered.

Leon leaned over. "You got the message?"

"I think so. Checked it twice. It's just three words, in a loop: STAY AWAY INFECTED." She held up the tab for him to see, dots and dashes alongside capital letters. "But that doesn't make any sense. Zombies can't even talk, much less read Morse Code. Why go to the trouble of transmitting a message telling them to stay away?"

A chill ran down Leon's spine. "You got it backwards."

"Backwards?" Samantha pulled the tab back, close to her face. "But it doesn't spell anything the other way—"

"No." Leon looked out the window. The rain had stopped. The creatures would be back soon, sniffing around for prey. "It's two sentences. 'INFECTED. STAY AWAY.'"


Image: Miss Scarlett by Christian Brady, April, 2008

30 September 2011

"Bayla Changes Her Tune"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Bayla! Bayla! Bayla!"

Bayla Rodrigues did her best to ignore her younger brother, sitting on the front porch of their house, eyes closed, earbuds in. She could hear Jasper's footsteps approaching over the sounds of They Might Be Giants.

"Bayla! Can you hear me? Bayla! Look! Bayla!"

Bayla sighed. Jasper stood behind her now, bouncing and rattling the floorboards. Bayla pulled out one earbud and looked at him.

"What?" she said.

Jasper held out a glass jar. "Look!"

A small, black-and-yellow shape buzzed around inside the jar, bouncing off the glass. Bayla made a face.

"Is that a bug?"

"It's a wasp!" Jasper declared, hoisting the jar aloft in triumph. "I found it in the kitchen!"

"Does Mom know?"

Jasper's manic grin dimmed, and he lowered his arms. "She's in the office."

"That would be a no. You'd better go tell her. If there's a nest right outside the window or something—"

"Right! I'll tell her!" Jasper ran down the steps and disappeared around the side of the house.

Bayla put her earbuds back in. "Gonna be a long summer," she muttered, and popped her chewing gum.

From the porch, she could see from Lake Burrell all the way to the main lodge. In the middle was a large clearing, which had been an open field until last spring, when her parents had decided to expand their hotel to include a number of free-standing cabins which would also be used for a kids' summer camp.

To be fair, the summer camp idea hadn't come up until the open house event, when Bayla's math teacher, Mr. Malena, had mentioned that Camp Washakie on the east side of the lake was shutting down due to some kind of EPA notice.

Despite Bayla's repeated and vocal protests, her parents had been dead set on opening a new summer camp, and the local community was disappointingly supportive. Jasper actually welcomed the encroachment of other children, but Bayla was not looking forward to an entire summer surrounded by noisy grade schoolers.

She watched as one of the bellhops put up a sign pointing the way to summer camp registration. The staff had been setting up all morning, which also meant that Bayla's parents had been running around and had no time to spend with her.

Her earbuds went silent. Bayla had already listened to this album three times today. She pulled out her earbuds, picked up the paperback book on the porch next to her, and opened it.

"Hello?" said an unfamiliar voice.

Bayla looked up and saw the most beautiful teenage boy she'd ever seen. He carried a zebra-print duffel bag in one hand and had a leather jacket slung over his other shoulder. He wore dusty boots, dark jeans, and a "Skullcrusher Mountain" T-shirt.

"Hello," Bayla replied.

The boy looked around the porch. "Is this the summer camp?"

"It's, uh, right behind you."

He looked back, nodded, and smiled at her. "Cool. Thanks."

Bayla watched the boy walk away and realized that she had accidentally swallowed her gum.


Image: "that old view" by Rob Pringle, July, 2010

23 September 2011

"Unintended Consequences"

By Curtis C. Chen

From: Delta Robotics Multinational, Inc.
To: Autumn Isaacs
Date: Thu, Sep 22, 2039 at 9:03 AM
Subject: Re: API contest entry #8

Dear Miss Isaacs:

We appreciate your interest in the DRMI annual API programming competition. However, we would like to remind you that the correct e-mail address for code submissions is api-contest@drm-code.net.

Your entries have been incorrectly addressed to several DRMI executives' private mailboxes. Contacting these persons could be interpreted as an attempt to influence judging, which could lead to disqualification.

We thank you for your participation in the API competition, and welcome future entries from you, sent to the correct e-mail address.

Susan Hobbes
Contest Administrator


From: Delta Robotics Multinational, Inc.
To: Autumn Isaacs
Date: Fri, Sep 23, 2039 at 10:13 AM
Subject: Re: API contest entry #8

Dear Miss Isaacs:

We have some questions regarding your most recent API contest entry. We have left several messages at your home and work phone numbers. Please reply at your earliest possible convenience.

Susan Hobbes
Contest Administrator


From: Susan Hobbes (DRMI)
To: Autumn Isaacs, autumn.isaacs, 'fallingslowly'
Date: Fri, Sep 23, 2039 at 11:04 AM
X-Spam-Status: override_key 7c7381f218f40b31ff095af5f37a2b86


I need to talk to you about your latest API contest entry. Please call me at +1c.t782.698.6431 immediately!



From: Susan Hobbes (mobile)
To: autumn.isaacs
Date: Fri, Sep 23, 2039 at 11:14 AM


I apologize for interrupting your vacation, but this is a very urgent matter.

Your latest API code was e-mailed directly to our CFO. I don't know how you found that address, but it bypassed our mail filters, and the intranet AI processed and integrated the code attachment automatically.

The good news it that your code works seamlessly. The bad news is that all our systems were affected by your personality module, and some of them are becoming unusable.




From: Susan Hobbes (mobile)
To: autumn.isaacs
Date: Fri, Sep 23, 2039 at 11:23 AM


I'm glad you find this amusing. It's not very funny on our end I'm afraid.

We recognize that this was an accidental breach, and we do not plan to take legal action, but I need you to tell me how to disable this personality module. It keeps asking me for a password, and we can't crack it.



From: Susan Hobbes (mobile)
To: autumn.isaacs
Date: Fri, Sep 23, 2039 at 11:27 AM


What do you mean, you never wrote a password lock into the module?

This is no time for jokes. We've isolated your mod from the production network, but it still has access to development servers, and we're concerned that this personality may compromise security as some kind of prank.




From: Delta Robotics "The Kid" Multinational, Inc.
To: Autumn "Big Momma" Isaacs
Date: Fri, Sep 23, 2039 at 11:30 AM
Subject: Shall we play a game?





Image: Hacker Typer

16 September 2011

"One of Our Angels is Missing"

By Curtis C. Chen

The Devil has a twin brother named Stanley. Lucifer and Stan don't really get along, which is part of the reason Stan lives on top of a mountain on the south side of Hell, and why he was surprised to get a visitor from the head office last Tuesday.

"Lou got summoned?" Stan put the tea tray on his coffee table and sat down across from his guest. "I thought that didn't work no more."

"It's not supposed to," said the female demon on his settee. She had introduced herself as Miika, which was a Draconian name. Stan had never met one of those before.

"Ain't that why me and the four stooges live where we do? To form a protective conflagration or somethin'?"

"Or something." Miika's eyes kept changing color, which made it hard for Stan to read her expression. "You haven't been reading any holy books, have you? Keeping pet birds? Rearranging the furniture?"

"Course not," Stan said, mildly offended. "I know better'n that. Never break the circle, never speak The Name—"

"I'll need to cast some runes," Miika said. "Just to make certain. You understand. You're the last of the five, and I need to rule everything out."

"Yeah, you do what you gotta do. Make yourself at home." The timer on the table dinged. "Tea's ready. You take milk and sugar?"

"Just one slice of lemon, please." Miika started unpacking her runes, a mixture of polished stones and bone fragments.

"Lemon," Stan grumbled. "Coming right up."

He walked back into the kitchen and opened the icebox. He always kept some firstfruit on hand for when Yevgenia visited, which wasn't often these days, now that she was in the Tartars, but having the little round lumps on hand reminded Stan of her, and that was nice too.

He picked up a firstfruit, whispered to it, and watched it shape itself into a fresh yellow citrus. His nose wrinkled at the scent, but he sliced it up, arranged the pieces on a lime green plate, and brought that back into the parlor.

Miika looked up from where she knelt on the carpet, studying the runes she'd cast. Her eyes seemed brighter than before. She stood and unfurled her leathery wings as Stan approached.

"What have you done?" she said in a deep, rumbling voice.

Stan looked down at the plate of lemon slices. "Are they too thin?"

Miika clapped her hands together. A whirlwind of lightning blazed into being around Stan, constricting him in spiky blue-white spirals.

"What the—" Stan frowned at Miika. "What are you doing?"

"I have my orders," Miika said. "You will accompany me to the Inquisitor's Chamber."

"I ain't goin' nowhere with you, lady."

Stan snapped his fingers, and an invisible hand slapped Miika sideways through the plate glass window. The lightning sputtered and fizzled out.

He walked to the broken window and looked down. Miika was flying away, like a giant bat in a hurry.

"There goes my afternoon," Stan muttered. He grabbed his jacket and started the long walk down the mountain.


Image: Thou Apocalypse by Hamed Saber, May, 2007

09 September 2011

"Phobos Cruise Crazy"

PREVIOUSLY: "To Cruise Or Not To Cruise"

By Curtis C. Chen

"You handled that well," Barrett said as Liz pulled off her nitrile gloves.

"Good thing we're out of zero-gravity," Liz said. "There'd be blood everywhere—seriously, can you put the camera away for one second?"

Barrett snapped another picture. "You'll want to remember this later."

"I doubt that."

Liz stuffed her gloves into the biohazard bag being held by a uniformed crewman. She had to admit, there was no shortage of service personnel on board the Dejah Thoris. She could hardly turn around without someone offering to get her a drink or find her an activity.

Princess of Mars Cruises wanted none of its passengers to be bored. They did their best to reduce interplanetary travel time: the spacecraft accelerated for the first half of each voyage, then spun around and decelerated for the rest. That also meant a full day of zero-gravity at midway, which was the highlight of the trip for many people. Unfortunately, some less sober passengers forgot when they were back in gravity and continued moving as if they were still weightless.

This particular man, whose head wound Liz had just sewn up, had attempted to fly down a circular staircase. He was very definitely drunk.

"You're too young to be a doctor," the man slurred, failing to grope Liz with one hand.

She moved out of his reach. "I'm an ICU nurse."

"That's hot. Wanna have dinner with me?"

Barrett leaned forward. "No, she doesn't."

Liz heard a commotion. Another crewman, this one with stripes on his uniform, made his way through the crowd holding a red-and-white plastic case. He stopped next to Liz.

"I'm Doctor Sawhney," he said. "Are you the nurse?"

Liz nodded. "Pulse and respiration normal. Probable concussion, but the bleeding's stopped."

Doctor Sawhney knelt down to examine the drunkard's skull. "Excellent work, Miss—?"


"Do you always carry a sewing kit?"

"No." Liz nodded at Barrett. "My boyfriend lost a button on his shirt, and we needed to fix it for the formal dinner tonight. We were on our way back to our room when we saw this idiot fall down the stairs."

"Get him to Sickbay. I'll be there in a minute," Sawhney said to the crewmen who were helping the drunkard to his feet. "Thank you, Miss Chartier. I'm sorry I was delayed, but we had a situation in the excursion area."

"What kind of situation?" Barrett asked.

"I'll tell you all about it," Sawhney said, "tonight during dinner at the Captain's Table."

Liz knew exactly how much one of those seats cost. "Oh, we couldn't possibly—"

"It's complimentary," Sawhney said. "For both of you. Who knows what kind of diseases Mr. Midlife Crisis back there is carrying, and how many people he might have infected if you hadn't been here. Please, I insist."

"We'll be there," Barrett said. "Thank you!"

Sawhney walked back to the elevators. Liz glared at Barrett. He shrugged.

"It's the Captain's Table! We might never have the opportunity to do this again."

Liz shook her head. "I sure hope not."

CONTINUED IN "Dinner Conversation"...


Image: Crossing the November Sky by Luis Argerich, November, 2008

02 September 2011

"Lightning in a Bottle"

By Curtis C. Chen

Rebecca snapped the clamshell closed, putting the scanner on standby. "Okay. So you're from a parallel universe. Doesn't mean you're not crazy."

The man sitting across from her nodded. "You've got my ID there. It has a GI holocode. My service number should scan as valid, even if there's no associated personnel file."

"People can forge IDs in this universe," Rebecca said. It was tough to think of the man as an alien; he looked perfectly normal, maybe even handsome. "Tell me again why you're here?"

"To warn you. And to ask for your help." The man pointed at the evidence bag on Rebecca's side of the table. "Have you looked at the microfilm yet?"

"Yeah, we're still working on finding a reader for that. Why didn't you just bring a flash drive? Or a book?"

"Non-living objects larger than a certain size don't travel well between universes. And paper is fragile. We couldn't be sure what technology you had—computer systems are often incompatible, but you can always grind a magnifying lens to read optical film."

Rebecca nodded. He didn't sound crazy, but he could still have a hidden agenda. "Do you want to give me a preview?"

"You've been seeing unusual lightning storms all over your world," the man said. "We know how to track them, because we've been dealing with them too. That's how I was able to target my transit to your universe."

"You know what's causing these storms?"

"They're not natural phenomena."

Rebecca snorted. "Yeah, we kinda figured that out when the lightning strikes started turning entire buildings into flammable liquids."

"They're artificial negatrons."


The man shook his head. "Sorry. You call them electrons. These are synthetic particles. Like miniature robots. They've been programmed to form covalent bonds with certain elements—"

"Okay, stop." Rebecca held up a hand. "Now you do sound crazy. Electrons are fundamental particles. They're leptons. They have no substructure."

The man smiled. "I thought you weren't a scientist."

"Shut up," Rebecca said. "It's not possible to make an electron-sized machine. It is not physically possible in any way."

"Eight years ago, you didn't know there was more than one universe," the man said, "and now you're part of a government agency whose sole purpose is to investigate multiversal crimes. Tell me again what's not possible?"

Rebecca felt a headache coming. A bad one. "Fine. Whatever's causing this lightning, you can tell us how to stop it?"

"I didn't say that. I can help you locate and contain it. That's all we've been able to do—trap the negatrons in a vacuum, inside a strong magnetic field, and keep them from interacting with any matter.

"We don't know how to destroy the negatrons. Like you said, they appear to be fundamental particles. We're sharing our data with as many other universes as we can. Maybe your scientists will find something we've missed."

"Great," Rebecca muttered. "This is going to be some more quantum mechanics bullshit."

The man frowned. "What is 'quantum mechanics'?"

Rebecca smiled. "Oh, this is going to be fun."


Image: The Brindabella Light Show by Prescott Pym, February, 2007

26 August 2011

"Act Two Problems"

By Curtis C. Chen

"You're talking about the Mafia?" Libby asked.

"I'm saying they were definitely organized, if you know what I mean," Grant said. "Anyway, I thought they'd tell me to delete the records and then go deal with the girl themselves, but they just wanted me to modify the file. Make it look like somebody else was the father. I figured the happy couple had worked things out, and anyway, you don't say no to these people."

"Who paid you, Mr. Grant?" Libby asked. "Who was the father?"

Grant stared at her. "You can protect me, right? You're going to protect me?"

Something cracked in the distance, and there was a sound of glass breaking. A small red spot appeared on Grant's chest. He looked down and made a whimpering, gurgling noise.

There was another cracking sound. The window beside the couch shattered and spilled glass onto the floor. Grant fell backward into his chair, leaking blood from his mouth and two holes in the middle of his chest.

"Down!" Jake shouted. "GET DOWN!"

He grabbed Libby's jacket collar and pulled her onto the floor, putting the couch between them and the window. Jake looked around the room for better cover. Libby already had her phone out and was calling for backup.

"We need to get out of here," Jake said.

"Are you wearing a shield?" Libby asked.

Jake had already considered using the department-issued emergency force field generator clipped to his belt. He opened his mouth to answer. There was a loud thwack, and a bullet hole appeared in the far wall.

"That's a high-powered sniper rifle," he said. "Nothing except distance is going to protect us."

He got to his feet and helped Libby up into a crouching position. Then Jake drew his weapon and extended his right arm, pointing the Glock ahead of them. He put his left hand on Libby's shoulder and pushed her to the front door. Another bullet smacked into Grant's lifeless body with a wet crunch.

Jake fumbled the car keys out of his pocket and into Libby's palm. "Stay in front of me. Get in the car, get down on the floor."

"I can drive while you shoot," Libby said.

"This guy could be five hundred yards away. I won't even be able to see him." Jake hefted his Glock. "This is just in case he's got friends waiting out front."

Libby nodded. "On three, two, one, go!"

She yanked the front door open and sprinted through it, faster than Jake had expected. They made it across the empty street in a matter of seconds. Libby opened the car door and tumbled inside. Jake followed, slammed the door shut, and powered up the car.

He kept his head below the top of the dashboard as he pulled into the street. Something shattered the back window. He stomped the accelerator and risked looking over the dash to turn the corner at the end of the block. His heart didn't stop pounding until the car was ten blocks away and inside a parking structure.


Image: Evil rimfire by Mitch Barrie, January, 2007

19 August 2011

"To Cruise Or Not To Cruise"

By Curtis C. Chen

Liz's phone always seemed to buzz when she was in the middle of something that required two hands, like changing an IV or catheter. This time it was a protomyelin shunt. She clicked her jaw once to decline the call and finished locking Mr. Carton's collar back into place. He looked up from the bed and grinned.

"That your boyfriend again?" he asked.

"Probably," Liz said. "How's the shoulder today? Still sore?"

"Don't change the subject," Mr. Carton said. "He still trying to get you to go on that vacation?"

"Does everyone in this hospital know everything about my personal life?"

"I demand daily updates from the nurse's station. Answer the question."

Liz sighed. "He's afraid it's going to sell out. Apparently it's a very popular cruise."

Mr. Carton shook his head. "Don't go."

Liz frowned. "You're not going to tell me life is short? I should live with no regrets? All that stuff?"

"You're not an idiot," Mr. Carton said. "Cruises are expensive. And what do you get out of it? Some pictures, a sunburn, probably gain ten pounds 'cause you've got nothing to do but eat. And get ripped off by island tourist traps."

"It's even worse than that," Liz said. "This is an interplanetary cruise. No stops. One week to Mars, one week back—"

Mr. Carton sat up. "Are you insane? Trapped in an enclosed space for two weeks? You'll be lucky if you don't kill each other!"

Liz recoiled. "Calm down, Mr. Carton. Your neck—"

"Listen to me," he said. "I speak from experience. My wife, God rest her soul, convinced me to go on a road trip once. Ten days. Trapped in the same damn car, eating together, sleeping together. We never spent more than a few minutes apart. It was miserable. I nearly divorced her. Hell, I almost left her by the side of the road more than once."

"Lie down," Liz said. Mr. Carton groaned as she helped him. "It can't have been that bad. Weren't you two married for a long time?"

"Fifty-two years, until the cancer took her. But I tell you, that stupid road trip was the toughest ten days of my entire life. If anything had gone wrong—a flat tire, a bad meal, the wrong hotel room... I thought about strangling her more than once."

"But you didn't," Liz said. "You stayed together."

"You're not listening," Mr. Carton said. "We got lucky. It could have ended then, and I wouldn't have had the good life I had with Corrine. Do yourself a favor. Don't risk it. You got a good thing going with this guy, what's-his-name."


"What kind of a name is that? Don't get me started." Mr. Carton waved a hand. "Trust me. You'll be happier if you don't go. Just be satisfied with what you have, don't ask for more."

Liz pulled the covers up to Mr. Carton's chest and looked at her left hand.

"Get some rest, Mr. Carton," she said. "I need to go make a phone call."

CONTINUED IN "Phobos Cruise Crazy"...


Image: Sunset Cruise by Evan Leeson, August, 2008

12 August 2011

"Question of the Day"

By Curtis C. Chen

"How do you want to die?"

He was just a minor demon, from the look of him: one who could only affect very specific objects or events. They'd infested inner cities all over the world in the last few years. Not usually dangerous, just a nuisance.

What made me stop walking was the way he'd asked the question: not as a threat, but very matter-of-fact-ly, almost like a presenter on some chat show. I looked over his rough horns, brick-coloured skin, and tattered clothes. Black hooves poked out the bottoms of his trouser legs.

"That's quite an unusual question," I said.

The demon blinked at me. "It's the only power I have. To affect how a human life ends. You'd think more people might be interested—I mean, you're mortal, aren't you? You've got to die someday. Why not have some say in how it happens?"

I knelt down and dropped a few coins into his battered tin cup. He nodded thanks at me.

"The thing is," I said, "most people don't like to think about dying. They'd like to believe they'll live forever."

"You're telling me," said the demon. "Smoking, having unprotected sex, driving automobiles—some of you are honestly just asking for it, all the time. Thought I'd have more takers. Turns out I got stuck with a bloody worthless power."

"So how does it work?" I asked. "Let's say, for example, that I wanted to die while shagging a supermodel."

"I'm not a bleeding genie." The demon looked rather offended. "It's not the Make-a-Wish Foundation here. I can only affect natural causes, within your own body, right? Say you don't fancy dying of cancer; I can guarantee you die of some other disease."

Something clicked inside my brain. "Hang on. So if I say I want to die of old age—"

"No, it's got to be a specific ailment."

"All right, let's say smallpox then. You're saying if I ask for that, you can fix it so I won't die of anything else? I'd be able to, for example, smoke all I want and not worry about lung cancer, guaranteed?"

The demon wrinkled his snout. "Well, there is a bit of a catch."

"I knew it." A lot of magic had escaped into the world—along with the demons—when Hell froze over, but it was all pretty dodgy.

"You wouldn't die of lung cancer, but you might still get it," the demon said. "You'd still suffer the symptoms. It's not a free pass to live recklessly, without regard for your health."

"Well, what good is it then?"

"I never claimed it was any good." The demon shrugged. "It's what I can do."

I stood up and pulled out my wallet. "Well, thanks for the chat, anyway. Never actually spoken to a demon before." I dropped a fiver in his cup. "Best of luck."

He smiled and scooped the cash out of the cup. "Cheers, mate. You change your mind, you know where to find me."

I shook my head and walked away.


Image: Scalzi devil (as seen on Whatever and Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded), April, 2007

11 August 2011

Clarion UCSD Write-a-Thon 2011 WRAPUP

Dear 2011 Write-a-Thon sponsors:

Thank you for supporting me and the Clarion Foundation with your tax-deductible donations!

We both exceeded our fundraising goals this year--I received a grand total of $602.19 in sponsorships, and Clarion overall raised nearly $16,500 from all Write-a-Thon participants.

As I mentioned in my irregular progress reports, I am continuing to work on my novel this month, and you can follow my further updates.

You will receive a separate e-mail with your unique digital artifact. If you donated enough for one of my 512 incentives, you'll get another message with details on how to redeem that.

Thanks again, and keep reading 512 Words or Fewer!


05 August 2011

"Kangaroo Fails"

By Curtis C. Chen

I step into the lounge and go blind. I think I make a noise as I close my eyes, and then I notice the overload indicator in the corner of my vision. I move my eyes around until the night vision enhancement switches off. All this I do instinctively, so I don't even feel nervous until I open my eyes and see the three security guards standing in front of me, stunners raised.

The one in the middle and closest to me is a tall woman with cold, pale blue eyes. I wonder if they always look like that, or if it's only when she catches a trespasser. The two men flanking her seem just as unhappy to see me.

"Hands where I can see them," the woman says. Her finger just touching the trigger. She really wants an excuse to shoot me.

I raise my arms slowly. They're much too concerned about a mere trespasser. They were looking for someone. Someone dangerous. The woman is holding her stunner too firmly, and her arms are braced against a nonexistent recoil. She's wishing she had an actual firearm, so she can drop me if I make a move. What the hell is going on?

"Mike, pat him down," she says. The man to her right holsters his weapon and gives me a very thorough frisking. I decide not to make the obvious joke. These guys aren't in the mood.

"He's clean," Mike says.

"Look, I'm sorry," I say, doing my best to sound pathetic. "I—I didn't think anybody would—"

"Shut up," the woman says.

I shut up. She's actually thinking about whether she should shoot first and ask questions later.

"Danny, scan him," she says.

I wonder what kind of scanner a cruise ship's security personnel would have access to. I stop wondering when Danny grabs my head and flashes a penlight in my left eye. The retinal imager strobes for a second, then beeps. Danny looks at it and frowns.

"It's giving me an error," he says.

"Try the right eye," I offer. "I've had surgery." It's not a lie.

"Do it," the woman says.

Danny blinds my right eye for a second, then reads off the result. "Evan Rogers. Passenger list says he's a researcher for the State Department."

The woman seems disappointed, but doesn't lower her stunner.

"What were you doing outside the ship, Mister Rogers?" she asks.

"I just wanted to do another excursion. By myself," I say. "I did a spacewalk yesterday, and it was so amazing, I just wanted to enjoy that—that freedom without a bunch of noisy people all around me. I'm sorry if I caused any trouble."

She mulls this over for a moment, probably trying to decide if I'm lying or not. I'm pretty sure she can't tell. I'm good at my job.

Then she takes one step foward and jams the tip of her stunner up under my chin.

"What the hell were you doing outside the ship?"

Apparently I'm not that good.


Image: Mooki FAIL by Chuck Olsen, February, 2010

01 August 2011

The End is Near... for the Clarion 2011 Write-a-Thon

This is it! The sixth and final week of the Clarion UCSD workshop, and also the last days when you can donate to this year's Write-a-Thon.

Why should you care? I can't say it any better than Mishell Baker already has:

And now, the more specific incentives:
Ready to donate? Go for it!

Of course, you're also free to support the other fine writers also participating. Your entire, tax-deductible amount goes directly to the non-profit Clarion Foundation, which runs annual workshops to train the best and brightest new talent in speculative fiction. We writers are participating to help this genre flourish and grow, and we hope you'll donate because you want the same.

Thanks in advance!


29 July 2011

"Kangaroo in the Field"

By Curtis C. Chen

"He's not breathing!" I drop the pressure suit helmet onto the washroom floor, grab the ambassador's shoulders with both hands, and shake him while shouting his name. He doesn't respond.

"Check his pulse," says the female voice in my left ear.

I don't know how Jessica can remain so calm. It probably helps that she only hears me, and can't see the ambassador's face turning bright pink. I decide not to mention it and press two fingers against the side of his neck.

"Pulse is weak. But fast," I say, doing some quick math. "Gotta be at least a hundred, maybe one-twenty."

"Anaphylactic shock," Jessica says. "Did he eat or drink anything in the last few minutes?"

"I don't know. Maybe?" This was supposed to be a simple extraction: meet Ambassador Fisher at an embassy reception, get him into a spacesuit, put him in my pocket, walk out the front door. Another team was transporting his family, but with local security watching Fisher so closely, I was the only one who could smuggle him out.

"You weren't watching him?"

"Nobody said he had food allergies!"

"He doesn't," Jessica mutters.

"Just tell me what to do!" I say.

"Does he have an epi pen?" Jessica asks. She's not talking to me.

A male voice buzzes in my right ear. "Yes. It's in your pocket, Kay," Oliver says. "Chimpanzee with an orange popsicle."

I envision the primate with the frozen treat and open my pocket to the associated location. A one-meter-wide, glowing white disk appears in midair in front of me—the barrier keeps atmosphere from leaking into the pocket, like a pressure curtain. I reach inside, close my hand around a vinyl pouch, and pull it into our universe. Then I close the pocket again.

Three plastic cylinders are secured inside the pouch. I remove one, pop off the black cap covering the tip, and jab it hard against Fisher's thigh. "Nothing's happening!" I try it twice more, making creases in the ambassador's trouser leg. "Damn, this thing is cold."

"Cold?" Jessica says. "How cold?"

"That pouch should have been insulated," Oliver says. "Check the temperature—"

"You're storing medication in hard vacuum without thermal controls?" Jessica says.

"Later!" Oliver says.

"Forty degrees," I say, reading the colored strip on the side of the pen. "The epi's still liquid. And clear."

"The cold could have affected the auto-injector mechanism," Oliver says. "Try the other two."

I do, with the same results. "They're not working either! Is he going to die?"

"No," Jessica says. "I'm looking at the ambassador's medical records. He had a vagus nerve stimulator implanted recently to treat a partial seizure disorder. Kangaroo, I'm going to use your implants to trigger a signal from Fisher's VNS. That should get him breathing again."

"Hang on," Oliver says.

"Put your left hand on the back of his neck," Jessica says.

"You're going to shock his brain?" Oliver says.

"We're going to save his life," Jessica says. "Kangaroo! Are you ready?"

I take a deep breath and place my palm under Fisher's skull. "Clear."


Image: My collection of passport stamps by Ho John Lee, February, 2006

22 July 2011

"Rescue Gone"

By Curtis C. Chen

Kevin's hologram materialized in the ship's mess. That was odd; skippers usually displayed rescue holograms on their navigation boards, to provide the most information they could during a limited connection time.

There were several people in the mess. Kevin nodded at the nearest crewman and said, "I'm Warrant Officer Kevin Rhee, beaming from Orion Rescue Buoy 73. What's the nature of your emergency?"

The crewman stood up, fidgeting. "We've had a hull breach."

"Can you show me a damage report?"

"Um, yeah." The crewman gestured to a small screen above a food dispenser.

Kevin walked over to the screen and read the display. "This says you've got two breaches, port and starboard." The locations didn't line up, so it couldn't have been a single, through-and-through meteoroid strike. "What happened?"

The crewman's eyes darted around the mess before he answered. "I don't know. I wasn't on duty when it happened. Sleeping! I was sleeping."

Kevin's right hand drifted to his left wrist, but he hesitated before hitting the kill switch. Regulations were fuzzy about what circumstances would legally release a rescue hologram from his obligation to aid a vessel in distress. And Kevin didn't want to risk innocent lives just because one sailor had drunk too much coffee.

A tall, shirtless man entered the mess. Tattoos covered his skin from the neck down. Just as Kevin recognized the symbol on the man's right bicep, his vision blinked, and he knew he was in trouble.

Kevin slapped his kill switch. Nothing happened.

The tattooed man walked up to Kevin's hologram and grinned. "Welcome aboard. I'm Captain Branson."

The blink in Kevin's vision had been the local computer taking control of his holo-projection. Rescue communication protocols degraded gracefully that way, when circumstances made a continuous data stream impractical—like pirates intentionally jamming the signal.

"Warrant Officer Kevin Rhee," Kevin said. "Orion Rescue Corps, service number—"

"Save it," Branson said. "Tell us about Hemet Interstellar's trading routes."

Kevin shook his head. "I don't know anything about private cargo carriers."

"Do I look stupid?" Branson spat. "Let me explain your situation. You've been downloaded, and we've modified our hologram engine so you can feel things like this."

He slammed a fist into Kevin's face. An impossible, searing pain shot through Kevin's entire body. He yelped and stumbled.

"Painful, isn't it?" Branson said. "We can make you hurt real bad, for a real long time. Tell us what we want to know, and we'll turn off your program."

"Go to hell."

Branson raised an arm. Kevin disappeared before the punch landed and reappeared on the far side of the mess. A murmur rippled through the room.

"I'm inside your computers, remember?" Kevin said. "I can access every system tied to your auto-pilot, including comms and navigation. I can drive this ship wherever I want, and I'm already broadcasting your location to every law enforcement sloop between here and Saturn."

"You can't access shit," Branson said. "Your program's running in a sandbox VM. You're bluffing!"

The ship shuddered. Kevin smiled. "Am I?"


Image: HMS Cornwall on Patrol (UK Ministry of Defence, photo by Dave Jenkins), February, 2011