28 December 2012

"Now and Later"

The following story is fictional. No actual person or event is depicted.

By Curtis C. Chen

Now, Christian Francis Reed plays with a toy rifle, expelling the cork projectile over and over, pretending he can strike targets across the room. Pop. Targets like the tinseled tree, or the sleeping dog, or his sister. He wonders when his father will get him a real gun. He imagines shooting BBs, hitting things before they can get close enough to hit him. He aims the air rifle and imagines the face of the largest boy in class, the one who punches and kicks harder than anyone else. Pop.

Later, Christian Francis Reed walks through the shopping mall, covered in ceramic body armor, an automatic weapon in each hand. He likes the way the guns bounce as he fires them, rat-a-tat-tat, scattering bullets left and right. He doesn't care if he hits anyone; he's just shooting to clear his path. He imagines the noises not as gunshots, but as drumbeats. That's what they sound like, through the helmet: rump-a-pum-pum.

Now, Christian Francis Reed admires himself in the mirror, holding the first firearm he's purchased with his own money, a revolver which he selected after days of research. The six-shooter reminds him of Westerns, but there are also practical reasons to prefer "wheel guns" over "bottom feeders"—the latter can jam, and that's no good. Christian likes to know that he will be able to shoot his gun whenever he wants.

Later, Christian Francis Reed sees the police sniper on the upper level of the mall, and Christian drops the sniper with half a clip. The sniper falls and lands in front of Christian. She's a woman. He hesitates, confused—shouldn't she be at home with her baby?—until she draws her sidearm, and then he shoots her in the neck. But she manages to put a bullet in his leg first, and he has to hobble forward. He's annoyed that she slowed him down. Christian doesn't like it when people stop him from getting what he wants.

Now, Christian Francis Reed wrestles with the girl in the backseat, pinning her down. He's not sure if the noises she's making are even words. He releases her wrist to reach under the seat, and she slaps his face before he can grab the pistol. Christian slams the butt of the weapon into the girl's skull, and then she is silent and still, and he gets what he wants.

Later, Christian Francis Reed lies on his back in the center of the mall, wheezing as broken ribs scrape against his lungs. The police made him drop the detonator, and though he has to respect their marksmanship with the new non-lethal shock darts, he is very unhappy that he won't get what he wants. His fingers twitch toward the detonator, just inches away, but a boot kicks it out of reach. The owner of the boot kneels above Christian, and he sees that it's another woman.

"You're under arrest," she says, cuffing his wrists. "Don't die before we put you on trial, asshole."


Image: Science Museum of Minnesota bans guns, July, 2008

21 December 2012

"Not As We Know It"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Here we go." Renfti pushed the button. "End of the world."

Sarlmon watched the flashing red color spread across the map on the wall display for a second, then sat down at the control station next to his student. "You seem confident of the outcome."

Renfti folded her hands and smiled. "I've studied this species for a long time. They're quite gregarious—almost pathologically so. Cut off their social contact, and they start losing their minds."

Sarlmon nodded. "An interesting hypothesis."

"I've tested it with several small groups," Renfti said. "Same results every time. The key is to isolate them, remove all objective evidence from external sources, then initiate a dominance struggle. It never ends well."

"But to reproduce that on a large scale?" Sarlmon asked. "Surely you can't expect these beings to self-isolate everywhere. Cultural and geographical differences will provoke different responses across the planet."

"Some things are hard-wired into the brain." An alert popped up on Renfti's console, and she tapped at her controls. "Survival instincts remain, because the genes are selfish. Civilization alters the dynamics and causes instinctual responses to have undesirable results..." She frowned. "That's unusual."

"Let me guess," Sarlmon said, "something unexpected in one of the large population centers, probably a coastal city."

Renfti gaped at him. "How did you know?"

"My dear, you are not the first candidate who's ever tried to defend this thesis." Sarlmon waved at the wall display. "Show me the data, please."

The map zoomed in, and one shaded area resolved into clusters of pulsing red dots. As Sarlmon and Renfti watched, one particular cluster moved upward, accreting other red dots.

"This doesn't make sense," Renfti said, poking at her controls. "An anomaly. One bad datum. It won't affect the outcome."

"How many individuals in that cluster?" Sarlmon asked.

"The computer estimate is..." Renfti shook her head. "That can't be right."

"How many?"

"Nearly a thousand!" Renfti hammered at her controls. "There must be some mistake. They couldn't have self-organized that quickly; the communication issues alone would be insurmountable—"

"They're moving." Sarlmon pointed at the screen. "Where are they going? Can you overlay the radar scan?"

"Yes, Professor. There." The display flickered, and the translucent blue ghosts of buildings and structures appeared, cobalt-tinged jars around the teeming crimson fireflies. "Oh no. No, no, no..."

"Let me guess," Sarlmon said. "A launch facility."

A large red sphere blossomed in the base of one of the blue structures, and alarms began sounding all around the two scholars. Renfti screeched. Sarlmon slapped his override and began programming a transfer orbit.

"I don't understand!" Renfti wailed. "It should have worked! All the simulations were positive!"

"Nuclear-capable societies are always complicated," Sarlmon said as he piloted the ship out of weapons range. "I'm afraid your experiment is over, my dear. They've seen us. It's the military's problem now.

"Oh, stop blubbering. Your next course will be Earth history. Learning how we survived our nuclear age should help you understand how to make things go wrong on these undesirable alien worlds."


Image: wifi stations in berlin by Michael Kreil, April, 2011

14 December 2012

"Barely Legal"

By Curtis C. Chen

"So," the human asked, using the translator in his computer tablet, "what's a nice pupa like you doing in a place like this?"

Anafful suspected this was an attempt at what humans called "humor," and what her mother called "useless vocalization," especially if it came from one of Anafful's friends.

It was lunchtime, and the friends in question had all abandoned Anafful to gawk at the aliens milling about the cafeteria downstairs. She had seen this human walking around the wards previously, talking to various people until he was shooed away by the nurses.

Anafful suspected he was a galactic census adjunct or some such boring thing. She had watched as he approached, mystified as to why all her friends found these endoskeletal beings so fascinating. To Anafful, the human looked pink and squishy, like an oversized and undercooked land grub.

His appearance made her a bit nauseous, to be honest, but she did her best to be polite. After all, he was a guest in her star system.

"I will soon enter the chrysalid phase of my adolescence," Anafful said, speaking slowly so the translator program could follow along. "My ancestors are among the custodians of this institution, and thus my family enjoys the benefit of its medical care."

"Got it. Trust fund baby," the human said, operating the tablet with his soft, fleshy fingers. They made a disturbing, wet, thwack sound with every impact against the touch-screen.

"I do not know what that phrase means," Anafful said.

"Don't worry about it. So, your friends who were in here earlier, are they classmates then?" the human asked.

"Some of them, yes. My school is—"

"And at least one of them was male, is that correct?"

Anafful suppressed any display of annoyance at his interruption. "Two were males. Gaddlim wore the bright red cap, and Driicha has the emblem of ascension etched into his left wing carapace. They—"

"Have you engaged in sexual relations with either of them?"

Anafful could not help fluttering her mandibles at that. "Why are you asking me these questions?"

"Or are your eggs not accessible until later in the metamorphic cycle?"

"Who are you?"

"What about with the other females?" the human asked, apparently oblivious to Anafful's objections. "Have you ever performed mutual—"

Just then, a nurse passing by the open door of Anafful's room burst in, seizing the human by his lumpy shoulders and spinning him around.

"Hey!" he yelped.

"You again!" the nurse said, and shoved him out the doorway. "Out! Right now, or I call security!"

"I'm allowed to be here!" the human protested from the corridor.

"You're not allowed to harass children!" The nurse slammed the door shut, then turned to Anafful. "Are you well, miss?"

"Yes," Anafful said, clutching her bedcovers close to her shell. "But confused. He was asking me all sorts of... strange questions. Who is he?"

"Just one of those soft-brained human scholars." The nurse shook her head. "I swear, it seems like all they ever want to talk about is sex."


Image: I'm looking through you by Gabriela F. Ruellan, February, 2007

07 December 2012

"Introducing Kangaroo"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Come on, DAD would be a great code name for you."

He gave me the look that said he wasn't in the mood for jokes. Actually, he was almost never in the mood for jokes—unless he was making them—but this was the look that really meant business. This was the look that threatened physical harm if I continued down this path.

So, of course, I kept pushing.

"You know," I said, "because you're such a father figure to me. Right? Except nobody else would know that. So it's super easy for us to remember, but completely opaque to anybody else."

He stared at me for another long moment, then said, "Are you planning to be this idiotic during the meeting?"

"That is my plan, yes."

"You do understand what's at stake here."

I could hear his voice switching into lecture mode. "Yeah, I do, but why don't you remind me again, in excruciating detail."

He touched the controls on the back of the driver's seat, and the clear partition between us and the vehicle's front compartment darkened. At the same time, the outside road noise became muffled as the active suppression systems engaged. Even in a secure agency vehicle, one could never be too careful about eavesdroppers.

"This meeting is going to decide the disposition of your entire future," he said. "After today, you're either going to be a lab rat or a field agent. And only one of those occupations offers a halfway normal life."

"I have no chance at a normal life," I said. "I have a superpower, remember?"

"I said halfway normal," he said. "Science Division will not blink at locking you away for weeks of testing at a time. They won't even think of you as a human being. All they want is to figure out how to replicate your ability, either technologically or biologically. And if they have to trade your life for that knowledge, they will feel absolutely no remorse about it."

"Okay, yeah, I get it," I said. "But how does doing field missions at your beck and call improve my life expectancy?"

"I'm not saying you'll live any longer. It's quite possible you'll make a rookie mistake your first time out and get killed within minutes of infiltration."

I studied his face to see if he was attempting to make a joke. He wasn't.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," I said.

"Even the best agents can be brought down by stupid mistakes or plain old bad luck. It's nothing personal, KANGAROO," he said.

"And another thing," I said. "Can we talk about changing my stupid code name?"

"What's wrong with KANGAROO?"

I squinted at him. "You do realize that only female kangaroos have pouches, right?"

He stared back at me. "What's your point?"

I was certain he was joking now, but his face betrayed nothing.


Image: Rude kangaroo! by Tambako The Jaguar, July, 2010

30 November 2012

"The Old Switcheroo"

By Curtis C. Chen

On the fourth day of my captivity aboard U-216, it finally occurred to me to ask Sato something that I should have thought of much earlier.

"What do the Americans think happened to their teleport?"

He paused his work and wiped his hands with a rag. "They believe you are dead."

Maybe he expected me to be satisfied with that, but I needed to know exactly how they were working this con. "Why would they think that, if they received nothing on their end of the teleport?"

Sato shook his head. "They did not receive nothing. They received ashes."

I wasn't sure I had heard him right. "Did you say 'ashes'?"

He reached underneath his work bench and pulled out a small locker. When I saw what was inside it, I felt sick.

Sato opened the locker and took out a bundle wrapped in what looked like cheesecloth. He unwrapped it to reveal a glass container filled with a thick gray powder, speckled with shards of white.

"Ashes," Sato said quietly. "Human remains."

I sat very still, determined not to vomit. I didn't need to ask Sato where the Nazis were getting human remains; I knew about their concentration camps, and I knew most of their prisoners didn't make it out alive.

I had heard stories about teleports going wrong. It was supposed to be exceedingly rare; usually, a teleport was an all-or-nothing proposition—either it worked or it didn't. But every once in a blue moon, a teleport damaged or killed the person being transported.

It didn't make any sense, given what we knew of teleportation, but then again, we didn't actually know how teleportation worked in the first place. We just knew that these symbols and these incantations combined would cause this effect. Sato's work was the first methodical experimentation I'd seen in this area of sorcery.

It did seem a bit appalling that people had been using this magic for centuries without understanding how it actually worked, but then again, we'd been setting things on fire since prehistoric times without knowing how combustion worked. Sometimes it didn't matter, as long as you got the result you wanted.

So it would have been shocking, but perhaps not too surprising, for my compatriots back at OSS to have received a pile of ashes instead of my living self. We had known that there were Nazi sorcerers in Rome. There would be nothing conclusive, of course, so my death wouldn't dissuade OSS from continuing to teleport when they needed to. Losing one person once in a very great while was nothing compared to the convenience and security of being able to place a spy anywhere you wanted in the blink of an eye.

"So they believe I am dead," I said. "They will not try to find me."

"Yes," Sato said, putting away the jar. "This means you are safe. You are free."

No, I thought, this means nobody's coming to rescue me. I'm on my own.

I was going to escape. The only questions were how, and when.


Image: To Ashes by Julian Kliner, April, 2012

23 November 2012

"Food for Thought"

By Curtis C. Chen

I have never actually liked Japanese cuisine that much. I've never even been to Japan. I was born and raised a Hawaiian girl, so my favorite dishes involve pineapple and pork and sweet bread.

I hoped my straight face held as I watched Sato fill a bowl with steamed rice, dark green seaweed, and yellow chunks of—carrot? I hoped I would be able to choke it all down.

Sato presented the food to me with a slight bow, as if it were some kind of great gift. I bowed back at him, took the bowl, and started eating. Thank God my parents had forced me to learn how to use chopsticks.

"Will you not eat as well, Sato-san?" I asked. Honestly, it's kind of creepy for you to just sit there staring at me.

"I have already eaten," Sato said. "I apologize for the lack of privacy, but the captain does not want you to accidentally wander into a dangerous area of the vessel."

I nodded while chewing the hell out of a piece of cold, rubbery seaweed. "Sato-san, may I ask what you are doing here? I understand if you cannot answer, for reasons of military secrecy."

He smiled. I was speaking the most formal, deferential Japanese I knew, and keeping my body hunched over, a small and submissive female. I promised myself that I would clock this guy before I escaped.

"I will answer," Sato said. "It is good to hear and speak Japanese again.

"I am a sorcerer of sorts," he continued, gesturing to the workspace behind him. "Emperor Hirohito loaned me to the Germans in order to investigate how we might interfere with the Americans' magic. It is the will of the Emperor that we should seek less confrontational means to injure our enemies."

"That seems wise," I said.

"The Emperor is a wise man," Sato said, but his eyes belied the conviction of his words. Interesting. "There has been enough killing. Whatever we can do to end this war quickly, I will do my best to help."

"You appear to have been somewhat successful already," I said. "You rescued me from the Americans. How did you do that?"

He hesitated. I scooped up more rice and puckered my lips around the chopsticks, sucking slowly. Sato was a man, and the way his gaze went to my mouth told me he was a man who was interested in women. Good. I could use that, too, when the time came.

"You have the talent, Hachiya-san," he said, looking back up at my eyes. "Is that correct?"

I inclined my head, as if bashful. "I am not trained in the magical arts, Sato-san, but I was told by my teachers that I have some inborn ability."

"So you know something of sorcery."

"Only what a schoolgirl learns."

"That is enough." Sato picked up a worn leather notebook. "I think it is time for you to learn more. As I have."

And then he told me one hell of a story.


Image: Crab Kimbap Rolls by Emily Barney, April, 2009

16 November 2012

"Bottoms Up"

By Curtis C. Chen

The Lieutenant lifted a still-burning cigarette out of her ashtray and touched it to the corner of my letter, setting it on fire.

I jumped out of my chair. "What the hell! Ma'am," I added quickly.

Markey crumpled up the paper and dropped it and the cigarette back into her ashtray, out of my reach, letting my words of protest burn away. "Did you really think, for one second, that I was going to let anybody else see that fucking letter?"

"They're not ready for this," I said. My legs felt weak, and the urge to throw up was quickly returning. "I'm not ready for this."

Markey stared at me for a second, then turned around, unlocked one of her file cabinets, and knelt to pull open the bottom drawer. I heard glass clinking, and then she stood up holding two lowball glasses and an unlabeled bottle of dark red liquid. She thumped the glasses down on top of her desk, pulled the stopper out of the bottle, and poured.

"Please tell me that's not blood," I said.

She filled both glasses about half full, then pushed one across the desk toward me. "Drink."

I picked up the glass. The liquid was a dark ruby color, too translucent and not quite thick enough to be actual blood. But I wouldn't have been surprised to find out that it had been thinned by something even more disturbing.

There was magic, and there was superstition, and then there was tradition. Lots of people held on to completely nonsensical traditions for no good reason, and I didn't put it beyond Markey to be beholden to some weird cultural heritage that might have included light vampirism.

"Please tell me this isn't human blood," I said.

"When Hades abducted Persephone to the Underworld," Markey said, "she was forbidden, by the rules of the Fates, to eat or drink anything while she was there." She held her glass up next to her desk lamp, swirling the liquid around. Crimson light played across her face. "If anyone still living consumed food or drink while visiting Hades, that person would have to remain, trapped by her own indiscretion."

"Please tell me this isn't your blood."

"Persephone's mother, Demeter, discovered that Hades had abducted her daughter, and forced Zeus to demand Persephone's return," Markey said. "It's interesting to note here that Zeus was the one who had originally goaded Hades into abducting Persephone to be his bride in the Underworld."

"I don't suppose I could get a mixer for this?" I said.

"Zeus didn't want any more trouble that day," Markey said. "So he ordered Hades to return Persephone, and you don't fuck with Zeus. But, as you no doubt are aware, Greek gods are all about following the letter of the law. Before he released Persephone, Hades tricked her into eating four seeds from a pomegranate."

Relief swept over me. I held my glass up to my nose and inhaled a sweet, fruity scent that was not at all like blood.


Image: POM by Howard Walfish, May, 2009

09 November 2012

"Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba"

By Curtis C. Chen

"How's Cook doing with his glamours?" Markey asked, turning her head to look at me. Her dark hair and eyes made a striking contrast to her pale skin, and even in uniform—or maybe especially—she turned men's heads at a hundred paces. I wondered if that was the reason she cultivated this persona, of a mysterious and dangerous witch. Though I'd never utter the actual word in her presence. Not unless I was ready to die.

"He's improving," I said, standing at parade rest, with my hands clasped behind my back to prevent fidgeting. "Focus is good, but transitions are still slow. We just need to drill for a few more weeks, and then I think he'll be ready to deploy."

Markey shook her head. "No time for that. Transitions won't be an issue; he's only got to run one identity. Who else do we have who speaks fluent German?"

I rattled off a short list of MAGIC personnel who spoke decent German. "Those are the guys I've heard," I said. "Daisy can probably get you a more detailed list."

"I'm not interested in their records," Markey said. "I want to know about people you've worked with in person. Do you think all six of these men could fool an entire squad of desperate Nazis?"

"Well, Cook for sure," I said. "Not sure about the others. I don't know if they've done a lot of field work before."

"This is OSS," Markey said. "Nobody here has done anything like this before. You're going to drill them, starting this afternoon. I'll get Daisy to make it official." She found a clipboard and started writing out an order for her secretary to type up. "What about our translators? Do any of them speak German as well as reading it?"

I frowned, not sure where she was going with this. "All our German translators are women, as far as I know, ma'am."

"Yes," Markey said, not looking up from her clipboard. "And how many of them speak the language?"

"Begging your pardon, ma'am," I said. "You're going to send civilians into a recently captured Axis stronghold on a potentially deadly mission?"

"Well, when you put it like that," Markey said. She finished writing, dropped the clipboard in a tray at the corner of her desk, and pushed the call button on her telephone. I couldn't hear the buzzer, but I knew it was sounding on Daisy's desk outside. "Everyone here knows they could be called upon to do extraordinary things in the service of their country. Don't worry about vetting the girls; you tell me who's fluent, and I'll interview them to see who's up for a field trip."

"That's a lot of glamours for one operation," I said. "You'll have to disguise the women's voices as well as their looks."

"Good thing you have tons of experience doing just that," Markey said.

"I'm not going to be able to train anyone to do that in time for—"

"Who said anything about training?" Markey blinked at me. "You're going with them."


Image: Marine Corporal, Quantico Flag Day by "England," January, 2008

02 November 2012

"Coffee is for Closers"

By Curtis C. Chen

Every morning in the MAGIC division offered a renewed opportunity for novel and ever more unpleasant surprises sprung on us by our fearless leader, Lieutenant Sheryl Markey. Today was no exception.

We had all gathered in the main bullpen, a large, open area populated by a grid-like arrangement of desks and ringed by filing cabinets, teletype machines, and scrying planes. Daisy, Markey's personal secretary, had set up a slide projector and screen. Someone flipped the light switch at the back of the room, and a grainy black-and-white image of several long pieces of wood and a tarnished blade appeared beside Markey.

"Who can tell me what this is?" she asked.

Beside me, Cook raised his hand before I could tell him not to.

"Mister Cook," Markey said, pointing at the overeager young soldier. I had to imagine he was even younger than I was. And I wasn't actually old enough to drink in some states.

"That's the Spear of Destiny," Cook said, his voice high-pitched from excitement. "Also known as the Holy Lance. It's the weapon used by the Roman Centurion Longinus to pierce Jesus' side as he hung on the cross during his Crucifixion. It's said to possess mystical powers, and the Nazis are fixated on finding it because they think it'll help them take over the world."

Markey nodded, pointed at the screen, and said, "This is complete bullshit."

Cook's face contorted, and I swear he shrank by a good two inches in height.

"The Nazis would like us to believe that they're obsessed with the occult," Markey continued, her voice bellowing across the room. "They want us to think they're chasing wild geese, so we'll spend our own resources trying to beat them to find some mythical artifact that supposedly has the power to destroy and/or conquer the world. But I say again, this is bullshit."

She flicked a finger against the screen, making the projected image ripple like a wavering scry. "The so-called 'Spear of Destiny' is a piece of wood that was stuck to a piece of metal, and it's probably rotting in pieces underground somewhere in the Middle East," Markey said. "It has no magical powers. It is not a powerful artifact. Who can tell me how we know this?"

I wanted to raise my hand, I really did. I had heard Markey do some version of this speech several times since my transfer to OSS/MAGIC, and I knew what was coming next. But I had no illusions about the purpose of this little oratory.

This was not about Markey having some kind of Socratic dialogue with her team; this was about her establishing her absolute authority and unquestionable expertise. This was about her making it clear to everyone in the room that she had not been made head of this division because of her looks, but because she was a damn fine leader. And also to demonstrate that she had forgotten more about sorcery than most of us would ever know.


Image: Roman Soldier by Andrew Becraft, June, 2008

26 October 2012

"Five for Fighting"

By Curtis C. Chen

Gottlieb checked his watch again. "Can't you work any faster?"

"I thought faster was his job." Caitlin nodded at Herman while continuing to pelt the computer keyboard with her fingertips.

"You'll tell me if there's a problem, right?"


Herman paced on the other side of the console, a man-shaped blur streaking back and forth across the room. In the far corner, underneath a metal stump, Paul cradled the remains of a security camera.

"You okay, Paul?"

Paul didn't look up. "I couldn't feel it. No pain. Nothing. It didn't even break the skin."

"The presentation is unusual," Gottlieb said. "But interactions between your gene therapy and these implant drugs are poorly documented—"

Paul flattened the camera between both palms, then let the metal pancake fall to the ground with a clatter.

"I was supposed to be strong. Not indestructible." He looked at Gottlieb. "They're never going to let me go, are they?"


Gottlieb's earpiece chirped. "Escape route looks clear, Doc," Alex said.

"Okay, get back here." Gottlieb had failed to discourage Alex from running off by herself, and failed to convince Herman to follow her into the ventilation ducts.

"In a minute. Something else I want to check out," Alex said.

"We're on a schedule here, Alex," Gottlieb said. "And we have very specific mission parameters."

"Listen to you. 'Mission parameters?' I'm becoming aroused."

Caitlin snickered. Gottlieb ignored her. "Alex, I don't feel you're taking this seriously."

"It's a simulation," Alex said. "And we're doing great. Nothing here we can't handle."

"They're not just evaluating your physical skills," Gottlieb said. "They want to know if we can function as a team. And so far, we're failing spectacularly."

"What are you talking about?" Alex said. "We're like clockwork. Took out all the cameras in less than three seconds—"

"Paul went on a rampage," Gottlieb said. "And now he's freaking out because he's stronger than we expected. You rushed off before we cleared the room, Herman refused to go with you because he's claustrophobic, and I have no idea what Caitlin is doing."

The teenager smiled up at him. "I'm in your computer, hackin' your datas."

Gottlieb shook his head. "General Schumann doesn't think I can lead the four of you in the field."

"You've got other talents, Doc," Alex said.

"You're missing the point. If I can't convince Schumann that I can supervise this team, he's going to find someone else. Is that what you want? Some jarhead barking orders at you?"

Silence. Gottlieb allowed himself a triumphant nod.

"Jarheads are Marines," Alex said.

Gottlieb frowned. "What?"

"Schumann's an Army General," Alex said.

"She's right," Herman said. "My brother's in the Army. He'd be deeply offended if you called him a jarhead."

"I guess 'grunt' would be more appropriate?" Alex said.

"Or just 'soldier,'" Herman said.

"'Doughboy,'" Caitlin offered.

Paul said, "I've also heard 'dogface.'"

Gottlieb threw up his hands. "Really? This is what we need to discuss right now?"

"Hey, you get upset when people call you Mister Gottlieb," Alex said. "Words hurt too, Doc."


Image: broken cameras 2 by punkrockdiva, May, 2009

19 October 2012

"I'll Fly Away"

By Curtis C. Chen

Traveling inside the beetle wasn't as bad as Kari had feared it might be. Her helmet's video display and stereophones helped distract her from the fact that she was sealed inside the abdomen of a giant alien insect, and her drysuit insulated her from the bodily fluids circulating around her. After finding some music with a beat that matched the creature's pulse, Kari could almost pretend she was on the sleeper ship again, dozing in a liquid gel and not quite dreaming.

When Kari had asked her mother why the colony wanted to send a seventeen-year-old girl to a mining outpost, Ada had replied, "I can't tell you that."

"Let me guess," Kari had said, "you can't tell me because I'm too young to have proper clearance."

"No," Ada had said. "They won't tell me because I don't have clearance. But this comes directly from the Prime Minister."

So Kari had packed up her laptop and been very proud of herself for not freaking out as the techs put her inside the body of a live animal. None of the colony's available materials could withstand more than a few seconds of exposure to the planet's corrosive atmosphere without disintegrating. For now, the beetles were the only way to move people between habitats.

Her beetle lurched, and Kari paused her music and heard muffled voices. Then there was a long, loud hissing noise—an airlock purge cycle. After that, more voices, some tapping, and finally the abdomen opened and Kari fell onto the floor of a decontamination chamber.

The techs hosed off and removed her travel gear, then one of them led her to the mining operations control room. A stocky bald man greeted Kari and introduced himself as Foreman Welzer.

"They tell you what's going on here?" Welzer asked.

"No," Kari said. "Just that Prime Minister Kalmun wanted me specifically."

"Synthetic diamond," Welzer said. "You wrote up a new manufacturing procedure for your lab. We haven't been able to get it working here. We'd like you to take a look."

Kari frowned. "I documented a mass-production program. How much diamond do you need for hydro-location?"

"Water-finding was last week." Welzer tapped some keys, and a three-dimensional radar image appeared above his console. "Now we're a rescue operation."

Kari didn't understand all the labels, but she recognized one of the shapes. "Is that—" she started to ask. "That's impossible."

"Not impossible," Welzer said. "Just very bad luck."

"That's a jumpship!"

"Yep." Welzer pointed at the back of the spacecraft. "Engine section materialized inside solid rock, two hundred meters below us. We've got intermittent radio contact; eighty-nine crew are still alive, with maybe two days of oxygen left. We're drilling as fast as we can, but our equipment was never designed for this."

Kari's mouth felt dry. "So eighty-nine people are going to die in two days if I can't help you make more drill bits."

Welzer smiled. "Your mom said you were a quick study."

"My mother exaggerates." Kari hefted her backpack. "Where's your printer?"


Image: Beetleface by Rob and Stephanie Levy, December, 2008

12 October 2012

"By Any Other Name"

By Curtis C. Chen

They met, accidentally, in the elevator. It was a three-minute ride down from the board room level to the forty-seventh floor, and Julia and Mary were the only people who entered the car—first Julia, studying her tablet and oblivious to her surroundings, then Mary a few seconds later, doing the same.

Neither one noticed the other until it would have been too awkward for either to leave. The doors timed out and closed, and Julia sighed and touched the panel to start their descent.

They stared at their warped reflections in the closed doors until Mary couldn't stand the silence any more.

"Good board meeting?" she asked.

"Good enough," Julia said. "What were you doing up there?"

"Design group confab. Needed to use the holodeck."

"Could you please not call it that."

Mary turned to look at Julia. "Why don't you like my work?"

Julia frowned and glanced at Mary without moving her head. "I don't have a problem with your work, Mary. But we named it the Holographic Visualization Chamber for good reasons, not the least of which is avoiding a Hollywood lawsuit."

"And everybody calls it 'the holodeck' anyway." Mary edged between Julia and the doors, practically daring the other woman to meet her gaze. "Because that's what it is. And come on, 'HOVIC' doesn't exactly roll off the tongue."

"We need a unique name to copyright," Julia said, still not moving. "A descriptive name that tells people all over the world what it does, and doesn't sound offensive or ridiculous in any known language. Do you have any idea how much research goes into this?"

"Last time I checked, this company was sitting on ten billion dollars in cash," Mary said. "Why don't we just buy the 'holodeck' name from Paramount?"

Julia turned ever so slightly to face Mary. "First of all, they would never sell. It's like a patent. Once you get it, you never let it go; the most you ever do is license it for a short but renewable period.

"And second, if we went to them with that kind of proposal, they would—if you'll pardon my language—bend us over the conference table and screw us like a cheap whore." Julia narrowed her eyes. "Asking for something is a show of weakness. Asking means you want. And want can be used as leverage.

"That's why neither of us walked out of this elevator, even though we didn't want to be trapped in here with each other. Leaving would have told the other person we didn't want to bear the uncomfortable silence. And that knowledge could be used against us later—an annoyance, a threat, even an outright attack. Do you understand?"

"Yeah, yeah, I understand," Mary said, stepping back.

"Good." Julia nodded authoritatively. "That's all."

Mary folded her arms. "Geez, Mom, the uncomfortable silence would have been preferable."

The corner of Julia's mouth twitched. "You started it."

Mary smiled in spite of herself. "Nuh-uh."


By the time the doors opened on forty-seven, both women were laughing uproariously.


Image: lock screen by bobbyhywd, April, 2010

08 October 2012

If the Zombie Apocalypse Comes, Tweet Me

(With apologies to Joss Whedon.)

Last Friday's flash fiction story, "Welcome to PDX," was part of the Zombie Apocalypse 2012, a weekend-long online fiction event organized by Erin Underwood. You can see other writers' contributions tagged #zombieapoc2012 on Twitter, and linked from the info page at Underwords.

Zombie Apocalypse 2012

You can read the rest of my story in the form of blog posts from our cats, Tye and Jasper, over at CKL's HotSheet. Here's a handy chronological index (each link should open in a new window):
  1. 512 Words or Fewer: "Welcome to PDX"
  2. Jasper blog: "There goes the neighborhood!"
  3. Tye blog: "why are there so many STRANGERS here today"
  4. Jasper blog: "I am very hungry!"
  5. Tye blog: "departure means SNACK and that's GOOD"
  6. Jasper blog: "Humans are weird!"
  7. Tye blog: "so BORED"
  8. Jasper blog: "This bathroom is too small for three cats!"
  9. Tye blog: "the FOOD is coming"
  10. Jasper blog: "Some cats are too excitable!"
  11. Tye blog: "some cats are LAME"
  12. Jasper blog: "Why are humans so noisy!"
  13. Tye blog: "it's NOT NICE to cry wolf"
Finally, don't worry: this was an entirely fictional zombie apocalypse. No humans, cats, or food robots were injured over the weekend, and Jasper and Tye continue to co-exist mostly in peace with Lady Grey (shown below)--who is, by the way, still up for adoption. Contact us if you know someone who'd like to give her a good home!


05 October 2012

"Welcome to PDX"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Just to be clear on this," Laura said, "I am not shooting a dog."

Maryellen stopped walking into the next darkened corridor and lowered her service weapon. "You do remember what that body looked like back there, right? And you understand we've still got two baggage handlers locked in here with the missing animal?"

"Don't say 'animal,'" Laura said. "That dog is someone's pet. It's not her fault her carrier got banged open by a clumsy airline worker. Poor thing's probably scared out of her mind. All I'm saying is we should go non-lethal."

"That TSA guy was missing half his fucking neck," Maryellen said. "'Contract incurable disease' was not on my list of fun things to do this week."

"We don't know that the dog has rabies."

"You think a normal poodle did that kind of damage to Rocky Balboa back there?"

Laura sighed. "I really don't want to do the paperwork on another police-involved shooting this month."

Maryellen snorted. "Welcome to Portland."

A short, sharp bark sounded ahead of them. Maryellen raised her Glock and clicked her flashlight on, bracing it underneath her weapon.

"At least let me go first," Laura said, hefting her pepper spray canister.

"Fine," Maryellen said. "But Fifi's not taking a bite out of me. You see movement, you spray the bitch."

Laura moved into the corridor. About six feet forward, there was an open door and a dark red smear on the ground.

"Got blood here!" Laura called. She kicked the door open all the way, then jumped back and flattened herself against the far wall of the corridor, shining her flashlight into the space. "Supply closet—shit."

"What?" Maryellen ran to her partner. "Another body?"

"Yeah." Laura crouched in the doorway. "I think we found Fifi."

Maryellen made a face. Something had eaten through the dog's midsection, and the corpse looked like two canine halves joined by a contorted bit of spine.

"Jesus," Maryellen said. "We got two rabid animals?"

"I told you we should have waited for MCAS," Laura said, moving her light up to the dog's head. "Huh. This is weird."


"Look at her mouth." Laura pointed. "No blood."

Maryellen frowned. "If this is the missing pooch, and she didn't chew up TSA back there—"

A clanging noise echoed down the corridor, and both officers jumped to their feet. A metal drum clattered against the wall. Two human-shaped silhouettes swayed in the distance, slapping at each other.

"Hello!" Laura called. "Portland PD. Who's there?"

The silhouettes stopped moving, groaned, then started shuffling toward Laura and Maryellen.

"Goddammit." Laura drew her firearm. "I say again, Portland Police! Identify yourselves, please!"

The groaning and shuffling continued. One of the silhouettes moved into a pool of fluorescent light, revealing a sallow face whose bottom half was covered with blood and fur.

"Okay," Maryellen said, "can we shoot these motherfuckers?"

Laura took a breath, then cocked her weapon. "What the hell. It's only a little paperwork."



Zombie Apocalypse 2012

Did you enjoy this blog post? Check out more stories by Curtis C. Chen!

Image: fedex by Dustin Brice, March, 2008

28 September 2012

"A Hitch in Time"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Remember," Stacy said, "there's no guarantee the beacons will be transmitting. Wait two minutes, then switch to your compass."

"And if I can't find magnetic north, look for the Sun," Andrew said.

"And if you can't see the Sun?" The last probe had come back pitted all over, as if it had been through a dust storm.

"I sit and wait." Andrew tested his helmet spotlights. "Sixteen hours of air, thirty minutes emergency OPS."

Stacy plugged her diagnostic wand into Andrew's backpack. "PLSS is good to go. You have the weapon?"

Andrew held up the pistol. "Gotta tell you, feels weird to be wearing a spacesuit and carrying a gun."

"It's a last resort." Stacy went back to her console. "We've tested the darts. They will penetrate a suit, but he won't lose much air."

The self-sealing suit material should also protect Andrew against dust storms. She trusted that he would abort if he started losing air. Don't turn one victim into two: that was the first lesson of search and rescue.

"How strong is this tranquilizer?" Andrew asked.

"Don't take chances. Hit him at least three times. Aim for his legs."

"Bigger arteries?"

"So he won't be able to run."

Andrew chuckled. "You're all heart, Professor."

Stacy's console chirped. She opened a drawer and pulled out a syringe. "Portal's fully charged. Ready to go?"

Andrew pulled open the med-port on the left shoulder of his suit. "You ever going to tell me what happened to those mice?"

Stacy shook her head. When Bobby hadn't returned from his mission, the lab had sent several probes containing mice. The animals had reacted badly, coming back highly agitated and all having injured themselves—some fatally. Then someone had suggested sedatives. Sleeping through the actual transit seemed to be the answer.

She had no idea how the displacement event had affected Bobby's waking mind, but she hoped he was still alive. She hoped she wasn't also sending Andrew into delirium and death.

"I'll send you the report when you get back," Stacy said. "It's got pictures. Your kids will love it."

Andrew laughed. "You married, Professor?"

Stacy frowned. "You're married."

Andrew shook his head. "I just hate to think nobody is enjoying the pleasure of your company every night."

Stacy wasn't sure how to respond to that. "Did you just pay me a compliment, Major?"

Andrew smiled. "I'll tell you when I get back."

Stacy shrugged. "Ready?"

Andrew nodded. "Let's do this."

Stacy attached the syringe to his med-port and pushed the plunger in. Andrew blinked. "Okay, that's working... fast..."

"Sit down." Stacy helped him into the chair. Andrew's helmet clanged against the metal headrest, and he started snoring.

Stacy looked at his face. "Please come back."

She went back to her console and tapped the controls. Thin red lasers lit up and intersected at the center of the invisible event horizon. Stacy pushed another button. The motors in the floor pushed Andrew's chair forward, to the other side of the room, and through the portal into the future.


Image: A Hitch in Time by Steve Jurvetson, January, 2011

21 September 2012

"Dying on Mars"

By Curtis C. Chen

I wake up when the rover jolts to a stop at the edge of Robinson Crater. Its front wheels are caught on a ridge of shattered basalt. Geologists believe this plain was created by a volcanic lava flow, the same one which also buried the ancient Martian city.

No human has ever been this close. I'm not supposed to be here, either. I'm supposed to be back in the colony hab, waiting for NASA to send more medical supplies.

Like hell. I know I'm dying. Nothing can stop that now.

There's no clear path from here to the city. I line myself up with the least rocky slope I can see leading to the nearest exposed metal spire, sit down, and slide off the ridge.

The uneven surface rattles my teeth as I scrape my way down into the crater. I drop over an outcropping and fall a good three meters, landing on a small boulder. Something tears in my right knee. I start tumbling. The world becomes a blur of red dirt and a cacophony of scraping noises until a loud crack stops everything.

Now I'm lying on my side, my helmet impacted against the silver spire. Oxygen hisses through the fractures. I can't feel my legs.

I don't have much time.

I twist off my helmet. Cold Martian air rushes in, and fine Martian dust tickles my skin. I open my mouth to exhale. My saliva boils in the thin atmosphere. No human being has ever felt this before.

My father's penknife is the only personal item I brought with me to Mars. I had the blade cleaned and sharpened before launch. My gloved fingers are too bulky to reach into my pressure suit's pockets. I yank off the gloves and pull out the knife. Capillaries burst beneath my skin, the blood inside overheated by naked sunlight.

I hold the knife with both hands, steady myself, and slash the blade against the ancient Martian spire.


The shimmering silver surface remains completely smooth, unmarred by either the molten rock which congealed around it millennia ago or the asteroid impact that unearthed it or my feeble attempt to vandalize it just now.

The knife falls to the ground. I can't hear myself laugh, though I feel my chest shaking. Stupid idea. My right hand makes a fist, but I think better of it before throwing the punch, and instead smack my palm against the spire.

The metal feels warm.

Is it my imagination, or does this thing feel like it's moving—vibrating?

If the atmosphere was thicker, would I hear noise? Music?


My eyes are watering from all the dust in the air. The poisonous atmosphere burns my lungs. My right arm starts going numb at the shoulder. Something aches at the base of my skull.

None of that matters.

I put both of my bare hands on the spire, feel its quivering warmth in my bones, and smile.

The sun is setting, and its golden reflection off the spire blinds me. I close my eyes.


Image: Dissecting the Scene of Sky Crane Crash by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona, September, 2012

14 September 2012

"Birds and Bogeys"

By Curtis C. Chen

The satellite fell to Earth in the year 65 million BCE, landed in an active volcano in the South Pacific, and melted before it could take a single reading.

The satellite crashed into a French village in 1439, where it was completely dismantled and its parts scattered throughout the countryside.

The satellite attempted to photograph the Colossus of Rhodes in 250 BCE, but its transmission was interrupted by what appeared to be a surface-to-air missile.

That was when the scientists knew they had a problem.


"I told you time travel was a bad idea," Olivia said.

Light from the computer monitor illuminated her face. The light flickered as Emma stepped through the satellite video frame by frame.

"You didn't want to try that Vietnamese food cart, either," Emma said, "and look how well that turned out. Stop overreacting."

"Overreacting?" Olivia pointed at the screen. "This image was recorded over two thousand years ago, and I'm pretty sure the ancient Greeks didn't have rockets. Especially not rockets that could reach orbital altitude."

"That could be anything." Emma waved a hand. "Clouds. Sunlight reflecting off something metallic. Video artifact."

"No! You can't rationalize your way out of this one." Olivia put her tablet down on the desk. "Look at the sensor data. That's a radar blip, coming up from sea level at Mach 3."

"Fireworks," Emma said. "Maybe some visiting Chinese traders—"

"Do not make me smack you in the face."

Emma folded her arms. "So what's your explanation? Or do you want to scrap three years' worth of research and start on a new thesis?"

"Many worlds," Olivia said.

"There's no way to prove that."

"Not yet."

"You know what she's going to say," Emma grumbled. "Extraordinary claims, extraordinary evidence, yada yada yada."

"So we re-point the tunnel."


Olivia nudged Emma out of her chair, sat down, and called up the satellite guidance software on the computer. "Okay. We know there's always some variance in the chronological targeting, right?"

"Yeah, and nobody knows why."

"What if it's multi-dimensional?" Olivia entered new parameters into the software. "We've always assumed we were doing one-dimensional targeting, using the Sun as an anchor point and positioning the satellite in space to match the Earth's position in the past. But what if we've been using two-dimensional coordinates all along, and we just didn't know it?"

Emma shook her head. "But we don't know how that works. We can't control the targeting, which means we can't experiment."

"So we remove a variable." Olivia finished typing and waited for Emma to read the screen.

"You're removing time?" Emma said. "Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of a time travel experiment?"

"We're investigating the variance," Olivia said. "If we don't target a different time, then we force any variation into the other dimension."

"Parallel universes," Emma said. "That's your hypothesis."

Olivia grinned. "You got a better idea?"

"Yeah, but happy hour doesn't start until four." Emma waved Olivia out of the chair. "What the hell. Let's provision another satellite and see what happens."


Image: SterretijRadar by Rupert Ganzer, November, 2006

07 September 2012

"Extra-Vehicular Activity"

By Curtis C. Chen

Space is not as exciting as most people think.

That's okay. Most days on the El, you don't want excitement. You want things to go smoothly, because every minute your train isn't moving cargo from Earth to orbit, it's bleeding company dollars. You want a good record if you ever want to graduate from scaffolds to spacecraft. That's still maintenance, but at least you get to fly, maybe even out to an asteroid...

I've always wanted to fly. Into the black, slip the surly bonds, all that buzz. And when Haley Wu became the first human on the Red Planet—and a woman too, I've still got that "Comet Hits Mars" t-shirt from fifth grade, threadbare and unreadable now but I'll never throw it out—

Anyway. Boring is good. Do the work, have a few drinks, dream of a better life.

This was not one of those days.


Things go wrong all the time on the El. Little things, usually; some idiot doesn't secure a tether or forgets to tag out a panel. The problem is when several little things conspire and hit you all at once.

The first thing was the micrometeoroids. Nothing unusual; just some disintegrated space junk. Might have orbited the Earth for decades before hitting us.

I was EVA, and Rick was in the pod, and we both hunkered down, waiting for the dust to pass. Damage wasn't an issue, but you can't work with tiny rocks battering your helmet and gloves and equipment.

My radio squawked. "Sierra Niner, Gladstone. Got a weather update for you, Sierra."

Rick coughed, then replied, "Gladstone, Sierra, copy that. We almost done with this rock concert?"

"No idea," the Mission Control voice said. "I'm uplinking a solar activity alert. SOHO predicts M-class flares within the next hour."

I toggled my transmit switch. "Rick, let me see that?"

"Coming right—" He coughed again. I looked into the pod and saw his forehead glistening with sweat.

"You okay, Rick?"

"I'm fine," he said. "Sending now."

My helmet display lit up with the weather advisory. There was major gamma radiation coming our way, more than my suit was rated for.

"Okay, I'm calling it." I unclamped my tether from the El and snapped it back on the work line leading to the pod. "Prep for ingress."

The micrometeoroids were still serenading me with white noise, so it took me a few seconds to realize that Rick hadn't acknowledged. I turned around and saw his arm floating above the control panel, limp.

"Rick!" Nothing. I toggled my radio to the control band. "Gladstone, Sierra. I think my operator just passed out."

"Sierra, Gladstone, what do you mean, passed out?"

"I mean he's unconscious!" I looked up and down the El, estimating. "I can't get inside without blowing his air, and if that alert is kosher, I don't have time to reach a storm shelter."

"Stand by," the controller said. "Sierra, Gladstone, we have an update on those solar flares. The one-hour estimate was inaccurate."

"Thank God," I said.

"You've only got twenty minutes."


Image: Space Shuttle -- December 1993 by NASA, July, 2008

31 August 2012

"Poker Face"

By Curtis C. Chen

"It's a trick," Adkins said. "He's reading your expressions or something, looking for reactions to what he says. Like some fake carnival psychic."

"It ain't a trick!" Berk said. "Rosebud, close your eyes."

"Fine," Roseler said, and closed his eyes. "McCue's looking for a... four to make a straight flush. Anderson wants a jack for three of a kind, or a five for two pair. And Gray..." He opened his eyes. "Gray's a good poker player."

"What do you mean?" Berk asked. "You can't read him?"

Roseler nodded. Gray's face was as still as stone, but more than that, his mind was masked. Roseler could tell there were thoughts moving inside that head, but he couldn't get a good sense of what they were; it felt like looking through a fogged-up window, or trying to hear voices behind a thick door.

This was obviously not just a put-on for the card game. But Roseler wasn't going to tell on Gray. Not yet, anyway.

"It takes some practice, but anyone can do it," Roseler said, not taking his eyes off Gray. "You don't think about your specific cards. You look at them, and then you forget about them."

"How the hell do you play when you don't know what you're holding?" Adkins asked.

"Think about it. You don't see anyone else's cards, right? You're guessing at what they have based on what they do. So you just need to decide what you're going to do in response. The cards don't enter into it at a certain point. It's all about psychology."

"But you can tell if someone's bluffing," Gray said. "Right?"

"Sometimes," Roseler said.

"Officer on deck!" Adkins shouted. All five sailors jumped to their feet as Ensign Young stepped into the doorway.

"As you were," Young said. He thumbed the stack of file folders he was carrying. "I'm looking for Seaman Gray and Seaman Roseler. And I trust this is just a friendly game of cards here."

"Yes, sir! Just playing some bridge, sir!" Adkins said, a little too quickly.

Young looked around. "Five for bridge?"

"We're teaching Rosebud," Berk said.

"He's terrible at bidding," McCue added.

"Well, you'll have to work on that later, Roseler," Young said. "Master Chief needs you and Gray to come help with a thing."

Roseler frowned. "Um, why the two of us in particular, sir?"

Young shrugged. "Some kind of magic thing. Your intake files here say you both tested positive for aptitude."

Gray stiffened, and Roseler felt his own stomach knotting up.

"That may be, sir, but I've never had any formal training," Roseler said.

"Me neither," Gray said. "I don't know how useful we would be—"

"I'm sorry, did I give the impression I was making a request?" Young snapped. "Report to Master Chief Erickson, and he'll tell you what's up. That's an order. Got it?"

"Yes, sir," Roseler and Gray replied in unison.

"And take these files with you. Dismissed." Young pushed the files into Gray's arms and turned to the other three sailors. "So, you boys play Hearts?"


Image: Tangled Aces by Domiriel, September, 2011

24 August 2012

"Anchors Aweigh"

By Curtis C. Chen

The first thing Markey thought upon seeing COMSUBPAC was: He looks like my grandfather.

Of course, her grandfather was dead, buried in a mass grave outside Mauthausen-Gusen, and he had never worn any kind of uniform. That hadn't stopped the Nazis. Sometimes Markey wondered if anything could stop them.

Well, that was why she'd fought so hard to get here—pulled every string she could in Hollywood, burned every favor to get her US citizenship and her military rank. Not honorary. Not clerical. She wanted to be in a position to make a difference.

And now what?

The man behind the desk stood and smiled at her, the skin around his dark eyes crinkling behind round eyeglasses. He also very quickly flipped shut the file he'd been studying.

"Lieutenant Hedy Markey, reporting as ordered, Rear Admiral," Markey said.

Rear Admiral Withers—Commander, Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet—stepped around his desk and hesitated. "They told me I shouldn't touch you."

Markey resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "I hope that's because I just got over a bad cold, Rear Admiral. Anything else is an old wives' tale."

"Well, I didn't hear it from any old wives, I can tell you that." Withers continued smiling at Markey. She did her best to smile back, but she'd already seen his eyes. She didn't need to touch him to know he didn't have good news for her.

Withers turned to the officer who'd brought Markey in. "Captain, I'd like to speak to the Lieutenant in private."

"Aye, sir." The Captain left the room and closed the door.

Withers walked over to the sideboard and poured a drink. "Scotch, Lieutenant?"

Markey shook her head. "They told me I shouldn't drink while on duty."

Withers chuckled, took his glass back to his desk, and sat down. He dug through a pile of folders and slid one across the desk. "You may change your tune, after you see what's in there. Have a seat."

Markey sat and opened the folder. She concealed her surprise at what she felt when she touched the paper. Someone with the talent had prepared this file.

But then, as she read the contents of the file, she understood why.

Withers' glass was empty when Markey looked up. Was I reading for that long?

"This is incredible, sir," she said. "If it's true."

"Well, that's what you're going to find out," Withers said. His smile was gone, and Markey finally recognized the look in his eyes: resolve, mingled with sadness.

"I'm not a zoologist," Markey said.

"No, but you can sense the—what is it? The life aura of different creatures, from a distance."

"That only helps me locate animals," Markey said. "I've never tried it underwater, and I wouldn't know how to study anything as... exotic as this."

"We're at war, Lieutenant," Withers said. "I'm not sending you to study these damned things. I want you to find them, provoke them, and turn them loose on the fucking Japs."

Markey nodded. "I think I will have that drink after all, Rear Admiral."


Image: SS-287 by Vards Uzvards, April, 2007

17 August 2012

"Price for Flight"

By Curtis C. Chen

The police were the first to get the hovercars.

That surprised a lot of people—most expected the military would seize the technology as soon as Professor Whitlock kicked the bucket. The Pentagon did try to pull some "eminent domain" bullshit, but Whitlock's dual citizenship made things complicated, legally speaking, and in the end it turned out that the United Nations was actually good for something.

The International Court of Justice ruled in favor of Whitlock's will as written, and Vancouver's finest were the first to ride the Lightnings. But they also needed a mechanic.

I was only too happy to relocate to cloudy, rainy British Columbia after several years wandering the Thar Desert in and out of the Professor's employ. Things had gotten a little better after I'd resigned for good, and no longer had to shuttle between India and Pakistan depending on which regime was feeling friendlier toward Westerners and/or women that week. But without Whitlock's funding, I couldn't afford to leave, either. I guess the old bastard did me one last favor when he died.

The cops had already flown the prototype by the time I arrived in Vancouver. The first pilot, a kid named Phillips who looked barely old enough to drink, talked my ear off the afternoon I got there.

"I'm used to helicopters, you know?" he said over a stale sandwich and a cup of weak coffee. "But this thing almost flies itself. I mean, with that helmet and the armbands, I barely even have to move—"

"What kind of armbands?" I asked.

"Oh, they go around the biceps, got some kind of sensors in there and a transdermal-delivery thing—"

"Which pharma? What's the dosage?"

Phillips frowned. "I thought you knew all about this stuff. Didn't you work with the Professor?"

"I quit. A while ago."


I glared at him. "Personal reasons."

Phillips scoffed. "What, did the geezer make a pass at you or something?"

"Does the word 'personal' mean something different in Canadian-ese?"

"Look, we're going to be working together pretty closely," Phillips said. "I'm the senior instructor for all our pilots—"

"Senior?" I hoped my jaw wasn't hanging open too wide. "How old are you?"

He gave me half a smile. "That's a bit of a personal question, isn't it?"

I restrained my urges to both smack him across the face and crush my coffee cup into a gravitational singularity. "I'm just concerned about the vertigo. We had a lot of problems with biofeedback during the experimental phase."

"Old man must have worked out the bugs," Phillips said. "I haven't had any problems with that. Matter of fact, I feel even better after a flight than before I strap in. Refreshed, you know?"

"No," I said. "I don't."

That should have been my first warning. Maybe it was, and I just didn't pay attention. But I should have known all along that it was too good to be true. I should have known that the old fool would start taking shortcuts.

I should have been there to stop him.


Image: A Helicopter Pilot Onboard HMS Westminster by UK Ministry of Defence, March, 2011

10 August 2012

"A Shower Scene"

By Curtis C. Chen

No matter how much things may change, this fact remains the same: United States Federal Agents are still mostly straight white males, and if there's one thing straight white men do not want to see, it's two dudes macking on each other.

My contact at the shady motel off Route 53 wasn't exactly my type, so I appreciated the fact that he'd attempted to freshen up his breath with something synthetically minty. And that he didn't use any tongue when we kissed, an act for the benefit of the hidden cameras which the FBI or DIA or some other three-letter acronym had scattered around the room.

I had been surprised when my jailbroken smartphone detected scrambled law enforcement frequencies popping out of nearly every metal surface in the room, but sometimes it pays to be paranoid. The microlens-and-radio-transmitter bugs were invisible to the naked eye, but they lit up my phone's ultra-sensitive antenna like a Christmas tree.

Fortunately, even though I wasn't expecting any smokies to have pre-tagged this rustic roadside retreat, I'm always prepared for the worst. I texted my contact a code word indicating a change of plan and hoped his boss—my current client—had passed along the memo with our standard playbook. Good news: he had. Bad news: he was one hairy motherfucker.

After the mercifully brief lip-action, I told my contact to warm up the shower, smacking his ass for effect. While he turned on the water, I made a show of dancing around the room and disrobing, hoping my feigned enthusiasm would be enough to discourage whoever was watching. Then I joined my contact in the shower.

Here's the thing about masking noise: it doesn't work. Whether it's road traffic, or music, or a loud newscast, it's always somewhat predictable, and any law enforcement outfit with two CPUs to rub together will be able to filter out the background and get the gist of what you're saying. I don't like showering with strange men any more than the next guy, but in my line of work, it's one of the few ways to ensure a private conversation.

My contact gave me a disapproving glare when I joined him in the shower, naked. He had opted to keep his boxer shorts on. I shrugged.

He raised his hands, gesturing in the pidgin sign language my client had pre-arranged for audio-compromised situations like this.

DON'T TOUCH ME AGAIN, he signed.



I shook my head. NOT WHAT WE AGREED.


I hesitated. A big pay hike like that was almost always bad news, but I needed the money. Besides, the original target was some milk-toast accountant; how bad could this add-on be?




He scowled back at me, water dripping off his mustache. THAT MAKES TWO OF US, ASSHOLE.


Image: Showertime by EJP Photo, September, 2011

03 August 2012

"Fallen Angel"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Come on," Linda said in her best come-hither voice. "This ship was meant to fly. She wants to fly."

Joel lowered his scanner and gave her a dubious look. "Look, I appreciate the husky voice and all, but making me sexually aroused is not going to get the engine fixed any faster."

Linda stopped sticking out her chest and slumped sideways against the monitoring console. "I'm just trying to motivate you."

"Yeah, thanks, but the idea of not dying is already pretty compelling." Joel tapped at the scanner, then pried open another access panel. "Maybe you could, I don't know, make yourself useful?"

"I've already cleaned and rebuilt every power relay between the core and all the lifter assemblies. Twice," Linda said. "Unless you've got something for me to shoot, blow up, or otherwise kill, I've kind of exhausted my skill set."

"Just my luck to get marooned with a jarhead," Joel muttered.

"Hey, you're not exactly my idea of a good time, either, Hodge," Linda said. "And don't forget, it's your fault we're stranded here."

"Okay, this again?" Joel dropped his tools and turned to scowl at her. "You really want to waste oxygen arguing about this?"

"I'm not arguing," Linda said. "I'm telling you."

"Hey, you were the one who navigated us into—"

"Shut up and listen," Linda snapped. "I have seniority, so HR's more likely to trust my post-mortem assessment anyway. But more to the point, I'm older than you are, and this is my only career path."

Joel's scowl softened to confusion. "I don't follow."

"You're what, twenty-six years old?"


Linda shook her head. "Jesus, you're a baby. Anyway. The point is, even if you get reprimanded for this, you're going to bounce back. You can still go into any of a dozen different R&D divisions, or tech-dev, or manufacturing."

"Let me get this straight." Joel folded his arms. "You want me to lie for you? In an official company document?"

Linda chose her words carefully. "No, of course not. But you and I will be the only reporters. If we can't agree on the facts of the incident, HR's going to have to convene an inquiry board and run an official investigation, and who knows how long that's going to take."

Joel's mouth twitched, and Linda knew she was on the right track. Anything that distracted him from doing his job was bad.

"So," she continued, "all I'm saying is that if the only downside is you get a slap on the wrist, then making our trip reports match up is a win-win for both of us."

"I don't know," Joel said.

Linda leaned forward and put a hand on his knee. "I'd do my best to make it worth your while."

She slid her hand up his thigh. He made a face like he was sucking on a lemon.

"You know, you're really damaging my self-esteem here," she said.

"Sorry," Joel said. "You're just not my type."

Linda nodded and sat back. "Story of my fucking life."


Image: Untitled by Lóránt Dankaházi, January, 2008

27 July 2012

"Thrilling Heroics"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Sign here. And initial here. And here..."

Pamela watched as the other lawyer, McBride, flipped pages and pointed over his client's shoulder. The plaintiff, Charles Lucas, made a show of using both bandaged hands to hold the pen as he scrawled on the document.

Another flashbulb went off behind Pamela, and she heard a grumbling noise from the fourth person at the table: her client, Dyna-Gent. She leaned over to him.

"Just keep it together a little longer," she whispered.

"You didn't tell me there would be so many reporters," Dyna-Gent muttered, his eyes narrowed behind his mask.

"You should be happy. You're big news."

"I'm being sued."

"Hey, no such thing as bad publicity, remember?"

Dyna-Gent grimaced and folded his arms. Across the table, Lucas finished signing, and McBride slid the settlement papers across the table.

"All yours, Miss Kirk," he said with a smile that was clearly for the cameras.

"Thank you," Pamela said. "But before my client signs, he has a brief statement."

"An apology, I hope," McBride said.

The grumbling grew louder. Pamela grabbed the glass of water to her left, the one she'd poured earlier, and held it in front of Dyna-Gent's face. "Take a drink and count to ten," she said under her breath.

Dyna-Gent glared across the table as he took the water from Pamela. He tipped the glass back, taking a huge swig, then did a magnificent spit take, drenching Charles Lucas—and causing blue electrical arcs to appear all over his body.

"What did I just drink?" Dyna-Gent bellowed at Pamela.

"Salt water!" she said, pointing at Lucas. "Which happens to be an excellent electrical conductor!"

Dyna-Gent looked at Lucas and smiled. "Of course."

"This is outrageous!" McBride said, getting to his feet.

"I'll tell you what's outrageous," Pamela said, standing up. With her heels, she had a good inch and a half over McBride, and that would play on camera. "It's outrageous that your client is pursuing this fraudulent lawsuit against a respected community defender! The fact that Mr. Lucas is himself super-powered invalidates any claim of damages he has against Dyna-Gent."

"Not so," McBride said. "My client is suffering the after-effects of the explosion which triggered the incident in question. He was not super-powered before that unfortunate—"

"Oh, really?" Pamela pulled a file folder out of her briefcase and slapped it down on the table. "Then why did metro police detect a massive electrical surge in Mr. Lucas' basement, when public utilities recorded no matching drain on the city grid? Where did all that electricity come from, Mr. Lucas?"

"Don't answer that!" McBride snapped. Lucas' mouth hung open, and blue-white sparks jumped between his teeth. "The accident affected my client's genetic structure—"

"Give me a break. DNA doesn't work like that," Pamela said. "We'll see you in court."

She waved at Dyna-Gent, who stood and followed her out of the room.

"My hero," he said, patting her shoulder.

Pamela allowed herself a smile. "Just doing my job, citizen."


Image: Outlet by Adam M, April, 2010