The Edge of the Map

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The map is not a relic of the past. Take careful note of the plotted course. Once you have your bearing, follow it as straight and true as possible. When your compass becomes useless, you’re close. When the sun never sets, just hangs high above, you’re closer. When you’ve sailed as far as you dare, you’re right there. Just a little further, you’re off the map now, and the edge of the world awaits.

Here the sea does not drain down into the void. It soars up and flows toward the sky becoming another sea with another world within it. Sailing from one sea to the other is difficult. The transition is a delicate balance as up and sideways turn around each other. Many ships have drowned or tipped or flipped. Get your speed up, race along the edge, turn into and up the wall of water. A good captain may still wet her sails on the bend.

Once past the edge, a world like, but unlike, your own awaits. Tropical islands, snow-covered islands, sandbars, vast coastlines of forests, deserts, swamps, mountains, and more. These lands are not for the taking. The people are friendly no matter how startling their appearance. In less than a day, you will forget about their third eye. In less than a week, you will overlook their fifth and sixth arms. In less than a month, you will be used to their armored skin. In less than a year, their claws will seem no different than your own fingernails.

Be cautious in the harbor cities you visit. Be wary if traveling over land for any distance. Thieves and pirates live on both sides of the bend. To be marooned here is to cast your fate into the sand. Native ships do not cross to your world. None from these lands will risk it. Your ship could make the return voyage if you can make the transition again.

But why would you leave? This world is a glory to behold. A captain could sail her whole life on this sea and gaze upon only a fraction of it all.

For the more adventurous, you need only remember a map has four edges.

Cold Spots

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Summer so far had been especially hot. Sweltering as they say. Our small window mounted AC unit had given up and died a week earlier. Even with the windows open, it was hard to keep our apartment bearable. So we were sitting on the stoop, which was at least on the shady side of the building.

The apartment complex was low rent, part government housing, and not gated in any way so it wasn’t uncommon to see people walking through that didn’t live there. This one guy stood out though. He was walking from building to building offering tenants, also sitting on their stoops, flyers. Again not unusual but the closed trench coat he was wearing stood out.

When he got close to us, I noticed another odd thing, he wasn’t sweating. Even without a trench coat covering most of his body, I would have expected at least a sheen of sweat. He should have been drenched, sweat dripping from his hair, but instead, he looked as cool as a cucumber.

“Hello, ladies,” he said while reaching into his coat. I sat up straighter, tensing until he pulled a pamphlet out and offered it to me. The title read, “Beat the heat!!” with clip art flames on the bottom.

“Sorry, we’re not interested,” I said. Probably a recruiter for a cult.

“You haven’t even heard what I’m offering.” He smiled a genuine, honest, open smile that was still a salesman’s smile. I glanced at Selene, who shrugged, so I took the pamphlet from him.

“Okay, what are you selling?” I asked flipping open the pamphlet. Inside were instructions on drawing sigils and their placement within rooms.

“First I need to ask, do you believe in ghosts?”

“Only on the weekends and holidays,” Selene said.

“Sometimes,” I said.

“Have you ever walked into a room and felt a cold spot or heard of someone experiencing a cold spot in their home?”

Selene laughed. “I’ve heard about that.”

“Good, you know ghosts can affect the ambient temperature of a room in one spot at least. Now, what if you could move the ghost around the room in a controlled manner?”

“Are you talking about cooling a house with a ghost?”

“Exactly. The pamphlet, which is yours to keep for free, has instructions on how to draw the ghost management sigils and where to place them in your home.”

“So you’re giving away your big idea for free?” I asked.

“The idea is too easy to share and duplicate to bother selling. I sell ghosts to power the cooling system.” He reached deep into one of his pockets and pulled out a small octagon box wrapped in string with a wax seal on top.

Selene leaned forward to squint at the box. “So, you’ve got some grandma’s soul trapped in a box and you’re just going to sell it to us to cool our apartment?”

“Not at all. Our spirits are ethically sourced. We do not deal in souls or remnants or poltergeists.”

“How do you ‘ethically source’ something that comes from dead people?”

“The spirits-”

“Ah, so they are souls!” Selene crowed.

The man’s smile slipped to a tight grin. “Spirit is a layperson term we use for the psychically active emotional energy we collect from donors at the time of there death. It’s no different than organ donation.”

“Except there’s a huge difference between a liver and a soul.”

He sighed and began reciting from memory, “We don’t collect souls. At the time of death, a person releases a burst of psychic energy that usually dissipates quickly. In the case of violent or traumatic death part or all of the soul can become attached to this energy creating a classic ghost, remnant, or poltergeist. Since we only collect in clinical settings our donors die peacefully with no chance of that happening.”

“That actually does sound on the up and up.”

“So, are you interested in buying your first spirit, I mean psychically active emotion energy ball?” His smile returned in full force.

“How much?” I asked

“Seven hundred dollars.”

“We could buy three AC units for that much.”

“True but this is a cooling system that will never break down and won’t run up your electric bill.”

“Sorry, we’re not interested. Have you made any sales around here?”

“Nope.” He returned the sealed box to his coat pocket.

“I didn’t think so. Most people around here can barely afford regular ACs.”

The man shrugged. “I’m aware of the financial situation of the area but you can’t find new markets without looking for them. Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you ladies but I must be moving on.”

I watched him walk off to the next building and start his spiel over again.

“Do you think this could actually work?” I asked looking over the sigils closely. Selene touched the final example and mumbled words under her breath. The black ink flashed red and a shock ran up one of my arms and down the other. I dropped the pamphlet. “Damn, warn me before you do something like that.”

“Seems to be a stable containment sigil. A bit more general purpose than I would use but serviceable. The idea is sound if slightly unethical in most cases.”

“What about George? He wasn’t a very nice person when he was alive. It would almost be fitting to put him to work cooling the apartment.”

“You said released his energies.”

“Maybe I only confined him to the cupboard over the fridge? Look we never use those cupboards anyway and it was easier than passing him over.”

“Hmm, well as long as we have a ghost we don’t mind tormenting let’s give it a whirl.”

5D Bounty Hunting

“Plasma Spike” Bob and “Grinning” William were just two low-level thugs running a protection racket until they got a little too rough with one of their clients. With three dead at the scene and two more injured during their escape, they had shot up to the top of the wanted list. A one million credit bounty had been issued for their capture, dead or alive.

One of my sources tipped me off that the two were holed up in one of a warehouse on the dark side of the station. I’d been to three so far this cycle and was beginning to think they had fled planetside. I snuck in a side door of the next warehouse and started working my way around the inside perimeter to the office. A radio played softly inside but not softly enough to keep Bob and William hidden. I placed a hand on the office doorknob and pulled my gun from its shoulder holster. The radio cut off suddenly and chairs scrapped against the floor. In a single motion, I pulled the office door open and stepped inside. The bullets slapped into my guts before I heard the boom of their guns. Red blossomed on my shirt. This wouldn’t do.

I stepped back one minute. The door was still closed. I turned the doorknob and flung the door open staying out of the doorway. Three bullets thudded into the plastisteel crates nearby.

“Why don’t you make this easy for me and just give up?” I called around the door frame.

“Slag off copper!” one shouted.

“Yeah slag it!” the other said followed by a round of laughter.

“I’m not a police officer but they are on the way. I’d rather have you all wrapped up for them but if you want a big shootout that can be arranged.” They answered with another round of bullets.

I sidestepped into a frozen moment and walked into the office. I plucked Bob’s gun from his hand and emptied the bullets into one of my coat pockets. After doing the same with William’s gun I returned to outside the office. Time restarted.

“Is that your final answer?” I shouted. I slowed time and strolled into the office. They raised their guns slowly, from my perception, and tried to shoot me. I savored the looks of confusion on their faces as their guns clicked on empty chambers.

I punched William in the forehead and felt something snap in my hand. That wouldn’t do. I stepped back five seconds. Using the butt of my gun this time, I knocked William out. Bob followed right after. Time resumed it’s normal flow, while I secured their hands with disposable handcuffs. Their guns went into the same coat pocket with their bullets. I dialed the police.

“What the nature of your emergency?” the operator asked.

“Hello, what is the current response time to my location?” I asked.

“Current response time is twelve minutes. Do you require police, fire, or medical?” I hung up, stepped back ten minutes to call the police, and returned to present time hear sirens just arriving outside.

After giving my initial statement, I moved off to one side and stayed out of the way while allowing time to slip by at twice normal speed. When a CSI approached, I slowed down to hand over the guns and bullets then I sped up again. A detective I knew walked up to me. I stepped back a minute so I could catch her eye just before she walked over and give her a grin of recognition.

“Another pair of criminals put behind bars. How many is this for you? Fifteen?” the detective asked.

“Eighteen. I nabbed three of the Red Shift Gang over the weekend,” I said with a smile.

“Why does a fifth-dimensional alien care about catching criminals on a backwater space station?”

“I’m just trying to do my part.” I casually leaned back against the wall.

“I’ve been reading up on you fifth-dimensional beings.”

“Have you really? And what have you read?”

“Well a lot of the technical jargon went over my head but one thing I think I understood is you can move through time like we move through space.” The detective paced as she talked.

“That’s true.”

She spun to face me. “Then why don’t you just go to when these scumbags committed their crimes and stop them?”

“I could do that … but what would be the fun in that? Where’s the game for me?” I leaned forward to watch as the meaning of my words sunk in. Her face twisted into a snarl and she raised a hand. I stepped back one minute thirty seconds.

“… when these scumbags committed their crimes and stop them?”

“Unfortunately my people have Time Laws that prevent us from altering the past in certain ways. For the safety of the universe, we dare not violate them,” I said as sincerely as I could.

“Huh, I didn’t read anything about that,” she said doubt soaking her words.

“It’s not something we talk about.”

“Well, your help is always appreciated.” The detective walked away.

“I’m sure it is.”

Item: Obsidian Ring

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Dear Buyer #86297,

I hope this finds you in good spirits because I have some bad news. First I want to put your mind at ease about the authenticity of the item. The ring is genuine obsidian with inlaid gold lines crisscrossing its surface. Its origin and date of manufacture are unknown. I bought the ring from a woman at a small stall at a flea market. The woman and stall could not be found later.

The ring will keep you safe if you listen to it. When you are in danger or about to be in danger it will vibrate. Stop moving, look around, and you can usually avoid the danger easily.

The first time, I was about to cross a street when the ring started vibrating. It felt like a phone notification buzz or the rumble from an x-box controller. I stopped walking and a pick-up truck ran the red light; flying through the intersection an arm’s length from me.

The second time, a shelf at my job suddenly buckled dropping a couple of the big planters in the aisle I was walking down. That time I had to run to avoid the danger. The third time was another near miss on the street. The fourth was an elevator. My ring started vibrating when the doors opened and wouldn’t stop until the doors closed. I heard a clunk and felt the crash when it hit the bottom.

This may sound like a good thing, like a blessing, I thought so too; until I paid attention to how many “accidents” I was avoiding. How often do you get hit by a car? How often do objects fall on your head? How often do safety systems fail around you? Probably not very often.

During the first month, I was being saved at most once a week. After wearing the ring for a few months, I was avoiding danger three or four times a week. I don’t know if the ring does it deliberately or as a side effect but the result is the same. You will be in more danger the longer you wear the ring. The ring, however, will keep you safe.

I know this is hard to believe but your life depends on believing me. The woman who sold me the ring didn’t warn me but I couldn’t pass the ring to another person without a warning. Don’t try to track me down. I’ve done everything I can to distance my real identity from the profile I made to sell the ring. By the time you receive this, I’ll have destroyed the last links and hopefully returned to my normal life.

I’m sorry. I really am. My only advice to pass it on to someone like I did. Sell it. Don’t try to lose the ring or give it away. You have to sell it. Good luck and in the meantime don’t forget to wear the ring. Your life depends on it.

Seller #95749

Pit Stop in the Zone

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Somewhere between San Diego and Santa Fe, a late ‘80s station wagon with original wood paneling glided through the Southwest. Behind the wheel, Alice, the driver, scanned the horizon.

“How far is the next gas station?” she asked her index tapping against the steering wheel.

“There’s one coming up in like ten minutes but we just filled up at the last one,” Jamie, the map reader, said from the shotgun seat.

“I need to make a pit stop,” Alice said.

“Why didn’t you go when we stopped earlier?” Jamie checked her watch and opened up the map. “This is going to put us off schedule.”

“I didn’t have to go earlier. I have to go now,” she hissed between clenched teeth.

“Just hold it for a couple of hours and you can go when we stop for lunch.”

“Hey, uh, I think I have to use the restroom too,” Greg, the passenger, said from the backseat.

“Seriously?!” Jamie tossed the map onto the dashboard. “You can hold it too. We have a schedule.”

“It’s two to one for a pit stop. Where do I turn?” Alice asked.

“Passengers shouldn’t get votes.” She sulked in silence for a minute. “Get off at the next exit. It’s just off the feeder road. Can’t miss it.”

A few minutes later, Alice was pulling into a parking space in front of a gas station. All three walked inside, two peeling off to the restrooms, while Jamie browsed the fruit pie selection. Next to the wire rack holding the sought after pies as well as other pastries were a series of coin-op machines. Most dispensed a variety of small toys in plastic eggs. The one that caught Jamie’s eye was shorter than the rest, lacking the large clear hopper of plastic eggs. Instead, it had a red squat winged devil figure over the coin mechanism that took pennies and dispensed slips of paper through a slot.

“Hey, what’s that?” Greg asked as he walked up behind Jamie. She jumped slightly, realizing she had been staring into the plastic jewel eyes of the devil.

“It looks like some sort of cursed fortune telling machine.” She rubbed her eyes and returned to considering the fruit pies.

“Aww cool! I always wanted to try one of these things out,” Alice said. She twisted the dial back and forth but it refused to turn without a penny offering. “Anyone got a penny?” Greg turned out his pockets and held out his change, all dimes, nickels, quarters, and a golden dollar. Alice turned to Jamie.

“Just leave it alone. We’ve already lost enough time to this unscheduled stop,” Jamie said picking up an apple fruit pie and turning it over to read the ingredients. She raised an eyebrow at the surprisingly natural ingredients and grabbed two. At the counter, she paid with a five and dropped her pennies into the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny bowl.

Alice grabbed a quarter from Greg’s change dropped it into the bowl and removed a small pinch of pennies. The clerk gave her an odd look but said nothing. She skipped back to the machine and squatted in front of it. She inserted a penny into the slot and turned the lever. A slip of paper popped out with a metallic ding.

“Questions unasked cannot be answered,” she read from the paper. “What does that mean?”

“You have to ask a question first, maybe?” Greg said.

“Do I have to ask a question first?” Alice said to the devil statue.

Penny, turn, ding! “Yes.”

“Ok, now we’re cooking. What should I ask it?”

“Ask it if we’re ever going to get back on schedule,” Jamie said.

Penny, turn, ding! “Time wasted cannot be returned.”

“You hear that! The cursed devil machine agrees with me now can we please get back on the road?” Jamie said.

“I still have pennies left.” Alice paused to think of a question.

“What about: will we make it home safely?” Greg said.

“You can’t ask it leading questions like that it’ll just twist the answers to keep you asking questions,” Jamie hissed at the other two.

Penny, turn, ding! “No one lives forever.”

“See! It’s totally trying to mind trick you into asking more questions.” She stomped over to the machine. “I know what you’re doing and I’m not falling for it.”

Penny, turn, ding! “You can’t fool all of the people some of the time.”

“Oh no, you don’t! Don’t think that just because you’re agreeing with me that I trust you. Also, that’s not even the full quote.”

Penny, turn, ding! “A smart person knows when to leave the buffet.”

“Hey, who are you calling ‘smart’?” Jamie shouted at the machine. She waited for Alice to feed it another penny. When one was not inserted into the machine, she looked down at Alice.

“I’m out of pennies. Well, that was fun. If we cut our lunch short, we can get mostly back on schedule,” Alice said standing up.

“But … But I’m not done fighting with …” She looked at the devil and thought she saw its eyes gleam. She let out a sigh, “Right, cursed devil fortune machine. Ok, let’s go and we don’t have to cut our lunch short. We just won’t take our afternoon pit stop.”

“You know that’s not going to work, right?” Alice asked.

“Yeah but I can try,” she said as they walked out to their station wagon.

A Land of Shadow and Substance

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The lander contacted the planet with a solid thump. The foggy atmosphere was blown around by the lander’s jets but quickly returned obscuring its cameras. A ladder lowered on one side from a hatch to the ground. Inside the three astronauts puzzled over the atmospheric readings the lander’s computers were displaying.

“There can’t be breathable air out there!” the science officer, Alice Henson, insisted.

“I know logically there can’t be air out there but can all the sensors be wrong?” the captain, Greg Mason, asked.

“If they were malfunctioning, the readings would be all over the place, not consistent like these readings,” the engineer, Jamie Hertz, said.

“Even if we believe the sensors we can not exit the lander without environmental suits,” Alice said.

“Of course not. We’re on an alien planet with unknown biological elements,” the Captain said. “We’ll follow protocol.” An hour later the three had helped each other squeeze into and seal their environment suits. After double-checking their suits, they were ready to begin their survey of the surface.

Captain Greg was the first one down the ladder. He had no quippy sound bites for the moment he first set foot on the alien planet. Alice and Jamie followed soon after. Jamie removed a device from her belt and waved a wand connected by a rubber tube through the foggy air.

“I’m getting the same readings as the lander. There’s a slight spike of xenon in the atmosphere but otherwise it’s Earth normal,” she said.

“Huh,” the Captain grunted. “We’ll keep our helmets on just in case.”

Alice pointed another device at the sky and pressed a button. “This isn’t right. The light from the sun should be much further into the red spectrum,” she said.

“Could the atmosphere be filtering the sun’s light?” Jamie asked.

“Not to this extent.”

“We’re not going to figure this out standing around the lander,” Greg said. “Let’s hook up and head out.” Alice attached a tether from her suit to Greg’s suit. Jamie did the same to Alice’s suit and attached a wire reel from her belt to the lander. The team began hiking through the dense fog away from the lander.

Three hundred feet from the lander, they found a paved road running perpendicular to their course.

“What do you think?” Greg asked the other two.

“It’s not impossible for an alien culture to create familiar looking artifacts. A road is a road no matter what planet you’re on,” Jamie said.

“We’re likely to find more alien structures if we follow the road,” Alice said.

“Sounds good. For safety, we’ll walk beside it agreed?” The other two nodded in their helmets. Several minutes later they spotted a house with a white picket fence on the side of the road. A man, a human man, stepped off the porch and walked to the fence. He raised his hand in greeting.

“Howdy folks. Are you passing through are planning on staying longer?”

“Captain, this appears to be my great-grandfather,” Jamie said. “I think we’ve landed on an alien metaphysical representation of the afterlife.”

“Another one? Ok, people back to the lander.” The team turned around and began following the wire back to the lander.

“Sorry Gramps, we’re looking for actual alien planets to explore.”

“That’s too bad. I’ll tell Meemaw you stopped by,” the apparition of Jamie’s great-grandfather said. Jamie watched him wave until he and the house disappeared back into the fog behind them.

A Daring Escape

She hid her spaceship at the bottom of the ocean. Flew it straight down, opened all the hatches, and flooded it. She swam to shore and stripped off her silver environmental suit; letting it dissolve into the sand. Several hundred hitchhiked miles later, she found a job and a home. For a few years she lived like a human; the happiest time of her life. She waited tables in a bar, bowled with her friends, ran in the park with her dog.

Then they came. A swarm of alien invaders intent on death and destruction. Cities burned and crumbled. Militaries around the world failed to repel them. People huddled together whispering goodbyes to each other. But the end did not come. Reports of a new alien ship began to spread; a silver bird, swooping through the invaders and destroying them.

She had never been far from the ship’s thoughts. Even drowned in the ocean, it had felt the link like a constant buzz in a quiet room. So when she called for it from the depths where she had hidden it, buried it, discarded it, it came. Together they fought and won while surprise was on their side but the sheer number of enemies was too great for one ship.

With no other options left she sent a message out to deep space, “Help me save this planet!” she continued her defense waiting and hoping for a response. Flocks of silver ships fell out of hyperspace and began slashing through the invaders. Soon the invaders fled chased by a contingent of silver ships that would ensure they were destroyed to their last.

Through her link to the ship, she received a message, an order, and a threat, “Princess, the Empire is overjoyed at hearing you are well and alive. Please dock with the flagship. By order of the Empire, we will raze this planet if you do not come with us.” She looked once more at the planet she had begun to think of as home and turned toward the flagship. The Earth was saved.

On Earth, her friends searched for her but would never find her. They mourned her and one took in her dog. A galaxy away, the princess planned another daring escape.

The Wrong Sort of Circle

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I studied accounts of UFO sightings, plotting the locations and times, cross-referencing the earth’s position around the sun and the lunar cycle. Then I factored in abductions and landings. Throughout it all, I studied crop circles learning their shapes and patterns.

After five years, I had learned enough. I traveled by plane then by rented car and finally by foot to a remote grassy field. It was after dark when I arrived. I drove a stake into the ground and tied a string to it as a guide. Using various planks and my own feet I crafted circles within circles and patterned lines and dashes. I returned to the center, removed the stake, and sat on the flattened grass. Soon I would be meeting beings from another world.

While I waited I listened to the croaking of the frogs nearby and watched fireflies twinkle on and off. And of course, I watched the sky for moving lights, which was why I was surprised by the first stones thumping to the ground around me. I stood quickly and saw tall thin beings walking through my crop circle. The shortest stood at least six feet tall. Their heads were bald, a light gray, and slightly too large. More of them approached carrying more stones that they dropped on top of the first ones forming a ring six feet across. One paused at the edge and reached out to me. I stepped back.

“Please this way. Please out of the way, please. They will light the fire soon. Please, this way,” they said motioning out of the ring of stones. Their voice was high pitched, kind, and gentle. More stones had been laid forming a short wall around me. I stepped toward the being who, with gentle touches, guided me away from the center of the circle. Up close I could see their faces were featureless and flat. Instead of a nose, they had small holes just above a thin lip-less mouth.

I turned hoping to slip away into the night but found a thick gray fog had rolled in. The beings walking in and out of the circle appeared and disappeared from the fog in all directions. I looked up to get my bearings from the stars but the stars were not where they should be. I could see Cassiopeia and Orion but Ursa Major and Minor eluded me. However, the Southern Cross was plainly visible which was impossible at my latitude. I quickly found a few more constellations wildly out of place. My rental car was less than a mile away but I had no idea which way it was.

With the ring of stones complete they began piling wood inside and soon a fire was roaring. One of the beings stayed by the fire pit to tend to it. In the light of the fire, I could see it wore a loose gray tunic over loose pants. Smaller fire pits were quickly constructed around the edge of the circle. A rotisserie was constructed over the central fire and a large animal I couldn’t identify on a spit was brought out of the fog and set to cook over the fire.

A number of tall tables, made of thick planks and stout legs, were brought in to encircle the main fire pit. They were set away from the pit with gaps between them so no one’s movement was hindered. More of the beings stayed at the tables as others brought vegetables and fruits for them to chop and slice.

Another circle of tables was dropped in place. These, like the others, were solidly made of thick planks but were finely polished and not as tall. Chairs were brought in and formed the final ring. A tall-backed chair, almost a throne was set on the inside curve of the tables. It was to this chair, I was pointed to with polite whispers to, “Sit, please, sit.”

“What is going on?” I asked.

The being smiled, lip-less mouth opening revealing rows of shark teeth, “It is a feast. You called for a feast and we came. There has not been a feast for many years. Very exciting.”

“Are you aliens or,” I paused not sure if I was really ready to make the next jump. I continued with a whispered, “The Fair Folk?”

They nodded and bobbed their head, “Our names are many. Please, sit,” they gestured again to the chair. As I walked toward it, they pulled it out from the table and pushed it in behind my knees once I was in front of it. A plate of roasted vegetables and fruits was set before me. A tankard was pressed into my hand.

“If I eat and drink this will I be trapped here?” I asked.

“Only if you choose to stay. The guests are arriving.”

“What guests?” I asked. The being pointed out toward the impenetrable gray fog. A woman stepped into the light of the fires. She carried a shield and sword and wore what I assumed was armor. Two of the beings approached her, half bowed and hands raised, from either side. She tensed for a fight but relaxed as they reached her and allowed them to take her sword and shield. A third being wrapped a cloak around her shoulders and guided her around the table to a chair. Before she had taken her seat a man walked out of the fog carrying a rifle. He too was calmly disarmed and seated. The another and another and another walked out of the fog. Soon the outside edges of the tables were full of people. From the center plates of food were prepared and set before the guests.

“Who are these people?” I whispered.

“Warriors. Fighters. Those who have lost their way,” my attendant whispered back.

“Are they dead?”

“Not all.” They raised their voice and called out, “Let us have a toast.” All around the table tankards, cups, goblets, and glasses were filled by the ever-present servers. They turned to me, “If our host will do the honors.” Hesitantly I moved to stand and felt my chair pulled deftly out to give me room. I grabbed my tankard and raised it high over my head.

“Tonight is …” I took a deep breath and began again projecting my voice, “Tonight is a feast. For victory. For fighting the good fight. For good food and new friends. A toast!” Not the most inspiring speech but it got a hearty cheer from the crowd. I paused just before upending my tankard but decided I was beyond saving myself. The liquid was sweet, tangy, cold, and invigorating.

I returned to my chair and began eating. Soon enough my tankard was refilled. Bowls of stew, platters of meat, bread baskets, and more vegetables were brought to the tables and the real feast began. From out of the fog a troupe appeared playing flutes, guitars, drums, tubas, harps, kazoos, cellos, and instruments I had never seen before. They played folk songs, symphonies, blues, jazz, opera, salsa, swing. Between the songs, people told stories or proposed more toasts or sang their own songs. The night had been half over when I made my circle but the feast seemed to go on for days.

Eventually, my memory turned to black and I woke up the next morning in the empty field, wrapped in a cloak. The circle was trampled flat, the center and several points around the perimeter were burnt but no other trace of the feast remained. I got my bearings and began the walk back to my rental car.

Colony Constructors

During my last trip through the dark, I was paired with the newest recruit for the second shift. Second shift is the boring middle months after the ship has left one system but before it reaches the next. There were other crew members out of cryro at the time but the foreman had asked me to mentor Joanne on the ship systems.

After five minutes of watching numbers on display screens, I asked her a question, “So, why did you join this mission?”

She looked out the viewport at the stars and said, “I wanted to explore a new world.”

I laughed, “You do know new planets are mapped and explored by satellites and rovers, right?”

“Yeah, but is it really explored if no humans have been there before?”

“Yes. It doesn’t matter if I see a rock or if a robot sees it. It’s been seen. Anyways we aren’t an exploration mission. There aren’t any manned exploration missions.”

Joanne sighed, “I know. This mission was the closest I could find.”

“You’re not going to have a lot of time to ‘explore’.” I counted off items on my fingers. “We have ten habs, fifteen farms, ten labs, and six storage buildings to set up before the colonists arrive. And then the real work of getting the colony running starts.”

“Still we get to be the first people on a new world. That’s still something.”

I couldn’t help smiling. “I wish I had half your spirit.”

“Why did you sign up for this mission then?”

“Same reason I signed up for the last ten colony missions: I wanted to build something.”

“You never wanted to settle down, have kids?”

“Thought about it but I wanted to travel and Colony Constructor is strictly a single person’s job. Children were straight out of the picture.”

She pointed an excited finger at me. “Ah! So, you do have some of the explorer spirit in you.”

“Maybe a little but after you see a few planets it starts to wan. We go where life is possible, which means Earth-like planets, which means they all kind of look the same.”

“There’s still some stuff to discover on these planets,” she countered.

“Yeah, but we don’t get to stick around to discover it. If you really want to pioneer a new world, you should have applied for immigration and joined a colony.”

“I might do that someday but first I want to see a few planets first.”

“Don’t wait too long or you’ll end up like me,” I warned her.

“You’re not that old.”

“Physically I’m only old enough to be your aunt but relativistic time dilation means I’ve outlived everyone I knew on earth.” I paused thinking about the distant family members that were still on earth that I barely knew. “This is my last mission. I’m staying this time.”

“What are you going to do?” Joanne asked.

“I’m going to build something new.

Done By Hand

The wizard who fancied himself “The Master” sat in his sanctum pouring over the tome of dark arts he had “liberated” from the protected section of the Grand Wizard’s Library. A cool metal tube pressed against the back of his head.

“Don’t move,” a woman’s voice commanded.

“You fool! You think you can ent–” his rant was cut short by a sharp blow to his head.

“Shut up.”

“Ow, did you hit me?!” he asked turning to face his intruder.

“I said don’t move,” she said again before thwacking him again with the butt of her gun. She smiled watching him hold his head in pain.

“I don’t understand. How did you get in here? My sanctum is warded against teleportation, portal spells, shadow walkers, time distortion, space hole rips, and intangibility.”

“Yeah, well you have shitty locks on the windows and a shitty security system.”

“You came in through a window?”

“Yep, really wasn’t hard to break in. The hard part was scaling the outside of your absurd tower. If you want to hide something or make it secure, you don’t put it up in the sky where everyone can see it.”

“It doesn’t matter if everyone can see my sanctum! I am protected by the strongest magics in the world!” he stood up as he ranted. The intruder raised her gun as if to strike him again and he fell back into his chair, hands raised. She laughed.

“You magic types are all the same. Magic this and magic that. Sometimes you just have to do things by hand.” She panted her feet shoulder wide, extended her gun arm, braced it underneath with her other hand, and took aim at The Master.

“Is that an enchanted gun?” The Master grinned.

“Nope,” she said. His grin faltered.

“Are the bullets silver or blessed or inscribed with runes?” he asked desperation in his voice.

“Nope. Just plain old lead.” She squeezed the trigger twice, took aim again, and fired twice more. After waiting a few minutes to be sure he wouldn’t immediately resurrect, she snapped a polaroid and pressed his hand on an ink pad then a sheet of paper. Proof of identity was necessary to collect on the bounty.

The magic book he had been reading she carefully wrapped. The Grand Wizard would be less than happy about the blood and guts sprayed inside but her job was to retrieve the book not clean it. She exited the tower by the same window she entered.