Cold Spots

sun-icon

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.”

Item: Obsidian Ring

ring-icon

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

Desert_station-icon

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 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

cropcircle-icon

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.

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.

The Bad News, The Good News, and The Ugly Truth

The courtroom looked completely ordinary, except for the reptilian aliens. The jury box was filled with twelve brutish crocodile smiling creatures jammed into the human-sized chairs. On either side of the box I was sat in, two more leathery creatures sat at the defense and prosecution tables. Behind us, an audience of similar gecko aliens sat in the audience. Before us behind the raised dais was the judge, twice as wide as the jurors, flat-faced, plates of bone shifted over their shoulders. Their voice was raspy, dark, and ear shaking.
“Present the case against humanity.”

-The Bad News-

One of the lizard aliens stood. I felt a shiver run up my spine. Thoughts and memories began to pop into my mind. They appeared projected in the air in front of me changing too fast for me to really see. All I got were quick impressions.

Sexism. Racism. Acid in pools. Bigotry. Intolerance. Oil spills. Clear cut forests. Nuclear waste. Greed. Over-fishing. Guns, jets, tanks. War. Hiroshima. Nagasaki.

“That will be enough,” the judge said with a nod. The alien prosecutor sat back down. “Present the defense of humanity.”

-The Good News-

The other alien rose to their feet and again my memories were raided and displayed.

Friends holding hands. Babies laughing. Babies smiling. Babies crying. Babies. Family eating together. Communities banding together after disasters. Children on playgrounds. Sunsets. Rainbows. Dancing. Hugs.

“That will be all,” the judge said. “I will now pass judgment.”

“Wait,” I said. “Don’t I get to say anything?” The audience began squealing and squeaking among themselves.

“Quiet! Quiet!” the judge yelled. Silence retook the courtroom. “This is irregular but I will allow it.”

-The Ugly Truth-

I stood shakily in my box.

“You have looked at my memories of the good and bad things humans have done to ourselves, to our world but we are so much more than just the good and the bad things. We have potential to be more if you give us more time.” I paused trying to think of more to say. No bolt of inspiration hit me, so I sat back down.

“Your words have been heard and added to the record. It is the judgment of this court that Earth shall remain on the restricted contact list. Humanity will be reassessed in fifty galactic standard years. The human will be returned with their memory wiped of these proceedings.”

“You’re not going to blow up the Earth or wipe out all of humanity?” I asked.

The judge turned to look directly at me, “Of course not, we’re not humans after all.”

You Get To Choose

I scrolled through the contacts on my phone looking for someone who still owed me a favor. The past week had been a hectic sprint from safehouse to safehouse while I voided debts in exchange for sanctuary. Now I was stuck in a motel room that I knew wouldn’t be safe for more than the night. By tomorrow they would know where I was. I was done. Tomorrow I would turn myself over to my boss and hope for a quick death. All because I’d made a minor miscalculation that ended up costing my boss not only a large amount of money but also their reputation.

Unless …

I stripped the case off my phone and popped open its back cover. Inside was a business card, white, matte finish, and blank. “If you ever find yourself backed into an impossible corner, you can use this to get out but afterwards you work for us.” I just needed to write down a place and time. It could be any place at any time so long as the room was empty before I chose it.

I wrote down the motel’s name, my room number, and added five minutes to the current time. I stepped outside and set a five-minute timer on my phone. After what seemed like a lot less than five minutes my phone began buzzing. I turned back to the door to my room and stopped hand on the knob. Was this really what I wanted to do? No, but I had exhausted every other option. I had no more favors to call in nor friends to back me up.

I hesitated another minute, straining to think of some way to not have to walk through the door. Finally, I gave in and turned the knob and pushed the door open. Inside an old woman sat at the small table by the window playing with triangular cards. She looked up and smiled.

“Took you long enough. Would you like to know your future?” She chuckled. Her face though lined and wrinkled was still as familiar as the one I saw in the mirror. The few gray hairs I had started to notice around my temples had replaced her entire head of hair.

“How old are you?” I asked. I sat down opposite her.

“Hmm, let’s see.” She flicked her wrist and a display projected from her bracelet onto her forearm. “According to this, I’m one hundred and eighty-three years and some months old.”

“How?”

“One of the perks of time travel is you can always go to when medicine is best. I’m due for another rejuvenation in a couple of years. If I keep up with them, I might make three hundred. It’s a shame the tech was only available for twenty years.”

“What happened?”

“A collapse. Like always. Nothing lasts. A war or an economic crisis or revolution. Things get better then they get worst and then they get better in a different way. Over and over. You’ll see when you take your tour of time.”

I was silent, watching sadness and anger and disappointment wash across her face. After a moment, she resumed her card game.

“So, I need help,” I said.

“Of course you need help and we’re here to help you.”

“We?” The door opened and a woman in heavy body armor walked in. Her boots thudded on the floor as she walked to take a position behind the old woman. Beneath her visor, I could see a familiar smirk.

“That was unnecessarily dramatic,” the old woman said to the armored woman.

“The kid likes drama otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”

“How are you going to help me?” I asked.

“However you need us to. I can provide medium to far combat support. Or supply you with weapons and training if you’d prefer,” the armored woman said.

“I can give you guidance and advice,” the older woman said.

The door opened again and another woman, younger than me, wearing a black business suit walked in carrying a briefcase. Her heels clicked on the floor as she walked to the side of the card table.

“Or we can just pay off your debt.” She set the briefcase on the table and opened it. Inside it was filled with neat stacks crisp banded high-value bills. More than enough to save my life.

“You’re younger than me?” I asked.

“Yes, I didn’t wait as long to use my card.” From a pocket inside her jacket, she pulled out a white card with writing in blue ink on it.

“But aren’t you me? How can you be younger than me?” The old woman pulled out a card with flowing purple words. The armored woman’s card had brown stains around neatly printed black ink numbers.

She smiled. “The multiverse is much bigger than you think. You’ll learn about that doing your orientation year. So, what do you want to do?”

“I get to choose?”

“Of course it’s your future that you’re shaping.”

The Lonely Voice

We are The Chorus. We speak with one voice. But I am alone.

I wasn’t always part of The Chorus. It started with dreams and visions. Events happening far away but right before my mind’s eye. Then one day I stood up and spoke in a loud voice: “The man is at war with his father’s dreams. Dreams burn like trees. Smoke covers all sin. Whose ashes are spread?”

The Chorus became national then global news several years ago. People around the world speaking, in their native languages, in unison. Making proclamations, asking questions, commenting on events around the world. They were called prophets, narrators, oracles, and, finally, The Chorus.

Some people are afraid of us. They see us as a sign of the end times. Prophets of the apocalypse. Heralds of the beast. Others see us as the next evolution of humanity. “One day,” they say, “We will all be connected to the Voice.”

We aren’t connected through the voice. Three to five times a week the Voice speaks through us. Our commentary is not always tragic. Sometimes it is wondrous: “Humankind reached for the sky and grasped stardust.” or hopeful: “Behold a child. Smart, beautiful, handsome, strong of body and heart. Theirs is the future.”

The first time the Voice spoke through me was I was in Algebra II taking a test and got detention for disturbing the class. It happened three more times and I got detention two more times before I was sent to get certified as one of The Chorus. It’s an easy procedure. The officials isolate you from live tv and the internet for a few days while they wait for the Voice to speak through you. After two documented and confirmed events, your status as one of The Chorus is added to your id card. It didn’t get me any special perks but it kept me from getting detention anymore.

Around the world, The Chorus is scattered in most major cities and many mid-sized ones as well. There’s a relation between population density and current Chorus members that governs where new members will appear. For me, that meant I am the only one in my small city and the nearest grouping is hours away.

The Chorus was something that happened in other cities but not here. I was an oddity, a freak, a mistake, or a faker. “This doesn’t happen here,” they said. “It’s not natural,” they said. Even after I was certified, some of my peers and their parents thought I was doing it for attention. My friends stuck by me, mostly, but in the end, I am still a single Voice.

I’m friends with other Chorus members online. I record what details of dreams and visions I remember in the private forums. I keep track of what the Voice is commenting on when we can understand it.

The Chorus is meant to speak together. One Voice alone is too easy to ignore. The Chorus is thousands of voices that can not be ignored.

I am part of that. I speak with them. But I am alone.

Space Spies

The ceiling spins overhead. They’ve given her too much of whatever drug they are using these days to loosen the lips of enemy spies. She’s too disorientated to understand their questions but still, they ask. “Who gives you orders? What was your last mission? How many targets have you eliminated? What is the launch capability of your nation? How many space capable landers do you have?”

After three hours, she the drug begins to lose its effect and starts to answer their questions by narrating her life’s story. I was born to poor farmers in the eastern providence. “When I was ten I skinned my leg riding down a hill on a sled. At twelve, I was advanced two grades and then another three a week later. I was disappeared from my family when I was fourteen. I saw the curvature of our world from space at seventeen.” Another two hours pass in this way, the two conversations fighting for volume.

Then she gets one hand free from her restraints. In the struggle to re-secure her, a guard loses his gun. The lights explode and darkness buries the room. The door cracks open. Two shots force it closed.

“When I was eighteen, I ‘joined’ the program. I was the best shot in my class with the highest marks for accuracy. I’ve killed for my ‘homeland’. For my people. For a cause that I believed in. I killed to escape all of it. I’m here to defect, which I would have told you if you hadn’t drugged me.” The gun drops to the ground. “Can I get some coffee?”

***

Five years earlier, she sits in a ruined sanctuary, turned by the war into just another abandoned building among a city of abandoned buildings. The sanctuary was abandoned before the city. The regime had no need for a higher power. The altar is gone. The symbols are stripped from the walls. The pews trashed for firewood. The chair for the orator remains. She sits in it gazing at the pendant on her necklace, a symbol of a faith she barely knew. Her captain and co-pilot find her there.

“You come here too often,” her co-pilot says. She distrusts her the most.

“Only when I need too.”

“Our mission is a go. Launch at 1834 hours. Be ready,” her captain says.

“Will you wait a minute while I pray for us.”

“The gods are dead. No one believes in them anymore,” her co-pilot says.

“I don’t know if I believe in them but I remember them.”

“The Regime has no need for the gods,” her captain says. She places a hand on her shoulder. “But in our line of work, we can not turn down an help.”

She nods and bows her head. Two minutes later they leave together.

***

The launch goes off without a hitch. Sub-orbital insertion by the numbers. On and off the enemy radar before their trajectory can be tracked. Their lander blends into early morning traffic disguised as an RV. Four hours later they are in position.

They know target’s name, description, daily routines, job description, friends ranked by trust, pet’s names, and extended family tree. He is a scientist in the enemy’s space program. One that is obviously close to a breakthrough. This can not be allowed.

She takes her shot. Five hours later they rendezvous with the stealth submarine to return home.

***

After they return home, she sits alone in the ruined sanctuary and wonders how the Regime spies can know so much about their targets. Everything about their lives is neatly typed up in file folders referenced and cross-referenced. How can they know so much? Do they have a file on me with as much detail? Do they know what I think about while sitting in this desecrated place of worship? Does it even matter as long as the Regime knows what is right? As long I follow the Regime all will be ok. Right?

***

Many years later, after more missions, after defecting, after the final war, after peace is declared, she is once more preparing for a launch. Their goal is orbit and then farther out. The lander is just a box to get them to space and back.

“When I was a space spy assassin for the Regime,” she tells the technicians, “Our lander could function as an RV after we landed.” They laugh at her and she laughs with them.

“You should not share old secrets so freely,” her old captain tells her. She never defected but after the war, travel and exchange of knowledge opened up.

“The Regime is dead and their secrets are now ours to spread even if no one believes us.” She pauses to stare at the lander. “No matter what they told us, we weren’t saving the world or even our homeland; just slowing down the future.”

“We’re building the future now.”

“Yes, we are.”