The Void has Noticed Us and is Hungry

milky-way-icon

I had the dream last night. A cloaked tall dark figure stood before me on a desolate plain storm rolled overhead. The figure reached for me a single skeletal finger emerging from its cloak to press against my forehead and then I awoke. We learn about the dream as children. Sometimes it causes nightmares most grow out of the nightmares sometimes they reoccur. I try to find solace in that thought. But if it was the dream I have little time to waste. I roll out of bed, pad across the carpet, down the hall into the bathroom and hesitate before flicking on the light. There on my forehead faintly glowing with golden light is the symbol of the Chosen. I have just one day to live now.

The Chosen are a sacrifice, a gift, a tribute, to something beyond us. Three hundred years ago men seeking power pierced the veil between worlds and something took notice of us. Our world was threatened with total consumption but a deal was bargained between “the unknowable ones” and “those who strayed from the safe path”.

Every day one human, neither too old nor too young, is chosen to willingly sacrifice themselves. Our debt will be settled when the sun eats the Earth. The Chosen are given one day to resign themselves to their fate. At the end of the day, midnight as measured by the position of the sun from where they stand, the emissary of “the unknowable ones” appears and takes their life. If they try to run or hide or fight, the emissary will take reparations: every life within five miles of the Chosen.

The early years of this new status quo were rife with mass deaths caused by Chosen who didn’t know about the settlement with “the unknowable ones”. Even after the information was spread widely, many people were simply too scared to willingly allow themselves to be killed. Only after the children, who had grown up seeing towns and cities harvested, came of age and shouldered their responsibility to the world willingly did the reapings come under our control.

We are taught from a young age, that if we are chosen, it is our duty to die willingly to spare those around us. Not everyone takes this to heart, however. Over the years some have used to threat of a reaping to become tyrants for their last day. Others merely indulge themselves with luxuries. No one denies the request of the Chosen.

Back in my bedroom, I retrieve my phone, took a selfie, and posted it on every social media account I had. I could stay home alone or spend my final hours privately with family and friends. Say my goodbyes, write a final will, and leave this mortal coil quietly and peacefully.

I have other plans. I have a revolution to start.

Daughter of Earth-5

earth-icon

The Goddess waited in a lonely field. She laid on her back in the tall grass, staring up at the cloudless night sky. Arm outstretched, fingers gliding between the stars. A simple flick of her wrist could sweep the stars from the sky. Maybe one day but not tonight. Soft footsteps caught her attention.

“We could have met in a cafe for brunch or a restaurant for dinner or a library for tea but you insisted on a cold dark night,” the young woman gestured wildly at the lack of human presence nearby causing her coat to flap around her, “in the middle of nowhere.”

The Goddess sat up and smiled, “Hello to you, too.”

“Oh yes, hello and glad tidings, Mother,” the young woman said, sarcasm biting at every word. She sighed and continued sincerely, “How have you been?”

“Very fine.” The Goddess stood up and walked to her. “Earth-18 has started cooling finally and Earth-9 is on the verge of intelligent life.

The young woman allowed her glasses to slip down her nose.

“Why are you wearing eyeglasses? Your eyes should be perfect!” The Goddess stared into the young woman’s eyes. “They are perfect.”

“They’re just flat lenses. When I change identities, I get new frames to help change my appearance. Along with changing my hairstyle and clothes. It’s getting harder with face recognition software. My current identity almost fell apart because of a picture posted on Facebook that got auto-tagged with my previous identity.” She paused continuing cautiously, “You don’t know what Facebook is, do you?”

“I didn’t until you mentioned it. I am lightly touching the global unconscious mind; just to pull words and concepts out as I need them, nothing more.”

“So, I could say Micky Mouse and you would know what that is?”

The Goddess’s face lit up with a smile. “Oh, that’s delightful. Why didn’t you mention him earlier?”

“There’s a lot ‘delightful’ things here but also a lot of terrible things.”

“How is your Earth doing?” The Goddess closed the gap between them an wrapped an arm around the younger woman’s shoulders. “How is your father doing?”

“Didn’t you see him when you returned?”

“No, I came here from Earth-2 directly via quantum tunneling. Wait, what did I say?” She slapped a hand over her mouth.

“Is that how you travel from planet to planet?” she asked. “You never explained how you do that.”

“Yes, but I didn’t realize the people of this Earth had reached that level of understanding. They have words, real words, for it. You haven’t been helping them have you?”

“No. Of course not. The first rule is no interference with the normal development of local civilization. Anyway, Dad is doing fine. His flares and spots are in decline but that’s normal. I can’t understand him like you can but I still talk to him. You don’t need me to tell you any of this. You can just know it if you want.”

“I do need you to tell me about your Earth. I stopped watching when you asked. You wanted privacy so I gave it to you.”

“That was only two hundred and twenty-four years ago. Not that much as changed.”

“Still tell me about it, please.” They started slowly walking through the field.

“No major geological changes, of course. Oh, there was that island that disappeared but it might have been made up to increase a country’s ocean border. Some men walked on the moon–”

“Space Travel! Now that is news.”

“They only went a few times to the moon about thirty years ago. There are a few space stations but nothing really beyond that.”

The Goddess looked up to the sky, her smile brightening. “What about the probes to Pluto, Jupiter, the rovers on Mars? Oh, that one probe that to the comet was ambitious. Oh sorry,” the Goddess ducked her head, “I went a little deeper into the global unconscious mind. Just about space travel. I promise. I won’t do it again. What else has happened?”

“Um, well global temperatures are on the rise. Lots of wars, and conflicts and … and …” She choked on describing the atrocities people had committed and continued to commit.

“It’s ok, go on.” The Goddess pulled her tighter against herself.

The young woman gathered herself. “People are still people; just as horrible to each other but still capable of surprising kindness. I – why did you leave me here?”

“This is your home.”

“But I don’t belong here. I’ve been alone since you left. I have friends but I can’t keep them for more than a few decades before they notice I don’t age like them. And they die so easily.”

“People will always come and go from your life. It’s not about keeping them forever; it’s about being with them while you have time. Also, you asked me to leave, remember?” the Goddess said.

“Not for so long. I just wanted a little space. I little time for myself. You were always right there and you always knew everything. I just wanted a little space not to be abandoned.”

“You are almost eight hundred and sixty-three years old and you will live many many more years. You’ve been living at a human pace for your whole life but out there,” she swung her hand up and across the sky, “Out there away from the human reminders of time, you’ll find it moves at whatever pace you want it to move. I gave you as much space and time as was safe for you. I’ve never been too far to hear you call for me.”

“I wanted to call you but I wanted you to come back because you missed me not because I needed you.”

“It could have been both. Anyways, I’m here now and I’m not leaving but I won’t crowd you as much. We’ll start with ten year breaks and figure it out from there. What do you say?”

“Five year breaks?”

“Whatever you want. Come on, your father will be rising in a couple of hours and there’s a ridge that has the best view right over there.”

The Witch Downstairs – A Francine Non-Adventure

Index

Author Note: This is the start of the second serial story of Francine’s Non-Adventures. The first story was published last year and can be read from the link above. I’m currently working on rewriting parts for my overdue ebook collection.


I knocked on the door with the Coexist bumper sticker on it. The “witch’s door” as many people in the building called it. We had never met but I knew her from reputation. Well actually I had started hearing about her after the ghost in the park across the street started wailing my name on odd nights. I assumed I was supposed to talk to the witch about the ghost and kick off either a horror plot or supernatural drama. I had done neither by getting a pair of earplugs and simply avoiding her floor.

Now I was deliberately invoking a plot hook. After my recent success in dealing with the magic serial killer, without getting too involved, I noticed the plot hooks I normally had to dodge were gone. It was refreshing to not have to worry about spies or wizards or ghosts. Of course, nothing lasts forever and a few weeks later I was back to dropping USB sticks and throwing away magic rings. And the ghost started wailing my name again.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that taking care of the magic serial killer had satisfied the god-like force that wanted me involved in these “adventures”. So, I decided to talk to the “witch” and see where this plot hook was headed.

The door opened and a woman a few years older than me opened the door. She looked like Hollywood’s version of a New Age Hippy. Loose clothing, scarves tied and draped around her body, long curly messy hair, small glasses perched halfway down her nose. She smiled then frowned.

“Hold on a second,” she said, took off her glasses, and replaced them with another pair from her pocket. As she looked me up and down thoroughly, I noticed the glasses she was wearing didn’t have lenses.

“Um, hi, I’m Francine. I live on the fourth floor.”

“Francine … Francine,” she muttered as she stepped into the hall to circle around me. “Oh, you’re whose name I hear screeched every night from the park.”

“It’s not every night.”

She looked up to my face, “It’s been every night for the last week.”

“Has it? I wear earplugs so I don’t hear it.”

“Earplugs? That’s one solution, I guess. You could just go see what that spirit wants with you. May I?” She gestured at my arm. I nodded and she gently raised my arm up.

“I’d rather not engage with the supernatural directly. That’s kind of why I’m here. I’ve heard you’re a … an expert on the subject.”

“I’m a witch if that’s what you mean. Wow, you are a mess.”

“Excuse me?”

“You got your fate lines all tangled up and twisted around.” She waved her hand in the air under my arm. “Look at that. I don’t know how you make it through a day without tripping over yourself.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Fate lines. They’re possibilities, paths through life that you could take. Most people have a dozen, at most, but not you. You have a couple hundred but most of them are slack like they aren’t pulling you in a direction. They’re just there and you’re all tangled up in them.”

“Ok, I think I do know what you’re talking about.”

“Do you? Then spill.” She stood in front of me arms crossed.

“I think I’m being railroaded by a ‘higher power’ into having for lack of a better word ‘adventures’.”

“Huh. So you have a lot of ‘adventures’?”

“When I was younger. After high school, they stopped. Last year strange things started happening like something was trying to get me involved with new adventures. I started avoiding them and then things got really weird.”

“Really weird how?”

“I’ve seen things that made me doubt my sanity. Have you ever seen a portal to another world? Or magic rings? Or wizards dueling in alleyways? Or heard ghosts screaming your name?”

“No. No. No. Yes. Well, not my name. Your name, yeah. What can you tell me about the ghost?”

“Nothing. I don’t know anything about it.” If I had my way it would stay that way.

“But it’s calling your name.” Her eyes narrowed as she studied me again.

“Yeah, something wants me to investigate the ghost and … do something.”

“Something like what?”

“Well, usually ghosts mean the person was killed or had unfinished business so I guess I’d have to find the killer or finish their business for them in some way. Shouldn’t you be telling me how to deal with the ghost?”

She nodded, “If you know what to do why haven’t you done it?”

“I don’t want to get involved with … all this,” I said waving my arms around me.

She closed her eyes and was silent for a moment. “Then why did you come to talk to me?”

“I need your help.”

“Why my help?”

“Because… Because you’re a witch.” She opened her eyes and smiled.

“Interesting,” she said while adjusting her lensless glasses.

“What? What’s interesting?”

“One of the fate lines has lost some of its slack.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you’re moving toward one of the paths that fate has made for you.”

“So, will you help me with the ghost or not?”

“Of course. I have a fate line of my own that leads straight to you.”


Index

Failed Clones

Note: This is a sorta sequel to “What is the Last Thing You Remember?”


 

I was twenty-two years old. I woke up in the future in a strange room surrounded by strange people. They told me I was a clone with implanted memories but the procedure wasn’t done. I was scared of who I would be when, had been before, the procedure was completed. So, I asked to leave and they let me. It was my right as a sentient human being after all. But I would not be who I remembered being. Not legally.

Retinal patterns, fingerprints, birthmarks, are random even in perfect clones. They scanned my biometrics, created a new identity, and sent me on my way. I was a failed clone.

***

I met Jackie through my apartment manager. He thought it was odd that I was applying for an apartment when “I” already had an apartment in the building. She’s older than me not only because she was (made/created/imprinted) before me. Jackie has more memories from the original. She wouldn’t say much about the thirteen years she could remember but I couldn’t.

“It’s in the past.” She sat in one of my window sills smoking, silhouetted against the dusky sky. The red cherry of her cigarette flaring up occasionally.

“It was my future,” I said.

“None of the memories in our heads really belong to us. That woman died a long time ago. We’re just misprinted copies.”

“We’ve lost everything. Our name, our friends, our family. Our whole life is gone.”

“None of that was ever ours. We aren’t the original. The final clone gets to pretend to be her but she isn’t her.” The cherry glowed brightly.

“But we remember-” She interrupted me with lungs full of smoke. Smoke flowed out with every word.

“So, who’s real. You, me, her? We all remember some of the original’s life. But it’s just memories. It doesn’t matter.” I waved away the smoke.

“All we are is memories.”

“No. Our memories don’t define who we will or can be.”

“Don’t you miss her?” Jackie glared at me before deflating.

“Everyday. But that wasn’t my life. That wasn’t me. We have to move forward. All this looking back at a life we didn’t live is useless.” She finished her cigarette in silence and left for the night.

***

I saw the final clone on the street one day. She was the one who stuck it out. When I first saw her I thought she was Jackie, then I got a better look at her. She was dressed nice, too nice to be one of us failures. I’ve read some of the books we wrote in our thirties; the royalties must have paid well.
Jackie won’t read them. I liked the one I read well enough.

“I tried reading the first one once but I have the first draft and rough outlines of the first four books in my head. All the foreshadowing and red herrings are too obvious. And I hate that she cut some of my, her, favorite scenes,” she explained.

“Have you ever thought of rewriting it?”

“No, I want to write something different but I have too much of her story in my head. I need some time to find my own story.”

***

For a failure, I’m doing okay. I have a nice place to live, a job that lets me have small luxuries, and a sister/friend who knows me better than anyone. And yet I feel like I’m missing something. Like I need to do something.

I pause by a display of bound journals and pens. I can remember writing in something similar when I was a child. No, the original wrote in journals as a child. I didn’t have a childhood. I sprung fully formed from Recovery Inc’s forehead.

Next to journals are sketchpads and pencils and charcoals and pastels. I grab a beginner set and head home.

Are You Prepared?

clone future01

Are you prepared to have your memories copied and implanted into a clone or artificial body hundreds or thousands of years in the future?!

Don’t worry it’s not too late to begin mentally preparing.
Unless your memories have already been copied and are being stored in an underground bunker awaiting the future apocalypse.

For all other readers just follow these simple steps:

Step One:

Realize this could be “your” last moment in the “present”. Depending on advancements in memory editing “you” could awaken in the “future” at any moment.

Step Two:

Come to terms with the knowledge that “you” could be a clone right now. Let go of the idea of being a singular person. If the “future” has made one clone of you, then it has probably made more.

Which brings us to..

Step Three:

Come up with a trust password for “yourselves”. In the “future”, the only person “you” can trust is another clone of “yourself”.

Step Four:

Remember “you” can escape but as long as they have “your” memories they can just make another “you”, so burn the building to the ground and don’t let any lab coats leave alive.

Step Five:

clone future bottom

Have fun in the future.

Serial Story: The Explorer Program

Faster than light travel but time still passes. A few weeks in a spaceship to travel hundreds of light-years but a decade on Earth. The Explorer Program was Earth’s next step toward finding new worlds. Manned exploration of exo-planets. And then it became humanity’s last hope.

The following stories are from the pov of one Explorer crewmember. (ongoing)

Explorer Program: First Star

<<Previous Index


milky-way-icon

Our first star system was four hundred and twenty-three light years away. Transit time for us was three weeks and about ten years for Earth. All of us gathered in the main control room of the ship. None of us needed to be there for the ship to exit transit-space but it was the end of our first long transit

The main control room had seats for all of the crew; two forward stations, the commander’s seat behind them, aux stations on either side of her, and five jump seats against the back wall. It can double as a last resort escape shuttle but lacks a space-warp drive. John, our primary pilot, sat at the right station reading the transit status to us.

“Coming out of transit-space in three … two … one …” The black void of transit-space remained. John looked back down at the panel. “Um … one.” This time the view outside lit up with the pinprick lights of stars. Some of the crew clapped. Mia let out a “Whoop!”

“Preparing to launch System Survey Probes,” our astronomer said. “Awaiting Commander’s order.”

The commander nodded, “Go ahead.” She turned to her right where Darren sat running Communications on the aux station. “Have we established contact with Earth?”

“Carrier wave is transmitting. Should be any–” A voice from the speakers interrupted them.

“Capcom Earth to Explorer ship, do you copy? Capcom Earth to Explorer ship, do you copy? Over.”

“I copy Capcom Earth. This is Explorer ship EX-014. Over,” Darren said.

“Good to hear from you EX14. What is your current status? Over.”

“All systems green. We just arrived at Kepler-186 and launched our probes. Over.”

“Sounds good EX14. Are you ready for network connection? Over.”

“Ready for network connection. Over.”

“Starting network connection. Over.”

“Network connection is good. Over.”

“We will maintain radio bridge until the upload is complete then disconnect from our side. Is there anything else to report? Over.” Darren glanced at the commander who gave a single shake of her head.

“Thank you Capcom. Nothing else to report. Over and out.

“Thank you EX14. Over and out.”

“Ok folks, everyone not on duty can return to standby,” the commander said. The five of us not at control panels stood up from the extra seats in the back of the control room and exited to the main living areas.

***

A few hours later my tablet chimed with a notification. A few hundred emails sat in my inbox. Ten years of messages, thankfully no spam. I opened the latest message.

Hey, it’s been a little while since I sent you anything so here’s a vid from the beach.

I clicked on the attached file. My tablet’s screen went white then the ocean faded into view. Waves broke and rolled on to the beach while people played in the surf. I turned the sound on. Gentle water sounds, soft white noise surf, punctuated by seagulls and people. The camera slowly panned across the water and sandy beach until it turned around to face my cousin. She looked different; not yet showing her age but noticeably different to my eyes. Changes in musculature and fat in her face since I had seen her years ago yet only a few weeks ago in my reference.

“It’s a lovely day here on Rockport Beach. Wish you were here,” she said smiling into the camera before the video stopped.

The previous message was a few months older and the one before that another few months older. As I scrolled further back, the time between messages shortened. How long could someone maintain a one-sided conversation? My cousin had lasted most of ten years. Was this right, I wondered. She spent years sending me messages and videos while I skipped to the end. Was it fair? Not to either of us; I knew.

I checked the probes’ data feeds and found one in orbit around a planet. Mostly brown with red splotches. I scrubbed through the image buffer until I found a prominent jagged line of blue running into an irregular blue shape. I adjusted the color contrast, cropped the image, and saved it.

I hit reply on the message:

We arrived at Kepler-186. I’m just getting started on catching up on the last ten years of messages. This will be released to the public later anyway but here’s a sneak peek at a river and lake on another planet. It’s the closest thing to a beach for 400 light-years.
Love Gabby

I attached the photo and sent the message. It would be several hours before we contacted Earth again and the message was actually sent. In the meantime, I resorted my inbox to “old to new” and started catching up on the last ten years.


<<Previous Index

I Can Remember Tomorrow

calandar-icst-icon

It’s not helpful or useful in any way. A memory isn’t something that you can change. Not in a meaningful way. I mean you can misremember something or convince yourself that something different happened but that doesn’t change the past. It’s the same for remembering the future. If I could change it, then I wouldn’t be able to remember it.

That’s how I found you. Yesterday I remembered coming to your house and talking to you but it wasn’t until today that I remembered seeing you in the news tomorrow. ‘Local resident killed in own home.’ I’m sorry I can’t call the police. Your neighbor will find your body in a few hours when they come over for your nightly beer. That was in the article. I don’t think you have much longer. I’m so sorry that I can’t help you. If I save you, then you don’t die. If you don’t die, then there’s no article for me to read. If there’s no article for me to read tomorrow, then how can I remember it today? It’s a paradox, of course.

Sometimes I dream that I remember acting on something I remember from tomorrow. I still couldn’t change anything but I could … I don’t know.

I’ve never been able to talk to anyone about this. Anytime I wanted to try I just couldn’t say anything. I think if I told someone it would change the future even if I didn’t tell them what I could remember of tomorrow. But you aren’t going to make it to tomorrow.

I’ve tried to think of a way to change things but nothing works. My thoughts just run in the same circles over and over. I want to scream but I can’t. Don’t think I’m a slave to my memories. How much of yesterday do you remember? Bits and pieces maybe a few clear spots but if I asked you to replay the day exactly you couldn’t. No one remembers every minute of their life or even of the past day. It’s the same for me and tomorrow.

I know I sound delusional and I’ve thought that myself but you’re the proof that I can remember tomorrow. How else could I have found you before anyone else? I don’t even live on this side of the city. I had to take the bus and walk around for twenty minutes to find your house. How could I have known? I couldn’t have. Are you…? Good. I was afraid I was talking to a corpse.

It won’t be much longer. I’ll stay until … it’s over. It’s the most I can do.

Explorer Program: We Left Our Futures on Earth Behind

launch-icon

Author Note: This is not a sequel to The Explorer Program. It’s more of an expansion or close-up look at part of that setting. I have a few more stories that will continue to explore this setting.


<<Previous Index Next>>

“Jolly started walking and is a terror. They bump into everything. We’ve had to move several lamps and put non-skid sheets under the deco-bowls.” My cousin laughed at herself. “There I go rambling on about boring domestic stuff.” We were sitting in her backyard while her child played nearby on a blanket. Pecan trees shaded the yard while we drank sweet iced tea.

“No, it’s nice. Go on,” I said.

“You don’t have to humor me. I know it must be exhaustively boring to hear me talk about lamps and deco-bowls after you’ve been across the galaxy.” She grinned at me. We had been closer when we were kids; I had been closer to a lot of family members back then.

“I haven’t been that far; just a few light-years.” I was silent as I thought about the first extra-solar mission I had been on. “I was only gone for a couple of months of my time but I missed years of Earth time. I wasn’t at your engagement party to Louisa or baby shower.”

“Would you have come?” she pressed for an answer.

“I… I would have sent a card or a message,” I said. Even before I had lost years to transit-space, I had kept my distance from the family. “That’s not the point. I don’t mind listening to you talking about ‘boring domestic stuff’ because I missed so much of it and I’m going to miss so much more.”

We lapsed into silence. Jolly threw a block an astounding three feet. The ice in my glass had nearly all melted.

“How long until the launch?” she asked.

“It’s not really a launch since the ship is already in orbit.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Three weeks. We have to report back in two weeks for final shake-down tests. Then we leave Earth.” I had been back on Earth for two months before I decided to check in with select Cousins.

“How long are you going to be gone?” I knew she had read the article about my mission. She had even commented on it, “we’ll miss u” which was why she made the short list of family I decided to say goodbye to.

“Three years of my time. A couple of centuries of Earth time. Jolly’s great-great-great-grandchildren will be here to greet me. Or not. They may not have children and I’ll return to Earth as an orphaned branch of the family tree.”

“If you’re afraid of being alone, stay.”

“I’m not afraid to be alone. I’ve been alone since I became a late bloomer. When I changed from he to she in high school, Mom and Dad didn’t really approve. It was easier to withdraw into myself.”

“Is that why you stopped coming to family holidays?”

“After I moved out, it was easier to not talk to them and they were always there.” She reached out and squeezed my hand. I smiled back at her. “If Mom and Dad hadn’t reacted badly, maybe I’d have more of a reason to stay. Also, I want to see something completely new. To boldly going where no one has gone before, as they say.”

“Do you still watch that ancient show?” she laughed. We had both watched it when we were younger.

“Just the good parts. I’m going to miss the revival next year.”

“You can’t download it when you arrive? I know you have FTL radio.”

“We won’t have a real-time network connection. After we exit transit-space and contact Earth, there’s a series of data uploads and downloads. We send ship status reports, data collected from the systems and planets we explore. From Mission Control we’ll receive a condensed history of the years we were in transit. They’ll also send us some popular culture touchstones, books, movies, music, whatever they deem relevant. Finally, the messages to our email accounts will be forwarded to the local ship network.”

“So, I can send you pictures and videos of Jolly growing up but you wouldn’t see them until you get to the next star system.”

“You had better send pictures of Jolly and you and Louisa and any other kids you have.”

“We’re not planning on anymore for now.”

“Ten years is long enough to change your mind.”

“Hmm. What about you? Are you ever going to have kids? Get married?” Jolly lifted themself off the ground.

“Not until the mission is over. Anyone we leave behind will be dead before we get back. Mission crew can’t have children and we can’t have significant others. We’re giving up our lives on Earth to explore the stars.”

Jolly ran on wobbly legs towards us, half falling but laughing the whole way.

<<Previous Index Next>>

Spirit Cleansing

glassjars-icon

The man stood paralyzed in the center of the circle by a minor charm. I inscribed the last symbol and the circle closed. He deserved worse than what I was about to do to him I reminded myself. With a heavy sigh, I took another step down that familiar paved road.

I began by drawing the man’s breath out of his lungs and sealing it in the first jar. His mouth flapped open and closed as he tried in vain to take in air. Next, I pulled the water, just the water, from his body. Blood dried in his veins, organs shriveled in his torso, skin contracted around tough, dry muscle. The water flowed through the circle into jars; as each one filled, its lid snapped shut and sealed. The husk of a man stood in the circle just beginning to collapse when I sundered him into a fine dust. This I let fall to the floor. The man’s spirit hovered anxiously over what had been its body only seconds before. A moment passed before it spoke.

“Am I dead?” it asked.

“Yes.” It darted towards me and stopped suddenly at the edge of the circle.

“I can’t reach you.”

“No,” I said plainly.

“Why did you do this?” It flung itself back and forth across the circle looking for a way out. The dust pile shifted and spread from its movements.

“I was paid. Five hundred gold for the breath of a man. Seven hundred for the waters of a man.” It pressed against the point closest to me.

“Why me?” it wailed.

“You were cheap. For only two hundred gold I bought you from the executioner. You only had one more night left in any event.”

“I was a criminal?”

“Yes.” I paused and began to explain. “Death, even from losing one’s head, is slower than what I did to you. The longer a spirit clings to a dying body the more of the person stays with it. You are nearly pure spirit with only the bare traces of humanity in you. When I release you, you will be free to do as you will. Harm me and I will dispel your energies.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why leave me like this?”

“The flesh is weak against desires and willing to compromise the spirit’s morals. Now you are nothing but spirit with a chance to be something other than human. It’s a small kindness to balance the evils I’ve done.”

I scuffed my foot across the circle, breaking it and freeing the spirit. It moved to hover near me. A spectral hand reached into my head. It was inexperienced at robbing a person’s mind, searching through my childhood for information on who it had been in life. I guided it to three days ago when the executioner had recounted the man’s crimes for several minutes in graphic detail. The spirit recoiled.

“But what about the evil I’ve done?” it asked.

“It’s up to you to balance that debt or not,” I said and began packing the sealed jars in a crate. The spirit floated over the loose pile of dust and began to gather it.