Explorer Program: We Left Our Futures on Earth Behind

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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.


 

“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.

Mia’s Date With an Angel Part 1

Is it time?

You will know when it is time.

I’m scared.

You are made out of my love. You have nothing to fear.

Ok, here I go.

**Wednesday night**

Mia sat on the small balcony of her apartment that overlooked the communal pool. She held a pill bottle in one hand. The pill bottle looked too small to hurt her but the pills inside would do just fine. Sleeping pills for insomnia that she had stopped taking because they worked too well and knocked her out well into the next day. In her other hand, a bottle of cheap gas station wine. Pills and booze. How cliché, she thought.

She took a swig from the wine bottle to bolster her nerves. Ok, it’s now or never. She popped open the pill bottle and spilled the blue and white capsules into her hand. She popped them into her mouth glancing up at the sky as her head tipped back. A streak of light caught her eye. A falling star. I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight. She watched the light waiting for it to fade but it only got brighter and brighter. A flash of light streaked straight down hitting the pool and sending a fountain of water into the air.

“What?!” Mia said. Partially dissolved pills flew out of her mouth. She spat the rest out and wiped her mouth and chin. Below her a body floated face down in the pool, a white gown billowing around it in the water.

Mia grabbed the railing on the balcony and swung both legs over. She paused to consider the drop. Glancing over her shoulder she saw the still body in the water. She stepped off the balcony edge letting her arms take her weight and dangling for a second before dropping. A deck chair caught most of her impact but bounced her on to the cement. She hit with a thud and a light smack to the back of her head.

She rolled over and scrambled to the pool. Without any more thought, she jumped into the water. The cold shocked her but didn’t slow her as she pushed through toward the floating body. She grabbed it and pulled it to the side of the pool. After getting out she reached down and heaved the body out of the water with a strength she didn’t know she had.

Mia rolled the body over. It was a woman, dressed in a white dress that would have been very billowy if it wasn’t wet and plastered to her body. She also had large fake wings strapped to her back. The woman wasn’t breathing. Mia knelt beside her, grabbed her wrist and felt for a pulse. Nothing. She struggled to remember the proper form for CPR. Compressions. She thought she was supposed to start with compressions. How many? Was it five or fifteen? And what about breaths? No time to overthink.

She placed one hand on the woman’s chest, placed her other hand over the first, locked her elbows; the woman’s eyes opened before she could press down. The woman smiled but still didn’t take a breath. Mia smiled back, unable to look away, as a wave of love spread through her.

“Um, hi,” Mia said. She backed off the woman and sat down next to her, still staring. Mia felt something under her move tugged by the woman as she started to sit up. She leaned to one side and one of the woman’s cosplay wings slid free. The wing stretched out and up, extending over her head before folding behind her back.

“So, those aren’t a costume are they?” Mia said. Her body began shivering from the cold night and wet clothes.

The angel, because what else could she be, cooed and sang notes to a song Mia could almost place.

“I don’t –” Mia felt the world tilt sideways and rolled to her side. The angel knelt beside her and sang more notes. Everything was going to be ok, she thought. It’s ok. A hand brushed her hair from her face. She saw the angel looking concerned. Then everything began to fade out but instead of darkness, Mia saw white light and heard flapping wings.

To be Continued

Gazebo – A Francine Non-Adventure

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I waited in Kowalski’s patrol car for an hour while more police showed up to “take charge” of the scene. Then Kowalski took me back to the station where I waited another two hours at my desk for Detective Karter. He came in, glanced at me and hurried past into an office. Ten minutes later he came out and approached me.

He opened his mouth to speak but I cut him off. “Detective Karter, can I get pictures of the circle? I recognized some of the symbols but I’d like to try to find the rest.”

“Ms. Espinosa, your help has been invaluable but we no longer require it.” He sounded apologetic.

“What does that mean?”

He sighed heavily. “It has been made clear to me that no one outside the police force is to be working on this case.”

“You’re shutting me out?”

“I pulled a lot of strings to bring you on in the first place. It was a desperation move on a case that had dead-ended. Now that there are new leads and evidence–”

“That I found.”

He held his hands up. “I know. If it was up to me, you’d already have those photos but it’s not up to me.”

“Now what?” I asked.

“I need you to leave. If you have any more insights, you have my number but I can’t share any more details of the case with you.”

I had wanted to study the circle to know exactly what we were dealing with but my hand was being forced. “Detective Karter, you have to destroy or damage the circle.”

“I can’t destroy evidence,” he said.

“If the killer manages to finish their spell–“

“Nothing is going to happen because magic doesn’t exist.” I watched his face shift from apologetic to suspicious. “How did you find the circle again?” He was close to accusing me of being involved with the killer and I didn’t really blame him. I was spouting off about magic and spells.

I took a calming breath and said, “I looked at the files and found a pattern in where the victims lived. Officer Kowalski and I went to one of the victim’s home and I tripped over the loose rug. That’s all.”

He stared at me before gesturing toward the front. “Thank you, Ms. Espinosa, but we will take it from here.”

***

Later that evening I sat thumbing through a magic reference book. The book was just a book, not a magical book. Those I had burned and buried. I was looking for more info on magic circles. There was a surprisingly lot of magic systems that used circles for various rituals. They had differing structures but it was easy to find several that used the cardinal directions in setup for the main ritual or spell. The killer had to have a place for the final part of their spell and it had to be in the center of the victim’s homes.

Using the map app on my phone I pinned the victims’ homes and eyeballed the center point to be near the duck pond in Creekside Park. I gathered some supplies from around my apartment in one of those reusable grocery bags and headed to the park. Twenty minutes later I was wandering through the park toward the approximate center of the four ritual circles. A quick walk around the pond didn’t turn anything up. I checked the map again.

My location looked to be dead center. I zoomed in until the pond’s bean shape filled the screen. A smaller circle popped into view inside the pond. The gazebo. Except as I looked across the pond I didn’t see it. The duck pond gazebo had been closed for repairs after a big storm last year but I couldn’t remember hearing about it being demolished. The bridge to the gazebo remained with a heavy chain across its opening. I stepped over it and started walking across.

A few boards creaked and wobbled but otherwise, the bridge felt solid. At the end was just water. I stared at the end of the bridge for a couple of minutes. The last board was only half as wide and the railing didn’t end in a post instead just hanging in space. I steeled myself and stepped forward off the end of the bridge. My vision blurred and static filled my ears. Then I was inside the gazebo. Magic. That seemed to confirm whether or not the circles would work.

Outside, under the full moon and light from nearby street lights, I hadn’t had much trouble seeing but in the shade of the gazebo’s roof, I found myself in the dark. I pulled a flashlight out of my bag and swept it across the floor. The circle I had found in the apartment had been four to five feet across. The one carved into the gazebo’s floor was at least twice as wide and as jammed packed with sigils, glyphs, runes, and words written in languages I didn’t know. The was no blood traced over the carvings.

The killer hadn’t finished their ritual. Ok, now I just needed to find a place to hide nearby so I – Wait, wait, no. What was I thinking?! I’m not going to play into the plot. I’m not.

I swung the beam of my flashlight behind me, checking for the killer. No one was there. Right, the killer is on track to kill tomorrow so I have most of a day to do something but first things first. I pulled out a box of salt from my bag and popped out the spout. I started at the door and poured a line of salt around the inside of the gazebo. Salt was good protection against a general number of evil things. It probably wouldn’t keep the killer out but it might disrupt the magics they were using. Blood magic tended to be evil.

Once the salt circle was done, I carefully stepped over it back onto the bridge. The gazebo remained visible. Either my stepping through it or the salt had broken the spell hiding it. Hopefully, it wouldn’t scare off the killer when they returned. I left the park and headed home.

I didn’t think Detective Karter would listen to me so I called Kowalski.

“Hello is this Officer Kowalski?”

“Yo, Kowalski here.”

“I … You answer the phone with yo?”

“Who is this?”

“Sorry, it’s Francine Espinosa. The consultant.”

“Oh hey, what can I do for you? I heard you had been taken off the case?”

“Yes but I think I have a lead for you. The center point of the four victim’s homes is in Creekside Park. I think you should check out the gazebo in the duck pond.”

“Have you been out there?”

“No. I just looked at a map. If the killer thinks they’re doing magic then it makes sense that they’ll want to finish their ritual.”

“I’ll pass this along to Detective Karter.”

“Don’t tell him I told you. Tell him you thought of it.”

“Ah… sure.”

“Thank you. Bye.”

“See ya.”

A few days later I read about an attempted murder in Creekside Park. The papers reported that there were occult connections but a lot of the details were being withheld by the police. Kowalski called to tell me my tip had been good. They found the circle, staked it out and grabbed the killer when he showed up dragging a homeless man to the gazebo. It’s unclear if he will be officially connected to the first four murders.

Not a completely satisfying conclusion but better than trying to fight some magic powered killer in the park. The ghost in the park across the street has started calling my name again. I’m thinking of walking over for a chat.

Author’s Note: So, this is the end of the story started in “The Alibi” which was meant to be a one off story.

“The Non-Adventures of Francine” was conceived as a series of very short stories about Francine avoiding story plots. The first three stories followed this format. It was while writing “The Scrapbook” that I had the idea of continuing the story from “The Alibi” the previous story.

I’m currently thinking of using “The Non-Adventures of Francine” as the title story of my next e-book.


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The Scene – A Francine Non-Adventure

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We went to the last victim’s apartment. The apartment manager let us in. The door was clean of any signs or police tape.

“Have you been inside since … the police came by?” I asked the manager.

“Uh, I let Rob’s sister in and gave her a key so she could get his stuff out,” he said.

I looked at Kowalski. “Shouldn’t the apartment be locked down while the investigation is ongoing?”

“Why? It’s not a crime scene. The officers who checked it out didn’t see anything out of place. So what are looking for?”

“I don’t know. The killer chose the victim based on where he lived. There must be something special about the apartment or maybe the building. The killer could have drawn his square anywhere but he chose this place.”

“What if it’s random?” Kowalski asked.

“Then we have no chance at predicting where he will kill next and I’ve wasted the last week of my life on a pointless task,” I said.

“A lot of police work is pointless tasks.”

“That’s not how things work around me.”

“What makes you special?”

“Nothing.” I was a girl detective as a teen and now I’m a character trying to avoid plot hooks. I turned away from him and started walking around the apartment looking at the walls and shelves for a clue. Rob had been the man found in my apartment. Pictures of him with family and friends dotted the walls.

In the living room, I examined his DVD collection. Action, horror, and martial arts movies dominated but I noticed a shelf near the floor with romantic comedies. Nothing jumped out at me as strange or out of place. I turned to walk into the kitchen and stumbled as my foot caught on something. The carpet had a loose flap in the middle of the room. I crouched down, pulled the carpet up and felt a chill run up my spine. The third act twist had just shown up.

Kowalski leaned over the sofa and asked me, “What did you find?” I yanked the carpet up and to the side, exposing the floor. Underneath the rug was a series of circles, one inside the next. Between the circles, symbols, glyphs, runes, sigils, and other things I couldn’t identify were carved into the wood. A dark brown substance was smeared, tracing every line, on all of them. Kowalski stared at it all with mixed horror and puzzlement playing across his face. I probably didn’t have to tell him the brown smears were most likely blood either the victim’s or the killer’s or both. “What is this?” he asked.

“It’s a magic circle meant to draw energies from the victim and give power to the killer.”

“And how do you know that?” he asked. His eyes narrowed and his posture shifted.

“I took a few classes on myths, magic, and religions. This rune represents power. This symbol means power and this one is life. It’s all jumbled up from like five different systems. The killer probably just copied it out of a book.” Kowalski relaxed as I rambled about the circle. I had actually learned most of what I knew when magic beings started appearing around me. Several days of hard studying at the public library had given me enough knowledge to mostly avoid getting involved with anything supernatural up til now.

This jumbled as it was might still work. The normal rules didn’t apply around me. I had seen portals to other worlds, wizard duels in alleyways, magic rings(I knew they were magic because they glowed), and ghosts in numerous locations. I had even seen a circle like this but simpler and made of stones. That one I had disarmed by kicking the stones and running away. This one, one of four, might be harder to dispel. I reached to touch one of the symbols.

“Stop! Don’t touch that,” Kowalski shouted. “This is a crime scene now. We need to get out and call CSI to come examine the floor.” He grabbed my arm and gently guided me out of the apartment.


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Kowalski – A Francine Non-Adventure

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Now that I was engaged with the plot, it slowed to a crawl as I spent the next week reviewing the police’s files on the murder victims. Hours every day reading reports, looking at photos, and making notes that were little more than a list of questions without answers. In a tv show or novel, this would have been a montage or just a few sentences at the beginning of a chapter and not days of my life.

“Hello,” an officer said as he passed my desk. I watched Officer Kowalski fill a paper cup from the water cooler. It was across from the spare desk Detective Karter had found for me. Kowalski stood out as the only patrol cop I saw on a regular basis. Maybe it was just a coincidence he was always scheduled when I was in the station. That didn’t explain why I saw him several times during the day when he should have been out patrolling the streets. Most of the police people seemed content to ignore me. Kowalski said hello every time he passed my desk.

“Hey Kowalski,” I said. He turned to face me. “What do you think of this case?” I gestured at the reports and photos spread across the desk.

“I don’t really know much about it. Serial killer. Four victims, that we know of, unrelated. Kills every two weeks. Fakes the crime scene.”

“So, you’re all caught up. He’s scheduled to kill again tonight. I’m supposed to catch this guy.”

“It’s not your fault this guy’s out there killing people.”

“I know that but I’m the observant outside who cracks the case wide open. At least I thought I was.”

“This isn’t tv. Police work is hours of talking to people, finding evidence, putting together timelines.”

“I know that and I’ve put in the time. I’ve been reading these reports and looking at these photos for days and I have nothing to show for it.”

“I’m sure we’ll catch this guy. These guys always think they’re so smart but they always mess up somehow.”

“We got nothing right now. The crime scenes are fake. The “murder weapon” from each murder isn’t even the murder weapon. The victims didn’t live in the same neighborhood. One lived up here,” I touched the map in the approximate location of the first victim, “Another lived over here, the third lived across the city here.” I paused with my finger on the third victim’s home. “And the last lived here.”

I stared at the invisible points where my finger had touched the map. I pulled out the victims’ files and began marking the exact addresses of their homes. Using the edge of a folder, I drew straight lines between them. They made a perfect square. “How did I miss that?” I said out loud.

“Miss what?” Kowalski asked.

“The victims’ homes make a square on the map. They aren’t random. He chose these four men because of where they lived. But why?”

“I don’t know,” Kowalski said looking at the map, “They line up with the cardinal directions, too.”

“What?”

He pointed to the compass on the map and back at the square I drew. “North, south, east, west.” I flipped through the victim’s files. The police had checked the victims’ homes but nothing of note had been found. They didn’t know the locations were significant.

“We need to go to one of the victims’ homes.” I stood up and started gathering my things.

“Hold up, I thought you were a consultant. You can’t just go investigating on your own.”

“I’m not. You’re going to go with me.”

“I am?” Kowalski asked.

“Yes. I need a police escort and you don’t seem to be doing anything right now. Are you doing anything?”

“I have … paperwork,” he said uncertainly.

“Of course, you’ve been hanging around doing nothing. You’re my cop buddy.”

“I’m your what now?”

“Never mind that. We need to get going. I should have figured out the victims’ homes thing days ago.” Kowalski stared at me like I had grown a second head. “Look, I’m here to look at the evidence with fresh eyes but there’s no evidence from the victims’ homes because no one thought to look for any. The only way I can look at the evidence is to go to one of their homes myself. And you are going to take me.”

“I can’t just take you to a random location to look for … for clues.”

I paused putting on my sweater. Was I looking for clues? Was I too caught up in the crime thriller plot? I had said I would stay in the precinct where I was safe. It wasn’t like the killer would be waiting for me at one of the victims’ homes, would he? No, even that would be too coincidental. I was stalled working with just the police files. I had to do something to move the plot forward before he killed again.

“Call Detective Karter and tell him I’ve got a lead but I need to go to one of the victims’ homes.”

Kowalski stared at me. I waved him to the phone on the desk. He sighed and picked up the phone. After a short conversation, he hung up and said, “Get your stuff we’re going a field trip.”


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The Consultant – A Francine Non-Adventure

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“Detective Karter, thank you for seeing me,” I said. I had shown up at the precinct and asked to see the detective, a few minutes later he walked out holding a file folder.

“Sure, what can I do for you?” He had the same leather jacket, unshaved, rumpled look from the first time we met even though it was barely past noon.

“There’s something I noticed the night of … the night I found the body in my living room. The victim was killed by a single cut across his neck. Arterial blood spray was found on the wall along with a smeared handprint presumably from the victim trying to catch himself as he fell dying.”

“You got all that from the few seconds you saw the body when you found it?”

“I had to walk past it to retrieve my medicine and the coroner was talking about the crime scene with someone.” The coroner had been fairly loud and loose-lipped about the body’s condition.

“We’ve already reconstructed the series of events,” he said unimpressed.

“Did you notice the blood spray overlaps the handprint?”

He frowned for a second before opening the folder he was carrying. How convenient that he just happened to be walking around with the relevant folder. He shuffled through some papers and photos until he found what he was looking for and stopped staring at the photo. He eyes widened and he looked at me.

“How did you see that?” he asked.

“I’m really observant.” He let out a short loud barking laugh. “And I have a little experience with investigation.”

“Do you know what this means?” He closed the folder

“The crime scene was staged and the victim was killed somewhere else,” I said.

“Yeah.” He seemed to zone out for a second staring over my head mumbling to himself, “Probably all of them were staged.” There had been more murders like the one I found in my living room. Murders the detective thought were connected.

“A serial killer,” I said aloud. My speaking snapped the detective back into the moment. His head darted back and forth looking around the room. He grabbed my arm and pulled me down the hall into a meeting room. Once the door was shut he began to pace.

“We think there have been four murders, including the one you found. The crime scenes are virtually identical, which would make sense if they’re staged.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“Six weeks since the first murder. Two weeks since we started thinking it might be a serial killer. Four days since we all but confirmed it. He kills every two weeks. We’ve been keeping it quiet because we have almost nothing to go on except the crime scenes. Now we don’t even have the real crime scenes just the fake ones the killer gave us.” He stopped leaned over the table head down.

“Well I think I’ll be going now,” I said. He head snapped up.

“Wait, I could use some fresh eyes on this. You said you’ve done investigative work before? Were you a P.I.?”

“Not exactly.” Girl detective was kind of hard to put on a resume.

“Doesn’t matter. I can get you clearance as a consultant. Strictly in-house. You wouldn’t have to go to crime scenes or hit the streets.” That I knew was a lie. I’m sure the detective believed what he was saying but I knew how these kinds of stories went. First I’m just working at a desk until a hot lead comes in. We rush to follow the lead and blammo! we’re in a shootout with the suspect. After that, I’m basically his sidekick following him around giving him insight into crimes he otherwise couldn’t solve. No thank you.

“I would rather not get more involved,” I said waving away his offer. It was better this way I would go back to my normal life and this killer would be caught in due time even without my help. I turned, grabbed the doorknob, and a thought passed through my mind. The killer always returns to the scene of the crime. It’s a silly cliché but silly clichés held more weight in my world than others. I could return home but that didn’t mean the killer would come after me there for whatever reason. Was this a buddy cop show or a crime thriller? Could I choose?

I turned back to Detective Karter and said, “You know, I think I can help you.”


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The Scrapbook – A Francine Non-Adventure

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A week had passed since I had found a dead man in my living room. Something about this felt familiar. I went to the top shelf of my closet. All the way in the back and pushed to one side, I found the box. I pulled it down and took it into the living room. The box was plain brown, its flaps were bent and creased and slid open easily. Inside was a penlight long since dead, seven tattered pocket notebooks, a watch with glow in the dark numbers and hands, a skeleton key from one of our cases, and the scrapbook.

The cover had colorful letters that said “Margaret and Francine’s Adventure Book”. The first couple of pages were just photos of me and Margaret as young kids. After that, the newspaper clippings started. “Kids Find Dognapped Show Dog” was the first one. The accompanying photo was of two kids on either side of a dog. The original color photo was also on the page. I studied the two children, Margaret was smiling broadly, she had been so excited to solve a “mystery”. I was smiling as well but not the face-splitting grin Margaret had. Did I know then? Maybe I had just started to figure out. The caption read, “Ten-year-olds, Margaret (left) and Francine (right) found Dixie (center) in the cellar of an abandoned house.” I touched the liquid paper that covered my deadname. Someone had carefully printed my name on top.

I flipped quickly through the following pages. Not every adventure had ended with a front-page story. Most barely rated a short blurb in the weekly Oddities and Curiosities column. Everyone was collected in the scrapbook, interspaced with photos of us taken by our private photographer, my mom. A couple of years floated by until I reached the two-page spread dedicated to the Case of the Crooked Beauty Pageant. The big photo under the headline, “Beauty Pageant Scandal!!”, was of the finalists in their formal wear. I was third from the end.

Margaret had heard rumors the pageant’s voting was rigged. The fact that Jennifer Grey had been crowned two years in a row suggested something might have been hinky. So, we entered the pageant. I hadn’t meant to enter but during the summer I had been too busy with our adventures to get a haircut and puberty hadn’t yet hit me hard. When the woman at the registration desk asked for my name, Margaret had jumped at the chance to have both of us backstage. The dresses, swimsuits, and makeup were all strange and confusing to me but the rest, being seen and treated as a girl, had just felt right. Perhaps if I had actually been a boy it would have bothered me. Maybe I would have put up more of a fight when Margaret suggested I compete. Instead, I had loved all of it, well except for the chase through the hotel in a ballgown.

After the pageant, which had been fixed by Jenifer’s father bribing the judges, I went back to living as a boy, mostly. I flipped a couple pages to the next big case we had a few months later. The Case of the Silver Teeth. The teeth belonged to the grandfather of a local judge. They had been “misplaced” after a small fire in the judge’s house. In the photo Mom had taken, we’re holding the teeth between us with the judge behind us. My hair is still uncut held back by a headband. The judge had called us the best girl detectives he had ever seen. Mom had corrected him but it hadn’t bothered me.

I flipped a few more pages to a photo of the two of us standing next to a mud covered safe. My hair is short, cropped almost to the root. Do I look as unhappy as I felt? I’m smiling in the photo but I know I wasn’t happy. A week earlier I had cut my hair off after one too many remarks from a classmate. Peer pressure, bullying, or whatever you want to call it had finally forced me back into societal norms. I was miserable and couldn’t understand why.

Several pages later I was wearing a skirt and a jaunty beret to cover my still short hair, posing with Margaret and the Mayor. We had helped him find his father’s pocket watch. Not the most compelling case we ever had but the most important one to me. It was during this case that I came out as trans. Mom had accepted me almost immediately once I had dug up enough courage to tell her. Dad was hesitant but came around fast. Margaret had laughed and said it was about time. She had picked up on it during the pageant and had tried to subtly encourage me. The Mayor had been confused that the boy and girl detectives he had contacted were two girls by the end but he rolled with it.

The rest of the scrapbook was adventure after adventure. In photo after photo, I could see myself and Margaret grow up. There was no newspaper clipping to go along with our last adventure that had nearly ended with us in jail. The last photo was taken just after we graduated high school. Soon after we had gone to different colleges and lost touch.

I closed the scrapbook. What was I doing? Reminiscing about the “Good Old Days” to what end? A dead man had been found in my living room. I had an almost airtight alibi. There was no reason for me to involve myself with the investigation. As a “kid detective”, if I hadn’t gotten involved, Margaret would have. That was all behind me, wasn’t it? I had been fighting against getting involved with these “stories” that seemed to spawn around me for years. This felt familiar, though we had never seen a dead body or investigated a murder. It was a mystery and I understood mysteries. Maybe I could subvert the story. Stay a step ahead of it and … solve it without needing to be kidnapped or stumbling onto the bad guys.

What was I thinking? I’m in the clear. I just need to let the police do their jobs and find the killer. Just keep my head down and nothing will happen to me. I put the scrapbook back in the box, closed it and shoved the box back on the closet shelf. Yeah just leave it alone, I thought and closed the closet.

I walked back into my living room. The cleaners had done a great job. I couldn’t even tell where the carpet had been soaked with blood. The blood splatter on the wall was gone as well. The bloody handprint, erased except from my memory. Something clicked in my head. I grabbed my notebook and wrote down a note. I would call the detective tomorrow about it but surely he or someone else had noticed it too. I would just make sure they had noticed it, that was all. I wasn’t getting involved. I wasn’t.


<Previous Index Next>>

Cousin Came to Visit

desertcityicon

My handheld began softly beeping. I tapped it twice to silence and cancel the alarm. I slid off my bed and began rooting around in the “not too dirty” pile of clothes on the floor. I picked up and sniffed a sports bra. Oh god, that stinks! I tossed it into the actually dirty pile of clothes. I gave up looking on the floor and just pulled out a clean sports bra and underwear from my dresser. The sports bra fit extra snug, flatting out my chest nicely. Not as flat as a binder but I didn’t have one of those. Yet. A loose t-shirt and a pair of track shorts covered enough skin to make me decent.
I unlocked my bedroom door, slid it open, and walked into the kitchen. Mom was already in there drinking coffee at the table. I grabbed the small sauce pan off the wall, half filled it with water, cranked the handle into the red, and set it on the stove top. From inside the refrigerator, I plucked two eggs from their carton. I dropped the eggs into the just boiling water and glanced at the wall clock.

“Your cousin Hannah is arriving today,” Mom said.

“I know. You’ve only been reminding me for the last week,” I said.

“Lucy–”

“Luke,” I said to remind her.

“Right, Luke. It would be nice if you came with us when we picked her up.”

“Ok, do I have time to eat?” I glanced at the clock again. Wait, was the minute hand right on the four or a little before it the last time I looked.

“She doesn’t arrive for a couple of hours.” For a few minutes, neither of say anything. “Maybe you could take her flying later,” she said.

“I can’t just take the tug out for joy rides.” I grabbed two slices of bread and set them in the toaster.

“Why not?”

I counted off the reasons on my fingers, “One: it’s technically company property until I finish paying it off. Two: fuel costs money. Three: it has heavy weapons that I don’t want her accidentally firing.”

“I can give you money for fuel.”

“You have a few thousand laying around for a half hour joy ride?” The toast dinged and I set them on a plate to be sliced.

“No. It costs that much to fly?” she asked surprised.

“Yeah. Most contracts have fuel allowances so I only have to cover part of the fueling costs but it’s still expensive.”

“I didn’t know. Your eggs are done.”

I quickly turned back to my eggs and cranked the pot handle back to the blue. The rolling boil stopped. After a few seconds, I reached into the warm water to pull out my eggs and set them in egg cups. I carried the eggs and toast to the table, grabbed a spoon, and cracked the top off my first egg. It was fully hard boiled. I sighed.

***

The land here is dry, arid, dusty, sandy, barren, did I mention dry. Nothing but scrub brush can grow out here but that means land is cheap. One of the reasons my parents and I moved here. The other being the job opportunities in the City. The City is everything the surrounding land is not. Tall, clean, cool buildings, green parks, water fountains. It’s a man-made oasis in the desert. My parents have jobs in the city but we live outside it. I said land out here is cheap. In the city, everything costs more. Even with their fancy city jobs, we can’t afford to live there.

The bus station was just a small ticket booth next to a series of canopies. Several buses waited for passengers to get on or off. A crowd of people waited nearby for their bus to arrive. It’s hot but not any hotter than usual. Dad was wearing a casual tunic over light pants and sun hat. Mom had slipped on a cream colored maxi dress and wrapped a blue scarf around her head. I stood apart from them with my flight jacket over t-shirt and track shorts, aviator sunglasses, and work boots. I wiped the sweat from my forehead back into my short hair.

To most people, the jacket looked like a bad idea on a day like today but it kept me cooler than not. It’s designed for the variable temperatures a pilot might encounter. Flat gel packs with nanotube filaments regulate the temperature of the inner layer of smart foam. Basically, if I’m too hot it pulls heat away from me and if I’m too cold it warms up. That the chest and back parts end up looking like body armor is just a bonus. The arms even have transparent pockets on the inner arms for handhelds. I have pants with the same tech for when I accept contracts that take me to the upper atmosphere or higher but they don’t look as cool.

Hannah’s bus arrived a few minutes ago and we were waiting for her to make it out of the crowd to us. She pushed through carrying a bag and pulling a second smaller suitcase on wheels. Mom waved and she waved back

“Oh, look at you. You’re so tall,” Mom said while hugging her. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen the rest of the family outside of pictures or videos.

“Hey cuz,” I said and slapped her on the shoulder.

“Hey,” she said looking me over. I haven’t put a picture up online since before I shaved my head. It’s grown out a little but it’s a radical change from how I looked before.

We piled into Dad’s ten-year-old sedan and head home. Mom spent the trip home grilling my cousin. How is her mom doing? Did her sister get into college? Has her other aunt found a job yet? A hundred questions that could be answered by email but asking a person just feels more right. Even I asked a few questions about our other cousin.

***

After we got Hannah settled into my room, Mom suggested I show her the tug. The tug is my ship. It’s just a cargo hauler that I’m leasing-to-own from the shipping company. For a cargo hauler, it’s nothing special, just a two person cockpit attached to a cargo frame with thrusters stuck on the sides and rear. The underside of the cockpit is a patch of unpainted armor because I had to have a rotted out section replaced and I haven’t bothered to repaint it. I kind of like the junkyard look it gives my ship.

The cockpit seats two, pilot in front and gunner behind and above, but I can and usually do fly solo. The turret on top of the cockpit has full range of motion and is controlled from the gunner seat but I have a cheap auto-targeting computer wired into it. It’s pretty good at lining up shots on things in the sky but it can’t really tell friend from foe so it just shoots everything. In the front, under the cockpit are a couple of cannons I can control and fire from the pilot seat. They have limited range of motion but at least I can see what I’m shooting at.

The tug stays in an empty field a few hundred yards from the housing rows. Another guy keeps his ship out here too but we rarely talk. He’s twenty years older than me and a company lifer. The company has been great for getting my license and training but I hope to do more after I’ve paid off the ship.

On my handheld, I entered the access code for the cockpit and it popped open. I reached up and grabbed the lowest rung of the ladder built into the side of the cockpit. The landing gear is supposed to retract to a mid-level when the cargo frame is empty but the controller circuit with multiple settings cost more than the one with just two. I pulled myself jerkily up the rungs until I could stand on the lowest rung and take a short breather.

Hannah started a slow clap. “That was … That was almost not pathetic. I’ve seen three-year-olds climb faster than that.”

“Shut up,” I yelled down but I was laughing between deep breaths.

“Why don’t you have a ladder or stairs or something?”

“I had a pool ladder but someone stole it.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, but no one around here has a pool so I don’t know why they wanted it.” I climbed the rest of the way to cockpit edge. “Ok, your turn.”

“What?” she asked.

“You want to see my ship you have to climb up on your own.”

“Come on. You don’t have a rope you can throw me?”

“Nope.”

She looked up at the ladder and stretched out her arms. The lowest rung was just out of her reach. “I can’t reach.”

“Jump. It’s right there.” She reached back up, jumped, and grabbed it. “There you go now just climb up.” I watched her struggle up rung by rung until she could stand on the lowest rung for a breather. “Not so easy is it?” I asked.

“Shut up,” she said between breaths. After a couple of minutes, she climbed the rest of the way up. I showed her where to step to reach the gunner seat without stepping on the console. I showed her the basic controls and let her swing the turret around but kept the guns offline.

My handheld buzzed. I flipped my arm over and tapped on the screen to discover what set off the notification. I have to take a certain number of contracts in a month in order to maintain my lease agreement but this week I had planned on staying mostly grounded while Hannah was staying with us. Only a high pay and short distance contract should have made it through the filter. Huh, moderate pay and short distance. I should send my cousin home but it’s a short ride and no threat level.

“Hey, you want to take a short trip?” I called back to her.

“To where?”

“There’s a contract I’m to take. You want to come with.”

“Can I?” she asked

“Sure, it’s an easy run. Might be boring though.”

She thought about it and said, “Sure.”

“Ok, strap in and don’t touch anything.” I tapped on my handheld to accept the contract and sent the location data to my ship’s computer. A flight plan appeared on the main monitor. I tweaked the path to keep us clear of the western border and transmitted it to Flight Control. I flicked a few switches to ready the engines. They rumbled to life behind me.

A minute later, a voice spoke through my headset, “Tug-1407 you are cleared for take off.”

“Tug-1407 cleared for take off. Thank you, Control,” I replied. I grabbed the controls and took the ship straight up to cruising altitude before turning and heading for the pick-up site.

I heard a muffled “Fuck!” from behind me. I didn’t need to slam us down in our chairs but the rest of the trip is going to be pretty bland. It only took a few minutes to reach the warehouse outside of the city where the cargo was waiting. I connected with the ground crew and got a landing pad assignment.

“Now what?” Hannah asked as I set down and shut off the engines.

“Now, we wait for the ground crew to load the cargo. Could be five minutes could be two hours.”

“So, this is what it’s like to be a pilot?”

“No, this is what it’s like to be a cargo pilot. Once I get my full certifications and pay off the company I can start applying for real pilot jobs.”

“Like what?”

“Like with the space agency. They always need pilots on the moon.”

“Have you been to space yet?”

“A couple of times, the tug can make low earth orbit but it burns a lot of fuel. The view is … the pictures they show us aren’t enough. It’s so much bigger than the pictures make it look.”

My comms beeped. “Tug-1407 we are ready to load your cargo container.”

“I copy. Go right ahead.” In the rear cameras, I watched as the rectangular container is slid underneath the cargo frame. I felt a slight jolt as it reached the back of the cockpit. The cargo hooks lowered and grabbed the container and green lights came on letting me know they had a solid lock. “Cargo hooks engaged,” I told the ground crew. The truck unhooked from the container and drove away. I restarted the engines and took off, slower this time so the ground crew wouldn’t complain about me. Once I got to altitude, I headed for the first nav marker of my flight plan. I could have engaged the autopilot but I like flying the tug myself and I needed the hours of unassisted flight.

“So, how are you doing in school,” I asked once I was level and flying more or less in a straight line.

“Fine. B’s and C’s,” she said.

“Just B’s and C’s?”

“I’m passing, ok?” Hannah snapped at me.

“Sorry, I was just teasing.” For a couple of minutes, I flew in silence. “Parents giving you a hard time about your grades?” I asked gently.

She didn’t answer right away. “They don’t know how hard it is. School, work, everything.”

“You got a job?”

“Yeah. In the mall, at the ice cream shop.”

“No kidding,” I tried to sound encouraging, “That’s great and you’re passing all your classes. Sounds like you’re doing ok.”

“Not as good as you. How much money do you make doing this?”

“Enough to make my lease payments, pay for fuel and repairs, and a little left over to help around the house. Cargo pilots don’t make a lot of money unless they own their own ship which I don’t. Yet.”

“You dating anyone?” she asked.

“What?”

“Are. You. Dating. Anyone?” she asked again enunciating each word slowly.

“No.” I paused thinking about how that question had become more complex over the last few months. “Not since high school. I’ve been busy learning how to fly. What about you?”

“No.” We lapsed into silence for several minutes. We reached the first nav marker and I adjusted course toward the second. She broke the silence, “How long is this trip?”

“About four hours round trip.”

“Oh.”

“How about some music?” I flipped my arm over, patched my handheld into the ship’s headsets and queued up something with a good beat to help us pass the time.

***

Author note: So that’s it. The whole story. Nothing much happened but I really liked writing this story. It’s longer than most single part stories I write and I thought about cutting it in two but felt it was better as just one story.

This I think my first time explicitly writing a trans guy. I hope I did ok on that front.

This started as a dream that I slowly reshaped into what you just read. I can’t remember what my dream was anymore, this story ended up taking it’s place in my memory.

The New Interview with a Vampire Part 3

<<Previous


“We are back talking to Monica the commander of the space mission to Kepler 186. Why don’t you tell us a little about Kepler 186,” the host prompted me.

“Kepler 186 is a star system about five hundred light years from Earth. We’re heading to the fifth planet out. It is slightly bigger than Earth so higher gravity but we think has a chance at being human habitable.”

“How habitable are we talking? Sunny tropical beaches?”

I chuckled. “Not that sunny. At noon, Kepler 186 is barely brighter than our sun is at sunset.”

“Sounds like a perfect place for vampires.”

“That’s something we’re going to find out. We honestly don’t know if it’s just our sun that will burn vampires or any sun.”

“The scientist at the space agency haven’t run tests? Have they tried using sun lamps?” The audience laughed.

“Ha, no most of the testing with sun lamps was done a couple of hundred years ago.”

“Was that when vampires became public knowledge?” she asked.

“Not exactly. There have calls to go public since before I became a vampire. I saw several during my first century but they always got shot down by older vampires afraid humans would try to exterminate all of us. It was a valid concern so no one went beyond suggesting we go public.”

“What changed?”

“IDs.”

“IDs?” the host asked.

“Yep. In 2234, the Global Identification System changed its encryption schema and made it virtually impossible to create new fake IDs. It was common at the time for vampires to change identities every forty to fifty years. Suddenly it looked like we were going to be locked out of human society and forced back into haunting abandoned buildings. Without the appearance of legal identification, we couldn’t own property, we couldn’t have jobs, we couldn’t receive mail, we couldn’t travel. It was the end of the world for us. Then someone suggested we go public. This time the idea wasn’t shot down right out of the gate. There was a year long debate weighing every possible pro and con. And in the end, enough of us said yes.

“I wish I could read those comments.”

“Actually you can. Someone compiled the discussion into a book after we were recognized as full citizens in 2262. It’s titled Road From Out the Coffin. Horrible title but the content is good.

“How did that lead to scientists running tests on vampires?”

“Right got sidetracked for a second. Basically, some of us revealed ourselves to doctors around the world and let them run whatever test they wanted on us to prove we weren’t vampires. Of course, they got odd to weird results back but couldn’t prove we weren’t vampires. With this wide range of doctors saying “I don’t know what these people are but they aren’t normal human,” we went to specialized labs and continued the cycle. We wanted scientific proof that we, vampires, existed. After several years, everyone was stumped on how our bodies worked but we had detailed reports that they did. Then began step two: petitioning the World Government to recognize vampires as legal citizens with all the rights and protections that entailed. We wanted to be people, not monsters anymore.”

“Is that how people saw you? As monsters?”

“It was ingrained in society. Except for some novels written during the early twenty-first century, vampires have been portrayed as blood sucking murderers. We were that at one time but over time we stopped killing and even stopped having to forcibly take blood from people. That was probably what helped our case the most.”

“You had blood donors?”

“Actually yes. In the 2100’s, some vampires established a worldwide blood bank.”

The host’s eyes widened. “Wait, the World’s Blood Bank is run by vampires?”

“Well, not anymore. It started as a small front to get people to donate blood that was then sold to local vampires on the side. It worked so well that they got vampires around the world to invest and opened a network of vampire controlled blood banks under the name World’s Blood Bank. Then a couple of years after they had started a series of hurricanes and tsunamis and an earthquake devastated local blood supplies around the world. Someone in a hospital somewhere remembered hearing about The World’s Blood Bank and called up to request some blood.

“There was mild panic online that our blood supply was going to be exposed. The vampires running the blood bank decided they couldn’t not help. They had been collecting world wide and felt like they had plenty to spare. Then more requests came and then more. It seemed like the whole operation was going to collapse but then people started donating in mass. Their false image as a blood bank for the world became reality. The vampires set up a corporation to control the blood bank’s finances and set up a board of doctors to monitor day to day operations. They set up small private clinics around the world that could request blood and distribute it to local vampires. Our detractors tried to use this against us, calling us leeches on the world’s blood supply but all the vampires in the world use less than one hundredth of a percent of the blood used in hospitals around the world.”

“Wow. I just donated blood last week.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Well, we’re almost out of time so do you have anything else you’d like to say about the Kepler 186 mission? What do you hope to learn or see?”

“I hope it is habitable. Earth is going to be here for a long time but humans might not. In the last five hundred years I’ve been alive, I’ve seen several man-made ecological disasters. Humans are getting better at cleaning up their messes but it just takes one mess too big to clean up to wipe us out. Too many eggs in one basket. So we’re heading out to find new homes for humanity. This is just the first of several vampire led missions to distant stars. We’re the first wave because we can sleep must of the hundreds of years it will take to get there. The hope is that by the time we get there and can send a message back new forms of transport will have been developed. My greatest hope is we arrive at an already populated planet.”

“You’re giving up your life for humans?”

“A few decades ago a conversation started about what would happen if all the humans died and only vampires survived. The discussion ranged from creating human farms to cloning blood to creating synthetic blood. There are many ways we could keep living if you wiped yourselves out but none of us want that world. Several of us were already in the space program and we suggested finding more worlds for humanity and us to live on. It seems very selfless but really we don’t want to be alone with only each for company.”

“Thank you, Commander Monica, for your time and service.

“Thank you for having me on.”

“That’s all the time we have today. Thank you for watching and don’t forget to donate blood.”

The show’s theme music blared one last time as the audience clapped.


<<Previous

 

The New Interview with a Vampire Part Two

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The lights came up and the theme music played. “We are back and we are speaking with Monica who was about to tell us what the vampire community was like in the twentieth century.”

“Right. Well, the vampire community I entered into was almost completely online in secret groups on Facebook, password protected forums, and private websites. The internet, as limited as it was in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, allowed us to make connections, share info, negotiate territory. There were a few who had open journals or blogs but most normal humans dismissed them as works of fiction. A hundred years earlier, hell fifty years earlier, I would have been lucky to know more than three other vampires.”

“Why was that?”

“Mostly it was geography and lack of wide spread communications. Vampires rarely collected in groups larger than two in a city. A moderately sized city with an average crime rate in the twentieth century could support one or two vampires without their feeding creating a strong pattern. More than that and people start to notice and then concerned citizens start burning down houses.

“The exact number of vampires a city can support scales as the size of the city increases. New York City had a couple dozen dispersed throughout its boroughs. By the time I entered the community there were twice that many who regularly flamed each other online about intruding on their territory. I say community but they were about as cohesive as the trans community at the same time.”

“Trans community? What was that? A community of transportation fans?” She smiled and the audience chuckled.

“Ha, no. It’s an arcane term from the twenty-first century. So … it’s not important.”

“No, go on. I’m interested in hearing about this trans community.”

“Ok. I’m what was called a trans woman.”

“What’s that?”

“It meant I am a woman who was born with a penis.”

“So … ?”

“At that time any person with a penis was considered male and a man and any person born with a vagina was female and a woman. Anyone who didn’t fit into those narrow definitions was made to fit.”

The host recoiled slightly. “That’s hideous! Sex and gender don’t work like that.”

“No, they don’t but it was the general belief of society at the time. There were those like myself that defied the norms and demanded to be respected as our true genders.” I paused as memories bubbled to the surface of my mind.

“But to get back to the vampire community. For two hundred years not a lot changed for us. We stayed hidden, some of us made new vampires, some of us disappeared. Most times a vampire would announce their intention to walk into the sun but sometimes a vampire just disappeared. We could never be sure if they had killed themselves or just dug into the earth and fallen asleep.”

“What do you mean fallen asleep?”

“That is a quirk of vampire physiology. We can enter a dead-like-sleep that can last for centuries. It’s a way for us escape the world for a while. A vampire doesn’t have to kill every time they feed. It was actively discouraged as early as the second century in parts of Asia but that attitude wouldn’t come to Europe until around the seventeenth century. Vampires before that would feed on small communities until they were all dead. Then they would find a safe place and sleep until more people moved into the area. In the last seven hundred years, it has been rare for a vampire to overfeed on a population in that way, so sleeping away the years has become a voluntary affair. Vampires from older time periods sometimes do it because they can’t cope with the way the world has changed.”

“Have you slept any years away?”

“Only a year in the twenty-fourth century. I was reading “The Blue Death” by Gabbalta Joennes and didn’t want to wait for the next book in the series. So, I took a nap until the sequel came out.” The audience laughs.

“Really? You slept for years just to read the next book?”

“I was three hundred, almost four hundred years, old at the time. Honestly, I had lost the thread of what life was supposed to be. I had realized I had time to read all the books I wanted. I wasn’t wasting my time reading day after day because I had all of eternity before me. So, I spent ten years reading book after book trying to catch up with all the books I had neglected to read in the previous three hundred years.

“And then I read “The Blue Death”. It was the first of a promised series and I loved it. I spent five months re-reading just it. The sequel was to be published in a year so I took a nap to pass the time. When I woke up, the second book had been published. I was ecstatic to read more until I saw a note in the front of the book. The author had died in an accident. Another writer had taken her mostly finished manuscript and notes to completed it. There were no plans to continue the series. I read the new book and it was good but I could sense the hand of the new writer subtly guiding Gabbalta’s brilliant prose in slightly more conventional ways. I …,” I blinked and glanced around the studio suddenly back from the memory I had been reliving. “Oh, I got a little ah caught up in that memory. I didn’t mean to go on so long about that.”

“You looked like you were someplace else while you were telling that story.”

“A hazard of having a perfect memory. Our memories can seem so real we get lost in them.”

“You remember everything from the last five hundred years?”

“Everything I’ve experienced. Don’t ask me about historical events cause I rarely paid attention to the news. I’m barely better than grade school history book.”

“We have another break for our sponsors and when we come back Monica will tell us about her mission to Kepler 186.”

The lights dimmed and the music played.


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