The Party Bug

“Kiss me,” she said, and I wasn’t about to argue. It was deep and passionate, the kind of kiss you come away from knowing the other person’s mother’s middle name. When she broke away, the held my head close with a hand on the back of my neck. “Sets in quick,” she said. “Then it’s a party.”

I’m pretty sure I was smiling like an idiot. “What does?” My mouth was on autopilot, because I’d given her words zero conscious thought so far.

“H1P99, silly.” The crowd absorbed her and swirled her away.

“What—what’s…” She was gone. I tried to follow, but the room spun even faster than the crowd and I fell. Someone helped me up.

“Dizzy? You just getting the symptoms?”

“I don’t kn—symptoms?”

“Yeah.” The guy—girl—neither who’d helped me up had a smile that put me at ease. “The party bug. Seline’s vectoring tonight.”

“She must like that.” Everything felt slow and safe. Dreamlike. Amazing. I didn’t know why I’d been panicking a moment ago.

“Loves it. C’mon, dance with me.” I wanted to do that more than anything in the world, so the crowd swirled us up and I didn’t care when it let us go.

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Always in That Well

“What is it? What is it, boy?” The dog’s usual behavior, so easy to interpret, was absent. Where he usually turned left or right to lead Howie to the rescue, he just kept ducking his head then stretching up and pointing his nose to the sky, over and over.

“Something up in the sky?” Howie looked, but he saw nothing. It was a clear, nearly-cloudless day. But the dog kept making that motion.

“Is someone in the well again? Someone’s always in that well.” Henrietta plucked at the grasses on the hill.

“No, he—see? He shook his head! Is it underground? Miners? A cave in?” The dog whined, a curling whine from deep in his throat, a far cry from the usual sharp barks. The dog lay down, the whining growing softer as though his engine were winding down. “Boy, now’s not the time to sleep. Boy?” The dog closed his eyes.

Henrietta yawned. “If only he knew international sign language for ‘I’m choking.'” Howie’s eyes opened wide and grew watery. “Oh, save the saltwater.” She pulled open the still dog’s mouth, reached in, and pulled out a bit of bone. “You shouldn’t feed it leftover chicken.” With one, two firm thumps on its chest, the dog started breathing again.

Howie was all over the dog. “Are you okay? Are you okay, boy? I’ll never give you bones again. Never!”

“It’s fine,” Henrietta said. “Brain damage from oxygen deprivation takes longer than most people think.” But Howie was beyond listening.

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A Personal Choice

“CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON.” The Fightmaster’s voice resounded throughout the arena. “AND WE SHALL WATCH AS THE FIRST EARTH-PERSON DIES IN OUR ARENA!” The crowd of thousands cheered for a full minute before the massive Fightmaster raised its four arms for silence. “WHAT CHOOSE YOU?”

Sandra stepped forward. “I—” Her own voice startled her, booming through the arena by some unseen technology. “I choose… words.” A hush swept the arena. The Fightmaster stood frozen.

Several pounding heartbeats later (for Sandra—she had no idea if the locals even had hearts), the crowd burst into uproar until the Fightmaster again raised its arms for silence. “YOUR CHOICE IS… UNORTHODOX. ARE YOU SURE?” At her nod, it went on. “VERY WELL,” it said. “WITNESS YOUR OPPONENT.” It gestured at doors on the opposite end of the arena. Sandra saw a flickering blue light as they inched open.

“INTRODUCING FIGHTER ASHEG, OF THE KYTFIHT RANK, WEILDING HIS CHOSEN ZERO-POINT SWORDS AND INERTIALESS SHIELDS” The crowd, predominantly of the same four-armed race, cheered long and loud. When they quieted, the Fightmaster looked at Sandra. “YOUR BRAVERY COMPLIMENTS EARTH.”

“Wait,” Sandra said, but her voice no longer carried. “Is it too late to choose a machine gun?”

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It’s Raining Peanuts

“Huh.” Jenine stuck out her hand. “It’s raining peanuts.” Another peanut struck her hand and she yanked it back under the store awning, shaking it. “That stings. Why is it raining peanuts?”

Nick shrugged. “Dunno. Probably God wants to kill all the people with peanut allergies.”

“That’s mean.” She looked up at the sky, then down at the nuts collecting in the street. “You really think it’s God?”

“Who else could make it rain peanuts?” He stuck out his hand. “You’re right, that does sting.”

Jenine watched cars drive by, windshield wipers going, leaving pulverized peanut in their wake. “Maybe a peanut plane exploded?”

“I don’t think they transport peanuts by plane.” He picked a peanut off the sidewalk and ate it.

“Ew.” Jenine curled her lip. Nick rolled his eyes. “How is it?”

He shrugged. “Tastes like a peanut.”

“How do you know how they transport peanuts?”

“I’m just guessing. Most food goes by shipping container, doesn’t it?”

“I dunno. Hey, you think this will devalue peanuts? Should we short peanut stocks? Or if it’s a peanut plane, we should go long.”

“You really want to risk your money?”

“I guess not.” Their break over, they went back inside.

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Thought of the Sensation

“Are you sure you want to do this?” That was Lana, his best friend and the only person Kev could imagine having by his side as he stared out the open door of a small plane at thirteen thousand feet.

“Ummmm…” Kev visualized what was about to happen. He thought of the sensation of wind rushing past his face, grabbing at his clothes, rubbing his ears raw. He considered the jerk of the parachute, the comparatively-gentle descent once it had opened, the mechanics and joy of controlling direction with the steering lines, the disorienting return to having legs, standing. He walked those sensations back to the internal state just before this first jump, the gut-wrenching doubt, his anticipation of the experience, the icy fear of hurling oneself over a precipice, and the moment when he would leap out anyway, despite his uncertainty.

“You don’t have to, you know.” She looked concerned, as any good friend would.

He grinned at her. “No. But I’m going to.” Gut-wrenching doubt and all, he leapt.

Kev opened his eyes on the bus to work. Yes, that was pretty much what it would be like, he was sure. Now he didn’t need to experience it.

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To Bag a Boggle

“The boggles, for sure. This way.” Malia pointed into the dark forest with her sword.

“How do you know?” Kiera adjusted her armor for the tenth time. She only walked into the woods when it became clear Malia wasn’t waiting.

Malia snapped a twig off a passing tree and dipped it in a dab of something next to the tracks they followed. “Smell this.”

Kiera leaned in close then pushed it away fast. “Uck! Smells like the stuff we use to whiten wool after the shearing.”

“Yeah, boggle blood. Nasty smell, but easy to track.” Malia walked on, pushing small branches out of her way. Kiera learned to catch them before they sprang back at her.

“Shouldn’t we… get more soldiers?” Kiera gripped her spear tight.

“No time. We’re all spread out looking for the princess. They’d never—shh!” Malia crouched behind a fallen tree, pulling Kiera with her. “They’ve made camp.”

Crawling forward with brush as cover, they peered into a part of the forest where some old growth had fallen, taking other trees with it to form a small clearing ringed with trunks and debris. The murmur of low voices drifted to them, and peering through a gap in an uprooted tangle they looked on the pale, lumpy skin of the boggles. Several built up a fire, another group raised temporary shelters, and one sat in the middle of it all with the princess. With the princess on his lap, kissing him deeply. Passionately, even. As they watched, the boggle whispered something in the princess’s ear, and she giggled and placed her head on his in the way intimates do.

“C’mon.” Malia tugged Kiera until she followed her away from the clearing. “We’ve got to keep searching if we want to sound convincing when we report not finding her.”

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Under the Tree on Freedom Hill

The revolution had not been peaceful. Lazlo had been clear about his one condition for lending the weight of his fame to the cause. He supposed now that he had been naive. Nothing changed without pain. It applied to him as much as it did to the government, and if he was different now, well, he hadn’t much enjoyed the process.

Outside the broad window of his living room, Lazlo could see Freedom Hill, where a crew wearing the revolution’s colors were assembling a temporary stage for the first anniversary of the revolution. He watched it come together around the tree where he’d once loved to sit. Where he’d once addressed a nation.

A TV actor, movie star, bestselling author, and playwright. All that and a common disgust with the oppression had brought him to the movement’s attention. He’d participated in meetings, talks, debates, and so on. He never spoke for armed insurrection, always against. But when the time came, he’d let himself be broadcast to all the country, telling any who could hear that it was time to rise up.

They were putting up streamers and bunting in white, blue, and red. The red streamers hanging from the winter-bare tree made him sicker than anything he could remember, and he’d been more alcohol than man at a few points in his life. Lazlo looked away.

He had never meant the revolution should be truly bloodless. He was naive, not stupid. Revolution at the point of a sword will have its resolve tested, and that sword will have to spill blood. But he had been clear that he would not sponsor a revolution of retribution. He wanted a new order that would be just in a way the old had not.

A knock came. Lazlo wheeled himself over to the front door and opened it. He knew who it would be, and he wheeled himself back to the living room without looking. “Come in, Chavela.”

“Am I that obvious?” The woman laughed and closed the door behind her.

“No. Yes. I don’t know. Would you like a drink?” Lazlo went to the counter where he kept alcohol and looked at her expectantly.

“Be honest. You’d rather I leave.” She didn’t look any less cheerful for the belief.

“I would. But if you’re going to be here, I might as well be a good host. You’re a bourbon drinker, if I recall.” He reached for the Bulleit and, when she didn’t say anything, poured her a healthy dram.

She put it to her nose, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. “Oh, my, yes. This is hard to find nowadays. I’m surprised you still have any.”

“I don’t drink it, and I don’t have company these days.” His eyes were wary as he watched her.

Chavela leaned against a counter. She opened her mouth, but Lazlo spoke her first three words simultaneously and she stopped to let him finish: “We’d like you to speak tomorrow.”

She opened her arms. “You got it.”

“No.” In a TV show, Lazlo would leave the room and the scene would shift to the B-plot. In a movie, the camera would focus on Chavela’s reaction, then on him leaving. In a play, he would turn around dramatically until the next line called him back. Here, in the world, Lazlo just sat and looked at her, impassive.

“Please. You lit the fuse on the revolution. Everyone wants to hear from you.” Despite her words, neither her tone nore her expression showed any great concern over his response.

He had had a voice, once. Before the revolution, people had listened, watched, heard him. Once the fighting started, they had been too busy hiding, occupying, and all too often dying to pay him any attention. That was fine with him. He’d planted the seed of a better world. He was still waiting to see if it would grow.

This time he did turn away. “You don’t really want me up there.”

She sipped her bourbon and shrugged. “I don’t care, personally. But it’ll look good. Listen. You can come up and say whatever you want. Speak out against the reprisals, condemn the transitional government, it’s all fine with me. Help us change for the better.”

She knew. She knew what he would say and still wanted him to say it. Lazlo tightened the fist she couldn’t see. Her words felt like acid in his ears, hissing as they burned a channel to his brain.

“Get out.”

“Come on—”

“Get out.” He spun back to face her. “Get out.” He moved close into her space. She stepped back. “Get out, get out, get out.”

“C’mon, Lazlo, this—”

“Get out.” He slapped the glass from her hand and it shattered on the floor. “You can make me stare at that god damn tree every day but you can’t make me speak under it.” He pushed her. “The only way you’ll get me under that tree ever again is if you god damn hang me from it!” His yells chased her out the door. Lazlo saw some younger folks out front, reporters or Chavela’s aides. They’d heard him.

He went back to his living room and watched the banner go up. “Freedom Day,” it read. He wiped tears from his face but couldn’t stop them from running down his cheeks. Maybe he’d be under that tree sooner than he thought.

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In the Way Back

“I thought you said the permanent markers were in the kitchen junk drawer?” Hasina fished around in the mess of odds and ends.

“They are,” Jiro said. “Try farther in the back.”

Hasina pulled the drawer farther. “There they are. Hey, how deep is this drawer?”

Jiro didn’t look up from his book. “I dunno. I thought the markers were in the back.”

“Well, they aren’t.” Hasina kept pulling, and the drawer kept sliding out. Soon, it was longer than the counter was deep.

“So they’re not in—woah.” Jiro looked over. “The drawer can’t be that long, it’d stick out into the bedroom on the other side.”

“Tell that to the drawer.” Hasina stopped when the drawer was the length of the kitchen, before she it stretched into the dining room.

“Yeah, so… what is this stuff?” Jiro got up and peered into the drawer, now longer than he was tall. He picked up something that looked like a dried lizard. “Dried… things, little metal runes… where’d this come from?”

The drawer started withdrawing into the counter about as fast as Hasina had pulled it out. “Wait,” Hasina said. “Grab it.” She pulled pen and paper from the drawer while Jiro played tug of war with it. She tossed a slip of paper into the beyond-the-back of the drawer as Jiro lost his grip and the drawer slid closed.

“What’d you write?” he asked.

“Ten-year lease, one drawer, at 1 oz gold per year: 10 oz gold, due upon receipt.”

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An Ice Cream from the Convenimart

“Hey, wanna go get an ice cream from the Convenimart?” Jimmy had whooomed up on his hand-me-down refurbished hovbike, and Susie looked up from her incomplete thrift-store set of Stellar Infantry Wartime Playset.

“No.” Her voice was soft. “I don’t really like it over there since the Fnarians moved in.”

“Why? You know they don’t eat kids like the wartime vids used to say, right?” His smirk suggested he was preparing for some vicious teasing.

“No! I mean, yeah, I know that. I just don’t feel good there. Mom says it’s worry. Lotsa kids feel it.”

“C’mon, scaredy-pants.”

“No!” Jimmy saw her face bunch up, on the verge of tears. As much as he enjoyed teasing Susie, he didn’t want to make her cry. “Okay, no big. Let’s go see if Old Mister Okafor has any of those lranthian taffys!” Much relieved, Susie followed himm.

In the apartments above the Convenimart two blocks down, a Fnarian looked up from its morning chemtouch news. “I haven’t seen as many of those human kids in a while,” it scented (loosely translated).

“That’s probably the sonics,” odored the other. “Too low for us or them to hear, but it makes them uncomfortable.”

“Brilliant.”

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Schooling One’s Enemies

“Keep the pressure on,” Meg screamed into the microphone. “Don’t give ’em a chance to regroup!” The stutter of gunfire pounded through the walls of the cramped command center, screens and aides flinging data and commands every which way. “Chad!” Her voice somehow cut through the bursting rockets and screams of the wounded. “Find out what the hell happened to our air support!” The boy saluted with the wrong arm—forgiven only because the right arm was bound and useless after the Battle of Morely Field—and ran off.

“General!” The cry was so full of terror it tore Meg’s attention from her tactical screens. She looked up just in time to see her aide-de-camp Cassie fall beneath the primitive weapons of their foes. In a flash, she and her operations crew were surrounded and disarmed.

The apparent leader of the small savages had his spear leveled at Meg’s sternum. “You go,” he said. “We have base now!” The other primitives cheered.

“Yes,” Meg said. “I go. But I’ll be damned if I leave this base in the hands of KINDERGARTENERS!” Her fist slammed down on the self-destruct.

“Man,” said the principal,” these war games are the best idea I ever had.”

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