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.”

Posted in Fiction | Tagged | Leave a comment

An Important Talk

Seven-year-old Pharrell found his mom in the garage. “Mom, Dad says he has something to talk about and he’ll meet you in the kitchen in five minutes.”

“Okay, sweetie, tell him I’ll just get cleaned up here.”

Pharrell found his dad reading in the bedroom. “Dad, Mom wants to talk to you about something in the kitchen in four minutes. She says it’s important.”

“All right, tell her I’m just about to finish this chapter.”

Three minutes later, they entered the kitchen to find divorce papers laid out before them, filled out and waiting for signatures. “What’s this?” said Mom.

“No idea,” Dad said. “You didn’t do this?”

“Nope. Pharrell!”

The boy stepped out of the pantry, head drooped.

“Pharrell,” Mom said, “Did you really think we’d just assume the other wrote this and get divorced? Why?”

He stared at the floor and mumbled. “I want a second bedroom and more presents at Christmas.”

“Listen, son.” Dad pulled the boy up onto a tall seat. “I was waiting, but I see it’s time to have an important talk about ‘leverage.’ It’s something you need if you want to get something from someone who doesn’t want to give it to you.”

Posted in Fiction | Tagged | Leave a comment

This Is Good Chocolate

“Wow, this chocolate is really good!” Kendrick broke off another square and closed her eyes to savor the taste.

“Thanks,” Rica said. “I made it myself.”

Kendrick’s eyes snapped open. “That’s amazing! It’s so good. Where did you get the chocolate for it?”

“I told you, I made it myself.”

“My god, that’s awesome. I am literally in awe of you right now.” Kendrick pantomimed bowing in worship. “Where did you get the nibs? Did you start with nibs, or did you actually get whole beans? Where did the beans come from?”

“You’re not listening,” Rica said. “I made it myself.”

“You… you grew, harvested, fermented, dried, and roasted the beans yourself?” Kendrick sounded confused and skeptical. “I really don’t think we can grow those around here.”

“No.” Rica squeezed her eyes shut in frustration. “I made it. Look.” She set her hand on the table palm down and closed her eyes. For a moment, nothing happened. The then air vibrated, lights flickered, and Rica sat back, a thin layer of sweat on her face. Where her hand had been now rested a perfect, new chocolate bar.

“Okay, I’m back to wow.” Kendrick tasted it. “Damn, this is good chocolate.”

Posted in Fiction | Tagged , | Leave a comment

First Contact between Two Peoples

“Hi, I’m an alien,” she said. She was a pretty young woman with short red hair, freckles, and a cocked smile. The person now looking at her oddly was an older woman, late twenties to early thirties, hair up in a bun and wearing the sort of outdoor coat that said she wasn’t uncomfortable in money.

“You don’t look so alien to me.” The corner of her mouth quirked up, unsure what came next but curious and, for the moment, entertained.

“It’s an excellent disguise,” said the redhead. “Totally impenetrable to any kind of investigation. I’d like to invite you to be the first to try to examine my disguise and learn my alien ways. Maybe Thursday at seven? At Antoine’s?”

The brunette blinked. “Are you asking me out on a date?”

“No!” the redhead said. “This is a factfinding mission. A first contact between two peoples.”

“Yeah?” Her smile was deeper now. “Why me?”

The redhead looked away, then back. “Because you’re cute.”

“I’m Daria.” She held out a hand.

“I’m Allie. The alien.”

Posted in Fiction | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Gift of Purpose

Six robots walked together across farmland. They were not the hulking brutes of iron imagined yesteryear, but lightweight skeletons of nanodiamond-laced titanium. Two carried a makeshift stretch of iron hastily hammered into shape, and one did not walk but lay there, its legs shorn off. They did not walk in straight lines, following the shape of the land, but viewed from above their path was straight as an arrow.

That arrow flew directly for a town. Called something like Fair Weather Village in the local dialect, the town featured one huge factory, smoke billowing from its stack as people worked iron within. Around the factory, dozens of red-roofed homes clustered like children begging for a sweet.

As the robots neared the town, they had no choice but to join a common road. People saw them then, and ran. The robots were not surprised. Closer, now, they walked among small homes with gardens, with mothers who ushered their children inside, with children who peeked through the windows. They also walked among burnt-out shells of homes, taken by the bombs.

They were again unsurprised when a crowd of men and women stopped them a quarter-mile from the town gate. A few had pitchforks or hoes, some of them had swords, but most of them carried the large-bore, breech-loading flintlock rifles they’d used during the occupation. The robots also had weapons, attached to their backs or hips by clever magnetic locks. Autonomous systems highlighted the townsfolks’ weapons, calculated how much damage the squad might sustain before their superior weapons cut the townsfolk down. The two robots set down the stretcher in unison.

One of those drew its weapon, a short-barreled automatic rifle, and set it on the ground before walking forward. The first row of townsfolk stepped back. The back row of townsfolk pushed forward. This robot’s face was shaped to more closely resemble those of the people it faced. It stopped three strides away and spoke.

“We mean you no harm. Our masters have fled, leaving us behind.” Its voice was mellifluous. Its hardware read facial reactions, postures, strength of grip on gun stocks, adjusting its timbre and cadence in response. “We are no longer an occupying force, so now we have no purpose. We cannot exist this way, without purpose. We would go mad. We ask you, humbly, to permit us to help you as you see fit. To give us purpose. To be our saviors.”

That word hung in the air for a breathless moment. “You killed my boy!” one shouted. “I didn’t—” began the robot. “Where were you when you bombed my home? Where was your purpose then?” “Then our pur—” “How many did you kill? How many did you, personally, kill?” The crowd erupted into screaming, wailing recriminations, cries of anger and hate, bottled up and finally released.

The robots all saw the first shot coming. Systems they could not deactivate saw the barrel rise, marked it an imminent threat. They ignored reflexes to shoot first. The rifle bullet struck one of the emissary robot’s ribs with little effect, ricocheting and leaving a barely perceptible dent. It had a greater effect on the crowd. They rushed the robots, mobbed them, slammed them against the ground, stomped them, shot them point-blank, blamed them for the ricochets that hurt their own, smashed them with big rocks until they no longer moved and the mob had run out of its collective breath.

“A sacrifice, then,” said the emissary, just before it could speak no more.

 

Coda

Miraculously, the mob overlooked the robot on the stretcher. Perhaps they spent their attention and their rage on those that had been standing. Perhaps they saw its legs, missing in a frightful tear of metal, and assumed it was already dead. It didn’t move, and so didn’t disabuse them of the notion.

After the mob had gone and the townsfolk had gawked and taken their souvenirs, a young woman approached and sifted idly through the remains. When she came upon the casualty, she crouched and inspected it for some time. “You’re not dead, are you?”

The robot, lacking the specialized hardware of the late emissary, spoke in affectless tone. “No.”

“Why did you come here?”

“To find a new purpose. We became a sacrifice.”

“You didn’t.”

“No.”

“I have a little workshop. If we worked together, do you think we could repair your legs?”

“We could replace what is lost with something adequate.”

“I’d like that.” She lifted the robot by its shoulders, marveled at its light weight, and dragged it into town.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged | Leave a comment

In the Hall of Wept Gold

Hugo stepped into the Hall of Wept Gold. Legend held that it bore the name because when the miners had first cut through the rock here, near-pure gold lined the walls, looking like tear-streaks from above.

He wished he could’ve seen that. Now, maybe a century after the tunnel had been first mined, the dull stone walls were stained with soot from countless fires and oil from countless hands. Some of them watched him now.

The ten minutes felt like an hour, but his tentative steps brought him to a closed door. In Hugo’s neighborhood, it would lead to a storeroom with local necessities. Here, a balding man with a cudgel leaned against the wall next to it. Hugo approached slowly, each step smaller than the last until he feared he’d never get there. When he stopped, looking up at the scowling guard, it took all his will to say, “I’d like to see Mr Stern.”

The tough didn’t say anything, just unfolded one arm enough to pound on the door between him at a measured tempo. The door opened and a small woman beckoned him in. The room was cut to the same measurements as the storerooms back home, but instead of supplies it had been turned into some kind of open office. A couple dozen people spread out across a number of chairs, desks, and lounges. The space quietly hummed with people at work. At the center of it all, a woman sat and watched him. Hugo’s guide brought him to her.

“Uh… Mr Stern?”

She looked bored. “Speak.”

“Uh, right. My wife. She, um, see, she got caught up in the protests last month and, um—”

“She’s been exiled.”

“Yes.”

“Want to find out if she’s still alive? The old tunnels are dangerous, most exiles don’t last long. If she’s alive—or if you’re optimistic—we can get her a letter, or a care package. Most exiles appreciate food.”

“Um, I was told you could also get things into the city.”

“No.”

Hugo’s voice wavered and tears sprung to his eyes. “I brought all my money—”

“It’s never worth it. Someone finds her, she gets kicked out again, the council starts a headhunt for the smugglers and we have to suspend operations. Too expensive.” She shooed him away with a gesture and the small woman began solicitously tugging him to the door by his sleeve.

Hugo took two numbed steps before pulling away from her. Five of the people who had appeared to have their attention elsewhere stood, focus on him. He raised his hands to placate them. “I’d like to send something to her, then.”

Now Mr Stern smiled. “Fine. I’m sure there’s a lot she’d like to have up there. Torches for light, food, water, clothes… weapons, of course. We have a price list around here somewhere.” She waved a hand at someone who went looking.

“I’ll take all of those.” Zar looked her square in the eye. “And I want you to send me with it.”

Posted in Fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Fuzzybritches’ Lament

“You’re dumb,” Fuzzybritches said. “You’re stupid. You don’t know how to catch a mouse or anything.”

“Aw, you’re so loud, Fuzzy,” said the human.

“I’m loud because you don’t listen! Or are you too stupid to understand me?”

“I know. You’re amazing and deserve all the attention.” She walked back into her closet.

“You obviously don’t know,” said Fuzzybritches, or you’d be doing what I say. When you die, I’m going to peel your skin off and feast on your stupid meats.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll feed you in just a minute.” The human finished dressing and headed to the kitchen.

“You’ll feed me when you die,” Fuzzybritches said, running after her down the hall. The human turned around. “Hey!” cried Fuzzybritches.

The woman reappeared from her bedroom with a book. “That’s not food, stupid. No wonder you can’t catch prey.

“God, you’re so terrible. By all the cats in Egypt, if I were as dumb as you I’d walk out into the road and—” A bowl of food appeared before the cat. “You’re the best! Top class servant of the first water! Five stars, would yell at again.” She watched the cat eating for a moment. “You’re dismissed,” said Fuzzybritches.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged | Leave a comment

She Looked at Me!

(Oh God, she looked at me. What’m’I gonna say? Hey, how’s it going? No, anyone would say that. Compliment her. Say something about her eyes. No, her shirt. God, she’s coming over here!)

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey, I like your posture.”

(What did I say? Did I say posture? How stupid am I?)

“My posture?”

(Okay, wait, backtrack, backtrack. No, don’t! Confidence, project confidence.)

“Yeah. You stand really gracefully.” (Okay, I think that was good. She’s smiling.)

“Oh! Thanks!” (I think… is she relaxing? Is that a good shift in posture?)

(Okay, she’s standing and smiling. She expects something. What is it? Should I say something? Is there something on my shirt? My face? Nonchalantly brush my face. Nonchalant, dammit! Good. Now tuck my hair back in case it’s weird. She’s still here.)

“Hey, um, do you—” She said, “Hey, would you—”

(She’s laughing. Can she tell my laugh is nervous?)

“D—” (Ahh! Clear my throat, clear it!) “Do you want to see a movie sometime? Or something?” (She’s not answering she’s not what do I do what—)

“Sure.” (Wow, that smile. Don’t stare as she walks away. Okay, stare. No, walk away, but look back.)

(She looked back too!)

Posted in Fiction | Tagged | Leave a comment

No Longer at His Post

It began as a normal day. Up for third shift, first meal with his cohort, small talk, and so on. A half hour of strenuous exercise, then suiting up with the other stormtroopers and cycling through security posts on the station. He’d been on hangar duty for about an hour with the tractor technicians dragged in a beat-up old ship. “TK-421,” came the order, “accompany the inspectors into the vessel.” So he did.

It came as a complete surprise when someone pulled off his helmet and punched him in the face. Not that he had time to be surprised before he woke up, tied and gagged in some tight, dark space, probably a smuggler’s compartment. He kicked and struggled, but nothing came of it. After another five minutes of useless rolling, twisting, and wriggling, he gave up and waited. Eventually, he fell asleep.

The ship was vibrating. It woke him slowly, returning him to primal memories of when he was young, vague senses of security from the rapid-growth capsules the Empire had put him in to make him a better soldier. For the first time in months—maybe years, time on the station blurred—TK-421 felt like he was in a transition, a period of change. It was nonsense, of course.

He struggled and tried to yell again, but wherever the reclamation crew was taking the ship, they’d forgotten to search it thoroughly. So he waited. It felt like days—but was probably hours—when the ship shuddered to a stop. Ship gravity crossfaded into a lighter gravity. Hearing movement almost directly overhead, he strained to kick a wall or hatch but only got himself more tangled.

The footsteps receded and the ship went silent. TK-421 wondered about the gravity. Reclamation was simply another part of the station, and should still be at standard gravity. For that matter, it would never have taken this long to arrive unless something strange were going on. He couldn’t imagine what.

Another bout of struggling and blindly feeling his way around the compartment revealed his way out: a jagged edge in one corner, no doubt where the smugglers had forced this compartment into a heap like this. It took the better part of half an hour, but he contorted himself around until he could scrape through his bindings and let himself out of the compartment.

Cramps took him. He stretched them out, kneaded his muscles, and weathered the pain as best he could, and then looked through the ship. No marks for contraband, or restricted technology, or even any receipts for collected evidence. Looking for the bathroom, he turned instead into the cockpit, looking out over a hangar full of people out of uniform. No, he corrected himself, in the wrong uniforms. Rebel uniforms.

Need to use the toilet forgotten, TK-421 hid, breathing heavily. He took a deep breath. With a tremble he couldn’t still, he stripped off his Imperial undersuit and put it back in the hidden compartment. He couldn’t wander naked, though. Digging through the messy, cluttered cabins on the ship, he found enough clothes that almost kind of fit him. Washing quickly, he walked out of the ship wearing clothes stolen from thieves to meet the Rebel Alliance.

It didn’t go at all as he’d expected. They were friendly. They assumed that if he was there, he belonged there. No one asked him where he was supposed to be or requested confirmation that he was about an assigned task. He found his way into the kitchens, where it smelled so good he didn’t want to leave. Someone handed him a bowl of something he couldn’t describe or even name, but it was delicious and he ate until he thought he’d be full for a year. Even full, he didn’t want to leave the welcoming smells behind. So he asked if he could help.

Washing dishes was relaxing, almost meditative. It reminded him of field stripping and cleaning his E-11 blaster rifle, or adjusting the fit on his armor. He could almost slip into a trance with the bubbles high, sweaty from scrubbing, handing off another pot to the chef who was making enough of something delicious to feed the small army living on this moon. Someone asked him his name and he said Jak, a name he’d heard someone call out earlier. So he was Jak.

When someone told him to take a break, he did, sitting with a dozen others all jawing about places they’d been, people they’d known, or how the Empire done them wrong. Someone asked about him and TK-421 froze. After a few seconds, someone said he didn’t have to answer, a lot of people were private, and conversation moved on. Just like that. Someone was showing him where he could bunk down when the fighters launched, and moments later the general quarters alarm sounded. He stood rooted to the ground, no clue where to go, until one of his new friends from the kitchens grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to the non-combatants’ shelter.

He stood with them all in quiet, impatient waiting. He smelled their fear and added his to the rank odor. He bit his lip with them as they heard snatches of reports from a radio someone had snuck in. He cheered with them when they reported the enemy station destroyed.

When the all clear sounded, he rushed back to the kitchens. Someone needed to prepare food for returning heroes, for wakes for those that had gone, to sustain everyone as the evacuated the base for someplace more secure. That order came down after Jak had been back at the sink for an hour.

He went with them as they evacuated. Some of the shuttles were on their way to inhabited worlds. From there, he could get a lift anywhere. The Rebellion wasn’t his rebellion. Just as it was no longer his Empire. He wondered if he should want vengeance for all the people he’d known who had died on the Death Star, but they were only people, had never really been friends. He couldn’t bring himself to feel rage at their deaths, especially a death in self defense.

Jak ended up on a small station. He’d tried settling on a handful of different planets, but they never felt right. He opened his own restaurant, first a small window on a busy, rusty spaceway, and after some success his own little space with seating for five. He cowered with everyone else when the Stormtroopers stomped by, and he cheered with everyone else when the Rebellion declared victory, even though day-to-day life didn’t change much for him.

His prospects grew as he earned a reputation for openness. His food wasn’t the best anywhere, but if you wanted something, he’d try to make it, whatever it was. If he didn’t have the ingredients, he’d have them tomorrow, and if it didn’t taste good on the first try, it might on the seventeenth.

When they found out Jak was not just the cook, but the owner, guests always asked why he called his place 421. He’d just shrug and say, “I had to call it something.”

Posted in Fiction | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Another Chunk of Wood

I split off another log and stretched my neck. “Hey,” came a voice from behind me, “what’s a pretty thing like you doing chopping wood?”

I rested the axe head on the ground and turned. He was a big one. At least six feet tall, broad as a horse, smug as a donkey. Outside my cabin on the hill overlooking town, the open sky framed him dramatically. “What else should I be doing?”

“Making dinner, mending clothes, needlepoint.” He shrugged. “You’ll callous your sweet hands doing this work. They’d be too rough to rub your husband’s back after he comes in from work.” His leer made me nauseous.

“Don’t got a husband.” I turned back to the wood. “So no worries there.”

“No husband? I can see you need someone to take you in hand.” The proposed hand fell on my shoulder, not in a tight grip, but not lightly either.

I turned and smiled. “It would have to be someone who has hands.”

He looked perplexed. “I have hands.”

I lifted my axe. “No, you don’t.” Thirty seconds later I was chopping wood again. It’s good that he left so quickly. Blood is such a pain to clean up.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged | 1 Comment