Thursday, October 17, 2019

Flash Fiction # 377 -- Reports






(Pellin is a major force in the Inner Worlds Council books.  This is just a peak at a busy day.)

Reports defined President Pellin's world; reading them, writing them, and hearing them.  Occasionally, he read his own statements to the Assembly, just to make certain they remembered who was in charge of things. 

Today's reports didn't cover the critical problem that he'd placed in the hands of Inner World Council Security.  The fear of a new weapon and falling into the hands of the wrong people --

No, he didn't cover that trouble in the briefing.  Instead, he gave good news about plights averted, reported dangerous flooding in the Tempest backlands -- nothing new there -- and welcomed the new delegation from Paradise.  They all wore pale blue and green and might as well have been cloned.  He would never be able to tell them apart and hoped that Fabroni came up with an answer so he could tag each one.  Sometimes he thought the people from Paradise did this sort of thing on purpose.

The report went well.  Pellin answered a few questions afterward.  The Ambassador from Astrakhan was hostile, but he didn't get as rude as he had been in their private meeting.

The usual crowd tried to talk to him between the Great Hall and his office.  Pellin stayed polite despite a growing headache.  A pod of teens from Terra Nova waited in the office; Pellin spent an hour with them, listening to the award-winning report that had brought them here -- actually quite good -- and talking with them afterward.  There were a few who would become politicians, without a doubt.

Then they were gone, and he could sit down at the desk, glance over a few more reports --

The door opened.  Fabroni looked in, worry on his face.  "Epona is on her way to see you.  I'll keep the office cleared."

He left without saying more -- so either he didn't know, or this was so bad he didn't want to be the one who to tell him.  Considering the problem with the Alrand Institute, their prototype weapon, and the mercenaries who took over their supposedly hidden labs -- yeah, this could be all kinds of trouble.

It wasn't what he had expected.

Epona, the head of Inner Worlds Council Security, came in and stopped a few steps from the desk.  "We lost Devlin."

His heart pounded.  "Oh dear God --"

"Oh -- oh, no.  Not dead.  I don't think so.  Lost.  We can't find her."

Pellin took a couple deep breaths and leaned back in his chair.  "Damn.  You know, I'm not certain that's any better."

Epona nodded and finally threw herself into one of the chairs by the desk.  Fabroni came in with tea and closed the door behind him.  He heard the news and frowned as he sat down, but said nothing.

"I was going to put her and her team on the Alrand problem," Epona admitted.  "Aldebaran could wait.  That's when I found out that she hadn't sent a message of any sort in months.  Granted, Devlin isn't always good at reporting in, but someone should have mentioned how long it had been.  I'm trying to figure out if it was intentional or just a case where one handler didn't think to mention the time span to the next one who took over."

Pellin nodded.  "It could be that she's just working.  And her team?"

"Dancer and Cha," Epona said.  "No word from either of them.  I made discreet contact with the Science Board.  They haven't heard from Cha, either though he'd been filing interesting reports on the local drug that's such a problem on Astrakhan."

"Both of them dropping out of sight does seem like a problem.  And what will we do about Alrand?"

"I'm going to send Kim's Team in," she said.  "They're a good Gold Card team that's been together for a while.  I'd already been looking at them.  And I'm sending Delphian with them."

"Have you decided that he's not actually crazy, or is that just no longer relevant?" Fabroni dared to ask.

"No longer relevant," she admitted and then shrugged.  "But I'm not so sure Delphian is crazy anyway.  Too many accidents aimed at him.  I'm going to get him introduced to Kim -- and probably Allie since she'll be the problem.  If the woman could just control that attitude of hers, she'd probably have a gold card of her own by now."

"And what are you going to do about Devlin?"

"I'm looking at who is available, but I'm leaning toward Mossi.  He's close, he's good, and he's worked with Devlin.  No matter who I decide on, I want a military craft to transport them within a world of Astrakhan -- the fastest trip we can get."

Pellin nodded, and Fabroni was already checking his pocketcomp.  "Where is Mossi now?" he asked.

"Terra Nova, so close to us, but far from where I want him to be.  I keep hoping for another agent closer, but there's no one so far that I'd put on a case that maybe Devlin couldn't handle."

"Alrand," Pellin said with a shake of his head.  "Devlin missing is bad enough -- but Alrand in the hands of people who could use that weapon anywhere.  I understand that a cannon version could destroy an entire ship?"

"That's what I heard.  One shot.  And it could do massive damage to landmasses, too," Epona added.  Of all the people at the Mars HQ, she was the only one who knew the depth of most of the problems.  "I'll go see who I can round up for the Devlin problem.  I'm probably going with Mossi, though.  And I'll get Kim and his people moving.  Damn mess."

She stood and walked out again, clearly too much on her mind.  Fabroni followed her.

Pellin placed a call to earth and tried to contact Keri Ibn Karim -- a psi and a friend to Devlin and her companions.   He was not around, and Pellin hoped he was already working on the Devlin problem.

And Pellin?  He went back to reading reports...

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Flash Fiction # 376: Sunrise on a New World (Drable)



The ship landed without incident, the only time the ponderous craft had touched a world, having been built in orbit of the moon.  It would never lift again.

Computers ran tests while robos disassembled the ship.  Every piece would be used to build the first settlement.

Humans lined up at the bay doors, a line stretching back far into the ship.  Captain Tanton keyed the door open to Terra Nova and the sunrise.

Pink sky and a landscape of shadowed plants that would not be like those from Earth.  The air tasted sweeter. 

Tanton smiled. "Welcome to humanity's new home."

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Flash Fiction #375 -- Terson's Choice






(A side story related to Vita's Vengeance)

First, Terson had never meant to be part of Jarak's High Command.  The turnover rate at that exalted position was rather high, and the Verdi Elite who made it that far rarely retired.  Jarak's temper had grown short the last few years as people who dared to stand up to his decision to take over all the worlds in the Aquila Fringe.

Second, there was Idela, of course.  Jarak's homicidal daughter had too much freedom to pursue her own interests, and those were often bloody and dangerous for any Elite who served anywhere near her.  Jarak kept her somewhat close and a bit in hand, but Terson had seen the look of despair in her guard's face, and he didn't envy Avrial that place beside Idela and Jarak.

Third, Terson did not like Jade.  The world was nothing but dust and heat, and even a nice collection of Jadian jewels did little to improve the long days here.

The sullen locals were starting to work themselves into riots -- and that helped no one.  If they'd just calm, Jarak would move off to some other trouble spot.  He always had to be in charge of anywhere that glory might be won. In fact, the rest of his Generals, including Terson, had to work hard not to do too well.

Stupid way to fight a war.

Stupid war.

Terson swallowed back that thought and all the others before it, forcing his face to calm again.  Jarak would expect a report about how the King and Crown Prince had managed to kill themselves.  He had to put the best face on it that he could -- and with that in mind, he straightened his shoulders and went to another High Command Meeting from hell.

And left the room not too much later with the feeling that he -- and probably the rest of the High Command -- would not survive their stint on Jade.  Commern had bought them a little more time, but that meant they now owed Jarak's favorite for keeping them alive a bit longer.  Terson didn't trust Commern, of course.  Even Jarak wasn't fool enough to trust him -- but if anyone could come up with an answer to their current problems, it would be Commern.

Not an answer Terson would like, except that it would save his life.

Did they have a chance to get Jade in order in the next few days?  Terson stopped at the end of the hall and stared out where he could see the low lying city stretched out below.  He could see just the hint of a sandstorm in the distance and hoped it did not head into this area again.

"You don't seem happy, Terson," Idela said from behind him.

Damn.  Terson had to keep from frowning or glaring at her.  He did not want to be on her list of enemies, though probably anything he did wouldn't help. 

"Idela," he said as he turned and gave a little bow of his head to the princess.  People were starting to say Emperor when they spoke of Jarak, too.  How could they have come to this?  They were Verdi Elite!

"You don't look happy," she accused.

And what in this mess could possibly instill happiness -- but no, he kept that thought to himself as well.

"I fear we are in for another damn sandstorm," he said with a wave at the window.  Avrial shifted slightly at that movement, always ready for trouble -- though Terson couldn't guess what kept him loyal.  "This is a miserable excuse for a world.  I don't know why those fools are fighting so hard out there.  Why are we wasting good Verdi blood --"

But he stopped there.  Letting his emotions run wild now would not help him.

"Ah, but there are the jewels," Idela said with a lift of her hand.  A fortune in Jadian jewels sparkled as she moved her fingers.

Oh yes, of course, the jewels were essential to Idela.  Human lives were not.  Power and prestige -- that was all that mattered to Idela.  Pretty things on her fingers.

Terson worried that she could read too much in his face.  Damn this woman who was more of an enemy to the Verdi than the Jadians down on the streets.  And damn him for bowing to her and playing this game.  He thought he could beat Avrial to the draw and kill them both.  He still wouldn't survive, of course, but --

No.

"Don't you like the jewels, Terson?" she said with a little tilt of her head and the touch of a smile that hinted at nothing good for him.

"I am a soldier, Idela.  I am a Verdi Elite," he said and stood straighter for those words.  They still meant something, at least to him.  "The jewels are fine, but I have other interests."

She stared a moment longer as though trying to find some hook she could use against him.  She no doubt knew he had some jewels -- they all did in the High Command.  Many were gifts from Jarak himself.  Some of the others had rings made.  He did not.

"Well," she said and finding nothing more to say, turned and headed away.

In that half moment, when Adela looked elsewhere, Avrial bowed his head and dared a salute, which Terson had noted he did not give to anyone else but Jarak.

Then he spun and went after his ward.

Leaving Terson standing there, confused now rather than angry.  He felt as though he had just been given a gift with that salute.

What would he do with the touch of dignity that settled in his heart?  Nurture it.  Wait it out.  The IWC was sending people to look over the situation.  Terson could wait to see what came of that visit.

He might find a way to redeem his soul, along with his dignity.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Flash Fiction #374 The Last Chance





They were starting to pull out, the fae and all their allies.

Arturin had watched the long line of fae passing through the veil, two or three at a time, each taking a whisper of magic away from the world.  Most were more than happy to go, but a few ...  a few of his friends lingered at the bottom of the hill.  Like Arturin, they had all been born to this world, and they would be the last to leave it behind.

"Nothing more we can do," Talitian said with a shake of his head.  Arturin had never seen such a look in his uncle's face as the elder fae lifted a hand to touch the world one last time.  Magic played at his fingers.  "So much potential wasted."

Arturin kept silent.  His views were too well known and had never been popular.  However, he was now vindicated in those views -- too late to help the fae or the humans.  The magic would be gone soon, and there would be no hope to help the humans find a better way -- to find salvation and even survival.

Talitian looked at him with one eyebrow raised but said nothing at all.

"It seems a bit rude to say 'I told you so' at this point," Arturin finally admitted when his uncle didn't turn away.  "I'm sure we all have regrets at this point."

"You've ever right to be rude," Talitian said and turned to watch the fae heading through the veil and back to the lands that many had not seen in centuries.  Most appeared happy enough to go home, as though all the time they'd spent here meant nothing, and the humans were already ghosts in their eyes -- left behind and forgotten.  "I always thought the humans were wiser, Arturin.  I honestly did."

"So did I," he admitted.  He knelt and picked a flower -- a dandelion, a simple memory to take with him.  Arturin could not imagine why Talitian wanted this discussion now.

He stood again, cupping the flower in his hand.  He brushed a touch of magic over the petals, and now the flower would be yellow forever.  Almost all the fae were through the veil, just a few of the younger ones lingering.  Those were mostly friends of Corden's who had taken up the battle with him when they still thought there would be a chance to bring magic to the humans and help them past their own destructive tendencies.

Too late now.  Too late as fae after fae passed back into their own world --

"Arturin," Talitian said, a hand suddenly on his shoulder.  "What would you do if the veil closed right now?"

"Do?  I'd go home to my house and join my human friends --"

He stopped.  The look on Talitian's face told him that this was not a 'what if' question at all.  He felt a shiver pass through him and didn't know if he came from fear or hope.

"Uncle?" he whispered.

"You were right.  A little magic spread to the others, and not hoarded for ourselves, would have changed everything here.  Do you think it is too late?"

A serious question and not much time to contemplate.  Arturin's friends still lingered at the edge of the veil, looking back at the two where they stood on the hill.  They knew the question he'd been asked.

"Arturin?"

"I don't know," Arturin replied.  It was the only real answer he could give.  "Could a handful of us make a difference when the humans are already so firmly on this path?  There will be war -- we know it.  And more wars after that, ever more destructive.  That path is set.  Can we still nudge them another way?  Maybe a few.  Maybe enough --"

"Your choice, Arturin," Talitian said.  "I can't say how long it will be before another veil might come this way.  I can't say you'll survive -- the humans are volatile.  Even your friends might turn on you if you start to show them what you can do."

He nodded, but his heart had settled suddenly.  "It's a chance I'll take."

Talitian smiled.  Honestly smiled for the first time in years.  "Then I'd say we have some work to do, don't we?"

"You will stay?" Arturin asked, surprised again.

"If you will have me," he said.  "This is your work, Arturin.  I'm not going to step in now and pretend that I hadn't opposed even the best ideas that you've had down through the years."

"I would be honored to have your help."

Arturin turned toward his friends -- about twenty of them, he thought, we acted as though they only waited for him to join them.  The last of the line of fae started through the veil, including Scoland, the eldest.  He had also been the one most opposed to any link with the humans, despite living in the same world with them.

Scoland stopped and looked back, a frown on his face and his shoulder's straightening.  Oh, he'd picked up the plan without a doubt, and he'd never agree.  Arturin's friends were starting to back away from the elder fae, a whisper of worry coming from that area.  Scoland lifted a hand --

But it was no attack that came.  Instead, he took a chain from around his neck and sent it flying through the air -- and not to Talitian.  Arturin caught the chain -- and the key that it held.  The way to open a gateway back to home.

Scoland stepped through.  The veil shimmered and disappeared, leaving the last of the fae standing in the light of a summer sun.  Birds began to sing in the tree nearby, and a rabbit's head appeared in the grass.

He saw hope in those animals.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Flash Fiction # 373 -- Lost People






The sun had almost set on another day, the landscape the same -- dead brown and broken only by occasional spots of green weeds.  Taller plants clustered around rare waterholes.  Corden scanned the scenery for another such place, hoping to find one still within walking distance tonight.  He only saw desert and ruins, old and some far more ancient.

His canteen was already dry, and he didn't like to think about another night without water, waking miserable and weaker in the morning.  The hydronet might get him enough liquid from condensation to go through tomorrow, too, but it would be a dry and miserable day. 

Then something odd caught his attention.  Something glittered in the distance, somewhat north of the way he walked. Flashed again, red and orange -- he realized it was something catching the last light of day.

Windows?

His map had shown no city in this area, new or ancient.  He pulled out his pocketcomp, just to be sure. Nothing in the files, not even a lost listing for this area.  He had already turned that way and started walking a little faster despite being worried about what exactly he might have spotted.  It had been more than a century since anyone had found a true unknown settlement and all of those in ruins.

When Corden's aircar had dived toward the ground in a sudden catastrophic failure, he'd thought he would just die in the crash.  Thanks to the long side across the sand, he'd come out of it with hardly more than a few bruises.  He'd thought someone would come out to find him.  Three days later, and with water and food nearly gone, Corden decided it was time to help himself instead.  He was a government surveyor by trade, specializing in finding old supply caches in the Wildlands of the American Southwest.  He'd always liked flying over the barren land, marking out old towns, finding the occasional working well.

Walking through it was not nearly as much fun.

The longer he walked into the dark, the more he doubted his sanity when it came to that glittering jewel in the distance.  It could not be a town -- not of that size and clearly out in the open rather than buried beneath the sand.  Such a place would have been seen in a flyover.  Hadn't there been a report of things that looked like tilled land in this area?  The directors had waved it off pointing out that there were no settlements large enough to support those kinds of fields -- it was just chance the plants seemed to grow in ordered plots of land.

Corden hadn't questioned it.  But now -- now he could see lights glittering in buildings, and he walked down a path between tall rows of maize.  He drank a little water from an artesian well and thought he'd never had better.  And kept walking all the way to a brick wall and gate where a guard stood.

"Stranger!" the man said startled.  Not much of a guard, but he guessed maybe a single person wasn't why he'd been watching.

"Crashed -- days ago," Corden said with a wave back at the dark desert behind him.  "Saw -- lights?"

Corden stared past the gate made of tree limbs tied together into a crisscrossed box.  The lights were still there, but shadows as well ... a settlement built under a substantial cavernous overhang.

"Come on in," the man said, pushing the gate open.  "Welcome to Shangri-la."  Then he laughed at Corden's sudden glance.  "Yeah, local joke.  Not much of a paradise -- but we do have water."

It took Corden two days to figure out that he'd wandered into something ... unusual.  It wasn't just the hidden buildings, but all the rather modern equipment they used -- and the fact they spoke perfect Basic rather than any local Earther dialect.  At the morning meal of the third day, he finally asked the questions that had kept him awake for most of the last two nights.

"Where are you from?" he said, looking straight at Sani.

Sani put his cup aside and offered a bit of a worried smile.  "Mostly from Terra Nova.  Some from other colonies.  We petitioned to make a small settlement in some backwater location to test out theories.  The Earth Gov said no.  We had expected it."

"And you came anyway," Corden said with a nod.  "I wonder how they expected to stop you."

"Nothing personal, but too many Earthers have delusions of godhood," Sani replied.  "If they say it, it is so."

"I won't argue," Corden said with a grin.  "And I've spent a lot of years off-world."

"Obviously.  Earthers don't learn Basic.  Why did you come back?"

"Family, mostly.  But my parents died, and I just took another job and another -- I liked the surveying at first, but I've come to realize that it's just work for no good reason.  Pays well enough, I suppose."

Sani nodded.  "You can go back.  We won't stop you.  You can let the Earthers know we're here --"

"I won't," he said.  He looked at the gate and the crops beyond.  "What are you trying to do here?"

"Survive," one of the others said.  "Re adapt to Earth after several generations elsewhere.  Earthers claim that we're not the same anymore.  This is our proof -- for them and for colonists who tend to think the same way."

"You know the tale of Shangri-la?" Corden asked.  "If you leave, you can't find your way back, can you?"

"Somehow I don't think that would be a problem for you," Sina said with a laugh.  "You have the coordinates, don't you?"

"Yes."

"We're not magic, you know."

"I don't think I want to take the chance just yet."

Corden stayed a long time, one generation passing into another -- and if some nights he and others looked at the stars and counted the places where they'd been ... well, they were just old tales, and there were wonders enough at their feet.