Thursday, September 17, 2020

Flash Fiction # 425 -- The Fae Underground/1

 

Once upon a time, I was a fae lord's son -- but I did something stupid, so they exiled me into the human lands. That's the official story, anyway.

Nothing in the faelands is ever that simple.  The few fae I've encountered on this side the veil look curiously at me when they hear the story, but I've kept to it.

The truth is that I did do something stupid -- but I did it on purpose so that the officials would have a reason to send me here with the notice that I'd been stripped of my magical powers and would spend the rest of my life with the humans.

That was four years ago.  It's been hell.  But I'm holding on ... and I am still doing my job.  Oddly, magical things have been happening in the human world, but I can't find the prime cause. I was ready to give up and head for the nearest veil (a place between the two worlds) and head for home.  I wanted my old life back.

Just the day before I took that step, things started to go stranger than usual.  I sensed a magical trail to the east coast and in strange places -- a tourist town in the north, a quiet backwater village farther south, and a hive of activity near Boston.

Or actually, under Boston.

It's well known that there are magical colonies living in off-shoots of the Chicago subway as well as New York's maze of underground tunnels.  People don't say much about the Boston area, but from Alewife to Braintree, there are scattered small enclaves of exiles and self-exiled creatures from the faelands, especially those that would be noticeable out on the streets.  If you find your way into the area, you'll see hidden gems and horrible landscapes.  The MBTA does its best to ignore them -- like all the other subways around the world -- but sometimes even a human can stumble into such a place.

The feel of magic from such a location isn't usually unnatural -- but what I felt made my feet tingle as I crossed the upper world.  I probably looked like a drunk from the way I danced around and nearly fell, my feet going all but numb.

The nearest subway entrance was only a few yards farther on.  I rushed that way and bought my way in -- and then disappeared at the first real opportunity.  Really, disappeared.  That was the one spell I'd used most often during my exile.  It allowed me to watch places where there was already enough magic in place to hide the little bit that I used.
I had to wait, but somewhere in the night's dark hours, I felt a swarm of magic nearby.  It didn't take long to find the flock of pixies racing along in the dark, looking like random sparks.  Heading northward toward Alewife.
I followed on foot.  There was no telling where they might find an exit and disappear.  I was right, too.  After no more than a mile from where I had started, I felt both a welling of more magic and saw the flock take a sudden swerve to the right where there was no subway tunnel.
Cautious of the trouble I faced, I inched forward to a crevice where I could feel a surge of magic drifting out.  I could even see the flickering of light, which might have been the pixie wings, or maybe some candles or even torches.  Some of the beings from the Faelands preferred that sort of illumination to anything unnatural -- which meant anything technical.  Light bulbs were apt to blow out.

Pixies let out high-pitched squeals, but something else answered in a much lower pitch.  The pixies were not alone.  Other, low voices joined in.  I thought I heard consternation on both sides, but nothing out of the ordinary.

"You know, it's really not nice to eavesdrop," a voice said right at my ear.

I squealed and leapt aside.  I was still invisible.  No one should have seen me -- and it didn't help that I couldn't see whoever had spoken.  My hand went to my belt knife, but a hand caught hold of it.

I didn't panic.

The pixies and their companions had heard us, though, and I could tell they were even more upset now.  I just stood still because while I'd been startled, I was more curious now.

"How did you find me?" I asked at last.

The other laughed.  Female.  I was sure of it now, and either fae or something very close to it.  I let my magical veil drop, and a moment later, she dropped her as well.

Not fae.  Wood Sylph, with dark brown skin, flowing green and brown hair.  I had never spent much time with them, even as my father's son.  They're Wild Things -- and to find one in the tunnels below Boston sent a chill through me that had nothing to do with the cold winter weather above ground.

"Lady," I said with a very proper bow.

"Oh, you didn't learn those manners in this world," she replied, a laugh in her voice -- but it was said a Slyph might have an odd sense of humor and laugh while she killed you.

Her long-fingered hand reached out and lifted my chin, even though I tried to pull away.

"Lordling," she said, surprised.

"Exiled."

"So it would seem -- and yet you still have your powers, no matter what the proclamation read.  And spying on others, are you?"

Her voice had taken on a different quality that I didn't much like, but I still knew better than to try to escape her notice.

"Something is happening here in the human world, Lady.  My father -- and others -- fear it is something dangerous."  I paused and then forged ahead, hoping not to get killed by asking a stupid question.  "Do you know anything about it?"

Friday, September 11, 2020

Flash Fiction # 424 -- Anything but Ordinary


 My granddad was the one who made the arrangements through some site on the Internet.  He'd been known to make odd deals all his life.  I liked the jovial old man, even if the rest of the family tried to keep their distance.

I am a cross country truck driver, though, and I stop if I am within 100 miles of the old homestead just over the Texas border from Oklahoma.  Most people driving within a half-mile of the place would miss it, or if they saw anything, they'd think it was an old shed ready to fall down in the next big wind.

Granddad had been born in that shed -- or at least in the place below it. The shed had little more than a set of stairs that led into a lovely cedar-lined entry.  The rest of the residence stretched out on both sides, and the windows were set in stone outcroppings.

Usually, you just didn't see the place, but today I had trouble getting up the drive because of the crates piled up along the way.  It worried me more that they were all being kept wet by an elaborate set of hoses and sprinklers.

Granddad came out of nowhere, waving his hat to me as though I would just drive on by, despite that the driveway ended in a few more yards.  I braked to a stop, and dust rose all around us.

I should have stayed in the truck and backed out.  Instead, I climbed down into the heat and dust.

"Hey, boy! Thought you'd be along soon.  Good thing.  Got some shipments for you.  Make us a fortune, they will!"

The dust had begun to settle, mostly on granddad and me.  I didn't notice that so much, to be honest.  The crates had started to draw my attention.  They moved.  They hissed.

"What in the name of God --" I said, my voice a bit higher than usual.

"Gators!"  He all but shouted.  I was sure I misunderstood.  Made me a deal, boy."  He laughed and slapped me on the shoulder.  I had been convinced for a couple decades that he didn't actually know my name.  "Met this guy on a swap page.  Sad business, his ma taking sick suddenly, and he couldn't transport the gators like he'd contracted."

"A ... yeah," I said and moved away from a particularly active crate.  "Granddad, there are laws --"

"I got me them papers," he said.  "Come on in."

I followed him down into the lair.  He'd gotten a new computer and a larger screen.  So while I went looking for information on transporting gators, granddad went and cooked us a couple steaks and taters.  He also got out his homebrew, which probably explains why we got the trailer rearranged and loaded with crates before first light.

I had a shipment of pillows for Barstow, California.  They were easy enough to move and shove back into the first third of the trailer.  We stacked gators.

And then we headed for Ordinary, North Dakota.

No, I hadn't heard of it, either.

Granddad insisted on going with me.  "You'll need help off-loading them, and if we get stuck somewhere, we might need to feed them."

Hell, it was October.  We didn't have to worry about the weather in North Dakota this early in the year, right?

Actually, it was the ice storm in Kansas that nearly did us in -- well the first time.  We had to get pulled out of the ditch, and the gators were a bit loud about being tossed around a bit.  We got bags of cheeseburgers as we passed through Kansas City, and that quieted them down.

But the farther north we went, the worse the weather got.  Even Granddad began to fidget by the time we reached the South Dakota Border.  The snow fell in a light haze across the sky, but there were reports of worse heading northward.  I also noted that far less traffic had started to come from that direction, and some of the vehicles were encased in snow and ice.

Granddad fell asleep.

I've been told that I remind people of granddad.  I'm just as stubborn.  I kept going.

It was luck alone that they hadn't closed down the Interstate somewhere along the way and trapped us, maybe somewhere without enough cheeseburgers.  I only stopped once for the restrooms and checked on the gators.  They were quiet.  Too cold for them, probably, but not much I could do about that.  I just tried to drive faster -- not too fast, but we didn't crawl along the road either.

I didn't count the cars and trucks in the ditches, either.  I just kept my eyes on the road.

With Canada less than fifty miles away, I found the turnoff.  Someone had scooped the road clear -- must have in the last few minutes -- and I had no trouble driving straight to Ordinary.  On the edge of town, there was a vast square building with a flashing sign -- Extra-Ordinary.  The plowed snow ended there, and a man came out of the door and waved us to a loading dock.

I backed in.  Granddad and I climbed out and hurried into the building -- and into a jungle.

"Well damn," Granddad said as he looked around.  "Reminds me of home."

"Going to draw a lot of tourists come spring," the man said.  "Got the monkey's coming in a couple months.  Want the gators settled first!"

So we unloaded the thirty crates.  The man knew what he was doing.  He used a pulley to cart each one up to a high slide and then opened one end and sent the stunned creatures down into the water.  The slide stopped ten feet off the water, and even if they wanted to climb back and have words with us, they couldn't.

The man paid us $20,000 -- not really bad at all.  I might look into the monkey shipment.

What could go wrong?

Friday, September 04, 2020

Flash Fiction # 423 -- Keri and the Military


 The Captain of the Chicago shouldn't have gone out of his way to annoy Keri.  Casis knew Keri was a psi heading to Terra Nova to help settle some trouble. Apparently, it never occurred to him that his ship might be the problem.  Over the next three days, Keri had to decide what was going on aboard the ship.

Kessie, second in command, escorted him to a room and sealed the door without a word.  He sat on the rather hard cot and barely noticed the door close.

Then he began sorting through the few facts he'd already picked up.  If they'd been wise, they'd have had a party rather than sequester him away from everyone.  An overload of psi impressions might have buried other things.

He already knew Calis and Kessie were ass deep in smuggling.  Some of the crew knew it, but surprisingly few deemed to be involved.  They'd drawn attention when they recently lost a bay master to an accident and hired someone to take the spot, which happened on even IWC ships out in the wilds where no military person might be available.

The hire might have gone under the radar, but the person they hired had Ross House ties and happened to pop up on a list that some dutiful clerk had actually checked.

By the time Chicago sailed blithely into port at Tempest, the military had placed Keri to go with them on to Terra Nova.  Calis didn't want him, but the IWC command gave him no choice.

Keri went aboard with now show.  The short walk had taken him through the bay and up to his quarters.  He had picked up enough just there to give the officials several charges to file, starting with the 'accident' that had killed Bay Master Whoder -- who had been part of the smuggling for years until Ross House said they wanted someone on the inside.

The problem now was to get off the Chicago alive.  Even the people who sent him to the craft -- at least the ones who had handled him -- had no idea this was more than a check on a few crew members.  Keri had felt the paranoia when he came aboard, and now, alone in this room, he began to pick up more.

He knew when Captain Calis -- and he had begun to consider what a psi might have picked up already.  Damn the IWC for listing him as a psi as though it would make no difference to someone guilty of a crime.  He'd almost wonder if someone hadn't purposely...

Now there was another touch of paranoia, but maybe a justified one.  What if someone let the people on the ship know he was coming?  Who else might be in this little smuggling game?

Keri had to pretend not to notice Calis outside the door and hide his ability, but the Captain's emotions came through the metal door like a cold wind.  Keri had dealt with the military before, including ones who didn't trust him just on principle, but this ... this felt dark and dangerous, and Keri had nowhere to run.

By the second day, Keri knew they meant to kill him.  He had picked that much up.  They also had him locked in the room with no food or water.  They'd get him weak first and easy to deal with when they took him.

He'd gone through deprivation before.  Besides, he had a few things in his pack, being the mistrusting person he'd learned to be in the last few years.  Keri knew they were watching him, but he could sneak sips of juice, at least.

And he knew when they were about to open the door and take him.  They watched the cam, and he stayed still on the cot.

"Time to take a long, last walk, boy," Calis said as someone else grabbed his arm.

It was easy.  Keri twisted to the right, grabbed a laser pistol, and kicked.  He slid out between the three people, heading straight down the hall, hitting the door lock to give him a little more time.  The Captain had cleared this area, and Keri shot vidcams and lights along the way.  He'd taken them by surprise -- and he had the advantage since he knew exactly where not to go.

Keri also knew they were only one day out from Terra Nova, and the ship wasn't likely to hold off since they had both buyers and IWC waiting.  He also had the advantage of knowing what rooms were empty -- and what codes could open the doors, though he almost couldn't focus to locate the pattern.

Keri hid in a storage room barely large enough to squeeze into -- but that helped as well.  He carefully pushed aside boxes, slid behind them, and slid them back into place.  They opened the door and closed it again.  Luckily, no one looked too carefully.

He found a box with cookies and probably gained five pounds before they reached Terra Nova.  They weren't even particularly good cookies.

Calis was panicked, and with reason. Kessie had walked off the ship just after landing and clearly intended to disappear.  Keri made it at least to the bay, and since they were in the process of off-loading, it proved easier to move along the edges of crates --

"He already left, sir," Calis said and even managed to sound sincere.  "We were barely down.  Flighty person.  Not exactly stable.  Hope he wasn't needed for anything important here."

"I've already done my job," Keri said.

Calis did what he expected -- drew his laser and fired.  Keri had already dropped to cover, and the IWC soldiers took care of the rest.

He went and gave his report, took a flight to Mars, and locked himself in his quarters.  There had to be a better way to make a living, but the military would not give him up easily, even when they didn't really trust him.

Keri knew it.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Flash Fiction # 422 -- Cha on Harron

 
Being the IWC's top eco scientist was not a glamorous job, but Cha did get to see many worlds -- just not at their best most times.

Half of the Harron fields had died before the locals asked for outside help.  Looking at the dead plants depressed Ecotech Cha Hao Chan as he knelt and pulled out his pocketcomp.  Iler, the local who had brought him out to the field, fell silent and looked both worried and distrustful.

The world had lived well enough to transport grain to other settlements for more than a century but now couldn't feed themselves. The colonists had been prosperous, happy, and even helpful to other worlds in trouble.  This blight would affect a half dozen worlds in this sector.

"We had other scientists check things," Iler suddenly said. His voice had softened. "We tried to fix it before we bothered the IWC.  We didn't want to worry other colonies who depend on us, but we're starting to miss shipments.  This will be out in the open soon anyway."

"Ah," Cha said and stood. They'd handled this well enough -- he'd seen the local reports.  "I hope I can find a way to help."

"You are from Earth, aren't you?" Iler asked.

"Yes, I was born and raised there."

"Most Earthers don't like the colonists, from what I've seen," Iler replied.  He looked out over the field with a mournful shake of his head.  "But you work for the Inner Worlds Council?"

"I do." Cha dared a hand on Iler's arm and looked into his face.  "I don't want to give you false hope, but I am the top eco scientist the Inner Worlds Council has on staff.  I can already see odd things, but I don't know how they add up.  I need to look at all the import invoices for the year before you saw this begin.  Also, any strange observations say within a few months of --"

"Meteor shower," Iler said suddenly.  "It was an odd one.  We saw it in the evening, and some pretty good-sized chunks came down -- but we had a storm that night, and by the next day, we didn't find more than a few hand-sized pieces.  We did tests, but nothing odd came up, though."

Cha nodded and frowned.  "Do you still have some of those pieces?"

"Yeah, I've got one at home."

"I wouldn't mind taking a look at it if you don't mind?"

"I'll pick it up on the way back when I drop you off at the hotel."

Cha nodded.  "I don't expect this to be the answer, but I have to start somewhere.  I'll still need all those invoices for materials brought to Harron."

"I can do that," Iler agreed.  He even sounded oddly hopeful now.

Maybe that came from Cha's position with the Inner Worlds Council, or perhaps because Cha already began looking at new avenues others hadn't suggested before now.

He gathered a few samples of wheat and soybean crops, the plants whithered for no reason.  They looked burnt, some with noticeable spots where something had seemed to eat through the leaves.  There were no signs of new pests, local adaptations, or something mutated from either native or imported insects. 

And it wasn't as easy as a meteorite shower, of course.  Cha spent days going over the early reports of crop failure, but it all kept coming back to that meteorite shower, though he could find nothing on the remaining debris --

The rains had come.

It couldn't be that easy.

He looked at the weather reports again.  The storm came up from the south --

Most storms came from the north.

What was to the south?

By the next morning, Cha -- who hadn't slept at all -- had a fair idea of what had happened.  The southern half of the continent with an alkaline desert -- uninhabitable and ignored.  Rain rarely came from that direction precisely because of the desert.

But on that night, meteorites had fallen.  He studied the maps and the weather reports.  A few more massive strikes had been in the south where plumes of dust had risen, swept over the mountains, helped to fuel the storm.  It wasn't much of one, but it brought dangers with it.

The rain drove much of the alkaline dust deep into the porous soil.  The testing had not noticed more than a trace amount in and around the fields.

"So, what can we do?" Iler asked the next day.  He looked as tired as Cha felt.  "We can't get it back out, can we?  The ground is ruined."

"There are ways to nullify the effects," Cha reassured him.  "It may be that it will disappear on its own, but I don't think we want to take that chance.  We need something -- elemental sulfur, aluminum sulfate, iron sulfate, or even acidifying nitrogen."

"Do we have such things?" he said, looking around as though he would spot it stacked up along the walls.

"I've already sent out notices that I want them shipped here as fast as they can be found or mined," Cha assured him.  "Along with food supplies to hold you over and grain to start again.  This may not be an easy fix, but I think we have a good step in the right direction."

In fact, it took him over another 300 days standard before Cha Hao Chan became convinced that the next crop would survive.  By then, he had also overhauled their irrigation system, set up a contingency plan for another such event. He also began a long-term project to rehabilitate the alkaline desert so that they would have even more farmland in a few generations.

By the end, they gave him a party.

"I wish you'd stay.  We'd pay whatever you want --" Iler said.

"Sorry, can't do it," he said between sips of excellent local wine.  "There are other places that need help.  But if you need me -- I'll be back."

 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Angst of Hero Naming


 (I haven't shared this for a long time.  I hope you enjoy it!)

The Angst of Hero Naming

The tale of a hero beyond compare,
With flashing eyes and perfect hair.
Flawless words flowed from my head --
Until I reached that first damned said.

Now the true strife begins at last
As floundering in a sea of names, I'm cast.
Rosebud and Cloud are far too cute,
And he's no Bob, beyond dispute
Corwin? Hilton? Lane or Bard?
Naming a kid couldn't be half this hard!
A couple dozen names go by,
(My hero gives me the evil eye)
I search the shelves for baby name books
(Kept hidden to avoid occasional odd looks)
With frantic haste I start paging through,
No, no --Androcles will never do!
No Mac or Mark or Michael here
Such names are too plain, I fear.
Nicholas has a nice sound it's true --
But I've used it in a book or two.
So to stranger, archaic lists I turn
No he's absolutely not a Vern!
Trying to keep plot lines in my head -
Would what's-her-name take a Loki to bed?

Hours of writing time frittered away
That can't be the dawn of a new day!
I sit and curse that first damned said --
Oh the hell with it! I'll call him Fred.