Thursday, October 31, 2019

Flash Fiction #379 -- Pretend

When Clara was seven, her parents moved her to the family castle far from the city. Alone and afraid, she sometimes pretended to be one of the maids.  Surely that was the best of all lives!  Esquia dusted her rooms and then moved on to dust somewhere else, free to move through the building.  Clara remained in her suite and sat with her tutor or learned to embroider from her elder great-aunt Maylyn who was mostly deaf and maybe a bit blind.

On rare occasions, servants and guards would take Clara out to the grounds, sometimes just to walk the gardens, which was nice enough.  They never went to the village, for which she was grateful. There had been large groups of people in the city, yelling and throwing things.  She had a small scar on her cheek and still remembered the pain and blood.

That was when she got sent to Dunmoreland.  Cut off from her parents, who had only visited once in the last few years, Princess Clara had long suspected that she must have done something terribly wrong.

Being a maid would be better.

By thirteen, though, Clara had given up pretending.  She became so studious that her tutor even gave her a key to the archives after a solemn oath not to damage any of the books.  Letters sometimes came from her mother, but they were rare and before long felt like notes from someplace -- and someone -- she did not remember well.

Then matters changed again.  Clara had heard the news that there was unrest in the country, but it didn't touch her until late in the autumn when soldiers marched into the keep and took over the castle.  She'd been at her desk, about to ring for the maid set the fire for the night.  The evening felt chill -- but then Clara heard the sound from the grounds below.  Shouting.  Anger.  She had not heard those sorts of sounds since she left the city.

Esquia rushed into the room without even a knock.  A few others followed, all of them frantic.

"Come with me, Clara.  Come quickly.  You," she pointed to a maid.  "Strip the bed.  Take all her papers and burn them in the downstairs oven.  Get the books out of here.  Quickly!  Clara, come with me!"

Clara rushed toward the woman whom she trusted.  "What?" she dared ask as they hurried out into the hall.

"There are people who have come to take the castle from your parents.  Not good people. They don't know that you're here.  We've all done our best -- here and in the city -- to make people believe you died in the riots.  We had to so you would stay safe, my sweet.  Do you remember how you used to follow me and pretend to dust?  I want you to pretend again.  You will be my daughter.  Can you do that?"
Esquia sounded frantic.  They were taking the servant's stairs.  She'd never gone this way before, down and down the narrow stone-lined stairs.


"Yes.  I can pretend," Clara said.

So she became someone else.  Elsie, a young girl learning her mother's trade.  Lord Tornwood was an old man with squinting eyes and a loud voice, and he hardly noticed the servants except to yell at them.  His soldiers stayed in tents outside the building, at least after their original search of the building. Only a handful of guards kept with him, all of them bad-mannered. Tornwood was almost always angry, and he yelled at Great Aunt Maylyn, who ignored him, and sent the archivist -- her tutor -- out of the castle.  That was, she admitted, better than killing him.  He never visited the archives after the first day, and since she had a key, that was where Esquia told her to go and stay when she could not be with one of the others.

Autumn turned fast into winter.  The shock of the invasion of her home had worn off after the first few days.  The work of a maid was also not as much fun as she had hoped, either.

Tornwood's guards were apt to turn up at any time.  She dared not ever be out of character as the maid's daughter, and that meant she rarely talked at all.  She did not dare ask about what would happen, either.

The first snow fell.  There was no sign that Lord Tornwood would leave.

And then her father arrived.  He came with hundreds of soldiers -- so many riding in from the snow that Tornwood's soldiers threw down their swords.  Tornwood was at dinner, and Clara's father raced into the room and grabbed the man by his collar, dragging him from the chair and throwing him to the floor.  She had never seen her father angry.

"What have you done with my daughter!" he demanded.  He pulled his sword and put it to the man's neck.  "If you've killed her or harmed her --"

"But -- but --" Tornwood was wide-eyed and pale.  "But everyone said she was dead!  Before -- long before I came here.  In the city!  I never saw her!"

"But you did," Clara said and dared to step forward.

Her father turned her way, shocked for a moment, and then smiling -- yes, smiling the way she remembered from before she'd been sent away.  He sheathed his sword and rushed to gather her up in his arms.

They celebrated that night, a grand dinner while Tornwood went in chains to the city, despite the weather.  Clara realized she had never been exiled, only sent away to be kept safe.  Now, though, she had her choice.  She could go back to the city --

"Maybe in the spring," she said with a bright smile.  "I do like winter here.  The quiet. I think maybe you should stay here, too."

He did stay for a while.  Clara's mother came to stay in the spring.  She became Princess Clara again ... but sometimes she still helped Esquia dust.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Flash Fiction #378 -- Tom Cat

Tom had never seen a reason to be polite.  People said he was lazy and useless, just because he lived with his old aunt and let her cook and clean.  She had money to support them.  Why should he work?  He'd grown up on a farm before he came to live with Aunt Sally.  He'd worked enough.

He snarled at all of them, including the old witch who lived next door.

He didn't know she was a real witch.  Then one day, he purposely knocked into her as she was carrying bags to her house.  Just for fun.

"Enough of that," she said, lifted her hand and pointed at him.  "Cats have better manners."

He started to laugh.

A huge gray cat appeared at his feet, and then something odd happened: the world grew suddenly very, very big.

He meowed.  Then howled and leapt at Agnes, but she waved her hand, and he froze in mid-air, flailing.  Gasping, too, until he hadn't the energy to do either.

"That's better.  I think you need to learn a lesson or two in life.  Good luck."

She waved her hand: Tom lifted high over the town and flew -- flew a long, long way.  He landed, rather abruptly, in a field of grain several miles away. 

The mice were as startled as he was.

"Fucking hell!  Myrtle!  A huge cat just fell from the sky!" one squealed and ducked behind a tall stalk.

"Watch your language, Frank.  You know it's just someone Agnes sent out from the city --"

"What has she got against us?  I've never seen such a big damn cat --"

"Frank, watch your language --"

"Turn around and look!"

Tom watched as the second mouse turned, froze, and began to back away.  "Holy shit!"

Tom let them go.  He was barely able to stand on four legs and tripped over three of them when he took his first step.  The cat inside the same body held back and chortled in a cat fashion.  Tom tried to take a step and landed on his chin and whimpered, glad the mice were not around.

It took him all night to figure out his legs.  By then, he was starved.  He'd never gone so long without food.  At home, he would have told Aunt Sally to make him something.  Now, even if he was back at the house, he couldn't order anything.

He was going to die.  Maybe he could get back to town and somehow force that old woman -- but how?  He could do nothing.  So he just walked and didn't even care what direction.

The little cottage took him by surprise, especially when the young woman stepped out, followed by a sleepy little girl. 

He walked up to them.  "I want --"  But it was only a meow.  He couldn't demand anything.  He let out a wail of real despair --

"Poor kitty.  Are you hungry, friend?  I think I might have something for you," the woman said.

And that was how he became Friend.  He had food every day, and he sometimes helped, like chasing off the fox from the five startled chickens.  He played with Crystal when she came home from school and guarded the house while Mom was out in the fields with the cranky old tractor.

One stormy night, Mom called him in and let him sleep by the fireplace while she sat at a table and sorted through all kinds of papers.  When she gave a sudden, unexpected sob, both he and the cat he had almost forgotten in the same body, leapt up and rushed to her.

"I'm sorry, Friend.  I just -- I can't make it work.  Uncle Ethan told me to sell the place when he died.  He said it would break my heart to try to keep it going.  He's right.  I can't afford the help I need.  I have to sell."

No!  She belonged here, and so did Crystal!  No!  He had to do something to help, but there was nothing he could do as a cat.  He needed to be human again.

The next day when he went out to look over the hens, he found Agnes the Witch waiting.  He started to back away, but no -- she was just whom he needed.


"Yes, you have more than learned your lesson.  I am surprised, in fact, that there is so much goodness in you.  Maybe if the rest of us had been kinder..."  She stopped and shook her head.  "Come out."

He stood up.  Unsteady for a moment, but he smiled at Agnes.  "Thank you.  I can help Mom now -- what is her name?  Do you know?"

"Cathy Hyde.  She's not going to trust you, a stranger showing up."  Agnes paused and nodded.  "Say you worked for her uncle sometimes.  You know the place well enough to make her believe it.  Good luck, Tom.  Oh, and write to your aunt.  She's worried."

And with a snap of her fingers, she disappeared.

Cathy did mistrust him, but he only asked to stay a couple days in the barn, and he'd work for it. First, he got the tractor working and then took it out for a rest -- managing to bring in a quarter of the grain.  He fixed part of the roof and then helped with the garden vegetables.  The days passed quickly.

"You can't keep working for nothing, Tom.  I'm sorry --"

"I have good food and a place to stay.  We can keep it at that for now, right?"

Tom turned out to be good at farming now that he wasn't being ordered to do things.  Crystal adored him, and Friend the Cat seemed to like him, as well.  They spent the rest of the late summer and early autumn fixing up everything and preparing for the next growing season.

Before the winter set in, they went to town and had the judge marry them with his stunned Aunt Sally and an amused Agnes as witnesses.

And yes, they lived happily ever after.

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 --


"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.