The Best Policy

 

“We… we need to talk, Kayla,” Vincent grunted. “There’s something I… it feels quite important that we’re honest with each other about some stuff.”

Kayla whipped her head backwards to glare at him, lips turning white where her finger pressed them. Vincent went silent, dropping his eyes to avoid her gaze; unfortunately, this left him staring right at it.

Footsteps approached, accompanied by the crackle of radio. Vincent had to concentrate so hard on not panting with the extertion of it, the bloody weight of the thing, that he missed the point at which they passed. It took Kayla’s elbow to bring him back to the moment.

“Move,” she told him sharply.

Vincent felt her depart, but he couldn’t quite tear his eyes away. He stood there, straining and sweating for a long moment, gaze fixed on it: the head of the fastest man alive, slumped forward onto the abdomen of the fastest man alive, which trailed the limbs of the fastest man alive, which were all being supported by the agonised muscle network of Vincent’s upper body.

“Vincent, are you with me? You need to fucking hustle!”

Bracing against the wall behind him, Vincent dragged and heaved and slid his way along to the point where the corridor crossed another. Then, adjusting his position, he attempted to haul the Olympian across the gap in a single burst. Halfway over, his right heel lost traction and he collapsed, emitting a ragged cry as they both fell.

Kayla’s face appeared instantly, upside-down, to block out the glaring lights mounted on the ceiling.

“Don’t just lie there, you idiot! They could be on their way right now! Do you have any idea how much noise you just made?”

Vincent tried desperately to draw in enough air to curse at her, but it was a hopeless task; instead he gasped like a near-drowned man breaking the surface, trying to beam his rage out through his eyeballs.

Kayla was unfazed. “20 meters, Vincent. We’re 20 fucking meters away from a revolution, and all you can do is piss sweat all over the floor. GET UP!”

Her toe sent bolts of lightning shooting from his shoulder to his fingertips. Stifling a roar, Vincent thrashed furiously to get out from under the athlete’s giant frame, scrambling up to confront her.

“Listen, you miserable b-” He stifled the word, but it was too late.

Kayla’s eyebrows shot up, and she planted her hands on her hips as if sinking the foundations of some vast edifice. “Bitch, Vincent? Was that a ‘bitch’ you were about to offer?”

He found himself raising his hands, waving them gently. “No, listen… it’s just an old habit, I didn’t… I don’t -”

“Why are you flapping your paws at me, Vincent? Do you want me to ‘calm down’? Do you think it’s female hysteria, the fact that I don’t want us to be caught abducting the most recognisable sports personality in the world?”

Vincent shook his head. “NO. No, I just… I’m doing the best I can, but he’s really heavy!”

“Suck it up, Vincent. Are you telling me you never had to move a body in the Secret Service?”

“That’s not what the Secret Service is about,” he hissed, hands clawing at the air in frustration, “but look, that’s what I was saying, we need to talk about…that.”

Kayla pushed past him and seized an arm. “Fine, He-Man. I’ll help you. Grab the other side. We don’t have all day.”

Remembering where they were, Vincent’s panic returned. He scrambled around to seize the opposite elbow and bicep; together they dragged him, trainers squealing against the polished floor, out of the main thoroughfare.

It was much easier with two of them. Vincent found himself wondering at how strong Kayla was for such a slight woman, until the voice of his emasculation demon piped up internally and reminded him that it was simply a reflection of his own weakness. He fought to blot it out, staring intently at the feathery pink tail of Kayla’s tranquiliser dart where it lay embedded in the sprinter’s thigh.

Kayla abruptly dropped the other arm, and Vincent realised they must have reached the cupboard. He followed suit, and began to babble urgently as she tinkered with the lock.

“Look, I haven’t been completely honest with you, and this whole thing has moved so fast. That night you met me… it was actually my first meeting. I’ve never been political before. And when you started talking to me… your passion, it was so impressive… I may have neglected to mention some -”

“Geh to the vukking poin, Vincen,” Kayla interrupted him, forcing the words out past the lockpick clasped in her teeth.

“I was never in the Secret Service,” he blurted.

The door clicked open. It swung inward as Kayla turned her head slowly toward him, her movement synchronising eerily with the squeal of the hinges.

“I… the way I phrased what I was saying, about the applications process, I realise I gave a certain impression. But I never made it, not even close. I’m sorry. I just wanted to impress you.”

Taking the pick from her teeth, slowly and deliberately, Kayla told him: “Get that big fucking idiot into the cupboard, Vincent.”

Flushing with shame, Vincent did as he was told. Trying to heft the man again after stopping was incredibly difficult; feeling Kayla’s scornful eyes on his back as he grunted and strained made the whole process unbearable.

With the last pull over the threshold, he felt a muscle pop in his back and howled in pain as they went down again. The athlete’s massive frame pinned him like some vast paperweight, and to struggle sent waves of pain through his body; defeated, he opted simply to lie in a heap.

Kayla closed the door without a flicker of emotion. “Let me get this straight, Vincent. You signed up to, let’s face it, perhaps the most audacious kidnap attempt in modern history, during the most high profile sporting event ever staged, with the aim of sparking a global revolution… despite having no actual interest in the cause, and no relevant skills?”

Vincent stared fixedly at the dart again, while Kayla crouched beside him.

“Do you have any idea how big a risk we’ve just taken, Vincent?” she asked in softer tones.

He nodded silently.

“Why on earth did you agree?”

“B-because… I wanted you to like me,” he mumbled, cringing at how the words sounded as they left his mouth.

Kayla closed her eyes, then stood and paced the room. After a few moments, she crouched beside him again.

“Vincent, thank you for finally being honest with me. I know it must have been hard. Now, I’m going to be honest with you.”

She gently tilted his chin upwards until their eyes met. “I don’t care that you weren’t some kind of secret agent, and I don’t care that you aren’t a true believer in the cause.”

A slight, hopeful smile twitched the corners of Vincent’s mouth. “You don’t?”

Kayla settled into a more comfortable cross-legged position, resting her elbow of the head of the fastest man alive as she leaned in closer to Vincent. “Nope, I don’t. Not one bit.”

Vincent beamed.

“All I care about,” Kayla continued, “Is that you have a Mexican passport.”

The broad smile folded slowly into a puzzled from. “What?”

“Well, you were eligible to apply, at any rate. Because of your Mother. And we applied on your behalf, naturally.”

Kayla fished around in her pocket and produced a small, burgundy-coloured booklet in a jiffy bag. She smiled bashfully as she reached across the athlete’s prone form and tucked it into Vincent’s pocket.

“Kayla, what’s happening?” Vincent asked. He felt tiny, like a child again. The body on his chest felt like a slab of lead.

The plan is happening, Vincent. You see, I don’t care about your deceptions because I am sort of a secret agent, and I do have a cause… albeit not the one I signed you up to.”

Clambering to her feet again, Kayla dug around in her bag and produced a dark-coloured object, which she set about fixing to the wall.

“What is that?” Vincent cried frantically.

“I think you can guess what it is, Vincent.” She produced the tranquiliser gun from her purse. “Don’t worry, you won’t feel anything. I’ll dart you before I go.”

At this, Vincent finally began to cry. His blubbering, the emasculation demon’s voice assured him, was pitiful.

“Frankly, I’m less surprised that you joined a kidnap attempt because you had a crush on a girl than I am by your total lack of suspicion throughout. Didn’t it strike you that the whole thing had been a bit… easy? Didn’t you have the wit to wonder why?”

The taunt provoked a moment of clarity. He reached for his pocket, intent on examining the passport,  but Kayla was suddenly there to crack the butt of the gun into his hand.

“Aaaarrgghhhhh!” He roared, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Whhhhyyyy? What the f-fuck does a passport matter?”

“It matters to my employer very much,” Kayla assured him, standing back to take aim.

“Whhhhyyyy?” Vincent sobbed again, insistent.

“Oh, for lots of reasons. Convincing doubters. Justifying the necessary long-term steps. But for starters,” Kayla smiled, as she squeezed the trigger, “We’re going to build a wall… and your dirty, mongrel kin are going to pay for it.”

***

This was a Story Generator entry, based on the formula: Olympics, Secret Service Agent, Panic, Missing Athlete

Adrift

On the glassy surface of the lake, in a simple rowboat, Imelda sat motionless. Arms folded around her knees, eyes still red, clutching her knapsack, she drifted and she waited.

Eventually a large, dark vessel emerged from the mist and made for her position. It drew noiselessly level, dwarfing the rowboat; a ropeladder tumbled over the side and a figure became visible for the first time, as it clambered briskly downward.

Imelda closed her eyes and drew deep, calming breaths. When she opened them again, the figure sat opposite her, cross-legged.

“Hello Coastguard,” she said.

“Hello, Imelda,” the Coastguard replied. “Why are you here? Your place is on the island.”

“My son,” Imelda replied, fighting to keep her voice steady, “my Darren is dead.”

The dark vessel retreated into the mist as smoothly as it had come.

“Are you certain that is the case, Imelda? No-one has died on the island for a very long time. There might be a misunderstanding.”

“There’s no misunderstanding, Coastguard,” Imelda snapped. “He was playing in the garden this morning, and then he fell to the ground as if his strings had been cut. He doesn’t breathe, he doesn’t blink. He’s dead.”

She turned her head out to look at the island, focussing hard on her breathing, beating back the sobs which were trying to claw their way out of her throat. She would not weep, not in front of this thing.

“Imelda,” the Coastguard said. “I am unsure why you are here. I patrol these waters; I keep the islanders safe from external threats. That role does not empower me to aid your son.”

Imelda flipped open her knapsack, reaching inside. “Did you know my Grandmother, Coastguard?”

“Of course.”

First a pad of cartridge paper, then a black marker emerged from the roughly woven bag. Imelda held them up pointedly; a distorted reflection was visible in the Coastguard’s faceplate.

“She left us – my family – a book. For dire emergencies. I opened it today for the first time.”

The Coastguard sat unresponsive.

“My Grandmother was a remarkable woman, I knew that much already… but my eyes have been opened a little wider. She wrote about many things, but the one that stuck out was you.”

Imelda uncapped the marker and began to write on the first, fresh page of cartridge paper. Her letters were large, the pen-strokes slow and careful.

“She wrote that, before she made you Coastguard, you had another role. A role you would resume, if the need was great enough, and if you were correctly prompted.”

Imelda capped the marker, set it aside, and raised the page up in front of her until she could see the word reversed and distended on the Coastguard’s chrome visage. It read:

FERRYMAN

The first tears circumvented Imelda’s iron self discipline, and rolled over her cheeks. “My need is great.”

The Coastguard stood. Its faceplate flowed and changed, taking on more recognisable contours – here, a nose, there, sockets which suggested eyes – and the shape of its armoured carapace began to stretch and smooth into softer, more clothlike textures.

Once the changes in its form had slowed to a stop, it stooped to reach over the edge of the boat and, seemingly from the water itself, drew out a long pole of dark wood.

“Be careful, Imelda,” warned the Ferryman. “Your Grandmother may have left you the means to compel me, but not the wisdom to understand what you are doing.”

“I’ll be the judge of that, Ferryman. Take me into the mist.”

The pole rose and fell, as the Ferryman began slowly to punt Imelda’s boat toward the thick wall of white vapour.

“Whatever you believe you know about what lies beyond the mist, Imelda, I implore you to reconsider.”

“I know enough, Ferryman. I know that there is another world, and that we are connected to it somehow; I know that my Grandmother believed a break in that connection, for any one of us, might result in our death here on the island… but that we might live on in that world, regardless.”

The Ferryman continued his long, slow stroke. “That is true, in a sense. But Imelda… my siblings abide in the world of which you speak. Their role is to maintain those connections, and it is unlikely that they have allowed one to fail.”

“Unlikely, but possible.”

The whiteness loomed before them.

“If they have been turned from their duties, Imelda, the other world may hold no-one to help you. The trip is already a dreadful risk. No-one has ever returned.”

“A foolish remark, Ferryman. No-one has ever set off.”

“That is not the case, Imelda. Your Grandmother left you a great store of information behind. Why was she leaving it? Where do you think she went?”

Imelda cast a glance back to the shore. For the first time, she felt fear stab through her chest.

“Lorraine understood the risk she was taking,” the Ferryman continued, “and she knew well the world to which she was heading. She prepared well. You can say none of these things.”

Imelda wiped her cheeks with the heel of a hand.

“If you cannot return, at best you and your son will be alone in an alien world. At best.”

“Why are you saying this?”

“It is still my role to protect you, Imelda. To protect all of you. To that end, I remind you: you still have a choice.”

Imelda laughed bitterly as the air turned cold. “You are a marvellous work of artifice, Ferryman, truly you are… but you’re showing your limitations.”

She closed her eyes as the mist drifted over them.

“There is no choice. He’s my son.”

 

***

This was a Story Generator entry, based on the formula: Drifting boat, woman, grief, permanent marker

Delivered

As if the absence of streetlights and homes didn’t foster an already oppressive darkness, Toby had to contend with the glare of his phone, which rendered everything beyond the screen inky black by contrast.

The Pinpoint app was trying stoically to guide him to the customer’s location, but it had clearly been designed with residential neighbourhoods and main thoroughfares in mind.

This was always going to happen. As soon as you advertise GPS-tracked Pizza delivery, some joker is going to decide to have it delivered to the middle of nowhere.

A few more stumbling steps up the hillside and his patience expired. In defiance of his dwindling battery, Toby thumbed on the torch function, praying that he could find the drop-off point before his phone failed entirely.

Every footfall was a clear, unique sound, which made Toby terribly aware of the relative silence around him. He quickened his pace, squelching and crunching along the trail until a faint glow began to bloom in his line of sight.

The little campfire was, it transpired, at the very summit of the hill. A figure was perched there on an upturned crate, back turned to Toby as he approached, cloaked in some kind of animal pelt.

“Pinpoint Pizza!” Toby announced as he drew nearer, as much to banish the silence and his mounting anxiety as to alert his customer.

The figure half turned. “Oh, excellent. Just put it down over here.” It was a man, not much older than Toby himself, noticeably dishevelled. Toby wondered momentarily how the guy charged his phone, before becoming distracted.

“Wait,” he started, raising to gesture at the customer’s ostentatious headgear. “Is that a – ?”

“It’s an Alsation,” the customer confirmed. “Head and pelt.”

Toby laughed, without really knowing why. “It’s kind of… it makes you look like a Witch Doctor, or something.”

“Really? I’d describe myself as more of a… more of a Warlock, actually.”

“Oh, right. Yeah.”

Toby waited awkwardly for a while, as the customer leaned over the firelight, fiddling with something in his hands.

Eventually, he said: “Mate, you have to… I need you to confirm receipt on your phone, before I can go.”

“Oh, certainly – but I haven’t even looked at it yet. Give me a moment, I’m just finishing something.” He gestured to a second crate, on the far side of the fire. “Have a seat.”

Toby lowered himself gingerly onto the rough, wooden boards. “What is it? I mean, if you don’t mind me asking.”

The customer smiled, looking up. For a moment, both the man and the Alsation’s eyes gleamed with reflected flames.

“It’s a tool. Something I’m making to channel power in certain ways. It needs certain kinds of ingredients to make it effective, and they need to be bound together – ” (he paused to raise his hands, exposing a weaving motion) “- in just the right ways.”

“Right,” Toby responded, nodding but utterly lost. “What’s it supposed to do?”

“It affects the minds of the people it touches. It induces… memory loss, confusion, hallucinations… madness.”

Toby’s neck prickled. The tool was more clearly lit now, as the customer held it aloft; bones, hair and other unidentifiable substances made up its construction.

“I’m not being funny, mate, but why would you – why would anyone make something like that? I mean, not that I believe it. It just looks like hippy jewellery.”

The customer chuckled. “Perhaps. But it’s not completely finished yet. There are more things I need to acquire in order to make enhancements; perhaps it will seem more impressive once I have them.”

He rose to his feet and began to stroll casually around the fire. Toby tracked him, eyes locked on the bone wand; the customer swished it lightly through the air, this way and that.

“I can make do with the bones of a treasured pet for now, but I need something with a little more oomph in the long term. The more dreadful a creature’s end, the more appalling the act which precipitated it… well, the more easily it can help me to unravel another creature’s mind when the moment comes.”

“Bullshit.” Toby’s hands shook. The world beyond the circle of firelight was shrouded in featureless black.

“Well in that case, I’m sure you won’t mind if I…” the customer’s words tailed off as he passed out of sight.

Toby leapt up, whirling around. “Don’t you fucking touch me with that thing!”

The customer laughed, skipping over the crate toward him, swiping the wand back and forth like a rapier.

“Oh, Toby,” he sighed, as the deliveryman scrambled backward around the fire. “It’s a little late for that.”

“What do you mean?” A pause, then: “H-how do you know my name?”

“You first felt this object’s touch five days ago, my friend,” his tormentor smiled. “And many times since.”

“Please,” Toby wailed, scanning desperately for an escape route “I don’t know what you’re talking about! I just came to deliver a – ”

He froze, as his eyes alighted on the crate where the customer had been seated. From this angle, they were obvious: four identical boxes, slumped on the ground beside it, each bearing the Pinpoint brand.

“A Pizza?” the customer suggested. “Is that really what you think you’ve been bringing me all these nights?”

He stooped to grasp the box which Toby had recently set down, and offered it to him. “Here. Take a peek.”

An odd sensation came over Toby as he accepted the box; his arm moved of its own accord to lift the lid. Then he was shrieking in horror, hurling the box away from his body with as much force as he could muster.

“No! I didn’t… it wasn’t me…!”

“Oh, but it was,” came the hiss at his shoulder. The customer had slipped behind him somehow, and was now clasping a hand over his mouth, pulling him backward until his head was pinned against the man’s chest.

“Don’t worry, though,” he continued in soothing tones, as he slid the tip of the wand into Toby’s inner ear. “I can help you forget.”

***

This was a Story Generator entry, based on the formula: Hiking trail, pizza delivery guy, delirium, witch doctor

The Flying Ventimiglias

Filippo squinted extravagantly, pulling the jacket even further over his head to cut glare to a minimum.

Lucy’s, read the weathered placard. Bar stools, bottles, haphazardly-thatched roof: they all billowed before his eyes in the intense heat.

It could be a mirage, certainly; but it lay in his path already, and to walk around it for fear of disappointment seemed suicidal in its bloody-mindedness.

And if it were real… Filippo increased his pace, stumbling through the sand.

The heat on his back and legs dimmed perceptibly as he reached the shade beneath the Bar’s makeshift covering; the wooden boards were bone dry, and creakily authentic. Either it was real, or he was lost to madness. Filippo began to giggle.

“Can I get you something, sir?”

There was a woman behind the bar, flipping lazily through a newspaper. Her eyes didn’t lift from the pages as Filippo slumped into the stool opposite.

“Drink,” he gasped. “Need a drink. And… call for help.”

“Well, I can get you a drink – we’ve got a full range of juices and sodas, beers, spirits and liqueurs available for purchase – but if you want to make a call, you’ll need to head somewhere else. I’m still waiting for my line to be put in.”

Filippo searched dumbly for an adequate response. Eventually, he settled on: “Water. Water.”

“10 Dirham.”

“What are you… I don’t have any money! I need help! There was a terrible accident, a disaster…”

The woman glared at him and pointed wordlessly to a jaunty sign hanging above her scotch Whisky selection. DON’T ASK FOR CREDIT, a small cartoon waitress in an apron advised him. REFUSAL OFTEN OFFENDS.

“Please,” Filippo begged. His host returned her attention to the newspaper.

The reflected glare of the sand beyond Lucy’s slowly intensified. Filippo imagined facing the oppressive heat again without slaking his thirst, and shuddered.

“My name is Filippo, Filippo Ventimiglia,” he told her earnestly. “What’s yours?”

A brief, sullen glance was his only reply.

“My brothers and I were on our way to Tripoli, then Rome… there was a problem, something with the engine. We had to parachute. Please, my brothers could still be alive out there. I need to – ”

“Wait,” the woman interrupted him. “Ventimigilia? The Flying Ventimiglias?”

“Yes!” cried Filippo excitedly, sensing a chance to connect. “You know us?”

Flicking backward, she flashed the front page of the paper at him. “Your disappearance has been noted.” Then she began to snigger.

“What is it?”

“The Flying Ventimiglias. Hahaha. Flying. You might have to rethink that, in light of… ”

“What’s wrong with you?” Filippo demanded. “What kind of a person would deny a man water when he was – ?”

“Look here, Mr Ventimiglia. I’m in this game to make a profit. Why do you think someone builds a drinks bar in the goddamn desert? Because when a person wants a drink out here, they really want a drink. It’s an opportunity.”

Filippo shook his head in disbelief.

“But hey, I’m not entirely heartless. You might not have any money, but you’re an entertainer… and it can get pretty boring out here. What say we make a deal? You provide some entertainment… I’ll provide a free drink.”

“I’m a trapeze artist,” Filippo snapped in exasperation, gesturing to the thatch above. “I can hardly do my act here!”

“Oh, there are other ways to entertain, trust me. I have something in mind.”

After a few moments rummaging behind the bar, she returned to place a long, brightly-branded tube on the surface in front of him.

“Toothpaste,” Filippo stated, with a growing sense that he might be losing his wits. “I don’t understand.”

“I’ve often wondered how much of this stuff a man could eat, if he were sufficiently motivated,” the woman told him, leaning forward eagerly on the bar surface.

“You can’t be serious.”

She nodded. “Finish the tube and you’ll receive an ice cold drink, on the house. Or…” Her gaze drifted out toward the dunes.

“This is ridiculous. I could just take it!” He was furious now, a strangely rejuvenating experience.

The woman casually retrieved a kitchen knife, from its resting place beside a pile of chopped lime segments. “I really don’t think we want to go down that route. Your brothers are in trouble. I’m bored. Just play along.”

Closing his eyes, taking deep lungfuls of air, Filippo tried to breathe out his fury. With shaking hands, he gripped the tube and popped it open. Tilting his head back, he raised it to his lips.

Their eyes met. She nodded eagerly.

Then his fist clenched, his mouth opened and the paste began to fill his mouth. Without anything to moisten his throat, the swallowing was torturous; simultaneously, he had to fight the urge to retch. Down it went, mouthful after slow mouthful, like peppermint cement.

Eventually, coughing, he hurled the empty tube away and glared at her, his tormentor.

“That was really fascinating,” she told him in an engrossed murmur. “But anyway, a deal’s a deal – give me a second.”

Filippo felt giddy as she turned around and fished about in one of the buckets of ice. Then she was back, placing a bottle in front of him on the bar with a satisfying clunk. It perspired gratuitously, droplets running freely down the chilled glass curves toward stained wood.

His prize.

A large bottle of Coca Cola.

The woman’s eyes were alight with glee. “Go on then,” she urged him through a broad smile. “Drink up.”

***

This was a Story Generator entry, based on the formula: Sahara, trapeze-artist, dread, toothpaste

Periphery

images

When you live in a city long enough, you no longer look up. Everything is familiar, expected. The details are known, so they are forgotten. The world that you inhabit is glossed over and gone.

When you’ve lived with a person long enough you don’t regard their face in the same way. Their features are so uniquely their own, but they are lost in the essence of the individual.

It is the out of place that brings special attention. A new building. A fresh haircut. A stranger standing, staring. Staring at you.

They’re always there, on the periphery, watching. You can’t get away from their gaze. There’s always a distance between them and you, but they are a constant observer as you go about the tasks of the day.

They’re in the alleyway when you go to work. They’re in aisle ten when we do our shopping. They’re in a booth at the pub when you’re on a night out. They’re in the hall while you make love to your partner. Always with that same blank expression.

Some things are just part of the human experience.

Don’t stare back.

The Market works

Rand clucked his tongue, scanning his eyes back and forth across the labyrinthine notation which covered the cave wall. Occasionally, he would stop pacing to shake his chalk at one of the elements; then he would nod and resume moving, tattered strips of his suit trousers beginning to stir the dry dust once more.

“It all comes down to the radiation meds,” he mused. “I have to have enough spare meds to trade to the town council over at Silver Creek that I can keep them going for a month. That’ll be enough to tempt them into turning over their grain reserves, 80% of which I can trade straight to Old Man Arlington for his new calves.”

He clawed at his neck, yanking the frayed pinstripe collar to one side to allow more intensive scratching, before absent-mindly straightening and smoothing it again.

“That leaves me with a month’s food, and a fortnight’s meds… and the beasts that the Christian Frontiersmen have been crying out for to stick on their next damned expedition.”

Rand drifted past the Dactyl cages, cooing and petting at the creatures as he went. He stopped at XVI’s perch, reached in and grabbed the little reptile, pulling her into a gentle embrace as he fished around in his pocket for a scrap of paper.

“Those idiots have more ethanol than they know what to do with, so I’ll be able to squeeze an extra half drum out of them, which sorts out my fuel requirements for at least a fortnight… and the remainder clears my outstanding positions with the Lizard Eaters, PLUS gives me enough to take another couple of those scrap electrical components they’re hoarding and trade them to the Doc, which gets me my next supply of meds, and BAM!”

He threw his hands into the air. “I go infinite.”

XVI flapped irritably until Rand remembered himself, and restored her to the crook of his arm. Awkwardly pinning down the paper, trying to keep the Dactyl settled, he switched the chalk for a stick of charcoal lying on his desk and scrawled out his offer in cramped, barely legible scrip.

“All of this depends on getting Vermaelen to turn over his surplus meds, so we can get the wheel turning. And for that, we need something special. That crazy bastard is only interested in the kind of stuff that makes him feel like Kublai fucking Khan, like some old-school Pharoah who can collect the wonders of the world – or what’s left of it – and show it off to everyone as a reminder of his – ” (Rand paused to assume a booming, pantomime voice) “- EPIC POWEEEEERRRRR!”

Strolling up to the mouth of the cave, Rand tucked his note into XVI’s ankle bracelet, clipped it down and hurled the winged lizard into the air. Once he was satisfied that she was on her way, moving in the right direction, he turned his back on the arid landscape and made his way inside again.

“Yessir, something special is required. Something no-one else can offer. Something, I am betting, like you,” he said, kneeling down in front of the upturned and carefully perforated glass jar, peering in at the folded scrap of red cloth and the tiny, golden-furred creature that lay inside.

“The smallest goddamn dog,” Rand whispered with relish, “who ever lived.”

The miniscule labrador turned its head away from his gaze, moping.

“You know, someone like the Doc, he’d fall over himself to get a look at you,” Rand continued. “He’d waste his time trying to work out what happened to you, he’d write a hundred of those stupid journal entries raving about mutations and the marvel of nature overcoming man’s best efforts to render her barren…”

Chuckling to himself, he stood back up and collected his cup before moving to the water drum. Grimacing at the taste, he continued: “Just like the Dactyls. Only interested in where they came from, how they fit together… that’s not real smarts. That’s geek bullshit. A real bright guy, he doesn’t look at Dactyls and see a biology project – he sees long range communication for the modern age, he sees information superiority, he sees a trading advantage!”

Rand dipped a worn bottletop into the cool liquid, then moved back to sit beside the jar. He lifted it up just enough to slip the makeshift dish under, without giving the micro-dog an avenue of escape. Then he gazed up again at the cave walls, taking in their meticulously curated summaries of every meaningful resource and commodity holding in a thirty-mile radius.

“That’s why in two years, the Doc will still be mixing meds to earn his next meal – and I’ll be the richest guy in the American Remnant. Back on top. The new Wall Street,” he pronounced, stabbing his finger toward the floor between his knees, “begins right here.”

They sat for a time, the born-again Trader and the dog-in-a-jar, as the sky slowly dimmed. Eventually, in a sudden leathery din, XVI flapped her way back into the cave and touched down on the rocky floor, waddling the last few feet to Rand’s lap. Scooping the Dactyl up, Rand snapped open her ankle bracelet and extracted the tiny missive inside.

He held it between his fingers for a long moment, strangely nervous.

“This is it, guys,” he told his canine and reptilian companions. “The dice have been thrown, you know? Time to see where they landed.”

He unfurled the note and read it, then paused for a moment before leaping to his feet and hooting with joy.

“HE ACCEPTS!” he cried, suddenly overcome with emotion. Beating his ribs with a fist, Rand told the animals: “This is the turning point, this trade. This is where my destiny was locked down. Never forget. The comeback starts here!”

The Dactyl stared at him in uncomprehending admiration. The dog sighed.

Rand shook his head in disgust.

“You know what I miss? Having someone around to appreciate me. I’m going to fix that. In a few months time, once I’ve built up some serious reserves, I’m heading on over to Silver Creek and I’m going to pick me a wife. I’m sure as hell not waiting the rest of my life for a fucking, a Dactyl to give me a pat on the back!”

The sky bruised and darkened for a time, then grew pink with the dawn.

The sound of ethanol engines heralded the approach of Vermaelen’s forces. Rand strolled out of the cave mouth and down the sandy slope, jar held securely against his flank.

There were six of them this time; less than usual, but still a sight to intimidate most amongst the nearby survivor communities. At the head of the bike squadron rode a small figure, wrapped in battered leathers and sporting an ostentatious set of goggles to protect his eyes from the onslaught of the dust.

“Hey, Leo!” called Rand in greeting. “I thought your old man might come for this one himself.”

“Nope,” Leo responded matter-of-factly. “It’s me. Is there a dog in that bottle? Lemme see.”

“Sure,” said Rand, cautiously. He held the glass jar aloft as Leo approached, squinting in the rising glare.

“That is one hell of a thing,” Leo told him, whistling his appreciation. “But I don’t have no use for that.”

“Just as well I’m in business with your Daddy!” Rand laughed, slightly nervous.

Leo grinned, dipping his head forward almost shyly, before shaking it. “No you ain’t, Rand.”

Frowning, Rand protested: “But we had a deal! He sent me by Dactyl last night – he’s going to trade me meds for it.”

“See, the thing is, me and my Daddy had a little disagreement last night,” Leo explained, unzipping his leathers just enough that Rand could see a flash of skin and blood. A new ear adorned Leo’s necklace.

“A disagreement?” Rand asked, mouth bone dry.

“About his tendency to waste meds on bullshit,” Leo confirmed.

“Look, Leo – ”

“I decided it was time we did things a little different,” said Leo. “Put what we learned into practice, if you catch my drift.” He reached down and drew forth something from his boot.

Behind him, the other riders started to dismount. From within the jar, the dog whined.

“Wh-what do you mean?”

“I was thinking that we could come on over here, and instead of giving you stuff for a dumb dog-on-a-keyring, we could just head on up to that cave of yours -” Leo gestured with the object, a stained, flat blade, “- and just take whatever you got.”

“Come on Leo,” Rand pleaded. “That doesn’t make any sense. Think of everything I do for your… for you. I get hold of anything you need, don’t I? I’ve got the connections!”

“Now that is the thing, right there,” Leo told him. “The thing I was thinking about when your little lizard arrived last night. I thought to myself, Leo, if he has a lizard that can find its way to your ranch… he probably has lizards that can fly on over to these little towns, and tribes and such like that he picks up all these supplies and – what do you call them? – co-mmodities from.”

Rand stood perfectly still as Leo began to circle him, swinging his weapon lazily by a leather loop on the handle.

And if he does, why shouldn’t we just get hold of those lizards, and make ’em fly… and then follow them?

Leo completed his circuit, stopping again in Rand’s eyeline.

Those lizards could lead us right to all the yellow rats who been hiding from us all these years… and then we could take what they got, too. And then we’d have no need for a man with connections.”

Leo crashed a fist into Rand’s jaw, sprawling him out on the dirt. The loose crowd of bikers laughed as the jar and its tiny occupant rolled away from Rand’s prone form.

“Leo… please…” he begged. “Don’t do this.”

“This ain’t personal, Rand,” Leo assured him as he towered over the older man. “It’s just… it’s like you say, it’s me disrupting the traditional player in the market.”

He swung a boot hard into Rand’s gut.

“I realised you been making a lot of sense, these last few years, Rand. I been listening, when you and my Daddy got talking. I realised you were right about regulation being bad for business. I got to get rid of my regulator!”

Rand stared up at him in terror and bewilderment. “What regulator?”

“Oh, you know, Rand,” Leo chuckled, waving his machete in whimsical loops as he smiled downward. “Civilisation.”

***

This was a Story Generator entry, based on the formula: Cave, day-trader, trepidation, ‘the world’s smallest labrador’

Komodo

Old_rope_marks_Glasgow

It wasn’t one thing or another that was the problem. It wasn’t the rain, not the cold, not the wind. It wasn’t the hunger, it wasn’t the thirst, not the thirst, not the thirst.

At least he wasn’t alone.

“Come on in here with me, Pal. See if we can’t keep each other warm.”

He opened the sleeping bag and pulled the pup inside. The dog’s fur was soaked and filthy. It shivered against his chest and licked at his fingers.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get anything to eat today, Pal. We’ll try again tomorrow, maybe see if we can get some bones out of a butcher’s bin. Would you like that? Would you, boy?”

The pup barked.

***

HOMELESS + HUNGRY

PLEASE HELP

***

The taste was a relief. The tang filled his skull and liquid filled his belly. The dog chewed away on a bone.

“There’s more where that came from, Pal. We’ve got a carrier bag full.”

Another slug.

“Today was better. Today was better. Come on over, Pal. It’s time to get cuddled up for the night.”

***

The pup barked and growled through the night. The noise woke him a couple of times, but it was never enough to illicit more than a grumble about inconsiderate animals.

His dreams were filled with rodents.

***

HOMELESS + HUNGRY

PLEASE HELP

***

“Aye, well. I guess we can’t complain, can we? Managed to scrape together enough to get some grub in our tummies. Aye. You alright, Pal? You don’t seem yourself.”

The little dog whined and lapped at the man’s face.

“Come on, little buddy. Chin up. You’ve got to stay positive. We’ve got to stay positive. Can’t let them get you down. We’re a team, you and me. It’s us against the world.”

He tried to distract the pup with a bone, but it wasn’t having any.

***

The dog was agitated again.

He squinted at it from his sleeping bag. The late hour and the neon glow of the street lights rendered the scene in black and white, grey and orange.

The pup was yelping and snarling into the darkness. Shapes moved in the gloom, skittering.

“Fucking rats!”

The man launched a heavily chewed femur at the shapes. He hurriedly got to his feet and collected his belongings. He rushed over and scooped up Pal, keeping the dog’s little body close to his heart.

“Disgusting.”

***

HOMELESS + HUNGRY

PLEASE HELP

***

“This new spot’s not so bad. We’ll have a look around when you’re finished eating, make sure there’s no rats here.

“What?

“Don’t look at me like that, Pal. We didn’t get enough for us both to eat, and if I don’t look after my best mate, what does that say about me? I’ll eat tomorrow.”

***

The rain had returned. A torn piece of cardboard was not the ideal umbrella, but it was better than nothing. Pal was somewhere out of his sight, but close. The man could hear his fury.

He found the pup around the corner, its hackles raised, its teeth bare. The little dog was surrounded by things. They looked like shaven monkeys, no taller than Pal. Long, sinuous tongues darted out from feral faces, tasting the air.

“Hey! Hey!”

The creatures scattered. Pal gave chase, limping.

Seeing this, the man grabbed the dog up and tried to shield its little body from the weather.

“Are you okay, Pal? Are you okay? Did those things hurt you?”

He examined the dog and found two tears. Blood was leaking into Pal’s fur and winding its way down to his paw.

“They did. They did. My poor little buddy.”

The man carried the pup over to his abandoned sleeping bag and set the little dog down.

“You stay here for just a second, boy. Just a wee second.”

He rooted around in his bag until he found his spare t-shirt. He tore a length of fabric and used it to bind the dog’s wound.

“You’ll be okay, Pal. You’ll be okay. We can’t stay here. We’ll find somewhere else to sleep.”

***

HOMELESS + HUNGRY

PLEASE HELP

***

“Hey. Hey. There’s no need to be like that.”

The pup keened and whined.

“Oh god, you’re burning up. We need to get you something to drink.”

He pulled a water bottle from his bag and poured some liquid into a cupped hand. Pal lapped it up, then looked for more.

***

DOG SICK

PLEASE HELP

***

“Look, I know you said I wasn’t to come back, and I know I was really out of order before -”

“You were drunk, and you were violent towards our residents and staff.”

“I know what I did. I’m trying to change. To be better. I wouldn’t ask, you know, but my wee dog isn’t well.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I really am. We just don’t have any space at the moment.”

***

“I don’t hold a grudge. No hard feelings. We’ve got to stay positive.”

The man unwrapped the makeshift bandage around Pal’s leg. The cuts underneath were discoloured and discharging a milky red liquid.

“That doesn’t look too clever, Pal. We better clean it out and change the dressing. This might be sore.”

The pup looked up at him and he stroked its head.

***

DOG SICK

PLEASE HELP

***

Pal was dragging his leg behind himself now. The man picked up the little dog and kissed it lightly on the nose.

“It’s okay. It’s okay. I can carry both of us for a while. Here, have something to snack on. You’ve got to keep your strength up.”

It was cold in the night, and the man was unsettled. Cars kept passing at high speed a couple of streets over. The softened bass of their sound systems saturated the air.

The man realised that Pal wasn’t snuggled up with him. He wasn’t far away. The pup had limped a little way off and was barking at a creature sat on top of a bin.

“Hey!”

The thing didn’t move. It kept it’s gaze fixed on Pal.

“Hey! Get away!”

The man unzipped the sleeping bag quickly and raced over to the bin. The creature jumped down and backed off, staying just out of reach. Its tongue flicked in and out of its mouth, hissing.

Pal was barking again, with increased frequency.

The man spun around. There was another beast, but closer to the dog. The man dashed over and lashed out a kick. The monster danced out of the way.

The man took his opportunity. He grabbed Pal and sprinted off into the night.

***

DOG SICK

PLEASE HELP

***

“I’m tired, Pal. I’m really tired. We need to stay awake. Can’t sleep. Those things come at night. Only at night. I’m sorry, Pal. I’m so sorry.”

The little dog burned against his chest.

“I forgot our things, little buddy. I left them behind, but we had to get out of there. We had to. I don’t even have any water for you. I’ve – I’ve fucked up. I’ve fucked up so badly.”

The night was cold.

***

The man must have nodded off. He awoke with a start and looked around.

“Pal?”

It was only then that he saw the blood flecking the pavement.

“Pal!”

The darkness had no answers.

***

HOMELESS + HUNGRY + alone

***

It had been days. The drink tasted bitter, but he kept pouring it down his throat.

“See the thing – the thing about a broken heart, Pal. The thing about broken hearts is that you don’t die from them, you know? You keep on going. You hold on to the pieces as long as you can, but you lose them. They drop off sometimes and you don’t notice. I noticed this time. I noticed.”

Wind gusted down the empty street.

***

The man was awoken as a weight pressed down on his torso. With blurry eyes he saw it; the twisted face, the incisors. Its tongue moved slowly, pressing on his cheek. As he watched, the creature unhinged it’s jaw, revealing more teeth. It leaned in closer, closer.

The man didn’t move.

The Quest

The wind is strong in the country of Gnotopia. It batters everything with its force. The trees stand lopsided, their branches sparsely populated with leaves.

The crossroads felt the worst of the gusts’ rage. It sent dust and detritus dancing in its wake, and it snatched and grabbed at the cloaks of the five travellers who had been called to this place. They eyed each other suspiciously, hands never straying far from their weapons.

A flash of lightning and a peal of thunder heralded the arrival of a tall hooded man. “Adventurers,” he intoned in a deep, rich voice, “I have summoned you here to begin a quest of great import.

“The demon-cursed Lord Gilgamesh and his hordes threaten the noble people of Gnotopia. They will soon reave and pillage their way across the countryside, slaying or enslaving all in their path. He must be stopped.

“To the east there lies a tower. Within its twisting hallways, past its many defenders, beyond the eldritch wards which bar its doors, there is… an item. It will provide the people of Gnotopia the strength they need to repel these invaders.

“It is for this purpose that I call upon your services. You, Romani the Assassin, will you answer my call?” The hooded man pointed to the small, lithe, black clad woman amongst the group.

“Does it pay well?” asked Romani with a smirk.

“More than your wildest dreams,” answered the hooded man. A wide grin blossomed on Romani’s face, and she nodded slightly.

“And you, Argamemashin, Scourge of the Unjust, Defender of the Pure, Last Scion of the Great House of Tangayrin, will you answer the people of Gnotopia in their hour of need?”

A tall man with long blonde hair, clad in shining armour, raised his longsword to the sky. “You have my sword.”

“And what say you, Hadaplast, Keeper of the Magus Orb? Will you lend your magic to the quest?”

A young man, his jet black beard styled to a point, swept back his purple cape and bowed deeply to the group.

“And can the peasants of Gnotopia rest safely in their beds, knowing that Zur the Warrior stands between them and harms way?”

A heavily muscled man thumped his chest twice with one of his meaty fists. “Zur crush evil.”

“And will you answer the call to adventure… Kate?”

“I’m a druid,” said Kate, a young woman with a large bag of herbs on her hip. She puffed contentedly away on a pipe and suppressed a chuckle. “Of the calming leaf.”

The hooded man ignored the druid. “Your destiny awaits you to the east, heroes! I wish you favour upon the road!”

The party gathered their equipment and set off.

“Oi! Oi, Wizard!” called Kate.

“My name is Hadaplast,” replied the wizard.

“Do you want a puff on this?” Kate offered her pipe to Hadaplast.

“I will abstain.”

“Suit yourself. More for me.”

The hooded figure watched as the five heroes marched off to meet their fate, shaking his head slightly.

***

 The eastward road dwindled to an eastward path, which came to an abrupt end at the border of a forest. The trees clustered together tightly, their bark peeling, their branches twisted.

The party bore on in silence beneath the diminishing sunlight, hacking through the arboreal maze with their weapons where necessary.

Eventually they happened upon a clearing, illuminated only by three, weak rays of light fighting through the canopy. Cobwebs lined the trunks of the trees, holding the dessicated corpses of animals and one unlucky wanderer.

“We’re not alone,” decreed Argamemashin, drawing his sword.

It came from the darkness, chittering and skittering. It moved with inhuman speed on bladed legs, pausing only to regard the heroes with its many eyes.

“That’s a big spider,” said Kate, taking a big draw on her pipe. The smoke caught in her throat and she began to cough and splutter.

The rest of the party leapt into action. Argamemashin and Zur charged towards the beast, screaming battle-cries. Hadaplast began to gesticulate and chant, summoning forth mystical energies. Romani kept her distance, firing bolts from a small crossbow at the monster’s eyes.

The beast reared up on its hind legs and screeched, its high pitched wail echoing through the dead trees. It dodged the attacks of the party and pounced upon Hadaplast, sinking its fangs deep into his shoulder.

The mage screamed and thrashed. His fingers gouged the forest floor as he tried to break free. Argamemashin dealt the creature a terrifying blow with his sword and the giant spider recoiled in agony. It dropped its prey and swiftly vanished into the inky blackness of the woods.

“Help! Somebody help me!” cried Hadaplast. “I’m bleeding to death!”

“Kate help. She druid,” Zur offered.

“That’s right!” Romani ran over to Kate, who was hunched over coughing. “Druid, our comrade in arms needs your skills.”

Kate retched.

“Kate!”

Kate turned her head head and looked at Romani with red-rimmed eyes. “Were you… were you just talking to me?”

“Yes! Hadaplast is in need of your healing hands.”

“Is that, like, a thing that I can do?”

“Yes!”

“Okay. Can it wait a minute? I’m kind of in the middle of something here.” Kate belched loudly and groaned.

“I’m dying!” screamed Hadaplast.

“Fine.” Kate staggered over to Hadaplast. “It’s time for me to do my thing.”

As Kate worked, Hadaplast muttered under his breath. “Of course I’m going to get hurt. Of course I am. Look at what I’m wearing. Purple velvet. I look like a brothel’s sofa. Not even a scrap of armour. Not even a bit.”

“Wizard no wear armour,” said Zur.

“Yes, it interferes with your arcane conjurings,” said Argamemashin, whist he cleaned the spider’s ichor from his blade.

“Rubbish. I want a… a fucking breast plate or something. I bruise like a peach. Like a fucking peach! And a bloody big fuck off spider just tried to have me for lunch.”

“Hey, man. No need to be so angry,” Kate shoved her smouldering pipe in the wizard’s face. “Have a smoke of the calming leaf.”

“I don’t want that. I want some fucking armour.”

“Wizard no wear armour,” said Zur, firmly.

“Fine. Fuck it. Give me a drag on that.”

“Sweet,” said Kate, passing her pipe to the wizard.

***

The camp fire lit the night, bathing the world in a pale orange glow. The party had made it through the forest without incident, but hacking their way through the foliage had taken its toll and they were exhausted.

Kate and Hadaplast continued to smoke, gulping down acrid clouds and giggling to each other. Aegamemashin glared at them while he oiled his armour.

“This is goblin country. You’re going to bring them down on our heads.”

“Goblins bad,” agree Zur.

“I bet they’re just misunderstood,” laighed Kate, exhaling. “I bet once you get to know them they’re nice. Like… What’s your name again?”

“Romani.”

“Yes, I mean, she seems all scary and stuff, but – Wait a minute. Your name is Romani?”

“Yes.”

“Who decided that then?”

“My parents.”

“I’m just not sure it’s entirely approriate. I mean, aren’t Romani -”

“You’re going to attract goblins with all this racket,” growled Argamemashin.

Suddenly, a horde of goblins attacked!

Romani reacted before the rest of the party. Wielding a dagger in each hand, she carved a swathe of destruction through the greenskins.

Shocked by the ferocity of her assault, the goblins turned to flee. Romani gave chase, but tripped over a stone and fell on her face.

“Fuck,” she cursed, as she got back to her feet. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. What the hell was that?”

“Romani fell.”

“Yes. Thanks for that, Zur. I know I fell.”

“Romani hurt?”

“I’m a highly trained assassin. I shouldn’t be tripping over my shoe laces. This is bullshit.”

“We should pursue the goblins,” announced Argamemashin, “we don’t want them to return.”

“Fuck the goblins,”spat Romani. “Kate, do you have any more smoke?”

As Romani took possession of Kate’s pipe there was a bright flash of light. The hooded man stood in front of the group.

“Adventurers!” he greeted them. “You must leave this place immediately. Great danger is at hand.”

“Do we have to?” asked Hadaplast. “I’m pretty comfortable right here.”

“The forces of the demon-cursed Lord Gilgamesh are close to your camp site.”

“That’s what she said,” whispered Kate.

The hooded figure ignored her. “Without the artifact that lies in the tower you’ll be unable to match them on the battlefield. You must fly.”

“Fly? That’s pretty cool.Are there eagles or some shit?” asked Hadaplast.

“No. It means flee, escape, run away.” The hooded man sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Fuck me.”

“So we should fly from this place immediately!” shouted Argamemashin.

The others grumbled, but followed his lead.

***

The five adventurers stopped on a hill. There was grass on the hill. Wind was blowing. A giant spider arrived.

“Again?” asked Romani. “Didn’t we fight a big spider earlier?”

“Yeah, we did,” confirmed Hadaplast. “This is shite.”

“Come on, guys,” said Argamemashin. “You’re going to ruin it. Me and Zur are having a good time. Right, Zur?”

“What?”

“We’re having fun, right?”

“Sure?”

“Are you – are you high?”

“Zur fold to peer pressure.”

Argamemashin stormed off, shouting as he went. “This is the last time I try to play a game with a bunch of fucking stoners.”

“Oh shit,” said Kate, looking up from her phone. “The pizza delivery place is closed.”

20 minutes to save the Earth

The leaden grinding of the manhole cover made Derek wince, as he hauled it closed. The few frozen seconds thereafter felt stretched, tense… but ultimately, no screech could be heard, no cry of discovery.

He was safe, for now.

“Canavarel, do you copy?” he whispered hoarsely into his wristlink. “Canaveral, this is Powers! I have it, but I’m being hunted. I need an evac. Goddamit, I need it yesterday!”

The channel stayed silent. Derek glanced down at the package in his hand, all ominous biohazard warnings and charred edges. The most important object in the history of the human race.

Without warning, his wristlink erupted in a storm of static. “Commander Powers, this is Canaveral, over. Confirming your request for evac. Do you have the item, repeat, do you have the item?”

“Canaveral!” Derek erupted in relief. “Yes, I have it, confirm I HAVE THE ITEM. It’s a little toasted, but it’s intact, over.”

“Copy that, Commander, good work. Did Aitchison retrieve his full notes? Please confirm, over.”

Derek crouched low, screwing his eyes up tightly and biting his knuckles, fighting the surge of frustration and grief which threatened to overwhelm him.

“Professor Aitchison did not make it, Canaveral,” he eventually responded. “Those… things intercepted us as we tried to leave the lab. The lab, the research, the Professor… all gone. Over.”

“Sorry to hear that, Commander. It makes this job even tougher, but we have to get it done. Can you activate your beacon for pickup, over?”

Derek shook his head, glancing around the dank tunnel. “No sir, I cannot. I’ve been forced to head underground to avoid detection, into the Sewer system. I need you to come extract me based on static co-ordinates, over.”

His words echoed against the slimy brickwork. Eventually, the response came.

“Negative, Commander Powers, we have drone extraction capability only. Underground extraction is not viable, repeat, not viable. We need you to head to a rendezvous point above ground; transmitting co-ordinates to your wristlink now, over.”

Derek surged to his feet. “Canaveral, are you out of your goddamn MINDS? I can’t go above ground, their whole goddamn HIVE is looking for me! I’ll be a sitting duck! Over.”

“You can do this, Commander,” the voice from the speaker assured him. “You’ve had the best training Uncle Sam can provide; you have thirteen successful missions on your record; you’ve been decorated by – ”

“I’M A GODDAMNED ASTRONAUT, CANAVERAL!” Derek roared, then instantly regretted it. He hunkered down again, before continuing in hushed tones: “I’m not James Bond, I’m not Jason Bourne! I can’t get through those things – they’ll find me, and then our only chance will be gone. GONE. Over.”

“I’m sorry, Commander. It’ll take 3 hours to get an operations team to your position; by that time, out of containment, the samples will be useless anyway. It’s a Hail-Mary, but we need to take the chances we get. You have to reach the rendezvous point within 20 minutes. It may not be fair, but you’re the only man who can make a difference. The Earth will stand or fall on this one moment, over.”

Derek opened his mouth, trying to form a response – a plea, an argument, anything – but before he could speak, he heard the sound. A skittering, from further down the tunnel. Without warning, a tide of terror-stricken rats flowed out of the darkness ahead of him, causing him to dance and scramble to the tunnel wall as they surged past.

“Canaveral,” Derek whispered, voice shaking. “They’ve found me. They’re down here with me, over.”

“Do whatever it takes to get out of there, Commander,” responded his nameless confidant. “We’re all counting on you. Every one of us, over.”

Derek inched backwards down the tunnel wall, away from the sounds, until his groping fingers found the edge of a tiny alcove. He dived gratefully into it, peering around the corner to see whatever might emerge into a patch of grilled light beneath the nearby storm drains.

The legs were first: dark, violet-black appendages whose sharp chitin clicked on the brick walkways, before the creature-proper was illuminated, sectoid body flexing.

It paused, appearing to scan the scene, before stretching wide its awful mandibles; then, to Derek’s horror, it spoke in a manner which tore deep into his chest.

“Derek?” the alien called out, in the voice of his wife. “Sweetheart please, please stop this. Come out.”

Caught between the urge to roar his grief down the length of the tunnel, and to remain hidden from the thing’s sight, Derek emitted a strangled cry.

“Derek, is that you?”

If he closed his eyes, he could still see Susan’s face in profile, slumped where the things had left her. Rage boiled up, propelling him back into the tunnel.

“Don’t think her voice can protect you!” he shouted. The blaster was in his hand, pointed already at the monster’s bulbous abdomen, although he couldn’t recall snatching it from his belt.

“Derek, no…! Put… put it down, sweetheart. Please. This isn’t you, this is what the Professor warned us about. It’s the Narrativephrine, baby. It’s a flashback.”

Tears rolled down the Commander’s cheeks. “Shut up. I won’t let you take my mind, not like the others. I’ll kill you before you get close enough.”

“When I looked at the TV planner… I should have known. I should never have let you stay up alone. God knows what that movie marathon has done to – ”

Derek fired, once, twice. Spurts of liquid erupted from the creature’s body. It teetered for several seconds, before collapsing against the wall and sliding down to the surface of the walkway.

He advanced toward it, keeping the blaster trained on its head.

“No, Derek, please!” the abomination bubbled. “Don’t do this. Think about Ben… he’s… he’s only in the next room. Can’t you hear him crying?”

For a moment, the world flickered in Derek’s mind. His foot, next to the creature’s head, strobed between a booted appendage, planted on the tunnel’s brickwork, and a slipper-clad alternate, pressed into a cream-coloured carpet. The creature’s black ichor rolled into the mortar channels around his toe, or soaked red into the fibres of the carpet; back and forth, back and forth.

“You want to be… a better writer…” gasped the voice. “Not…a murderer. Please… phone… ambulance…”

Derek raised the package to look at it again. In one heartbeat, it was the last hope to build a bio-weapon which could fight these things; the next, a used and bagged diaper.

Something inside him snapped. Screaming, he blasted the thing three, four times, reducing its skull to pulp, then leaned back against the tunnel wall, gasping for air.

“Canaveral,” he eventually panted into the wristlink, “I have engaged and disposed of the enemy. One unit, attempted to use its mind-weapon, but it was unsuccessful.”

“Well done, Commander,” squawked the speaker. “Proceed immediately to the rendezvous point, over.”

Derek checked the co-ordinates on his wristlink display. “I can make it in plenty of time, Canaveral. I have one more thing to take care of.”

Raising the blaster again, Derek moved into the darkness from which the creature had emerged.

“I think,” he growled into the wristlink with relish, “that its nest is nearby.”

***

This was a Story Generator entry, based on the formula: Sewer, astronaut, hysteria, diaper

Lullaby

lullaby

There once was a lonely little radio wave.

It was sent out far from home.

It crackled and wobbled through the dark.

The lonely little radio wave met a comet.

The comet’s tail was big and cold.

“Please,” said the lonely little radio wave.

But the comet didn’t answer, because there was no-one there.

The lonely little radio wave kept going on its way.

Space was cold and dark.

The lonely little radio wave met a moon.

The moon was speckled and rocky.

“…help,” said the lonely little radio wave.

But the moon didn’t answer, because there was no-one there.

The lonely little radio wave kept going on its way.

Space was dark and cold.

The lonely little radio wave met a gas giant.

The gas giant swirled and frothed.

“…us,” said the lonely little radio wave.

But the gas giant didn’t answer, because there was no-one there.

The lonely little radio wave kept going on its way.

Space was cold, dark, and lonely.

The lonely little radio wave met a nebula.

The nebula was pretty and colourful.

“Our planet,” said the lonely little radio wave.

But the nebula didn’t answer, because there was no-one there.

The lonely little radio wave kept going on its way.

Space was lonely, cold, and dark.

The lonely little radio wave met a world.

The world was wet and angry.

The lonely little radio wave was tired.

“… is dying,” said the lonely little radio wave.

But the world didn’t answer, because there was no-one there.

The lonely little radio wave kept going on its way.

Space was lonely, cold, and dark.

Space was empty.