Set The Hook

Jacquelyn’s drink wasn’t perspiring, but she was.  The conversation had turned, as they always do, to felonious stories.  Her friends weren’t competing, they weren’t even her friends, not yet, but each of them tried to outdo the others.

One bragged about scraping under a toll-booth bar at over 300kph.  Another claimed she burned down her business for the insurance, and successfully avoided prosecution.  Three somewhat suspicious soliloquies and three mostly mollifying martinis later, it was Jacquelyn’s turn.  The group sat, slumped, and sprawled around a table at the back of the room.  Club music thumped their glasses like a dinosaur was learning to breakdance downstairs.

Her little black dress wasn’t.  It was a floor-length ivory evening gown, not expertly tailored, but close enough in the dim lighting.  Jacquelyn’s ebony complexion nearly disappeared into the velvet seat-back.

“I once robbed a bank,” she grinned wolfishly, “or at least, played my part.”

The music seemed to fade.

“I didn’t want to hold the gun you see, I have no intentions of returning to prison in this life.  So Hector pointed the .38 at the teller and didn’t say a word.  He didn’t have to, everyone’s seen a movie about a bank getting robbed, she knew the drill, probably the most exciting day of her life.

“The teller girl put some bundles of cash into a bag and placed it on the counter.  Meanwhile, my job was to distract the security guard.  Not kill him, not seduce him, not flirt with him, just distract him.  I threw my hair over my shoulder, kept glancing back at him and smiling before turning away.  He kept his eyes on me until Hector walked out the door.  I followed him 60 seconds later, and waved to Paul the rent-a-cop on my way.

“Of course the money was tagged so we couldn’t keep it, just left the bag around the corner.”

Jacquelyn liked to think of herself as a young woman, but the fact is, she wasn’t.  She had to be interesting.  More interesting than these teenyboppers.  More interesting than high speed chases.  More interesting than snorting cocaine in the DEA bathroom.  More interesting than anyone else.

Her story was a lie of course, just like her name.  But it wasn’t about truth, it was about confidence.  With enough confidence, she could arrive alone and depart accompanied.

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To Elizabeth, From Anne [Part 3 of 3]

Twenty-seventh of May, Seventeen Fifty Three

Liz, I am unsure if you received my previous letter.  The watchman, Thomas, spied a column of troops marching into town.  They veered toward the house and two of them broke through a window, the monsters nearly followed them into the dining room.  At this point, only three windows remain intact, all on the second story.

The two fresh-faced young men reported that the town was overrun.  They had been ordered to “secure the area” and keep the beasts from attacking the outlying estates, such as ours.  Louis laughed, desperately, for the first time in weeks as he gestured to the decaying arms clawing through the space previously filled with crystal clear glass.  The soldiers looked somewhat abashed and admitted that command underestimated the “re-animation threat.”

I gave them the letter I wrote, the shorter one promised to post it straightaway.  The taller one assured us that help was en-route.  Another battalion would bring weapons, food, and water before the end of the week.

He lied.  Perhaps that is unfair, perhaps something went wrong, perhaps he was unable to send my letter to you.  Perhaps perhaps perhaps.  Nothing is certain anymore.  Apart from those soldiers, we have had no contact with anyone since this debacle began.  If the town is destroyed, how much longer do we have left?

Elizabeth, something happened.  Shouts and shots echoed down to the cellar, which almost feels like home.  The men had all the muskets, so we took a few kitchen knives and rushed upstairs.  The beast-men filled the house, reeking and howling in every room.  The shrieks had ceased, sounds of ripping and tearing took their place.  A cook and a maid, Isobel and Marie, stabbed one of the attackers.  Another shambled forward and bit Isobel’s neck.  It bit her like a toffee and chewed.  I— I tremble to think about it.  Her screams were horrible.  We ran back into the cellar and barred the door.  That was four days ago, we can still see shadows moving around the kitchen through the gap along the floor.  They moan and bang against the door, the bar has held thus far.

The lantern was smashed in all the confusion, so it is quite dark down here.  But after all this time, I know the cellar better than I remember my old rooms.  Sometimes, light peeks under the door, but the tiles are covered in blood, so no one wants to spend much time at the top of the stairs.  That is where I write to you.

I pray that the situation in Warwickshire is preferable to this.  Stay safe.

The water is gone.  We tried choking down the dry cornmeal, but it was impossible, and decidedly unladylike, not that it matters anymore.  My mouth is so dry.  Victoria cannot stop coughing and the beasts have started hammering on the remains of the door.  We set a guard at the top of the stairs, to cut down any of them that break through.  There is black blood all over the steps, I

[The enclosed document was recovered from the Carter Estate outside Halstead, Essex on the fourteenth of June, 1753 by the Colchester Garrison.]

To Elizabeth, From Anne [Part 2 of 3]

Third of May, Seventeen Fifty Three

Elizabeth, I write to you now from my new quarters; a tidy, albeit dank, corner of the cellar.  The ladies of the house, including the servants of course, moved down here ten days hence.  I apologize for the state of this letter, my nerves are too jangled for proper penwomanship.

I suppose it would be proper for me to begin at the beginning.  You remember how travelers had vanished?  A messenger delivered a bulletin two weeks ago.  The newsletter proclaimed that a horde of feral men were approaching from every corner of Essex.  Families with other estates immediately dispatched carriages, either to fetch their kinsmen, or hide them.  The townspeople barricaded the roads, but that later proved futile.  Louis and the men nailed stout boards over all the lower windows and locked the front gate.  They trampled all my flowers in the process.  Louis snapped and shouted that we had more pressing concerns to tend to than my “womanly whims.”

The mob arrived that night.  Is mob the right term?  I saw shapes through the wooden slats, heard them clawing and howling at the brickwork.  Oh God, Elizabeth, the ceaseless howling!  It is quieter in the cellar, I could not sleep upstairs in the suite.  All through the night, groaning and banging.

The stable-boys fire our muskets from the roof.  The cooks say we are nearly out of provisions.  More than enough tea, of course, but insufficient meat and potatoes.  The well is outside, I can hardly glimpse it through the roiling mass of filthy shuffling bodies.

What are they?  I know it is proper to ask “who,” but we have tried reasoning with them, shouting over their incessant clamor, but they pay us no heed.  They have no leader, not that I can discern.  They follow no battle plan or tactic, beyond trying to knock down the walls.  I am at a loss.

The ladies and I make bandages.  I fear we will need to use them soon.  Proper decorum has fled the premises.  All day, I sit with the other women around the lantern in the center of the stone floor.  The maids tell the most bawdy jokes!  I hesitate to laugh, since I must maintain an illusion of propriety, hunched on the dirty floor, but they brighten the day.  They are lovely girls, but after so long, I grow weary of their company.  At least their laughter drowns out the sound of black powder, thumping footsteps, and gnashing teeth.

Three days ago the monsters broke through the East drawing room window.  Splinters and glass covered the distressingly filthy carpet.  Bony arms stretched into the room.  The footman pulled me from the threshold and shot at one who bled black on the chaise.  My ears rang until I stumbled down the treacherous cellar steps.  There were too many shots to count, but eventually they blocked the shattered window with the oak bookcase.

Is this happening everywhere?  How is Warwickshire?  Are you safe?  Is the town overrun?  Are we the last ones left alive in Essex?  I do not know.  I pray that you are doing well.  I fear for Louis.  He jumps into every surge, every breach like a general astride a fiery stallion.  As if he will save us all through his own strength.  I hope he can.  I hope the food and water lasts.  I hope everything gets back to normal soon.

-Anne

To Elizabeth, From Anne [Part 1 of 3]

Twelfth of April, Seventeen Fifty Three

My Dear Elizabeth, the news of your springtime escapades never ceases to thrill me.  I read your latest missive just this morning, my peals of laughter startled the gardener who was shaping a nearby hedge.  When he jumped, his shears closed on his thumb.  I do hope he is alright.

As for the current Essex fashions, many ladies of respectable lineage have taken to wearing more elaborate hats.  Even the simplest pieces now have three or even four layers of embroidering or lace.  The milliners must be terribly busy.  One of the local ladies, Georgiana, commissioned the most intricate formal hat I have ever laid eyes upon.  Pale blue, trimmed in textured silk and satin, with an entire bouquet circling the brim.  She says they are real flowers grown especially for the purpose, but I believe they are carefully wrought out of fabric.

It is such a shame that you and the family could not join us at the Vernal Ball.  Louis and I had a marvelous time.  As you well know, I am not fond of dancing.  Nevertheless, I found myself positively transported by the music.  The orchestra boomed and sang across the hall, we have not danced like that in years.  I wish you had been able to attend, I fear long-distance travel has become increasingly perilous this past fortnight.  Several prominent guests, who never miss an event of this scale, were absent.  Trouble on the road I suppose.

Elizabeth, I hesitate to mention this, as I write, there are birds chirping on the grounds, it all seems so ridiculous.  I saw the constable in town this past Tuesday, and he was not his usual chipper self.  I did not mean to pry, but I asked him if he was quite alright.  He hastily grinned and walked down the boulevard.  “Everything in order madam,” he harrumphed, “nothing for you to worry about.”

Later that afternoon I spoke with Mary.  Her sister said that the patrolmen barricaded some of the western roads and would not allow travelers or merchants on the lane.  I confess, I did not understand at first.  I thought perhaps it was some social movement going on.  Rumors have spread quickly over the past few days, stories of an attack.  They speak of feral beasts waylaying anyone caught on the road, day or night.  Even well armed caravans have disappeared.

There may not be any substance to this.  It is a tragedy, but people get lost in the wilderness and carriages break at the worst possible time.  At any rate, Louis wanted me to tell you that we will not be able to see you in Warwickshire before June.  He says it has to do with the shipping schedule, but I think he is concerned about what might be happening in the North.  It pains me not to see you, and the children, but it might be for the best.  If there is any unrest in the countryside, Louis wants us to stay safe at home.

The footman just informed me that my presence has been requested in the foyer.  I do hope it is not Georgiana again, that woman, or her hat, will be the death of me.  I wish you all the best, take care of yourself.

-Anne

Mood Ring Product Review

I ordered two for me and my boyfriend.  They worked ok I guess but whenever we were together they didn’t.  I don’t know, like, they made us feel the opposite of what the other person felt.  I thought mood rings were supposed to show how you were already feeling, not make you feel a different way.  Anyway if I was happy, his ring made him feel sad.  If my ring made me quiet and calm, his ring made him all angry and intense.  If I’m, you know, “excited” he isn’t.  None of the other reviews mention this problem but maybe they didn’t order two.  Anyway we tried taking them off but of course only one of us wants to get rid of them at a time thanks to their effect on our moods.  But the rings are stuck!  No matter what we try they won’t come off.  My boyfriend tried to cut through the metal and ended up hurting his finger real bad.  I dunno, maybe if we weren’t together the rings wouldn’t effect each other.  But we’ve been dating for almost a whole year and I don’t want to give up on us over some stupid rings!  So two stars because they don’t work together, but they shipped fast.

Happy 2015

Bradley pushed through the crowd of incoherent revelers and security guards to arrive at work by midnight.  The ball dropped, 2000 pounds of confetti floated, people stumbled home.

Alcohol-soaked streamers covered his push-broom.  He’d get a bonus if they cleared the streets by 8am, enough to fix his cello and audition in Manhattan.  Enough to pay his rent this month.  Most of it anyway.

Talib Kweli thumped through his earbuds as he hurled another pair of black waste bags into the truck.  The soles of his second-hand work boots glittered silver and gold in the predawn glow.

Asking to Ask

“D47,” the intercom wheezed.  “D47,” as if Brian would miss his number after waiting 38 minutes in this khaki dungeon full of malcontents on hard benches.  He darted to the counter and sat before a bespectacled government employee.

“Good afternoon,” he said.  “I would like a usage license for the question mark and exclamation point please.”

“Are you 15 yet?” she had a voice like a leaf falling to the ground.  A big crunchy leaf.

“Yes ma’am, and I’ve passed the aptitude tests.”

“For the question mark and exclamation point?”

“Yes ma’am,” Brian placed his papers on the scratched and stained counter.

“The hashtag license is free, but there is a charge for misuse, the semicolon test is much more difficult than either of these, and quotation marks are only licensed to certified journalists.  Do you want any other punctuation usage licenses today?”

“What about emoji?”

“There’s no test for the emoji permit, but the fee is $200.”

“Oh.  Well.  Just the question mark and exclamation point please.”

“$120, and you have to sign the terms and conditions.”

She dropped two file folders on the desk, Brian flipped to the end and pressed his thumbprint on the signature box.  He tapped his card on the payment panel and held his breath until the charge cleared his now worrisomely underfunded account.

“Have a nice day young man, your phone will reprogram and update your access right away.”

Brian said “thank you” and hurried outside into the enthusiastic sunlight while D48 shuffled forward.  He watched the progress bar’s glacial movement until the phone restarted.  Finally, he thought, after weeks of waiting and saving, I can finally ask her out.  His fingers darted over the keys:

—Gabriella, I’ve wanted to ask this for a while.  Would you like to go to a party this weekend with me?

Crossed Wrenches- Part 3

The stern hanger was gone, a gaping chasm yawned in its place.  Bulkhead doors had shut with the alarms a few minutes ago, in an attempt to keep some oxygen inside the Dreadnaught.  Most of the crew was dead, most of the systems were down, most of Marta’s body hurt.

She dialed Lorenzo on her wrist-mounted communicator but only got static.  Since her ship was gone, she would die on this Flemish wreck unless she found another way back to Oaxaca.

They must have escape pods, Marta hoped, but where are they?

The dark corridors were almost empty.  Wounded crew members floated and groaned.  Sector Defense Administration torpedoes banged into the Bergen, not that it made much difference at this point.

Marta swung into an open semi-circle room, 20 lit circles ran along the outer wall, most were dim.  She saw a group of people, wearing spacesuits, crowded into one of the bright circles.  A series of three beeps sounded as the circle shrunk.

“Wait!” Marta shouted, “I’m coming!”  She kicked off the wall and shot across the room, the pod door closed.

“¡Mierda!” she swore and pounded on the hatch, “¡Hijo de puta!”

“Hey,” a voice called, “hurry up!”

One escape pod remained, Marta floated onboard and joined the last survivors.  There were no controls, so the man at the front hit the button to disengage and launch toward the nearest landmass.

The Liso Ship Repairs service shuttle was old, dilapidated, and rattled a lot.  It had a slow pressure leak, and nothing had been replaced or updated in over five years.  Lorenzo didn’t put money into that thing, so long as it flew the mechanic to the next job, it was fine.

The Dreadnaught Bergen’s escape pod was bare, uncomfortable, and cramped.  But that’s what happens when nine people pack into a pod built for six.  The Flemish invested as little as legally required into their escape pods.  They didn’t want to admit that they might need them someday.

The SDA had won the battle, but they were not gracious victors.  The navigation screen showed three escape pods already near Oaxaca and two in the ongoing firestorm.  All the others were shot down or captured.

A piece of debris from one of the fighters clipped their hull as the pod sped toward the ground.  More alarms sounded, more red lights flashed.  Marta and the other two latecomers had no seats or harnesses.

Entry was turbulent, luckily, Oaxaca has a thin atmosphere.  The unsecured passengers bounced around the pod. Marta curled into a ball and tried to protect her bleeding head from any more knocks.

Their damaged escape pod, with only inertial dampers, no reverse thrusters, no airbrake, no chute, struck the moon at an unreasonable velocity.  The entire front panel caved in and the pod itself broke apart upon landing.  Marta slept through the last bit of this ordeal, what with the blood loss and all.

She awoke to the hot Oaxaca sun with a large shadow crouched over her.  The shadow turned and made some noise.  Another shadow crouched over her.  The shadows melted together into darkness.

She awoke to the hot Oaxaca sun, this time, her eyes focused.  “We landed?” Marta asked the group of injured Flemish constructing a little tower.

“Yeah,” one of them replied, “we’re on some moon.  The locals call it… I don’t know, something that starts with ‘O.’”

“Oaxaca.”

“That’s it.”

“What are you doing?” Marta sat up and clutched her bandaged head.

“Setting up the distress beacon.  We should have some ships left up there, maybe they’ll come and get us.”

Marta stood up and leaned against the warm escape pod.  Seven of them milled around the beacon, one was off to the side, covered in a foil blanket.  “Only one fatality?”

“Edgar,” someone said.  “My brother.”

“Sorry.”

“We’re lucky, after that landing, we should all be dead.”

Marta looked around and got her bearings, they weren’t that far from town.  “Thanks for the ride, but I’m headed back to work.”

“Work?”

“Yeah, I was on the Bergen to fix the engine, I live down here.”

“Oh, well, alright then.  Are you sure you can walk?”

Marta started shuffling toward the horizon.  “I’ll manage.”

It was just after noon, she still had to fix that turbine.


The End

Crossed Wrenches- Part 2

Marta piloted the service ship directly toward the Dreadnaught Bergen.  She even broadcast her trajectory to other vessels within firing range, so no one could say they “accidentally” shot her down.  Seven harrowing minutes later, Marta hailed the client.

“Liso Ship Repairs on approach to fix the starboard engine, requesting permission to dock.”

A curt voice replied, “Permission granted, enter the stern fighter hanger.”

“Copy that.”

Marta retied her hair, which had fallen in a tangle, and landed as instructed.  She opened the door and looked down the barrels of four plasma rifles and one stunner.

“I’m sure you understand,” the one with the stunner tried to look sympathetic, “but we need to confirm your identity.”

“Of course,” Marta fumbled in her coverall pockets for her work ID badge and held her wrist up to the security scanner.  The little light turned green and the men all holstered their weapons.  She exhaled and realized she’d been holding her breath.  “I’m looking for Sergeant McGregor.”

A tall man with short black hair, rolled-up sleeves, and a frantic voice approached them.  “That’s me, the engine is this way.”  Without waiting for a response, he turned around and walked back the way he came.  Marta jogged to catch up, the security team found something else to do.

“So what happened to the engine?”

“SDA cannons hit us, you may have noticed we’re in a battle.”

Marta’s lower lip twitched, but she avoided rolling her eyes.  “Anything else to help my diagnosis?”

“Extensive damage to the fuel system, we had to shut off the supply before it all burned.”  The barrage echoed as they hurried down the corridor.  “Just through here.”

Marta turned the corner into the engineering department and her eyes widened.  Sparking wires, billowing smoke, rising steam, and melting insulation stopped her momentum.  Mechanics ran up and down the 20 meter engine, pouring coolant, siphoning fuel, and panicking.

“We cannot maneuver without this engine,” McGregor claimed.  “The thrusters are useless, so we just turn.”

Marta inspected the damage, but she knew right away it was hopeless.  “It cannot be repaired.  Well, it could, but it would take days to replace all the parts and test it.”

“We don’t have days.”

She rolled her eyes this time.  “I know, but if you point the port engine outward, your heading should stabilize.  It won’t be the same as two operational engines, but at least you’ll fly straighter.”

“We’ve already adjusted the thrust as far as possible.”

“And you’re still turning in circles?”

McGregor nodded.

“Then we’ll have to adjust it more.”

Marta commissioned a hydraulic jack, a concussive grenade, and every available crew member to reposition the port engine.  The exhaust ignited the rear fairings and destroyed one of the observatory decks, but navigation confirmed they were flying true.

She held the invoice tablet out for McGregor’s signature.

“You didn’t fix the engine,” he argued, “and you caused quite a lot of additional damage.”

“I saved the ship,” Marta countered.

The Sergeant signed the screen and transferred the second half of his payment.

“If you win,” Marta said as she tucked the tablet into her bag and started back to her ship, “come by the shop and I’ll see about that engine.”

A massive explosion rocked the Dreadnaught and Marta slammed into the wall.  Red lights flashed and alarms rang.  The noise was unbearable.  She staggered to her feet and ran three steps before a second blast sent the floor racing up to meet her face.  Marta wiped the blood from her forehead and tried to refocus her vision.  She didn’t even notice that the alarms had stopped, the lights went out, and she was floating.