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The Mob Wars

The Mob Wars
[short story from   ~burning woman~ by Sha’Tara]

What do you think, when you look upon a mob?  Or worse, you encounter one?  That had been the lesson of the day and the cadets in the class, all five of them, 3 girls and 2 boys, could barely restrain their yawns.  They really wanted to laugh at the instructor but there were rules at the Academy, and laughing at an instructor was bad business.  Punishments varied but they weren’t something you wanted to think about.

“A mob is dangerous.” droned on the talking head instructor, a short dark-skinned female who spoke the lingua franca as if she’d learned it from a computer.  Hardly surprising since she had learned it that way.  She wasn’t from the Clayborne worlds but from another galaxy altogether.  Still, she was human and you could relate to her as long as you remained totally mechanical, never betraying any emotion towards her, or her course material.  “A mob has no leader, that’s what makes it dangerous,” she carried on.  “If you see a mob coming towards you, purposefully march in another direction and as soon as you can, find a safe place to hide until it passes by.  Any grouping of ten or more individuals walking together and sharing information, or making loud statements constitute a mob by legal definition.  It is your sworn duty to the Imperium to report any observed mob activity, noting its coordinates and direction.  Anyone who observes a mob formation and does not report it is de-facto part of a conspiracy and liable to a charge of sedition.  The penalty, as you know, is ten years in the mines, the location of the punishment to be determined by the courts but always outside your home worlds.”  

We may be cadets but we weren’t born last night, or even the year before.  The Claybornes, a grouping of three planets orbiting their sun practically equidistantly, thus making each world almost a mirror image of the others climate-wise, were a relatively recent addition to an expanding Imperium.  “Space, the final frontier” boldly claimed a cartoon character from a series of funny little anecdotes that had been transcribed upon holos and would sometimes be available for viewing.  The quaint language and costumes and the posturing would bring out waves of rollicking laughter wherever they happen to be projected.  Final frontier indeed: the abysmal ignorance and hubris of our ancestors makes us wonder that we ever got off the ground of our original world at all. Too quirky.

I was writing about that line, the final frontier.  Even now with everything we’ve discovered and learned, most of it at great cost and unnecessary loss, we still cling to our ancient xenophobia and bigotry.  Once we “know” a thing, we believe that we’ve found the truth, or at the very least, some truth, something we can hang on and build upon.  Our awareness, our ideas, we believe, can be stacked up one upon another, like the modules we fabricate then build living units or space ships with.  It’s as if we choose to forget that no matter how long these modules fit together they must eventually disintegrate, starting with the oldest ones, but we don’t notice the rot and rust, and we keep on building on top.  There comes a point of attrition and entropy and whatever is, soon is no longer.  Simply put, the base collapses.  We accept that but we never see to apply the obvious lesson in it to our interaction with what can only be called the nature of things.

Which brings me back to my story about the mob.  Whatever the Cirillian teacher says about mobs, she really knows nothing at all about them.  But we Clayborners do know about mobs.  Our own societies were basically evolved from a mob mentality.  You see, the Claybornes were chosen by the Imperium as a dumping ground for all sorts of individuals who could not be coerced into the herd mentality, or group-think that serves the Imperium’s aims so well.  We are recent descendants of “deplorables” and “undesirables”  Our grand parents were those who could not be cured.  Many were anarchists.  Some were judged with criminal mentality because they openly defied and called down the Imperium.  And oh yes, we had more than a sprinkling of lower class criminals, the murderers, rapists, bank robbers, psychopaths.  As a fourth generation myself, I say good for them.  It’s here, on our own Clayborne world which we call Armistice, that you can really see the evil that is the Imperium. 

I discovered subsequently that the Imperium had hoped we would not only “break” open these worlds and extract every ounce of resources that could fuel their space economy and finance their Earth-based economy, bolstering ever-expanding wars of conquest, but that once the worlds were bled dry, that we would destroy ourselves, with a little destabilizing help from Imperial guards. Considering the make-up of our local civilization, it seemed inevitable that we would destroy each other when times got tough, a time when the resources ran dry and the Imperium ceased supporting us with the necessities of civilization that could not be manufactured locally.

Even early on in the colonization of the Clayborne worlds, that is exactly what happened.  Unwisely, to say the least, the Imperium representatives gave the game away too soon, when dreams of independence rode high in the minds and hearts of the colonizers.  Conflict ensued.  But at first it wasn’t against the Imperium.  That seemed too big a slice to tackle.  In anger and frustration, various groups, and towns led by gang lords, armed themselves by whatever means, mostly clubs, compound bows and arrows, long handled barbed spears and long knives or machetes, as well as agricultural implements which had reluctantly been allocated to them, and began to attack each other for control of the worlds.

That wasn’t according to plan since by now little or no effort was being made to mine the planets.  Everybody was too busy strengthening their defences and protecting their fields and other food supplies while attempting to lay waste to “the enemy’s” fields and food supplies, transports and storehouses and stealing resources and useful labour and women.

We could almost hear the screams of anger from stock market and “trading houses” all the way though space from an incensed earth, home base of the Imperium, as resources from the Claybornes’ came to a quasi-standstill.  Fortunes in speculation were being lost by the month, the week, even by the hour.  Action was demanded of Arch Imperator, Junes Kohlmadir.  She did what her kind do best: responded by massive force of arms against the wayward planets.

The Imperium intervened  with iron fist and jack boots.  Martial law and a general ban on every sort of weaponry was declared.  Walls around fortified towns were dismantled, sometimes with explosives, more often with slave labour from those arrested for disturbing Imperium-mandated peace; those that is who hadn’t been publicly executed in the first reactionary wave of the new military dictatorship.  They executed thousands of individuals, including women and young children – as an example.  As any thinking person would know and expect, more violence ensued, now directly aimed at the Imperium troopers and subsequent governors sent to negotiate and re-establish a working peace.  Adding insult to injury, the Imperium representatives decreed that any existing facility that could produce a space-faring vessel was to be utterly destroyed, not simply mothballed.  The Imperium set up its own space station to repair and upgrade its own ships.  All merchant ships had to have (and pay for) a complement of Imperium troopers on board, and an Imperium representative to accompany the captain at all times whenever it landed on one of our worlds.

This is the tipping point, where the Imperium, instead of subduing us, only succeeded in uniting the entire planet against the Imperium.

These people, my people, learned through bitter and bloody experience to hate the Imperium with passionate fury and vowed never to let the predators get their resources as cheaply as they had in the past.  We vowed to fight the Imperium to the last man, woman and child on our world.  There would be no free interference in our affairs.  Autonomy or death, was our slogan and war cry.  In the morning the call to arms and resistance would show up, painted on walls, fences, and even on the side of Imperial armoured personel carriers and tanks.  So the people began to organize; to create larger and larger political groups and legally challenge the Imperium’s manipulations.  We lived in wave after wave of bloody crackdowns and brutal repression but any talk of surrendering resulted in another body hanging from a pole, or tree, for the troopers to cut down and dispose of.  We would no longer be the Imperium’s “hewers of wood and drawers of water” forever, or until our worlds became unable to sustain life due to heavy extraction of natural resources and unchecked man-made pollution and we were abandoned to perish in the depths of space, with no hope of ever seeing rescue transportation off our dying rock.

Whenever the Imperium landed a detachment of Guard troopers, mobs formed and there was the inevitable bloodbath.  It is said that half of the population of Armistice died in the anti-Imperium “mob wars” that had already lasted two generations when, at sixteen, I found myself fighting for freedom.

So, ask me, do we know what to do if we encounter a mob?  Sure, if it’s from our side, join in.  If it’s from the enemy side, slink away and report its movements to our side, then form our own defensive counter-mob and attack.  To hesitate is to loose.  Now we are solidly united with our own spilled blood against the Imperium.  There would be no quarter from our side, for we are the legitimate people of this world.  

“Let me repeat:  a mob is a leaderless group of ten or more people bent on destruction and murder.  Report any mob to the nearest Guard post.”  Yes ma’am, thank you ma’am and why don’t you pack up your stupid course materials and return home by the first shuttle, with no due respect, ma’am?  Take some Star Trek holos back with you and base your next history course on them.  Maybe your students won’t turn into zombies on the first day. 

Meanwhile, what’s the real mob? There can be but one answer to that: it’s the Imperium.  The real Mob is always the largest, most powerful predatory group, for a mob takes what it wants because it has the power to do so.  Smaller groups, or “mobs” serve but to justify the real Mob’s oppression, or to do some of its dirtiest “wet” work.  Think “terrorists” as the vanguard of the Mob.  Oh yes, I have read quite a bit of the home world’s history to understand why here, on Armistice, we do what we do, and why we call our world by that meaningless term.  A mob, leaderless?  Never, no such thing.  The “leader” may not be a human being, it may be injustice, hunger, oppression, enslavement, but oh yes, a mob always has a leader.  In fact such a leader is the most powerful and motivational if it isn’t human, but an irresistible force, when choice is no longer choice.  Where, or when, anger and hate fill the collective vat of despair and feet begin to walk; hands grab sticks, stones, anything defensive or offensive, and charge down the street.

There came the inevitable bloody clash between Armisticians and troopers.  I was wounded in it and captured.  I was then seventeen earth years of age.  I am now an old but still strong woman from the hard labour I have performed my entire captive life.  I survived the mandatory torture and gang rapes, solitary confinement, sub-standard food fare and damp, cold, filthy accomodations.  Today, from my life imprisonment cell on Rebus, one of several Imperium prison planets, I write this for the “counselors” to read and ponder: “Down with the Imperium!  I still hope to see its final downfall.  How dare you call yourselves “civilized” and us “savages” and “terrorists.”   You are nothing but cowards who starve and kill women and children so your elites can wine and dine, get richer and brag.  Your lives are as hollow as the insides of our tiger reed.  I could almost pity you but will never: I vowed eternal hate and enmity between us and so it shall be.

Signed:  Selinia Armstrong of the free world of Armistice

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Benny

[a short story, by Sha’Tara]

Benny sat by the river that flowed past the house, just beyond the back yard.  He was tossing small twigs in the water, watching them float away and he was trying to remember so he’d know who he was.  

His memories were all a jumble in his head and they usually frightened him.  He thought he remembered a couple, a man and a woman who were very loud and made him scream.  He remembered hurting and feeling guilty for that.  Then the woman would hurt him more but he never understood why.  He remembered being cold, dirty and hungry.

One day when he was alone in the yard and crying, hurting and hungry, a nice smelling woman came to him and picked him up.  She took him away from the bad people and he never saw them again.  Then an old man came to see him where he played with other children.  The old man took him away from there to a house that had trees around it, green grass, and at the back of the house, water flowed.  The old man would hold his hand and let him lean over the water.  Leaves and twigs floated on the water and down below the rocks shimmered and danced, changing colours.

Benny liked it with the old man.  He grew up and the old man said he was his maternal grandfather.  He explained about his daughter, who was Benny’s mother, how she was addicted to drugs and drank and how she liked running around with bad men.  One of those men was his father.  He explained that it was that man who had hurt him and that he was in prison.  Benny tried to understand all that when he got older but he liked the water better.

The old man, his grandfather whom he learned to call “granpa” taught him about the water.  “It’s called a river” he’d say, “it is very pretty but it is also very dangerous.  Even for a good swimmer, it’s a fast running stream and a person can easily drown in it, do you understand that?”

Benny had learned when only a baby to agree, no matter what was asked; to do what he was told or there would be consequences.  “I understand granpa,” he dutifully replied. 

But the water was more alive than anything else had ever been for Benny.  It would sing to him in a language he could understand.  It didn’t scare him like people did, or make terrible noises like street traffic.  It never hurt him and it was even more gentle than granpa.  If he felt thirsty, there was a log that dropped down into the water.  He could carefully walk down to the water, then scoop the cold water into his mouth.  It was so easy and simple, he’d laugh whenever he did this.

There were very large trees that grew by the river’s banks that bent their heavy, luxuriant tops over the water and swayed in the wind.  During the warm seasons the leaves would come, then slowly at first, when still green, they would fall in the water and speed away.  Benny liked looking up into the green canopies waiting for a leaf to get tired of hanging on to its branch, let go, and flutter down to the water to be swept away.  Later, as the leaves changed from green to brown, yellow or even red and green, more and more of them would fall away from the branches and float down to the water to also be swept away.  If a strong wind came up there would be cascades of leaves falling, covering the ground and the top of the water.  That thrilled Benny as he stood under the falling leaves with outstretched hands. 

Some days when he was really happy, Benny imagined himself a leaf floating down to the water and being swept away.  He knew granpa meant well to warn him about the water but if the leaves weren’t afraid, why should he?  He though of asking granpa, but that would be like disobeying and Benny remembered what that meant.  He felt the deep fear of the pain he had been given when disobeying the man and woman who were his parents.  If he questioned granpa, he knew he would be beaten and locked up and made to go cold and hungry.  I mustn’t say anything, but if I float away then no one will hurt me.

A leaf fluttered down noisily, landing for a moment at Benny’s foot then sliding down into the water to spin away.  Benny followed the leaf and the river took him away. 

Do you understand the charges against you?

[short story – by Sha’Tara]

At first it just caused a bit of stir locally and I wouldn’t have thought much of it if I hadn’t been goaded by my brother to follow up on the case.  “There’s something here that needs exposure” he told me.

An unknown woman had been arrested for practicing medicine without a license.  Well, in the current wave of political uncertainty, and, OK, let’s call a spade a spade, craziness, that in itself should not have merited a packed court room.

But it did.  Let me tell you the story as I witnessed some of it, participated in some and as the rest was told to me by a source.

My name is Keith Darbour.  I’m a free lance reporter – my passion – but I hold “real” jobs to pay the bills.  Freelance reporting these days of national paranoia and corporate press ownership and control isn’t what it used to be.  I mean, hell, this used to be thought of as a free country.  I can tell you, that is no longer the case.  But I digress.  Back to the case.

As I said, the courtroom is packed.  “All rise.”  Judge Judy Kean sits at her desk.  There is only one item on her agenda today.  The defendant, a young, tall and slim woman with long wavy dark hair and exotic skin enters between two female guards.  She sits at the prisoner’s dock.  The prelims over, the jury having already been selected, both lawyers make their opening statements.  Basically, the State: practicing medicine without a license.  The defence: extenuating circumstances.

I’ll make my prelims short.  There was a bus accident.  Several people were injured, some seriously.  It was thought a child was even dead.  The defendant (so it is assumed at this point) arrived on the scene and provided first aid and more.  The victims, some now present in the court room as witnesses, claimed that she was able to reach inside their bodies, reset bones, stop haemorrhaging, heal severe tears in skin almost instantly and calm the rest.  Every person affected in the accident walked away healed.  Ambulances and police came, of course, but it became clear at the outset that none of the victims required further help, and many even loudly and vociferously refused such help.

The woman was arrested for healing, oh, excuse me, “practicing medicine” without a license and jailed.  Today is her trial.  Let’s see what comes of this hard to believe situation.  Let’s see how evolved we are, as a society, as a civilization.

Prosecution approaches the defendant and asks her name.

“Under your name rules, translated to the best of my ability, my name is A-125-04-H.  I believe your police erroneously entered my name as Alice Haley.  If you wish, I can use that name.”

“We want your real name, miss.  Can you give us that?”

“I did that, sir.  My name is A-125-04-H”

“Very well, please explain what that means for the court.”

“Certainly sir.  I am Android, series 125, batch 04, category: Healer.  That is what I am, and what I am programmed by my makers, to perform.  I was built to heal whenever I encountered damage to sentient life.  That is what I am and I cannot change that programming, even if I wanted to, which of course I would not.”

Judge: “Do you understand miss Haley what ‘contempt of court’ means? Do you understand that the court has authority over you here as long as you remain a suspect in a very serious crime?”

“Yes I understand that very well, but I must make a clarification to your claim of authority over me.  You have jurisdiction, but not authority, unless I grant you that right, and I must make it very clear that my programming prevents me from doing so.  Therefore I state: you have no authority over me.  Only my programmers do.”

Titters ran through the crowd.  The judge rapped her gavel, “Order.  Any more interruptions and I will clear this court.”  I can tell you she sounded very annoyed and her anger was barely restrained.

“Young lady, I have full authority in this courtroom, including over you.  I have the authority to stop this and have you returned to jail pending an appeal.  Is that what you want?  I won’t have people making fun of this court, or me, understand?”

“Yes, I understand of course.  What I don’t understand is why the truth appears to be such an obstacle to getting on with the facts surrounding my arrest.  Isn’t that why I’m here?  I tell you the truth, witnesses corroborate, and the judgment must be that I be set free.  My “crime” your honour, is practising medicine without a licence.  But it’s my nature to heal damaged life; my programming is my license….”

Gavel again.  “Stop.  You will not turn this courtroom into a circus.  We will have you tell us your real name or you will be in contempt and you will go to a psychiatric institution for observation.  Is that clear?”

Prosecution: “May I continue, your honour?”

Judge: “Yes.”

“Miss Haley, I’ll take that to be your maiden name, where do you live?”

“Galactic quadrant C-5, planet Abergani.  It’s all in my implant but there is no technology here that can read it.  I’m sorry, that’s the best I can do.”

“Do you do drugs, miss Haley?”

“I understand what your question means.  In that sense the answer is no, I don’t.  Androids do not ingest either for sustenance or self-pleasuring.  It would negatively affect our metabolism.”

“You continue to claim you are an android.  Does this mean you are not human?”

“Yes.  I am essentially a machine.  I am not human, as you understand the term.”

“Uhuh!” Turns to the jury with a sarcastic smile and a shrug.  Smiles from the jurors.  “How did you get here?”

“Best guess, an error or a miscalculation in the part of those who sent me out to help in a disaster in quadrant D-8.  This, according to my calculations, is quadrant Y-17, sol system X-092, and this is called planet Tiam-2, which you call “earth.  Oh, there’s been a disaster in a country you call Yemen – I should be going there now – may I be excused?”

Smiling broadly, the prosecutor states, “This isn’t a classroom, miss.  Just sit there and answer my questions.”

“But people are dying.  I could be saving their lives now.  I’m being conflicted in my response to programming.  Oh, wait.  I do not need to obey you, you are not human – only pseudo-human.  I can leave.”

“No, sorry but… where did she go?”

I need not add, the court exploded in complete disarray.  The defendant literally faded in front of over one hundred people who were all looking at her.  But that wasn’t going to be the end of it because some moments later “Alice” re-appeared.  There was slight smile on her small but perfect face.  She seemed completely at peace.

“I’m sorry about that interruption.  I just had to go and help.  It’s taken care of for now.  Please continue.”   I could barely hear her over the hubbub but finally everybody settled and it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.

“How did you do that little disappearing trick?”

“I did not disappear sir, I cannot do that.  I simply shifted dimensionally.  It’s easily enough done over tiny distances like the circumference of a planet.  I only had to shift over half-way, manipulate your time, perform my duty and return.”

“Why did you not “shift dimensionally” and leave the jail then?”

“I did.  Many times.  If I may say so sir, madam judge, your world is in a terrible mess.  You must do something about all the pain and death your species inflicts on itself and on other life forms.  This is a very unhealthy state of affairs that will not bode you well in the near future.”

Judge, still not recovered from the shock of having a defendant simply disappear from the prisoner’s dock, then reappear a few moments later, stares at the defendant.  “Miss Haley, will you promise to remain here while I confer in chambers?”

“Yes.”

“In chambers – now, and I mean now.  No, no notes!”  (The following I got from the defence counsel later in the day.)

In chambers, Judge Kean:  “Can either of you explain this circus act to me?  Am I being made fun of here?  Who is the escape artist in the dock?”

Prosecutor: “My question also judge.  We’re being played here, question is, who’s behind this, and what’s the point?”

Defence: “Come on.  You saw it for yourselves.  She disappeared and came back.  She’s smart, sure of herself, rattles off information that’s obviously real to her.  What if she’s exactly what she says she is?”

Judge: “Is there a way we can prove it?”

Defence: “Two that come to mind.  Check the computer, what’s going on in Yemen.  How about we ask her to seriously cut herself and watch her heal herself?”

Judge: “Well, here’s the situation.  There was a bombing of a school in Yemen about half an hour ago.  There was apparently much carnage but after some minutes all of the victims walked out of the wreckage as if nothing happened.  They all refused medical help and went to their respective homes.  There is even a picture here of a woman walking among the ruins of the school but she’s wearing the mandatory hijab with which she covers part of her face.  Can’t be identified.  Doesn’t that sound a lot like the bus accident though? Same reaction from the healed victims.  OK, as much as I hate grandstanding, this can only be resolved with a demonstration.  I’ll ask her to cut herself and heal herself.  Let’s just see what her reaction to that will be.”

Judge re-entering the court.  “Thank you for your patience.  We will now ask for a demonstration that will tell us if the defendant is in fact telling the truth, or making a mockery of this court.  Alice Haley, please stand.”

The woman stood, still with that completely peaceful look on her face.  Waiting.

Judge: “I’m going to ask you to prove yourself to me, to the jury and this entire court.  I want you to take the knife that will be given to you and to slice your arm open.  Then I want you to heal yourself so we can all see.  Can you do that, “Android”?

Alice: “It isn’t a question of whether I can, or cannot.  Of course I can do that.  The problem is, self-harming is against my programming.  I cannot do it, however much I’d want to.  Someone else will have to cut my arm, and I will then demonstrate my healing skills for you.”

“Assuming you are telling us the truth, and we checked up on your Yemen story which seems to validate what you told us,  then I will ask for a volunteer to cut your arm.  Anyone?”

I can assure you there were no takers.  Who in any kind of right mind would walk up to a passive young woman and simply cut her arm open, just to prove a point?  Nuts, right?  I looked over the courtroom to see if anyone would have the courage to volunteer.  And I thought, well, that includes me, doesn’t it.   … Me…  Do I have the guts to do such a thing?  Come on, somebody, volunteer, I thought, but no one did.  So it was down to me, Keith Darbour, freelance journalist and private investigator.  I got up slowly.  “Seems like no one is volunteering so maybe, I mean, I think I should then.”

“Thank you.  Your name sir?”

“Keith Darbour, your honour.”

“Ah yes, I’ve heard of you somewhere.  You’re a journalist?”

“Yes your honour.”

“Would you come down here please, and do as you are asked to?”  I was in it now, couldn’t back out.  I was handed a wicked looking hunting knife – who knows where that came from! – and told to stand beside the defendant.  She looked at me and smiled as she lifted her left arm so I could grab her wrist.  I was shaking like a leaf in the wind until she put her right hand on my shoulder and suddenly everything seemed all right, normal.  I lay the knife on the lovely skin and slashed across veins and tendons.  There was no explosion of blood, just some clear liquid flowing out slowly.  She took her arm from my grip and wrapped her right hand around the “wound” and when she removed her hand there was no sign of the cut.  She was still smiling as if the whole thing was a bit of a joke.  Which to her it must have been.  Such primitives, she must have thought.

Judge: “Raise your left arm, please, miss Haley.”  She did and turned it around for all to see that there was no harm done at all.  She had never screamed, never expressed any pain, not even winced while I slashed her.  It was, well, amazing?  More, it was a revelation.

So what could they do but let her go?  They knew they couldn’t hold her in any case; that she wasn’t doing any harm, quite the opposite.  Now you’re probably wondering, assuming you believe this tale, where she is at the moment.  What can I tell you?  I wanted to interview her but she “disappeared” almost as soon as she was told she was free to go.  I tried to locate her through the Internet alternative media, looking for some weird news about mass healings somewhere, anywhere, but found nothing certain.  Rumours and more rumours, and huge “alternate facts” spin-outs from the court hearing.  Do yourselves a favour: don’t tune in the Alex Jones’ Infowars for information, he’s got hold of the court story and has gone deeper down his rabbit hole than ever before.
What do I think?  I like to think that she’s not only out there, healing people and teaching compassion, but calling more of her kind to assist her.  We could do with more of her kind practicing medicine without a license.  In fact we could do with more of our own kind doing the same thing because these days, really, it seems rather obvious that having the license and charging for services rates much higher than actually having any healing success.  By success I mean that after the medical coteries are done with you, you should be thoroughly healed, not become a crippled dependent on more “specialists” and drugs, ’til death do us part, Amen.

 

Is it worth it?

[a short story by Sha’Tara]

          Lanky Andy, Andrew Larkin, walked into “The Odyssey” restaurant at exactly 1800 hours.  He allowed his transitioning photochromic lenses to clear enough so he could scan the seats.  Eddie, Edward Aberhart, was seated in a booth halfway down the window aisle, facing the entrance door.  He waved at Andy.

          “Jees… Jesus Eddie, you look like shit. What’s up?  What’s with the ‘I need to see you right away, like today!’ call?”

          “It’s like this Andy.  I’m at the end of my rope, OK?  I’ve been thinking about things for years now and it’s turned into a bloody nightmare.  I keep asking myself, ‘Is is worth it?  What am I doing here?  What’s the point of anything, anything at all.’ and nothing seems right, feels right, tastes right.”

          “What does Linda have to say about your, um, nightmare?”

          “Linda’s gone.  She packed up, went back to her family down south.  I haven’t spoken to her since she left, that’d be about two months ago.  Just packed up while I went uptown, loaded up the car, took Jessie with her and left me a note on the kitchen table: ‘I’m going to stay with mom for a bit until I can get a job at the hospital down there.  I know a doctor, I’ve got excellent references as an ER nurse, I’ll get a job.  Please, don’t call me, don’t call mom, just vanish from our lives.  If you follow, I’ll get an injunction based on emotional abuse.  I don’t care what you do Eddie, just disappear from my life; from our lives.  You’ve become creepy, sick, but not something I can do anything about.  I won’t let you drag us into your nightmare.  Goodbye Eddie.’ and that’s it.”

          “Well, nothing like a cheery get together to get things rolling.”

          A busty, dark “Greek” looking waitress came by, took their orders and said their drinks would be right up. 

          ‘I sure hope so’ thought Andy.  ‘I need a drink, the kind that helps you put your thoughts together, then wipes them out so you can enjoy life again, if only for a day.’  

          Although the place was three quarters full, it being Saturday evening after all, the drinks miraculously showed up within three minutes.  Eddie fingered the cold condensation on the outside of his glass.  He didn’t pick it up, didn’t drink, just stared as if he was reading a message.  Andy sipped on his, smacked his lips then swallowed the entire glass, waving at a waitress for a refill. 

          “All right, goddamn it Eddie, you got me here.  Don’t tell me you’re just going through another of your emotional bullshit phases.  I had enough of that shit with you in college.  Let’s cut to the chase, what’s eating you?”

          “I’m really sorry Andy but my life sucks.  I hate teaching and I don’t believe anything the curriculum makes me teach the kids so I can’t really motivate them.  Well, how could I?  I can’t motivate myself any longer.

          “You know I used to attend the ‘Life Force’ Pentecostal church, where I met Linda, right?  I thought I had some sort of relationship with God.  It felt good, right, proper and my life made sense.  I joined the Lions’ Club to be of service in the community and that reinforced my belief that life had purpose.  I married Linda and I was sure I really loved her.  Jessie’s birth, now that was some celebration after all the scare that she would be abnormal – nothing wrong with that kid.  I had it all and then it all went away.  I mean it, Andy: it just evaporated.  Like I fell in some big black bottomless hole.  That’s where I’m talking to you from: a black pit of despair, falling with nothing to hang on to.  Can you accept that?  I’m not asking you to understand, just accept this is how it is.”

          “Do you want me to lie to you?”

          “No.”

          “OK then, I can’t – no, let me put it more clearly for you: I won’t accept it.  I’m a rational person, Eddie.  If something fucks up upstairs, it’s up to me to go up there and straighten it up.  There’s no Chimera up there that’s going to take over and fuck up my life – not before now, not now, and not ever in the future.  I wouldn’t let it happen.  That’s my answer to your asking me to accept your current state of mind: I don’t because if I did, then I’d have to try to understand it next – and I’m simply not going there.  I don’t play mind games Eddie.  My own life is controlled; some people say I’m as hard as a rock, well fine, that to me is high praise.  That’s why you stuck with me through college too, you needed that hardness to put grit into your own mush, Eddie. 

          “What the fuck, man.  You are the one who got Linda, you whiny wimp of an excuse for a man.  She went for you because she felt sorry for you most of the time.  But I was the one who loved her Eddie.  How often I imagined what we could have done as a couple, as a team.  A doctor and a nurse, and I would have pushed her to get her medical degree too.  We would have been all over the world, helping people, I mean really helping.  A team on fire.  Fuck you Eddie, you miserable excuse for a human being.  I feel so sorry for you right now I want to punch in that baby face of yours.  Goddam it, I don’t believe this.”

          “Why have you never told me of your feelings for Linda until now?  I didn’t know, honest.”

          “Of course you didn’t know, you self-absorbed little shit.  All that’s ever really mattered to you was you and your precious feelings.  ‘I joined the Lions’ club to be of service to the community.’  Such a crock.  You joined to find support for your insecurities – tell me honestly that isn’t true.”

          “Ah hell Andy, I didn’t call you here for you to beat up on me.  I’m down, Andy.  I can’t take this.  Is this fun for you, crushing what’s left of a total loser?”

          “OK, OK, I’ll back off if you’ll level with me and tell me what’s really the problem.  What’s the cause of your black pit of despair, Eddie?  What’s this Gremlin you’ve got on your back that you can’t shake off this time?”

          “The honest truth, Andy: the world, and my life in it.  Have you followed the news lately?  With all the crap that’s going on and that keeps arising all over, is it really worth it?  Is there some point to it?  The world’s in a shambles, what am I supposed to do?  Ignore it?  Carry on like what’s her name, Pollyanna? 

          “I wake up in the middle of the night and I have visions, terrible visions, of things happening to thousands of people, horrible things.  And I feel guilty about it all, I can’t help myself, and the guilt won’t go away.  It’s like everything bad that happens is my fault.  I’m responsible somehow, as if I were a puppet and I was being played, forced to watch; forced to link my lifestyle to the problems of other people.  If I enjoy something, they go without.  If I eat, they starve.  If I have a house to live in, they are homeless.  If I have rights, they are enslaved.  If I’m free, they are in prison.  I’m cursed, Andy; I’m the other side of the coin.”

          As their food was being served, Andy didn’t answer.  He moved some plates around, ordered another drink, looked up at Eddie and said, “Ed, drink your fucking drink, right now.” 

          The waitress looked up, a shocked look on her face.  “Sorry, that’s between my friend and I here.  Please bring him another drink, he’s going to need it.”

          The waitress almost scampered away.  Andy started eating and felt ravenous.  He swallowed, then started to laugh.  Not so loud as to cause embarrassment but so Eddie would hear it and stare at him. 

          “You find something amusing, Andy?” Eddie put his empty glass down, looked into Andy’s eyes.

          “Yeah, you.”

          “My problems are amusing to you?  I thought doctors were supposed to be empathetic.”

          “Some are but it’s definitely not a trade requirement.  If it was most of us would be out of work tomorrow.  But this has nothing to do with me being a doctor, or you a high school teacher.  We’ve been dancing around a much more serious business called life.  You asked me, is it worth it?  Before I answer that, give me a rational alternative to what you call life.”

          “That’s a nuts question.  How can there be a rational alternative to life?”

          “Ah, got you there haven’t I?”

          “I don’t have any answer for you.  Are you talking about an alternative to life?  How can there be such a thing?”

          “Have you heard of NDE’s or near death experiences that some people claim to have had?”

          “Vaguely.  Here and there.  There’s no proof of such a thing actually happening. Just the brain reacting in a crisis when life is on the line.”

          “Exactly!”  Andy drank some more and it seemed his drinks were tasting better each time.  So did the food.  “Got to congratulate you, Eddie, this is one hell of a fine restaurant.  Not fancy, but you can’t beat this food, or the drinks either.  Don’t know when I’ve enjoyed myself more at a meal.  Go ahead, dig in, dig in.  This is fantastic!”

          “What do you mean, ‘Exactly’?”

          “Mmmm… what?”

          “I said there was no proof that NDE’s are real experiences and you said, ‘Exactly.'”

          “And I meant every word!”  Andy laughed at the puzzled expression in his friend’s face and noticed that outside, the world had gone dark except for street lights and the lampshades over the booths made new shadows.

          “Ease up on the drinks, Andy, you’re losing it.”

          “Actually I’m getting it, Eddie.”

          “Care to explain?”  He took a serious drink and suddenly felt himself unwind.  As if something good was going to happen.  Imagine that: nothing good had seemed to happen for ages.  He knew it wasn’t the drink, nor the food.  Anticipation. He actually felt it.

          “I never realized it until now,” said Andy.  “About you, I mean.  I always thought you were somewhat of a sissy, a wimp you know, going around feeling sorry for yourself, bringing people into your circle to empathize with you.  But that wasn’t it at all.  You were just confused, selling yourself short, unaware of your own nature, thus unable to take advantage of it.”  He seemed to look at Eddie with some sort of awe.  “I never knew; never suspected even.” 

          “Would you tell me what you’re going on about, Andy?  You’re confusing me and I think you’ve had too much to drink.”

          “Oh just wait.  I haven’t had half enough.  I’ve been a fool, Eddie, a complete idiot.  I’m the one who’s been totally self-centered and blind.  You know what you are, buddy?”

          “Hey, this is getting scary.  What am I?  Some sort of Reptilian alien?”  Eddie smiled, ate some, enjoyed it.  “You going to keep me in suspense?”

          “No.  I’ve got it.  You, my very dear friend and pain in the ass, are an empath.  A real, honest to God empath.  That’s what explains your angst, you visions, your despair; your deep questioning of the purpose of life. You feel it man, you feel it all and you have never learned how to deal with it.  You’re supposed the “channel” this stuff, not keep it bottled up.  It’s not about you, it’s about this world, and how life evolves or adapts itself within.  That life needs to communicate; to give itself messages and in human terms, those messages are carried by empaths. 

          “When I said, “exactly” I meant it: it’s all based on empathy.  There’s no need of proof once you pass a certain point, or reach a certain level of evolution – it just is.  I’m a surgeon and I know a bit about NDE’s.  I’ve had talks with quite a few patients who, after thanking me for saving their life, went on to describe their experiences under anaesthesia when they experienced clinical death.  I was interested but never convinced beyond what you said: brain reaction. 

          “But it wasn’t that, don’t you see?  These NDE people are empaths!  They crossed over and came back because their nature provided the bridge between the physical world of their body and the spirit, or mental, world inhabited by their consciousness.  I remember talking about this with Linda.  She didn’t make the connection between NDE’ers and empathy, but she accepted the experience as very real.  Goddam Eddie, she was right!  I just needed to see the connecting thread and you just showed it to me.  Your angst is your connection to others, Eddie.  You’re not cursed, you are blessed, old friend.” 

          “If that’s the case, shouldn’t it have made me selfless and compassionate instead of the loser wimp you see before you?”

          “No, I see it now, that’s not how it works.  You needed teachers and you didn’t get them – luck of the draw I suppose.  You needed to be taught self-empowerment and self-reliance.  That’s where the rubber hits the road I bet.  That’s where it comes together and changes you completely.  Think about it, Eddie.  Think about it long and seriously.  While you’re on top of that, teach yourself about channelling – pass it on, don’t keep it in.  You’re watching the movie, you’re not in the story being chased by those demons, though they are real.  You can sense them but they don’t know you exist.  That’s your key and your power.  You can exert influence upon the stories in your mind if you learn how to transmute the information then upload it in its changed form.  I read about this stuff; it’s amazing I never got it until now.  You: you’re the key.  You’re the Avatar.  You’re the one making it happen now, right now, while you’re outside of yourself.

          “Is that my alternative to life?”

          “Yes.  You see, there isn’t just one form of life, there are infinite types of life.  People like yourself, well, they can slip in and out of any form they choose.  You have the power to do that and that’s how you survive in worlds given over to violence like this one.  You don’t stay in the line of fire, you duck, you live to fight another day.  But you’re always on the front lines regardless of where you go in your mind.”

          “You missed your calling, you should have been a preacher.  I’m sold.  Just hoping it isn’t the drinks talking, or feeling.”

          “It isn’t the drinks.  This is like a revelation.  I’m sold too.  I’m no empath, I know that, but you know who else is?”

          “Linda!”

          “You bet, Linda.  And buddy, I’m going after her.  I love her; I’ve always loved her and I’m going to make it up to her for not pushing my way between the two of you.  Got that?”

          “Yes, I got that.  It’s how it’s got to be.”  He hesitated for a moment, then added,   “I know you’ll be good for her, and you’ll take good care of Jessie.  Let me know when you guys are married, or settled.  I’d like to visit.”

          “I’ll do that.  No, I mean we’ll do that.”

 

A SMALL BLACK CLOUD

                                                         A short story by Sha’Tara

Judy awoke from a pleasant “beach” dream and pushed her big fluffy tomcat off the bed, shut off the radio alarm and mechanically tuned it to her favourite morning station, CKRY. She had thought how funny the acronym was at first, but got used to it, and the jokes that went with it. She slipped a sheer nightgown over her tall, slim frame and smelled the aroma of freshly brewed coffee that filled her apartment. She enjoyed her simple, uncomplicated, automated life. Her job paid little more than minimum wage, but she had few problems handling it, especially since she finally got rid of Mario. For a moment, a small black cloud filled her mind, and her heart constricted, but the feeling passed and she fed Tiny his morning allowance, enough to satisfy a hungry Rottweiler, she thought.

She liked her one bedroom condo apartment.  The building was on a slightly elevated part of town, her apartment facing west giving her a decent view out over the bay. A few large evergreens gave a feeling of privacy.   Her neighbours were quiet and she hardly ever had to speak to them, except at the monthly strata meetings.

She parted the blinds on the kitchen window and scanned the view.  It was still and cold in a harsh grey, smoggy morning light.  Even under the snow cover of the condo parking lot, frost coated the windshield of her robin-egg blue Mietta.

She sipped her coffee while brushing her long blond hair, her left hand alternating between the cup and a bowl of fruits and cereal she was pensively mixing. Everything was so normal, so wonderfully normal. She vaguely heard a comment on the radio about an accident in town, as she waited for her music, the old love songs of the Sixties and Seventies she enjoyed so much. It seemed the interruption lasted longer than usual, but the news held no interest for her. Her job was only a couple of blocks away, at a small distribution company, so she never drove or took the bus. Road problems seldom caught her attention and her Mietta stayed under cover except for weekend shopping or the occasional spin down Shoreline Drive.

She enjoyed her walk to work, and often, another woman, Samantha, who worked at the local paper further down the block, would walk with her as far as her office. The women sometimes invited each other over for coffee, or for dinner.   Both of them were now avowed singles, having bravely fought their version of the battle of the sexes… and won, or so they thought. For the time being, men were off their list. They had discovered that cats, especially tomcats, made much better, warmer friends, had a good deal less expectations and were definitely less expensive to maintain.

“…It wasn’t until four this morning that a work crew discovered bodies wedged down a sewer manhole at 7th and Balsam. We advise commuters to avoid that area, as police and other emergency crews are still there, cleaning up and investigating. … and now, for more of your favourite songs… this is CKRY, YOUR GOOD MORNING RADIO… “Bridge Over Troubled Water, I will lay me down..”

Judy smiled through her morning preparations for work.   She deliberated over her day’s dress, and makeup. She liked to change her appearance and paid a great deal of attention to her mood swings.   She followed these with her own body artistry so she wouldn’t feel ill at ease, or out of sorts with herself for the rest of the day. She petted Tiny as he rubbed against her leg to make him understand he’d have to spend the day outside. Of course, he loved it outside, but he had to pretend he didn’t. There would be a lot of complaining as he finally jumped through the opened window onto the patio.

There would be birds to watch at the feeder the neighbours so diligently filled every morning.   Who knows, maybe a careless one would provide some extra protein today, and the woman next door would chase him angrily off her own balcony, providing some excitement… Birds could be so incredibly stupid, and humans so entertaining when properly motivated. He stretched and meowed loudly. When Judy saw his claws dangerously near her wooden rocking chair, she said “No!” and “OK boy, time for you to go out.” Tiny could have shrugged as he smiled inwardly… a very sarcastic cat smile. Yes, humans were predictable. One only had to know how to move and guide them to do what one wanted. After all, why do they have those hands and feet, processed foods, sliding windows and warm, soft laps, if not to serve cats? Tiny had learned, early in life, the incredible power he possessed in his long, soft grey fur, his deep voice and his well-groomed claws. He believed he could move mountains with these, and he did: mountains of human emotion.

Today would be green.   A light green dress, green shoes, green scarf, and her green coat, which was a darker shade, but that didn’t matter.   She topped herself with a wide green woolen toque and felt quite ready to face the world.

“… Teenagers looking for a place to have a smoke on their way to school discovered bodies in an abandoned warehouse at the east end of town near the river. . Three men and two women were bludgeoned and left to freeze to death on the floor of the old building. Police are now investigating in force as fear is mounting that a crazed killer, or gang of killers, are loose in the town – this is CKRY.”

Again, Judy paid scant attention. This was a big city, and things happened all the time.  It had nothing to do with her, though it probably meant that Samantha would already have been called to work to deal with the news. Oh well, she would call her later and find out how it all went.   Quarter to nine, and the pale sun was just rising over the city. It would be a still day, no wind and only a few white, wispy clouds. Good. She hated walking in storms anyway.

“…Stay tuned for more news as our roving reporter brings you the latest in the killing rampage… this is CKRY, YOUR GOOD..”

She turned off the radio, picked up her bag, set the alarm, locked her door carefully, and went out into the cold morning air. She smelled the usual mixture of smog, exhaust fumes, sulfur, garbage and other unnatural substances which always assailed her nostrils until she got used to them. She heard some distant sirens of emergency vehicles but gave them no heed.   In the still, cold morning, everything was normal.

There was excitement at work over the night’s happenings, but she couldn’t get into it either. Why should she? It had nothing to do with her, absolutely nothing. She turned on her computer and began to tally, add, subtract, make sense of the orders, send letters, receive e-mail, and pass on the messages to the various department heads. It was a small local delivery trucking firm, so her work load was not so much heavy as it was varied.   She often thought of herself as a Girl Friday in that place.

“Hey Judy: did you hear about last night?   They’ve found at least nine bodies by now, all killed in the weirdest ways. The funny thing is, there’s no rhyme or reason to the killings: they’re not prostitutes, or street people, or people of any particular category; they’re just people. One of them was a young boy, about 12. Most of them were just people driving home, or walking on the street, or so it seems.   What do you think of that?”

Well, Frank was always one to ask dumb questions and enjoyed getting people riled up.   For a brief moment, she wondered why these “killings” had no effect on her, why she didn’t care, absolutely didn’t, but quickly dismissed the thought. After all, she had her own life, her own problems, and had to remain aloof in order to keep it together. She had worked hard to reach this point of semi independence, and she wasn’t going to let anyone or anything rob her of her accomplishments.

“Look Frank, I don’t care, OK? It’s got nothing to do with me. It’s just one of those freak things that happen in big cities, and this is a big city, Frank. Why don’t you take care of that order for McGraw’s Deli in your hand instead of wasting my time with speculation on accidents and the like? They have people paid to do that: police, FBI, Homeland Security, newscasters, analysts, shrinks, preachers, columnists, lawyers, the government… They won’t fill our orders, so let’s do our job and let them do theirs.”

“Hey, who pissed in your cornflakes this morning?”

“No one. I just can’t get personally involved in other people’s problems, OK?   I’ve got work to do and a life of my own. Why don’t you get one!”

Crestfallen, definitely resentful, Frank left. She felt so much better. Men!   They think they can come on to a girl by frightening her and offering protection. If she falls for it and lets the fear of being alone get to her, she may accept the not so innocent offer of an escort home, or an offer of a date… yeah, right. Well, not this girl. Been there, done that! Definitely don’t work!

From there on the day progressed normally.   The news spread, and there were more versions all the time.  It all exploded on social media.  One story was of alien abductions and experimentations. Organs were missing from the bodies, and they had all been killed in mysterious ways unknown to the experts in the field. Another was of an Oriental gang of trained martial arts experts led by a madman who wanted to take over all the cities of the west through fear and blackmail…  Some more out there talked of zombies and vampires.  Of course the main thread on mainstream media was the usual: terrorists.  When all else fails, blame terrorists.  Give them a race, a religion, a cause, make up names and invent faces if needs be and spin away.

“Ridiculous!” Judy thought as her day ended and she was putting on her shoes and coat.

She stepped outside.  The weather had not changed. Everything was still.  Even the sound of traffic seemed hushed.  The smog hung a little heavier at the end of the day. She walked home briskly, hoping to meet with Samantha, but did not. She was surprised, when she came in, that Tiny was not at the window, but he would be. She changed and prepared dinner. She set the table, looked out and called Tiny, then called Samantha.   No answer.

Strange. Oh well, life goes on. Tiny is a tomcat, he’ll return. Samantha is probably working late at the paper. I know, I’ll call the paper. If she’s not there, I can leave a message.

A man answered her call: “Citadel News Room,   Jerry speaking. Can I help you?”

“Yes, I was wondering if Samantha was still at work?”

“Who wants to know?”

“Her friend, Judy Simpson, from the condos.”

After a pause, the man spoke: “I’m sorry to have to tell you this miss Simpson, but Samantha was one of last night’s victims.”

“Oh!” and she hung up slowly. Tiny was scratching furiously at the window. She noticed her hand was shaking a little as she let him in.   She sat down to finish her meal.

She would run a nice hot bath after the dishes were put in the dishwasher, and everything would be normal again… Absolutely everything.

The Story Teller

 

                                                       [a short story—by Sha’Tara]

So, as I was saying, I crewed with Abraham, on the old Windsong, you know, and as luck would have it…

“Hey, wait a minute, did you say Abraham? I thought the Wandering Jew died when his ship’s hull was breached by a meteor and the computers failed to sound the warning in time.  They found the records in the wreckage.”

Well, obviously he hadn’t yet eh?  Can I get on with this? As I was saying, the Old Man called his commanders to his cabin one day, that is, those of us temporarily out of fugue, and he said, “You dogs listen, and listen good.   I don’t have a lot of time left, no matter how much fugue I take, and with rats like this crew to command, not much of that allowed me or I’ll find my ship boosted and me shackled in the hole or looking at the stars without a face visor. Here’s the deal, and it will explain why I felt the need to hire a pack of criminals like you for this trip. Our manifest states we are hauling arka-brite to the smelters on Ita. You know this. What you don’t know is, we’re going renegade. Are you hearing me?”

We all nodded silently, looking at the floor, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“What, no argument from you pirates?   Fine. A couple of sleeps ago, I had a dream. There was an ancestor of mine with the same name I have. He too was a wanderer. Seems he was looking for his home and his god, so the dream said, spoke to him and promised him this home if he would do whatever he was told to do.   Fugue dreams can get very detailed, and often very boring, since you can’t get out of them. This one was interesting. This Abraham turned from his ways and began to follow the directions given him by his god and messengers, or angels or whatever you call them.   We’ve seen enough of these in our travels, not a problem to accept this possibility is it?  Still no comments?  Very well.  

“What I found interesting is that my ancestor stopped questioning everything. He basically did as he was told and he had a pretty good and interesting life all around. Women, battles, hobnobbing with some king in a place they called “Egypt” or so it sounded.   Then he had cattle that grazed on rolling green lands—I saw these in the dream—and he lived in tents that billowed in the wind. It’s my understanding that the god wanted Abraham to have children who would inherit the world they were on at the time and didn’t much care how those kids were “begotten” as the saying went, if you get my drift.”  

Old scar-face actually winked as he said that. Must’ve been a pretty exciting dream for him to demonstrate feelings!  He continued:  

“I couldn’t make out whether these people had ships, but it seems they actually didn’t. I know, sounds far-fetched but who knows the kinds of events that happen to worlds over time? In fact, if I understand the dream, they walked, yes, with their own legs, from place to place. They didn’t even use exoskeletons. Gravity must’ve been pretty low to be able to do that. Didn’t mention equipment either, so best guess, they were able to survive on it without suits. What else… oh, yes, in what I saw of it, this world had biological life all over it: things like live animals, plants, and open water, lots of open water in some places. I saw the sky: it was colored a light-blue. Now that makes for an interesting kind of world.  Best guess, I had a dream about Old Earth.”

Somebody chuckled a bit too loud.  Old scarface looked around until everbody stood rigidly at attention, stone-faced.

“Well, you rats, I have a mind to find that ancient world of my ancestors and if I can black-market our manifest to my smuggler friend Hino the Zealous for a half-decent payoff, we head out.”

I remember then saying, “Uh, cap’n, apart from the fact that if we’re arrested after high-jacking a load of arka-brite from Arka Corp we’ll all hang so to speak, do you have coordinates for this planet of yours?”

“I will have. I intend to do exactly what my ancestor did. Not for nothing they sneeringly label me the Wandering Jew. I am Jewish, not that it means anything anymore, but it did in those times, apparently.   My plan is simple: I intend to enter into fugue shortly and return to the dream. I intend to contact that god and get the coordinates from him. Since the planet was given to my ancestors, then it’s also mine.   Logical. If my people are already on it, then I’ll retire there and you can have the old Windsong. Lots of parsecs left in her yet. We’ll give her a facelift, change her name, registration, and off you’ll go boys.”

“Sorry to interrupt cap’n,” our computer analyst and programmer Bryxt cut in, “but you intend to enter fugue while connected to a brain scan?”

And as you space dogs know, it’s the only way to reconnect to the dream sequence, and totally illegal because in most cases, it induces what has come to be known as “gap” sickness, an incurable condition of acute paranoia caused by jumps.  Jumps is the only way to get around in space unless you want to spend eternity looking at the same stars.

“That’s what I mean to do, damn space admin’s rules or the consequences. If I come out addled, the ship is yours that much sooner, so what’s the worry? Toss my body out and we’ll be square.”

So, to make a long story short, the cap’n entered fugue connected; came out apparently sane and sound with a smile on his scarred leathery face that spread from ear to ear.

“All right you useless worms, contact Hino. The coordinates are in the computer. As soon as we’re cleaned-out and paid, we head out. A little adventure, that’s what a man needs at the end of his journey.   Space can get so damned boring after a while.”

We sold our cargo to the smugglers and entered worm hole TF-068 using a pirated ship’s signature from one of the smuggler’s barges and after some unexpected and bone-jarring jolting came out among the weirdest groupings of solar bodies I’d ever seen. Our computations had wiped out in the boost—hell, old Windsong was never meant for that kind of torture: she was a freighter, for Ajax sake! Of course we should have realized our cap’n had lost it when he gave us his plan, but you know, the captain is the man and if you want to survive space, there is but one rule: do what the man says once you’ve had your say.

We scoured that area with what was left of the ship’s computers working, found nothing, nothing at all. We were years looking, scanning, probing, sending surface craft to promising worlds until enough didn’t come back we couldn’t risk that anymore. We used up all our surface probes, most of which never responded. Those that did only increased our despair. This system we had tumbled into refused to make the least allowances for biological life, let alone human life.

Sanity was the first and greatest victim in our situation. We argued and fought with what little energy we had left. Most wanted to mass-launch the last jumpers and sling-boost equipment or crash land WindSong even to take their chances upon a particular world that seemed quasi-adequate for some sort of survival. Radioactivity was high but they argued they could beat it. Anything to get off what had become our prison on dying Windsong.   Anything to get away from the totally mad Wandering Jew who now spent his days hooked up to the brain scan that didn’t work, trying to recall his stupid dream. When he disconnected to walk among us, he had tears in his eyes, but they weren’t for us, for having stranded us. He didn’t see us, or hear us either. His tears were for his damnable dream. He began to talk to his ancestor’s god out loud and we shuddered, giving him wide berth whenever we heard him pleading, demanding, cursing, sighing. Off the chart, he was, poor bastard. We even felt sorry enough for him not to boost him out the air-lock.

From a healthy and happy crew of 68 men, we were whittled down to 31 emaciated ghosts wandering through the ship’s corridors when the damned angels appeared.  

“So that’s how you got back?”

That’s what’s so sick about the whole thing. I woke up here, right here, in this pub. Alone. No crew, no ship, nothing to my name, just old memories.

“What did space admin have to say about your story, man?”

Just a story, home boy. Bar tender, did that earn me another round before I return to the Heritage II?

“You from the Heritage? Hell’s bells, I should’ve known! We’ve been had, he’s one of those story tellers.   “

And all of you so sure you could spot a storyteller, eh? And also a shape-shifter, friends. That old man you made your little bets with before I joined your group was none other than myself and it’s time to pay up.   Better luck next time boys.

I could have been anything.  I could captain my own cruiser.  I came out of the Academy with top ratings, family money, prospects, offers, the works. Space is infinite. The number of ships that move through this one universe alone would be considered infinite. Possibilities endless. But despite the less than glamorous conditions of spacing around from galaxy to galaxy as a story-teller, you can’t beat it. It’s not only that we exist as double-agents, spying for corporations or this and that tin pot dictator or emperor searching for traitors, princes hunting for concubines and wives belonging to opponents; even indulging in sleuthing on the side—you know, to relieve the boredom between gigs—but there are other compensations.

I even had me a date with a blue-skinned Andromedan dancer last time through there and it didn’t cost me anything but a little story I made up on the spot. It would have been worth it just to watch her purple eyes dilate and hear that universally renowned laughter. I might tell you about that sometimes, but not this trip. My feelings are still too closely associated with it, especially the part where I was caught with her “in fragrante delicto” and trying to explain to the *Genoba that I had imbibed a bit too much Andy beer and was under the delusion she was an Andy goddess I had come to propitiate. He almost bought it… almost.  

Anyway, next time is next time. I have to board now, before my pub acquaintances discover the old man I claimed to have shape-shifted into was an old wino I found outside the bar and bought for a bottle of cheap rot-gut. So, I live my life on the edge. Why not? I’m young, not even 150 years old, galactic standard time, with a whole life, and more if I play my cards right, ahead of me begging for adventure.  Crazy?  Maybe, but if I stayed out of all the illegal, banned or dangerous places, where would I get my stories, and my money?  My very first commander, Light Leeta, would remind us at each enemy encounter, “OK people, remember, move to kill, move to win.  Live hard, live fast, live to live another day.  Go!” As the last surviving member of that motley crew, I can say this: it worked for me.

*Genoba, for those of you not familiar with the two or more dozen major Andromedan lexicons is the owner of a very high class, very exclusive Andy brothel, the kind that unless you’re royalty, or a member of the Family, you want to be sure you steer clear of.  The name itself isn’t originally Andromedan but followed an ancient family from Old Earth.  I know, nobody believes such a place did exist once upon a time but I have stories about it.  Another time.  I’ve got to board my ship, my actual destination to be given while in fugue.   They never give your destination until secured on board in case you get scanned and your coordinates lifted from your brain – everybody knows that, right?  OK wild and weird, here I come ready to live another day!   

 

 

Dallas

 

[a short story – by Sha’Tara]

          Dallas was a week from her 15th birthday when she disappeared.   I am her older brother by almost 2 years. My name is Greg, or for some, Gregory, 3rd oldest of five siblings.   Home is Hope, a small town at the eastern end of the Fraser Valley, if you will. The house is in an older subdivision on the way to Kawkawa lake.     Not much ever happens in Hope and Dallas’ disappearance created quite a stir for the next year, until nothing was discovered or found and like so many, Dallas’ fate entered the missing persons’ growing police files.

          Needless to say, the family was not the same after that. Mom was disconsolate but adamant that Dallas was just “lost” as she put it, that nothing had happened to her. She managed to communicate this feeling to me and upon graduating from Hope Secondary, I decided to go in search of Dallas.

          There wasn’t much to go by, but I knew Dallas intimately – we were more than siblings, we were close friends, and I knew a lot of things about Dallas that obviously no one else knew. I knew that she was restless, not close to anyone and tired of being “mom’s girl” at home.   Dallas had grown wings prematurely and wanted to try them out. She had talked to me about leaving home many times but it was always something in the future, when she was “of age” so to speak. But youth is fed by impatience and Dallas added impetuosity to the volatile mix. Hope and home were much too constricting for someone like her. I could remember her flashing dark brown eyes and black pony tail swinging back and forth when she entered into an argument about something she felt deeply about, and Dallas felt deeply about everything.

          So, with only mom knowing my plans, and a little over 2 years since Dallas had gone missing; with some money from an uncle’s inheritance, I set out after her.  

          I naturally went west, towards Vancouver, and learned to do research on teens running away from home. I did a lot of work to create a working pattern. I rented cheap accommodations where I set up my wi-fi computer and cordless pocket printer. I transcribed my notes from the day’s search into computer files and printed pictures of Dallas to put on posts, bulletin boards or pass around. I got to know a few detectives in charge of missing kids and everyday was a new learning experience. I won’t bore you with the endless false leads, and the people trying to cash-in on leading me to Dallas. I learned to smell them out pretty quickly. And all the while, I discovered the City itself.

          I knew that anything was possible now. I interacted with prostitutes, pimps and massage parlours, any sort of place or business that might provide a haven for underage female runaways. I didn’t think Dallas would go that route but desperation narrows choices. On the other side, I frequented movie sets where a young girl’s ID might not be checked too closely when an extra was needed in a hurry. I checked the Internet for ads and agencies that placed babysitters or nannies.

          It was a strange time. The more I came up blank, the more convinced I became that I was on Dallas’ trail and would find her. I dreamt about her sometimes, and every dream showed me this: that she was not only all right, but had found herself and was happy with her new life. Sometimes I met her in a restaurant where she waitressed, or in a rich household where she worked as a nanny. There was always that mischievous look in her eyes, the twinkling that said, “I have a secret and I won’t tell you what it is until and unless you discover it for yourself.” Then she would laugh and the dream would end.

          I emailed mom fairly regularly, skipping many details but reassuring her that I was not only still looking, but increasingly sure that I would find Dallas and that she would be well. Often I would get a simple reply: “Thank you, Gregory, thank you. – Mom”

          It occurred to me, after over a year, and a third of my funds gone, to combine my search with some practical course on private investigating and journalism. Within a few months I felt confident that I had enough horse sense and street smarts to try working. I answered an ad from a family looking for their disappeared son. I visited the people and explained what I was doing in Vancouver and convinced them that I knew enough to be of value to them. We settled on a fee and I added 14 year old “William” to my search query, creating a new set of patterns. Not surprising (to me) I found William with a group of Lost Boys downtown, trying to earn some money washing windshields at intersections. Once I was sure of him, I waited for a chance and approached him as casually as I knew how, offering him a small amount of money if he would run an errand for me.   He was hungry and broke and completed the errand in record time. Before I paid him, I told him his name and asked him if he ever thought about returning home.

          “You a f…king cop?” he snarled and almost bolted from the outdoor table I had chosen for the exchange. I gently but firmly put my hand on his arm.

          “Oh, don’t be stupid, Will. A cop wouldn’t ask you to run an errand. I wanted you to have that to think about before I talked to you.”

          “So what’s the deal? Why do you care about me?”

          “Should be obvious – I’m a private investigator hired to find you, and I found you. I can have you home within the hour… if you’ll let me. Hey, it’s no skin off my nose if you run, I get paid regardless.   I report that I found you, the location, and that you took off. Doesn’t sound too smart to me, though. Whatever caused you to run in the first place couldn’t have been that serious, and it’s been 6 months. I think it’s time for you to go home, finish school, then think about leaving with your head high this time, with a job or a degree at least. You’re not a poor homeless kid, William. You’re a spoiled Yuppie brat who may just have learned a valuable lesson now. You can take advantage of that. You know what gets you the farthest in life? Self-discipline. You can do it to wash windshields, surely you can do it to a greater end than that.”

         So I returned a subdued William to his grateful parents. And I found other jobs; learned to collaborate with some of the undercover cops and my life slowly changed, but my purpose remained steadfastly the same: to find Dallas. Another year went by and most people would have given up by now. But something was inextricably linked in my mind: Dallas and the City. Dallas and I. All three of us were drawing together, I could sense this.  

          The City, as ugly and frightening as it had appeared at first, was definitely growing on me. I saw her gross sins and could forgive many of them. I interacted with her victims, the rich and the poor, and found out they didn’t mind being victims and I learned to accept that. And I wrote all of that down in my notes and began to feed some of my impressions to the borderline underground press that proliferated in the City. I deliberately used my real name to sign my articles and made sure it appeared frequently.   I made a couple of “appearances” on radio talk shows about my work on the street, and what I had learned in interaction with the “Wendy’s” and the “Lost Boys,” as I called the runaways; their pimps, employers, lovers, and mentors.

          And as I somehow knew it would, it happened: I found Dallas. She did investigating for a couple of Internet news blogs between other jobs, and she saw my name on an article, found the radio program on the Internet and contacted me by email. My heart soared as old Chief Dan George would have said. We chose to meet in a Starbucks, neutral grounds.   I was there early because I wanted to watch her walk in; wondering how much she’d changed; if I would recognize her.

          I had no trouble recognizing her face. Her hair was no longer in a pony tail but allowed to flow freely and thick over her shoulders. She appeared a bit taller, slimmer certainly, and much older.   She wore a brown fake leather jacket and a short blue skirt and knee-length high heeled black boots. But that dark brown-eyed twinkle was as bright as ever.

          “Dallas!” I couldn’t help calling as she looked over the crowd and line-ups. She saw me and smiled. It was still that special smile she used on me when we were “kids” it seemed so long ago.   She came over, hugged me and went to get an espresso. I watched her, the poise, the certainty, the assurance. I should not have been surprised, but I was regardless. I couldn’t help but remember that she had not yet turned 15 when she left home and Hope to find herself. And I though it uncanny how right both mom and I had been about her. Except that she was never lost: she had her own map, her own destination and her own destiny to fulfill. And as I watched that young woman interacting with the guy behind the counter, I realized what her mind had told her, those eventful years ago: “It’s time Dallas.   Leave – now, or forfeit your purpose.   They will take you, when you come of age; when you have graduated, or earned a degree, and they will file you, pigeon-hole you, and you will become the living dead, just like your parents, your teachers, the adults you see on TV and meet in the stores. They will make you fit in. You’ll get married, get a house and stuff, have kids, part-time brain dead job, and walk the treadmill until you die. Walk away now, Dallas. You can do it.”

          And, she had.

          We didn’t talk very long that morning. I was on a case and she had reports to file, so we decided to meet at my place. Hers she said, was a bit crowded; she lived with two other women, one of whom was her lover – for the time being – she added with that twinkle. “Neither one of us is ready to settle, and I don’t think I want a serious relationship, at least not for a long time.”  I was going to ask, “Define a long time” but I passed on that.

          She came to my place and having settled my case that afternoon and gotten paid, I got the goodies and wine and we talked, basically all through the night.   And although the question was burning on my tongue, I never asked her why she hadn’t contacted mom, nor whether she would now. It didn’t seem appropriate and besides, she was the one asking the questions.

          “OK, so I can see mom would try to put you up to this, but why did you come looking for me, Greg? Why didn’t you just let it go? Huh?   She got up abruptly from the chair, sending it flying ass over tea kettle, turned, grabbed it and threw it back on its feet. She turned her back to me and talked: “I’ll tell you why you came to find me. You didn’t believe, as mom does, that I was lost. I became an opportunity for you, didn’t I. An excuse to leave also. Romance, excitement, feelings, emotions, so many things that tend to get bottled up in a small town stuck against a mountain and a river, things that can be let loose and expressed in countless ways, good and bad, here in the metro. You wanted what I had discovered. And you wanted to find me to prove to yourself that you had found it too. You followed me, not to find me, though that was your intent, but to find yourself.   You were the one who was lost, Gregory.   You were never going to find yourself in Hope, or in whatever institution you ended up working for. You sensed it, and you found my map in your mind, where I left you a copy. So, have you found yourself, Greg?”

          She turned just as abruptly, leaned down with both hands flat on the small table and literally stared into my soul. She smiled thinly and sat down to sip some more wine. She waited for my answer.

          “You are right, Dallas. The commitment, the gallantry, the chivalry, call it whatever you will, that was the cover story. The underlying motive was romance. I would do something different, and I had you to light my way. And Dallas?”

          “Yes?”

          “What a light you turned out to be!” She smiled again, and her eyes were wet, as were mine. We finished the wine and I called a taxi to take her home. We hugged once more just before she got in the car. She picked up the dragging edge of the long trench coat she was wearing and I closed the door, watching her disappear in the early morning mist and smog.  

          And the City stood surrounding us, neither smiling nor frowning, withholding comment and judgment.