Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mr. Fox

Mr. Fox was not known to the host and hostess, but She had no doubt he would be asked to join the soirée they held in honor of their daughter, Mary. Was Mr. Fox not suave and handsome and, from the cut of his clothes, obviously rich? He was the perfect suitor for their daughter, just as She intended.

Through Mr. Fox's ears, She had heard many proclaim Mary the most beautiful young lady in the county. Now, She saw through Mr. Fox's eyes the truth of those proclamations. Mary was not merely beautiful, Mary was the most beautiful woman She had ever seen through Mr. Fox's eyes, more beautiful than any she had seen through Mr. Fox's father's eyes, more beautiful than she had seen through any Fox's eyes for over a hundred years. Oh yes, this one will do nicely!

Mr. Fox, who was privy to all of Her thoughts and emotions, quailed inwardly while outwardly he gallantly kissed Mary's hand. He knew what She would want with this one. Oh yes, he knew.

Quite right, my pet, she spoke in his mind. Quite right, indeed! I will not be consuming this one. Not yet. This one you shall keep for me. With her, you shall bring a new Mr. Fox into this world. And when the time is right, he shall replace you!

She savored his horror as he relived the awful night ten years ago. The night when his father had presented him to Her. The night when She left his father and took him. The night when She made him kill his father and feed his mother to Her. And he despaired at the thought of the same happening to his own son.

But none of this was visible on his face or evident in his voice. Mr. Fox was played like a puppet, slave to Her strings, mouth to Her voice. He screamed and screamed and none could hear it save Her.

Mary was charmed and dazzled by Mr. Fox; by his strong physique, his well appointed face, his gentle wit. It was soon evident to all that Mary was smitten by this stranger. After but a few visits, Mary's proud parents announced her betrothal to Mr. Fox. His screams echoed again and She laughed and laughed.

She also hungered. As Mary would not be consumed for many years to come, other food was required. Mr. Fox announced to Mary that he must travel on business for a few days.

"Oh, but there is so much I do not know about you, my darling!" Mary protested.

Mr. Fox smiled his warm, gentle smile, "You will learn, my dear. As time passes, you will learn."

"At least tell me where we will live after our wedding!" Mary cried. "I must know what clothes to pack and what to send for later."

"I live not far from here," Mr. Fox answered. For She knew there was no harm in telling Mary. No young woman of Mary's station would ever be allowed to travel the country side unattended. "Half a day's ride to the west there is a forest. Within the forest is a valley. Within the valley is my home."

Kissing her hands, Mr. Fox stood, "Now, dear, I must take my leave of you."

Mr. Fox rode out from the house and through the afternoon and most of the night. The next morning he was married to Anna, a young woman who would be thought pretty unless she stood beside Mary. Mr. Fox quickly loaded Anna and her things into his carriage and drove off. He could feel Her hunger building and She drove him to return home all the faster that it might be sated.

Anna cooed over the valley as they entered it. Anna was entranced by the fine house they drove up to. Anna giggled as Mr. Fox swept her off her feet and carried her into the house. Mr. Fox headed straight for the stairs, so strongly did She call him to Her.

"Oh,let's not go upstairs yet," Anna said. "I wish to see everything about my new home!"

"You will see all you need to see upstairs," She made Mr. Fox say.

"Oh, you scandalize me," Anna replied playfully. "But I really do wish to see the whole house!"

Anna reached out and grabbed the railing, giggling again. But Her hunger was too great to wait even a moment longer. Through Mr. Fox, She drew his sword and cut Anna's hand off with a single slash. Staring at her bleeding wrist, Anna was too shocked to scream. Mr. Fox opened the door to Her room and She came forward to feed. Then Anna screamed and screamed and Mr. Fox could do nothing to block the sound.

The next morning, Mr. Fox returned to Mary for their wedding. Mary and her family met him for breakfast. She did not look herself as she placed a covered plate before him.

"You look pale, my dear," She made him say. "Are you feeling well?"

"I am merely tired. I fear I did not sleep well last night," Mary replied. "I had a most horrible dream."

She forced him to smile lovingly, "Perhaps you should tell me the dream, my darling. Such dreams may be banished when brought into the light of day."

"I dreamed I went to your house," Mary said. "I dreamed a sign over the gateway read 'Be bold! Be bold!'"

Mr. Fox started in wonder while She started in fear.

"It was not so, it is not so and, God as my witness, it shall never be so!" Mr. Fox was forced to say.

"When I came to the door to you house," Mary continued, "carved above it were the words 'Be bold! Be bold! But not too bold!'"

Once again, She forced Mr. Fox to say, "It was not so, it is not so and, God as my witness, it shall never be so!"

"I entered and climbed the stairs," Mary said, "and came to a door over which was carved 'Be bold! Be bold! But not too bold! Lest your heart's blood should run cold!'"

Mr. Fox dared to hope, something he had not allowed himself to ever do. And he felt Her dread at what Mary would say next. Yet She kept firm control.

"It was not so, it is not so and, God as my witness, it shall never be so!" She forced Mr. Fox to say yet again.

"And I opened the door, Mr. Fox," Mary said. "Within the room were dozens, hundreds maybe, of dead women. Blood was splattered over the walls. But something moved within the room and I fled. Do you know what I saw as I descended the stairs?"

"What, my love," he felt himself say. Dread, delicious dread, still coursed through Her, but Mr. Fox could feel Her overcoming it. He could feel Her regaining Her control. He could feel his brief hope flicker and die.

"I saw you, Mr. Fox! I saw you and a pretty young woman arrive in a carriage," Mary said. "I saw you carry her inside. I saw you cut off her hand with your sword. I saw you carry her upstairs. And I heard her screams as you opened the door at the top of the stairs!"

"Dreams can seem so real, my dear," She made him say. "But I assure you it was not so, it is not so and, God as my witness, it shall never be so!"

Then Mary lifted the cover off of the plate she had placed before him. Lying on the plate was Anna's hand.

Staring haughtily at him, Mary said, "It was so. It is so. But, God as my witness, it shall never be so again!"

Mary's brothers and father rose from their seats and struck Mr. Fox again and again with their swords. In Mr. Fox's head, She screamed and screamed and none could hear her but him. As the light faded from his eyes, he laughed and laughed.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


We were in the middle of our second set when the warming came. I broke off mid-song and called into the mike, "Fed alert! Fed alert!"

Some of the first timers in the audience started to panic but veteran concert goers quickly took them under wing. The guys and I had been through the drill so many times our moves were as well rehearsed as the songs we'd been playing. Abandoning our equipment, we slipped through our back stage bolt hole and down into the city's abandoned sewers. As we ran we could hear sounds coming from other tunnels as our fans used the same escape route.

The old sewers are always safe. No one in the Federation uses anything as primitive as sewers any more; not when there are so many cleaner options. And the sewers were really dirty. No Fed is ever willing to get his hands dirty just to track down an underground rock band and their fans.

So we ran and our fans ran and the only thing the Feds found were the instruments we'd left behind. We came to our exit from the tunnels. A quick tricorder reading showed no one waiting on the street above. We climbed out of the sewer and split up, each of us heading for a different transporter station.

Minutes later, I was transported to within a short walk of my house. One nice thing about transporters, they can be set to clean your clothes in transit. Mom and Dad didn't even suspect a thing when I walked into the house.

I volunteered to replicate dinner that night. Not only does it always please the parents, it gave me a chance to check the replication mass balance. An electric guitar takes a lot of mass to replicate and I have work carefully to save enough mass so it goes unnoticed. I make a lot of pasta for that reason. I replicate uncooked pasta and then cook it in boiling water. I know, it's so 21st century, but I save a lot of mass going that route. Another couple of my pasta dinners and I'd be back in business.

Over dinner, Mom brought up the concert, "I heard Security broke up another one of those illicit rock and roll concerts up in New Seattle today."

"Did they catch anybody?" I asked, trying to be casual.

"No, all the little hooligans got away," she answered.

"Aren't you being a bit harsh on them, dear?" Dad asked. "They're probably just kids acting out a bit. Rebelling against authority and all that. History is full of examples-"

Mom interrupted, "History is full of war and disease and famine, too, Tom. Does that mean the Federation was wrong to eliminate those?"

"Now, Alice," Dad said, "don't get all worked up. There's a big difference between some teenagers trying to thumb their noses at the Security forces and war."

"Really? Didn't you pay attention in history, Tom?" Mom asked, starting to get worked up. "The rise of that awful rock and roll music led directly in the global disasters of the 21st century! How can you-"

"Mom, Dad, can't we have a fun, argument free dinner tonight?" I asked.

Dad, calm as ever, said, "Sure thing, buddy."

Mom worked hard to put a smile on her face, "Of course, dear. At least I can be confident you weren't one of those people up in New Seattle listening to that trash!"

"Guaranteed, Mom," I said. "I'd never be in the audience at a rock and roll show!"

"Of course not, Jeff," Mom said. "The youngest first chair violin in the history of the San Francisco Youth Orchestra is far too talented to be interested in that sort of garbage."

Before anyone could say anything else, the door chimed. With an "I wonder who that could be" look, Mom got up to answer the door. I heard the murmur of voices then Mom came back to the dining room. She looked pale and angry. Behind her was a Security officer. He was carrying my guitar.

"Jeff," Mom said, her voice strained, "this gentleman has some questions to ask you."

The Security officer stepped forward, holding up my guitar. "We picked this up at an illegal rock and roll show up in New Seattle. We believe it was abandoned by the leader of a band that calls itself Seedy Underbelly. Would you know anything about that?"

Okay, this wasn't good but it wasn't the end of the world, either. We all wore Second Skin on any part of our bodies that would touch our instruments. No bio material for Security to use to track us down. I don't know how he still managed to trace me, but he wouldn't have any real proof.

"Why would I know anything about this, sir?" I asked, going into my Federation approved polite youngster act.

"Because you are the leader of this so-called band," the officer replied. "Oh, you've been a very careful boy, I'll admit. I'm guessing you use Second Skin while you're playing. But even the most careful criminal eventually makes a mistake. Today was your day to make that mistake."

Continuing with the polite youngster act, I said, "I'm afraid I have no idea what you're talking about, sir."

The Security officer smiled at me. It was not reassuring.

"Today, when you dropped this guitar and fled from our raid, the guitar nicked you where you didn't have any Second Skin. I'm guessing your leg, but it really doesn't matter. We picked up solid bio evidence from this instrument."

"Oh," I said, numbly.

"Jeff," Mom said, her voice starting to rise, "I'm sure there's a perfectly good explanation why your DNA was found on this guitar. Tell him!"

"What can I tell him, Mom?" I asked. "He's right. He's got me."

I'll save you the scene that followed. Mom went for histrionics. Dad was calm, but in such a sad, almost depressed, way that I wished he would get mad or something. It was almost a relief when the Security officer led me away.

I won't bore you with the trial. There wasn't much to it, anyway. My conviction was a forgone conclusion. They did keep badgering me to tell who else was in the band with me. They threatened me with worse punishment if I didn't tell. They offered me reduced punished if I did tell. At their lowest, they sent Mom and Dad in to "try and talk sense" into me. None of it had any effect. Regardless of what happened, my days as a rock and roller were over. There was nothing they could possibly do that was worse than that.

At the sentencing, I learned just how wrong I was.

"Jeff Morrow," the judge intoned from his bench, "you have been found guilty of forming, playing in and leading an illegal rock and roll band. You have refused to cooperate in any way with the prosecution. Therefore, I have no choice but to give you the maximum sentence."

Behind me, Mom gasped. I had no idea what the judge was talking about.

"You are hereby sentenced to be transported," the judge continued. "The sentence is to be carried out immediately. Have you anything to say?"

"I don't understand the sentence," I said. "What does being transported mean?"

"It means, young man," the judge leaned toward me, "you will soon be a happy and productive citizen of the Federation!"

I still had no idea what was going on. Security led me out of the court room and into a room just down the hall. There was a transporter in the room, but not like one I'd ever seen before. This one had five Security techs at the controls and just a single transport plate. I was led directly to the plate. A force field quickly formed around me, keeping me from stepping off the plate.

"What's going on?" I shouted, banging on the force field.

No one paid me any attention. One of the techs ran his hands across the controls and I felt a tingling.

"Readings acquired," the tech said. He looked to the other four techs, "Awaiting modification parameters."

The other techs bent over their controls for a minute or so. When the last of the techs sat back, the first tech announced, "All modification parameters are set. Prepare for transportation."

A low hum filled the room as the transporter came online. I still didn't know what was happening, but whatever it was scared the crap out of me.

I banged on the force field again, "Stop! Let me out of here! All I did was play some music!"

No one even looked up. Suddenly, the transporter beam engulfed me. Somehow, it felt different than other transporter beams. No, I felt different within this beam. I felt parts of myself starting to go away. I felt-

The transporter stopped and the force field dropped away. A tech kindly helped me down off the platform.

"How are you feeling, Jeff?" he asked.

"Hm? Oh, fine, thank you, sir," I replied. Then I noticed the clock. "Is that the time? I'm about to be late for orchestra rehearsal!"

"Don't worry, Jeff," the tech said, "this Security officer will take you directly to a public transporter platform. You'll be there in no time!"

The officer stepped forward, holding out something toward me. "I believe this is yours, Jeff."

I gave it a quick glance. "A guitar? You must be mistaken, sir. I'm a violinist."

He smiled, put the guitar aside and led me from the room. I made it to rehearsal just in time.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Talisman

"Miller!" Siggs called. "Captain wants to see you."

"On my way," I called back. I gulped down the last of my coffee and headed for the bridge. A couple of minutes later, I stood before the captain.

"Miller reporting as ordered, sir!" I saluted.

"At ease, Miller," the Captain said, returning my salute. "You're at the top of the duty roster board, right?"

"Yes sir."

"SecCom has lost contact with the outpost at Epsilon Gamma III. They've ordered me to find out what's happened. I'm sending you," the Captain said.

"I can have my squadron ready to-" I began.

"Your squadron isn't going, Miller. Just you."

The Captain didn't look too happy about that. God knows I wasn't happy about it!

"One fighter, sir? If the outpost was hit by the squids, what good will a single fighter be?"

"That's the part I like the least about these orders," the Captain said, shaking his head. "If you don't come back on schedule, we're to assume the outpost is lost. SecCom will modify the picket line accordingly, including ordering the Vanguard to its new duty station."

"No search and rescue for me, then?" I asked.

"No search and rescue for you," the Captain confirmed. "I don't like these orders, son. Not one bit. So you make sure to get your ass back here on schedule so I won't have to follow orders I despise."

"I will, sir!" I said, saluted and left the bridge.

I swung by my bunk to pick up the Talisman -- Dad always insisted on calling it that and you could just tell it was a proper noun from the way he said it -- and headed for the launch bay. Thirty minutes later I jumped to the Epsilon Gamma system.

I took my time approaching the outpost, which was on an airless moon orbiting the third planet. I had passive scanners running and was ready to switch to active scanners at the first hint of trouble. I scanned every comm channel for any kind of signal from the outpost and didn't pick up a thing. So much for the easy way. Time for a flyover of the outpost with active scanners running. If there were any Kalmari ships in the area, my active scan was going to light up the squid's sensors like a Christmas tree.

I dropped to within 500 meters of the moon's surface while the outpost was still over the horizon. I wanted my exposure as limited as possible. I figured my active scanners would be running for five or six seconds. If there were any squids in the area, they'd have to be right on top of the outpost to pick me up.

And, of course, they were. I lit my active scanners and immediately had warning alarms going off. A squid light cruiser was hanging in orbit above the outpost. I expect they were as surprised to see me as I was to see them.

"Dammit!" I shouted as I targeted the light cruiser. "Typical SecCom shit orders! If they'd sent my squadron with me the squids would be too busy running to even shoot at us!"

I got tone from my targeting systems and launched every ship killer I was carrying.

"But does SecCom send a squadron? No!" I ranted. "They send one ship. One damned ship! My damned ship!"

My scanners picked up the squid's response. It was not going to be fun. I dove toward the moon's surface, juked to port, rolled to starboard and kept an eye on the missiles trailing me. One after another, they lost lock and blasted a new crater on the moon. All except the last one. It got close enough that it's proximity fuse blew the warhead as soon as the targeting lock was lost.

The blast knocked out my main engines, leaving me with nothing but maneuvering jets to land my fighter. I pulled out of the spin from the blast and tried to figure out what to do. I was losing altitude fast and definitely would not survive if I hit the ground at this speed. I really only had one chance; hit on the down slope of one of the moon's craters and hope the fighter didn't start tumbling.

It happened much too fast for me to even think about it, much less start worrying about it. My fighter dropped inside the lip of the crater and suddenly it was careening down slope as I fought to keep the nose pointed straight. Seconds later, the fighter came to rest at the bottom of the crater and the shakes hit me.

It was a couple of minutes before I was steady enough to check my systems to see what had happened to the squid ship. The active scanners had recorded everything. While was dodging the cruiser's missiles, two of my ship killers had kept target lock through the squid ECM. The light cruiser was an expanding ball of energy even before its missile took out my main drive.

For the first time, I also got to check the scans of the outpost. My hopes that it would provide a life line were dashed immediately. No life signs showed on the scan. The outpost itself was nothing but a twisted ruin. Scans showed some areas still held atmosphere but I didn't see how I could get to them. Besides, the communications array was no where to be seen; likely smashed beyond all repair. No doubt about it. It was Talisman time.

I don't know how old the Talisman is or what's in it. My family has always been a military family and the Talisman is something my ancestor's have been carrying with them into battle for at least a couple of hundred years, back before humanity traveled to the stars. Dad told me I could open the Talisman only if I thought I was about to die or after I was honorably discharged from the service.

I couldn't think of any way off of the moon and the Vanguard had orders to leave me if I didn't report in. Dying seemed pretty high on the list of probable outcomes for me. So I dug out the box that held the Talisman and opened it. I don't know what I expected to find, but an old vid player wasn't it. The vid player had a note attached to the front that simply read "Play me." I hooked the vid player into my suit's comm system and started hit "Play" on the vid player.

The screen showed a man I'd never seen before wearing a uniform I'd only seen in history books. He'd been a member of the U.S. Army back on earth. He was looking right at the recorder, just as if he was speaking to me.

"I don't know who you are other than one of my descendants. I'm finally retiring from the army after 20 years and I want to record something to help you out if you ever find yourself in a really tight spot. A spot so tight you figure you're going to die. I could blather on about the honor of dying for your country but you already know that stuff. Instead, I'm going to offer up something you probably won't expect. Something I hope will lift your heart, fill your soul and maybe even give you a laugh or two."

The man looked off screen for a couple of seconds as if fiddling with something. Turning back, he asked, "Are you ready?"

The man faded away and the music began. It started with some kind of old electric guitar riff, drums and something else I couldn't quite identify.

"Jeez, great-great-great-however-many-greats granpa," I said, "I usually can't stand classical music!"

But the recording ignored me and the music continued. Then, voices began to sing.

All our times have come
Here but now they're gone.
Seasons don't fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain.

I listened and I began to laugh. Don't fear the reaper seemed like pretty good advice to me right then. The song was short and immediately followed by another classical piece I didn't recognize.

I want it all I want it all I want it all and I want it now
Adventure seeker on an empty street
Just an alley creeper light on his feet
A young fighter screaming with no time for doubt
With the pain and anger can't see a way out
It ain't much I'm asking I heard him say
Gotta find me a future move out of my way
I want it all I want it all I want it all and I want it now

By now I was laughing so hard I could barely hear the music. Then my ancient ancestor was replaced by a slightly less ancient one and more songs about death, dying and wanting what you can't have poured out of the player.

After a dozen or so songs, I heard the first song from an ancestor who had left earth. He fought for Mars in the Uprising and obviously loved some of the corny Martian pride songs that had flourished back then.

I'd rather be dead on the Red Planet
Then have a long life on the earth dammit!

Slowly, I worked my way through a musical history of my family. Every one of them a military man. Every one of them passing along a few songs that had real meaning to them. My grandfather included The Ghost Ship, which he used to sing to me when we visited. My Dad surprised me the most, choosing some early hyper wave thresher music.

Then the Talisman finished playing and it was just me and the moon and my disabled fighter. I didn't want to die but the hours I'd spent listening to the music my ancestors had chosen specifically for me, well, it had put me in a good frame of mind. I was as mentally prepared for the worst as I think anyone can be.

Then my comm unit crackled, "Vanguard calling Lieutenant Miller. Vanguard calling Lieutenant Miller. Do you copy?"

Damn! The Old Man hadn't abandoned me after all!

"Miller to Vanguard, I read you loud and clear," I replied. "Aren't you disobeying orders, sir?"

"Absolutely not, son," the Captain replied. "It sometimes takes a while to talk sense into the folks at SecCom, but I did it. It turns out you crash landed directly under the Vanguard's new picket station. We're launching a tug to tow you back to the ship now"

"Roger that, sir! I'll be waiting," I replied.

I had some time before the tug arrived. By the time it had, I'd already picked two songs to add the to the Talisman when I retired from the service.