Saturday, 24 February 2018

Ned's Hallelujah Part 2 - Breathe

Ned's Hallelujah

Part 2- Breathe
“Kepler 62 system in T minus 1hr 30 minutes.” 
It was going be one of those days, Ned could feel it. The four hours sleep he had managed to snatch seemed wholly inadequate right now. Already he had dealt with several discipline issues, non-Mish related, thank heavens.
Too much Mish on your mind lately, Ned.
As soon as he had surfaced that morning, his sleep-drunken thoughts had swerved her way.
He couldn’t stay away. After that uncharacteristic display of sensitivity last night, he felt strangely obligated to check on her. She was at her usual post in navigation. She sent him a small smile and a polite ‘how-dee-do’ before going back to checking approach vectors.
Ned rubbed the back of neck feeling awkward, and Private Jenkins threw him a nervous­– ‘what’s he doing here’–glance.
He knew what they called him behind his back: Grumpy old man. It rankled his granddaddy nerve something fierce. He wasn’t that old, Thirty-eight was a respectable age and he had a respectable job. Space Corps had thrown him a bone, why not chew it up and spit out the bits on the less competent. He didn’t do that for the mere fun of it. He was often the only thing between these toddlers and a face-full of scalding water.
He leaned forward, both hands on the console looking down at the blinking lights. “You Ok?” He asked, keeping his voice to a low murmur to avoid eavesdroppers. Private Jenkins stalked gossip in a way that would rival any society columnist with a case of OCD. 
He heard a sharp intake of breath, and lifted his eyes, meeting hers. There it was, a slight hint of vulnerability before she shut it down with a whispered, “I’m fine.” Her blue eyes slitting… Warning him? Telling him to back off? He pushed away from the console, “Well don’t let it happen again, else I’ll be forced to make use of that brig.” He said loud enough to satisfy Jenkin’s info-sucking curiosity vortex. Mish smirked, giving him a wink as he left.
He still had a bad feeling.
Breathe Ned, Breathe. 
His job this fine space morning was to prepare equipment for the away team, who were scouting out Kepler 62e. Marriot stumbled through the equipment list with all the mental aptitude of a stoned amoeba, earning him a swift smack around the back of the head.
“The Yahuza 5001, not the Belko X. It’s not the same thing. God’s sake, you want to toast them crispy down there? The probes suggested 62e had pockets of potentially combustible atmospheric dust and gas. Any electrostatic charge could turn a quiet amble through the neighbourhood into a frigging fireworks display!”
Marriot muttered his apologies, which had taken on a distinctly surly and adolescent tone. Most of these kids were fresh out of the kindergarten that passed for Space Corps Academy. Many had rich parents – meaning a significant majority were a waste of stale, recycled-air – and quickly unraveled when called to do anything more strenuous than polishing their own golden plated knobs.
Marriot was one of those kids.

Ned checked and double checked the equipment. His mood increasingly stormy that such precautions were even necessary; but someone had to keep this disaster-waiting-to-happen, from happening. What was sadder still was that most days it was down to him alone. Trustworthy, reliable old Ned, eh.
The job was like dodging lightning strikes in an iron bikini.  An exercise in futility considering the leader of this mess, Captain Lancelles –qualified solely because of nepotism –was a lightning rod of epically phallic proportions. The Infinity’s less-than-capable captain was clearly the product of too much inbreeding, a log-headed pretty boy with a vacant toothpaste ad smile. Ned doubted there was anything behind those gleaming pegs larger than a peanut.

Ned ordered the containers to taken to the launch dock. He greeted the juniors collecting them with a stern sideways glance assessing their usefulness on his inbuilt competency meterWhen their performance seemed adequate, Ned reluctantly returned to his office to hunker down and casually await the next crisis. He sighed, propping his feet up on the spartan grey desk and stared at the bare metal walls. Other people had the odd picture of family left behind, or irrelevant junk reminding them of irrelevant friends back dirt-side. Perhaps the more cultured officers had some art, trying to fancy up the place with a pretentious load of culturally whorish crap.
Oh this piece was done by a Monk whilst on a dream vision, transcending his mortal self.
Ned liked to say it the way it was—capitalists posing as hippy-commies, stoned on local ‘erbs, looking for a meal ticket or an extra mil… The transcendent pieces in question usually cost a pretty penny… You see even Monks deserved a luxury loft in upmarket Olympus Mons cos all that sitting down and praying to a dozen earless gods gotta be hard work.

Fuck I’m a cynical bastard.
Nah you just don’t want anything on those ugly walls to remind you of uglier things past.

His attention drifted down to the bottom drawer of his desk. The Amber demon lurked inside ready to play the angel on his shoulder and the devil in his ear.  Nope, he had to stay crispy fresh today. If you let your guard down Ned, something foul’s going to blow in on that celestial wind, because that’s the way life goes.


Surprisingly there were very few accidents down on the surface of 62e aside from Marriot’s sprained ankle, and some bug bites? He looked away from the report, unashamed of the grin that stretched across his tired face.
The grin didn’t last long.

It soon became clear that Kepler-62e had been one of those really bad ideas. Like the ones that wake up next to you after a too-long-happy-hour. So here he was as usual, mopping up the diuretic aftermath of Captain’s erroneous decision making. Ned being head of security of this glittery sky boat  with her fat ass and shiny spangled glory, had been called upon to clean up the mess. As usual.

He adjusted the gas mask and let loose another stream of misty green bug spray. It turned out Kepler-62e was home-sweet-home to swarms of large mosquito-like life forms. Which typically (because anything that could go wrong did go wrong on the Infinity) somehow hitched a ride in the away shuttle. So here he was, relegated to the role of evil alien exterminator. He hadn’t seen this many bugs since the plague in the summer of 98 back dirt-side.
Ah, the days when bugs were the worst of our problems.
A fat blood sucking midge peeped around the corner from the elevator tube, its dewy mandibles working, the feathery wings trembling nervously. Ned gave it a face full of industrial strength bug spray and enjoyed the instant reward of a frantic but spectacular tumbling. The violent scratching of wings and legs against metal were testimony to its torment.
They were fortunate they had this stuff on hand.  The Virgos  Bedbug epidemic several years ago had made pest eradication supplies compulsory. The Virgo had been the perfect test case to espouse the dangers of inter-crew fraternization.

He sensed someone standing behind him and turned from the award winning drama that was the insectoid’s death throes to face… Mish. Her blue eyes glittered, giving Ned’s ulcer an excuse to shiv him.

“Having fun?”
That was more than a question…

Ned growl-grunted and whined in the same breath. He just wasn’t in the mood.
Just zap the bugs Ned.
“Fun dwells in a universe far from where I’m standing, Mish. For all I know we have just declared war on these things. Bloody typical, the away team needs to be lined up, pants down and given an ass kicking with the heel of my bug-gut stained boot! How the hell did that many get into the equipment storage? Did they deliberately herd the little buggers in there or something?”
She grimaced, and Ned saw guilt flicker, her poker face was the definition of crapability.
No…Yes… of frigging course!
“YOU did this!” Ned’s eye twitched and the vein in his temple throbbed.
“Aw, Ned, don’t look at me like that, I’m getting that spontaneously combusty feelin’ right down to the tippy of my toes.”
“Should’ve known, I didn’t even think to check the away log for your name.”
Stupid Ned!
Her devil-may-care grin reappeared. “Come on Ned, thought I was doing you a favour. You ain’t really had much to do lately and it’s made you all tense, and grouchier than usual. The way I figured, hunting down and squashing lower life forms would be right up your alley.”
If only she knew…
“You did this as some sort of messed up favour?”
She smirked, flashing some guilty-as-charged pride. “Anything for a friend!”
“God almighty! If I’m your friend, I hate to see what you do to your enemies’ kid.” He snorted and a reluctant smile snuck up on him, taking momentary control of his grizzled features.
 He chalked the slippage up to temporary insanity. She needed to explain some things and he wasn’t taking no for an answer. He decisively grabbed her forearm, pulling her round the corner, swiped his card against the near-by supply door reader, and pulled her inside with him. She backed against the wall, nervous heels knocking miscellaneous cans together with a dull clunk, eyes wide behind that curtain of dirty blond locks. She bit her lip.
He crossed his arms, leaning forward slightly, determined to play the part of the overbearing and pissed off security chief with her, just this once.
“So how did you do it?”
He saw her grit her teeth, and sucked in a breath with a hiss, smirks now long forgotten by those worry-punished lips. She looked at her boots.  He tore his eyes away from her mouth. “There were these pods down there hanging from the local flora. I saw the bugs hatch, seemed harmless enough, they bit Marriot and Jones with no effect. So I stowed a couple in the transport’s equipment compartment. Figured I’d place them in the Captain’s  private lounge, didn’t realize how many bugs were smuggled away in them things. Come on, Ned, you ain’t really mad are you?”
He wiped a hand down his face, “Yea kid, I’m mad. Do you know how many regs you broke this time, this is potentially people’s lives. What if the bite was toxic? “
“But it wasn’t,” she scratched absently at her arm.
The question that had been worming its way round inside his head ever since her first met her suddenly burst out, “Why do you do this stuff, Mish?”
“Told you, thought it would liven up your day.”
“That’s not what I meant…”
Her mouth turned down and a crease formed between those delicate brows. She scratched her arm again, slowly as if mulling over what she was gonna say. Probably rehearsing a pretty story in her warped but ingenious mind.
He stepped forward and slammed his open hand against the wall beside her. The slap of flesh against concrete stung his palm.
Careful Ned, you are a little too good at killing friendships...
She flinched, fear darkening those pretty eyes. Then her chin rose defiantly. “You don’t know what it’s like being completely powerless, unable to stop bad things from happening to you.” He recognised that look. Bruised down to the bone, with wounds so deep they’d scabbed over, hardening the heart. He realised he had forgotten to breathe; his lungs aching and starved. He sucked in that deep breath and the fresh scent she wore rushed in. He pulled back giving them each space, room to breathe, space to think. Distance.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Ned's Hallelujah: part 1- Drive

Part 1- Drive
Another long day.
He steadied his trembling hands, resting them on the lip of the sink and tried to breathe evenly but the flash took him anyway; blood, screams, traitor! Ned scrunched his eyes shut.  When he finally opened them, all he saw was his own washed out complexion, stone grey eyes edged with weariness, silently saying , Ned, O’ Ned, why are you here? Perhaps you would’ve been better off slumming it Mars-side with a bottle in one hand and a sidearm in the other, set to take a sip from either.
 He dismissed the reflection, looking instead at the brushed metal sink where a droplet of water beaded, making its slow but fate-destined trip toward the black hole that was the Ship’s plumbing. He gripped the edge as if he himself were that droplet, about to plummet and lose itself to oblivion. Its molecules destined for the re-cycler and transformation, to become something shiny and new. Something useful.
Not even this starship could outrun his problems. They’re too big, fat and wide. Even all the way across the galaxy they bordered him like a problem neighbour with a shotgun.
Infinity had squashed her fat girth into fold-space, penetrating that black event horizon with the same bullish enthusiasm as an officer visiting a Consort House whilst on shore-leave. Difference being, this was a whole lot less titillating. To his point of view they were just trading one dead rock for half a dozen more. Woopie-do-da…yay! The best Ned could hope for was some down time, not enough to make him spin his wheels in a slick puddle of whisky, but just enough to sleep and forget.
Alas, sadly a temporary state of being, on those rare nights which he was able to get some sleep.
Ned was a late bloomer to the space game. He had grown up on Mars and spent fifteen years running security in the Eastern Rad-zone. After a relationship gone rotten, and a bad case of ‘I don’t want to get up from my bunk except to eat the end of a blaster’, (those were the easy parts) he had finally decided to leave it all behind for the ‘all that glitters being gold’, stars. What he got instead was cold, dark loneliness, with a shot of regret.
He left the restroom and started down the hall, when She sidled up to him in that way that she often does, her footfalls far too soft for sanity’s comfort.
“Hiya Ned.”
 He had signed up the same day as this pint sized bane of his existence, but to be completely honest most of the crew at one time or another have been worthy of that prestigious title.
Not just her.
“Not now, Mish,” he growled, implying the scheduled meeting with his pillow was unmissable. His resolve was harder than a titanium plated chastity belt, Damn it!
“Oh… shame. Raffety finally opened up the Rec centre. There’s a bar! You don’t need to hide in ya cave and drink alone anymore Ned.”
“I like drinking alone.”
She smirked. “You’ll like drinking with me more.” That self-assured smile of hers, rattling his previously intact resolve, which was fast becoming a box of spare parts in her mischievous hands. 
She was capable of untold chaos, and he had stupidly covered for her… more than once. She had this way about her. She twisted his guts into a tangle with her oddball charm, holding a fistful of his entrails while he fell from the speeding bus that was life. It made him almost want to grab hold of something… something other than her, he told himself firmly. He was too old and bitter for crushes. This wasn’t a school yard, this was space: dark, dirty and dangerous.
Dirty, God help him.
Ned ran both hands down his face, the scratchy rasp of neglected stubble against his palms reminding him he had had too many rushed starts following late nights. He shouldn’t.
The last time he had joined her party of one, he’d been embroiled in the defacing an academy monument. No, not one of his finer moments.
Despite sharing Mish’s dislike of their employer, he should’ve known better than to get involved, he could’ve lost his place on this boat. Although days like today, made him wonder if that would’ve been such a tragedy. Coulda, woulda, shoulda, taunted those discordant little voices, playing shout-over-each-other, inside his tired, overwrought mind. The fact remained that there was no-one better to take his place, so fate played his hand for him, but he would’ve been slapped with deuces either way. 
Truth be told, he was more than a little drawn by her method of mischief, which seemed to so effectively stave off the boredom. Idleness was a bad thing. It made him dwell, and dwelling while surrounded by the big black nothing of space was really bad. It was a fast way to lose sanity, hope, everything.
Come on, do it Ned.
“Oh what the hell, just one.”
“Ace.” She whispered, soft and drawn-out on the s note as if she had won some sort of prize.
Yea, he could spend this voyage feeling sorry for himself and griping at the unfairness of this sadomasochistic universe which got its jollies from deliberately shafting him whichever way he bent over, or he could drink, crack a grim smile, and god forbid …maybe even laugh, all the while hoping the consequences of such overwhelming fun was minimal.
Gawd, he was so weak, trailing after her (all puppy-like), as if she were made out of brightly coloured chew toys.
Dim lighting, good.
The amber liquid swished provocatively around the glass’s edge. Its soft lap, drawing him deeper.
He hunched down over that pretty glass of scotch and glared across the room furtively. Mish had abandoned him and was currently talking with Brindley. She leaned over the gawky engineer’s table in more of a conspiratorial than seductive fashion. Anxiety nibbled away at his nerve-jellied gut as he watched Brindley, who was relentlessly trapped in Mish’s gaze, hanging on her every word. Poor fool. 
Her exotic southern drawl was enhanced by the slow twist and pout of her pink lips. Ned was captivated, even though the exact form of her words were indistinct over the murmur and flow of several dozen other conversations around him.
No, he didn’t want to know… and looked away until his brooding pulled him back. She was now looking over at him, smiling. He knew that smile, it meant, Put on ya seat belt boy let’s go for one helluva ride.
He drowned the prickles of anticipation that suddenly needled their way down the back of his neck with a flow of amber fire.  His ulcer protested, kicking him in the guts vehemently as if to say- You punish me, I’m gonna punish you, dumbass.
She plonked down on the seat next to him and mirrored his lean-at-the-bar-to-forget, drinking position.
“You ain’t planning anything that'll force my hand are ya?” Ned growled across at her. “The brig is there for a reason you know.”
“Come on, Ned. It's just all harmless fun.”
“Harmless huh?” Harmless like the time she borrowed a Gravity Field Generator from the academy labs and set it up inside the men’s restroom. He’d been glad he wasn’t the one tasked with mopping up that ceiling, doubly thankful he hadn’t been caught up in the inverted polarity field with the dozen or so other recruits. Damn messy business.
“What’s up with Brindley then?”
She smirked and opened her hand, showing him what she had palmed. A pass key. “Looky what I have here, Neddy boy.”
He narrowed his eyes at her, “what do you need that for?”
She leaned forward, her voice dropping a notch past appropriate. “Cargo hold, 20 minutes.” He held her gaze for a tad beyond awkward, only managing to tear it away to refocus on that sweet liquid courage gripped tight in his calloused hand.
“That’s enough.” Her hand rested upon the glass, and her breath disturbed the brown hair curling around his ear, flooding him with a too-warm heat. “I’m relying on you to be the sober driver Ned…”
She left him, mind buzzing with all sorts of unlikely possibilities, he gulped, mouth suddenly sandy dry.
He plucked up the courage, eventually.
The massive Cargo area’s doors were already open, revealing the cavernous space beyond, a stretch that ran for half a mile. He strode into the main causeway, standing astride the crane tracks and raked a hand through bad-day-encrusted hair.
“Talk about keeping a girl waiting. Are you playing hard to get, Ned?”
He rounded on the sound of her voice. She was standing beside a large container, it was open and she wore a devious smile. He ambled over, determined to keep the well-worn expression of stern disapproval resident.
She planted hands on slim hips. “What do ya think? I heard they had these babies tucked away down here and Brindley owed me a favour. Got him to do some digging around in the cargo manifest last time he was down here, and voila!  We have our ride.”
A nearby flood-lamp lit the small Terrain rover’s hard metal struts. The over-sized, fat, pimpled wheels still had that off-the-factory-floor shine.
“Isn’t it all dinky and cute-like… and she’s gagging to be taken out Ned,” She cooed huskily.  With trademark Mish-like enthusiasm she pounced up the ramp and climbed in. She tilted her head toward the seat beside her. “Come on.” Eyes flashing, if you dare.
“This is unauthorized access of a military grade vehicle,” he muttered, more as a reminder to himself than anything else, but that didn’t stop his feet from betraying good sense and climbing that ramp. The other part of him rationalised, if you’re driving, she can’t possibly make trouble. You traitor Ned.
The fission batteries rang their merry start-up song, readying the rover's hybrid gas system. He gripped the wheel, so much power at his fingertips. He was instantly taken back to those long straight runs on the Mars wastes where he could just open up and go, drive away from the guilt, from the nightmares -- at speed. Glad to be free of them, if even just for a moment.
Once at full charge, the engine grunted into action with a throaty chug. With the choke still on, he applied the gas, testing her purr. She sang, longing to leap and tear up infinity’s long graceful stretch.
He reached across Mish and pulled at her safety harness, clicking it in place. His hand brushed her forearm accidentally. “Safety first,” he growled, all business like. Her skin, soft and warm, unlike this ship, which was so hard and cold.
He fastened his own and looked across at his co-pilot as she swept stray hair back with excited and jittery hands. She met his eyes, her own gleaming with unshed tears, “Thanks, Ned.” She mouthed, her thickened voice only just audible.
It was then that Ned realized. Something was bothering the little devil. Perhaps he had seen glimpses before but just chose to chalk it up to a predictably troubled childhood. He hadn’t pried. Didn’t really want to. It wasn’t that he didn’t care… She just shouldn’t trust someone like him… Hell! He couldn’t even carry with his own load, let alone load up on anyone else's.
He drowned out the excuses, gunning the gas. The engine roared as they lurched out of the container and down the ramp. He turned the wheel sharply and hand-braked the corner lining her up perfectly along the crane tracks. Floodlights spotted the stretch, which yawned before them longing to be filled with fast, loud fun.
 “A long road,” she said, her tone unusually serious.
“Yea Mish, it is.” And he couldn’t help wondering what was going be at its end.


Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Short Story- Snap and Crackle

 Bog Oaks Occult Chambers- ErickShoemaker

Bog Oak's Occult Chambers by Erick Shoemaker

Snap and Crackle. 
By Ami L Hart (Jess Colvin)
Published in The Future Is Short; Science Fiction In A Flash (2014)

Speak after the tone (Beep).

I came to this place wanting solace, desiring to escape the horror carved upon my corneas. Correction- I didn’t come here. The local Human settlers found me; pulled me from the frosty, gut strewn mess that was my old life and deposited me here, the dusty dung heap of a town that’s apparently to be my new life.
As fortune has it, there are no Snowy Bugbears resident this low down; giant, ugly, death-dealing things. I still see them, snacking on Larry’s unfortunately disgusting entrails, slopped across my vision each time I close my eyes. Shhh, don’t tell anyone, especially that frontier doctor -busy on my body like he owns it -that I don’t make a habit of closing my eyes.
Sleep is over-rated anyway. It’s been 3 days since my last trip down the bloody, nightmarish rabbit hole to Slumberland; (Gasp) what if he listens to this! I hadn’t thought of that…that busy body, with those rough pinchy fingers, like pinchers.
I know, I’ll hide you, dear friend.
 They expect me to attend some sort of rustic bonfire hoedown tonight, a feast. I can imagine it now, they will watch me eat, concern radiating from those simple eyes. I hate people watching me eat. How much I put inside my churning guts is my own business. Just the thought of it makes me want to…excuse me.

It was horrible; I had to smile, switch it on like a lamp, but being broken I just spark, fizzle…and sweat. What’s worse, Doc Pinchy Fingers, insisted on sitting beside me. I suppose he considers us intellectual equals. I’m not sure where he got his medical degree from…a dark alley behind a roach motel?
His office is bug infested. It makes my skin crawl thinking about it and I kept wondering if the terrible little things had caught a ride with him, inside that puffy brown leather jacket. There’s a lot of space in there; he’s not a large man.
Tonight made me realize how much I miss my fellow colleagues Larry and Jeff, even though their tech fascination bored me. Still, discussions’ involving the latest spectral surveying gear is preferable to the Humanities.
Oh the Humanity!
At least I still have you, automated recipient of my thoughts. Goodnight, I hope you sleep well; I won’t… so I won’t sleep.

It crawled on me, those pinchy little legs stomping my hot skin. I searched the dark shadowy corners of my room, while brandishing a shoe. I still feel it, as if it’s invisible. Do invisible bugs exist on this planet? I can’t remember… can’t think.
I looked out the window and saw a passable sunrise through the dust this morning. Not comparable to the way it used to rise over the pleasantly jutting glaciers, cut like diamonds. Location, location.
Diamonds… they have bugs here that are translucent, their bodies cut like gems, casting rainbows as they walk. I remember that much, deceptive little things.
I used to like diamonds.

He came to my door; said he was checking on me. I politely told him that I wished to catch up on sleep after a bad night. He offered me pills; I opened the door a crack wider and took them. No! I didn’t imagine it, I saw it… crawling up and under his sleeve. I screamed, internally. He can’t know, that I know, that he’s one of them. Those Bugbears always did have unusually complex nervous systems. Maybe they control these people remotely? Perhaps they wish to experiment on me, the Entomologist! The pills are a trick. I will light a fire and burn them.

They forgave me for burning down half their village. They told me I was sick… Me! They keep me locked in the small room adjoining the bug-infested doctor’s office, said it’s for my own safety. That infernal doctor puts me to sleep every night with that awful needle, but at least I don’t dream anymore and I still have you. They let me keep you…something about… good therapy, although you disappear sometimes. Have you been talking to the doctor? I’ll break you if you have.