May 1: The Werewolf Eater [1219 words]

Written By: Ty Barbary - May• 01•13

There is mist in my nose, and it fogs my lungs as I pause and listen for the umpteenth time, seeking a sign. But the forest around me is starkly, grimly silent, the press of moisture and shadow deadening what little sound plays out along pine boughs and the mulchy undercarriage of the trees.

I keep moving, a thin cloud rending silently from the end of my muzzle with each breath. Maintaining the balance has always been hard, and now when the silence spikes my fear it is harder, harder, harder to hold my mind and my body together. Like opposite ends of a fatally powerful magnet, I must hold thought and flesh as close as they can go. My will shakes from the effort, and I am already slipping.

It has been two weeks since the first one of us disappeared. Four have vanished since, and we have not smelled them again.

I am hunting the thing that has taken us, whatever it may be, but unlike my comrades, I am under no illusion that I will survive where others have left no trace. My body is a morass of writhing muscles, my flesh like twining snakes, and I feel buried beneath my own body heat and the itch that persists just beneath the base of my unnaturally sharp claws. And still, with each stalking stride I take, I feel I approach my own grave.

I have never been at peace with being what I am, this monstrous half-creature, but neither part of me wishes to die, and my own growing horror spawns defensive anger. My hackles rise, my shoulders hunch, and my lips curl away from my glistening fangs.

It is in this haze of frightened rage that I come upon her: a little girl, clothed in a tattered white summer dress, her back to me. The wood is empty but for us, and she is barefoot, and my animal fury is extinguished in an instant by another oceanic upheaval of fear: I cannot smell her.

She turns to me, though I have made no sound, and looks up at my hulking form. Like the beast I am, I snarl and spit and yelp and retreat, all in one heartbeat, as I see her mutilated face and rictus grin. Monster or not, a werewolf is half wolf, and wolves are not stupid creatures; the animal in me understands how to be properly afraid, even if the human in me wants to react to fear with aggression. But here, both halves are afraid.

I am afraid.

And I cannot move.

She fixes me with eyeless sockets and extends an empty, dirty hand to me. I shrink back against an invisible, irresistible pull, tendons and muscle fibers flexing spasmodically. I am already shifting, losing the balance, erring on the side of physical power to try to escape this horribly unnatural child. My bones rearrange, and the flesh between my marrow and my dew-damp pelt is a fluid mess of change.

She speaks in a voice just above a whisper, lipless jaw working around the words. “You shouldn’t hate yourself so…”

The words matter little to me; my thinking mind is slipping beneath the waves of simple, relentless animal instinct. It’s true that I have always hated what I was; so many of us embrace the animal and hate the human, but I… I alone among the pack would seek out traces of humans and revel in them. I howled the loss of my human family to the sky, and my song was inconsolable where others’ were jubilant.

I am almost gone, compressed into as feral a form as I can reach, and I bare my teeth as she glides forward, never lifting her small feet. Her hand is still outstretched, and it grazes my muzzle as I scrabble in the fallen pine needles, unable to move in any direction to escape her touch. What remains of my intellect is unsurprised when a bolt of bloody pain shoots through my jaws at the brief contact, and I whip my head side to side as though to throw off some invisible scorpion.

“Shouldn’t hate,” she whispers again, and places both hands on my head.

I scream, as much as a wolf can scream, and I am writhing on the ground before I can think to do anything but. The pain is blinding, incapacitating, and molten hot. I claw at my face wildly, and the blood I spill is cool in comparison to the fire that rages along my nerves.

I am peeling my own skin off, and some part of me comes back to consciousness and realizes it with a sudden, sharp horror. Even compelled by self-preservation, I cannot take control back from my gone-mad animal half quickly enough, and I turn the forest floor red with my convulsions.

The little girl’s white dress never absorbs a single drop.

The pain changes and deepens, descending from flayed skin into shredding muscle, then into dislocating joints… and dismembering bones. Like having a tooth torn out by the roots or a limb jolted out of socket, my body is coming undone, and there is nothing I can do but roll to quench the pain… and then, as my body ceases to respond, to lie still and wish for death.

I descend into shock and go numb, welcoming the awkward, buzzing emptiness of sensation. Some part of my mind is still working, still observing and calculating, and I thoroughly resent its busyness as I seem to float in a void of sensory input.

I realize I am still breathing, and I open my eyes. The shock of color startles me; I don’t see this many colors except when I am…

I sit up, too quickly, and I would retch if I had anything in my stomach. I am naked and coated in sticky, half-dried patches and strings of my own blood.

But I am human. Perfectly human, not the ugly bestial version that I have been all my life. I have real hands, and I stare at them in a breathless disbelief, wiggling the weak, clawless fingers.

Next to me, a wolf struggles to its paws, stained equally in my—our—blood. It glances at me, and I shiver as the cold breeze rakes wet lips across my suddenly-vulnerable skin.

The little girl appears between the wolf and me in a blink; both of us recoil, the wolf and I, mirror images. She looks between us and tsks. “Shouldn’t hate,” she says a third time.

I draw breath to speak, to ask, and in this first instant that I wonder if this is what became of my fellows—she turns, touches the wolf’s flank with an impossibly fast hand, and I let out another shriek as she draws the animal’s intestines from between its suddenly-parted ribs. She is supernaturally silent as she destroys the wolf, which cannot escape her scalpel-like precision, and I am witness to the last breath of its life as its jaws and body go slack.

I stagger to my feet, throat closed and stomach dry-heaving, and while the girl is occupied with her unstainable hands and the wolf’s corpse, I run in the direction I know the nearest human settlement to be, hoping that neither the werewolf eater nor my former pack catches me.

Sept 1: Art [881 words]

Written By: Ty Barbary - Sep• 01•12

She swept a shed feather across the parchment, the thick texture of the handmade surface striping delicately with the last of the indigo paint. The layers of colors were subtle and deep: the yellowed ivory of the canvas itself was buried under midnight blue, pine green, charcoal grey, and nebula-violet. Around her, the neutrality of the pale, unadorned walls and black stone flooring was a stark womb for such vibrant art.

The feather that she used to spread these colors was as brilliant and tinted as the canvas now, and she studied it thoughtfully, the pliant quill resting in the curl of her tentacle. It drooped, long and silky barbs glistening with still-wet paint, and she wondered for the umpteenth time what would happen if she pressed it to one of the blank walls and left it there, an artist’s print, a rebellion.

She didn’t.

The room opened behind her, half of the thin wall sliding into the other half, and she heard the click of talons sharp from disuse. She downturned the color-seeing eyes that tipped two short tentacles branching from the nape of her long neck, tucking them inwards until the heavy eyelids pressed into the soft ruff of her feathered chest; and only then did she turn her slender head to see who had come in, the rest of her body motionless.

Her mentor gave a trill of approval, but the sound faded into a confused coo as he studied the canvas more closely. Every step was a clatter, but he didn’t have a vane out of place in his entire plumage, so his disconcertion was belied by his impeccable grooming.

“This is very good,” he crawed. His own tentacle-eyes shifted away from his body so he could better measure the richness of her colors, but his body’s eyes– the eyes present in his small, streamlined head– were looking at her body’s eyes. “But… it is very similar to the others, yes?”

“It is subsumable,” she replied tactfully.

He enfolded his color-eyes back into the ruff of his feathers, then stretched out a primary tentacle, the fringed proto-digits splayed; she passed him her painting feather. “Are you happy with the work?” he asked, just as tactfully.

She fluffed her feathered tail in one whisk, and it made a noise like a sigh. “I would enjoy a new medium,” she answered. “But I do love these colors.”

He bobbed his head in assent. “Tomorrow,” he said thoughtfully, “I will give you a new room.”

Her mentor was waiting, quiet and beautiful, in front of a new door in the studio complex when she arrived in the late morning of the following day. Her body was already protesting her presence away from her home; it had learned that her growing boredom and restlessness was easily matched by niggling aches and gingerness in her flesh, and she had not yet made the effort to train out the association. So the pads of her strong talons felt overly sensitive against the flat, smooth, cold floor as she stopped in front of the closed doorway.

“Try this,” her mentor said, and she thought she could hear a preen in his voice. He slid the wall open before her.

Light streamed down from a ceiling-less sky, and she was dazzled as she stepped over the threshold. The wall closed quietly behind her, leaving her to the room-that-was-a-courtyard.

It was sand. All sand, and smooth polished stones that had been retrieved from the rivers, and leafy ivy eating roads up the old-styled brick walls that replaced the pale surface of indoor walls. A thin rake was leaning against the doorway; different lengths of prongs formed a triangle at its base, so an artist could use any given side independently of the others.

She surveyed this new kingdom with unabashed delight. Sand as golden as rich cream, and vines as green as gardens, and stones of varying shades of deep and mottled gray. She had graduated from creating art of the world to creating art from the world, and it thrilled her.

Her first foray into the middle of her new domain showed her footprints in excited spirals, her tracks trailing her as loyally as her own shadow, and when she realized the mess she’d made of the untouched sand, she only laughed. She took the rake in both manipulatory tentacles and danced with it, changing edges and sets of prongs with no heed to strategy, and she bathed in the sunlight beating down on her feathers until she was hot and tired and sated. She set the rake against the wall and began rearranging the stones, then noticed how much deeper her footprints were when she carried a stone in the sling of her tentacles, and she danced again with them– slower, stately, whirling, leaving talon-shaped craters in her wake.

When she was fully weary, she sat in the perfect center of the sand, nestling into the embrace of the sun-baked earth, and closed all of her eyes in contentment.

The wall slid open only a slit, just enough for her mentor to peek through, and when he saw what she had done, he smiled to himself. Much better, he thought, and closed the wall to let her enjoy the haven she had created.

Prompts given: subsume, crater.

September Goals

Written By: Ty Barbary - Sep• 01•12

I really, really enjoyed StoryADay May. And I’m stoked to be back for September.

But I gotta say, one story every day for a month wasn’t quiiite tenable for me. It’s still not, given work obligations and the fact that I’m on Draft 2 of my current novel project, and I don’t want to shelve it for the month in the name of short story fun.

So, September’s rules guidelines:

– Write 15 stories in the month! It would be ideal if they get spaced out at every other day, but it’s okay if they don’t. I just want to end the month with 15 new shiny stories.

– Must have a beginning, middle, and end. I will continue figuring out exactly what that means as I go along.

Yes, I only have two guidelines. :D

Let’s get writing!

May 27: Agent [3642 words]

Written By: Ty Barbary - May• 27•12

I was a plant, of the non-veggie variety, and I was watching the worst possible thing happen while I was on the job. The world was coming apart around me, and the very thing I had been sent to monitor was two rooms away.

But there were walls collapsing and ceilings buckling and floors caving in between me and my target, and to be honest, I didn’t really have a contingency plan for Armageddon. Just never figured it’d happen, let alone while I was on the job.

The earth was shaking so hard that this building, this locked-down triple-reinforced modern fortress, was leveling itself from the pressure of the motion. Chunks of metal sheeting and broken steel struts were toppling on every side, and even as good as I was, I’d already been pummeled by glancing blows half a dozen times in the last ninety seconds, since the end of the world began.

I smelled blood strongly, potently, and realized it was leaking from my own nostrils. My body was trembling with adrenaline, the fur on my tail embarrassingly poofy with instinctive fear. I saw some of the soldiers and guards, of which I was pretending to be one, racing desperately for any exit. One clever mink was swarming up a rope ladder to the attic space, which would lead to the roof where nothing short of a helicopter could fall on her head.

I didn’t stop to think about how much I valued my life against the value of a probably-dead-in-the-water mission; I just kept moving. Run run run dodge a toppling beam run twist out of the way of a crumpled ceiling panel run run leap over a growing gap between hallway and threshold run. More running. More running. I was pretty sure these endless hallways should not be quite this long and wondered if the room my target was in had already been buried in sharp-edged rubble. Surely I hadn’t passed it in the chaos.

But the door – I could see it now, gleaming red like a bloody knife – was still standing. And as I got closer, the bone-grinding rumble of the shattering earth sounded strangely distant and muted, like my ears were about to pop from an altitude shift.

I chanced a glance behind me and realized I’d been ascending. I wasn’t sure how high, but things were definitely rolling back, falling away from me; I was in less danger from debris now, but my muscles were burning in protest of the sudden steepness. The building kept distorting as I climbed, and soon I was using my hands as much as my feet in scrabbling towards that tantalizing target: the red door.

By the time I made my last scramble and wrapped my clawed fingers around the door’s lever, I was panting heavily and couldn’t hear anything beyond my own blurry heartbeat. I was nearly dangling from that lever, so tilted had the building become, and I quickly slipped my security badge out of my vest’s inside pocket and swiped it against the card reader next to the door. It beeped green, and the door unlocked, but it was an inward-opening door, so nothing moved.

I had approximately five seconds before my green-light entrance would go back to red, and any second swipe would trigger a warning– I wasn’t really sure if the building electronics were functional with this level of destruction, nor did I know if anyone was paying a damn bit of attention to them, but I couldn’t risk any more disadvantages. I clawed wildly with my feet until my padded toes caught on shearing floor panels, giving me just enough traction to push upwards and open the heavy door far enough to get my free hand between it and the threshold. The flooring buckled beneath my weight as I threw the door open and scrabbled desperately to maintain my grip as the building lurched again.

The walls of the hallway made an eerie cracking noise, like a giant spine being broken into its constituent vertebrae, and I looked down to see the rest of the building fall away like used rocket pieces. We were hundreds of feet in the air and steadily climbing, and the parts of the building that had been connected by impenetrable metal to this single room were plummeting to earth like jagged meteorites. I thought of the mink who’d tried to get to the roof and how we both assumed that would be the safest place to be.

The wind ripped at me, coiled around my dangling legs and tried to slide me around, pull me away from the doorway. I bared my teeth at it and, with waning strength, pulled myself up and into the room, then swung the door shut. It clicked as it electronically locked, mysteriously functional, and I surveyed the open space of the huge, round room.

Men and women in uniforms and lab coats stared at me, some perplexed, some simply startled. I sank into a crouch and tried to catch my breath as the only military personnel with a captain’s badge walked over to me. “That was a feat,” she said, standing clipped and steady with her hands behind her back and her thick tail artfully curled behind her heels. I envied her her cougar composure as my body shook and my own tail refused to smooth down. “Are you injured?”

“Not badly, ma’am,” I replied as smartly as I could between shuddering breaths. The room was still rising, and even inside the protective barrier that I guessed was keeping its exterior from disintegrating beneath the stress of such movement, my hearing was deadened and flat. I resisted the urge to paw at my ears; I knew it wouldn’t help.

The captain surveyed me with cool eyes, her pupils thin in the room’s bright lighting. “Very good,” she said after just a hair’s hesitation, then turned away and returned to the center of the room. I took the time to study the others in the room: four scientists, one of whom looked to be cradling a broken arm in a makeshift sling, plus the captain and three soldier-guards like myself, uniformed and silent and hiding their discomfort very well. All four military units carried a holstered sidearm on one hip and a sheathed “gut ’em” knife on the other hip. The scientists looked unarmed, but likely had a taser-like defense weapon somewhere inside those white coats. No one working on a project this crucial and fragile would go totally unarmed.

Reluctantly, I let my eyes fall upon the one other person in the room: the alien, the mythological creature, the fabled hero of ages past. It was the entire reason the building had been built, the locus of my country’s intel efforts, and my current raison d’etre. It was hairless and naked and lacking any tail or claws or hooves; it had a squashed-flat face and only cauliflower-patterned cartilage for ears. It was hideous and helpless, and it held so much promise that someone – I didn’t want to know who – had set off bombs in order to get it– or to kill it. The end of the world had come with the crash-landing of a spaceship that our primitive ancestors had drawn inside their caves and tombs– not because of the aliens, but because of our own reactions to their arrival and very existence.

The alien dangled from a specially-built containment unit, spread-eagled mid-air, wide straps strategically placed to support its torso and prevent it from ripping its limbs out of their sockets in any escape attempt. Its bare skin, a smooth earth-colored hue, was rippled with darkening bruises and fresh red lines of blood. It did not look at anyone.

I was still feeding upon my own adrenaline, and so I escaped the existential questions that threatened my focus. Every single proto-culture of the world had depictions of these skinny bipeds and their spacecraft; various religions said they were gods or messengers thereof, various philosophies contemplated them as aliens or psychological archetypes, and older mythologies placed them as heroes or demons. Not everyone thought they were real, let alone that they would show up one day, and now that they had, everyone had a different idea on what to do about it.

I met the eyes of one of the soldiers and tried to look questioning; he shook his head just slightly, a warning to keep quiet, which I would have to abide. I had a gun and a knife, same as them, but four on one odds wouldn’t be a pleasant exercise, and I was already worn out by having to scale a dismantling building.

Besides, if I started a fight, I might kill someone who knew where we were going… or why we had left… or, you know, how to fly a rocket-powered room.

I waited. I partook of a little bit of rations that had been stored in the room, apparently in case of just such an emergency escape. I didn’t talk to the soldiers or the scientists, and they didn’t talk to me or each other. With the captain’s permission, I cat-napped now and again. There was no watch to take and nothing for me to do but wait, but I still didn’t feel like sleeping for more than twenty minutes at a time. The other soldiers seemed to share my preferences and followed my example with short dozes.

I woke from my third nap with a knife cold and sharp against my throat and the captain’s bewhiskered face pressed close to mine. Behind her, one to each side, two of the soldiers had trained their guns on my head.

The captain drew breath to speak, then her eyes narrowed and flicked down. My knife’s tip was pressed against her ribs; in my other hand, my gun was out, cocked, and aimed past her hips at the imprisoned alien.

I gave her a terse smile. Agents like me knew how to draw and aim weaponry in their sleep… especially when awakened by a hostile. Kinetic memory served me well.

“I see,” she said. “Who do you work for?”

“That depends on who’s been annihilated by the nukes,” I responded. “Haven’t had a status update since the world ended.”

“Cheeky,” the captain observed. “I don’t suppose you’d trade us your loyalty in exchange for your life?”

I flicked one ear backwards dismissively. “You and I and the alien would die together, captain. It’s not just my life that you have to trade.”

She searched my face thoughtfully, unhurried, unworried. “Do you belong to one of the groups that wants to see it destroyed?” she asked.

“No,” I said truthfully. “If I did, I would have done an assassination run already, or pulled a suicide shot off by now.”

The captain inclined her head in the slightest of nods. “Then killing it would be as unappealing to you as it would be to us.”

I flicked my ear again, the only way I could shrug without shifting my arms and potentially forcing her hand. “My own death is pretty unappealing as well, captain.”

“Yet you won’t offer your loyalty to avoid your death. Do I have to buy you out?” She scoffed at the thought, lips drawing up over her shining fangs. I did not think about those teeth sinking into the soft flesh of my throat; she’d have all of my dense, long-furred pelt to get through, and even though a cougar could overpower a manul like me, I was skilled enough to keep my jugular safe. I hoped.

“You could try,” I said, forcing my tone to sound almost cheerful. None of the weapons involved in this stand-off were wavering, though the scientists had moved out of the direct lines of fire and the third soldier was positioned to cover them. I wondered if the room was on auto-pilot; no one seemed to be standing at any sort of control station to steer our trajectory.

“Nah,” the captain said, soft and smooth, and she moved back, our knives parting from their respective targets; with the two guns still trained on me, and mine still on the alien, she stood, drew her gun, and fired into the alien’s bare, flat chest. It jerked, then hung still as blood leaked liberally down its torso.

My eyes were wide as the captain turned back to me. “You were saying?” she asked.

Well, I thought to myself, time to be badass.

I moved, and the soldiers fired; one missed, and the other grazed my hip as I pulled myself from a supine position into a crouch. I pulled my firearm from its holster, threw myself to the right to avoid a shot from the captain and one from the soldier guarding the scientists, and fired at the soldier closest to me. She fell with a red-bubbled gurgle, the bullet cleanly piercing her throat and then spinal column.

I maneuvered to keep the captain between myself and the scientists’ guard, but the second soldier also took cover behind her and fired at me around her body as she moved. The bullet sank into the meat of my shoulder, missing the bone; it hurt like hell, but it wouldn’t take me down. I traded knife for gun between my hands and raised the pistol in my left, aiming for the soldier as the captain dived aside.

It all happened in the space of a breath: my moving, my kill, my injury, and then the captain putting a bullet through the other soldier’s head. He dropped like a string-cut puppet, and I was startled just long enough for her to sink a shot into my thigh. My darting movement turned into a graceless roll along the curving wall, and I heard the last muted crack of the gun as I came to a stop, leaving an erratic red streak behind me. The third soldier, the one guarding the scientists, fell to the floor.

I had my sights on the captain just as she set hers on me, and we stayed there a second; I was breathing raggedly and bleeding more than I’d like, and I was still unable to figure out her motive in shooting her own men. She locked gazes with me, fearless, pupils dilated and heavy tail lashing behind her. “Doctors,” she said quietly in a voice of steel, “tend the alien’s wound.”

I knew better than to break eye contact, but I swiveled an ear and listened very hard; it didn’t help. In the sound-dulling room, I had not heard the alien keep breathing, and I couldn’t now look to see if that chest was rising and falling, but the scientists moved as commanded and, from the tones of their hushed voices, the alien was very much alive.

“Put your gun down, agent,” the captain commanded. I didn’t move. She smiled briefly, tightly. “Put your gun down. I don’t want to have to kill you. Your being here gave me the perfect opportunity to get rid of these idiots. We might not see eye to eye–” I didn’t point out that I was a good foot shorter than her. “–or work for the same people, but I believe we both have the alien’s safety as priority. Unlike these louts.” She gestured with her free hand to the bodies on the floor.

My thigh was still bleeding badly. Moving as steadily and carefully as I could, I sheathed my knife, switched my gun back to my right hand – ignoring, for the moment, the strain of my injured shoulder – and pressed my left hand to my bleeding leg. She hadn’t hit the bone or the femoral artery, but I was still going to need to bind it before blood loss sent me unconscious. I didn’t have a lot of time to negotiate. “You’re not with them?” I asked, flicking an ear towards the bustling scientists.

The captain smiled again, showing teeth. “I’m with the scientists,” she said. But she wasn’t with the other military personnel, and I knew that they were part and parcel of the small fortress we’d just left behind…

I narrowed my eyes. I wanted to break gaze, but that would signal my submission, and I wasn’t done holding my gun yet. “Whose payroll are you on?”

She shook her head slightly. “I’m not giving information that you also kept. Suffice it to say that I think it’s in our best interests to work together. The alien is alive and will continue to be so. You can either be taken as a prisoner when we land at our destination, or you can be taken as a tentative ally. You choose.”

“Where will we land?” I asked, trying to buy a little time. Almost a mistake, stalling like that – I was starting to feel a little dizzy. Blood soaked my hand and continued to push past my fingers, despite my best efforts to staunch the wound.

To my surprise, the captain looked down, breaking gaze without losing the dominant position – a hard thing to do between two cats. She eyed my leg. “I could just wait for you to pass out, then disarm and cuff you,” she said in a detached voice. Her gun never shifted from its aim at my heart.

“Could,” I admitted. “Where are we landing?”

She glanced at me, calculating, then smiled with her teeth again. “A moon base. Private sector, non-militarized.”

My jaw dropped, despite myself. “We’re taking this thing into space?!”

The captain laughed loudly. “Agent, don’t you realize we’re already almost there?”

Instantly, I clicked the safety on my pistol and dropped it, my heart quailing. I had no idea how the room was reinforced, or any idea how it was even flying, but the thought of risking a puncture to it – however low the odds were – was enough to disarm me. I might risk my life, but I’d prefer not to experience death by vacuum.

The captain nodded and lowered her gun, replacing it in her holster. “Good,” she said approvingly. “Doctor,” she said, switching her focus to one of the scientists who was doing more hovering than alien-tending, “please take care of the agent’s wounds.”

The scientist gave her an incredulous look, which raccoons are always so good at, but she flattened her ears at him and he scrambled over to me, hands full of first aid supplies. He removed the bullet and bound my leg, then wrapped up my shoulder. I watched over him as the captain joined the other scientists and made sure that her feint of a shot hadn’t done structural damage to the alien.

The raccoon awkwardly patted my good shoulder when he was done, gave a quick nod-bow, and scurried back to the others. The captain came my way and crouched, out of knife’s reach. “I need something to call you,” she said, searching my face. I could tell she was on the brink of asking me how I was, and I wished my dizziness did not show so readily. If I were in the company of my comrades, I would have swooned already.

“Agent Pallas will do,” I said with a wry grin. She laughed shortly.

“Unoriginal at best,” she remarked. “You may call me Agent Kindly.” I raised a furred brow at that, and she shook her head. “It’s a long story; you don’t want it,” she said with a slight smirk. “I don’t know anything about your people or your intentions in detail, but we’re about to land. Do I need to tie you up and hand you off as a prisoner?”

I appreciated her phrasing; I could say yes and admit that I was an intentional threat, or I could say yes to keep me from being in a situation that would force me to act because of whatever cultural or ethical codes I might live by. If I were part of a group that would kill or imprison or dishonor me for not driving myself dead with my efforts to carry out my mission, being taken as prisoner would be a kinder sentence.

A kinder sentence. I laughed under my breath and ignored her quizzical look. “I’d rather be in a position where I can help protect and preserve the alien from hostile forces,” I told her.

She returned a skeptical eye. “You’re wounded and disarmed,” she pointed out; she had slid my gun out of reach shortly after I dropped it. When I held her gaze and did not attempt to excuse or bluff through her statement, she shrugged. “Alright,” she said. “I’ll tell my superiors as much. What happens to you will be their decision, not mine.”

I nodded. When we landed, a smooth and unremarkable procedure, the raccoon scientist helped me to my feet. The red door to the room opened to allow in not military personnel, not doctors, not even political figures– but more aliens, dressed in uniforms and bearing badges and stripes of unknown meaning. I held very still and stared hard at them.

They said nothing as they took their kinsman back, holding it carefully, and only after they were gone did any of our species enter the room. A crocodile in civilian clothes glanced from the captain to me, gave me a studious once-over, then looked back to the captain. “Well done,” he said in a throaty voice. “Who’s this?”

“Someone who would be an ally,” she replied. “Agent Pallas.”

He snorted. “Unoriginal.” With another glance to me, he gave a nod. “Welcome to the moon, agent. You’ve just reached the only place in our space where we and the aliens have sat down to talk.”

I grinned, though weariness slowed the expression. “Glad to hear it,” I said. “My people were hoping all along that would happen.”

May 16: Architect [2556 words]

Written By: Ty Barbary - May• 16•12

I was walking down the hallway in my office building, arms folded gentlemanly so that my hands were behind my back, when a hooligan stepped around the corner and punched me squarely in the jaw.

I reeled back – as an internet scholar, I must say, my jaw is made of metaphorical glass – and bounced off the wall, but did not fall. The hooligan gave an ungodly snort, reminding me of the subculture what goes out on weekends to play pretend as minotaurs and elves, and smacked her fist into her open hand loudly. “About time you got here,” she spat.

“Pardon?” I managed to sputter, caught on the tightrope between indignance and animal fear. I had just gotten punched in the face! What does one do with such an event, short of fleeing or fighting back or perhaps screaming for help?

I considered, for a second, that third option. Unfortunately for me, the building is very large and well-insulated against sound, and the hallways are usually empty at hours other than those designated for arriving, lunching, or leaving.

“Idjit,” the hooligan growled, the rumble in her voice further testament to her uncivility. “You really have no idea, do you?”

I worked my jaw and tried to ignore the ache spreading up my face. At least she hadn’t broken my nose; that was something, I supposed. I nearly started my response by calling her ‘madam’ before angrily tossing aside such courtesies. She did not deserve them. She had punched me! “I have no idea who you are or what you could possibly hope to gain by brutally assaulting me,” I said as coldly as I could manage. The ice in my voice was somewhat belied by the tremor rattling it.

She smacked her forehead with her open palm, and the slap resonated through the silent hall. “You fool cuss,” she swore, then strode forward with a hand extended. I shied backwards, but scraping along the wall is not a terribly efficient way of fleeing, and her hand closed like an iron band around my silver watch and the wrist beneath it. “Come on. We’re going.”

“Absolutely not!” I protested, but the hooligan outweighed me by some fifty pounds as far as I could reckon and had no trouble at all dragging me along behind her. I stumbled and tried to dig in my heels and gave a few obligatory shouts of help! help! I’m being abducted! help! with little hope. When each office suite in the building has its own small kitchen and set of bathrooms, there is precious little random traffic during work hours.

“I will pick you up and carry you like a load of dung if I have to,” she snapped as we navigated the turns of the networked hallways.

“Do you often carry loads of dung?” I snapped, at my wit’s end and beginning to feel fear claw my throat shut. I truly was being abducted, and I could not save myself, and no one was present to save me.

“Only person-shaped ones,” she retorted, surprisingly quick and scathing in her comeback. I betted she’d be an interesting combatant in the well-loved water-cooler game of Ridicule.

I flailed ineffectually with my free hand, trying to shove her hand from my captive wrist and, when that utterly failed, trying to grab at the wall as we marched along. Being a very fine office building, all doorknobs and light switches were flush with the wall, inset for a smoother look, and offered no purchase for my grasping fingers.

“Will you at least tell me why you are so invested in ruining my life? And also perhaps where we’re going?” I finally asked, exasperated, as I consented to walk normally alongside her. She had a longer stride to me, which I matched with some difficulty.

She eyed me sidelong like a stray cat that had just pissed on her boot. I half-expected her to spit in my face with such an expression, but she only rolled her eyes. “What’s your name?” she asked me in turn.

I was aghast. “You cannot tell me that you do not know who I am, after all this implying that I am a specific target for your… your… criminal intentions!” She delivered unto me such a burning stare that I recoiled as far as I could. After a moment, I collected myself and replied, “My name is Wilford Kerr. To whom do I have the dubious honor of speaking?”

“Wilford,” she echoed with a tone between amusement and scorn. “And what do you do here, Wilford Kerr?”

I felt the lower eyelid of my left eye twitch, but I smoothed out my frustration. Perhaps, if I answered her questions, she would answer mine. “I am a virtual kinetic architect.”

“And who do you architectize for, Wilford Kerr?”

I narrowed my eyes at her. I really didn’t know what was going on. Was I being played a fool and revealing everything to validate her kidnapping a stranger, or was I being played a fool and being led on to some inexorable mental revelation? “I am employed by the Midlands division of the National Digital Builders Corps.”

She winked at me. “And you have no idea why someone would want to take you?”

“… not really, no,” I confessed. “Are you holding me for ransom? I’m not entirely sure the Corps would be willing to tender money to a terrorist or criminal or whatever you–”

“Insurgent, if you please,” she said, mocking my civil tone.

My stomach dropped out of its place behind my ribs and hit the floor. I stopped in my tracks, mouth agape– but she didn’t stop, and within a stride I was being pulled along again. “In– in– in–” I stuttered helplessly.

My captor chuckled mercilessly. “You formal types,” she scoffed, then jiggled my wrist as though I were a child. “Gonna be in shock until we’re done, huh?”

That spurred me out of my broken-record mouthing. “Done? Done with what? What are we doing?”

“We’re going to get rid of this building,” she said casually, nonchalantly. I stopped again, and she dragged me forward again, and I let my legs buckle beneath me so that she had to haul my dead-but-still-fairly-inconsiderable weight along the textured flooring.

“You– you can’t– there are people here!– I won’t–”

“Oh calm down.” She paused long enough to lift me, by my arm alone, to my feet again. When I was standing reluctantly again, she pushed her face close to mine, and I recoiled. Her breath smelled like sweetmints. “We aren’t going to kill anyone. That’s why we need your help.”

“I am not helping–”

Or,” she interrupted, “you can be a useless cuss and require us to hurt people before we can deal with the building itself. Your choice.”

My jaw dropped, and I sputtered, but I was fast realizing that I was not getting out of these turbulent events so easily, so my sputtering did not last as long as before. “Just how do you plan on walking me out past security like this?” I instead demanded, trying to jiggle my arm as she had but accomplishing far less. Her hand was a lead weight on my wrist.

She smiled broadly, revealing slightly crooked but healthy teeth. “Why, I’m your cousin, Wilford. Your cousin Oni. We’re going out for a special early lunch with my mother.”

I facepalmed.

But we walked cordially through the gates of security, and I gave the guard on duty the all-okay nod, and somehow he didn’t notice the early signs of a bruise growing beneath my loose watch-band. Once we emerged from the building and its long covered walkway, Oni held open the door of a sleek black transport for me. It was one of the sporty, fine models that would fit one driver and one passenger directly behind them, trading roominess for performative speed and power.

I hesitated. We were in the dimly-lit open space of the parking garage outside the building. No people in sight, only rows of transports and a few expensive cycles, but this was it: if I got in the transport with her, there would be practically no hope of escape. Or rescue. She hadn’t been pulling me along since we passed through security, so if I tried to run…

She was watching me with a stare like a crouching feline. I got in the transport. She shut the door, and I heard it lock.

The transport shifted as she climbed in ahead of me. I didn’t hear the engine come to life, which indicated to me that the insurgents were either very skillful at stealing nice vehicles or they had enough money to legally purchase them for certain missions; the transport rolled like a wave across the smooth pavement and out into the street.

“There’s a panel inset into the back of my seat,” Oni said over her shoulder, too casual as she navigated our bullet-shaped vehicle through the larger bodies in traffic. “Use it.”

I lifted a felt cover to see a small, inactive screen. “Use it to do what, exactly?” I asked. I was tense and quivery and I was fairly sure my heart had grown hummingbird wings and was desperately trying to evacuate my flesh. I was now responsible for all the two-thousand-or-so lives of the workers in my entire building.

“Put your name in,” Oni replied dryly.

I did so, and the screen flooded with information – schematics of the building, all the contact information for every floor– every office suite– every single person. Messages were pre-written for all of them, set to send at close-spaced intervals during the building-wide lunch hour for those who wouldn’t be leaving on their own initiative.

“Cuss,” I whispered reverently. Their planning was sublime. I had so little to do; I just activated the program that would, in essence, completely evacuate the building.

“Ten minutes before the end of lunch hour, before anyone comes back and after everyone leaves what’s going to at all, we’ll hit the fire alarm and force the stragglers out,” Oni said to me as we paused at a traffic light. “You’ll have five minutes between them all leaving and the alarm being shut off to get rid of the building.”

I bit my tongue on the question of but why this building?, feeling sure that I already knew. The top floor was reserved for governmental entities, small subsidiaries and nothing like real headquarters, but enough to make an impact on a federal level of the building was targeted.

Then I realized it. “You lied,” I said, feeling more surprised than I ought to have. “You would have evacuated everyone without me. If I hadn’t come, they’d still all be safe– you lied!”

Oni was laughing, a rumbling chuckle from her belly. “Dumb cuss,” she said without any particular acid; she almost made the insult sound affectionate. “I didn’t lie. Since you cooperated in leaving with me, I didn’t have to hurt you and the security guards to get you out. I never said the whole building’s populace was in danger – you assumed that on your own.”

I kicked at the floorboard in frustration, then watched as the screen flicked away from the long queue of pending message sends and opened up into a new interface. Proprietary software that I had helped create for my employer waited at my fingertips, but the tools and controls that were designed to create kinetic blueprints for vehicles and smaller robotics had been overlaid with building mechanics. Our building’s mechanics.

“Do the rest,” Oni said, gravity pulling her voice low. “You’ve got twenty-five minutes before you need to deploy it.”

I reeled as though she’d punched me again. Less than half an hour to do a week’s worth of work? “You jest, surely,” I said, but I already knew she didn’t, and her silence proved it.

I worked. The minutes flew by like the traffic around us, and I paid no heed to where we were driving; I just worked and worked and kept in mind that if I was even a minute late, I would be risking lives of completely innocent people returning from their lunches. I worked and when I hit validate program, I realized I was sweating and shaking and in need of a bathroom.

“Ninety seconds to spare,” Oni said. I had no idea how she knew when I stopped; the touch of fingers to screen is quiet and hard to detect, even in such a silent transport as this. “Good job, Wilford.”

We rolled to a gradual stop, and I realized we were on the roof of the parking garage, the nose of our vehicle pointing straight at my towering building. The red lights of fire alarms flashed in every window, a warning for civilians to not enter.

The program validated, and I numbly pressed my fingertip to the button that said schedule deployment. It timed itself correctly, and I stared past Oni’s head to watch the building.

At precisely the right second, all the fire alarm lights went dark, and then the building began to come apart.

Like a thousand short insect legs, the steel struts in the walls swiveled outwards, breaking through the glassy golden surface of the building. Giant shards of surfacing material fell towards the ground, dissolving within seconds and landing as metallic dust over the trees and bushes planted around the base of the building.

The building-turned-millipede wriggled struts enthusiastically, as though it was trying to climb the air, and then all the metal rods left their makeshift joints. They, too, dissolved into silver particles before they hit anything. So it was with the rest of the building, floor by floor collapsing, crushing, dissipating, until all that was left was a very dusty pile of unprogrammable furniture and a few archaic personal computers that did not have safety mechanisms built into them. It was a jumbled heap a story and a half high, sprawling the entire square footage of the building’s concrete base. I watched a desk chair tumble off the peak of the pile and go rolling down the slope and into the bushes.

“Nice work,” Oni said appreciatively.

“We’re going to be arrested,” I pointed out, slowly shaking myself from the stupor of witnessing so much destruction and some millions of dollars in damage. I could hear the whine of police cycles already, mingling with the hawkish cries of incoming ambulances and fire control vehicles.

“Nah,” she said dismissively, and our transport shuddered violently. For a moment, I thought she was going to kill us both– then, as I realized she was about to drive off the edge of the fifty-foot-high parking garage’s roof, I thought I was right.

We cleared the edge in a graceful arc, but before the missile-like nose of our vehicle could turn towards the metal-dusted ground, a noisy pair of engines caught fire just behind my seat and rocketed us forward. I peered out the tiny side windows and caught a glimpse of smooth wings extended from the transport’s flanks, just small enough to have been easily hidden and stored, just large enough to keep us from plummeting to our deaths.

Oni was laughing as she rode the winds away from the ruined building where I used to work.

Of Wagons and Writing

Written By: Ty Barbary - May• 14•12

As the looming silence may have indicated (to my likely-nonexistent audience), I have fallen off the story-wagon. On the day of the 9th, I found myself completely, wholly, and miserably resistant to writing a story.

So I didn’t. I let myself deliberately choose to break my eight-day streak in the name of happiness. Because, honestly, as fun as a challenge is, I am not here to make myself deeply unhappy. The goal is to dare to try, not to depress.

I didn’t want to write the next day, either. Giant brick wall. So I didn’t write.

After that, it was just plain priority-switching. I dropped my commitment to writing a story every day, and my energies have gone elsewhere. I’ve been making jewelry and painting and thinking and studying Egyptian mythology and doing that thing called “work” so I can pay my bills. On occasion, I even sleep.

Now, however, I have missed six days in a row, and I think I want to try to pick this back up and see what happens. I am recharged and replenished; I do not feel that deep, lurching resistance to picking up the virtual pen. I even have a few story ideas floating around, niggling in my imagination.

So, let’s see how the rest of the month can go. :D

May 8: Woodbaby [1120 words]

Written By: Ty Barbary - May• 08•12

Hettie was twelve when she received the hand-made, fake-furred rod puppet as her birthday gift; her parents loved the Renaissance faires that blossomed like water lilies near the metropolitan oasis of Dallas, and one of the many merchant booths at the Scarborough Faire sold the quirky little creatures as toys.

But Hettie treated her puppet, her woodbaby, as a pet, not a toy. She wore it perched on her shoulder, the long rod that controlled its movements swinging down to waist level, and she practiced being nonchalant and subtle in manipulating the simple knob that made the woodbaby look up, down, and tilt its head charmingly at onlookers.

Over the years, the woodbaby lost patches of fur, got wet, got scratched, got matted, and got chewed on. Faithfully, Hettie repaired the puppet, repainting its carved wooden face and gluing on fresh fur over the bare spots. Her golden-pelted pet had become a calico by the time she graduated high school, and she was bold enough about her love of her woodbaby that she wore it on her shoulder in the procession. Her teachers had long ago given up hope of persuading her to not wear it, and banning her from the toy had surprisingly little effect. Hettie was an expect in manipulating the puppet and the consequential reactions of those watching its soulful pearlescent eyes and tuft of blond forelock-fur.

To relieve the stress of college, Hettie took up beadwork, making herself and her woodbaby matching sets of necklaces. She went on blind dates with the woodbaby comfortably draped over her shoulder and charmed all the boys and girls who saw movies and had dinners with her. More than one quickly acquired their own woodbabies from the original maker, and Hettie gave them tips on being the puppeteer of their new companions. She never once called them toys.

After college, where she majored in business administration, she got a just-for-now job in a shopping mall, working retail. Her woodbaby came to work with her every day and attracted enough attention that her commission-based paycheck was pleasantly round after a few months of learning the merchandise. Her coworkers, happily geeky enough to jump on a good idea, got themselves woodbabies of their own, and their fine jewelry booth in the middle of the mall became one of the most visited in the entire complex.

Hettie came home from one Saturday evening of work to her apartment and her cat, footsore and quietly content. She didn’t have a glamorous life, or a particularly wealthy one, but she had a few good friends, a cozy home, a reliable car, and enough money to continue investing in her beadwork. The degree she had so fervently pursued seemed less important after she realized, a few months ago, that she wasn’t using it at all and yet was still quite happy with her life and herself.

She shut the door behind her, shrugged off her jacket, and carefully pulled her woodbaby from her shoulder. “Time for Whose Line reruns!” she told her puppet cheerfully as she set it on the overstuffed arm of her couch. Her cat gave a Siamese-esque squawk and twined around her ankles as she wandered into the kitchen to brew some fresh tea.

A sudden violent hiss from the cat brought Hettie darting back into her living room, fearing her woodbaby had lost another patch of fur to a feline flip-out. But her cat, tail poofed in alarm, was a full five feet away from the woodbaby on the couch, hissing and bristling at the puppet.

As Hettie walked forward, the woodbaby turned its head to look at her with glistening, pearl-blue eyes.

She swallowed a startled scream and stared. Her cat gave a yowl and fled the room.

The woodbaby blinked slowly, its eyes almost luminous, and curved its pale muzzle in an impish grin. Hettie kept staring for a long moment and ran through all the motions of a disbelieving woman: she rubbed her eyes, blinked several times, tilted her head, and finally concluded that, yes, her woodbaby was blinking and breathing without anyone touching it. The rod that ran the length of its spine and tail was mysteriously absent; the woodbaby had curled its fluffy tail against its haunch.

Hettie knelt near the couch, out of reach of the woodbaby’s paws; she’d approached a half-feral stray cat a little too close once and nearly lost the tip of her nose for her friendliness. Ever since, she had avoided sticking her face close to unknown animals, and for all that she knew her woodbaby, she wasn’t quite sure how it might react now that it could, apparently, move on its own. The woodbaby gave her a smile that revealed two tiny fangs and flicked the tip of its tail. Hettie heard a strange noise that sounded suspiciously like purring.

Defying her common sense, Hettie extended a hand towards the woodbaby’s familiar, disconcertingly animated face. She’d caressed its muzzle and its ears for years, kissed the paint right off its nose, and here it was, tiny nostrils flaring, muzzle made of velvet-soft skin instead of hand-carved wood. “Am I going crazy?” she asked the woodbaby as it sniffed her fingertips.

The former puppet winked one beautiful eye at her and licked her finger with a tiny, raspy tongue. It tickled.

“I’ll take that as a no,” Hettie murmured, allowing herself to feel more amazed than unnerved. She scooted closer and offered her shoulder, and the woodbaby stood under its own power, its legs lean and strong and perfectly shaped, no longer frozen in the ‘sprawl’ position it had been made in. Without hesitation, the woodbaby stepped from the couch arm to Hettie’s shoulder, curled its glossy-furred tail around the back of her neck, and balanced easily on her shoulder.

Hettie studied her woodbaby out of the corner of her eye, then smiled as it nuzzled her cheek with its own. “I think I might be crazy,” she murmured, giving the little creature a soft scritch behind its cat-like ears, “but if this is crazy, I kinda like it.”

No one else ever saw the woodbaby move, and Hettie kept taking it with her to work and to run errands; it only animated when they were alone. But friends commented about the different positions it would leave its legs and tail in, the varying expressions on its carven face, and Hettie knew, as much as anyone can really know, that her woodbaby was alive in some way.

Of course, she’d known that since she was twelve, and it really shouldn’t have surprised her, but she was still a little bit delighted to be proven right after so many years of child-pure faith.

May 7: Technomancy [1819 words]

Written By: Ty Barbary - May• 08•12

Heto forced a wide smile as he made his way through the dissipating crowd that had gathered to celebrate his graduation; his friends, peers, and professors streamed past him, many clapping him on the shoulder or pausing to shake his hand. He said all the right things, barely noticing his lips shape the words that were thank you for coming and I’m so glad you could be here tonight and hope the trams get you home quickly.

Sanar, his fiance, was at the far side of the room, leaning against the wall next to their closed bedroom door, waiting with a knowing grin. Heto passed his favorite professor, who took one look at his shadowed eyes and shooed him onward to rest; she gave him a wink as she closed the door to his unit behind her.

The unit was empty but for the two of them, the sudden silence burningly loud in Heto’s ears. He fell into Sanar’s arms as the lean vorian unfolded them and extended his webbed hands. “Glad it’s over?” Sanar murmured, raspy voice light with amusement.

“It was good to see them,” Heto mumbled out of obligation, pressing his cheek against Sanar’s soft-scaled shoulder. He smelled like clean water, and Heto breathed deeply of that familiar scent, letting it drown out the party’s lingering incense. The common room of their unit was covered with letters of recommendation, congratulatory cards, and empty recyclable cups.

“I drew for you,” Sanar said with a smile, leading Heto into the bedroom with his arm around the young man’s waist. The door slid shut behind them, helping them ignore the mess strewn about the rest of the unit. The vorian gestured to the stark metal surface of the nightstand near their bed and the holographic images hovering like playing cards there.

Heto sank onto the bed, wishing as he did every time that they had a thicker mattress. “Which spread?” He gave his lover a tired grin as Sanar laid a hand to his shoulder and pressed him backwards into the plush pillows. “Alright, okay, I’m lying down. What spread?”

Sanar swept his thin tail to the side and sat down next to Heto, slit-pupiled yellow eyes flickering to the intangible cards. “Just the three,” he answered in his soft, sibilant voice. “I don’t think you need more than that.”

Heto nodded, his eyes closing of their own accord as soon as they saw the ugly truth of the digital clock embedded in the wall over the door. He would not sleep nearly as much as he’d like before having to rise and finalize all his graduation paperwork at the spaceport academy in the morning. “Good draw?”

With a hissing chuckle, Sanar patted his fiance’s thigh and nodded. “Very good. Your indicator is the Radar Engineer. Long-reaching sight in all directions, orchestrating structure and organization, methodical observation.” The vorian winked a reptilian eye. “Very much like you, O master planner of all things.”

Heto laughed from his belly, shaking the bed on its metal frame. “I keep getting that card as me. I think you cheat.”

“I think the card belongs with you,” Sanar countered with a toothy grin. “I cannot cheat a holographic program of this sophistication. I am but a lowly linguist, not a technical specialist that can hotwire and hijack divination kernels.”

“I love teasing you.” Heto grinned back and shifted his position to curl up around Sanar’s back, wrapping one arm around the vorian’s narrow waist. His hand slid beneath the light vest his lover wore and met the soft, wide-wrapped scales of Sanar’s belly. “What about the other cards?”

Sanar idly scritched along Heto’s folded legs with his short-clawed fingers. “Good and interesting, respectively. First, the Ten of Dyson Spheres. Completion, binary perfection, the end, the whole – combined with grand-scope sustainability on a civilizational level. It’s a full package in itself, something perfect and self-complete.”

“My graduation,” Heto said. He was never very good at the interpretation of these things, but he’d listened to enough of Sanar’s descriptions to have an idea what the cards might be referring to in their strange symbolism. Even if he had no idea where Sanar was getting his keywords from.

“Correct,” Sanar said, approval in his voice. He gave Heto’s thigh a squeeze. “The last card is unexpected. The Lady Prophet of Space Travel.”

Heto snorted. “Aw, I get one of the silly mystical ones as my future? Damn.”

Sanar hummed in the back of his throat, a thoughtful noise. “It’s not as mystical as it sounds,” he said after a moment, studying the card’s hologram. “The prophet can be taken as the predictor of the future and so can symbolize your plans, or your hopes, for what comes next.”

“Why’s it a lady prophet?” Heto asked, raising a brow.

The vorian reached out a webbed hand and plucked at the non-physical card. The hologram shifted as though he held it, and he brought it into Heto’s view. “It’s a vorian deck,” he said, “and I don’t think you know our sexes well enough to understand how important the word that I translate as ‘lady’ is. I will sum up crudely by saying that this card indicates a mother, one who creates life and continues life, and as a lady prophet, she not only knows and anticipates the future, but also leads others into it and helps create the future’s populace. She both guides and fulfills the manifestation of the future.”

Heto studied the card. He had no idea how he was supposed to visually recognize a female vorian from a male; the figure was etched in vivid red and unclothed, but he spotted the vague symbols of vorian language on the border of the card and assumed that the words indicated her sex. Or maybe female vorians were always in red on the cards. Who knew? “Okay,” he said after a pause. “So…?”

Sanar patted his head, playfully patronizing, and Heto swatted his lover’s hand away with a scoff. Sanar grinned down at him. “It’s a very large card,” he continued. “A lady prophet is an enormous personage, but to be paired with space travel as her influence? If I were drawing for a corporation or a race, I would say this meant a colony ship – a successful one.”

Heto sat up and nearly smacked his forehead into Sanar’s elbow in his haste. “A colony ship? Sanar, there hasn’t been a new colony ship for–”

The vorian pressed his cool lips to the human’s brow. “Shh. I am drawing for only one person, only you, and the cards do scale down their magnitude a little as a result. But I still say this means a voyage, a journey of great import and eventual success.” His face creased in a smirk as he added, “Alternatively, you may be pregnant.”

Heto laughed again and flopped back onto the bed, planting a kiss on the small of Sanar’s back. The vorian made a noise of fake protest, his tail giving a twitch and lightly smacking against Heto’s shoulder. “Well, if I’m bearing a child, you had better be involved.” They shared a grin.

“I would be,” Sanar assured him, half-serious. “Are you going to sleep now?”

“Only if you sleep with me,” Heto said, hugging the vorian’s ribs and trying to drag him down onto the pillows. “Just for a few hours. Please?”

Sanar’s eyes flicked to the calendar displayed near the digital clock, then he heaved a melodramatic sigh and sprawled backwards onto Heto. “Fiiine, I will sleep with you.”

“I know it’s such a chore.” Heto grinned. “You poor vorian, forced to rest more than once every three days. Terrible fate, really.”

With a laugh, Sanar rolled over and curled up around his lover, wriggling his tail beneath the blankets crumpled at the side of the bed and awkwardly pulling the comforter over himself; Heto reached over with a hand and pulled it up the rest of the way. The vorian’s stomach and chest were warm at his back, and he closed his eyes gratefully.

A grating beep pried his eyes back open, and Heto had no sense of how much time had or had not passed. The room lit up caution-yellow, a spaceport-wide urgent broadcast, but it wasn’t the red of danger or disaster, so he allowed himself the luxury of being annoyed at the interruption to his sleep. It was probably some stupid political announcement about managerial staff changing again. Even though no one outside the spaceport hierarchy actually cared.

Sanar hissed as the beeping continued, then flung off the blanket and rose to accept the message by keying in his identification number through the door’s security pad. “Lazy,” he grumbled at Heto, who curled up and buried himself in the blanket.

“You were closer,” Heto mumbled, squeezing his eyes shut.

Urgent message. Repeat, urgent message. Verbal confirmation of message receipt required. Begin message?

Heto groaned, so Sanar replied. “Begin message,” he said, sitting back down on the bed with a thump. The mattress barely indented under his lean weight.

Message recipients: Heto Canzoni and Filyi s’r Sanar. Verbal confirmation of recipients required. Begin message?

Heto poked his head out of the blanket. A code yellow message addressed specifically to them? He shared a sleep-blurred, worried glance with Sanar. “Heto Canzoni present,” he said, and Sanar followed with his own confirmation.

Message begins. From Captain Yerei m’n Kolan to all eligible candidates: upon hearing these words, you are hereby sworn to secrecy and will not discuss the contents of this message with anyone who is not also an eligible candidate or a subordinate of Captain Kolan herself. Confirm vow.

Heto silently slid his hand into Sanar’s and held onto his fiance tightly. The captain of the fleet? “Heto Canzoni swears,” he said softly. Sanar echoed him, and the vorian’s voice was no more confident than his own.

Message content begins. Captain Kolan extends to you an invitation to join a mixed-race convoy to begin a thirty-year journey to UB-221, the VRH Alliance’s next colony planet. You have been individually selected to receive this invitation based on your academic and personal qualifications. You have full consequence-free right of refusal. Captain Kolan requests your decision within the next 60 standard days. For more information, report to the recruitment center and ask for Lt. Aeru Kant. Confirm message receipt.

“Receipt confirmed,” Sanar whispered. Heto mumbled the same, and the yellow light flickered off, replaced by sleeping-level ambiance. The vorian twisted around to stare at the holographic cards still lit up in reds and blues on the nightstand.

“So, Sanar,” Heto said with a sudden nervous laugh, “I think I’m a whole-hearted believer in your technomancy now.” He sat up and kissed the back of his fiance’s hand. “Want to go colonize a world with me?”

Sanar met Heto’s eyes, and he gave a raspy laugh. “Of course.”

May 6: Mavra [1038 words]

Written By: Ty Barbary - May• 07•12

Little Key was humming as she made her way through the thickly-packed trees, old roots rising from dark soil to form a familiar path of obstacles. Mavra, Mavra, calling to the water, she sang under her breath, pausing as she heard the first raindrops strike the leaves of the so-green canopy above her. Mavra, Mavra, water calling to me, she continued, hopping over a particularly large log and landing softly on all four paws.

Key was a Canis, a wolf-person winged-person, and a Mavra, a magic-worker spell-singer, and these trees were part of her home and the beloved land of her pack, her family, her whole world. They were old trees, creaking trees covered in slick green moss, trees split in half by lightning but still living on in two pieces of their former selves. The canopy was so well-leafed and so long-branched that it was one elegant weave of bough and twig for miles in every direction, and the rain could not hit anyone beneath the treetops without first hitting the trees and racing along their bark-skinned arms.

Key trotted along the path as the patter of the rain increased to a mild downpour, and she sang louder to hear herself over the sweet rain-thrum. Mavra, Mavra, singing down the raindrops, Mavra, Mavra, calling down the sky! Mavra, Mavra, all ears pointing cloudward, Mavra, Mavra, wants to know what comes!

She stopped when she felt the first trickle of referred rain sink through the thick fur between her shoulders and cool the skin beneath. With a tongue-lolling grin, Key looked up to the shadow-soft eaves of the trees and waited until more raindrops blessed her forehead and tickled her attentively-perked ears. In the far distance, on the other side of the horizon of daylight, thunder rolled and rumbled in a deep, soothing voice.

Plumed tail wagging in quiet happiness, Key resumed her course and reached a well-sheltered shallow cave. It was barely two body-lengths deep, only one high, and stretched four lengths wide; its rocky edges were covered in confusing ivy strands, and its hunching back was part of the hillside that rose from its base. It was too open to offer a permanent den to any forest creature, and so it remained empty and unremarkable to the wild animals in the area.

Key loved it. She stepped beneath its low overhang and took a deep breath, then shook off the dampness that had glossed the outer layers of her dense fur. The cave smelled deliciously old, like rock dust and lichen and long-dead leaves. And its interior walls – the parts that weren’t lined with plantlife – were covered with colorful symbols.

They were hers, these symbols, these brightly-colored lines and curves that formed nonsense pictographs to anyone but her. They were word-magic, sigils, crafted by hue and shape to protect, to heal, to bless, to guide. This was not part of being Mavra; it was part of Key herself, her uniqueness, her art and her gift to the pack.

The rain dripped from sky to trees to ground steadily, cleaning the roots of dust and making the ground muddy. Key tipped her muzzle up and let out a singing howl, wordless and tuneful, calling to the water falling to earth. The rain responded, arcing towards her as it dripped from the boughs, creating a strangely beautiful effect of a constantly moving web of water pulling into the edge of the cave.

Key curled her tail up and over her haunches and focused the incoming rain on the very tip; her fur soaked up the water and retained it as long as she concentrated on holding it there, together, bound along the hairs. Her howl dwindling away as she moved to the next step; she turned to dip her drenched tailtip into a niche in the cave floor that held her precious stash of dried colors. The color clung to her damp fur, and the water made it run like ink, but Key held the newly-stained liquid close to her tail as she lifted it to a bare place on the cave wall.

With exacting care and excruciating slowness, Key drew new symbols with her Mavra-made paint; time and rain passed like the wind as her entire spirit was funneled into the strange work of sigil-art. Late afternoon had become late evening before she finished and rinsed her now-multi-hued fur in the small pool of water that had formed just outside the cave mouth. She had worn out all the muscles in her tail and all the strength in her heart, but she had drawn her magic well, and she was satisfied.

The trip through the night-cloaked, soft-mudded forest was slower than the bright trot to the cave, and Key stumbled once or twice on roots she knew were coming, her paws dragging heavily. Even her wings, folded close to her flanks, drooped a little, her primary feathers brushing against the roots and dirt. The scent and warm light of the pack’s central fire welcomed her in, and she sank down gratefully, close enough to bask in the radiating heat.

“Key!” Her brother joined her in the firelight, bladed tail wagging cheerfully as he nuzzled her shoulder. “Did you hear?”

She shook her head, eyes half-closed against the luminance. “How are they?”

Her brother gave her a toothy, bright-eyed grin. “All the pups are healthy, even the littlest one that we thought might be stillborn. And their mother is resting; she’s fine, Key, she made it through okay.”

Key allowed all her weariness to leave her in one long, relieved sigh, and she smiled at her brother. “That’s very good to hear.”

Her brother extended a feathered wing and draped it over her back, drawing her close in an affectionate hug. “The whole family’s saying your sigils pulled them all through,” he said more quietly, ruffling her fur with his chin.

Key laughed, feeling lighter than she had since she set out on her task to work magic for a safe birth for a first-time mother – her sister. “All that matters to me is that they’re all alive and well,” she said, relaxing against her brother’s strong shoulder and gazing happily into the flickering flames.

May 5: Light [1951 words]

Written By: Ty Barbary - May• 06•12

My betrothed woke me in the middle of the night, breaking into my poorly-pitched tent and flinging herself across my chest. I spluttered and swore breathlessly as she clutched at my pajama shirt and tugged me into sitting up. “Amara,” she cried, “we’ve got to go– the mountain, it’s gone–”

I closed my hands over hers to still them, but she was shaking her head, whipping her curls into both our faces, and refused to calm. “We’ve got to go! There’s no time!” she insisted, finding her feet and pulling herself from my lap, nearly dragging me along by my shirt’s collar. I managed to unfasten her fingers from the warm fabric and stood on my own volition.

“Calm down,” I told her uselessly, my voice scratchy and dry; I felt for the wineskin that normally hung at my hip, but my belt and all its accoutrements were in my knapsack next to my bedroll. Instead, I pushed past her as she knotted her hands and chewed at her knuckles, and I stepped outside into the chill air.

She was right. The mountain was entirely gone. The slope we’d been ascending ended not twenty yards from our camp, exactly at the line that trees could not grow beyond for the sheer altitude and hollowness of the air. The ground looked for all the world like some giant child had taken a paper-cutting knife to it and sheared it eagerly away, leaving the edge rough and jutting into empty space.

Lightning flashed overhead, illuminating the bellies of deeply grey clouds with a peculiar yellow-orange. “The sun’s blood,” I heard my betrothed whisper, and she pressed against my back and buried her face against my shoulder. “We’re dead. We cannot outrun what comes next.”

I didn’t move, bracing my legs against her push, staring up at the dark sky. The lightning flickered again, a lick of color against greyscale; the thick, slow-moving bolts were the color of fire and not proper lightning at all.

“Get your things,” I told her as I turned and kissed her forehead, briefly cutting her off from the constant psychic visions by obscuring her third eye. She hated when I did that, and her annoyance broke her out of her hopelessness and panic; she punched at my arm, then took a deep, shaky breath and fled to her tent a few yards away.

I returned to my own tent and grabbed for my knapsack, wrapping my belt around my hips and sliding my feet into socks and then hiking sandals. By the time I had finished lacing them around my ankles, my lady had returned, her sleeping clothes replaced with sturdier pants and jacket, her own minimal belongings slung over her shoulder in her bag. I shrugged into my insulated vest and hooked my knapsack to the hoops I’d sewn onto the back of the vest.

We left the tents, the bedrolls, and anything that didn’t fit in our packs. The mountain was gone, and I was itching to approach the edge, to see if it was sturdy or crumbling or even real at all, but on a starless, moonless night, it was foolhardy.

“How long will the shadow last?” I asked my lady as I linked arms with her and began a brisk walk downhill.

Not a moment after those words left my lips, the scenery around me was lit as though the very sun dawned at our backs, infusing the slope with orange light. The same color as the not-lightning.

My betrothed and I stopped on the same stride and slowly, almost comically, turned to look behind us. The mountain had gone, and its lingering shadow had worn through, leaving only a mountain-interior-shaped column of yellow-orange light. It towered over us and seemed to reach the low-hanging clouds with its thinnest, highest filaments.

“Flash flood,” she warned, her voice gone brittle, her eyes gone wild. For one long, perfect moment, the formation of glimmering light held its shape, like a crystal lit from within.

Then it crashed down, spilling like water from a vanished glass, throwing orange light-spray in glowing droplets over our head. It splashed onto our clothing, our skin, our hair; it was warm and had the consistency of blood.

I sucked a breath into my disbelieving lungs, locked my hand around my love’s wrist, and ran as quickly as I could down the slope, seeking any rocky outcropping that would afford us some shelter, seeking even a climbable tree that might not break beneath the weight of this swift, thick fluid that poured from the intestines of the mountain that was no longer there.

The light crashed in waves after us, spitting color into the air in heavy droplets, reaching for our heels like hot syrup. It was slick and made the dry ground slippery beneath our woven sandals. We fell more than once, and we pulled each other back to our feet, dripping with light. It was so hard to breathe the hollow air, so empty at such a height, and our lungs burned with futility as we tried to suck nourishment from the chill breeze that held none.

“Here,” I wheezed, seeing an opportunity – perhaps the only one we’d get – in a particularly large rock that was casting a stark black shadow. Up to our calves in flowing luminance, we staggered and sloshed our way to the side of the old boulder, and I helped her scale its rough flank as the flood rose around us. The current was beginning to get dangerously strong; I slid downhill more than once as I waited for her to reach the top safely.

When she did, I began climbing the boulder myself, my sandals drenched in light and glowing like campfires below me. It made finding footholds easier, and I finished my ascent with a gasp and a relieved groan. We were ten feet off the slope now, perhaps high enough to avoid being washed away; the level of the rushing light was still rising, though, and we were getting covered in sprayed drops.

I sat awkwardly on the top of the elongated boulder, one leg dangling over the side to give me a sense of purchase and balance, the other crooked in front of me. I pulled my betrothed into the shelter of my body, shielding her from the light-fall with my back and shoulders; she whimpered and kept her head ducked, wincing reflexively each time an orange droplet struck her face and lit it up like a candle.

I managed to twist my head enough to look at where the mountain had been, its absence partially obscured by the sparse pines that grew small and stubborn on the slope. The column of fire-colored light had fully descended upon the world, and rising waves were still racing downhill, creamy foam hissing as they collided with unyielding tree trunks and particularly large rocks. Thunderless not-lightning kept illuminating the clouds from above, turning them yellow-white when combined with the glow the mountain’s light was casting skywards.

My betrothed murmured something in a distressed voice, and I turned my head again to better hear her over the rushing of the flash flood. “Say again?” I asked, my mouth near her ear.

She was babbling, her eyes squeezed shut and pushing out tears. “I’m so sorry, I knew we would never make it, Amara, ‘Mara, you know I love you, yes?”

“Shh, shh.” I nuzzled her temple and held her more tightly in my arms. Even with her bag, even with her jacket, she felt small. “I know you love me. I love you too. We’ll be okay. We didn’t reach the peak of the mountain in time, but we’ll figure out another way to make it right. For now, we’ve got a high point–”

“No, no, you don’t understand.” She met my gaze, and her eyes glowed orange like the not-lightning, like the light flooding the land around us. I recoiled. “I love you, ‘Mara, and I knew we wouldn’t make it, and I know this is the only way, and I am so sorry, and I love you so much,” she said in a broken voice, then pushed me off the rock. The combination of my surprise and my lifelong training never to harm her meant that I did not grab at her or the boulder; I just tumbled backwards and sank head-first into the waist-deep flood.

The light was moving so quickly, the current so strong, that it whipped my top half down the slope before my bottom half could land and smash my head into the ground. My knapsack unhooked itself from my vest in my tumble and zipped away, and I was left to twist and writhe ineffectually in a river of lumination.

In my panic, I wasn’t thinking at all about her words– I only wanted to get my footing and stop myself before I slammed headlong into a tree and broke my neck. But my lady’s light-stained eyes would not leave my mind, and when I opened my own eyes in the stream of light, I felt like the wick of a candle, surrounded by warm, smooth flame.

I was breathing, and as I stared, momentarily transfixed by the fluctuation of oranges and whites in the light that enveloped me, I realized that light was sliding down my throat like a thousand tiny minnows. It saturated my lungs and slipped into my stomach, and dizziness took me abruptly and forcefully. I spun away from the tree that had given me a glancing blow to the head, stunned and filled with light.

At the top of the mountain, should you reach it in time, you will find the key to reclaiming your kingdom. The seer’s words, useless now, drifted into my fogged mind. I breathed light and it felt like drowning, and the trees were becoming thicker, battering my body as I was swept away from my lady.

Through sheer luck, I scraped across a large rock that made the flood shallow over its bulk, and I found purchase for my fingers so I did not slide away. Feeling sick to my stomach with the luminance I had sucked down, I pushed my head above the surface of the flooding light and tried to breathe unlit air.

The forest around me was cast in such a light that it looked to be afire, long shadows stretching out and blackening the space between branches. I was astride a river of not-lava, and as I coughed color out of my lungs and wiped light from my lips, I felt something stir within me.

This is the only way, she’d said, and it hit me then; all her time spent with the seer before we left, all her strange preparations, the entire point of reaching the top of the mountain. The peak would have had an opening to the light within the mountain, a way for the sun to fill the earth with this fire-colored brilliance, and we would have found it and…

But we found it anyways, and I had drunk of it– I was drunk with it– my betrothed had known all along– I felt like a phoenix, my lungs and throat burning, all the world burning with me.

I spread my arms wide, and they felt like wings, and I saw droplets of light slide from my fingers and etch feathery shapes as they fell towards the flood that was beginning to subside. The brightness inside my flesh glowed so fiercely that my skin looked like the surface of the sun.

This was the power of the old kings; this was what we’d come for; this would save us.