Fiction (Short)

The Path

It was a scent in the air, blowing in off the hayfields hidden behind the trees. It was the harmony of birdsong and insect chatter, all chorusing together. It was the way the wind brushed her skin; in all the years she’d been gone, in all the places she had traveled, she had never felt a breeze like the ones here.

And now she was back. Almost. The main road had taken her as close as it could. The last leg would take her down the narrow path that appeared now, branching away into the woods.

She touched the reins. Her horse stopped. A thought grew from some crack in the darkest corners of her mind: it wasn’t too late. She could turn around and ride away. No one needed to know how close she had come to returning home. No one needed to know she wasn’t just one of the nameless missing.

A soft laugh broke loose from somewhere deep inside, a sound that she knew to be frantic and desperate and a truer window to the state of her soul than she would have admitted to anyone but her own self. She should feel like a hero. That was what everyone had said. The comrades-in-arms whose lives she had saved. The commander who had presented her with the ornate and beautiful sword that hung, even now, from the scabbard at her left hip. Even the king when he had offered her a place at his side.

Perhaps she should have accepted it. Perhaps her polite refusal, born of the lurking, rotting feeling that she did not, could not belong in such circles, was not so based in reality as she had made herself believe. It could hardly have made her feel any more alien and uncomfortable than she did now, standing here at the edge of what should have been the most familiar place in all the worlds.

She hadn’t felt this way through all the long journey back. Not as the small group of those she had traveled with split off in ones and twos and threes as they each reached their own homes. Not as the mountains shrank into the distances and the hills grew softer and greener and ever more gentle. Not even as some of the others had, in the quiet and thoughtful moments that gathered around their campfire in the dark, wondered if they would recognize the places they returned to, and if those places in turn would recognize them.

They weren’t the sort of questions that had wanted answers.

She had been grateful, in her own quiet arrogance, that these were not the thoughts that plagued her own mind when it was meant to be at rest. Perhaps she had just been better than her companions at avoiding the silence that allowed them to grow. Until now.

And so, here she was. Caught alone with the things that prowled in the darkest, emptiest corners of her own soul. Listening as they whispered, reminding her that all could never be just as it was.

Her horse whickered and shifted his weight from leg to leg. Impatient. She reached down and patted his neck, offering this poor substitute for a stall and good hay to buy a few more moments to indulge her own fears. He accepted the bribe.

It was strange. She couldn’t say what it was she was afraid of. It wasn’t that she didn’t know; would that it were so easy. Would that she couldn’t tell that the answer was there, buried carefully and hidden away with all the other things she couldn’t bring herself to examine—like why she had been so quick to leave in the first place.

A thirst for adventure. That was the most flattering way to explain it. The most acceptable, to herself, to her family, to those she met along the way. And yet it would have been just as accurate, or even more so, to use a different phrase instead. A fear of the mundane.

She snorted, despite herself. A sudden sound, startling both to her and her horse; he grunted and threw his head up high, tossing his mane and taking a few steps further down the path. She touched the reins again and whispered soothing words to buy herself a few minutes more.

For all the good it would do.

She cursed, once, a single word hissed under her breath. Temptation welled up in her chest, urging her to keep to the main road, to travel on and bow to the deceptive simplicity of that choice. All she had to do was touch her heels to her horse’s sides. She didn’t know what would happen after that. She didn’t know, and that was the allure.

Strange, that she could say the same of what would happen if instead she turned her horse’s head down that familiar, narrow road. Strange how much easier it was to face the untouched and unfamiliar than it was to return to what might have changed. Strange how she had thought, until that moment, that she had known what courage was.

So she waited. She breathed. She felt the beating of her heart and the thrumming of the world. And when her horse next pawed the ground in his grumpy, fitful way, she made her choice.

Musings

[Blog] Goals and Roadmaps 2023

Seeing as it’s January of brand new year (how did that happen?) it seems like as good a time as any– and perhaps better than average, even– to give an update on the blog in general, the status of All The Writing Projects, and also to give a general idea of what my hopes are for the site in the coming year, if only because actually stating it outright means I have that extra layer of accountability. Yay!

So, first! The blog. Last June marked the five year mark of the site going online, and so the fact that I’ve managed to keep it updated relatively steadily for all that time is definitely a point of pride for me. Particularly since my other attempt(s) at something similar have generally petered out with a rather embarrassing rapidity. And the plan is to keep at it!

In fact, after entirely too long spent on a reduced schedule, I’m switching back to the once-a-week posting schedule I started out with. Because I’m out of excuses, and what was originally intended to be a temporary rest while I used my limited brain power on more pressing things has become something a bit more like laziness. The brain power is still severely limited (isn’t it always?) but I’m at the point where my routine is stable enough and I’ve got enough to work with that the discipline of blogging every week is going to be more beneficial than eking out a few extra hours of spare time.

Which leads me to the next thing I want to mention/use-you-all-to-keep-me-honest-about. Way back in 2017 when I started this thing, I was actually putting up short stories every month. Two a month, actually, for a short stretch. I’m comfortable enough with my own limitations at this point to say there’s no way I can do two short stories every month right now. Not if I want them to be any good or to be able to keep up with it for any length of time without burning right out. But one a month? That I think I can do. So, consider this the official announcement that there will be a new short story going up on the blog on the last Monday of every month. Starting this month, so keep an eye out for that!

Speaking of writing, despite how quiet it’s been on that front, I have been picking away at some stuff behind the scenes. Picking is, unfortunately, about as much as it’s been, but it’s certainly better than nothing. Tanner and Miranda are at the top of the list, of course. I’m a little stuck with how I want to move the action along in the second of the nine stories that are going to make up the first collection, but the latest bits I’ve put together are feeling a little closer to the mark. The other projects (NaNo21 and NaNo22) are mostly stuck in the more conceptual stage as I work out what I liked about them when working on them and what just didn’t come together the way I’d hoped. What I really need to do is just sit down and hash some things out until I get stuck again and it can simmer in the back of my mind for another few months and see what comes of it.

I’m also thinking the site itself might need some tweaking, but that might just be some proactive procrastination talking. We’ll have to see. Heh.

With all this talk of plans, I feel obligated to note that it could all change; as they say: man plans, God laughs. Last year was full of so much change, including that big interstate move and everything it entailed, but there’s every chance this new one will be just as protean it in its own right. If nothing else, I suspect that time is going to become an even more precious resource than it is now, which means I’m going to have to get really good at managing it if I want to even have half a chance of keeping up with any of this. Good thing I’m a sucker for a challenge.

But for now, that’s the state of things! I’m really excited for the possibilities this year, not to mention looking forward to getting back into a more stable writing routine.

Fiction (Short)

The Bite

Something a little different– this was my entry for the NYC Midnight 250-word Microfiction contest. I ended up receiving an Honorable Mention in my category (the piece had to be drama, show people eating seafood, and contain the word “rest”), which wasn’t enough to advance me to the next round, but was a solid showing regardless. Here it is in its entirety!


Kathryn’s fork pierced the salmon and clicked against the plate, but she didn’t bring the food to her mouth. It would have no taste, and the fish was too good to waste on an unappreciative palate. The woman sitting opposite her had no such trouble; she was already chewing a piece of shrimp and pasta. But Afton had never been able to resist seafood.

It had been so many years. More than it should have been. Enough that writing the email and sending it to an address she hoped was current was almost too much. Yet she had done it. And a week later she’d gotten the reply: three impersonal lines. But she agreed to meet.

And now they sat together in heavy silence. No words exchanged since the mandatory greetings. Kathryn said more to the waiter than to Afton. Afton barely met her eyes. Instead they hid beneath the quiet restaurant hum.

The quiet, restless voice in the back of her mind whispered that this was a mistake. A sleeping dog she should have let lie. A can of worms she shouldn’t have opened. A burned bridge that wasn’t worth rebuilding. All the excuses that let the years pile up. All the excuses that rang hollow now more than ever.

She forced herself to take the bite. She chewed it. She swallowed it. She took a sip of water, just to buy another moment.

She looked up.

And she asked her sister how she was.

Fiction, Fiction (Short)

Candle in the Window

When we discovered Redfall Gap, hope and excitement ran high, and while most paid lip service to caution and cold wisdom, it was hard to lend too much focus to the dangers and unknowns. And when the probes sent back their first readings, confirming that this glittering, undulating anomaly was just as much a passage to another galaxy as we had imagined, wariness seemed like an unnecessary precaution.

We knew better, of course. Every one of us had seen enough things go wrong when they should have gone right that thoroughness and triple checking were worked into our bones. And we also knew that no matter how much care you put into anything, there’s no such thing as a guarantee. Not really.

So when my best friend volunteered to pilot the ship for the first manned expedition, I met the announcement with mingled envy and dread as well as giddy exultation. If I couldn’t go myself, this was at least the next best thing.

And she deserved it. She, who’d been a pilot longer than I’d been a scientist. She, who’d dreamed of taking the best ships to the strangest places since we were both kids. She, who knew the risks and laughed at them while I followed a more careful path.

If anyone had the skills and experience to be prepared for this, it was her. And her handpicked crew of three.

Preparations took a month. More tests. More readings. More specialized equipment for the Distant Horizon, the vessel that would take them through. More training. More time for this mad venture to become normal. More time to deafen us to the nervous mutterings in the backs of all our minds.

Launch Day came. The Horizon detached from its dock on Platform One, our tiny station home. She brought up power and glided towards the Gap and all the unknown beyond it. Away from us.

And then they entered and were gone.

We received one message, reporting safe passage and transmitting their initial scans from the other side. We received a second six hours later, and a third six hours after that.

Then, nothing.

The next scheduled check-in passed in silence. And the one after that. And every one following.

Our optimism faded like a dream, replaced by sickened knots in the pits of our stomachs. I told myself that she knew what she was doing, that there were a thousand ultimately harmless reasons they might have missed their check-ins. We checked our arrays and our systems. We tested our sensors and our communications rigs.

We geared up another probe and sent it through the Gap, just in case. It went through safe and sound, its connection never faltered. But it found no trace of the Horizon.

Some talked about outfitting a second ship, though we knew it would never happen. You don’t throw good money after bad. You don’t send a second ship when you don’t know what silenced the first. So all we could do was to find some way to make it safe enough to try again.

But that was easier said than done. We’d done everything we could think of before we sent the Horizon through—now we had to find new things, new holes, new possibilities when we had already exhausted every obvious avenue. And we had to do it with grief hanging over us instead of thrilled excitement.

We tried. Hard. But the exploration corps that funded our project lost interest once the Horizon vanished. After three weeks, they informed us apologetically that they were not in a position to continue paying for a dormant expedition. We were welcome to keep the platform and the equipment; it was ours. They just couldn’t justify the cost of additional supplies and living stipends.

After that, everything shut down. The support staff left. The techs left. Physicists, astronomers, engineers—everyone went in a steady stream that turned into a flood, until finally only four of us remained. We crept around the emptied platform like ghosts, stretching our rations, funding ourselves out of our own savings, scraping all we could from what we had and dragging it out until there was nothing left.

Then we gave up too, with nothing gained for all our begged and borrowed time.

We’d boosted all our sensors, all our comms, cobbling them together from bits and pieces we stole from things we counted less important. We accomplished technological feats. Our station’s eyes and ears reached farther then they ever had before with fewer needs. Maybe it wasn’t an elegant system or the most resilient, but the vast distances its signals crossed was something we could be proud of.

For all the good it did. We found nothing. No stray transmissions. No sensor ghosts. No drifting hulls. Nothing that gave us the slightest indication that the Horizon was there at all, or ever had been. If we hadn’t had the logs from those three precious check-ins, we might have convinced ourselves that they’d never happened at all. And I might have found some other way to explain the loss of my best friend.

After that, we abandoned the station too, out of hope and out of ideas, sixteen weeks, four days, and three hours from the time the Horizon went missing. We left a comm buoy behind on the far side of the Gap, programmed to broadcast its message on repeat: Platform One to research vessel Distant Horizon, all attempts to contact you have failed. We have run out of supplies and are forced to abandon station. We haven’t forgotten about you. We’ll be back in one year to come looking for you again. Message recorded 2619.04.13.14.30. End of recording.

And that was that. The best we could do, useless as it was. And no matter how I tried to avoid it, I knew our project had collapsed with a sigh and a whimper. I knew my best friend was gone forever.

We loaded the few supplies we still had on the one remaining jumpship. We checked the sensors one last time, more out of habit than hope. Then, finding nothing, we left.

Afterwards, we didn’t stay in contact. Or I didn’t. The others might have, but I, in my sorrow, kept to myself. I found some job on some station and used it to feed myself and put a bed beneath my bones. I made acquaintances, never friends. I let my pain grow dull. Numb. I forced myself to heal, or maybe just to scar. Either way the bleeding stopped.

And all the while I kept track of the days, the weeks, the months.

The year passed. I shook myself from my fog of unmanaged grief long enough to hire a jumpship and to contact the others. One I couldn’t find. Another couldn’t take the time to make the trip. The third promised to meet me at the same station we had all set out from together so long ago, and we could go the final leg together.

In the end, we reached the silent, abandoned station two days before the time we’d promised. But that was alright. We could wait. And while we waited, we took comfort in each other’s presence. We barely spoke; there was nothing to say. Instead, we spent the time restarting all the platform’s systems. To our mild surprise, only the link to the probe had gone down, battered by some stray asteroid and unnoticed by the cannibalized systems. It took less than a day to complete the handful of repairs.

I was the one to bring them back online. My hand hesitated above the command-board, wavering as buried emotions came hurtling back, ripping through the cloud I’d wrapped myself in. For a moment, my fears spun all around me. I knew better than to hope. This was more for closure than for rescue. More for us than them.

Something like shame washed over me. We’d spent all this time and all these resources on something that couldn’t be. It was idiotic.

But we’d promised.

And so my hand keyed the commands and started all the systems. They came up, one by one, humming, chirping, reaching out to see the universe. And there it was, the probe we’d left behind with our message for the Horizon. Now the message was for us.

Distant Horizon to Platform One: we ran into a little trouble, but we’re alright. Took some damage and had to find a place to land. Found a way to get your message from the ground. Coordinates are 152.777.459 from point of entry. Watch that gravity well a few hours in. That’s what got us. Looking forward to coming home. Message recorded 2619.07.21.19.37. End of recording.

I sat for a second, stunned. My cheeks went numb. My hands tingled. My heart beat faster than it should have, and I couldn’t breathe. But only for a moment. Then I ran for my companion. We had work to do.

Originally published as part of the 2021 Tenth Anniversary Writing Contest on shortfictionbreak.com.

Musings

[Blog] Success!

HaHA! I did it! Fifty thousand words in July! And now I’ve got sixteen stories in various stages of presentability, and I’ve already started working on the edits for the first one. Actually, technically, I’ve just got fifteen to edit, since I had one of them pull double duty and act as my entry for the recent contest over at The Write Practice, so it’s actually in good shape and I’ll share it with you all here in about ninety days, once the rights revert back to me. In the meantime, you can go check it out here!

Other than that, since I don’t have much else to share, I can share the list of current titles for the various stories I was working on last month:

The Shadowed
The Day We Lost
The Hartwood Faeries
Wolf Road
Candle in the Window*
Caer Modnaan
The Secret Wood**
Aeternatus
Runner
To the Horizon***
We Went Home
A Page Worse Than Death
The Windbringer
The Lost Ones
The Willow Book
The Smallest Messenger

Most of these are (surprise, surprise) science fiction and fantasy. Which ones sound the most exciting to you? (Or in other words, which ones do you want to see me finish first?) And feel free to ask questions in the comments below!

* This is the one that’s already finished!

** I’m almost certainly going to change the title on this one. The story sorta got away from me…

*** This one… I never really figured out where this was going. But I like the title. We’ll see what happens!

Musings

[Blog] Last Stretch Camp ’21

Three days left! And after a quick writing session this morning, my current wordcount for this Camp NaNo event is sitting just above 42k. My sister and I have exchanged fourteen different prompts, so I have fourteen different stories in various stages of being written, and while most of them are terrifyingly rough, I really, really like the ideas, and I can’t wait to start polishing.

At the risk of jinxing myself, I think I might actually be making this goal, and I’m very excited. I am also looking forward to the time next month to start working on Tanner and Miranda in earnest again, this time with the rust knocked off and a writing habit formed again!

How about you guys? Anyone reading who’s also doing Camp NaNo? How are you feeling about your projects?

Musings

[Blog] Camp July ’21 Update

Well… I don’t want to jinx it… but this might be the time I break my Camp failure curse! At any rate, I’ve already written more by this point in July than I have in any of my other attempts in their entirety.

It’s not a guarantee, of course, and this is all in the middle of starting a crazy new schedule at work, but I’m feeling excited! It definitely helps that my sister has been choosing some awesome prompts, too.

They’re not in anything like a presentable state yet, of course, but I’m really happy with the bones of all of them so far. And if all goes as planned, you’ll be seeing some of the finished products in the next few months.

What about you guys? Anyone else participating in this Camp NaNo? How’s it going for you?

Fiction, Fiction (Short)

We Said Goodbye

The whisper of my breath filled my helmet. Its odor mixed with the smell of my sweat and complete exhaustion. The faint fog of it clung to the inside of the face shield, dimming my view, though not so much that I could pretend that the scorched control panel in front of me would ever function again. I stared at it anyway and delayed making the comm back to the ship. Maybe if I didn’t say anything it would stop being true.

My comm chirped in my ear anyway, and I sighed. So much for that idea. “Go ahead,” I answered.

My husband’s voice came crackling over the connection. “What’s the bad news, Alice?

“The gate’s shot,” I said. “Doesn’t look like we’re making it home for dinner.”

Or ever. But we both knew that.

Copy,” he said, and then went quiet.

And we mourned.

We’d known it would happen, that it was the only likely outcome. We’d run the scenarios. We’d looked at every other possibility when the wormhole opened, anything that could save our galaxy without stranding us in this one. We’d tried a dozen different things, only to have them fail one way or another— because the theory wasn’t sound, because the tech just couldn’t handle it, because time ran out. The fact that the radiation from the other side was harmless until it reacted with the radiation from our own galaxy didn’t mean a thing. It was a quirk of nature, but deadly all the same. And in the end, this was our only option: fly through ourselves and set things right.

Close the gate. Save the galaxy.

Get back through if you can. But that’s not the primary objective.

I closed my eyes and let myself hang there, floating in the vacuum at the end of my tether while the greater part of myself insisted that there must be a way out, if only we kept on looking. It offered up all the cliches: we’d come so far, we’d done so much, it couldn’t end this way.

But that’s only true in a certain kind of story.

My comm chirped again, and I opened my eyes. The control panel was still there, still destroyed. The gate pylon was still inert, still damaged far beyond our means to repair. The expanse of a foreign galaxy still stretched out infinitely in every direction, and I couldn’t bring myself to look at it.

Alice.

I shook my head, as if that was enough to clear it. It worked well enough. “I’m here.”

I’m ready to bring you back inside. Whenever you’re ready.

“Copy that. I’m ready now.” A pause, and then I added my quiet thanks.

It didn’t take long to haul me in at the end of the tether. The fastenings on the belt of my suit pulled taut and the pylon sank away and out of reach. I watched it and only it until my feet touched down on the airlock floor; the strange stars would cause me too much pain.

Gray, my husband, pulled open the door and met me as soon as the airlock finished cycling. I leaned into his chest, let his arms wrap around me, let him hold me. I breathed in his scent, the last remnants of his deodorant and his sweat and the unique smell that only belonged to him.

“I don’t want to be stuck here,” I whispered, though the words hardly made it past the knot that had grown in my throat. “I don’t want this to be the end.”

“It’s not,” he murmured, his lips pressed against my hair. “It’s not.”

It was a platitude. An empty, hopeless platitude. A flash of rage passed through my brain, all violence and panic and gut-deep wrath. I stiffened, chewing on the words of a dozen different diatribes that rose up from my chest. Only the simplest came out.

“It is. It is.” I pushed away. “The pylon’s dead. The control is dead. Our galaxy is ten million light years away, and even if our ship could cross that distance, we’d be eons dead before it brought us home. And so would everyone we’ve ever loved. We knew it when we volunteered. We knew it and we came anyway.”

“So we find another way,” said Gray.

“There is no other way!” I choked out the words and hissed them past my teeth. “That’s why we said goodbye.”

We both retreated to our own ends of our little ship, our fifty yard prison, me to the engine room, him to the bridge. I drowned myself in a dozen mindless repairs, all the little things that wear apart with everyday use, all the things our mission had stressed to a breaking point. The work was simple, and my hands knew their tasks. Each problem was the sort of thing I’d solved a thousand times before. Each thing fixed was a salve to my thrashing mind, though only when I kept my fears at bay. I didn’t worry how Gray spent his hours.

A day passed. Another followed. We came together at meals— sometimes— but didn’t speak. We slept in the same room, but not with each other. He wanted us to talk, but I had no words to say anything that mattered.

We stayed at the pylon longer than we needed to, until I’d fixed everything on the ship that I could possibly fix and a few more things besides. We might have never moved, but while the ship’s stores were well-stocked, they would not last forever. Better we move on now, while the choice was ours to make and not desperation’s.

Find a planet. Refill our stocks of food and water and medicine and fuel, whatever we could find. Keep floating on.

I saved the location of the pylon into the computer before we left. I wasn’t sure why. The thing hadn’t shown any indication that it would or could return to life. But it seemed the thing to do.

Or maybe I just couldn’t bring myself to let it slip away forever.

In a week, the worst of my grief dulled to a different, deeper sort of pain. A resignation. Or a sort of healing, if a twisted, tender scar is healing. But I began to speak again, and chose to forgive or forget my husband’s well-meant hope and optimism. It hardly seemed important now, as the pylon fell farther and farther behind, and our daily life revolved more and more around survival and less and less around thoughts of getting home.

We found planets and moons and asteroids that held what we needed. Sometimes it was just scraps, the barest bits to keep us going. Sometimes it was more, or almost everything. Sometimes when we sat together on the bridge and the scan came back with its promises of life and riches we would exchange a look.

“We could stay,” I might say. “Scuttle the ship, make a home.”

And Gray might think, might ponder, might muse. “Maybe the next planet. The sunlight here is wrong.”

And so we wouldn’t. We would land and fill our stores, and then we’d leave and fly back to the endless stars. And we’d whispers to each other that we still might find some way back to our other home, safe in the knowledge that it could never happen.

Until it did, on a rocky moon that should have only offered us a little fuel, but showed us an ancient, alien colony instead. A colony like the one we’d found in our first galaxy. A colony that held the tech that we’d been studying when the wormhole opened and the whole of creation began to crumble.

We stared down at it through the viewport, as if our naked eyes could see the empty buildings. Three years had passed. A thousand days. Grief and terror had faded and given way to mere exhaustion and routine. And then somewhere, somehow, exhaustion had yielded to curiosity and the giddiness that came with the knowledge that an entire galaxy was at our fingertips, all full of things no one had ever seen. And there was nothing at all to stand between us and a million new discoveries but our own decisions.

“You were right,” I said. “There is a way.”

Gray remained quiet for a long, long while. “I guess there is,” he said. “But we said goodbye.”

And so we left the ruins to themselves, staying only long enough to refill our stores of fuel and choose our next coordinates. By habit, I almost saved the location of the tiny moon to the computer before we left, but a thought stopped my hand. Gray saw me and shook his head, and I let the void swallow the coordinates instead. The galaxy was bigger without them.


Originally published as part of the 2020 Fall Writing Contest on shortfictionbreak.com.

Fiction, Fiction (Short)

The Last Job

We knew Trevor Cossak was going to catch up with us eventually. We knew it, but I had been hoping it would be somewhere other than in this remote and utterly godforsaken corner of the Badlands. At least there was cover. I gripped my pistol and twisted just enough to look over the top of the massive boulder Tanner and I were both currently hiding behind.

CRACK!

I swore and slammed back down. Lafayette wasn’t missing much by way of his aim. And I still wasn’t sure exactly where he was.

“Okay, now what?” I hissed the words, exchanging a glance with my brother. I was all out of ideas this time around.

Tanner just shook his head. So much for that.

The sky above was clear and blue. The world around us was silent—ominously so. If I popped my head up again there would be another rifle shot, and I had the impression that Cossak wasn’t firing warning shots. If he got a clear bead on us, it was game over. And seeing as half-second stolen glances weren’t giving us any idea where he was actually hiding, they weren’t worth the risk.

“Well, we can’t just sit here and wait,” I said.

“We can’t really do anything else,” said Tanner. “Unless you’re trying to make his job easier.”

His job, because in one sense, the man was just trying to fulfill an obligation. Cut out the part about that obligation being handed to him by a certain colony mob boss, and you almost sympathized with him.

Almost.

“His job’s going to be plenty easy if we just sit here and wait for him to work out how to get closer,” I said. But while that was true, I knew Tanner had a point. Which meant we needed another option.

I turned and looked at our surroundings for the eighth time. And for the eighth time, I came away with the same impression: this particular little pocket in the canyon wall, situated as it was behind a decently sized boulder, provided both lovely cover and no way out. There was at least a couple dozen yards of open ground surrounding us, which would give Cossak some trouble getting closer to us, but that was only the thinnest of silver linings.

At least it wasn’t going to get that much worse.

That was the last thought I had before I heard a clatter of rocks on the steep slope above us and looked up just in time to see a couple of armed gangmen taking aim at us from above.

“Tanner!”

We both turned and fired, and both gangmen came tumbling down with his own mortal wound opened up in his chest. But the damage was done. The seconds we spent dealing with them were enough for Cossak himself to break from his own hiding place and cross the precious yards of no-man’s land we had hoped would protect us.

By the time we turned back around he had already flanked us. I fired three shots, each one hitting dead on. Each one falling short against a personal shield device that I had, up until this point, thought was mostly fantasy. Tanner shot him too, but the only effect the rifle shot had was that it caused the shield to flicker. Slightly.

“Don’t suppose you’re going to let us surrender, are you?”

Cossak’s face split in a nasty grin. “Nah.”

And then he shot us both.

Fiction, Fiction (Short)

The New Roommate

There’s nothing fun about looking for a new roommate. The whole process can go wrong more ways than it can go right, and the stakes for it going right are higher than most. You’re looking for someone to live with, after all—it would be nice to get along, nice to tolerate each other’s company, if not enjoy it. Yet all too often you have to consider yourself lucky to just not mind sharing space.

And all it takes is one bad experience to make you twitchy about the whole thing. Sure, the statistics say you’re unlikely to ever run into someone truly dangerous. And even if you do, you want to believe you’d notice that something was off before you invite them in to live between the same four walls as you. Problem is, statistics aren’t guarantees. And once you lose that gamble once, you’re bound to make extra sure about anyone responding to your craigslist ad.

Which was how Amanda found herself sitting at the corner table of a coffee shop a few blocks from her apartment, waiting for who she hoped would turn out to be as good a roommate in reality as she was on paper. She’d gotten there early, more by accident than design, though she hoped it would give her a chance to collect her thoughts and relax. It hadn’t worked; mostly, it had given her time to remember how optimistic she’d been about Lilith when she moved in.

It had been fine at first. Lilith was nice, if a little odd. She’d was a little pale, but she’d also only gone out after dark. She seemed to eat blood sausage with every meal, but everyone had their dietary quirks. That colony of bats had moved into the walls about a week after she had moved in, but that could hardly have been her fault. Just coincidence.

Until the Incident, everything weird was easy enough to explain away. But when your roommate tries to bite your neck and only fails because you happened to have the presence of mind to fling the jar of powdered garlic at her, you end up feeling a bit paranoid.

Amanda shuddered and tried not to think about it. She also touched her hand to the small silver cross at her neck, just to reassure her subconscious that it was still there. Fortunately, any further recollections were preempted by the arrival of her potential new roommate.

She was a small woman—barely five feet tall and slight of stature—with red hair in a pixie cut and pale grey eyes. She approached the table and greeted Amanda with the most musical voice she had ever heard.

“I’m so glad you had time to meet! It’s Amanda, right?”

Amanda smiled and nodded. “And you’re Morgana.”

“I am!” said Morgana, and she laughed.

After that, the two of them just talked for a while, asking all the simple, silly questions anyone does when trying to find the first pieces of common ground on which to build an acquaintance. It went well. So well, in fact, that Amanda found herself thinking and hoping that she had found that rare gem of a person who could be both friend and roommate.

Of course, she had hoped that of Lilith, too, and not without reason.

And maybe it was extenuating circumstances that had nixed that dream, but it’s once bitten, twice shy, and Amanda had no desire to get bitten a second time. Granted, the fact that they were meeting in the daylight was a good sign, but she’d be happier if she could confirm those results with a couple of other subtle tests.

“So, what about cooking? Do you like fiddling around in the kitchen?”

Morgana’s eyes lit up for at least the twentieth time. “I love cooking! And baking. And experimenting. All of it! Do you?”

Amanda grinned back. “Absolutely. I’ve got a few go-to recipes that I stick with for the most part, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that garlic makes almost everything better.”

“Ha! Me too,” said Morgana. “If this works out, we should absolutely cook dinner together every now and then. I always like it better when I get to cook for someone else.”

Test number two, passed with flying colors. Amanda felt some of her tension bleed out of her shoulders, and she allowed herself to feel almost hopeful. It seemed unlikely that Morgana was going to be the sort of roommate who might be tempted to suck her blood.

Just to be sure, of course, there were a few more questions, a few more tests. Amanda turned the conversation to their favorite books, and was pleased to see that her mention of Dracula left Morgana unfazed. Morgana complimented her necklace and touched it without flinching when Amanda held it out to her, apparently unworried by the fact that it was both silver and a cross. Casual mentions of both wolves and bats got no response. In fact, nothing gave Amanda any cause for concern, and she felt a little silly when she arranged for a small mirror to tumble from her bag in such a way that it allowed her to check for a reflection. It was there, of course.

After that, even her most paranoid instincts were content that Morgana was likely to be a top notch roommate. She would move in at the end of the month, and they would likely be in constant contact even before that. When they went their separate ways that afternoon after enjoying almost an hour more of friendly conversation, Amanda felt more relaxed than she had in months.

“Oh!” Morgana turned back a moment after she left the table. “Before I forget, I should let you know. I have the worst reaction to anything made of pure iron. I just touch the stuff and it makes me go cold and numb all over. Just so you know!”

It wasn’t until after Morgana signed the lease and moved in that Amanda remembered that an aversion to cold iron was a known characteristic of the fae folk. And when she did, a sharp thrill of panic ran down her spine. But only the one. She’d rather live with a fairy than a vampire any day.