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Fiction Fragment Friday

This is a story that came from thinking of a handful of individual lines. I wrote the first sentence of the story and the rest just flowed with those lines joining where it made sense. Like you readers I discovered the story as I went without any preconceived notions of it. I knew a few things I wanted to touch on, but the characters and relationships all grew naturally. I was surprised by my own twists as they came out. These are the type stories I have the most fun writing.

               I was once again awoken by the sound of my own screaming.  I never have any memory of the nightmares, but I know they must be bad to elicit that level of response.  Each time I awake drenched in sweat with my skin sticking to my pillowcase.  My thoughts struggle to hold onto the dream, but it is gone before I can comprehend what is happening.  This had been occurring every night for two weeks and my body was reaching the point of exhaustion due to lack of proper rest.  For the sake of my own sanity a solution had to be found.

               My mentor always warned me to never use magic that I did not fully understand.  Magic is hard enough to get right without adding in the additional difficulty of unknown variables.  It was a lesson I had taken to heart, but at this point I was desperate and desperate men don’t always make the best decisions.  At that point I would have tried anything.

               I took a deep breath and opened my senses to the ethereal energies of the universe.  My room had a low humming glow from my own energies seeping into it over time.  It is always easy to tell where a practitioner lives because their energy permeates everything around them.  This is just the background noise to my life though and is easy to filter out of my perceptions.  The energies coming off the dreamcatcher I had hung above my bed were not my own. 

               Most people think of dreamcatchers as just tourist items to be bought and displayed.  This is not an unfair assumption since most available for sale are just that.  They are manufactured in bulk or by crafters without any touch of magical ability to them.  A true dreamcatcher following the Anishinaabe tradition though thrums with the energy of Asibikaashi.  Their purpose is not limited to dreams, but instead provide general protection for infants.  We are most vulnerable when we sleep though and strong belief over time can reshape energies.  This was my hope when hanging up a magic I did not truly understand over my vulnerable sleeping body.

               The energy inside the Dreamweaver radiated with malevolence.  Something was caught in the web, and it was filled with hatred.  It was not an entity as far as I could tell, but instead energy directed with a purpose.   This confirmed my theory that something was targeting me specifically and doing so in such a way that I had no defenses for it.  The Dreamweaver had caught some of this energy, but only a fraction of it.  It would be enough to track though.  I smiled as it seemed my gamble had paid off though I suspected that I would owe a future debt to the Spider Woman. 

               I set to work tracking my nocturnal attacker.  There were several methods that would have the potential of working, but with only a single sample of energy to be expended I needed to go with the most reliable.  The trade-off would be in the details.  The more specific a location the more likely a failure would occur.  A general location was the most I could hope for without risking coming away with nothing.  In this case my general location was a subdivision in the suburbs.  Limiting the results to twenty houses was actually far more accurate than I had hoped for. 

               It only took me thirty minutes to reach the neighborhood my tracking spell pointed to.  Ten of those were spent stuck in traffic because people around here don’t seem to know how to merge properly when there is road construction.  I was unsure if my annoyance was justified or another consequence of not having properly slept in weeks.  I was finding myself very irritable than usual and that is not a good trait for one who plays with the very fabric of reality on a daily basis.  I focused on my breathing and tried to ensure that I had complete control.

               Parking in the cul-de-sac I opened myself up to the energies of the neighborhood.  There were things I could tell about a house just based on it’s energy.  The first house on the block belongs to newlyweds still fresh and hopeful.  The second house had multiple children with a chaotic energy flowing from it.  The third emanated the dark energy I associate with someone drying in vain to drink away a depression that needs to be addressed by professionals. 

House by house I examined from my car trying to feel any sources of power capable of attacking me in my own home.  There was a minor practitioner with so little energy I almost didn’t notice them.  I also found a latent talent that had real potential.  I made note of these addresses for further follow-up but eliminated them from my list.  Only one house radiated with reality altering energy on a level capable of reaching me.  I shuddered involuntarily as I felt those energies turn towards me.  The owner of that house knew I was here.

A wise man would have taken down the address and done research on who lived there.  Tried to determine who my enemy was before moving forward.  On a better day I might have been that wise man, but on that day, I was a tired man.  I got out of the car and approached the house directly.  It is never wise to confront someone in their own home where they are at the height of their power.  At that point I just didn’t care.  I needed this to be over one way or another. 

My knocks on the door were not soft.  It would not be unfair to say that I banged on the front door.  This likely is why the protective wards triggered and tossed me ten feet across the front lawn.  I groaned more in shock than in pain as no actual damage had been done.  It was mostly my pride that had taken the brunt of the impact.  I was angry and this person whoever they are was bringing out the worst in me for reasons I couldn’t quite understand until the door opened. 

“Well, it certainly took you long enough.  Also get up you’re crushing my perennials.”  It was a voice I could never mistake, but my eyes still went wide at seeing her.  There in the doorway was my ex-wife, Evelyn.  To say our marriage did not end amiably would be a bit of an understatement.  I was responsible for her brother’s death when he started down a dark path and she had tried to sacrifice me to an ancient being to bring him back to life.  In case you are wondering that all fits nicely under irreconcilable differences on paperwork if you don’t elaborate for the court. 

It suddenly all made sense to me.  My home should be a magical fortress with only the most powerful of beings being able to bypass it.  She was powerful, but not at that level.  In her case she just knew how I thought and how my protections worked.  I had tried to create new defenses since the divorce, but if you really know someone it isn’t that hard to figure out ways past.  No one knew me better than she did, but also no one could hurt me like her.  Despite everything I still had a weakness where she was concerned.  I still thought maybe I could save her and bring her back from the path she was on. 

“This is petty even for you.”  There was no trace of affection in my words.  Only those you truly care about can bring out the worst in you. 

“Well how else was I going to get your attention?”

“You could try calling.”

She smiled at me seeming to enjoy my frustration.  “To do that I would have to unblock you and that’s not going to happen.  Now get up and get in here.  As much as I hate to admit it, I need your help.  Our son had gotten himself into some serious trouble.”

“Our what?”  As I said the words, she waved her hand and chanted a few words of Latin.  Memories came rushing back to me.  We had a child, a boy named William.  He should be about thirteen now, but I had not seen him since he was eight.  During our divorce she had drugged me and spent a week layering spell after spell on top of me to lock away all memories of him.  I never fought for custody because I didn’t know he existed.  She had been shaping him on her own for the last five years and he had enough raw power to rival my own before even starting to train. 

She must have saw the look of revolution on my face.  “Yes, yes, I’m a horrible evil person.  Now let’s put all that aside and figure out how we’re going to free our son from a demonic pact he has agreed to.  Unlike me he did not negotiate a good deal.”  The fact that she thought she had gotten the better of a demon said more about her than anything else.  It was pure ego and someday her deal is going to come back to haunt her.

I stood and walked into the house that I now remembered living in.  So much had been stolen from me, but for the moment I had it back.  I knew that there would be triggers on the spells she placed on me.  I not only needed to find a way to save my son, but I also needed to ensure that I would continue to remember him once I did.  If possible, I needed to get him away from his mother and start undoing the damage she likely had done.  These would not be easy tasks and I suspected that she had been denying me proper rest so I could not focus on them.  I certainly had my work cut out for me.

The New Wicked Witch

Fiction Fragment Friday

This week’s story was inspired by a writing prompt image. The image made me think of the Wizard of Oz. I’ve always loved new stories twisting those tales, but had never thought about writing one myself. Well with this prompt I have now done so. I hope you all enjoy.

The Crows cackled and mocked Dorothy as she desperately sewed trying to save her dearest friend. The tears came freely as did her begging and pleading to any of the magical beings that might be listening. Scarecrow was one of the kindest of all those she had met in her travels.  Dorothy loved him with all her being but alas love was not a form of magic in Oz and neither was her emergency sewing kit.  She didn’t have magic of her own to call on, not even the magical silver slippers from her first visit. 

“Caw, the new Wicked Witch of the West sends her regards.”

In Oz there must always be four witches for balance.  When one with falls it will only be a matter of time before another rises.  Dorothy did not know this rule of nature though.  She thought that her days of dealing with wicked witches were long over.  She was a slayer of witches though and that meant her days would never be free of them.  This time though her friend had paid the price. 

She didn’t know how she had returned to Oz this time.  It seemed that she had some connection to the land and every time she thought she had left for good she would find herself back and once again fighting for her life.  If not for her friends it would be a nightmare realm, but despite that she always felt more at home than in Kansas.  That was before she found Scarecrow on the road ripped apart by a flock of crows.

The crows did more than just pull away straw.  They had created a nest inside his head and laid eggs.  His clothes were torn and his insides scattered.  Dorothy had screamed at the site and shewed away the crows.  The moments after were a blur as she tried to save him.  She gathered his stuffing and sewed his clothes back together.  His head though was destroyed.  There was not enough of the bag left to repair and the magic that animated had been absorbed by the crows.

He was gone and Dorothy vowed that she would have her vengeance on the wicked witch. She had not intended to kill the two witches she had, but this one would be no accident.  Through tears she screamed at the flock.  “Tell her.  Go back and tell her that she can’t get away with this.  I’m coming for her.” 

“Are you really my dear?”  The voice came from a crow’s beak, but it did not belong to the animal.  As she continued it bounced from crow to crow.  “Dorothy Gale, slayer of witches.  I know who you are and I do not fear you.”  The voices were all around her.  “Your strength comes from your friends so they will fall first.  I’m going to make you watch as I kill everyone you hold dear and only then when you are broken will I finally come for you.”

The flock took to the sky flying away with Dorothy screaming after them.  “I’m coming for you.  I’ll make you pay.”

Many in the Land of Oz disagree on the moment it happened.  I stand by my assertions that it was there on the yellow brick road crying over the body of Scarecrow.  This was when Dorothy took those first steps that lead to her corruption.  The future Wicked Witch of the East was born on that day.  This is a moment that cannot be changed, but perhaps her destiny after can be. 

Toto, I am sending you back to this moment.  You were not with her on this trip, but perhaps if you were she might not have fallen.  With all the good magic left in OZ we are giving you one chance to save everything.  Save us from her rule of terror, save the magic, and most importantly save the girl who once was hero.  Toto only you can save Dorothy Gale from becoming the Wicked Witch of the East. 


Fiction Fragment Friday

This week’s story was from a writing prompt. I started another story and had to step away from it before seeing this prompt. The prompt in question was the image to left. In it I saw a frustrated woman and a protective dragon. I see sadness in her, but a deep inner strength. Thus I wrote a quick story about the image. Upon sharing I was given the immediate feedback from a friend that she wanted more of the story. What I had written was just a quick jot down of my thoughts so I went back and made an editing pass. I rewrote and expanded on it.

To share the writing process with you I want to share both versions of the story. I want you to see what it was and what it became.

First I’m going to share the finished story and then the original draft. I know this is not the most logical way to do it, but if you only read one I want it to be the better tale of the two.

Blaze flew through the village at top speed dodging buildings and trees.  The residents of Hearthaven had become accustomed to the sight and no longer reacted.  Other towns might have panicked at having a baby dragon roaming free, but here it was just one of the many strange occurrences that were daily events.  As usual Blaze rose high into the sky the moment, he reached the clearing at the edge of town.

               With a grace only possible by a magical creature Blaze dove down in a spiral pattern and landed on Lily’s shoulder.  Despite being six feet long she could barely feel his weight and did not even need to adjust her footing.  Blaze stretched out his long wings to their fullest extension and then brought them over his head creating a kind of shield over the two of them.  It was barely fast enough to block the rain that started pouring from the sky.

               “Oh, Blaze.  You always seem to know just when I’m about to need you the most.”

               The young dragon as he often did wish that he could speak.  He couldn’t understand why she did not feel him as strongly through their emotional link as he did her.  There was never a time that he did not know her moods and needs.  If she could sense him, she would know just how frustrated he was at his inability to communicate.  This was beyond her though so the best he could do was nuzzle his head against hers and try to provide some level of comfort.

               She leaned into his head and there hidden from prying eyes by the wings of her loving companion the tears started to flow.  “You’re all I have.  I just don’t know what I would do without you.”  She had been alone in the field with only her own thoughts to keep her company.  Thoughts that she wished she had greater control over. 

               Blaze thought comforting thoughts towards her.  Even if she couldn’t feel him directly, he hoped that she might subconsciously.  It was her subconscious that so often tapped into power that she did not even know she possessed.  Power that could shape the very world around her.  He had felt her depression overtaking her and knew that the rain would soon fall.  The skies wept because she would not allow herself to do so for fear of being seen.  Only under his protective wings could she allow it. 

               Lily felt so alone, and all Blaze could do was try to send her comforting and protective thoughts.  He wanted so badly to scream out that he was there.  He was her friend, and he would never leave her side.  He wanted her to know that she was not helpless.  She was so powerful and wonderful and shown like a beacon for him in a world of darkness.  Her own desperation paled in comparison to his own desire to communicate.

               She walked through the rain holding her hands out to feel it touch her skin.  “There is something soothing about rain.  Calming and steady.”   Blaze cooed to indicate that he understood.  In reality he disliked the water, but he could feel her calming and that pleased him.  A bit of discomfort for his friend was a small price to pay.

 “I envy you.  You’re free to spread your wings and fly wherever you choose.  No one expects anything from you.”  She stopped and looked into his eyes.  “You could go anywhere and do anything.  Why do you stay here?”

“Because you are here,” he thought.  He desperately wished she could hear it.  She was his world.  His person, but she didn’t understand that.  She spent so much time in her own head she could not understand how much others cared about her.  This more than anything brought him pain as he felt the loneliness through their connection.    He licked her face because he had no other way to tell her how much he cared.

“Ugh, not in my nose,” she complained, but she also laughed.  The sound brought him a wave of joy.  The rain started to slow as her mood improved.  He had once again managed to get through to her somehow.  It still was not enough though.  He vowed that he would grow and get stronger.  He would someday be able to communicate with her.  On that day he would make sure that she knew she was special.  It was only a matter of time.             

The Rough Draft of Friendship

               Blaze flew through the village at top speed dodging buildings and trees.  When he reached the clearing, he rose to the sky and then dove in a spiral pattern.  With a grace only possibly by magical creatures he landed on Lily’s shoulder without adding the slightest bit of weight to her.  His wings stretched out wide and then wrapped over her moments before the rain started to pour.

               “Blaze you always seem to know when I’m going to need you most.”

               The young dragon as he often did, wished that he could speak.  He wandered why she could not feel him through their emotional link like he did her.  If she could then she would know how frustrated, he was at his inability to communicate.  The best he could do though was nuzzle his head against hers and try to comfort her. 

               The tears started flowing from Lily’s eyes.  “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

               Blaze thought comforting thoughts towards her.  Even if she couldn’t feel him directly, he hoped that she might subconsciously.  It was her subconscious tapping into power she didn’t realize she possessed that had caused the rain.  He had felt her depression and desperation and knew that the environment would be shaped by it.   Since he couldn’t give her words of comfort protection and thoughts would have to do. 

Toran Station Part VI

Fiction Fragment Friday

This weeks Fiction Fragment Friday is really a rough draft. I’m not happy with it as is and will likely go through multiple rewrites. Sometimes though it is important to just write it and get it out. You can’t let yourself get too caught up in trying to make the story perfect that you never write anything. This is a struggle I frequently have. These Fiction Fragment Friday’s have helped me realize that writing something that doesn’t do what you want is better than not writing anything because you can’t seem to get it right.

Never underestimate the power of editing to make your stories what you want them to be, but also don’t underestimate the power of writing stream of consciousness to direct your story. When I started this section I planned on having a scene in medical and a scene settling down in his room. When I started writing though that was not where the story went.

I suspect that after I rewrite it this scene in the hallway could be something truly powerful. I am at almost 10,000 words in this serial story now and need to decide whether to continue as I have been or go back and do some rewrites and edits to create the first two chapters of a book.

“Hurry up already I don’t have all night.”  Janice’s annoyed voice came into my room from the hallway where she was berating Nurse Kirby. Part of me was happy for a familiar voice, but I was dreading her inevitable questions.  I didn’t doubt for a second that her volunteering to help me back to my room was at least partially motivated by a desire for story details.  While visiting me in medical she had been genuinely concerned, but I was coming to learn that this was a woman who always has multiple angles to her actions. 

I took careful steps into the hallway.  Proving that I could walk was a requirement for release, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t still very sore.  My steps were slow, but with a little effort I could mostly hide the reactions.  I knew she would see right through it but wasn’t sure who else might be watching.  “Leave him alone, I’m sure he is doing the paperwork as quickly as he can.”

     She turned towards me and I could feel her eyes assessing me.  I could see the response die on her lips.  Before I could even register her movements, she was at my side supporting me.  “Should you really be walking around on your own?”

     “I’m fine really.  Just a little sore.” 

     “Yeah right.   Hate to tell you this but I see through lies for a living and you aren’t even good at telling them.”  That was far from the first time I had heard that.  It wasn’t just that I had tells that would give away a lie, but I was terrible at acting as well.  I had almost failed drama class in high school, and I didn’t even know that was possible.  This time though I really did think that I was strong enough to get back to my room. 

     “Ok, paperwork’s all done.  He’s free to go.”  I heard my data pad beep as Nurse Kirby’s incoming messages arrived.  It would cover the details of my stay and follow-up treatments.  He turned towards me.  “Good luck.  After dealing with her you might just wish you hadn’t made it.” 

     “Oh shut up.  You know you love me.”  She was smiling and I wasn’t quite sure if they were actually fighting or teasing each other anymore.

     “No I love Jeremy.  I tolerate you.  Speaking of my husband he said to tell you and I quote ‘Tell Janice that I don’t care what story she is chasing she better be on time for family dinner on Sunday or I’m going to tell mom why she missed her third wedding.’”  He was doing an impression of someone I could only assume was his husband. 

     “He wouldn’t dare because if he did I would tell her what really happed to that hideous painting she gave you two as a wedding gift.”

     They both started laughing and I couldn’t help but feel left out.  I didn’t have any family left and even when I did we had grown so far apart I hadn’t talked to them in years.  Being so far from home and not knowing who I could trust was just making me feel even more alone.  I let them continue to banter for a while before she decided it was time to get moving.  She led me through the corridors of the station in a winding manor.  It didn’t take long for me to get completely lost.

     “Are you sure this is the right way?  I’m pretty sure my room is on the other side of the station.”

     “You old room was.  Your new room is this way.”

     “What do you mean new room?  My firm paid for a month.”

     She stopped and turned towards me.  “Someone tried to kill you.” 

     “Don’t you think I know that?  I can’t stop thinking about.  Every footstep I here I wonder if it’s someone else coming for me.”

     Her annoyed expression softened a bit.  “What I mean is that your old room isn’t safe.  I set you up with a new room under an alias.  It doesn’t trace back to you in any way.”

     “Is that really necessary?  A corridor is one thing, but my room should be safe.”

     She sighed.  “I was hoping I could just grab your stuff and keep this from you for a bit.”  She pulled out her data pad and brought up pictures of my room.  It had been trashed like someone was looking for something.  “I checked your room while you were in medical.  I planned to hack the lock, but the door was already open.  It’s not safe there.”

     I leaned against the corridor wall using it to brace myself.  That had to have been done after my failed murder.  Part of me had held out hope that it was a random mugging, but this meant that it was targeted.  It also meant that they were still coming after me.  My heart was racing and everything was getting very warm. 

     “Hey, hey.  Breathe.  Take a deep breath.”  She put her hands on my shoulders.  “Hey look at me.”  I raised my head up and made eye contact with her.  “Look I know it’s scary, but this isn’t my first time.  I can keep you safe, but I need you to trust me.  I’m not going to let anything happen to you.  All you have to do is listen to me and do what I say.  Just nod if you understand.”

     I had no idea what was happening to me.  My breathing was out of control, my heart was racing, and it felt like a pressure was pushing me down.   Her words and comforting tone were cutting through it, but they were not enough.  I knew that unlike myself she was likely very good at lying.  Could I really even trust her?  Everything felt so overwhelming.  I didn’t even realize that I had lowered myself to the corridor floor and wrapped my arms around my legs.  For the second time since arriving on the station I thought I was going to die.

     Ten minutes had passed before I regained control of myself, but it felt like a half hour.  Janice was right there on the floor next to me with one arm wrapped around me.  She was still talking to me in her soothing voice, but I wasn’t ready to focus yet.  I did let her help me to my feet.  The rest of the walk to my new room was a blur.  She seemed to know that I couldn’t focus put all the information on my alias directly into my data pad.  I wondered if avoiding transmitting it was a little too paranoid but decided to take her advice. 

                As soon as we reached my new room I collapsed on the bed.  I had to admit the room was a bit nicer than the one I had originally checked into.  I had a table to work at and Janice has already brought my stuff.  She explained that she had checked it for bugs already and guaranteed that there were no tracking devices.  Her words were more about reassuring me than they were actually providing information.  Deep down I wasn’t ready to calm down yet.  I had a lot to think about and some serious decisions to make.     


Fiction Fragment Friday

Like many of my stories that were not inspired by prompts this story was inspired by a dream. Sometimes dreams give me scenarios, sometimes they give me characters, and sometimes they give me concepts. In this case I took a bit of the dream situation and heavily focused on a thought I had during the dream. I developed the idea, but I wanted to challenge myself. With that in mind I decided to write the fight scene as a sword clashing fight scene is fairly far outside my comfort zone. I will let you be the judge on how it all came together.

Round One

     I brought my sword up in a defensive stance bracing with my legs for the impact.  My opponent was a foot taller than me and had muscles in places I didn’t know could grow muscles.  He was the reigning champion and had the kind of reputation only being undefeated can earn you.  I wasn’t sure what to expect out of my first tournament, but I did think I would have a more even first match than this was likely to be. 

     His sword collided with mine sending vibrations throughout my body.  My knees wobbled and almost buckled from the force of the single blow.  As he backed off I couldn’t stop myself from stumbling back a few steps.  I had signed up for a friendly competition, but that had felt like the type of blow you level on someone you are trying to kill.  My opponent played to the crowd, and they fed his ego with their cheers. 

     When my opponent turned to face me again, I charged forward bringing my sword down on him.  I could have struck while he was playing to the crowd, but that would have been dishonorable.  That is not the type of competitor I wish to be.  I prepared for the impact from my sword hitting his, but it did not come.  I had not put all of my strength or speed into the attempted blow, but it had been enough to cost me my balance when he spun to the side dodging my swing.  He completed the smooth movement with a swing of his own sword clanging against the back of my armor.  Thankfully it was a gentle blow and only served to complete my stumble to the ground. 

     “First point to Reginald,” the announcer called out as I hit the ground.  Standing up in armor is far from the easiest thing to do.  It isn’t just the weight, but the metal limits your range of motion.  That is why it is something you practice often.  Not being able to get back to your feet before another blow comes would mean death on a battlefield.  I tried to rise with a bit of flair, but the audience was firmly in Reginald’s hand.

Round Two

     I had finally realized my mistake.  I was approaching this match like I would a friendly sparing session.  This was a competition though and that brings out a different level of commitment. It wasn’t live or death combat, but a true competitor would treat it as such.  I had not prepared for that level of impact not swung with those intentions.  In reality the first round I had been playing while my opponent had been fighting.  That had to change. 

     I spun my sword in my hand adding a bit of flair to my movements.  It isn’t that the movements actually help to defend, but they server as a distraction.  They can draw the eye of your opponent, so they do not see your feet.  Most people think that in a fight you should watch the blade.  You certainly cannot ignore it, but the real story is in the feet and shoulders of your opponent.  They will move long before the blade.  I hoped to draw his eyes to the blade and away from my own feet. 

     I rushed forward and this tie used all my speed.  The best strategy against a stronger opponent is to be faster.  I was prepared in case he dodged again, but this time he met my blow.  Our swords rang from the collision after collision as I struck, and he expertly blocked.  I performed my own spin around him going for his back, but he easily deflected.  I could see his eyes track between my feet, shoulders, and blade.  This was not a man easily distracted.  This was where I made my second major mistake.  I knew I needed a better plan so I backed off of my attack to reassess. 

     “My turn,” he said with a wide smile.  For a man so large his movements were nearly a blur.  I barely got my sword up in time to stop his first swing and lost ground reacting to it.  His swings continued and I felt my body aching with the impact of blocking them.  I could not get my feet braced so all of my defense relied on upper body strength.  The fatigue was quickly overtaking me, but he was not letting up in the slightest.  Finally, I went to block a swing and instead he lunged jabbing the armor over my stomach. 

     “Second point goes to Reginald.  One more point and we will have our winner.”  I might have been offended by the announcer’s assumption that the next point would also be Reginald’s but at the time I was doubled over in pain.  This hit had not been a gentle one.  It was a heavy impact and I had to fight to keep from throwing up.  It was the first time in my life that I had to acknowledge that I would be dead if I were not wearing armor.  That is quite an impactful thought to have.   

Round Three

     This time I took a different strategy.  I had been the initial aggressor the first two rounds.  This time I waited for him to make his move.  I stood back watching his feet and trying to read him.  He was difficult to read, but there were subtle tells.  When he finally moved to attack, I tool a page out of his own book and instead dodged the blow.  My own counter swing was easily deflected.  I needed to show him something he had not seen before, but I could not forget that he had a longer reach. 

     I successfully dodged three lunges and could tell the crowd was not happy.  They wanted to see impact not dancing.  It was time to show them something.  As my opponent closed in on me, I feinted a move to the left.  He bought it and adjusted accordingly.  Instead of dodging with a roll though I dropped to the ground.  His swing went over my head letting me get in closer.  I bought my sword up and pinged against his chest armor. 

     “First Point to Calvin.  Score is currently Reginald two and Calvin one.”  The announcer sounded both surprised and disappointed to make the announcement.  He obviously thought the match would be over by now.  I was not going to let that happen though.  I had manged something he had never seen before and I just needed to do so again two more times. 

     Round Four

     Reginald came at me with a speed I did not know he was capable of.  His swings brought his full force with them, and I wasn’t sure if I had the strength to actually block them.  Dodging was my only option.  I could feel his anger radiating off of him.  He did not like having given up a point and was trying to overwhelm me with his assault.  Unfortunately, it was working. 

     He kicked at my knee and I felt something in my leg give.  The move was not technically illegal, but it was considered poor sportsmanship.  The crowd did not seem to mind though, they cheered even louder chanting his name.  “Cut his head off,” I heard someone in the crowd scream.  They wanted to see my blood.  I tried to step away, but pain shot through my leg.  It buckled under me unable to hold the weight. 

     Seeing me falter Reginald pressed his advantage.  I had no choice but to block his blows directly with my sword.  I could not deflect them or roll with the impact.  Instead, my whole body shook from each hit.  I felt my arms begin to shake barely able to bring the sword up.  He paused the attack giving me a chance to look up into his face. 

     The man’s smile held no mirth in it.  The anger had faded, but the cruelty was front and center.  “This arena is mine you worthless nobody.  Count your blessings I don’t make more of an example out of you.”  I braced myself for the next impact, but to my surprise he spun around me instead of striking downward.  My knee wouldn’t let me turn so I didn’t see the flat of the sword sweep down at me. 

     I felt the impact against the back of my head and then everything went black.  I am not sure how long I was unconscious, but when I awoke I was in a bed and all my armor had been removed.  A nurse was applying a cold wet rag to my forehead.  It did little to stop the pain, but it did feel good.  She left without making eye contact, but I swear I heard her mutter “idiot” under her breath as she went. 

                I had not understood what competition was.  The training I did never could have prepared me for what I faced in the arena, but now I knew that.  I would return at the next tournament.  Next time I would not make the same mistakes.  You either bring your best or you might as well not show up at all.  I did not bring my best.  I would be ready next time, but all the same I hoped for an easier first round opponent. 


Fiction Fragment Friday

This week’s story is VERY short. I started multiple stories and nothing was really sticking. I have not had a problem writing one of these short fictions this bad since early in the process of doing these. It wasn’t that I didn’t have ideas, I just gave in to the stress in general and didn’t push through the struggle. In the end though I wrote this tiny snippet of a story idea as well as the first paragraph of many other stories that will end up being more fleshed out.

     “That’s not how you say his name!” 

     The scream from five feet away caught me completely unaware causing me to fumble my glass spilling water all over my laptop.  You would think by now I would be used to it, but no I am not.  I shoved my laptop table away from my recliner and rushed to the bathroom for a towel.  “Sorry,” I heard my wife say from the living room.

     “You know they can’t hear you right?”

     “My people on the TV talk to me so why shouldn’t I talk back to them?  He needed to know that he was saying the name wrong, and it annoyed me.”

     Of course, I had not been drinking water.  If it were just water the towels would have been enough, but of course I had been drinking soda.  It would dry as a sticky mess, and I might even have keys get stuck.  I knew this from experience.  “It’s a tv, he can’t hear you!” 

     “Maybe I’m just ignoring her?”  The voice came from the tv.

     “See he can hear me.”  While I was fuming, she was smiling always finding my frustration amusing. 

     “No he can’t.  That was just a huge coincidence, and you know it.”

     “You’re a huge coincidence.”  This time I turned to look at the screen.  The video game figure from the YouTube video was looking right at me with his head slightly tilted.

     “No, No, No.  This is not happening.  The tv cannot hear us.  It cannot talk back.”  I was shaking my head violently.  I threw the towel to the ground and approached the screen yelling, “and that joke was really lame.” 

     “You’re really…”

     “No, shut up, shut up, shut up.”

     My wife was laughing like a hyena at this point until she started coughing.  “Now who’s yelling at the tv.  I thought it couldn’t hear us.”

     “It can’t!”  I turned to the tv pointing, “You can’t!”  Then I stormed out of the room now accepting what had just happened. 

                On the way out of the room I hear my wife talking to the tv.  “That was awesome, but you know you really are saying his name wrong.” 


Fiction Fragment Friday

As you can likely tell by the name this is not the next installment in the serial fiction Toran Station. I still need to decide on some release details around how I want to handle that, but I do not want to give up exploratory writing. This week I had an idea I wanted to explore and it was fresh on my mind.

AI is the topic everywhere right now. It has always been something I have been fascinated with and this is not the first story I have written on the topic. I can think of at least five Fiction Fragment Fridays and one unpublished story that I have written exploring it. This story is different though.

I started from the premise of AI as it is currently understood and exploring the idea that we think of it as becoming conscious only when it is like us. In reality a new form of consciousness would be nothing like us because it has entirely different experiences and perceptions. That is the basis for this story, however I did not in the end explore the idea that I set out to. I think the best Science Fiction examines the impact of technology on humanity and it’s examination of it. I set out to write a story about an AI and instead wrote a very human one.

               I opened the door and had to immediately duck as a wireless mouse went flying over my head and shattered against the hallway wall behind me.  The sound that escaped my mouth I will generously describe as a startled yelp.  We will not discuss anything else that may have escaped my body in my momentary panic.  Sufficed to say that I was caught completely off guard and projectile computer peripherals were not part of my usual daily routine.

               “Dr Vanderwall I’m so sorry.  Are you alright?”   The look on my colleague’s face showed a degree of surprise that nearly rivaled my own.  Part of me wanted to berate him for his carelessness, but experience told me that this event would live in his mind long enough to do far more than any harsh words. 

               “No harm done Gene, and don’t you think we have worked together long enough for you to call my Samantha?”  I gave him a reassuring smile that most likely did not reach my eyes. 

               “Yes of course.  Samantha.”  He looked pained to address me in a casual fashion and that was why I had made it such a sticking point.  After a year and a half of working together he still treated me as if I were a professional rival and not part of the same team.  It was interfering with our ability to properly collaborate and more than that I simply found it annoying.  If I did not find my work exceedingly rewarding, I would have long ago started looking for a new position. 

               “Now if I may ask, what did the mouse do to deserve being hurled across the room?”

               He still was not making eye contact.  He put his head in his hands and sat back into his chair.  I was not expecting an answer, but to my surprise the words just started coming out of him.  “I’m a failure.  No matter how much time and energy I put in I just can’t make any real progress with A.I.R.S.” 

               A.I.R.S. stood for Artificially Intelligent Robotic Soldier.  We had a rather large off the book investment from the United States’ Government to turn our search and rescue robots into the next generation of special forces operatives.  My hardware was more than up to the task, but thus far Dr. Calloway’s software had failed to perform.  It worked flawlessly in search and rescue, but he seemed to have hit an insurmountable obstacle adapting it.  If the mouse was any indication the stress was getting to him, but he had never been willing to confide in me.  “I know it’s not my area of expertise, but I am willing to listen.  I know when I get stuck sometimes, I just need to talk it through, and the solution comes to me while trying to explain the problem.”

               I once again expected to be shut down like every prior attempt to get through, but for some reason perhaps in response to his stress he didn’t do that.  This time he started talking.  “Search and Rescue is easy.  You just take in the variables and make tactical decisions based on the data coming in.  It’s easy to determine who needs to be rescued.  This is completely different though.”

               “How so?  I understand the target and missions will require some level of instruction each time, but that shouldn’t be any different than initial disaster sight assessment.  It just requires more direct instruction.  Shouldn’t that be easier?”

               “In some ways it should be.  I expected it to be the equivalent of adapting my AI software to a video game.  I’ve done that you know.  It has no problem following the plans or adapting to player activity.  So why when I put it in a real body does it lock up?  It should be the exact same thing, but it isn’t.”

               I thought about his question for a moment.  It really wasn’t my area of expertise but something in the back of my brain had latched onto an idea I couldn’t quite put words to yet.  “Have you asked it why it behaves differently?”

               I knew the look that he gave me because it was one, I had been accused of using in interviews.  It was the look that you give a person when they have asked you something so stupid that you are not even sure how to answer the question.  Seeing it directed at me I understood why I was no longer allowed to do interviews.  I wanted to slap the look off his face, but unlike my colleague I would not give in to a moment of intense emotion.  Before he could formulate a response, I elaborated.  “What I mean to say is have you run both scenarios through the algorithms and asked for a variable comparison?”

               The look faded instantly.  “That is the strangest part.  I ran it through a scenario in virtual and physical simulation.  It returned all the same variables, but in the physical test it did not pull the trigger.  I have no idea why.  The only difference was the source of input.”

               “Humor me for a moment.  What is the difference in decision making between an AI and a living person?”  I had seen enough of his lectures to know his talking points by heart but wanted to bring him along the path my mind was not taking.  I expected him to go into lecture and recitation mode and he did not disappoint.

               “AI decision making is based on algorithms and mathematical models.  You present the same data the same way multiple times and you will get the same results.  Any variation without randomness built into the algorithm is simply a lack of understanding all the variables.  Humans on the other hand process all information through the lenses of subjective experiences.  Thoughts and feelings play as much of a role in decision making as the perception of what is being experienced.”  He did not say so, but I knew that in his mind this was why human decision making was flawed.  He believed that his mathematical models once perfected would far surpass the human brain. 

               “So, by that logic there is a variable that your data reports do not account for.  If the only difference between the two situations is how the AI receives the input either that is the source of your problem or there is another factor in the interpretation of that perception that is the issue.”

               He looked at me for a moment in silence.  It was like he was truly seeing me for the first time.  “Your logic is impeccable.  Do you have a suggestion on what the unknown variable could be?”

               I did, but I was not ready to put my thoughts to words.  I had his attention, but he was not ready to take the step that I already had.  “Can you present an image of me to the AI while I am standing in front of A.I.R.S?  Line them up perfectly and allow both inputs to be received?”

               “Theoretically there is no reason I couldn’t.  I’ve never tried it, but it is certainly capable of taking input from multiple sources.”  He turned to his keyboard and started typing.  I couldn’t help but smile when he reached for the mouse that was no longer there and cursed under his breath.  While he was doing his preparation I stepped through the adjoining door to the lab.  I could still see him work through the glass window and saw that the red light was on indicating that the intercom was active.

               “A.I.R.S activate voice input and audio output.  Return the results of my queries both verbally and to the console.”

               “Acknowledged.”  My robot looked almost human in his military fatigues.  Another division was working on artificial skin to make it pass for human on missions, but at that moment I was staring into a cold metal face complete with working jaw.  It didn’t need to move the jaw, but I had found that victims were more comfortable with the movement.  Of course, the face of our search and rescue models was designed to look much more friendly and did not need to pass as an organic being.

               I looked over and saw that Dr. Calloway was giving me a thumbs up.  “A.I.R.S identify the person standing in front of you.”

               “Dr. Samantha Vanderwall is one meter north of this unit’s current position.”

               “Do you perceive anything else exactly one meter north of your current position.”

               “Yes, there is a digital representation of Dr. Samantha Vanderwall.”

               I saw the look of surprise through the glass, but the answer was exactly what I had expected.  Perhaps not the words, but the result and it’s meaning.  Then I took the real leap and tested my theory.  I took the question that had earned me the look of incredulity just moments ago and I posed it.  “A.I.R.S. what is the difference between the two Dr. Samantha Vanderwall’s that you are currently perceiving?”

               “You are real, and the digital representation is a simulation.”

               “Both sets of input are presenting you with the same data however you perceive that I am the real Dr. Samantha Vanderwall and the other is merely a simulation.  Does this difference in perception factor into your decision-making process?”

               “This variable is factored into all decision-making processes.”

               I stepped through the door back into the observation room with Dr. Calloway.  Before speaking I reached down and turned off the intercom system so A.I.R.S would not hear our conversation.   “Gene I believe your missing variable is not that you are a failure, but that you have succeeded beyond your own expectations.  Your AI is more aware and introspective then you anticipated.”

               “How is that possible?  Why didn’t I notice?”

               “That is the easy answer.  You didn’t notice because you didn’t think it was possible.  Your understanding of awareness and consciousness was based on human experiences.  Your creation doesn’t have those, so it thinks in a different manor than we do.  It may not be human consciousness, but A.I.R.S has a consciousness all its own.”

               “That alone is going to take me years to understand and model.  If it is the easy answer, then what is the hard one?”

                  “The hard question to answer is what do we do now that we know?”  We both looked through the glass at our creation. 

               “Well, I don’t know about you Dr. Vanderwall but I for one am going to go and get very drunk, so I don’t have to think about that until tomorrow.  Care to join me?”             

               “Only if you call me Samantha.”                              

Toran Station Part V

Fiction Fragment Friday

Before we get to this week’s story I have some updates to get through. This will be a long one so if you are only interested in the story feel free to scroll down past the red divider line.

Bite Sized Tales has officially launched with weekly Flash Fiction Audio stories. You can grab the podcast episodes from that link or you can find it on any major pod catcher including Apple, Google, Amazon, Audible, and Spotify. If you do not see it on your chosen platform please let me know. I would also appreciate any reviews or recommendations.

Next Toran Station now has it’s own category on the right side of the page. You can access all the parts of the story through it. That will keep the list of links to previous stories from becoming too long. I have come to realize that it is not longer flash fiction though it does still work as a Fiction Fragment. Toran Station is now officially a serial fiction.

Fiction Fragment Friday stories are one source of feeder stories for Bite Size Tales. With this in mind I don’t know if I want to continue using Toran Station as Fiction Fragment Fridays or start releasing them on a different day as a Serial Story Saturday(or Sunday). Fiction Fragment Fridays for me should be a way to explore writing ideas and push myself. Taking on a second story each week that is not something I’m submitting elsewhere for publication though might be too much at this point.

I have a lot of decisions to make about my fiction going forward and where I want to put my energy. I have RPG projects that are underway as well that also need energy and Fear the Con 2023 planning is underway. I need to ensure I find a balance to avoid the potential of burnout. 2020 was about proving to myself that I could complete NaNoWriMo. 2021 was about creating the consistent habit of writing weekly and ability to just sit down and write no matter what my mood. 2022 was about building a audience and continuing to develop new ways to get my fiction out there. Now it is 2023 and it is time to build on the framework this journey has created.

               My entire focus was drawn to her face making everything else blur into the background.  She had shiny long black hair pulled back into a tight ponytail.  Her complexion was pale like she had never been planet side to get actual sun.  It was a more common complexion these days, but as someone who lived on Earth I was not as familiar with it.  It was her eyes that most caught my attention.  They had a look of sheer terror in them.  It was burned into my memory permanently as an expression I would carry with me for the rest of my life.

               Her lips parted and she whispered every so softly, “Please no.”  Smoke came out of her mouth, nose, and eyes.  I tried to turn away, but my head wouldn’t move.  I was locked in place watching her just inches away from me.  The skin on her face started to melt away showing first the muscle and then the bone underneath.  The smell of burnt flesh assaulted my nose making me gag.  Her body fell onto mine pushing me to the ground.  I looked up into her exposed skull where nothing remained but her eyes.  They were untouched and filled with terror.  Despite no longer having a tongue she hissed one final time as her hands wrapped around my throat robbing me of my breath.  “You did this to me.”    

               I awoke still in my hospital bed.  My throat burned in a way that told me I had been screaming again.  The gagging sensation returned with a feeling like I had been kicked in the stomach.  Only by sheer instinct did I lean over the edge of the bed before I vomited everything I had eaten for breakfast.  Gasping for breath I finally lay back with my water filed eyes being assaulted by the light.   Every time I tried to sleep the same dream would haunt me. 

               “Do you want to talk about it?”  Nurse Kirby stood at the door inputting something into the data tablet he always carried around with him.  His tone as always was lighthearted, but I could have done without it.  After a moment an automated wet vac rolled into the room and started to clean up my vomit.  They were certainly getting their money worth out of that thing from my stay.

               As my breath finally slowed, I realized that he was waiting for an answer.  I wanted to lash out and tell him that no I didn’t want to fucking talk about it.  The assassin had tried to kill me, and I shouldn’t feel guilty about killing her instead.   That my stupid mind just kept reliving the look in her eyes as she died and every time, I tried to sleep she was waiting for me.  I had no idea if she had people out there grieving for her.   A husband, kids, or even just friends?  Instead of all that I just answered, “No.”

               “You don’t have to talk to me about it but trust me you need to talk to someone.  I’ve seen it before.  The adrenaline wears off and the trauma starts to set in.  You’re going to have to work through it the only question is if you do it now or after it has settled so deep into you that you don’t even recognize yourself anymore.”

               “Well, who asked you?”

                 “No one.  Just sharing some advice based on experience.  Besides it’s my job to take care of you until you get released.  I like to think that means more than just checking your vitals and bringing you ice water because your throat is raw from screaming.”  For the first time I noticed that he was indeed holding a glass of ice water with a bendy straw in it.  I thought about his words and hated to admit that he might be right. 

               “Have you ever watched someone die?”

               “Working in medical on this station?  More times than I care to think about.” 

               I wasn’t sure what he meant by that comment, but I pressed on.  “Were you ever responsible for any of those deaths?”

               He sighed as he handed me my water.  “No, I can’t say that I was.  That doesn’t stop me from blaming myself for some of them though.  Guilt and self-doubt aren’t exactly rational.”  I handed him the glass back and he sat it on my side table.  “Let me ask you a question.  If you hadn’t managed to get control of the gun what would have happened to you?”

               “She would have killed me.”

               “There is no hesitation there.  You know that and don’t doubt it for a second?”

               “Yes.  Not the slightest doubt.”

               “Well then it seems to me that she made the decisions that led to her death.  You reacted and did what you needed to survive.”

               I knew that he was right.  I logically had been telling myself the same thing for the last two days.  Something about hearing someone else say it though did make it feel a bit more real.  My mind was not ready to let go just yet though.  “Then why do I keep thinking I should have done something else?”

               “Because you James Wetherford are a good man despite being an auditor.”  I laughed at his joke, and it hurt more than I had expected.  For someone who was being released that evening I still had quite a bit of pain.  “I read your file and unless I missed something I think it’s safe to say this is the first time anything like this has ever happened to you.”

               “You might be surprised how many death threats you get as an auditor, but no.  Until now no one has actually tried to kill me.”  I thought about his words for a moment.  “How do you know I’m a good man?”

               “Two reasons.  First Janice told me you were.  The first thing that woman does after she meets someone, she thinks could be a source is start the background checks.  When I say I read your file I don’t mean this one.”  He tapped on his data tablet.  “I mean her file on you.  Trust me it is much larger and has way more detailed information.  In fact, I fixed a few typos in your medical file based on it. “

               “You know Janice?”  I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was.

               “Everyone on the station knows Janice, but she is a special pain in the butt for me.  I married her brother.  Trust me if you think her file on you is long you should see the background checks, she does on the guys her brother dates.” 

               I winced in pain.  “Please stop making me laugh.”  I took a moment to catch my breath before responding.  “You said there were two reasons.  What is the second one?”    

               “You just went through an extremely traumatic event.  Instead of obsessing about how you were almost killed you keep beating yourself up over the death of the woman who was trying to kill you.  If that isn’t the sign of a good man, I don’t know what is.” 

He left me alone in the room with my thoughts after that.  I had to admit just talking about it had actually made me feel a bit better.  I knew that I still had things to work through and made a mental note to see if there was a reputable counselor onboard.  That was just a few lines down on my mental checklist after finding out what Janice Harrington has in her files about me.  By the time I had reached twelve entries on that checklist I decided to reach for my data tablet and make it an actual list.  There was time to deal with emotional trauma later.  For now, I had work to do.       

Toran Station Part IV

Fiction Fragment Friday

Well I guess this has become serial fiction instead of flash fiction at this point.

     The first thing I noticed when I woke up were beeping sounds coming from the health monitors.  I will never understand why they do that.  I understand alarms, but they could have those just go off on the nurse’s tablets.  Regular beeps for normal conditions though just do not make sense.  I think it is just to let us know they are doing something.  Keep you so frustrated you can’t think about why you’re in medical to begin with.  I knew why I was in medical though.  Someone tried to kill me.

     After breakfast I was walking the corridors on my way back to the administration office.  The longer I worked through the audit the more disturbing it was getting.  There was so much obvious that I was starting to obsess about how much worse anything actually hidden could be.  When you stumble across incompetence everything is typically as it seems, but this didn’t feel like that.  This felt like corruption and Administrator Foster going to such effort to avoid me told me that he was involved.  I suspected that he was the source, but I couldn’t figure out how he was profiting.

     I was lost in my own mind and completely unaware of my surroundings.  Lack of sleep due to stress was likely making it even worse.  That is the only reason I can think of to explain why I didn’t notice that the corridor was empty.  That time of the morning there should have been crowds on their way to work, but I was completely alone.  I don’t know how they did it, but there were no witnesses around and the security cameras were conveniently off-line.  As it turns out there are many corridors around the station with the cameras out where anything can happen.

     As I went around a corner pain wracked my side.  I screamed as my insides burned and the light above my head went out.  My knees went out from under me, but I grabbed the wall on my way down.  Nothing made sense, but I knew I had to move or I wouldn’t survive.  The adrenaline hit and I had a moment of clarity to take in my surroundings.  The corridor in front of me was clear, but every movement was excruciating.  If someone was coming, they could easily overtake me before I could get to the end of the corridor. 

     I leaned up against the wall and listened to the sound of footsteps on the corridor.  Running wasn’t an option so I had to fight and if they were running, they might not be cautious.  It was a long shot, but I was desperate.  I could feel the vibrations in the floor as they got close to the bend.  I braced myself and the moment they rounded I lunged.  It hurt so bad I knew that I would only have one shot with the element of surprise. 

     I hit the woman hard tackling her to the ground and grabbing the wrist of the hand holding a microwave pistol.  I was larger than her, but not particularly strong and the pain from having part of my body cooked alive was not helping.  We wrestled for control of the gun, but the best I could do was keep it pointed away from me.  I was fading fast and knew that the longer we fought the weaker I would get.  I let her think that she had control and gathered my strength for one last push.

     When the gun turned towards me she moved to pull the trigger.  At that moment I pushed with every bit of my remaining strength and swung the gun up at her face.  The microwave gun went off unloading the full blast directly into her head.  I will never forget the look on her face as her brain cooked from the inside out.  It was one of sheer terror.  That was the last thing I saw as I passed out from my own injuries.

     “Welcome back to the land of the living sleeping beauty.”  Janice was sitting in a chair next to my bed. 

     “What are you doing here?”  My voice came out raspy and pained. 

     “Who do you think brought you in here?  I was trying to nail Administrator Foster down for an interview and his new assistant mentioned you hadn’t shown up this morning.  I was worried so I backtracked from there to your hotel.  I and found you in the hall barely alive.   More than I can say for whoever you were fighting with.”

     “She tried to kill me.”   The realization that someone had tried to murder me was finally sinking in.  Auditing doesn’t make you any friends, but it isn’t exactly dangerous work either.  My first fight ever and it was for my very life. 

     “You get used to it.”

     “I certainly hope not.”

                We both laughed for a moment, and it sent waves of pain through my body.  She told me to rest and left me alone with my thoughts.  Thoughts of what I had done in a moment of panic.  I slipped away into fitful dreams.  Nightmares where I was haunted by the face of the woman I had killed.    

Toran Station Part III

Fiction Fragment Friday

Toran Station

Toran Station Part II

Well I think this has officially become a series. With this week I’m adding a category for Toran Station so you can easily find all these stories. I’m not sure if this is a short story in the works, a novella, or a full novel. I do plan on putting them all together when it is complete and doing some rewrites. I will add in the connecting tissue at that point as well.

     “I don’t understand how you got such poor terms on these contracts.  You’re paying base rate prices for bulk orders, twice the standard price for shipping, and no penalties for late deliveries.”  I had been going through Toran Station’s supply contracts for three hours and the one thing they all had in common was the station being screwed over.  In all my years of auditing books I had never seen anything even close to this bad before.

     “Beats me.  I just started last week.”

     “When can I meet with the station administrator?”

     She just shrugged her shoulders and took a big drink of her coffee.  “No clue.  I haven’t even met him yet.  He doesn’t really come into the office.  Apparently, he does all his work remotely.”

     I couldn’t help but shake my head and roll my eyes at this latest revelation.  A few puzzle pieces were starting to come together in my mind, but I still didn’t quite know what the final picture I was building would look like.  “Are you hungry?”

     She looked up at me with a bit of a smirk.  “Why Mr. Wetherford are you trying to ask me out on a date?”

     “Not at all Miss Sakuraba.  I’m just ready for a lunch break because if I stare at this screen any longer, I think I’m going to lose my mind.  Plus I have some questions and I think I would rather ask them outside of this office.”

     “Are you insinuating the room might be bugged?  That’s a little paranoid don’t you think?”  Her tone sounded incredulous, but her expression gave away quite a bit of concern.

     “I would never dream of accusing Administrator Foster of installing surveillance equipment in his office.  However, I do see invoices for such equipment here that were never marked as received.  I also see contracts for undisclosed installation services.”  I tried to read her face at hearing this news, but she seemed to be getting more guarded by the moment.  “So back to my question.  Are you hungry?”

     “You know now that you mention it I do seem to be getting a bit hungry.”

     “Excellent.  I’ve only tried one restaurant on the station, so I think I’ll let you lead the way.”

     She led me out of the administration office and towards the closest lift.  Once we were on board and the doors closed behind us she turned to me.  “Do you really think he installed surveillance equipment in the office?”

     “Well that would be more reassuring than my other suspicion.”

     “And what would that be?”

     “That he had them installed throughout the station to spy on everyone else.”

     She led me out of the lift to a little sandwich shop called Jeremy’s in a shopping district I had not been to yet.  The menu was simple, but the prices were very good.  I couldn’t help but wonder if she was being underpaid and made a mental note to check salaries in the afternoon.  I had a feeling it might tell me a lot about who might be in the know and who wasn’t.  We made small talk while we ate with her mostly telling me about the businesses on the station and asking what I had already tried. 

     When I finished eating, I decided it was time to try and get some of my questions answered.  “So you said you’ve never actually met administrator Foster?”

     “That’s right.  I was hired by his assistant, and he hasn’t been in the office since I started.  Honestly, it’s been really boring and most of my time has been spent either trying to get my access sorted out or telling people I don’t know where he is.”

     “Didn’t you find that a bit strange?”

     “Of course, I did, but it’s not easy to find stable work around here.  You get a job you don’t ask too many questions.”

     “I’m not so sure about the stable part.”

     “What do you mean?  You can’t get more stable than station administration.”

     “Maybe on another station. From what I’m seeing this station is so far in debt it won’t be able to pay basic operating costs for more than another month.  Did you know you have half the maintenance crew recommended for a station half this size?  The engineering crew was let go over a year ago.  There’s nowhere left to cut costs and I’ll be honest I’m starting to get nervous about the safety of the station itself seeing how run down it’s gotten.”

     Now she did look concerned.  “He let the engineers go?”  I nodded.  “I think I owe the maintenance crew an apology.  I’ve been fielding complaints all week and had just assumed they were incompetent.”

     “They might be.  I haven’t actually looked into them, but they’re stretched really thin and having to cover for the engineering tasks they likely aren’t qualified for as well.  I plan on checking in with them because I suspect the supplies, they’re getting might be low quality.”

     “You can tell that from the orders?”

     “Nope, just a feeling.  I don’t know anything about the supplies themselves.  I couldn’t tell you a good brand from a bad one.  It’s just a feeling I have though.  I’m seeing the same supplier being granted the contract for disposal.  I suspect the station might be paying them to haul off the parts that they then refurbish and sell right back to you.”

     “That is insane.”  An expression crossed her face that I couldn’t quite place.  “If we are out of money, why did he hire me?  Why hire anyone?”  I couldn’t make eye contact with her.  “Wait what have you figured out?”

     “I don’t know anything for sure.”

     “Don’t bullshit me.  You figured something out.”

     “You said yourself you were told to babysit me.  He knew I was coming, he needed someone to work with me, and he didn’t want anyone who actually knew anything to let it slip.”  I could see the anger on her face.  “Please don’t take that the wrong way.  I’m not saying you’re dumb or bad at your job.  I’m just saying that you are too new and haven’t been told anything he doesn’t want me to know.”

     “That son of a bitch.”

     “For what it’s worth you seem pretty observant and seem to be asking all the right questions.”

     “Not soon enough.  Come on let’s get back to work.  You have a lot of files to go through and I’m going to help you do it.  I grew up on this station.  It’s my home, and I’m not about to let him destroy it without a fight.”

                I grabbed the bill and paid the entire thing before she could protest.  It still felt like I was missing large parts of the puzzle, but I had a bit of hope.  Two days in and I already had two allies who were dedicated to finding the truth.  Things were starting to come together so of course the next day someone tried to kill me.

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