The Needle

The soft lament of the guitar climbs its way through the eddies and pools of the air around me, as a gentle touch of a piano is added in counterpoint, both slowly rising to meet each other like butterflies mating in fluttering dance. The smoky voice of an old man starts to sing.

“I hurt myself today…”

I know this song. I know it in my core. In ways that others may think they know it, but they don’t. It is mine, and I am it. I am the song, it purloins my emotions, snatches the very thoughts from my mind, and bestills my actions before a breath can be taken or a muscle encouraged to move.

“To see if I still feel…”

The voice carries me, like a father holding his son in his arms, striding up a dark set of stairs to a welcome bed that the child dreamt of in his car ride. It wraps me in its arms, and I feel the infinity of the instant unfold around me in tight paper folds of complex origami coming undone, falling over its edges, unfurling, curling, in blossom like a flower opening to the sun.

I am undone.

******

The plain around me is unfettered with the necessary implements of farm and field. Yet I stand among tall wheat, the rough grasses bending heavily in the wind, the sursurrus of their stalks rubbing together like cricket legs. I look afar for the red barn or the great mechanical threshers, but they are missing here. There are no fences, no roads, no barriers of man standing between me and an infinity of wheat. I am alone in this moment, the sky above dark, the remnants of a song still unwinding its way to the greatest reaches of the upper atmosphere.

They are lost to me now, but I still know of them, like a secret in my heart or a treasure in the bookcase, they are mine by virtues of being there.

I know this place. I was a child here, long ago. It was in Nebraska. Sutton, a small town, nothing really. Just a place near a place that I happened to live. On a farm, where my father lived and died, and my mother lamented the life of a farmer’s wife, and my brother decided to take his own life in the barn. The place where I found that life is not easy, and it has to be taken in order to be. A place where the chickens clucked among the grasses, and the pair of goats would eat anything they left behind. This place was mine.

I stood here, on this minor hill among wheat, and I would look towards the barn, which would be over there, right there. But it is missing. The barn would be there. The house would be just out of sight that way, closer to the pond. The barn was a massive thing, many men high, and would tower as only a barn could when a grain silo or elevator was not nearby. It was a landmark here on the farm, and I could always find my way home in the wheat by glimpsing the flash of red and white far off, a promise of where my home was, and where it would always be.

Until it wasn’t.

******

“I focus on the pain…”

The song calls out to me again. That voice. I know that voice.

But I am somewhere else now. I am in Buick, a sticky night outside, the inside of the windows steamed up from Elsie and I talking, and kissing, and exploring things that only teenagers can explore for the first time with each other. Giggling, followed by heavy breathing, by promises that can be broken in a week or a day, followed by the clutching together in desperate solace from the terrors of a world around us. A song plays on the radio, some number easily forgettable by a band that no one will ever remember, even in memory, it will be nothing but a hook and a simple lyric left behind. The song is like a plastic shovel left behind in a sand box, all sad and forlorn, its handle crooked and beat upon by the sun, forced into the labor of a sundial against its will. The song is a toy in a sandbox, only remembered because of where it is and what it is used for. Remembering a night in a sweaty embrace.

Elsie would move to Ohio. She went to a University. She married a man named Tom. I was not invited to the wedding. My mother was though. So that was nice.

“The only thing that’s real…”

I snap back to the car, watching Elsie in her brilliant youth, her skin lit and eyes inflamed, the fingernails on my shoulders, her teeth at my ear. I see it as if I was outside of it, observing it scientifically and pretending that the thing inside me was fake, a sham, a fakery of emotion that I was building involuntarily because my dick was getting wrung.

I don’t know. I always thought I was a robot. I was immune from the emotion. The life that I experienced kept trying to show me otherwise. My life, time and time again, would raise itself against me, crash against me like a wave of too cold water, and remind me saltily that I was only a human after all. I cried when she broke up with me. For days, I cried, amazed internally that a girl could illicit such a response in me. Again, I stood outside myself, watching my grief unspool from me. I was overwound in the sadness and anger.

I lashed out. Something broke in me. I decided to break something else instead.

Her name was something to do with fire. Amber? Ember? Ashley? Ashlynn? I don’t remember her name. Is that sad? I remember other things. Like her eyes bulging. Or her attempts to scream. I remember those things. I remember burying her deep in the soft soil near a river. I pulled her body limply from the bed of my pickup truck, and shoved her broken body into the hole and grinned like a damn fool. I pretended it was Elsie. It felt so good that I almost blacked out.

I thought I would feel guilt. But I didn’t. I felt something greater than the sex, or the orgasm, or the warm vibrant aftermath. I felt purity. Something that was so evil made me feel pure.

I was washed clean from her death. It was a crucible that I poured myself into, and by pushing it into death, I was free from it. I did not know that I had discovered my drug at the time. I thought it would only be the once that I had to clean myself in such a way, but it wasn’t.

Another guitar riff counterpoints the piano. And pauses dramatically as the voice comes back to tell me its purpose.

“The needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting…”

Drugs. I thought drugs were for the weak. Alcohol for the weakest. But I found the greatest drug already. Nothing could compare to the thrill of it. The chase, the dance, and the hunt. And when the life left, and the eyes went glossy and dull, and the breathing stopped, my blood would erupt into life, boiling within me. Everything between those moments was a semblance of life. Living was fake until that moment when death showed me how real I was.

“Try to kill it all away…”

I laugh. Because I remember everything.

*****

I will keep myself. They cannot take this away from me. They will try. They will…

*****

I am back in the field of wheat, the barn is still out of sight. I am eight years old again, and looking for my house in the fields. I tried calling out for my father and my mother and even my brother. I tried calling out for help. I tried praying for something. But only the fields can hear me, and they do not care.

The barn is missing, I cannot see it. The red is not where it should be, and I feel the night coming. The night is cold, I am not dressed for it. The wheat murmurs its long summer secret to me as I run through it, feeling the sharpness of the stalks against me. The wheat could be angry at times, whipping about, lashing out at anything near it. Today it was contemplative. It sang quietly, assuredly, and tried to tell me not to run. To find a spot and wait, but I ran. I ran in panic.

The wheat bent out of my way, as tears poured down my cheeks, and I could not remember why I was crying. I was eight. I had seen something.

What?

What had I seen? Something bad. A man. Choking a woman? My mother? My mother was choking on something, a man stood in front of her with his hands on her head. He groaned heavily in the field, and shuddered. I said, “Mommy?” They both looked shocked, and there was anger there. Anger and shame.

I was running to the barn to hide. But I could not find the barn. It was always there to find. A beacon in the dark. A lighthouse to guide me. I cannot find it, so I cry, and call out for help.

But no one comes.

*****

The second time was when I found out how much I needed it.

I am in bar, and an ugly old man is paying me to make him happy in the bathroom. He promises to give me fifty bucks so I can buy some food and fill up my truck. I thought about just robbing him out back, but at this point, I don’t really care. I am empty. I am so buried in black that I cannot see the light. I close my eyes and do it anyway.

It doesn’t take long. After the old man grunts, he buckles his oversize belt buckle and slaps me across the face and calls me a faggot. On my knees, my eyes watering, I take his money anyway. My face stings, and my lip is bloody, but I am empty, so I don’t care.

I wait for him outside. I wipe my eyes in the red glow of the bar sign, and wait for him to go to his big rig. I have a tire iron in my hand, someone just left it laying it in the back by the dumpster. It was small, the prying kind that was only little longer than my forearm, with a heavy end where you turn the lugs. I like the heft of it, the promise of it. It is hard and so full of potential energy, my arm shakes just holding it. It is an answer that I did not know that I needed to have.

The ugly old man opens the cab of his truck and I swing the iron into the back of his head. He drops with an angry sigh, like an exhale of breath that was not supposed to happen. I hit his ugly face with the next swing, and I know his half lidded eyes capture my visage. I am only twenty, a shock of brown hair poking up at all angles, a dirty face with more freckles than not, and bruising cheek where an old man slapped me for sucking him off. I hit him again, and feel a splash of blood across my fingers. I sigh in ecstasy as the freedom washes over me like a flood.

The darkness is gone. I am filled with joy. With white pure electricity in my veins.

I didn’t bother burying the old man and left him underneath and between the tires. I took the tire iron though, and tossed it into my campfire later that night to burn off anything left behind. The blood in my clothes came right out at the laundromat, just a little cold water and peroxide and everything was perfect. It took a few days for the black eye to heal, but I was made new. I was a radiant star in my own life, and everything else was open space.

I was high for a little over six months. The next one was a hitchhiker. The one after that was a whore in Reno. The one after that was runaway. The world had no shortage of fixes. And as an addict, I was able to use anytime I wanted. I purged every time I needed in order to keep the blackness away.

“What have I become, my sweetest friend. Everyone I know, goes away in the end.”

Yeah, they do. I tried to live a life worth living. I tried to find something in the world for just me. A girl that would have me, a job that would fulfill me, but I knew there was nothing but the high.

There was nothing but the next fix.

******

The guitar and piano pulls me back again. I want to curse.

I am in the field again, the wheat slaps my face. I cannot find the barn and I am desperate to find a place to hide. I hear calls behind me, my mother yelling she was sorry. A man calling my name, but he is a hand, so I don’t talk with the hands. My father told me time and time again to leave them be. He didn’t pay them to play with me. He paid them to work his fields, and to harvest his wheat, and to put food on our table. To make a future for me.

I want to find him. To tell him that a man was choking my mommy. That something was happening that I did not understand. I am an adult inside, and I know what that act is called, but my eight year self has no idea. I am clueless of what I had seen, but I am hurt by it. By the face of my mother, slicked with spit, her downturned mouth in such disappointment of me.

I run into the fields, and try to head to safety. But I cannot find it.

I will never find it.

*****

The song plays, and I open my eyes feebly. I am on a table, my arms are spread outwards like I am hanging from a cross. I feel a tear tumble down my cheek. The ceiling is concrete, and I hear a heart monitor next to me as a small ipod sitting on a pill shaped speaker nearby plays Johnny Cash’s rendition of of a Nine Inch Nails song from my youth. There is a needle in my arm, and they are pumping so many different drugs into me. Plungers are being depressed by a computer that some unseen man is running. That man killed me, but I don’t hold it against him.

I know people are watching me. They are behind glass. I had to address them. Tell them I was sorry. But I wasn’t sorry. I was just keeping myself clean. They wouldn’t understand what it meant. They couldn’t understand why I had the need to keep myself going. Why I had to do the next hit, the next death, the next moment of exhilarating freedom as I became myself. This is just the last one. My own. My own freedom from myself. They were actually freeing me and they had no idea.

I wish I could hear the entire song, but I know that I won’t.

*****

I am back in the field again. “If I could start again… A million miles away… I will keep myself… ”

The wheat is taller, and darker. Harvest would not be coming though. I am full of joy, and I am myself. I am not an eight year old any more. I am an adult standing tall in the grass as it bends in the winds from the southwest, blowing warmly against me. The barn burns off in the distance, a fire I set. The house is already an inferno with my mother inside of it. I would not have to look for the buildings ever again.

But that doesn’t matter. Maybe in another life I…

I would be a farmer maybe. I could have saved everyone. I would have stopped the darkness before it started. I would have a beautiful wife. Elsie probably. I would have kids that I could carry to bed and that would hug me for no reason. I could be the best version of me. I could be something special. Not the worst version that I had been.

I would find a way.

The fires disappear and the wheat around me fades to white smoke. I try to take a deep breath, but my lungs do not want to pull any air. I want to scream, but I cannot move my mouth. I am laying prostrate, and the lights are white, and the concrete is bright, and the beeping is slowing and intermittent, and I am wheat, and I am wheat, and I am wheat, and I am wheat, and I…

The Ferint Decision

“The Ferint are a strange race,” Shakespeare said. “Out of the six races encountered by our people in the expansion of our Sphere, the Ferint are by far the strangest.  And it was not by measure of their evolution, or chemical composition, or make-up.  It was entirely based on their minds.  They think in strange, obscure ways.”

“How can they be so strange?  They are actually are not that different from us, right?” Malisandre asked, shaking her bright red hair out in the zero gravity bed that she floated in.

The AI took a gentle tone. “Be careful taking facts at face value.  The Ferint are a perfect example.  They appear to have evolved very similarly as humans.  They are bipedal, with multiple appendages across their midsection that can be classified as arms, and a head that holds a brain that is very similar in shape and build as your own, Malisandre.  However, their logic is based entirely on the interpretation of unrelated effects and causes around their actions.”

“Explain.”

“An example perhaps. The first encounter with the Ferint was over fifty standard years ago.  The System-class ship Gravitas was performing a standard settlement run between Earth and Ahona, a frontier Terran system 43 light years distant. When Gravitas entered the Ahona system, it found the two moons of Ahona destroyed, and the surface of Ahona fused into molten glass.  Not a single survivor.  At rest in the Lagrange point between Ahona and it’s parent star, a ship of a bizarre configuration was discovered.  Its distinct warp signature was still rippling across hyperspace, and gave little to no doubt that this strange ship was the aggressor against our people.

“Gravitas sent wide-band, narrow-band, high-energy, and tight beam communications to the stranger they had found, asking for identification using a standard protocol that had been developed amongst the other space faring races of the Milky Way galaxy, through trial and error, it was simple enough to understand.  It was a moment like this that the standard protocols were developed… because if a race had developed their society to a point where they could travel through interstellar space, then the mathematical models that made up the standard hailing would be simple enough to understand.

“They were fired upon,” Shakespeare said sadly. “The Gravitas was not equipped for inter-system warfare.  At the time, we had little to no conflict with any of our neighbors.  The galaxy is very large after all.  They were able to escape, but sustaining heavy losses to the crew.  As they limped out of the system, they received open communications from the Ferint ship.  The package was a warning of sorts.  The Ferint saw all of creation as their own, and it was foretold that the system we called Ahona would be destroyed at that time marker on their own calendar.  They destroyed the planet, the moons, and the inhabitants to justify a mating ritual on their ship.”

“What?  That makes absolutely no sense.  They need to kill and destroy in order to procreate?” Malisandre said disgustedly.

“No.  We believe they interpreted the destruction as a sign that they should have a mating season.”

“But they caused the destruction.”

“Indeed.” Shakespeare replied. “And a significant portion of the comms package was unintelligible.”

“Huh.” Malisandre stretched, simultaneous feeling relaxed and disgusted.  It was a bizarre sensation.

“We have no method to translate their behavior.  As you know, we pride ourselves on our ability to forecast, interpret, and understand the events of our shared universe.  The Ferint do not fit.  Every encounter we have with them goes poorly, every time we think we understand their motivations and desires, we get it completely wrong.  They are truly alien to us.”

“What makes them so different?”

“We have only supposition. We know they do not have AI.  All of their computers are tools, nothing more.  They are not hyper-intelligent either.  Their brain mass and metabolism are roughly equivalent to a human being. Our prevailing theory is that like a human, they have a filters in their conscious mind that helps process and break down the stimuli around them.  A human being is able to process their senses, interpret the data, and then act on that data in such a way that makes them a functioning person.  When those filters are damaged or missing, mental failures occur, causing conditions like autism or catatonia.  We believe the filters the Ferint use are very different. They choose to focus on unrelated stimuli, like the color of a star would make a sound for them, and they would interpret that sound as a call to harvest food.  Our supposition is that they do not have AI because they cannot replicate their thought patterns by either hardware or software.”

“Synesthesia?” Malisandre laughed. “A race that misinterpets their stimuli?”

“It is not that simple. But yes.”

“How did they survive to become interstellar?”

“The universe works in strange ways.” Shakespeare said offhandedly.

“Are you gaining religion, Shakespeare?” Malisandre teased.

“Don’t be crude, Malisandre.  Now please, get dressed.”

“My guests have arrived?”

“They have.  The Ambassadors are currently receiving a tour, and should be in your conference space in about 30 minutes.”

“To discuss the eradication of a species.” A heavy sigh.

“I never said it was going to be easy, Malisandre.”

“Why am I here?  I am just a lazy layabout.”

“Some individuals in the Sphere have an uncanny ability to understand things we AI cannot.  We do not question this variation.  Call it luck, call it a hunch, call it what you will.  But you, Malisandre, have it.  Your interactions with the Ambassadors will have the best possible outcome.  We know it.”

“Great,” Malisandre groaned. “Then why don’t I feel that way?”

The ship AI laughed and turned up the lights to full brightness.

“Agh. Lights bad.” Malisandre floated downwards with an arm over her face as gravity reasserted itself. “Shakespeare, can you review the Ambassador Summary again, please?”

“You did not do the homework that I requested of you,” Shakespeare said disapprovingly.

“You monitor my every movement, you know exactly what I did.”

“I do not monitor your every movement.”

“You may not do so consciously, but your sensors pick up everything anyway.”

“That is functionally correct, but I do allow you your privacy,” the AI said.

“Uh-huh.  And I don’t go to the bathroom, like ever.”

“Sarcasm, Mal, does not become you.”

“Report, Shakespeare. Report.” Malisandre said with a wry smile.

“Fine.  The Ecol Ambassador’s name is Fraxis. The Ecolian is old by their standards, and has been mated off at least a dozen times.  Considers itself an extremely successful Ecol, and happens to own about 35% of his home planet.  Prefers using hyperbole over fact.”

“Got it.  Ecol, Fraxis, rich, likes to fuck and exaggerate.”

“Your summation is crude and offensive.” Shakespeare groaned.

“Fits me just fine.  Continue.”

“The Dynsilian Ambassador’s name is Dodo…?”

“Stop.  Seriously?” Mal interrupted laughing. “DODO?”

“Yes. Dodo.  It is not funny and has nothing to do with the extinct avian earth species.”

“I don’t care, it’s funny.  I promise not to squawk at him.”

“The ambassador is fairly young, elected to his position by the ruling body of his people, very secretive for his kind, rarely exits his exoskeleton even among his own people.”

“Dodo the Dynsilian, not a bird, but likes to be caged.”

“If I could sigh in such a way I could feign displeasure, I would do so.”

“I know Shakespeare.  I can’t help it.  If I recall, that is what makes me valuable to the AIs.”

“The Chari ambassador’s name is Mikahail…”

“Like the old Russian form of Michael?”

“Yes, it seems the booming cultural export business from Earth had led to some  appropriation within the Chari culture.  Mikahail is named for St. Michael from the Christian Bible.  The Charians probably find the old stories of the bible particularly gruesome, which aligns with their own belief system well.  Coupled with the Russian history on planet Earth, makes it even better.  They appreciate undue suffering.  Mikahail is an ambassador for his people to service his suffering, as being offworld is seen as unnatural and a sin.”

“Forget the Ferint, how the Charians ever become interstellar?” Malisandre said.  “I mean if it is a sin to be off planet… why would anyone go off planet?”

“Economics.”

“They got too large to sustain themselves?”

“Just like Earth.” The AI agreed. “But unlike Earth they pushed outwards for other reasons.”

“And the other two?”

“The Dar are not attending.  They send their regards and have stated they wish to not be involved at this time.  Of course, they have their own civil war ongoing, so we are not surprised.”

“Well that makes sense. The Gol Isan?

“The Gol Isan’s ambassador’s name is Tes di Na lo ti Na Wa.  He killed his way to be ambassador, eliminating all the brood masters in his clade.  He is a viciously cunning for even a Gol Isan, and one of their best warriors.”

“That’s nice.” Mal smiled widely. “Good thing the Gol Isan are little trolls that anyone can punt.”

“Small in stature, but very durable, and very smart. We believe their neural mass is twice the density and four times the efficiency of humans.  Do not let their diminutive stature fool you.”

“Gol Isan, Tes Dina-loti-nawa, killer football extraordinaire.”

“Please get dressed and make it to the conference area before they arrive.  I would suggest your blue dress with the black linings.”

“You would.  That is far too formal.” Malisandre frowned.

“This is a formal occasion, Mal.  You are meeting with four of the five representatives for hundreds of billions of individuals.  This is as formal as it gets!  Please adjust your mindset accordingly.”

“No thanks, Shakes.  I will stick with what I know.  And that means something comfortable,” Malisandre said. “Will they have aids and such?”

“Most of them have retinues and attendants, only the Dynsilian is alone.  I am forecasting a significant resource consumption for the duration of their stay on my ship.”

“Well good thing you are a such a big ship.  I think you can handle it.  You have an entire forest, ocean, and enough people in the living spaces to populate a small moon in one offload.  I think you can handle it.”

“Do not worry about me, Mal.  Worry about building consensus.”

“Why eradication though?  Can we just keep the Ferint imprisoned on their core worlds?”

“Not feasible since they do not have core worlds.  And the Ferint are waging a war on us whether we admit to it or not. We do not need a declaration of war to fight a belief system that we cannot understand.  We need consensus to fight this.  They are advancing in ways that we do not understand.  They are a threat that cannot be understood.  They are an unknown quantity.”

“Unknown quantities cause AI physical pain, after all.  Well known fact.” Malisandre teased.  She pulled on her pants, feeling the stretchy meta material form to her skin, warming at her knees and sending small flickers of static electricity through the reflective fibers at the stitch lines.  For her top, Mal decided to keep it simple and go with a simple draping sweater.  The foreign ambassadors would be utilizing a whole suite of tools and abilities to constantly measure her reactions and movements across every single frequency that was not harmful.  Malisandre’s belief was that if everything was monitored, there was no reason to not be herself at every opportunity.

“Your recreational wear is not the best choice, Mal.”

“Why don’t you worry about running yourself.”

“Mal, I am system-level AI.  I can have this level of interaction with every soul aboard, as well as maintain hyperlink conversations with every single AI in range, while running all operations with the fullness of my attention that you would have while eating a meal.”

“I know.  You are a very fancy machine.”

“That is derogatory.”

“I used the word ‘fancy’, Shakes. You are very fancy.  Imagine an AI being offended at being called a machine.  Its like me being offended being called a watersack.”

“I like the term meatstick.” Shakespeare replied.

“Oooh, I like that one too.  In future discussions I want all humans to be referred to meatsticks.”

“Noted.  Now please, make your way to the conference area.  I have highlighted it on your retinal display.  Which you have disabled.”  The AI sighed. “Would you please turn it on so I can communicate with you during your session?”

“No.  They will know if I am talking to any… machines.”  She turned her connections on as she left her quarters, and walked out into one of the wide common areas that stretched internally and externally within Shakespeare.

“They will not.  My systems use levels of quantum encryption that they are not capable of breaking.” Shakespeare replied into her ear.

“I am not afraid of being overheard, Shakes.  I am afraid of them seeing me confer with other parties that are not in the room.”

“Ah.  Well.  I will be monitoring nonetheless.”

“I am counting on it.  Right around the five minute mark after introductions, please flood the room with jamming.”  Mal said as she walked towards the lift.  People were milling about in her section, moving over the wide transparent corridors overhead and below, the tall metal walls that enclosed the space appeared to be kilometers away, which incidentally, they were.  Shakespeare’s main outdoor space was larger than many space stations. The trees were very tall, allowed to be in small pockets of low-g, which gave the trees a chance to grow much higher than they would on Earth. Some of the aspens near her own quarters were hundreds of feet tall, their golden leaves spread far over head.

“What?  Why?  I have no intention of starting an intersolar conflict myself.” Shakespeare replied.

“Weenie.  I have my reasons.  Just do it.”  Mal laughed.

“Fine.”

“I am turning you off now.”  Mal waved her hand, and all her uplinks went offline. “Ah silence.”

The lift speaker turned on. “Oh I am still here.”

“See… a fancy machine that likes to show off.”

The lift doors opened to the main conference area, far ahead the peoples of four different races milled about, exchanging greetings, receiving gifts, and making small talk.  The Dynsilian named Dodo towered over the others gathered about him.  The exoskeleton was in the shape of willowly humanoid, with slender metal arms, legs, and a torso that stretched elegantly to an ellipsoid skull.  The Ambasssador would be in the head, floating amiably, attempting to interact with others without losing any information or failing to communicate with the colored aura fields of his exosuit.  The exoskeleton was required for his race, since the Dynsilians were deep water creatures on mid to high-g worlds.  They had a small colony on Earth, in a couple of the deepest trenches of the Atlantic ocean.  But here, on a system-level ship, there was no ecosystem that would support the Dynsilian out of its protective suit.   The ship of course could configure such a space, but the Dynsilian would be alone hovering within it, which would have defeated the purpose of the gathering in the first place.

The Gol Isan were given wide berths by the retinues of the Ecol and Chari, both of which were probably mortally afraid of causing any offense accidentally.  The Gol Isan took it as a sign of respect (which it wasn’t), but it worked out for all parties nonetheless.  The Gol Isan guards had ceremonial spears in their hands, the tips outfitted with force impellers. Malisandre was fairly certain that Shakespeare had disabled any and all weaponry when the guests had disembarked their own craft.  They all only came up to the knees of a human, due to the high-g world they had evolved on, their own short stumpy legs and extremely dense bone structure coupled with powerful short muscles had provided them an edge on a world full of bigger, scarier monsters. Their ferocity was unparalleled.  If they were any more advanced, other races would have had something to worry about.

The Ecol retinue that milled about were nearly all females, scantily clad by even human standards, the women all were only wearing a thin shift with undergarments plainly visible underneath. Although Ecols did not have breasts and their sexuality was defined differently than humans, the intent of being naked versus being dressed was commonly understood between the races.  Even a human would realize that a barely dressed Ecol was provocative, even if they lacked the evolutionary wiring to find anything actually attractive about it. The single male that was fully dressed must have been Fraxis.  He was fat and by the looks of it, probably drunk.

Finally the Chari moved fluidly among the crowd, each wore what a human would call a hooded dress.  The dress extended to the floor to cover their multitude of legs that they scuttled about on like human sized cockroaches.  Their hoods were pulled over their oblong shaped heads and you could only see their three eyes when they looked directly at you.  Most of the Charians only used three of their limbs as arms, sometimes they would prefer five, sometimes one, and dress accordingly.  Today, all of the Chari delegation were showing three arms from their dresses, which provided Mal encouragement.  That meant that they were subconsciously aligned with one another.  The Chari with the bound arm behind its back must have been the Ambassador.  Tying off one arm in the presence of humans was seen as a gift by the Chari.

Malisandre strode directly into the throng, and first bowed to the bound Chari. “Mikahail, I have heard much of you.”

“Ah, the final representative comes upon us, to bless us in our congregation. Welcome, young Malisandre.  I was informed by your AI that you have only the one name, is that correct?”  The Charian bowed slowly, the bound arm sliding up its back.

Mal reached out and touched the Chari representative on the shoulder. “It is. I am the only one like me, so I only need the one name.  Any more than that, and it just muddles things up.  Although, you are right, I am young.  Is my age any issue for you?”

“None, my young one.  I have witnessed how the humans value the unique strengths of each other above all else.  I can only assume you were chosen to be the Ambassador for your Sphere because you are the most qualified to do so.”

“That would be a fair assessment, Mikahail.  I am here but to serve the process to the best of my ability.  Please dismiss your attendants and move into the hall, I will join you shortly.” Mal smiled kindly, waving at the doorway at the far end of the meeting area. “You will find refreshments and seating meant for you.  Of course, if you need anything, just address our host, Shakespeare, and he will send a drone with your request.”

“Thank you and most gracious, I look forward to our discussion of the Ferint menace.”  Mikahail said as he turned and moved off as if he was floating on air.

“Discussion, pah. I know what my vote is.” Tes the Gol Isan said, pushing his way through his guards. “Obliterate them, turn their worlds into graveyards, and erect monuments to our greatness upon them.”

“Well, that certainly is one way to do things.” Mal laughed. “Malisandre at your service, Tes di Na lo ti Na Wa.”

“You pronounced my name right.  I am thinking I may not attempt to kill you now.”  The Gol Isan grinned widely, showing his tiny shark like teeth forming neat rows within his lower jaw. “Can I have your word that I can dismiss my guards and no threat will be made upon me?  Although a threat would be a welcome diversion.”

“No threat upon you.  Unless you consider being threatened with words you cannot understand.” Malisandre said in a soft growling voice, teasing the short leader.

“HA! I have definitively decided to not kill you.”

“Well that will certainly make our negotiations go more quickly.  Please go down to that door, and you will find refreshments and a seat built for your greatness.” Mal waved at the door the Charian was moving towards gracefully.

“Yes. GUARDS! FIND A HOLE!” The Gol Isan yelled.  The nearest guard jumped as if startled and waved his force impeller spear about warily.  Another guard tapped him on the shoulder and they moved away, bored again.

The fat Ecol, Fraxis had hugged and licked half of his retinue in dismissal, some of the females sobbing at being sent away.  He patted the last two on their very large backsides and waddled over to Mal with a huge grin on his face.  His jowls waved as he walked, small tentacles near his mouth waved in front of him as walked, probably an evolutionary trait to keep bugs away.

“You are Malisandre.  Our gracious human host for this event.  I must admit, I hate being parted from my, what is it that you call it… my harem.  They need constant attention in order to be happy.  And I care only for their happiness,” the fat Ecol said.

“They will survive, Fraxis.  I have been told that you love them so thoroughly that they could go weeks without your presence, only pining over images of you to sustain them,” Mal replied.

“That is very true.  I am a competent lover and they are appropriately loved,” Fraxis grinned. “At least three or four times a day.  Sadly my mating days are over, but I can enjoy the practice nonetheless.”

“A motto we could all live by.  If you please, move to the doorway down there and you will find some Ecolian Brandy standing by.  I procured a case worth a few months ago at great cost knowing that soon I would be able to share it with someone of your great esteem.”

“Ooooh, you are a smooth one.  Very lovely.” The Ecol licked one of his tentacles like a child sucking a finger tip. “That sound lovely indeed.  I may need more than one bottle.”

Mal leaned over conspiratorially.  “I hid three more bottles under the table cloth for you.”

Fraxis winked and with a grin slapped Mal on her butt as he walked away.

“They literally are just sex machines.” Mal said to herself. “That would be exhausting.”

She looked for the Dynsilian, and he stood at the hard field, looking into the bright stars of the outer spiral arm, and the nearby redness of a nebula still being pushed outward by a long expired supernova.

“Dodo?” Mal asked as she walked up behind the seven foot tall bipedal exosuit. “Are you well?”

“Feel free to call me Dee, Mal.”  The Dynsilian turned away from the view looking at Mal with its robotic eyes. “I am very well, thank you.  I just rarely get to view the stars around us, among us, within us. I feel as if I was born into the wrong race sometimes…”

“Why is that, Dee?”  Mal asked, surprised by the level of trust that the hidden Dynsilian had already shown.

“I know you cannot see me for what I am, but I am kept from all this, and all that,” Dee waved at the hard field, “by this shell around me. Everything is filtered through this crude shell that I have to wear to keep me alive.  I wish I were more like you or the other races in attendance.  I wish I could eat other foods, or smell other things, or even just feel air.”

“I have a story you would love from our archives, Dee.  Do you like stories?”

“Yes, I have watched many of Earth’s holofilms.  And a few of the Ecolian ones as well.  Although I prefer the ones from Earth.  The Ecolian’s seemded dirty for some reason.”

Mal giggled.  “Probably because they are meant to be.  I will have Shakespeare transfer my personal collection choices to your ship.  One of them is called the Little Mermaid, a very old story from my people that you should enjoy.  It spawned countless works and other stories that followed similar themes.  There is enough content there to keep you distracted for a few years at least.”

“I appreciate that, Mal.  I did not bring you a gift.”  The Dynsilian bowed lightly.  Mal wondered if he sloshed about at all in the head as the suit moved.

“Your presence is gift enough, Dee.  If you come with me, we can get started.”

They started walking towards the doorway, as the last of the Ecolian retinue climbed onto a lift, consoling each other with caresses and some aggressive squeezing.  Mal noted that the Dynsilian imitated a head shake fairly well as they passed.

“Ecolians are bacchanalian in every way.”  Dee’s aura field shifted to yellow, showing he was disgusted.

“Ah, so you have studied Earth a little.  To use such a word would be like me using estari when talking about your dreaming,” Mal replied.

“Very good, Mal. I am estari, aren’t I?”

“I would say so. But that is fine, Dee.  It fits you.”

“Yes, I suppose it does.  You are very perceptive for a human, Mal.”

“Perhaps.  I like to consider myself a good listener.”

They entered the smaller hall, where the other delegates had found their respective seats shaped best to their anatomy. Dee would not use a chair at all, since having a robot body sit to conserve energy made no sense at all.  Mal grabbed a glass and a hidden bottle of wine and sat down at her spot at the floating circular slab of anti-grav surface acting as a table.

The Gol Isan suddenly slapped the side of his head with a grimace on his face. The Charian tilted his own head at the display and shifted in his seat in an odd way, as if one of his legs was being pulled underneath the others.

Tes growled and lowered his eyes. “We are being jammed.  Mikahail, are you doing it?”

“No, I noticed it myself.  My uplink to my staff has gone offline, although I am glad for it,” the Charian replied.

“It was my doing.” Mal spoke up, pouring a glass of wine slowly, watching the red vintage from a terran colony called Gethsemane foam lightly.  It had good legs.

“Why, Mal?” Dee asked lightly, his aura turned a soft green, showing he was concerned.

“Because these proceedings are confidential.  I know among your people, there is a belief that our AI run things.  While that may be true, I am not run by anything.  I am my own person, with my own thoughts and my own beliefs.  Our people are driven to be the best that they can be, and our AI are an extension of that.  We allow our AI to direct and govern because we have designed them to do so.  They are not bound to material needs like human beings.  They are free from the corruptions that can drive human beings to make poor short term decisions.  Yet, here you all have a human, sitting in front of you, drinking a wine that will impair my judgment if I imbibe too much, and will get hungry eventually, and will need to sleep and eliminate. Much like all of you,” Mal smiled widely and took a sip of wine. “But right here, right now, we are talking about something so monumental we all need to be in the same space.  At this moment, we are all equals.  I know that many of you are here because you are the richest, or the strongest, or the smartest, or the most respected… and I know that I am here because I am the best person to be here.”

“So we will stay jammed?” Tes growled.

“Absolutely, you little punk,” Mal said fiercely.

The Gol Isan looked furious for a moment, then it flickered to humor, then back to anger, before settling on a sort of contentment.  He settled back into his chair and took a swig from a little ceramic case in front of him. “You are worthy, continue Mal.”

“We are here to decide if xenocide is the answer.” Mal spoke solemnly.

“Xenocide is a strong word,” Dee said.

The Chari frowned, his mouth tentacles hanging still. “A poor choice. Though. It is.  We are talking about the eradication of an entire species of individuals.”

“But we know why we are here,” Tes said hitting the table with his small fist. “The Ferint are a disease. They have weaponry that is extremely dangerous to all of our people, with ships capable of eradicating entire planets, and their motivations are so backward…”

“They have slaughtered my own people. They turned one of our homeworlds into an asteroid belt.  We still do not know why.” Dee said, even through the translation systems, he sounded very sad.

“They attack and give us no cause.  They have had engagements with our ships as if they were playing a game.” Fraxis said solemnly. “They send us communications that are images of strange things, rituals, and explanations that would not make sense to any heuristic program.”

“God created them for a reason,” Mikahail nodded. “Perhaps they were created to test us and improve us through this suffering.”

“I know it may be counter to your approach, Mikahail, but I would ask that we keep philosophy out of this,” Mal said.

“I can do that, but in the end, it is a philosophical discussion, young one.  The choice is not a practical one.  We cannot destroy an entire people because we need their resources, or that they are counter to our survival.  We are here to discuss if they are threat to us in a greater way.  And that goes beyond the normal material considerations.”

“Is it for the greater good, you mean?” Dee asked.

The Chari nodded. “Precisely, my swimming friend.”

“But it is a dangerous conversation.  If we can do this for one race, could we not do it for any race?  What if my race offended you all?  If you decided the Ecol were no longer for the greater good, you could just eliminate us?” Fraxis said, frowning.

“But it is not the same,” Mikahail said. “The Ecolians or the Dynsilians or the Humans do not sail the stars and destroy wantonly, without cause or merit.  We have never even seen the Ferint except through what they choose to broadcast at us.  We infer everything.  They destroy because they believe in it.  They expand their Sphere because they believe in it. They do everything because they think they need to do it.”

“We have captured some corpses.  We believe their brains are built very differently than ours.  Yet we cannot build a model of their behavior. Right now, we believe that the Ferint are at war with all of us.”

“What if they are actually at war with everything?” Dee asked.

“What do you mean?” Tes said.

“What if they war not because they seek to subjugate, or control, or compete, but because they are at war with the universe?  All of creation is against them?  They destroy our worlds, our outposts, our ships, as they do to yours as well… but we have observed them killing entire planets that were uninhabited except for simple life.” Dee said.

“We have seen the same,” Mikahail said. “They destroy just to destroy.”

“Our AI believe that they suffer from a form of Synesthesia.” Mal said, pouring another glass of wine.

“What is that?”

“Their senses are cross wired.  The see a color and hear a musical note instead.  They taste what they feel, or hear what they see.  Our AI believe that they act according to their observations in strange ways accordingly. They literally see the universe differently than all of us.” Malisandre said, thinning her lips.

“So we cannot negotiate with them,” Mikahail said as he shook his head.

“We have all tried.” Mal admitted.

“We fight them at every turn,” Tes said, scratching his chin with a talon, “and they fight back. For every one ship we destroy, we estimate we lose ten.  They are strong and their weapons are powerful.”

“The are like locusts on Earth.” Dee said quietly.  “They travel outwards, spreading their ships, and destroying worlds.  Using the resources to spread further.  I bet they do not even have a homeworld any longer.  That is probably the first world they destroyed.  They have perfected destruction.  Our losses are just as great.”

“They are a disease of the universe, and we lose even more,” Mikahail admitted.

“Wait.  None… of you came here to discuss the question of if we should eradicate them…” Mal saw the big picture form in her mind.  She saw the pieces, as if they were laid out on a board in front of her. “You came for help.  All of you came here for help.”

There was silence around the table.  Tes lowered his eyes and stared at his drink, while the Chari and Dynsilian were unreadable.

“I see.” Mal lowered her head.  “The decision to eradicate the Ferint was already made.”

“Yes.” Tes said quietly. “I was not… lying.”

Dee waved his arms indicating their surroundings. “Your ships are the most advanced fleet in the spiral arm.”

“So the human race is being asked to be the exterminators.”

“We will help.” Mikahail followed quickly. “We will pledge resources, planets, advanced materials, anything.  We need your help, Mal.”

“Do you speak for your entire race?” Tes asked.

“Do you?” Mal replied with a bitter smile.

“I do.” Tes nodded.

“As do I.” Mal frowned, her eyebrows coming downwards towards the bridge of her nose.  “I did not wake up today thinking I was solely responsible for deciding the destruction of an entire race.”

“Your suffering is great, and it is noble,” the Charian noted.

“If I make this choice, I will be forever known for it.” Mal said.  She raised her arms over her head and waved them like she was calling down a rescue. “Shakespeare.”

The overhead speakers turned on.  “I am here.”

“Your desire to not start an intersolar conflict today is not going to be met.”

“Understood, I will broadcast the decision.” Shakespeare said.

“Just like that?” Tes said in wonder. “You do not need to discuss this among your people?”

“Just like that, Tes di Na lo ti Na Wa.” Mal replied.  The Gol Isan commander’s eyes went even wider.

Dee’s speaker grille started to emit a high pitched chatter.

“I think that is first time I have ever heard a Dynsilian laugh,” Mal said. “Now, time to get to work… discussing our future.”

Filed Case Report FRD299S


Case File: FRD299S

Suspect Statement: 11-09-2001-001
Suspect: Mr. Miles <redacted>
Charge: <redacted>
Case Result: Mental Evaluation


Tell you what?!

Seriously! Brownies are the fucking worst!

I am not talking about those little chocolate fudgy cakes that Americans love so much. You know, the little squares with nuts on top.  Real cute.  Probably good, if you can get past eating a slab of something that looks like a piece of shit after being ran over by a steamroller. I mean come on, it even has the nuts.

No… I am talking about Brownies.  The faerie kind.

Don’t laugh.  I am being serious.  My house… it has an infestation of them.  Well, maybe infestation is a bit harsh.  I have a, fuck it, it is an infestation.  It could be one, it could be fifty, but either way, one is still too many to have.  They get into everything.  They cause confusion.  They poke and prod and wave, all the while laughing their super high pitched laugh as if nothing is going on.

Oh so innocent.  Oh so sweet.  Whatever.  I know the truth, and if I manage to ever catch one with my bare hands, I am drowning it in the nearest toilet.

Mad?  I am not mad!  Seriously, you have seen them too.  I bet money on it.  They, uh, look like branches kind of.  Like someone took a tree branch off of a tree, cut some smaller branches off the end and bundled them together.  A little faggot.

Literally a little faggot. In every way that can be interpreted.

These little bundles of sticks approximate the shape and size of a little skinny man, with willowy arms, legs, and a bit of a stick bug thrown in for good measure.  You can only see them out of the corner of your eye though.

I am not lying!  Look, they are clever little bastards.  They use the spaces in between our world and the world of faerie. They, uh, shift between here and there.  Its a way to interact with us humans, which they think is such fun, and a way to maintain their hold on the silly kingdoms.

My house either had one really crafty one or a whole bunch of collaborators.  I tried to talking to them, but they only exist to vex humans, man.  I know it sounds crazy, but they are troublemakers.  Out of the corner of my eye, I see them dancing on my counters, or on the top of my stairs, or riding my dog like a miniature fucking pony.  They wave at me like they are so innocent.  I hate them.

They steal things.  Little things at first.  Making one half an Oreo disappear or stealing one half of a pair of socks.  I had a handkerchief go missing, and for the longest time, I thought it was my dog stealing them.  I gave my dog a bunch of them out of my drawer, he panted, looking at me stupidly, and just left them where i dropped them.  Never touched them. Then it escalated to bigger things, like parts of my fence, or tools out of my toolbox.  Sometimes entire things of leftovers would go missing from the fridge, and I assure you, that was not my dog.  I have a Shih Tzu.  If it could open a fridge, I would be a fucking millionaire.

I tried everything.  I tried pleading.  I tried praying. I tried leaving bribes out.  I tried anything that I could think of.

So yeah…

That is why I did what I did.  They made me do it, man… they took my dog.

Fucking Brownies, man.

Shit.

I am done.  Whatever.  I am done.


Suspect accused of Arson, multiple properties with intent, first degree.  Released to State Psychiatric panel for review.  Suspect died while in custody in County Jail.  Acorns were found stuffed into Suspect’s mouth.  Origin unknown.

Coroner Ruling: Suicide.

A Caretaker Cometh

My name is Reginald Nathaniel Caster Williams.  The Reginald is from my paternal grandfather, the Nathaniel is for my maternal grandfather, the Caster is because my father thought it would sound cool, and the Williams is because I am a Williams.  It actually is my mom’s last name, not my dad’s, since my father has not been in the picture since I was a year old.  I would like to say that my mom raised me right, she sure tried, but in the end, I kind of raised myself.   I love my mom, and she is a saint, but no mom from this town can be a single parent without a gang trying to take the place of a strong family.  We all yearn for it, we all want it.  We want to be included.

Not for lack of trying, I tried to avoid it altogether.  I really did. I focused on school like my grandma and grandpa wanted.  My grandpa even slipped me a twenty for every straight A I brought home.  My last report card, I pulled down a hundred and twenty bucks.  My cousin though, my mom’s sister’s son, Curtis is a god damn idiot.  We are about the same age, and I wish I could say we were up to the same thing, but that would be an outright lie. He doesn’t go to school any more… he thinks he is the man of his house now.

If my grandma heard that, she would hit him so hard upside the head, he would have both of his ears on the same side.  My grandma don’t carry no one’s shit, especially not Curtis’s. But like I said, he wants to be included.  He wants to be a part of things.  He wants to be a gangbanger like his pops.  And like my dad too, I guess.  Although his dad is running on the streets, my dad is on a ten-to-twenty because he thought robbing a bank was a good idea. It falls to me to watch over Curtis because he don’t think, and if his head weren’t screwed on, it would float away.

I got shot because of it.  Twice.  Once in the left shoulder, two inches below the joint, three inches from my heart.  The bullet went straight out after bouncing off of my clavicle, and made an ugly gaping hole in my mid-back. The second bullet hit the side of my head, a glancing blow that gave me a concussion, and pushed my temple up and back, carving a shallow gash all the way past my ear.  I don’t know if I shot anything back to be honest, because as the adrenaline wore off and my blood loss caught up to me, I blacked out at the feet of an old white dude in a golfing hat.

Then I woke up in a god damn graveyard. I won’t mention the rest right now.  Let’s just call this shit crazy and come back to it later.

“Curtis,” I said. “You should come talk to the librarian with me.  She was telling me about the GED program they run.  You could work on getting your diploma.”

“I don’t need no diploma, Reg.  Shit, son.  After this score, I am going to be set. Taking care of it.  One bitch ass nigger dead, his deal is mine, and then I take it back to my pops and earn my place.” Curtis laughed, sliding his finger along the flat edge of his hat brim.

“Curtis, you just going to get shot.” I said emphatically. “You have never even shot a gun before.”

“I have too.  I have shot Miles’ nine.”

“At glass bottles. And you were drunk.”

“Don’t be spittin’ at me, son.  I know what the fuck I am doing.  What you doing?  Huh?  Being a little bitch, that’s what.  You can do this shit the easy way, Reg.  Come on, man.  Help me out.  You need this as bad as I do.” Curtis thought he was acting cool, but we grew up together, so he was just coming off as a fake.

I raised an eyebrow and shook my head. “Curtis, this is bad all around. Who told you about it?”

“Janks, man.  Swore up and down it was legit.”

“Janks man?  He is stoned all the time!  How would he know anything, Curtis?  The dude can barely put his shirt on straight.  He uses man, he uses bad.  You can’t trust that.”

“You can, and I will.  I have the glock already.  I got my pops snubbie.  You take one, shit, I will even let you use the glock.  I got the .38 down.”

“I don’t know.  Who else is going to back this up?” I asked incredulously.

“No one, Reg.  Don’t you get it?  This is for us.  Just like we used to talk about.  This is for all that shit those fuckers laid down on us.  Do you remember that shit?  Or did you lose what was important?”

“And what would that be?”

“Each other, Reg. You and me versus all those lame ass fuckers.” Curtis laughed.

“You gonna get your ass shot.”

“Only if your aim is that bad.”

“Fuck you, Curts.”

“Fuck you, Reg.”

We sat there in silence for a while, the back stoop started getting darker by the minute as the sun went down behind the drab concrete buildings that made up this part of the neighborhood.  Curtis fidgeted with his shoe laces pretending to ignore the monumental question that hung between us.

“I need you on this one, Reggie.”  Curtis dropped his swagger and his street all at once.  It was the Curtis I remembered sitting next to me.  “If you don’t want in after we are done, I will leave you be.”

I looked him in the eye, and I saw he was being as true as Curtis could be.  I swallowed heavily.

“Fine.  Meet you at Corner Store at ten.”

“Yes! My man. Yes!” Curtis said as he grabbed my arm and shook me vigorously. “That’s right!”

We were going to meet under the faded mural for Coke that must have been from the last Olympics, whatever, and wherever that had been.  Some black chick must have been inspirational to the marketing team that decided to penetrate our market, but we could see right through it all.  Stupid pandering from the big businesses that just worked to push us down and take what shavings of quarters we could muster.  No wonder every black man was considered an angry black man… we had every right to be.  Companies that sought to elevate us from our ‘situation’ did everything to make sure we did not leave our place.  I suppose it was better today than it was when my grandma and grandpa had the race riots and the all that horror after MLK was shot, but was it only marginally better?  White folks can’t call us niggers any more, and we can go to the same schools.  But what else can we actually do?  It is a self perpetuating system.  We rise, or attempt to rise, and the complex hand of the market keeps us on our side of the border of inequality.   Here I stood, thinking about the complex state of our little world, and my cousin was walking up dressed in black like he was a ghetto ninja.

“Why you wearing red, fool?” Curtis said.

“Its my favorite color?” I replied.

“Shit.  It just makes you a target.”

“Or they going to shoot at the crazy ninja in black Levis.”

“Whatever man.  Come on.”

“Where we headed?” I asked.

“We are going over to the park, past the courts.”

“That is dangerous territory, Curtis.” I said, trying to not let my voice shake.

“Take this then.” Curtis said as he handed me the glock.

“Shit, shit, shit.” I tucked the gun hurriedly into the small of my back and made sure my shirt covered it.

“Calm down, man.  This is easy.  No one is going to be on the courts, no one is going to see us.  We waltz into the drop, take out the chumps, and walk away.  Its the cover by their drop site.  No one can see the back alley man.  Its a blind spot.  Janks is a genius.”

“If this is such a good plan, why does Janks know about it then,” I retorted sarcastically.

“He, uh, was down the alley and saw it.”

“He was shooting up in a dark alley and happened to see this?  What the fuck, Curtis?  This plan is inane!”

“I told you not to use those words, man.” Curtis shook his head threateningly.

“Its dumb! Stupid! INANE!”  I was getting furious.  “You are going off the word of a strung out junkie that happened to be riding a high in a dark alley!”

“Cool it man, people will notice.” Curtis pushed my shoulder towards the courts.

“Cool it?  You are lucky Curtis. You are fucking lucky that I am here to make sure you don’t fucking commit suicide.”

“How would I commit suicide?” Curtis asked with a bewildered look on his face.

“And you are stupid to boot.” I shook my head.

“Inane.”

“Shut the fuck up.” I spit.

“Right there… between those stores.  See that spot with the light?  We go down a block and we can drop down between that light and the one between it.  Its just a wall, totally dark.  Use the dumpster on the other side.”

We walked around the block and came at the alley from the other side.  The steam from a Chinese restaurant was stinking up the alley, and a bunch of wild cats crisscrossed back and forth in the dark, mewling for whatever the Mexican cooks from the Chinese place tossed their way. We jumped the dumpster, then vaulted over the wall and sure enough, landed in the dark.

Curtis tapped on his shoulder, and pulled out his .38.  I pulled the Glock and checked the safety about twenty minutes too late after shoving it down my pants.  I could have shot my own ass cheek… that would have been a short end to our long evening.

We hunkered down in the dark spot between the dumpsters, just waiting for something.  I kept wanted to ask, but since Curtis was just regurgitating what he had heard from a junkie laying from this very spot, I figured my answer would come soon enough.  My knees started to hurt and the stale smell of old piss and the sweet rotting smell of whatever was stored in the dumpsters was getting to me. Thankfully we did not have to wait long.  One of the doors nearby opened and a solitary business looking guy came out with a couple duffel bags and set them into the crook of the wall, like he was taking out the trash.  He looked right at us, but we must have been well hidden, because he smoked a cigarette, took a leak on the other wall and headed back inside.  The heavy door thunked behind him more than twice before I allowed myself to breathe.

“We grab the bags and jump over.  The gate will unlock here in a minute, a black sedan and a couple OG’s will pick up the stash.  Let’s move!” Curtis pushed the dumpster out and ran over to the corner and grabbed one of the duffels. “Holy shit this is heavy.  This must be thousands man!”

I grabbed the other duffel and unzipped it.  Inside, it was nothing but shrunk-wrapped stacks of twenties, fifties, and hundreds.

“Uh, Curtis.  This is way more than a couple thousand.”

“How much more?” Curtis said hungrily.

“At least ten or twelve bundles in mine. A 100k? 150?”

Curtis put his rolled up fist to his mouth. “Ooooh man, we made it man! Let’s go!”

We grabbed the bags and started moving slowly.  The weight was impressive… money weighs more than you think.  We pushed the dumpster back, and it moved begrudgingly, as if it did not want us to get over.  The wheels squeaked loudly, and I could hear Curtis curse under his breath.  Lights flashed over head, and it dawned on me the crawling lights over the brick was a pair of car headlights turning into the alley and shining through the plastic slats in the fence.

“Fuck. We gotta move, Curtis. The thugs are here, I think.”

“Get up, I will toss the bags.”

“No you get up, I will toss them, you pull them. Go.”

Curtis climbed onto the dumpster and jumped up to the lip of the brick wall.  He pulled himself up and dropped a hand to me.  I pushed the first bag up the grunting.  He grabbed it by the strap and pulled it up with his veins on his forehead bulging.  I heard it hit the ground on the other side.  He stuck his hand back over and I pushed the second duffle up.  I heard the gate behind me start to move, a creaking and squeaking noise as its undersized hard rubber wheel turned hatefully to allow the sedan to pull in.

Curtis grabbed the second bag and dropped it.  Any moment the car’s headlights was going to light up my ass, and then I was going to hear gunshots.  I looked over my shoulder at the gate, and realized it was opening slower than my imagination had played it out, thank god.

“Curtis, man, come on.  Pull me up.” I whispered forcibly through my teeth, pulling my lips so tight, they felt like they were going to split.

Nothing.

“Curtis!” I hissed.

Finally I saw his face pop over the edge.  He put a hand down and started to pull me up.  I swung a leg over the wall just as the car pulled into the alley and thought I was out.  I felt something slip from my waistband, and a heavy something liberated itself downwards.  The glock hit the ground hard, fell over, and the loudest god damn gunshot I had ever heard echoed from my feet.  The bullet whined off the brick to the side and I heard a thunk as the bullet hit the back quarter panel of the sedan.

Its brights went on as I dropped over the wall.  Not even a second later, two shots rang out and I could hear the sound of bullets hitting the wall on the other side.

“I saw someone man! On the other side!  Right there, his leg was hanging over and he took his shot at us!”  A voice yelled.

“The bags are gone!” Another yelled.

“Get over that wall!” Yet another said vehemently. “Get in!”

The sedan’s engine roared and the tires squealed as it backed out of the alley.  I could hear someone climbing the dumpster on the other side.

Curtis grabbed his bag and I grabbed mine, and we tore off down the alley.  The bag felt like it weighed nothing at all with how fierce my heart was tearing along, the raging pure wide-eyed realness of it all was pushing itself against me.  The abandon of it, the moment of it, the undiluted pureness of this moment was overwhelming.

I ran hard, pumping my arms with the duffel slung over my shoulder. I took a hard corner, hearing Curtis behind me, clumsily hitting a trashcan and sending it spilling over the sidewalk.  Not far behind, I heard the squeal of tires, and horns blaring.  We had to get off the street. We had to get out of sight.

I pointed at another turn, hoping that Curtis saw it.  I turned, and thankfully, I heard Curtis behind me.

“Run, Reg! Go, go, go.  There is a big motherfucker behind me!”

I took another corner and saw the perfect opportunity as I ran up to it.  A small grate, barely on its fittings over a boarded up window well.  The perfect place to drop a couple bags.  I unslung my bag as ran up to the gate, bending low in a fast motion and pulling the grate upwards as hard as I could.  The remaining masonry screws cried out briefly, and brick dust sprayed outwards.  I dropped my duffel in the hole, and Curtis, without a word, dropped his in after that.  I shoved the grate back down, and Curtis and I pushed a dumpster over the top.

We took off again, and I heard a gunshot behind me.  I felt something pass by my ear eagerly.  I leaned to the left and pushed Curtis into a gap between two apartments.  He shimmied between chain link posts and I jumped and tumbled over the top.  I pushed Curtis ahead of me as best as I could and I felt him pull his snub nose .38 out and in a swift motion, turned and fired.

In the enclosed walls, it was deafening with its potency.  No far off pop pop pop of a video game or a movie.  This was a staccato roar of death baring its teeth.  I turned to see a dark shadow drop like its strings had been cut.  I grabbed Curtis by the collar of his stupid black jacket and pushed him physically in front of me.  We finally made it back to the street and we both ditched our jackets in narrow space.  Curtis dropped his gun into his pocket and pulled his t-shirt down.

We had gotten away.  My cousin had committed first degree murder, I was an accomplice, and we had stolen tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars from what I was sure was the mafia based on what the suit was wearing.

“Jesus. We are never doing that again,” I said.

“No doubt.” Curtis shook his head.

“We have to walk like nothing happened.”

“You look terrible.” Curtis said.

“I feel like I am going to puke.” And I did, all over the side of the building.  A passerby shook their head, but in this part of town, no one thought much of some youths puking against a wall.

“I think…” Curtis started, but the sound of squealing tires told me exactly what he was about to say.   There was fusillade of noise behind me, and the wall erupted in a spray of broken masonry and mortar.  Curtis’s head rocked forward, and blood erupted from his chest in a fine mist all around him like an aura.  I could taste it. I could smell it.  I turned and felt someone punch me in the chest, and another punch in the side of the head.  I hit the wall in a spin and went down next to my dead cousin.  His hand had the revolver in it, clenched tightly, even in death.  I stretched my arm out and pulled it underneath me, gripping its walnut stock as tightly as I could.

“Shit, we have to hustle.  Cops will be on their way.”

“We got to see if one of them is alive, Abo. Or the bossman is going to be pissed.”

“That one is definitely dead,” the first voice said, his thick latino accent was barely understandable.  He must have been fat.

“Yeah, he is done.  This one is still breathing.”  I felt a hand grab my shoulder and rolled me over.

I had the gun at my hip and I put the first shot into the suprised face of a skinny ragged looking black guy with a wide nose and wider eyes.  The bullet must have killed him instantly, because his weight fell immediately over me.  I pushed the snub nose out from his armpit and took another shot at where the fat one was standing.

My shot went very wide, and the fat one (who was actually very fat) moved so fast that I could not believe it.  In a moment he was gone and the sedan roared away.  My shoulder was screaming, and I could feel the back of my shirt getting very wet.

I pushed the dead gangster off of me, and looked over at Curtis.  His eyes were glassy and staring at me, cold and lifeless.  There was nothing in his face.  Nothing that I could recognize as my cousin. I felt so many things well up inside of me, but I had to get moving or I would be joining him.

I stood up, nearly falling over again.  In the distance, the immediacy of the wailing sirens called out to me.  I clutched the snub nose in my hand tightly and crossed the street in a daze.  I climbed a hill and rolled down the other side, feeling the shock of being shot spread across my chest, and my arms, and my legs.  Everything felt so heavy.

I am not sure how I stumbled through a wrought iron gate, but an old man in a flannel print golf cap watched me intently, setting a rake and shovel down near an old shed. I pointed the gun at him, then lowered it slowly.

“I… I… I…” I said.

Then I passed out and saw no more.