Five Years Ago

###  Five years ago, Cavendish Laboratories, Cambridge, England

“Well, it could be it’s similar to the situation in the dark ages when they thought rats and mice just spontaneously generated from piles of rubbish.”

“That’s ridiculous, James. These fungi don’t spontaneously generate from electronic components!” She didn’t even bother to look up from the microscope.

“Anne, that’s not what I meant and you know it.” He waited, desperate for some response. She finally tore her eyes from the microscope. “Good, you’re paying attention. It’s possible that, like rats and mice are attracted to rubbish this fungus, or its spores are attracted to electrical currents. Or, the warmth an electronic device generates. Once there, it can get nourishment from all kinds of materials: dander, skin cells. . .really, just about anything imaginable. Who knows what sort of weird things people do with their phones?”

Her eyes narrowed in thought.

“But, why now? Why is it only now being detected and why is it only now affecting us?”

“Anne, the Walkman first came out in 1979. We’ve had cell phones for less than 20 years. We’ve only recently started to put things with electrical currents into our ears and all this has been a pretty recent phenomenon considering the entire span of human evolution.”

“Ok, go on.”

They both jumped as the door to the assistant’s research room slammed back against the wall. “Dr. von Höhnel? It’s Geneva.”

###  One year ago, Washington DC, United States

“You mean to tell me you all can’t figure out how this mold is sterilizing people?”

After some time, Fredrick Cole, the President’s Science Advisor stood up. “Mr. President. I need to draw your full and focused attention to this next slide. Sir, this slide is an averaging of our best predictive software from DARPA. This graph shows the effect that sterilization from the Zablocka-von Höhnel fungus will have on the human population over the next fifty years.”

Cole coughed, trying to clear the lump rising in his throat. “The worst-case scenario puts the extinction-point clock at 5 months, 13 days and a few hours, with an error of +/- 15 minutes.”

###  Today, abandoned mining facility, Puelma, Atacama Desert, Chile

The Americans had finally come. Her father said they would and, she knew, he was rarely wrong. Her father also said they would be scientists and would be well educated. The Americans looked the same in their blue and silver Patagonia gear. He had said nothing about that.

When she saw all they were transporting, she knew her father was wrong, which delighted her. The snow shoes and skis would never be used; there had been no rain, or snow, in the Atacama since before she had been born. Her father was hardly, if ever wrong about anything, but these Americans knew nothing about her desert. They may be scientists, but they couldn’t be that smart.

He also said they would bring death with them.

Maybe he could be wrong a second time?


Long Reach

“Hey Cap?” Marten pokes his head into my cubbie, his face a mixture of elation and deep sorrow.

“Ay?” I answer him. I know he can sense my nervous tension. We’ve all been on edge these long hours as they’ve stretched into days that feel like months.

“He’s gone. He pushed the…” I interrupt him, throwing up my hand. “I don’t care to know Sgt. Just the time for the station log.”

“Ah, it was 21:35. Should I call the officers?” He grabs for the door frame just as I hook my foot into cloth floor loop even before the klaxons signal for microG.

I know I’m twirling the gold key on my necklace and I know it’s a bad habit for a commander to show indecisiveness. I know I do these things, and still do them because it’s simply a natural thing for a real flesh-and-blood human. “No, there’s no need, it can wait. Let the dead have their time. Add it to the morning brief. Am I correct that he left no one back on…?”

Marten jumps in quickly, “Ma’am he left with no family here or ah, there.”

“What about, I thought he had a daughter?” I was sure he had one child.

“No, ma’am. Well, he did. She was killed in the strike two years back.”

I should have known that. “Who received life from her death?”

“Sarah McIntosh, ma’am.”

“Ah, same sex, was that?”

“No, just chance. We lost quite a few, there was no reason to, you know. I’ll make sure her and her sponsors are in attendance.”

“Thank you Sgt. Marten.” I look back down at my desk, at all the work I still need to do before my day ends. “That will be all.”

With a slight nod, he pushes off from the door frame. I slide the panel closed and I’m left alone with the silence of the station hum and the rich glow of Jupiter and the death of James Woodson and the birth of someone yet unknown all of them heavy on my mind, a physical presence with me in the room. I relax my foot, let it slip from the floor loop and bring my knees up to my chest into a fetal position and I drift. My eyes close reflexively and I can feel the tension stretch and release from my neck. I float for several minutes before my head bumps against something and I reach out with one arm, slowly and carefully. Once re-oriented, I slip my slate from its dock and decide to get some tea in the galley where there will be others like me, tired but restless, busy but idle.

I find a two seat table in the back and dock my slate. There are a few third shifters starting their day here, most all of them recognize me with a salute or a nod and I try to return something in acknowledgement. While I’m waiting for the water to boil a few of them come up to me so they can assert that James had passed and offer condolences to survivors I have to tell them don’t exist. I quickly retreat with my tea.

I finish my Earl Grey and start work on Woodson’s death record. At 67 he was one of the oldest to have lived on Long Reach. At a larger station or dirt-side he might have lived on past his useful life. Unfortunately, Long Reach is too small and remote to have an unbalanced ledger. Scanning his service records, I’m surprised to find he was the first child sponsored and born on the station. I start, one tear rolls down my cheek. Maybe there was something we could have done, maybe I could have moved some resources around, maybe corp could have sent a shuttle off-schedule. Maybe. Maybe we could invent eternity. Maybe we can re-program our bodies not to atrophy.

No, no I ask for no pity and neither did Woodson. I did what I did, no more and no less. If there was something else I might have done or done differently, it’s too late now. Woodson did what all station rats do when it they’ve tipped the balance, when they start to withdraw more than they deposit. We all have a duty to each-other living on a station, isolated and self-contained.

I grab my cup and slate and move a little too fast. I slam my knee into the table attracting the stares of several others in the galley and I know they can see the salt streaks on my face. I don’t care. I can show them how to mourn, how to feel pain, how to miss someone you never really knew.

By the time I make it back to my cubbie, the burning anger has cooled. I know there is more work yet to be done. I know that James Woodson will, in a fashion, live on again. In the next few years or so, his absence will be felt at Long Reach. He was an extremely talented fabricator and tailor. He had started apprenticing a young boy a few years ago, but looking over his service records, I can see he hasn’t shown the craftsmanship or skill of his mentor.

In nine months we will have something to celebrate here at Long Reach. Of course, only if I can find sponsors both willing and able. By willing, I mean a woman that won’t mind carrying a child through to birth and, well some guy to do the deed. By able, I mean they both will have to agree to extra duty around the station for the next eight years before the child can contribute something in return for his life here on station. All that and then Dr. Richards will have to run his tests to see if the willing and able pair should have a child.

So, I rub my sore, burning eyes, maybe a little more than nine months from now.


Digging

“Hot out there?”

Her husband lets out one long tired breath and stumbles over to the sink for a glass of water. “I’m gonna take a shower.”

“Ok.” She watches him zombie-walk down the hall and into their bedroom. A few minutes later she can hear the water start. A few minutes after that, she puts down her travel magazine and begins a search for the sunburn ointment.

His shower done, she waits in their bedroom, a bottle of sky blue ointment in hand. He yells out, “Debbie. Debbie?”

She pokes her head into the steamy heat of the bathroom, “Need something?” She’s got a fiendish smile, grinning ear to ear, hiding the bottle.

“Oh man, I’m burnt through and through. Do you have some?” His wife flips the top of the bottle and says “Yeah, yeah, turn around let me see.”

He turns about-face and leans over the double sink. He lets out a yelp when the cold gel hits the bright pink heat of his skin. “You did a number on your shoulders. You should wear a sleeved shirt.”

“I know, I know. But, hey I had a hat on at least.” She just snorts at him, thankful for small victories.

“What’s this?”

“What’s what? What?” He whips around to look at his back in the mirror, first the left side, then flipping around and squinting into the foggy mirror at the right. “Where? What are you talking about?”

“Here, it’s right here.” She puts her hands on his pink sticky shoulders and turns him around, pointing to a small square of discolored skin on his back. “See, what’s that? Did you lean on something?”

“No, I don’t know what it…Shit!” He lets out a shout of pain. “There’s something there. Damn that hurt!” He presses his finger to the spot and winces again. “Crap, I’ve got to get that out, it’s sharp.”

“Wait, let me look.” Debbie roots through a drawer and pulls out a pair of tweezers. “I can pull it out like a splinter.”

“Ok, just…Ahhh!” He squirms in pain again.

“Be gentile?” Debbie offers.

“Nevermind.”

The metal filing comes out easily once Debbie breaks his skin with a needle. She drops the thin sliver into her husband’s hand. “Well,” Joseph ponders. “You know I might take this in to work and see if Steve can make heads or tails out of it.”

“Steve?”

“Yeah, he’s a guy from the university I know. He works in the geology department.” Joseph walks back into the bedroom flipping the thin metal sliver around in his fingers. “There is absolutely no way I got this digging out in the garden. As thin as this is, it should bend easily.” All his attempts at bending or even marring the thin sliver are wasted.

Debbie shrugs her shoulders, “But, can this Steve guy tell you how it got in your back?”

A few weeks later, the phone rings. Debbie side steps over to the phone and props it up with her shoulder. “Osborne residence.”

“Mrs. Osborne?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“Ma’am, this is Colonel Olin calling from Vandenberg Air Force Base; may I speak with your husband?”

“Ah, sure. What’s going on is there a problem?”

“I need to speak with your husband.” Debbie puts the phone against her chest and shouts through the window to her husband weeding in their garden.

“Yeah, this is Joseph, what’s up?” His casual tone makes his wife more nervous. Normal people don’t get calls from Vandenberg Colonels.

As the phone call goes on, Debbie turns her husband around and lifts his shirt to search his now scarred back. The last few weeks she has pulled three other slivers from his back. He’s delivered all of them to his friend Steve and apparently, he’s forwarded them on to who knows.

“Uh, well, sir they are doing fine.” Joseph disengages himself from his wife and walks over to the screen door. “But, how do you know what’s planted in my garden? You got spy planes circling my house?” The conversation turns one way and Joseph just stands there staring out to his garden.

“Well, I just need to take a shower. You say they are here, already?” Now he turns toward the front room and peers out at the driveway. “Yeah, the big blue vans…that’s them. Well, ok. I’ll talk to you later, sir.”

Joseph hands the phone to his wife and says, “I’m going to go take a shower.”

She grabs his arm, “Hold it, mister! You are not going to just leave me here without telling me what just happened. Who’s in those blue vans? Why is the Air Force calling you?”

“Uh, the vans are here to take me to Vandenberg. Have you ever seen me pass out when I’m out there?” His eyes glazed over as he starts to turn towards the bedroom.

“No, honey. You’ve taken breaks and gone for a walk or two.” She looks at him with fright in her eyes. “Is it something to do with what the slivers are made of?”

“No, it’s what is written on them. Walks? I don’t leave the garden, what do you mean walks?” Now her eyes are wide open her face screaming fear and terror.

“You do. You tell me you’re going for a walk. You come in here all sweaty and say something like you’re going to cool off and take a walk up the trail.” Tears are starting to stream down her face. “What’s on the slivers, Joseph? Why are there men from Vandenberg in our driveway?”

“That’s when it happens.” He starts to zombie-walk down the hall again.

“What happens, Joseph? Stop!” Her scream doesn’t affect him.

“They implant maps in my back. Maps of Europa. Written on titanium. Written so small you need an electron microscope to read them.”

“Europe? We have maps of Europe! Who are they?” She pleads with him.

“Not Europe, sweetie, Europa.” He raises his arm and points up. “Europa, up there.”


province

warm
brown
sleepy
Desire.
eyes of sweet promise
earthy, smoky, relentless Heat.
Devour me. Dominate me. i am your Province.


rise

rise.
survive.
give of you.
take not, want not, live.
that which you create cannot be lost.
love. love is all we have in the beginning, and end.


Review: The Winds of Khalakovo

I met the author of The Winds of Khalakovo, Brad Beaulieu, while attending several writing panels at GenCon 2011. I was impressed because he did what I’ve only dreamed of doing: write a book. He gets to reply to that irritating question “What do you do?” with something along the lines of “Well I’m a _____. Oh, and I’m also a writer. I’ve published ___ books.” Can you sense the envy? I’m green with it! What even makes it worse is he’s about to have his second book published in The Winds series! What adds further insult to all us normals is that, quite bluntly, the book is damn good.

The Winds is a thick book and a heavy read. Or, is that a heavy book and a thick read? Either way, it’s physically big and mentally engaging. We’re not in Middle Earth any more. No, we’re in Anuskaya. Gone are the English-based names of people, places and things. Here the populace meet at the palotza and are protected by the strelitz. Here the duchies of Khalakovo and Vostroma are to be bound in a wedding and the bride docks her four-masted wind ship at an eyrie.

At that point I thought it was a great book and a good read.

Then he introduces the Aramahn with their controlling powers over the spirits of nature and I’m hooked. What I liked the most about the book was that these weren’t air spirits or fire spirits these were hezhan. The havahezhan were spirits of the air and the most commonly referenced in the book. These are summoned and used by the Aramahn to pilot the great windships. Beaulieu uses this wealth of language in The Winds very well. It is refreshing to have a Russian/Cyrillic language base in a fantasy book. One that also doesn’t lean on tired stereotypes.

If you want to embark on a long, rich, exotic journey stop reading this and go pick up The Winds of Khalakovo by Brad Beaulieu. You can thank me later!


P.I.T. – P.A.T.

“So, this is the place?” That’s Phoebe; she’s the brains of this outfit.

“Yup, it’s the fourth house from the corner of 3rd on the south side of Pine Street.” That’s Sean. He’s, well he’s the muscle.

“Then…ah, this is not the place, Einstein. This would be the third house from the corner. Sometimes, ok, most of the time I do wonder about you. Mother might have dropped you more than that one time she admits.”

“Hey, lay off of him. Besides this is the north side of the street. You both need to get your head in the game. We’re talking Level 2 possession here.” And that’s me, Xavier, the hero of the story.

“Ok, whatever. I just want to get out of this rain. It’s going to ruin my coat.”

“Alright, alright. You can be such a girl sometimes. Sean, I’m going to need you to scout the back yard. The P.I.T. crew mentioned that there is a carriage house or a shed of some kind back there where we can get Precious out of the rain.”

“Ok, boss, I’ll be right back.” See, I’m telling you, I’m just a natural born leader.

“Don’t encourage him, Sean. His head is big enough as it is.” Phoebe turns to me with rain running off her nose. She flashes me that look women get when they are really not impressed and would rather be under a nice warm blanket eating some dark chocolate. But it’s game time now, and this is when I shine.

While Sean is padding across the street, I go through the plan in my head for the hundredth time. I invented this technique of going through an operation in my mind. I use it to try and find the weak points in my plan. I don’t want to give my adversary any opportunities. I call it visualization. I hear Olympic athletes have picked up on it. This op is pretty straight forward. I don’t see where anything could go wrong in a simple protect, contain and extract. The Paranormal Investigation Team has already been over the physical layout of the house in question, a typical “painted lady” Victorian. Three levels with a dirt floor cellar. Nothing abnormal about that, but a good P.A.T. team leader has to think about what could go wrong during the operation. That’s the A in P.A.T. Action. And Action is my middle name.

“No, no it’s not.”

“What? What was that Phoebe?”

“Your middle name is Tiberius, not Action. You were named after some guy on a stupid TV show.”

Freaking sensitives. I keep forgetting she can pick up on me when we’re this close. She knows how uncomfortable that makes me so she’s rubbing it in on purpose.

“Damn straight.”

“Whatever, Phoebe. Just be alert for Sean, ok?”

And right now, I’m not too comfortable with the curb appeal of the target house. There are no bushes in the front, and the back yard is reported to be fenced with one outbuilding. That’s really limiting our options on the extraction. The only saving grace is that the house abuts to a stretch of common ground and the back of a small strip mall. If the containment goes bad, we could be in for some trouble getting out with our skin intact.

The P.I.T. brief was pretty vague about the possession. Very few details on the occupants aside from there being three in total, and no lead as to who in the house had been possessed. The only definite in their report was that the possessing spirit was a Puppet Master.

“Hey, Sean’s made contact. It’s a greenhouse, not a shed. There’s a lot of tools and pottery lying around. There’s a broken glass pane towards the bottom of the East wall that we can use to get in and out. He has the distance down to about 8 meters from there to a cellar window that we could use for an entry point.”

Phoebe is a Class 3 Relayer, one of the best we have and I’m lucky to have her on my team. But when she’s in the zone her eyes go all screwy and she drools a little bit at the corner of her mouth. Just not attractive. Being siblings, she has a much wider range and the ability for two-way communication with Sean, a priceless gift in this business.

“Right, tell him to lay low in the greenhouse. I’ve got an idea.”

“Super. I’m so thrilled, wonder boy has an idea.”

While she makes contact with Sean, I start digging through the mud. With little to no helpful intel on this operation, the best plan is to get someone on the inside. Phoebe is going to be that someone.

I turn back around with mud up to my elbows and look Phoebe right in the face. Yeah, she heard me. Damnit!

“Oh, no you don’t!”

“Phoebe, it’s the only way we can get more intel on this. You’re going in.”

I pounce. In a matter of a few seconds, she’s covered in mud and my nose is bleeding. The girl knows how to fight, but I’ve got a few pounds on her. She’ll make a great hard luck case. It’s a gamble, but I’m sure it will pay off.

“That is the worst plan I’ve ever heard. Have you been watching late-night movies again?”

“Pheebs, it’s rock solid. See that Barbie tricycle in the driveway? One of the three is bound to be a young girl. She’s going to be our ticket into the house.”

“What!  ‘Our’ ticket? What do you mean ‘Our’? I’m the one going in. You and Sean are going to be hiding in the greenhouse while my butt is going to be on the line.”

“It’s not a greenhouse. It’s our Forward Observation Base. And, Sean and I won’t be hiding. We’re going to be planning the containment and extraction. You’ll be our eyes and ears on the inside. There’s still too much we don’t know about this situation. We just know someone in that house is possessed by a Puppet Master and we need to take care of business.”

I start across the street, putting an end to Phoebe’s hissy fit.

“Come on, you need to get into position.”

She reluctantly follows me. I stop by the back entrance and find her a spot out of the rain. “Just lay low for now. When the family gets back, that’s when you start your act. Little girls can’t resist a poor, wet, filthy cat. After you’re in, open that cellar window and Sean and I will meet you there. Keep us posted on what’s going on inside. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble.”

“Oh, well I feel so much safer now that you two have my back.”

“Right, Sean and I have some planning to do. Remember your PRL’s: Purr Rub and Lick. The kid won’t know what hit her.”

Of course, I was right. As I had expected, the little girl with the Barbie tricycle ate it up. Only the father had shown any resistance to taking her in. I made a note of that to Sean, he may be our target. If he was, we’ll be in for quite a fight; he was a giant at almost two meters tall and thick as a tree. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. That’s from a movie I saw last week. So, we’ll be just fine.

“Boss, hey boss!”

“Sean, what’s up? Does Pheebs have access to that cellar window?”

“Yeah, she’s in the house. Oh, no.”

“What, Sean? What is it? Is she in danger!?”

“Oh, Xavier! They gave her a bath. She has a bow on her head. Oh, no she’s really upset with you.”

I am so dead. “Ok, Sean you need to calm her down and get her to that window. Has she picked up anything yet? It’s a Puppet Master, has she seen anything they could animate? Where is she…”

“Shut up! I can’t concentrate on her when you’re babbling on like that.”

I can tell by his rapid breathing the connection is straining Sean. We’re not but a few hours into this op and it’s already stressing out my sensitive and her relay. We need to find the target and get it contained before they both short out.

“Ok, Sean. The most important thing is that she gets to the cellar window, and finds out what’s available for the possessor to use against us.”

“Hey, Einstein, that’s two things. Two things can’t be the most important.”

Yeah, forgot about that.

“Ok, ok, the window. Just get her to the window, Sean.”

Phoebe’s attitude can come across the link she has with Sean because she’s so much stronger. That’s the bad part; the good part is she can gently nudge Sean in the right direction when needed. And by gently, I mean the guys got a pretty thick skull, so he’s in no real danger. At least so far, he hasn’t been.

The rain has stopped but there is still a heavy cloud cover. It’s dark enough Sean and I don’t have any trouble slinking across the yard to the cellar window. Phoebe and the bow are there waiting.

“No snarky comments or I’m going to open up your nose.”

I have to admit, she does look cute in the bow. “My lips are sealed. Have you picked up anything yet? Anything to help us determine who our target is?”

I flash Sean the signal to start canvasing the cellar to see if there’s anything physically evident to the possessor or the possession. The look Phoebe is giving me is enough to know she’s not getting anything.

“How much of the house have you been in?” I ask her, probing for something useful.

“Not much, I’m afraid, just the mud room, kitchen and this cellar. I am getting this vague tingle right behind my eyes. Nothing exact. But there is definitely some evil lurking in this house, Xavier. The P.I.T. crew was spot on. It is definitely a Puppet Master possession; we just have to find the puppets.”

“Uh, Boss? I got nothing down here.”

“Thanks, Sean. Ok, team. Don’t let this get you down. We’re early in the op. We have plenty of time to figure out who is being possessed and where the puppets are.” I sure hope that’s not empty boasting on my part.

“Nice pep-talk. I’ve got a possession to contain.” She turns her back on me and jumps off the workbench. Before I can call her back she’s bounding up the stairs.

“Hooo-kay. Sean, did you see anything we could prop this window open with? We’ll need to be able to come and go as we please.” I look around the cellar. It’s pretty empty. A few cans of house paint and some old shelves likely used for canning. This house is probably close to two hundred years old. I take a quick sniff. Sure enough, there’s got to be a coal room in here, too.

Speak of the devil. He’s got a key and an old rubber band in his mouth. Do you see what I have to work with?

“Jhusht. Ssphuhh.” That’s it boy, spit them out before you try to talk.

“Just loop the rubber band through the key-ring hole and back around its self. Then loop the rubber band around the window handle, which will stop the window from closing all the way. It won’t be so noticeable from the inside or outside.”

“Did Phoebe help you out on this one?”

“Yeah, she told me what to do.”

“Hey, no shame in that. Let’s get this done and back out to the FOB. We’ve got some planning to do.”

Once we got our shim in the window and I had reminded Sean for the third time what FOB stood for, we were deep into planning when Phoebe made contact.

Well, I should say, tried to make contact. Sean let out a howl and flopped over on his back panting real hard. I tried to roll him over onto his feet, but he just started lashing out with all four legs. Sean’s a big boy and he’s got claws bigger than my incisors. He just missed gutting me before I could get out of his range. I managed to get some higher ground when we locked eyes for a second.

“HELP ME!” He let out a bloody wail. Well, that’s all I needed. I nicked my tail pretty good on the glass window as I tore out of the FOB. The trick with the key and rubber band worked like a charm. That’s when I realized I had no idea where Phoebe was.

By this time the cellar was black as pitch. No light was coming in from the outside. Not even a drop creeping in around the door to the kitchen. I padded up the stairs heading for the kitchen door.

“BED!”

“ROOM!”

I tensed in the second before Sean plowed into me. I didn’t hear him coming. He must have been air-born from the middle of the stairs right to the door where I was sitting. Now, I had a very different plan on how we were to get that kitchen door open. Sean’s worked fine. I’m not complaining, it’s just that I wish I wasn’t in-between him and his plan when it all went down. Luckily, the door had shrunk a bit since it was originally installed all those years ago. The latch wasn’t making full contact with the jamb any longer and it pushed open with just a little resistance. Even luckier is that I still had the sense of mind to catch the door before it slammed back onto the wall.

“Go, Sean. I’m right behind you.”

He took off like a rocket. Ok, not really. We really can’t do that on linoleum. But, you get the picture.

I was right behind him. You don’t want that picture.

We flew by the kitchen into a narrow hall and past a small bathroom and into the living room. The only illumination was coming from a small nightlight in the hall. It had a cover that was a caricature of that donkey, you know the one in the movie. Can’t remember what it’s called.

“Sean! Is she in contact now?”

He didn’t answer me. He kept on running ahead of me and took a quick right turn through a large vaulted opening. That led us into the main stair well leading to the upper floors. I took a quick look and noticed the second floor was lit, but the third was dark. More than likely I’ll be running up two more flights here.

“It’s the third floor, child’s bed room.”

Ding!

We make the tight right U-turn on the second floor and rush down the open hall to the third floor stairs. I’m almost out of breath. Sean is so drained from the powerful blast of communication from Phoebe and the mad dash that he doesn’t see the mother. She’s laid out on the floor of the front sitting room. There’s a broad shaft of light coming from the adjoining bedroom that’s lying across her still body. I can’t be sure if she’s breathing.

She just went to the top of my most likely to be possessed list.

Sean hits the top of the stairs and scramble-slip-slides around another U-turn and heads for the front room. I sure hope we’re in time. Phoebe is a tough fighter, but with a Puppet Master involved, she’s probably outnumbered.

What I see stops me in my tracks. She is sitting there, back-lit by the bright, recently cloudless moon licking her front paw. The child stirs and rolls over onto her back. Not a scratch on her. Crisis averted.

“Yeah, no thanks to you two. Did you stop for some espresso on the way up?”

“You bet. I’m sorry, did you want one?” I did notice the bow was gone from her head. I pad up to Sean, concerned about the amount of stress he’s endured over the last minute or so. “Hey, you going to be alright?”

“Sure thing, Boss. I just need. To catch. My breath.”

“Good. I’m not certain we’re out of the woods yet. Can you do a quick perimeter check while I catch up with Wonder Woman here?”

Sean looks up at Phoebe for a few seconds and then silently slips away, his calico markings blending into the dark wood flooring. That’s when I notice the dolls. The room is filled with dolls. Everywhere. The bed, the window sill, a half-dozen tiny rocking chairs; all full of dolls.

I hate dolls. Seriously, why? What is it with the human fascination with creating cheap knockoffs of you and then having little girls play with them? Seriously, I want to know. I’ll wait.

“You won’t get an answer ding bat! I’m the only one listening to your moronic monologues. Aren’t you interested in what happened?”

I might need to invest in an aluminum…

“It doesn’t work. Believe me; I would have permanently attached one to your head by now if it would help shut you off.”

“All right, ok. Just walk me through what happened, Pheebs.”

“Well, while you two were off playing soldier in your ‘FOP’.”

“FOB, it’s FOB, Phoebe.”

“Yeah, whatever. I tagged along with the parents when they put this little shit to bed. She insisted on brushing me. Totally destroyed my plat. I mean, any idiot can tell the fur runs one way. Why would you comb against…”

“Phoebe! Just tell me what happened!”

“I saved the ungrateful whelp’s life. That’s what happened.”

“Hey, that’s great news. Any chance I can get some detail?” She just glared down at me from the dresser. This time it was that look a girl gives you when, well, she’s looking right through you as if you’re not there. Note to self: never argue with Phoebe when she literally has the high ground.

“Boss, it was two of them that did this.” Thank you, Sean.

“How do you know?” Oh, yeah. Right, he was pretty much here when it was all happening thanks to their link.

“You’re not going to like this, Boss.” I swallow a hard lump in my throat. It’s that damn green ogre, I just know it is. “It’s a nutcracker and an elephant. I’ve got paint chips and some fibers to prove it.”

Sweet cracker Jesus!

The whole room is starting to spin. “Are you positive it’s a cutnacker…ah, rutcacker. Gah, a nutcracker!?” Anything, anything but a nutcracker. I’ll even take a clown!

“Sorry, Boss. I saw it with her own two eyes.”

“He said you weren’t going to like it, Xavier. I know what happened. But, you are not your Dad, and that demon Spugnoz is long banished. It’s not him doing this possession. It’s definitely someone else. I can tell by the aura the two puppets left behind. This isn’t anything like Spugnoz. Trust me. That case is required reading for all sensitives.”

I can’t believe it. It’s been years since my Dad died. But it’s all back now. I can feel the bile rising up my throat. Aw, too late.

Ok, I don’t remember lying down. This is not good. And this is not hardwood flooring.

“Why am I lying in dirt?”

“We had to get you out of the living areas of the house before you or Sean was spotted.”

“Sean? Where is he now?”

“He’s napping by the kitchen door. He’s fine. Just needs some rest after all that commotion.” She looks me in the eyes; I almost detect an ounce of caring there. “So, what’s next? Boss.”

“We go back up to that second floor and take care of this possession.” I get up and shake some of the loose dirt out of my fur and stretch out my aching back. I’m sure Sean took care bringing me down three flights of stairs, but it still feels like I was thrown into a dryer with a pair of tennis shoes.

“Huh, what do you mean? The father was on the third floor. Didn’t you see him in the study?”

“Father? What? No, the mother. She’s the one that’s been possessed. Didn’t you see her on her back in the sitting room? She was the one controlling the two puppets.”

“No, silly. She was doing Pilates. The father was up on the same floor as the puppets. He was much closer and would have had better control. Besides, you didn’t have the opportunity to search through the study he has up there.” I look at Phoebe. She’s giving me a look I’ve not seen before. It’s saying to me that she’s got a bad feeling about this.

“What’s in the study, Phoebe?”

“The dolls, Xavier. He’s the one that made all those dolls.”

The dolls. I almost forgot about the dolls. If a Puppet Master has found someone to possess that makes dolls or even stuffed animals, we are in for a load of trouble. Once there was a Puppet Master possession of a guy whose hobby was playing with those…

“Xavier! Focus!”

“Right, yeah, I’m thinking. We’ll need backup. I need to call in some reinforcements. We can’t take on a room full of dolls like that.”

Wait. The room was full of dolls.

“Xavier, I think you’re on to something. If the room was full of dolls, why use a nutcracker and an elephant to attack the little girl? Where did they even come from?”

“The attic.” I whirl around to face the attacker. My stomach is a few seconds behind and I can feel the bile rising up again. But, I’m able to force it back down.

“Crap, Sean! Can’t you announce yourself?”

“Sorry boss. The two toys came from the attic. I found a chute that leads down to the cellar here. Only someone removed the metal shroud that attaches at the top, right there in the bedroom. That’s where I found the paint chips and fibers. There’s a trail of them up into the attic.”

I get this silly smile on my face. Sean did well. Only it just dawns on me. “What if we’re facing two Puppet Masters? It’s not unheard of. Demons have fought amongst themselves many times before. Maybe we’ve stepped in the middle of two warring demons?”

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s just the one. That was P.I.T.’s briefing and I’ve not detected anything that would lead me to disagree.”

“Ok, Phoebe. Going on that, I think we need to move fast. It just might be that the demon is still weak enough that he can only control two puppets at a time. If we wait too long to make our move he’ll just be that much stronger. Phoebe, I need you to get back in there and let Sean know when the kid’s asleep. Sean and I will sneak in and lay a trap for the two puppets and their master.”

“And, by ‘lay a trap’ you mean?” Phoebe can be so cynical at times.

“Using my mastery of strategic placement, Sean will be able to pounce and use a hold maneuver on the target. You’ll just need to do your containment and we’ll be good. Sean will have you out of here in no time.” She just looks at me. Blinks once, twice.

“You’re going to trip him and hope he knocks himself out on the way down?”

So much for team morale. While she slinks back up into the kitchen, Sean and I do a little bit of planning and wait for her contact.

It doesn’t take long for Sean to get the signal. I was out of it for most of the following day. Finding out the Puppet Master had taken control of a nutcracker affected me more than I realized. My Dad was one of the best sensitives P.I.T.-P.A.T. had ever seen. It sends shivers up my spine when I think about what Spugnoz had that nutcracker do to him. How long he suffered before the end.

“Phoebe says the kid’s down. She’ll meet us on the second floor landing.”

“Why there? She should be watching the kid.” If she screws up my plan, I’ll make it so she never works on another P.A.T. again.

“The target had gone down to the kitchen to make a sandwich. Phoebe followed him to make sure he wasn’t up to something.”

Nuts. She shouldn’t break protocol like that. I pick up the pace. The entire house is dark. Even the donkey night lite is out. Sean and I pass Phoebe in the second floor hallway with a full head of steam. Now it’s my turn to get the bad feeling.

The three of us slow down as we enter the girl’s bedroom. Once again, the only light in here is from the moon. All those dolls, just sitting there. Vacuous stares. Hair all perfectly parted and wrapped in bows, their color greyed out by the particular light of the moon.

Phoebe lets out a stifled cry.

“Shit, shit, shit, she’s gone.” She breaks into a charge, Sean right on her tail. They’re heading for the chute he found earlier. I take off after them.

“Be careful. It could be a trap!” They ignore me. I’m not sure it registers with them that the chute’s door is propped open. Like the mouth of a hungry predator. Its black throat opened wide, waiting for the prey to just step right in.

And, they do, with me right behind them. The kid’s up there alright. There’s a small piece of thinning night gown stuck in the corner of the chute’s metal frame.

It’s a tough climb through the wall up to the small single room of the attic. When I finally make it to the top, I see Phoebe and Sean in a pincers pattern slowly slinking towards the far wall where I can see movement. For an attic, it’s awfully musty and warm in the early spring cool. Even I can feel the latent energy that’s surging from the far wall.

I just had time to dodge the flashing blade heading for me. I warn Pheebs and Sean, “look out, it’s got a blade!”

They don’t even break stride. They are in the zone, sharing the same sight, smells and sounds. Linked together, they act as one. I relax. Let my thoughts flow outward. They’ll be able to pick up everything I am doing. They are trained to react as one to the P.A.T. leader’s actions. So, I better do something.

As soon as I make a move forward, the girl takes a step out of the darker shadow. Phoebe howls, “It’s her! It’s the girl!”

I see the girl’s mouth open in a broad smile. “Correction.” It’s like the voice of an old marble headstone breaking in two, one half grating against the other. “It has blades!”

Two blades flash out of the darkness, it’s the nutcracker. Phoebe ducks under one blade and charges a few feet towards the nutcracker, challenging him. That distracts the girl and she doesn’t see Sean roll away from the blade thrown at him. He’s positioned himself right in line between me and the girl. He knows exactly what I’m thinking. Cannonball time!

Phoebe feints again, flashing her teeth and claws to distract the Puppet Master and the nutcracker. In the same instant, as one, Sean and I make our move. Sean rolls over on his back. I run right at him. I jump just a fraction from his head and land on his hind legs. In the same instant he and I leap. Sean uses all the strength to propel me forward and I add mine to lift me in the air.

We forgot about the elephant. It plows into Sean. Lying on his back he’s as vulnerable as you can get. I can’t help him right now though. I’ve got a date with a demon.

I slam into her chest with all the force of an eight pound Siamese. It knocks her back into the wall just like I planned. Her head makes contact with the edge of a rafter. She is out cold by the time her body hits the floor. Ok, I didn’t plan that, but I’ll take the breaks when I get them.

The attic toys go limp as soon as the demon’s host is unconscious. Now, that I did plan.

Phoebe heads right for the girl. Not knowing how long she has before the kid comes to, she has to work fast. I leave her to do her thing and pad over to Sean. It’s not as bad as it could have been. It just takes him a few minutes to catch his breath.

We pad over to Phoebe. “Is she?” I ask Sean.

“Yeah, Boss. She’s got the containment up. I don’t know how we’re going to get her out of here though.” She’s lying on the girl’s chest, totally out of it. She’s taken the demon into her and has shut down her consciousness. Sean can still communicate, but just barely. Physically, she’s a wet noodle.

“Uh, you said this chute goes all the way to the cellar, right?”

Sean looks at me, his eyes are fully black and opened wide. “Oh, Xavier, I wouldn’t do that!”

“Don’t worry you big baby, I’m just kidding. By the way, what’s Pilates?”


bright

bright
Sun
orange
early hung
azure sky canvas
anticipating masterpiece
white cloud jealous, black bird joyous, green tree justly frames


unknown

Now
what?
Unknown,
unknowable?
Can we estimate
the future of all our decisions? Who can tell?


alone

now
all
alone
i feel pain
i feel the loss, now
too late now, what did i forget
now i will never know what, what was it you needed