To Your Health

The science officer and her aide came to my office late in the cycle, past 14th hour. Normally I wouldn’t take meetings that late, but there was something stilted and overly formal in Doctor Palu’s request that put me on edge.

I re-read her message while I waited, trying to keep the anxiety in my gut from spreading. Was it the nature of this job to always be worried, or was it just part of getting older? Even on Earth it seemed like there had always been something keeping me up at night, and that was before I had two dozen lives relying on me.

They entered my office exactly on time. Palu gestured to Dom, who was trying to pretend the crate he was carrying wasn’t too heavy for him. He slid it onto my desk with a grunt.

“Doctor, you know my birthday’s not for another two months.”

Palu’s arms were tightly folded. “Open it.”

I stood and took off the crate’s lid. Inside was a dented rectangle of mesh that looked horribly like…

“Is this a water filter?”

“This is the water filter, Jessica.” Palu’s jaw was tense. No wonder her message was so carefully worded: there’d be panic if the contents of this crate were publicized.

“What happened to it?”

“Tell her, Dom. It’s all right.”

The aide glanced at her and cleared his throat. “It was George. He had an idea for increasing efficiency that required putting a special coating on the filter. None of the usual techs were available, so he tried to do it himself.”

“He told me it hadn’t broken the first time he’d dropped it,” Palu said sourly. “Not that that excuses it.”

“And the backup?” I asked, heart pounding. My voice held steady, miraculously – of all the crises a space station could endure, running out of water was the worst.

“Contaminated. Technically that one’s the backup – the original failed during construction of the second ring.”

“That was weeks ago!”

“We don’t have the solvent to restore the original filter. It’s scheduled to arrive on the next resupply shuttle, along with two more filters, but…”

“They’re four cycles out.” I sighed. “What are our options?”

“Rationing,” Palu said promptly. “We have to be careful, though: too conservative and we cause panic, too light and we run out of water before the shuttle arrives.”

“Right.” I stood. My fear throttled down to standard anxiety. “’The water filtration system is undergoing maintenance to improve efficiency’ – it’s more or less the truth. I trust you to establish the ration amounts.”

Palu nodded. “We’ll have the numbers later tonight.”

“What will you do about George?” the aide asked. It was the first time he’d spoken since Palu had ordered him. Clearly George was his friend, and he’d been gathering the courage to ask about his fate.

A brief glance at Palu told me what she would like to do with George. I smiled at Dom. “I’ll have a talk with him. Do you know where I can find him?”

#

George was sitting in the far booth in the commissary. His face was blotchy, his eyes swollen. In front of him sat a can of fizzy grape-flavored vitamin beverage, something concocted by the nutritional biochemists.

“Drowning your sorrows?” I asked.

He jumped. “Ma’am?”

“Drinking. It’s a joke. A bad one, obviously.”

“Oh, no, it’s not open, ma’am. I thought…maybe I should save it.”

I sat down across from him. “There’ll be plenty of water, George.”

“I knew the shuttle was coming,” he said desperately.

“Keep your voice down,” I replied, smiling. The commissary was practically empty this time in the cycle, but it was a small station.

“I knew if something went wrong,” he continued in a no-less-suspicious whisper, “the shuttle would have fresh supplies, and everything would be fine.”

I gestured at the view outside the porthole: blackness, a distant star, and the ochre curve of our uninhabitable anchor planet. “’If something went wrong’ is not a viable experimental parameter up here. There’s too much at stake.”

“I couldn’t – ” George was a smart kid; that’s why I hired him. He knew defending himself was moot and now he ought to listen. “I’m sorry, ma’am. It won’t happen again.”

“Wait to work with the staff next time you have a great idea,” I said. “We have plenty of time for innovation, just no time for disasters. Okay?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I stood. My anxiety hadn’t disappeared, but it diminished; that was good enough. “Cheers, then.”

 

Photo by Nick Cooper on Unsplash
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The Possibilities of Stars

When I most need light, it’s a night sky that comforts me. Look up: see that matrix of stars, the spaces between? Empty or burning, there’s purpose – and therefore possibility. One more candle of hope kindles whenever I look up.

Flowing Water and a Moonless Night

Bee had hiked along the creek before. Her aunt and uncle weren’t particularly adventurous, but they took her hiking whenever they happened to go, and they didn’t mind if she went out on her own, as long as her homework was done.

They might have minded her hiking by the creek now, given that it was almost midnight on a moonless night, but the Remnant man only came to the creek on such nights, and she couldn’t afford to wait another month.

But he wouldn’t show himself. She’d already walked all the way to the falls and back. Bee didn’t think there was an incantation to summon him – besides, the way he’d been described, the Remnant was bored and wanted a job.

Well, Bee had a job, all right, and she’d even brought the puzzle he demanded in payment. “He’s craftier than the other Remnants,” Grandma Margaret had said. “But he’s good at what he does – when you’ve got a real complicated problem, well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing.”

“Need something?” a voice grunted from the darkness. Bee froze.

“Wholenuther?” she asked timidly.

“That’s me. Expecting someone else out here?”

Bee stepped closer. The man was seated lounged against a tree. Her flashlight’s beam fell on his worn face, casting harsh white light on his hawkish silhouette. He wore a heavy wool coat and a cap that reminded her of Ireland.

“Which Conjunction are you from?” she asked.

He turned his head slightly, one wiry eyebrow raised. “They finally start teaching kids about us?”

“My parents taught me.” The flashlight wavered slightly and she gripped it tighter. “Answer my question.”

“Fifth,” he grunted, “when kids weren’t so rude. Who are your parents?”

Fifth. Her knees felt like water. That meant Wholenuther was over three thousand years old. “They study the Conjunctions.”

“And they let you wander the woods at night, looking for Remnant?”

“They’re missing. I need you to help me find them.”

He finally turned to face her. He looked weathered, but not like the wizened sage she’d imagined most Remnant resembling. Wholenuther looked eerily human.

“Sorry, kid,” he said finally. “I’m taking this century off.”

“This – century?”

“Sure. I’ve been real busy the last few hundred years.” He scratched under his cap. “Need some time off, understand?”

“An entire century? This’ll only take, like, a week, and then you can get back to…whatever you’re doing.”

Wholenuther stood and Bee took an involuntary step back, remembering on some instinctual level what this man really was and what he was capable of.

“One week?”

“I mean, I’m not sure – ”

“You brought payment, I assume?”

“Get him something to wear his brain out on, he’ll help find your parents.” Grandma’s advice. She stepped closer and held out a Rubik’s cube. To her embarrassment, her hand was still shaking. Wholenuther took the toy and studied it. Then, with an exasperated sigh, he sat down on a tree stump and began twisting the cube’s sides.

“Rusty,” he grunted.

“It’s…plastic?”

“Me, not it! Used to be able to do these in – there we go.” He chucked the completed puzzle back to her. “Not good enough. Pay me more, or find someone else to – ”

“You didn’t finish.” Bee tucked the flashlight under her arm and pulled on the cube’s sides. It came apart in her hands. Within one half she’d hidden a tiny metal sphere, no bigger than a marble. Wholenuther sat up.

“What’s that? Smells Remnant.”

“It is. Fourth Conjunction.” She held it out, then pulled her hand back as he reached for it. “It’s your real payment – if you agree to help me.”

A grin spread across his whiskery face. “Gimme a look first. No tricks, I promise – clearly you’re too smart to be taken for a ride.”

She watched as he rolled the metal ball between his fingers. “The scans my parents did reveal at least two more spheres inside it,” she said, “but there aren’t any seams.”

“So how was it made,” Wholenuther murmured, his gaze fixed on the sphere, “and what does it do?”

“You get to figure that out.”

He studied the sphere for another few moments, then tucked it inside his coat. “What’s your name, kid?”

“Bee Carson.”

“The Carsons’ kid! Why didn’t you say so?”

“You know them?”

“Never met them, but all of us know who the Carsons are. Missing, eh?” He got to his feet and led the way back down the creek. “We’d better get started.”


The Occultists of Moytura Hall

I’m through to the final round of YeahWrite Super Challenge #6! To celebrate, I’m finally getting around to posting my Round 1 story, which had to feature a sword-fighting librarian, a phone call in which the caller hangs up without speaking, and the emotion joy.

“Mother, this is exhausting.” Angelica pushed up her face mask, feeling tendrils of hair stick to her sweaty face. Why they had to have a roaring fire during fencing training was beyond her. “I don’t see how swords can help us against demons when the last war was fought with machine guns and gas.”

Mrs. Burke removed her own mask and signaled for a break. Maria, Angelica’s sister and Mother’s assistant librarian, came forward offering towels for their faces.

“Swords have sufficed since the arrow,” Mother said. She wasn’t even breathing heavily; she patted her face lightly with the towel and handed it back to Maria. “Perhaps Lord Carlisle will succeed where others have failed and bespell projectiles to be fatal to the arcane, but until then, you will learn the sword.”

“But I know the sword!” Angelica dropped her soaked towel on the floor and gestured to the bookshelves surrounding them. “I’ve read all four volumes of Shieldmaiden Shoji and both translations of Galica’s Gladii et daemonorium!”

Mother swept her blade in an elegant circle as she took up her stance. “All these books are dear to me, but all the knowledge they offer is only part of a demonslayer’s arsenal.”

“‘Book and blade shall dispel darkness,’” Maria added, parroting the Carlisle family motto written all over Moytura Hall: wrought in iron along the gates, carved above the front door, gilded over the library’s fireplace. Angelica rolled her eyes. Lord and Lady Carlisle, Occultists to the Crown, employed Mrs. Burke to keep their library of grimoires and defend Moytura Hall from demons. One day, Maria might take a position at the Royal Arcane Library, and Angelica could serve as a ladies’ maid and private demonslayer at court—however, she had no particular interest in anything arcane.

She glanced longingly at the telephone hanging by the door. The only thing that would dispel her darkness was a call from her beau, Edward. Her arms ached, and her brain felt feeble from all the facts and stratagems Mother made her recall during training sessions. Demonslaying might offer better prospects than being a governess like their cousin, but it was quite a bit more work.

The telephone rang.

“Ah!” Mother held up one hand and Angelica halted.

“But I’m expecting a call from Edward!”

“You know the rules—no social calls until we’re finished.” She gestured to Maria. “Dear, would you please?”

Angelica stifled a groan as her sister answered the telephone. Maria was too far to hear clearly, but it didn’t sound like she was talking to Edward. Perhaps she hadn’t missed him after all.

Mother pulled her mask back into place. “Again!”

Angelica lunged. Mother parried easily, but Angelica caught her in a feint and pressed her attack. Through the padding of her mask, she heard the faint chime of the telephone receiver and felt renewed hope: the sooner they finished sparring, the sooner she’d be free to return to her social obligations.

Mother’s next attack came low; Angelica parried, catching the blade and twisting—

And for the first time ever, Angelica disarmed Mrs. Burke. Her mother’s blade clattered against the bookshelves. They stared at each other, stunned. Angelica slowly removed her mask. She’d surely be lectured for humiliating her mother like this.

Instead, Mother burst out laughing. “Marvelous, Angie!” she cried, tossing aside her mask and seizing her daughter in an embrace. “Truly excellent!”

“Thank you, Mother.” Angelica wriggled free, trying to hide her smile. Maria, who’d been tidying shelves, grinned at her over a stack of books. “Can we be finished now?”

“Oh, no.” Mother waggled a finger at her, but she was still beaming. “You would quit when you’ve achieved such success? You must learn to replicate it!”

The telephone rang again. Angelica looked up hopefully. “Please, Mother, may I answer?”

Mother nodded, still smiling. “Oh, very well. Just be quick.”

Anxious to take advantage of her mother’s good mood, Angelica ran to the telephone and lifted the receiver. “Miss Angelica Burke speaking.”

No one responded. There seemed to be no one on the other end—only silence.

“Angie? Who is it, dear?”

But Angelica couldn’t answer—she was frozen, unable to even breathe. Cold seeped through the receiver into her hand, her ear.

“Angelica?”

Trembling took over her muscles. She felt her sight go dim—“Even the breath of the demon is fatal,” she thought distantly. Watson’s “Arcanology,” page nine—

Her blade fell from her twitching fingers; it must have clanged against the floor, but Angelica couldn’t hear it. All she could hear was silence.

Then the receiver was wrenched from her ear. Angelica gasped for air. She could hear again, everything from her own racing heartbeat to the crackle of the fire. Closest and loudest, though, were her mother’s terrified sobs. Her family’s faces swam into view.

“Angie,” Maria cried. “Say something!”

“I’m all right,” she managed. Her own voice sounded harsh, her breath coming in heaving gasps, but they felt all the more precious for having almost been lost forever. Mother pulled her close.

“Maria,” she said, “please inform Lord Carlisle that a demon has infiltrated the telephone exchange, and the connection to Moytura Hall is no longer secure.” Angelica heard her swift footsteps leave the room.

“How do you feel?” Mother asked, touching Angelica’s face. “Is there any lingering cold? Any trembling?”

“I’m fine—it’s passed.” She stood straighter and took a shaky breath. She welcomed the stifling heat of the fire, the way it warmed her face, the way the light glinted on the gold lettering of the books’ spines.

“Perhaps you’d like to call on Edward in person today,” Mother offered, “since the telephone is no longer safe. Mr. Donne could drive you—“

“No, thank you.” Angelica picked up her sword. “I think I ought to keep practicing—if that’s all right with you.”

Mother smiled—an odd smile, sad yet proud, loving yet grim—and saluted Angelica with her blade. “It would be an honor.”

Costume Courage

Alexis enters the living room and my tea stops halfway to my lips. “What exactly is your costume?”

She’s wearing an artfully shredded polka-dot jumpsuit and a long, scarlet wig. Her face is plastered with red and white clown makeup and the whole ensemble is smeared with fake blood.

She spreads her arms. “I’m sexy Pennywise!”

“Sexy…okay.” I take several swallows of tea. “There is a lot to unpack here. Give me a minute.”

“Hey, at least I have a costume.”

“I told you, I’m sick. I’m not going to the party.”

“You don’t look sick.”

“Well then, I must be okay.”

“Sarah!”

“It’s fine!” I rearrange my blanket over my lap. “This way someone can stay and give out candy.”

Alexis pouts – or at least that’s the expression I assume she’s making under the clown makeup. She’s right: I’m not really sick, but it’s the only excuse Alexis and our roommates will accept for skipping a party. I was sick, though, which is part of the reason I don’t have a costume. The other part is that I just didn’t plan one. Nothing sounded right, and everything in the stores was just too: too sexy, too gory, too predictable, too gauche.

“Well, if you feel better, you can still borrow my cat ears.” Alexis says. Our other roommates meet her by the front door. Mel is in witch’s robes, complete with impressive Victorian boots; Kate is in 90s grunge gear.

“I’ll be fine.” I toast them with my glass. “Take pics for me?”

Alexis gives me a bloody thumbs-up and they whisk out the door. I settle in on the couch. Even the cat costume didn’t feel right, though I never could articulate why: it would give me an excuse to wear my favorite little black dress, the one that’s just a little too short, and flats with cat faces on them, shoes that my workplace doesn’t tolerate.

Still, a night in with tea and a classic Halloween flick just sounded easier.

The first trick-or-treaters arrive not too long after. It’s a horde of boys in assorted ninja, military, and vampire costumes. They grab candy from the bucket and hurtle away without saying thank-you. I roll my eyes and prepare for it to be that kind of Halloween.

I curl back up in my blanket. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Hocus Pocus. I know it by heart, but that just means I don’t mind being interrupted.

It also means I’m a tiny bit bored.

The doorbell rings again. I answer it and find a trio of middle-school girls: a Jedi, a Ghostbuster, and a Tinkerbell.

Fourth grade. Mom is fitting white shoulder pads over my red turtleneck. My brother watches in horror. “You can’t be the Red Ranger!” he says. “He’s a boy!”

“Trick or treat!” They hold out pillowcases. The Ghostbuster wields a handmade proton pack; the Tinkerbell has glittery green eyeshadow that would impress RuPaul. They’re all beaming.

Seventh grade. My friend Derek helped me build my proton pack. Our jumpsuits look so believable, I’m ready to go downtown and fight Gozer. Mom is confused. “A Ghostbuster? Don’t you want to wear something more…flattering? I thought you wanted to be a Spice Girl!”

“Wow, you all look great!” I drop candy into their pillowcases. “Did you make your costumes yourselves?”

“I did,” the Ghostbuster says shyly.

“I did my own makeup!” Tinkerbell blinks rapidly at me, shedding green glitter.

Eighth grade. My friends are going as the Spice Girls. I’ve finally convinced my parents to let me go as Ginger Spice, but Mom frowns through our group pictures. “All that makeup is going to give people the wrong idea.”

“You look great! Have fun!”

“Thank you!” they chorus. Tinkerbell twirls as they make their exit, giggling.

When I return to the couch, a text is waiting for me: a photo of Alexis and the others making silly faces in the back of their Lyft. Therapy-provoking costume aside, she’s obviously having a great time.

I don’t even have to look at the TV to know what part of the movie I’ve reached. I mouth along as Thackery explains the witches to the kids. “How bad could it be?” Max says.

Alexis sends a second text: a cat emoji with heart eyes.

“Okay, fine,” I tell my phone, and turn off the TV. My cat costume – especially those shoes – is actually pretty cute. I might even send my mom a photo.

Grieving, Going

I close the albums. The variations of your smiling face, posing frozen, become painful afterimages. Blinded, I shelve the books by feel.

You recur unpredictably. Sometimes I wish you were a ghost. A haunt can be exorcised; memories can’t.

Done By Halves

How has your heart not split in half?
Lip service ceased being enough long
ago, but here’s one more given yet another pass.

Questions yawn between us like a pass,
the room made chill, divided into your half
and mine. The desolate gap is too long.

This is it, right? It won’t be long,
it can’t, until we can walk tall again, pass
through, no longer bent, as if against the wind, in half—

We’re long past giving that a pass, so stand tall: this half of sky is still ours.

(a tritina with words pulled from the fiction challenge prompt)

Alex Wigan