Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Dusty Little Planet - A Story of The Most Persistent Enemy...

He stood on nothing, he called the wind, the flame the fire.

He set the Eagle down in the birth reserved and he walked to the bar.

Not for a drink. There was better, ok cheaper, in his ship. No, Eddie was there to meet someone. His factor, if the cross-time letter was to be believed.

A hold full of nothing much, tanks half-empty, Eddie didn't want to discuss big profits, big runs, danger and excitement and the thrill of credits beyond imagining.

"Can I interest you in a smuggling operation off the Nerath't?"

Nope.

"How about a little load of merdnacht, destined for the bastard branch of..."

No thank you. "What I'd really love to hear is that you've got me a trip to a local moon, with a harvest of wheat or barley or something else that's plain, simple, and doesn't involve more risk than that we'll mistime the markets."

The factor, a lady of some means, apparently, looked like she'd swallowed a bug. "You're not local, Eddie. The easy stuff's already been bid out."

Story of his life, of anyone with one ship and no connections. The regular hauls were bid out, contracted, used to pay off connections, a hundred little other reasons there was never steady work. Except for the hard stuff.

They bargained. She cajoled, he waivered, they settled on a fast run to Beravda. "They have an interest in..."

"Don't care." Besides, given what she asked him to pack in the Eagle, he could guess if he wanted. He didn't. "Let's just talk about payment, delivery schedule, manifest. You know, like we were in business or something."

And so he found himself in orbit around Beravda, a little off the main routes, but not so far they couldn't keep up with Joneses.

Could be this was a summer home for someone with real pull. Could be new money, buying their way into the higher circles.

Most likely, the lady in the bar was fencing something, for herself or someone else. Move stuff around, a few stars over and hope the locals weren't updating their databases. Find a buyer who wasn't going to sell the stuff onto the open market 'til it was their estate's problem.

Eddie's problem, as always, was the delivery. The manifest was clean and clear, Hold A held the well-packed, legal, clean stuff for Beravda. Anything in the other holds was nothing the locals need worry about. Goods for other stars, of course they were always welcome to inspect and make sure he wasn't carrying any contraband.

Eddie was a good boy. He paid his taxes, he walked with the droid and partner through his holds, he let them see the fine wines and other assorted luxury goods he was getting ready to haul to his next port.

He made sure the droid's petty cash accounts were properly topped off when its scans showed the extra packing spaces in the wine crates. No need to discuss it, the scans didn't show anything live or dangerous. Just paper, electronics, and a few odds and ends, spare mechanicals for obscure collectibles.

Just like it said on the manifest. No reason to hide anything.

Nothing to worry the pros. So Eddie walked them to the door, said his goodbyes, and settled back to prepare the Eagle for the buyer.

"Standard setup, Eddie. You take a walk, they get in and out while you're gone. Record their entry and exit, but your cameras in the hold..."

"Are on the fritz, sorry officers."

Eddie's only real concern at that point was finding a decent restaurant. He settled for a chain, reliability was nothing to sneeze at.

He gave it an extra half hour after the warning beep from the Eagle's remote sitting on his belt. Another cup of coffee, a slice of pie, then drop a tip, pay the bill, and load up for the next leg of his trip.

To the next available cosmic junk-yard, where he bought another hull to transfer the Eagle's brain to, the warp drive. No personal items, and the Eagle became the Hummingbird. It fit, the hull he'd bought was half the size. The wine he left, it was grape juice in fancy bottles, and the parts were random pieces of iron he'd picked out of the garbage bin.

Eddie became Joachim; Joachim pulled free of the junk-yard and eased himself and the Hummingbird into the slipstream.

A few weeks later, back on the dusty little planet, a factor was having a conversation with one of her itinerant haulers.

"So, love, tell me, are you interested in a regular gig? Nothing like the profits you're used to, but it's steady, reliable work?"

The captain in question, a Telluriden with a few hounds on her trail, wasn't interested. "Too tied down, I need a little more flexibility."

"You're the fifth captain this month to turn me down." The factor got up from the table; something occured to her before she got very far. "Listen, you see or hear much from the Eagle? Low mid-weight hauler, captain calls himself Eddie, I think?"

The other considered the question. "I've crossed paths a few times, if it's the ship you're thinking of. But I haven't seen him recently."

The factor nodded. Hazard of the business. Still... "Put out the word, if you don't mind. The bidding's open on the route 'til the end of the year."
This next story's another one that fits into the time of year, if you glance sideways. This one's called A Dusty Little Planet, and it's about what happens when you can't quite get out of your own way...

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A Space To Be - A Story of Revenge

Dawn was coming, and she knew it. But she walked the corridors with no concern. The mundane light of the universe could rotate into being without her permission. Today.

She had bigger fish to fry.

Maddie stalked her shadows. They were hers, of course they were. Who else was there to contest her mastery of them? Here, down beneath, below the red dirt, where the light and the radioactivity couldn't find her. That's what Dad said, that's why the hallways and byways existed, for protection.

If she continued down this hallway, past the left and the right and through the final arch, she'd be at school. Fifteen minutes until the first bell; she had plenty of time.

They even still used bells. Big iron ones, mechanical, with a clapper and everything. Sure, they could have manufactured something, solid state with speakers, but why go through the fuss when iron and a little electricity and a clock on the other end of the wire did everything that mattered?

Maddie wasn't ready to go to school yet. The shadows waited. And the things in them. Dragons, fairies, pirates and funny little gnomes ready to bargain for eternal servitude, if only she'd spin them some gold from this pile of straw.

Her mother said Maddie spent too much time reading old stories and watching old movies. Her father said to leave their daughter alone, she'd find her way eventually so what's the rush?

The principal and the teachers hadn't much had anything interesting to say about Maddie, not yet.

The shadows spoke to her more loudly this morning than they had in ages. What were they saying? Besides "Forget about school and come play", that was a given. There was something, different. Below the normal muttering and gossip. Maddie turned right where she should have turned left, put her back to the wall of the corridor; time check said ten minutes to the first bell, so she slid a little farther along. Just to listen, that was all.

"When are you going to get my delivery?" a voice asked. A high-pitched voice, above her mother's range.

"You worry about the timing?" a second voice asked.

Maddie stopped then. They, there were two at least and that meant there could be more. Best to stay here, in the shadows. If she went any further, there might be consequences.

"Of course I worry about the timing," the first person responded. "It ain't much, but it's still a profit. I've got bills to pay."

That's the kind of thing Maddie's mother would have said. "Bills coming due," there were always "Bills due". Whenever the computer dinged, dinner time and then the time until bed, when they were supposed to be helping with Maddie's homework, they'd have to turn off the sounds on the computer systems. Otherwise, they'd constantly be checking whether it was another bill coming in.

"I'm taking care of it," the second person said. "There's few times where everything goes perfect, this kind of thing."

"Yeah, I know. Doesn't make it any easier, the waiting."

Maddie heard steps, going away from her. The two people around the corridor were taking their conversation and their worries about bills somewhere else. Did she have time to follow?

Five minutes 'til the first bell. No, Maddie didn't have time.

She wasn't quite as bad as her mother worried, about these sorts of things. Not like her father had been. She made it back around the corner and through the arch to the main hallway on time. A little breathless maybe, but on time.

There was the class time, and then the homework, and then the robotics team her mother had signed her up for. Music lessons were on Tuesday and Thursday, not Monday, so she didn't have that to look forward to. Today was just work, get through it as fast as she could and then maybe she'd have time to herself. Once the "Why don't you take your time and get better grades?" discussion had wound down for the evening.

The rest of the week was the same way. The walk to school, playing the shadows against themselves. Racing through the school work and the clarinet lessons. Ignoring the teacher's calendar when she could get away with it.

Until she couldn't.

Most of Maddie's day was, sit through the lecture, spend the last twenty minutes or so doing homework and submitting it, then walking to the next class. She never bothered to memorize the names and faces of the adults involved, they'd rotate out at the end of the year, to some other school; Maddie would still be here, maybe half the class would too. Why learn their names if they weren't going to stay?

The computer she interacted with, to do her homework on and submit, that computer was permanent. The rest were momentary distractions.

Until the principal called Maddie and her mother in for a little discussion.

"Are we sure that Maddie's really interested in the robotics team, Mrs. LeTourneau?"

If the principal had bothered to ask, Maddie would have recommended just about any other question the principal could have thought of to ask, other than that one. Maddie's mom had been captain of her robotics team, in high school.

Maddie was proud of her mom. She wasn't near as much of an ass about that as she could have been. But she still pushed Maddie to try and be a team member, give it her all, rah-rah but only a little.

"What's the problem?" Maddie's mom asked. "She's more than smart enough for this team."

"Oh, I don't doubt her ability," the principal replied. "I'm just not sure she's committed to the team, and the school. Perhaps, if she didn't have other demands on her time..."

The clarinet? That's what this was about, Maddie realized.

Well, no. It was about the fact that Maddie wasn't much interested in robotics. Not for a team, anyway. It was one thing to work on a problem, put in the time and the effort to create the thing, pull bits and pieces out of the bin, program it, watch it run.

Maddie's mom wasn't sure, Maddie gave her credit for that. "Wait, you want her to give up her free time?"

"The other members of the team don't seem to have any problems sacrificing for the success of their compatriots."

Maddie felt that comment; it was a slap, delivered as smoothly as if they'd been sitting in a faculty committee.

Not that she cared. The principal could take her robotics spot and twist, fold, spindle, then sit and spin for all Maddie cared.

Mom, on the other hand. "We'll make sure she's carrying her weight. Thank you for letting us know."

The principal stood up, shook hands, and walked to the door. To show Maddie and her mom out. "Just remember, the end of the semester, and the team review, is coming quickly. We can never guarantee any spot on the team, not with the student turnover every year."

Maddie realized two things, as she stood there watching her mother squirm in the face of authority. The first thing was that, when she made it out of the Halls of Torture/Reason, Maddie was going to do her damndest to follow her dad's advice, and avoid having too many bosses. Or any at all, if she could help it.

Second was that the high-pitched voice of the principal, when she was closing the door and Maddie didn't have her face as a distraction, was that of the voice in the hallway at the start of the week. The one that was worried about her little bit of profit, and paying her bills.

Truth was, Maddie didn't care much for the clarinet, either. But when her mother started in on Maddie and her father, about how much being part of a team meant; scholarships, which Maddie thought was a really low blow, considering how hard mom and dad both had had to work to put themselves through college. Anyway, all that, and Maddie had to dig her heels in.

Not visibly. The school didn't spend money on a full time music program. So she took all her classes remotely, recorded her playing, submitted them for a grade. Really, that was only about three hours a week. What was the big deal?

Dad worked from home, Mom went into the plant every day. So Maddie just didn't talk about the fact that she came home and practiced her clarinet while her mother wasn't there to listen and complain about it.

Her dad figured this was a good compromise. "Just make sure you don't get caught, kid."

So Maddie made sure she wasn't caught. To the point where she officially dropped out of music, so far as the principal was concerned. Her clarinet tutor was a little confused, on the other end of the internet link. But she went along with the plan when Maddie got her dad to come in and discuss it.

Now, all Maddie needed to do was put in time on the robotics team. This was harder than it sounded.

Officially, the teams were supposed to use local, indigenous materials for their constructs.

Somehow, it never quite worked that way.

"Money," her dad told her. "There're two ways to get your stuff built."

"Money, or hard work." She knew about the money. Money was easy to spot; shiny and new parts were obvious. Circuits and complete builds on a Monday morning after the assignment instead of weeks later. Like how it worked for the kids, ok, just her, who went to the junk shops and put things together according to the rules.

What was the point of this, if she wasn't getting a chance by doing it the right way? Other than doing what her mother wanted so desperately?

Especially when she found out what kind of deliveries the principal was so interested in.

"This? Oh, that's one of Ms. Davies' special chips." Franklin shrugged. "She gave them out a couple weeks ago."

Maddie hadn't been on the receiving end of any special chips hand-out.

Franklin didn't know anything more. He'd gotten lost in what the chips could do. "They're loaded, Maddie, hard coded AI, machine learning right down to the electrons."

They were supposed to be programming that part of it themselves.

"You're just jealous because she didn't give you any," Franklin told her.

Maddie ran out of the robotics lab, dropped her stuff right then and there and headed for her shadows. Franklin was right, she admitted it. To herself and the empty hallway. "I am jealous."

Why not? The special kids getting the special treatment, and so far as she could tell Maddie was the only one who hadn't received the extra chipsets.

"It's not fair," she whispered.

But. It wasn't only jealousy, burning her up so much she wanted to punch a wall.

The other thing that burnt her... Ms. Davies was all set to rotate out at the end of the year. She got two years, instead of one like the rest of the teachers, but her turn was over. Cheating would never mean anything to her.

Maddie wondered if maybe that was why Ms. Davies was so interested in the robotics team. A little feather for her cap, maybe, on her way out the door. And by the time anyone dug into the team's success, if they ever did, she'd be long gone and far away.

And, since the chips had come in through the back door, how would anyone ever trace down where they'd come from?

The aggravating part, Maddie found out, was how good the chips were. How much more the robots equipped with them could do.

The trick was, with the chips and boards Maddie used, the time limits placed on the competitions. Fifteen minutes, two robots given a task, sometimes a battle, a maze, assemble a logic gate from fifteen buckets and thirty crabs, whatever. The fifteen minutes was the key, given the hardware they were supposed to use. Balance. Complex code, too complex, and the robots would take too long.

Too simple and they'd never be able to complete a task.

Give them a faster, self-programming underlaiment, on the other hand, and step back and watch them run.

She stayed after the robotics club was officially finished. Let herself back into the lab, took Franklin and Jessie's robots apart, borrowed the chipsets and experimented.

What she found was a factor of two. That's it. About two times faster, that's the advantage Ms. Davies' chipsets gave Franklin and Jessie.

Or, twice as much code, in the fifteen minutes. Twice as many decision trees. Twice as many paths sampled, learned from, re-done.

Twice as much prep time between tasks, so that the robot could adapt to the next task more quickly. She hated and loved the things, together and separately. She wanted to steal all of them, build her own robots, scale tall buildings and...

And burn the damned things in a fire. Because there was no way under the sun and the stars that she'd get anywhere here. Without them, she'd be perpetually last, third on a team where two spots competed.

She went to her father about it.

"How long do you have until the end of the year, Maddie?" he asked her.

She wondered where he was going with this. "Six months. Why?"

"Think the school board's going to get another principal in here between now and then?"

"They could if they wanted to." They'd had to, when Ms. Davies came into the job. Mr. Hernandez had had a stroke, nothing too major but he'd taken the health scare as the warning it was and gone home a couple months ahead of schedule. Ms. Davies had just started her rotation a little early.

"Think they'll want to, if you're going after the robot team?"

She knew better. All she had to do was look at how her mom had reacted when Ms. Davies gave her little pep talk. School spirit was strong with the school board. At least when it came to the robotics team.

Franklin had his own room at the school. Jessie didn't have to carry anything of her own back and forth to her house, she had a little electronics cart with the school logo plastered all over it to follow her around the corridors. Anything the varsity pair needed, they had.

Down to contraband chips. "Assuming anyone admits to that," her father pointed out. "When your grandfather was a kid, it was steroids for the football team."

"What's football?" Maddie asked.

"Never mind, thanks for making me feel properly ancient, o-minute one. The point here," and he sat back in his chair, hands laced behind his head as he stared at the ceiling, "and it's a painful one, is that there's a hierarchy here. And you and me, we're on the outside of it staring in."

"What about mom?"

Her father didn't look at her, he just stared at the ceiling. "Your mom was in a different position, when she was in school. At least for this, she was on the inside looking out."

Great, Maddie thought. Mom's reliving her glory days and I'm stuck. Down here trying to figure out just how I'm supposed to live up to her example.

"You're saying I'm just supposed to shut up about it?"

He dropped his hands, stood up, then turned and faced her. Looked her dead in the eye, and now Maddie got the full force of his focus. "No. I'm saying you're going to have to make an adult decision. What's the most important part of this? Step away from it, as best you can, and ask yourself, who do I really care about? What do I need to do to make sure that I can walk away from this with my head up? Don't let your outrage, however justifiable, blind you to what's really important."

Maddie wanted to be heroic. She wanted to crawl into the shadows of her corridors and never come out.

What she did was accept Ms. Davies' decision to drop her from the robotics team.

Maddie's mother wasn't enthused about it. But she did something then that impressed her daughter. She dropped the thing.

Maddie did hear her mother and her father discuss it. Just the once, as far as she knew.

"You don't have to like it," her father said.

"I don't."

And that was the end of the robotics competitions, for Maddie at least. Franklin and Jessie seemed to enjoy it; as time went on, Maddie talked to them less and less. They won the region and area contests, and went on to the state finals.

Maddie kept the smile off her face when the pair lost to a private school from the state capitol. The one with the governor's kid and the president's niece on it. "Politics meets money," her father said when he read the news to her. He didn't look like he was tempted to smile at all. "Here's a tip for the future. Never let yourself be caught in the middle of those two forces, if you can help it."

Of course, being out of robotics meant Maddie was now up to practicing her clarinet five nights a week. And getting graded for the privilege. She wondered if she'd missed something somewhere.

At least she was out from under the nose of Ms. Davies. The principal was polishing her resume ahead of her rotation, too busy to stick her self interest into something that would never show up on the school's performance grades. Maddie did her best to make sure that she didn't do anything to change this ahead of the end of the schoolyear.

Well, she tried. Except for the part where the box-full of Ms. Davies' chipsets started making their way around the science lab.

Thing was, the robotics team was entirely extracurricular. The science classes, and lab, on the other hand, were required. And robotics was, as it turned out, the main theme of the last nine weeks of the year.

Maddie didn't struggle to recognize which chips were turning up in her labmates' projects. They were unlabeled, of course, but a little time with a computer and the engineering software told her everything she needed to know.

Now that was going too far. It was bad enough the bint had shoved her out of the team, now the principal's own extracurricular activities were interfering with Maddie's chance of scraping a decent grade.

The class was supposed to be graded impartially, according to the same rules as they used for the intermural competitions. Except there wouldn't be any outside judges, just the teacher. And Mr. Roberts didn't look like he was going to be testing each robot individually to find out who'd pushed the line on the honor code.

She'd stick out like a sore thumb. Since the other seven kids in the class, Franklin and Jessie included, were holding their conspirators' silence like pros, even if she forced the issue...

The science labs weren't exactly guarded. The chemistry storeroom was kept locked up, because nobody wanted a bunch of kids getting a hold of bottles that went with labels like "Explosive" and "Carcinogenic", much less the really fun stuff like "Mutagenic".

Everything else, the teachers figured, as long as the kids didn't walk off with it, if they were interested enough to come into the lab and play around, then maybe they'd learn a little in the process.

Maddie snuck into the lab three days running, after class, until she'd reprogrammed all seven of the special chips Franklin and Jessie had squeezed in to the curriculum.

First, she slowed things down. Whatever the self-programming logic might have thought of the matter, it wasn't set up to ignore the hardwired temperature warnings. A little re-calibration of the onboard temperature scale, and the chipsets were happy to bog down in an endless search for optimal cooling cycles.

Which led Maddie to her second little re-programming step. Chips that were busy monitoring their internal temperature states were also a little too busy to keep up with their virus scans.

Not that they'd have found the modification she forced into the overhead of the chips. A factory reinstall might have done the trick, but since the robots weren't allowed to phone home, no matter how fancy their internals were, they'd go a mile or three before Maddie's little extra payload was discovered.

Not at her school or that year. She set the timer to deliver her virus for a few months down the road.

When Ms. Davies was safely ensconced in whatever new, higher paid position she found herself in.

Maddie had guessed correctly. As soon as the robotics labs were finished, all the test grades in and what do you know, Maddie scored higher than the golden children of the robotics team, the special chipsets all disappeared from the robotics lab.

Maddie made sure to doublecheck. Sure enough, even with the robots parked safely in the back of the science lab cabinets, all their chips had been removed. Same thing in the robotics team's area. Robots aplenty, not a brain between them. Except for Maddie's, of course. For some reason, her scrounged chips weren't worthy of stealing back.

"I can't wait for next year's team," Maddie heard Franklin say on the last day of class. "This year, we're going all the way." He and Jessie were surrounded by kids and teachers both, the golden children preparing for their path to greatness.

Maddie couldn't find the heart to tell them Ms. Davies had stolen their onramp out from beneath them on her way out the door. She figured they'd be ok, even if they did find out the truth.

So this next story isn't much of a Halloween story.

Well, except in the spirit of certain kinds of the Twilight Zone, or Alfred Hitchcock Presents. There in that magic space where those who deserve it, and are patient, can be seen to occasionally get their proper revenge...

Friday, October 12, 2018

Truth Through the Viewfinder - A Story for Downtime

So it was true, then. The stories, the gossip.

She found their star sitting underneath the tongue of the fifth wheel, styrofoam coffee getting cold on the ground next to him, cigarette after cigarette jittering between his fingers.

She knew the signs. When the coffee and the nicotine are the only thing left. The story was he'd bottomed out, finally, checked himself in and done the thing right.

And now it was time to see if there was a career left. Here where the salaries might pay for a beer and a joint, at most.

Or coffee and a carton of cigarettes, now that he'd kicked the high-priced junk. Long way from the magazine shoots and the pop-tarts throwing themselves at his feet. She kind of admired that. Maybe he was ready to work for a living. Like the rest of them.

He didn't know she was there. She didn't want him to. Not when she could watch, smell the tobacco, his sweat, the morning shower hours away. Downtime between sets on the latest Z-grade, straight to streaming effort.

He'd be hers soon enough. To touch up. What would his face look like, quiet, unmoving? Would he be better displayed before or after her ministrations?

Certainly camera ready. That's why she got paid the big bucks. Snort.

The call came, he stubbed out the butt and straightened his jacket. That was hers, too. The little touches, that was her place in the team. Broken seams, tears and cuts, dust and dirt and blood drops here and there. She gave it her all. Would he remember her name after the set closed at the end of the day?

Not that it mattered. She watched him leave, head back to the lights for the last big scene, and then "It's a wrap, folks" and time to pack everything up. He never did see her there.

She called it practice. For the big sets and the big productions.

This team, they were family, and she didn't shit where she ate. Carny-like, sure there were disappearences now and then, people wandered in and out of the life, but she wasn't about to feed on family.

No need.

Her phone beeped at her. The calendar, letting her know that tomorrow she needed to be in Toronto. Big money, Spielberg production. Hundreds of people, every day, wandering in and out of a set that would look like an invasion force. Names, stars.

Nobodies. The kind that came into the life, and left with no-one the wiser. "Whatever happened to so-and-so?" Who knows?

She'd never tell. She'd never need to.

Another Halloween lead-in story coming right up. This one's short and, well, not sweet if I follow the implications...

Friday, October 5, 2018

Go For A Spin - A Story For the Halloween Lead-In

My only choice for a ride was the cement truck. It was sitting there, nice and pretty and running, barrel going ninety to nothing. Not my fault the guy didn't tag me as a reason to take his keys with him.

And, seeing as how I didn't have any other choices, especially not any that were running and ready to go, that's the one I jumped in.

Cheap bastards couldn't be bothered to spring for air conditioning. What kind of narrow eyed cheapskates do they let run these things anymore. Ah well, it would do. Clutch and gear and haul ass.

Ok, so it was more like haul a caterpillar's ass, the thing wasn't exactly fast on its feet. But it moved. I didn't honk the horn, I just took every bit of space the parking lot gave me, turned it around, and went out the back way.

Give the guy a chance to enjoy his cup of coffee. I was feeling kind, I guess. That, and I'd need every minute extra I could conjure. When he called the cops, sure.

But he wasn't the one I was running from. Honestly, at that particular point in time and space, I'd have taken a night in the county facilities over the other option on offer. And thanked them for the privilege.

I worked the gears, I turned the radio over to the local news station.

I watched the mirrors and waited. How would she do it? Steal a car, truck, whatever?

Or was that too mundane for her? It was daylight, which was nice. Maybe transforming into something dark and hideous enough to block the sun and the stars from view wasn't in the cards.

One could hope, and I did, crossed my fingers on the wheel and everything. Then I went back to working the gears. Ten miles of back-roads, well, relatively back roads, an hour this side of the morning rush. A little bit of luck...

And there it was, the interstate on-ramp just begging for me to leg it up and over the river and get myself down-bound and moving.

Forty eleven construction projects in the immediate area, I slid right into the daily traffic and disappeared into the ether. As close to it as I-10 can ever be, anyway. The fog helped. Even with me cussing the idiots who couldn't be bothered to turn on their goddamned lights, what the hell is wrong with people?

The feeling was still there. The one where the hair on the back of my neck rose up, stayed that way, and the migraine ache slid from between my ears to the edge of my left eye. She was behind me, and coming up hard. Somewhere.

The fog wasn't much of a help here. She tracked me, smelled me, maybe she'd passed by with wheels burning like the rest of the casino traffic headed for Lake Charles at ninety to nothing. How could I tell?

Without pulling over. That was the trick. Pulling over wasn't high on my list at the moment.

There are two possibilities, jumping in someone's day ride. It could be a pool truck, the keys hanging on the board in the office, pick 'em up and jump in and don't trash it for whoever grabs them tomorrow.

Or, it could be the guy's regular ride. Like this one was. He'd taped pictures of his kids to the speedometer glass. Hung a graduation tassel from the mirror.

Happily, he'd stashed a case of water behind the passenger seat. Just where I could reach over and grab a bottle, rip the cap off and pour out half the contents and then stash it in the cup holder hanging from the heater vents.

Not a/c, we've already covered that. But at least the vents were there.

Ok, so water I've got, and there's all that nice fog floating around, half water half air and the bottle matched as close as I could make it. Iron?

There's some of that. A cup full of washers, nuts, bolts, this and that, galvanized I could live with, the zinc's only a coating, stainless is right out. There.

I dropped a deck screw in the open bottle. And then I asked the iron and the water if they'd be nice and cooperate with me this morning.

Which they were up to. Apparently. The screw floated to the top of the water and pointed at the open road in front of me.

So she had passed me. Sometime in my fumbling around? Who knows, but now I had to worry about timing. The fog wouldn't hang around all day, if the lady chattering the weather every ten minutes was any guide, once I got clear of the river, the stuff was already letting go.

Clear that, clear skies for a couple hours and then the heat of the day would start building me some nice thunderstorms, which were even better for hiding in. Well, except for the part where I'd have to drive around chasing the clouds.

And, the part where I'd have to find someplace else to go to ground for the four hours it would take for the sun and the soaked ground to make their magic happen. Decisions, decisions.

Every mile, I was chancing breaking out of the fog bank and into open skies. As soon as I did, she'd pull off at the next available exit, pull the turn and screech the tires and head back my way. Here and now I was a bundle of possibilities. How was I going to maintain that status?

I'll grant the possibility that there are people in this world who could have called that fog to them. Wrapped themselves in it, built up a wall of probability, protection in the randomness, a cloak of "Ask again later". If I ever meet someone like that, I'll do my damnedest to pick up some pointers.

Right then and there the only choices that presented themselves were stay doing what I was doing. Or to get off the interstate and look for a different set of choices.

The way the highway runs between Houston and Beaumont, there's a whole lot of nothing on the side of the interstate. So pulling over, like I was doing, was about the only choice. Now let's find some more back-roads, I told myself. This would be a damned good time to go ahead and get lost somewhere.

I had to substitute a foggy mind for a foggy eye. Hey, I work with what I can get.

Try, anyway, because I got off the highway, made the turn, and there she was, sitting on the seat next to me.

I say she, that's just an accident of the language. She is she and me and anyone else she needs to be. Right now, she was a construction worker, red and yellow safety vest, hardhat, a guy with a few days stubble and what looked like a hell of hangover.

Lord, have mercy on a pure-blind fool.

"It's a little late for that," she told me. "Not that you ever had time for things like forgiveness, mercy. All those little things, do you remember?"

Yeah, I remembered. About the time I gave up on being an altar boy and maybe a priest like my mom wanted. "Go away, figment."

"And you the one who asked me to enter this world." The image vanished.

My guilt didn't go with her. Why would it, she was right. I'd opened the door for her, asked her in, and earned my reward. The one I was running away from as fast my little feets could take me.

Anarchist's Cookbook, the Necronomicon, the black one with the red letters that Waldenbooks always put out on the shelves in the back. Anything else I could get my hands on that promised me secrets no one else knew. Like that; the best part of heading off to college was the rare books section in the library. Any excuse at all, if all these so-called scholars had any truth to the mythology they'd built up around themselves, then their library had to be filled with everything I needed.

That was the other end of the road I was running down. First thing I'd learned, the first real truth I stumbled across, if there are people with the real power they brag about, they sure as hell don't right any damned books telling how to create it.

Just let idiots and the damned search along the blind alleys, like I did, and they'll burn themselves out in the process.

Hah, and here I was, a burnout case with one last torch. And wouldn't you know it, this one actually worked. She was running along behind me now, I could feel the pressure again. The image was her warning; no, her touch, here I was and she'd tagged the truck, and twenty or so miles east of me, the screw pointed her out. It twitched and spun while she made the turnaround, stabilized.

Inexorably eased back, degree by degree, across the compass. She was north of me now, at the other side of the interstate, and headed my way. I'd pushed the truck to its limits, time to bug out.

The sea called to me, somewhere ahead. I'd have to settle for the marsh stretching out to either side. Should I ditch the truck on the road? Nope, turn off onto the gravel pipeline road, gun it and bounce the barrel and all its tons of concrete steady drying out behind me.

I just about kept the tires on the gravel. Knowing how hard the thing would be to get out of the canal on either side was the only thing that kept me in control.

Gravel led to grass, the right of way for the pipeline. Cows ignored me on their side of the barbed wire fences. Time to get down from the cab. The barrel behind was struggling, now, barely turning. If anyone ever found it, would they dynamite the barrel?

Nah, crane it off and replace it. Didn't matter, I had other things on my mind.

She came to me again. I was walking along the pipeline, looking for a place to come to ground. This time she was a dog.

"Nice touch," I told her. "Such consideration."

"I wouldn't want you to go out thinking you were alone in this cruel universe," the brown lab replied. She didn't have to pant, so the illusion was almost complete. Except for the talking dog part, of course. "Are you ready to talk about this?"

I'd picked up the book on Ebay. Give up on dark libraries, rare and unearned knowledge, burn out from bad trips and worse people, and try and put my life together, that's what I'd aimed for. I had my degree, history and obscure literature, sure, plus my teaching ticket, junior college, high schools, I was done with the nonsense, there was no need to try for a professor position somewhere that would let me burn out the rest of my soul in the fruitless search for the darkness.

The internet didn't quite ruin all that. Yeah, I spent a couple years, all my copious amounts of free time between grading AP essays, chasing down conspiracy sites and the secrets of the world between. Laughing at the newbies; it's amazing how much each new generation's theories are just the same old, same old, retreaded for a new audience.

At least one benefit of all the time I'd spent chasing those dark alleys is how easy I found it to wade through the comment sections of all those blogs. Seen 'em once, I've seen 'em all. I could just about predict the rhythms.

What I couldn't predict was the depth of the used book sellers, on Ebay and Amazon. Generations of warehouses opened up, kids and grandkids trying to cash out of their legacies.

I didn't have a penny to my name anymore, but I had one hell of a library. Sitting on the two by fours and cinder blocks in my apartment, formed into a coffee table, lining the walls in my bedroom. The collection I'd told myself I'd always wanted.

Flight spells from medieval times, the ones that started with the blood and skin of a newborn baby as their first ingredient, and went downhill from there. Corruptions, curses; remedies, too, because no self-respecting witch or wizard was ever going to go through life without earning a little retribution in the process.

Summonings. And that was how I got where I was.

She wasn't the first one I'd tried to call up.

Look, first, none of these things work.

Well, ok, I never did anything that required a sacrifice. Not even a cockroach, so honesty tells me I can't vouch for the flying spells, or worse. I just can't do blood, death, it's not my bag.

The summonings, well, when I was I kid I'd have thought those would be the worst, right? If I'd need blood and skin for a flying spell, what was calling something from beyond going to need? Souls for my prospective lord, at the least, right?

Nope. Incense, patience, crayon drawings or salt trails or bat guano and snake venom. Which I could do, because I could buy it on Ebay, rather than going out and milking one on my own, no thank you.

Didn't work. Not the first time, not the hundredth time, just like the rest of the nonsense in my books.

The thing with the screw and the water? Yeah, that worked; the whole thing's like going to the grocery store, realizing your bank account's empty about the time you get to the line with your cart, walking out, going back to the house.

And seeing a case of ramen noodles, the one you'd forgotten you'd stashed, in the back of the cabinet. That's what I'd found with magic, spells, all the work I'd put it, none of that shit worked. But the little bit of imagination I had left, behind the burnout's wall of cynicism?

It was still there. Not enough to matter, I was never going to go out, throw fire, bend reality.

But hey, I could find my keys, a stray cat or dog, lost kids on occasion if I'd met them before they disappeared. Small fortune.

Enough to keep me fooling with those stupid books.

Run, fool, run, and try not to think about it. So I did that. Well, run is a strong word. It's more like a hot walk. Appropriate to the rising sun and the fog baking away. The dog vanishing, and the strength of her presence behind me, and it was time to stop.

Think about where I was. What I'd done. Kiss my ass goodbye, I guess you'd call it.

The pipeline right of way opened up on the Intercoastal Canal. Hundreds of miles of push boats and barges chugging between Brownsville and Mobile and none of them with an eye, or the ability, to stop and give me a ride. Could I swim for it?

Well, yeah, except for the part where there were no barges on offer. Not even a shrimp boat headed for the bay. Too late, son, too late. Where do you go, my son?

"Looking for oyster shells?" her voice called. Same voice, low alto female voice, that had blown out of the candle. That's pretty much all the summoning had asked for. A candle, kneel down, bow my head, and there was her voice.

The book had been the real thing. I'd sat there, listening, consumed not by power or greed or the lust for these things of flesh. Nope, and here at the end, I was the exact same.

Shocked, to wonder. I'd been... not right.

I'd found something. All the time, yeah, all that butt in chair time, slaughtering what little Greek and Latin and Arabic my teacher's had managed to punch through my skull, three different sets of glasses as my eyes wore out; callouses on my fingers and ink stains and dusty hay fever.

Yo and here I am. Caught between a devil and a muddy brown stream full of who knows how much sludge and muck and maybe even a fish or two, the birds floating along diving on the bait rush tell me.

"Such a poor offering you are."

But she'll take it. That was the part that I'd ignored. All these years, nothing in any of those books had ever worked. Let my guard down; sacrifice a baby, a goat, a kitten? No, can't do that.

Summon a demon who's going to ask for my soul in return? Yeah, that I could do, because it was all on credit and it wasn't like, my cynical mirror whispered, this was going to work anyway? Shut up and do it, and then we can all get back to watching the next season of Doctor Who, just like we're supposed to be doing. Who's the Next Doctor?

"Just turn around, show me that you're ready to fight. For something."

Now there was an argument I'd never when. Fight for something? It was to laugh. Bargain, that worked out so well for Faust and the rest. But there had to be something there for me. Some loophole.

If only my tired brain would throw it out there for me to catch.

If only she'd stop breathing down my neck. I had my eyes closed, call it a natural flinch from the inevitable, just shut up and do it already. No need to run her fingernail, claw, whatever, down the back of my neck like that, draw blood and be damned.

It burns, it burns, the blood dribbling is a cool rush, but the parting of the flesh, oh, it hurts, it tears me away from all that has gone and throws me up against the here and the now.

I summoned up the only thing I could, my courage, and I turned myself around. To face what?

"I was expecting someone a little..."

"Taller?"

"That, or wings, scales, that sort of thing."

"I'm beginning to think that the modern media is actually corrupting the youth. Why do you think I would be bothered with trying to match up to your mythological misconceptions?" She was a park ranger now.

Green hat shirt and pants, brown boots for mucking about, belt with various bits and a shield on her, ok his in this case, chest. Just some ranger, making his rounds, checking out the wildlife and chasing off the poachers. The truck had a trailer on it, rubber boat just made for dropping off into the canal behind me. Out here?

She'd chosen the form just about guaranteed to get her anywhere she needed to go, without any comment at all. She could pass any fence, any gate, walk around unnoticed, and nobody would say boo. Even the pipeline guys couldn't cross over into pastures, not so a game warden. "You're saying I didn't exactly pick the best place to try and hide."

"Let's just say that you didn't give me all that many choices as to the form I took."

"I'll take whatever solace I can get in the sympathy you're extending me." That and the idea that maybe just maybe all my search for knowledge had paid off? Well if that's all I could get, there were worse ways this could go down. I guess.

Every madcap plan, every bad movie I'd ever seen; ideas came out of nowhere, flashed through my head at about the speed of light, maybe a little faster. And none of them worth a damn. I was going to, well, die might not be the right word here.

But whatever the end was, it was not going to be pleasant. "Can you just make it quick?"

She, he, stepped back a little. "It's been a while since I've visited this mortal plane, and here you are, my invitor, and you're asking me to get a move on? I feel a little insulted."

"I'm not really into the whole torture scene. Frankly, I'm kind of a wuss." Really, I wasn't here for the drugs and sex and pain bit, however much the movies made it seem like that's what this was all about. Power and the joys of it.

When you get down to it, I'd accomplished my life's goal. No kids or wife to go along with it. What else was I going to do? It's not like...

"There is a bargain on offer, junior." He, she frowned. "Let's see if I can make you a deal you can't refuse." She started ticking things off her fingers. "Money, nope. Power, no, sex and drugs and rock and roll, none of the silly stuff."

She gave me a frown, and then the nice theatric smile. No hint at all that it was practiced or anything, his face just went from disappointed, to happy as a puppy with two peters in an instant. "But I do know, after all, something that might interest you."

Hope doesn't spring eternal, no matter what the bard says.

Not when I was staring down the barrel of something nastier than death. It's more like hope was a distant echo, feet treading on the ground somewhere far off, most likely the cavalry would never see me type of hope. The kind I couldn't trust.

"You're interested in books, aren't you?"

I nodded. Kind of obvious, but let's play along because...

"What if I told you there was one that I, too, was interested in?"

Had the cavalry heard my faint calls for help? Maybe they had after all. "Enough to let me off the hook?"

"Let's just say that I'm interested enough to give you a couple months to show me whether or not you're off the hook for good. Smart guy like you, that ought to be enough. And if not?"

What's a month or two between friends, right. So what was this book, and who did I have to kill to get it?

"Nobody needs to die. I don't even need the whole thing, nor even a single page of it. All I want is a copy. A good cell phone camera, a tour of the facility, and you're golden."

Yeah, I'd heard that before. "Where and what and how?" We'll leave the "Why couldn't she just waltz on in and get her own picture?" for later.

Shoot, good timing and a little luck and I'd quite happily trade a little freedom for never finding out the answer to that question. Let her play her games, and feet don't fail me now was all the mantra I needed.

Then again, I guess as soon as she told me what the book was, and where it bided its time, I had a partial answer to why I was necessary to her.

The easy answer was the part where I'd spent my life learning to be a scholar. History teacher by day, rare book dude in my spare time, me and a few thousand others around the world. Sure, I don't publish all that often, but I know who to call when I need introductions.

Even when it's a monastery in Japan. That was the book, and the monks took their protections seriously. Call the winds, the rain, the typhoon and the earthquakes, the foxes and the squirrels, the birds and all the rest, and beg them to keep this place a step apart from the world above.

It nestled in a little valley, a hop skip and a jump away from the last train out of Tokyo. Their library was a true gem; books, sketches, scrolls, woodblocks and the prints that had been generated from them.

The book I'd been requested to peruse was on a shelf in the back. Poetry, love and devotion poems from a minor functionary to the last emperor before the shogun era.

Don't ask questions, I told myself. Just get the pictures and get on with your life.

This really wasn't my end of the pool. The book was a wonderful little picture of a moment in time. Calligraphy, of course; sketches of this and that, cranes, fish, wildflowers. My impression suggested the drawings were the daily journal, life in the imperial presence, and the poems were... mementos? Moments of self stolen?

Memories in allegorical form? Maybe if I could read the kanji, I could follow along to anime and the romanicized alphabets that told me which train-stop to get off at and which way to the bathrooms and noodle shops. Poetry from a few hundred years ago was more than a little outside my ability. Probably why she'd forced me to do it.

I didn't know enough to ask the right questions. I took my pictures; the whole book, best as I could. First, that's what I'd told the folks I was here for, and second, this wasn't so entertaining, even with the view coming and going, that I wanted to do it again. I even made sure to get pix of the binding, front back and sideways. Take no chances.

And a nice big donation to the cause. Ok, I even spent more than a few minutes kneeling in the contemplation chamber.

It couldn't hurt, and since I'd made my way straight to the airport, it was about the only time I'd had to myself. She was waiting at the next train station out of the valley, the closest she admitted she could get to the place without setting off any spiritual alarms.

A few extra minutes to collect myself and prepare for whatever this ride was destined for was my toll for the passage.

I'd hired a student from the nearest university to help translate for me. She, and from what she said, the monks, were more than happy to help. I wasn't the only one coming to dig through their library, though she did point out that it had been a while since anyone had been interested in pre-shogunate love poems.

She walked me out to the gate; the bike ride back to the train station was easy enough. "I've invited my parents," she told me. "They've never been here, and it's a wonderful place for a vacation."

I agreed with that. The contemplation chamber had a single window, where the mountain at the head of the valley could lend its weight to the matters at hand.

"You've come so far, are you sure that you've taken everything you need?"

No, no I wasn't. "I'm always scared I'll do damage to the books. They are notes from the past; they don't need me fumbling around and making their time shorter than it needs to be." True that. I've experience enough not to do major damage, but even with the best will in the world, reading the little book at this stage of its life was doing it violence, well intended or not, as in this case.

"Pictures are a poor substitute."

You said it, sister. If the book had been in my own area of interest, the facsimile on my phone's storage card would have been almost as heartbreaking as if I'd never seen it. Good enough to study from, but soulless and not as fulfilling as the real thing. "A valuable tool, though. I'll be able to share with students and colleagues things they've never have the chance to see."

True that; admittedly though, the thing waiting for me a couple stops away wasn't exactly my normal type of colleague. Sometimes you take what you can get.

"If you pass this test in your life, and have the chance to return to Japan, please remember that I am always available to help with your work."

Great, I'll make sure and give you a good review on "Grad Students for Hire", lady. "Thank you for all your help," I said, and I meant it. Keiki might not have known she was throwing me a rope at a time of need, but so what, I'd still had a chance to grab it.

I was halfway down the valley before I realized what else she'd said. Test? Yeah, this was a test, the ultimate pass/fail.

That wasn't the surreal part. The movie screen type, where the main character, me, figures out that he's been had.

That came later, when I was standing in the airport getting ready to pass security.

"Don't you want to know what you've just bought, with your trip to the mountains?"

"Besides my soul?"

"Yeah, besides that. Don't worry, I honor my promises."

Which, I had kind of been worried. Deals with the devil not exactly being known for their turning out the way you'd want.

"No, I mean, don't you really want to know why I need that book?"

Sure. No. Maybe.

"Your pretty little friend, Keiki? That's her grandfather, umpteen times, that wrote those poems. It's a shame, really, that the family's kept that chain unbroken all this time."

And then she vanished. If she was ever there at all; I'd never noticed anyone else but me reacting to her... projection, image, whatever it was. And this time, she had been a she, dressed up like one of the helpful people I saw all around me on the train platforms, blue suit, automatic smile, answers all the questions I could have.

Except that last one. Because now I did want to know. Was she going to do something to Keiki? Or her family? Or not?

I still don't know. It's two years later, I've kept in contact with Keiki. I've promised a trip next year, next summer when my kids hit the break and I get a moment to breathe. I've shifted my interests, not necessarily romantic poetry, but the idea of diving into a new field, new places to think of. There are many book awaiting me.

And maybe I'll be able to get Keiki off the hook, just like I did. If she does come calling again.