New Perspective

It was during a walk in the park that she first saw him. He was laying with his back on the ground and his feet on a bench. Curiosity won over weirdness, and she walked over to him.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

He didn’t look at her. “Just getting a fresh look on things.”

“Seriously?”

“Sure. It helps to look at the world from a different angle now and then.”

“Helps what?”

“Helps me imagine new things, gives me new insights on old problems.” He looked at her with a wry smile. “And it seems to freak people out a little.”

“So you do this just to get attention?”

“No. Not really. I really do just like thinking about the world upside down. Most people don’t come anywhere near me. In fact, you’re the first person to talk to me when I’ve been out here.”

He went back to staring at the sky. She looked at him for a minute. It only took her that long to make up her mind. She laid down on the ground and put her feet on the bench, too.

“Huh.” The tops of the trees upside down against the blue sky looked both familiar and new. He rolled his head to his right, looked at her with some surprise.

“You come out here regularly?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“When’s the next time you’ll be here?”

“Tomorrow. It’s supposed to be sunny again.”

She smiled at him. “I’ll be sure to be here.” Then she went back to looking at the world from her new perspective.

Web of Lights

Her eyes fluttered open, and she was awake. The darkness in the room indicated it was still night, so why was she awake? Then she saw the lights.

At first, there was only one. As small as a gnat, though bright for its size, it flitted above her while tracing an unfathomable path. A second light joined the first, and the two began to dance an even more intricate pattern. A faint glow trailed off them, leaving an ephemeral map of their passage.

If she listened hard enough, she could almost hear music accompanying their movements. Then a third joined, and the tempo quickened. And a fourth. Before long, at least a dozen lights spun and whirled above her bed.

Slowly, she raised her hand and pushed it into the middle of them. The lights easily adjusted, moving around her fingers without stopping, merely integrating them into the web. Her hand grew warm and energy crackled through it to the rest of her. The music grew louder, and she found that she understood the dance, could follow it. It went on forever.

The next morning, her bed was empty. No trace of her could be found, and no one ever saw her again.

Volunteered

“This is an Omega-Level alert. Attention. This is an Omega-Level alert.” The automated voice coming from the speaker sounded calm and impassive. The message continued to repeat.

A supervisor stuck his head in the room. “Let’s go everyone! Twenty minutes. This isn’t a drill. Move it or get volunteered.”

He knew better than to ask the supervisor, so he turned to his neighbor. “Volunteered for what?”

His neighbor looked at him with disbelief. “Is this your first Omega?”

“I just started two weeks ago.”

“Oh. They should have told you about this in orientation.”

“There was just so much information.”

They both kept packing. “Well, the slowest people preparing for evacuation get volunteered to stay behind to serve as the token contingent that must deal with the Omega event.” He paused to stare at the new worker. “It’s practically a death sentence. So hurry.”

They grabbed a few essential files and several back-up flash drives.

“I know I should know this. But there really was a lot we went over in my training. What’s an Omega event?”

More disbelief. “Really? You don’t even know that? The heroes are coming. It always ends the same way, with them destroying the base. We leave some stuff and people behind to keep up the appearance of a fight. We relocate and keep working without having to start over. You didn’t learn anything, did you?”

They threw the last of the essential stuff from their work areas into a bag and headed for the door. The supervisor came back.

“Times up. Anyone still next to their station is volunteered. Everyone else, let’s go.” There were a few curses and even some crying from those who had to stay behind. They made it to the transport and headed to the new base.

The Mirror

“Give me another, Frank.”

The bartender nodded and poured a shot of whiskey into my glass. The pub was nearly empty. There was a couple whispering to each other at the corner table, and a group of twenty-something guys drinking to get drunk and hitting on the waitress. No one else sat with me at the bar.

I took a drag off my cigarette and caught my reflection in the mirror behind the rows of bottles. The silver hair on my head said it all. Old before my time. The mirror never lied. I raised my glass in a toast; my reflection followed suit.

The bell on the door announced a newcomer. I ignored it, as usual, until he came and sat next to me. He was a young kid by my standards. Short dark hair and clean shaven, dressed in a suit he’d probably worn a few too many times. He ordered a beer and sat sipping it for a few minutes.

When his glass was half empty, he turned to me. “You’re not supposed to be smoking in here.”

I tapped the end of my cigarette off into the ashtray on the bar and smiled. Gesturing to the bartender, I replied, “Frank and I have an understanding. I smoke. He lets me.”

“But it’s illegal.”

“Do you want one?”

He didn’t reply, so I handed him the pack and slid him my lighter. He took a cigarette, lit it, and handed the pack and lighter back.

“You’re welcome. I’d buy you a round, but this is already on my tab.” I raised my glass and finished it.

“Thanks. I needed… What the hell?!”

He had seen the two sitting across from us. Both had silver hair. His counterpart also had glasses and a scruffy, white beard. I just motioned Frank over with my glass.

“Why do we both have silver hair? Why do I have a beard and glasses? What is this? Some sort of fun house mirror?”

I took a sip before answering. “Nope. That’s just what you look like inside. What we look like inside.”

“That’s… This is crazy.” He practically ran out of the bar, leaving his beer unfinished and unpaid for.

I picked it up, looked at it for a moment, and drank it down in one gulp. “Might as well add this to my tab after all, Frank.”

Scouting Report 19a

We arrived at the destination planet, designated E3, in the Ember system on standard date 14.76.254. We had made careful study of previous probe missions and utilized long range scans to update any information we could. (Please refer to scan records 17.14.255 to 13.76.254 for the resulting data.)

We focused much of our efforts on the apparent dominant species, informally referred to as Emberians. While neither the most powerful nor most numerous, they clearly make the most use of tools and made significant alterations to their environment.

I can confirm something that earlier missions had hinted at. The species organizes itself into groups based either on superficial characteristics or randomly. The latter is unsatisfying as an explanation, but the former seems implausible. I recommend the data we collected be studied further to look for patterns that may have been missed.

I led three landing excursions to the planet while we stayed in orbit. The first two went as planned. (The data we collected, together with samples, is summarized in Reports 19b-d and related appendices.) The third mission did not go as smoothly.

Unfortunately, we directly encountered the Emberians. They are just as unusual in appearance as our various scans have suggested. They walk on two legs, use two arms for much of their interaction, and they are generally hairless except for the tops of their heads.

We suffered no casualties from the interaction, and none of the Emberians were harmed. However, until we better understand them, and how best to interact, additional caution needs to be taken during future expeditions. We do not want to incite violence or panic as that serves no purpose.

We await analysis of data collected and further instructions on how to proceed. Until then, we have moved out of orbit of E3 and will restrict our studies to remote scans.

One Ending

Which comes first, the ending or the beginning? If you see a body lying in a pool of blood, is it the beginning of the story? Or is it the end? I suppose it depends which story you are interested in. If you want to know how the body got there, it’s the ending, and you need to work backwards. If you are interested in what comes next, it’s the beginning. One story stops. Another starts. Connected by this scene.

I am the man, lying in the pool of blood.

I was home by myself. Finished with dinner, I was cleaning up, washing dishes, when I heard a knock on my door. My home is out of the way of nearly everything. Empty lots on either side give me a measure of privacy. I’d lived there nearly three years and had yet to even see my closest neighbors. Halloween had been a week ago, and no trick or treaters had stopped by for candy. A knock on the door when I wasn’t expecting company was unheard of.

Looking out the window, I saw a woman in her late twenties or early thirties and a young girl – only nine or ten – standing next to her. They were not dressed for the early November chill. Fear covered both of their faces. I didn’t hesitate to open the door.

“Please. Let us in,” the young woman implored.

Saying no didn’t even cross my mind. I moved to the side and led them to the living room. They sat on the couch. “Can I get you anything? Tea? Blankets?” I wanted to ask what had happened, but I didn’t want them to sit there shivering.

The young woman shook her head no, but I saw the girl’s eyes light up when I mentioned blankets, so I retrieved one from the closet and gave it to her. She wrapped up immediately.

“So what are you doing all the way out here? Did your car breakdown?”

The young woman still looked frightened and just shook her head once more.

“So what happened?”

The girl, perhaps emboldened by the warmth of the blanket, spoke up. “We escaped!”

Her companion tried to shush her, but I continued. “Escaped? From where? From who?”

Undeterred, the girl continued. “From bad men. They wanted to run tests on me. They said they wanted to see if I…” The young woman finally clamped a hand over the girl’s mouth.

“It’s better you don’t know. They are coming. They will be here soon. You are in danger because of us. I’m sorry about that, but we had no other options.”

“But who is after you?”

“It doesn’t matter. They’ll be here soon!”

“Okay. I’ll hide you, but then we will…”

“No. That won’t work. They know we came this way. They won’t believe your lies.”

“So what should I do? Drive away with you?”

She shook her head a third time. “They’ll just follow. We need to convince them we’ve gone off somewhere we haven’t.”

I was about to ask for suggestions when I thought of one of my own. I pulled back the rug revealing a trap door to the cellar. “Here. You two go down there. And don’t make a sound. I’ll take care of this.”

I wasn’t sure I believed anything they had said, but what I had planned wouldn’t hurt anyone, though it would probably annoy the sheriff. So if this was all a hoax, I could laugh it off. And if it were serious… Well, then this might work.

First, I called the sheriff’s office. “Oh my god!” I yelled into the phone. “He’s dead!” Then I threw the phone, still on, into the corner.

I grabbed some stage blood I had left over from my Halloween decorations that no one had had a chance to appreciate. I splashed some on my arms and face, then poured the rest onto the rug covering the trap door.

Finally, I left the front door ajar and laid facedown in the pool of blood. I hoped it looked real enough. I wanted whoever was coming to think the girls had been taken while I had been killed. The sheriff’s arrival would prevent a thorough search. I hoped. All I could do was wait.

Someone did show up. They walked over to my body and looked around. There was nothing to find. The sirens on the sheriff’s car scared them off a couple of minutes later.

I explained to the sheriff that it was a practical joke gone awry. Annoyed, but finally convinced, he left, too. Unfortunately, the cellar was empty. The exterior door was open, and the girls were gone.

As I said, one story’s ending. But somewhere, there are other stories, of which this is but a piece.

Troublemaker

“Turn to page 42, class.” Mr. Drummond droned on.

Jason couldn’t focus. The class seemed to go on forever. A button he had found in his pocket served as poor entertainment. He pushed it around his desk and tossed it from hand to hand. After several minutes, the button went higher than he’d intended, and Mr. Drummond noticed.

“Mr. Faller, are you bored?”

“No, Mr. Drummond.”

“Good, then perhaps you could read the next line.”

But Jason didn’t hear him. The button had not fallen back to his desk. Instead, it was being held by a small human-looking figure with wings. That was on fire. The creature gave him a mischievous smile.

“Uh… What is that?”

“Mr. Faller! Read the next line!”

“But… What is that?!”

“Mr. Faller, if you insist on disrupting the class, you can explain yourself to the principal. Off you go.”

Everyone in the room was staring at him, but no one seemed to notice the little figure flying in front of his face. Resigned, Jason stood up and left the room.

The creature flew right next to him. It made no sound at all but continued smiling. And it followed him into Mr. Henry’s office.

“Jason, I had hoped we had reached an understanding after the last time. You promised you would pay attention in class.”

“Yes, sir. It’s just…”

“Just what?”

“Don’t you see it? It’s right in front of you.”

“All I see is a young man with a lot of potential who refuses to apply himself.” He looked down at his desk and began writing. “I want you to take this note to your parents and have them sign it.”

The creature took the button it was still carrying and threw it at the principal.

“No!” Jason tried to stop it but was too late.

“Yes… Ow! Jason! Did you throw something at me?”

“No,” he protested. But even he had troubling believing it.

“That is it. I will be calling your parents. We will have to get a handle on your discipline, or I will have no choice but to suspend you. Wait outside in the main office.”

Jason left, the creature close behind. He tried to shoo it away, but it always stayed just out of his reach. It would be a long wait for his parents. And they weren’t going to believe him, either.