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.

Death Wins

“…Police are still looking for the suspect. While officials refuse to comment on the events, in this exclusive video, you can clearly see the suspect – this woman – being shot by police. The bullets seem to have no effect on her as she escapes the scene. Some have suggested that the police were using rubber bullets, but at least one ballistics expert thinks otherwise…” He turned off the television and looked back at her.

“This is the situation you’ve put us in. People are speculating about how you got away. Scrutiny is drifting ever closer. Why did you do this?”

“What is the point of this conversation? You’ve already made up your mind.” Her stare was fierce; he found it difficult to match. Were she not restrained, he was certain she would try to kill him.

“We were friends once. I just want to understand why you threw everything away.”

“Don’t you ever tire of your stupid rules?”

“They are our rules. Yours too. And you know why we have them. To keep them from finding out about us. Trying to capture us. Study us. Or worse.”

She snorted. “This life we created for ourselves. It’s a poor imitation of what we thought we were making. Yes, we live. But what sort of life is it?”

He shook his head. “You knew what the consequences would be. You knew we could not ignore this. Were you trying to force our hand?”

“If I had wanted to die, there are easier ways than to get you to hunt me down.” She struggled a bit, testing the ropes, but they were secure. “This is torture. Cruel. Kill me, if you have the resolve. Otherwise, let me go. In either event, quit talking as though you care.”

That last hurt him. However, he could see no way to get through to her. If she were determined to flaunt the rules, he had no alternative. Blinking back a tear as he raised the pistol to her forehead, he muttered “Death wins” before pulling the trigger.

The Pit

The silence was deafening. Wind blew through the trees, rustling the branches, but the leaves had already fallen. No animals moved through the area. There was no sound.

The hole in the clouds overhead slowly filled in. They hung low in the sky, heavy with winter, yet the snow had not started falling. The hole in the trees and the ground could not similarly close. Instead, scorch marks coated them.

A deer finally made its way into the new clearing. It sniffed around, trying to figure out what was different. After a few minutes, having found nothing of interest, it wandered back into the forest. Birds began to come back and fill the air with chatter. The forest returned to normal.

Except for the pit. It still smoldered, and its walls were higher than the surrounding area because of dirt being ejected by the impact. The object that had fallen from the sky to make it was half buried in the ground. All the animals gave it a wide berth.

Snow began to fall, quietly coating everything in white. At first, the flakes landing in the pit melted, but eventually, the smoking stopped, and the white built up there, too. Only then did his eyes open, and he started to crawl away from the wreckage.

Inspiration

“What are you doing out here?”

“Lying on my back, looking up at the sky.” He couldn’t really see her face, but he guessed. “You’re scowling, aren’t you?”

“A little bit, yeah. I can see you’re on your back. Why?”

“Because the sky is clear and the stars are bright. I keep hoping inspiration will strike. But even if it doesn’t, I never get tired of the night sky.”

“Okay, well don’t stay out too long; it’s cold out here.” She turned to go back inside.

“No, wait.” He grabbed her ankle, the only part of her he could reach without sitting up.

“What?”

“Lie down here next to me. Watch the sky for a bit.”

She sighed but sat down next to him. “Not for too long; it really is chilly.”

He held her hand. “Those three stars are Orion’s belt. You can see the shoulders and the legs there and there.”

“I know what Orion looks like.” Even so, she followed his finger to find the different stars.

“Just think, each one of those stars might be another world’s sun. And there might be just as many stories on each of those worlds as there are on this one.”

She leaned back a little, staring more intently at the sky.

“All that potential. So many worlds.”

She squeezed his hand. “The sky is pretty.”

“Yes,” he agreed.

“All those worlds…” She laid her head on his chest.

“Are you cold? Did you want to go in?”

“In a minute. Just for now, let’s share the universe.”

The Smart Thing

A light flashed green. At first, he couldn’t remember what it meant. For more than a month, nothing had changed on his panel; the green light was something new.

All of a sudden, he remembered: the storm was over. That’s what green meant. Just to be sure, he checked all the other instruments. Their readings had changed; the radiation had subsided. If he had to, he could risk going outside. More importantly, he could contact the others.

How long had it been? More than a month, he was sure. Well, nearly sure. The computer had survived the storm, but it had experienced some glitches that made him mistrust its clock. It had been a long time, of that much he was certain.

The green light flickered and went out. For just a moment he froze, then he quickly scanned the readings. The storm had not returned. The light had just gone out. Probably burnt out, he told himself.

Static crackled in the speaker when he turned on the comm system, just as it had for months. But that didn’t mean anything; the others may be waiting for someone else to send a signal.

He hit the button to let the others know he was on, ready to talk. Now he just had to wait for them to respond.

Hours passed without any interruption of the static. Had the others met with some accident? Had their communication arrays been damaged in the storm? Had his?

He checked the cameras. There was no visible damage on the outside of the station. The problem was elsewhere. How long until it might be fixed? How long could he wait?

The nearest station was over a hundred miles away. The land between them was scorched. Another storm could strike at any time. And who knew what might roam outside? The smart thing to do was wait here and hope someone responded soon.

But the smart thing to do might drive him mad. He donned his suit, secured the helmet, and entered the airlock. After it completed its cycle, he stepped outside and began walking.

Last Snow

“The snow is very pretty tonight.”

Without opening his eyes, he put a single finger to his lips. “Shh.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone ‘shh’ me before.”

HIs eyes still closed, he turned his head slightly towards the other. “Please. Let me enjoy this.”

The other resisted an urge to respond. They both stayed still and quiet for several minutes. With no wind, the snow fell steadily straight down, adding to the inches already on the ground. What light there was bounced off the snow and then again against the low hanging clouds, all of which served to make the night not very dark at all.

He finally opened his eyes to watch the flakes speed past his face.

The other broke the silence. “Are you ready?”

“Is anyone ever?”

“More than you might think.”

He nodded. Maybe so, he thought. It didn’t mean he was ready, however. “My last snowfall…”

“Perhaps not.”

“What do you mean?”

“I just mean that we don’t know.”

“Not even you?”

“Not even I know.”

The silence of the snow filled the world once more.

More time passed before he stood. “Okay. We might as well go.” He looked at the other. “Is the scythe necessary?”

“Many people seem to appreciate the tradition, but I don’t need it.” The scythe disappeared. “Just follow me. I will guide you.”

The two walked off. The snow took no account of their passing.

Blasphemy

“If I see one more crummy performance, I swear to God I’m going to…”

“Please don’t.”

The two friends stopped short. A man had walked out of an alley in front of them as they headed away from the theatre. He had been focused on his rant, and she was amused by his feigned anger, so neither had noticed the stranger.

“Excuse me?” he asked.

“Don’t swear to me,” the stranger replied. “You don’t mean it. And if you did, it would present a different set of problems.”

“I wasn’t swearing at you. I didn’t even know you were there.”

“I didn’t say you were swearing at me. You were swearing to me. God.”

“You’re not God,” she said. She hadn’t meant to. It just slipped out.

“In fact, I am.”

“Prove it,” he demanded.

“How should I prove it?”

“I don’t know. If you’re God, think of something.”

A lightning bolt struck the ground several yards away. “Satisfied?”

“Wow!” Again, she couldn’t help herself. It had been startling.

He, too, seemed impressed. “Amazing! How did you do it?”

“What?”

“The lightning trick. How did you do it?”

“I’m God. I just commanded the lightning.”

“No, really. How? Is it a secret or something? Magicians never reveal how they do it, sort of thing?”

“I am not a magician.”

He shrugged. “If you say so. I bet you could do really well with an act like that. But if you want some advice, I’d drop the religious stuff. I don’t think it would go over well.”

The two began to walk on when the stranger stopped them. “What would it take for you to believe in me?”

They looked at each other, neither sure how to answer. Finally, she spoke up. “Probably nothing. I mean, if you were God, wouldn’t it be obvious? Illusions and the like won’t do. We’ve all seen amazing stunts. You’re not God. So how could you convince us?”

The stranger, at a loss for words, just stared at her.

She gave a little wave before turning around and leaving. “Thanks for the trick, though. It really was good.”