Flash: A is for Always

Image from freedigitalphotos.net

“Momma, no don’t hang…”

The dial tone said it all.

“I will always love you.” A lie repeated so many times growing up to a child. But an adult, making their own choices. Unacceptable. Love is conditional.

Staring at the numbers doesn’t make them dial back. Should the child or the parent be the one to reach out? Who is responsible for the relationship?

(words 64; first published 4/1/2024; created 11/18/2023))

Flash: Hope for the Future, the First Baby Born Off Earth

Photo by Bill Jelen on Unsplash

Five percent gravity just wasn’t enough. Carolyn bounced the three-month old baby on her shoulder as best she could. “Anything yet?” the annoyance in her voice made the convicted murderer running coms wince.

Being a convicted murderer on a ship of convicted murders meant little, but Larry Jackson had been an organized serial killer before being caught whereas Carolyn Haywood embraced her disorganized anger. If she flew off the handle, they could end up being down one of the sixteen women on the ship, or one of the few people with enough of a brain to operate the machinery around them. Namely him. It was a toss up if his chosen guards would react in time to subdue her or help him.

Keith and Akeem also had more brains than brawn and he had assigned them guards accordingly. If they were to make Sirius in forty years, or at least their children, brains and training had to survive. He wasn’t sure if money people back home cared if the convicts actually lived to arrive, or if the machine dropping into orbit was all they actually cared about. It didn’t help that theirs was the ship with the longest run of the four sent out in the “volunteer” program of life sentences being served offworld.

“We are four light months away from Earth. We sent them a message as soon we knew for certain you were pregnant. If they responded immediately, the earliest response would have been twelve minutes ago. That is if the relays are even working.”

“They fucking well better be.” The woman paced the small room in the stride they all had learned since gravity had become noticeable again under the constant acceleration. “It’s bad enough we had to listen to all the shit they send to us, we better be able to send stuff back to them.” She spun carefully, still bouncing the baby in hopes of a burp. They all lived for the burps. “Let me tell you, if we don’t get help, if we don’t get answers, me and the girls are locking our legs until you figure out how to turn all of this off. Or, best believe me, I will be castrating the lot of you.”

“Carrie, I do believe you. Here, let me take Hope.” Larry stood, extending his arms slowly. “You need to get rest.”

“None of us fucking parents. What were they thinking sending us up here before fixing us.” She handed over the baby and left the comm room, her two guards following her.

Just over two hundred people to start, they were down to ninety-seven in one year. Larry rocked the crying baby over one arm, patting the back, hoping for something. Back up by eight without a loss of a single precious woman since Larry and Farrelle established order in their own ways and merged their groups. Only two women weren’t pregnant or new mothers. With a ratio of five to one male to female, the only reason the other women weren’t pregnant was Missy had her insides ripped out because of cancer and Eve had entered menopause during the trip at thirty-four. Bastards made sure everyone was young and fertile when plucking them from the prisons.

Guess that answered the question. The billionaires funding this experiment wanted someone to arrive on the other end.

“Come on, Hope. You can burp now.” Larry wasn’t sure this one was his, but Carrie had been one of the ones he fucked, the dates matched, and there weren’t many white guys on ship, especially after the initial dominance games. As dark as she was from her mother’s side, Hope’s father had to have been white. Hell, her daddy might be among the dead they were changing over to fertilizer according to the manuals left behind by the scientist bastards. “You need to burp so you can eat some more little girl.” She was weirdly thin around her rolls of baby fat. No gravity to fight and constant colic for all the kids made a mess.

They would need to keep better mating records for the future, so their children didn’t end up with three eyes and one leg. That would go over like lead balloon with the disorganized members. He walked over to his notebook to write the thought down to discuss with the gang heads.

The comm dinged as he was closing the book. He bounced the baby on his leg, as he deciphered the message. “Reproductive Procedure Manuals stored in folders 369SXE with the passcode HaveFun; and Progeny Procedure Manuals Years 0 to 5 stored in folders 963EXS with passcode GoodLuck.”

“You are fucking kidding me.” Larry worked his way the folder system. “I really hate the scientists. You think me keeping thumbs as trophies was sick. If I had you in my dungeons…”

His two guards took a step toward the exit. Both were disorganized anger killers, and even after being assigned to him for months, still couldn’t figure how his cold temper worked. They did understand his methodical psychopath brain had kept them alive, killing others until their gang was one of the last ones standing, and that ability to make people suffer and die whenever he wanted shook them to their core.

“Got you. Search on baby gassy colic burp.” Larry clicked the button with flourish. “Hope, my little baby doll, get your fingers crossed.” For the next thirty minutes, during which the baby fell asleep across his legs, he flipped through the screens, after which he stood and passed the baby to Lester.

With a voice as cold as ice, he informed them of what he found. “There is a tool to draw air out of the belly and mouth. It worked for adults on the space station, and they adjusted it for something they think could work on babies and toddlers. It’s with the rest of the newborn equipment they have stored behind section six-eight. I now have the code to open it.”

“We could have used that shit for the last six months.” Lester said, struggling to hold the now awake and hungry baby. “Why didn’t they tell us before?”

“They better hope I never figure out how to turn this ship around.”

(words 1,041; first published 1/28/2024; created 11/15/2023)

Flash: Memory of a Kiss

Photo by YesMore Content on Unsplash

Cooling foam still dripped off the newly landed spaceship when the skin cracked and dropped a disembarking plank. Two spacers slid down the rail either side of the steps and barely caught the landing as they adjusted to full planetary gravity. Hurrying away from the ship, they ignored the person yelling words not legally usable on the planet. Local laws did treat ships like embassies, allowing some breaches in etiquette, and basically making the whole port a bastion against the religious restrictions found on Saints World.

The two ignored their fellow crewman. You snooze, you lose. Someone had to stay on ship at all times. Sucks to be Stan. Short for Standby for those who don’t spend a lot of time without gravity. After one final gesture, the figure walked away from the hole, the plank reversing course and resealing the skin. The younger of the two would apologize and trade out later. How much later remained to be seen.

A tiny bar cut out a corner of the customs area, inside the port. Spacers didn’t have to jump through immigration, visas, and tourist entry hoops to get their drink of choice.

“Beer,” were their first words in atmosphere in six weeks.

Saints World restricted words, religions, sex, genders, species, actions, imports, exports, clothing, and a host of other things. If humans could figure a way to make a law about it, Saints had a law. One of those laws was no drinking alcohol.

Except the monasteries made really good alcohol of all sorts – wine, beer, buzzbee, distilled liquors. None of it could be legally exported, except the buzzbee; too much money to be made there for the Church’s governmental coffers. For locals to drink, they had to pay an indulgence tax.

The Port of Call bar folded the tax into their fees; spacers didn’t care.

The two beers hit the smoothed, shiny local wood surface after credits transferred.

They sipped the drink slowly, swallowing carefully. Microgravity taught caution in eating and drinking; food couldn’t always figure which way was “down” when swallowing.

The younger of them shuddered, his Adam’s apple transversing up and down his throat with precision.

The elder set her drink down and sucked in the unrecycled funky air of the spacer joint, still sweeter in its own way than Far Meadows Finder, though she would never say that within the ship’s AI hearing range. She adjusted the ship’s earpod, verifying activation, something both of them should have done before leaving the ship. Mammy likely had followed the regulations to the letter, hence why he remained on ship. FMF pinged back.

The bartender leaned against the wall, watching the customs area for any clients. “Evie, Adrian, welcome back.”

“Father Andrews,” Evie nodded, taking another small sip of the nutty brew. “May as well pour Adrian another. He has the body mass for it.”

The young man hummed agreement beside her, breathing through his nose, the stein never leaving his lips.

“Done.” The monk-custom official drew another beer off the tap and placed it on the wood between them. “Sister Evie—”

“Just Evie, I wouldn’t want to be branded a heretic for assuming citizenship I had to give up.” She smiled sadly at him. “Spacer Evie if you must.”

Father Andrews leaned on the stool behind the bar, not quite sitting, likely some new restriction of when rest may be sought on a holy day. All days on Saints had some holiness to them. “Spacer Evie, may I ask a question?”

Adrian dropped one empty glass and reached for the next. The elder spacer laid a hand on his. “You only get this one, and in an hour you are reporting back to the ship. Think wisely about what is next.”

“Yes Captain.” He picked up the beer and edged toward the stained glass and plants decorating the customs waiting area.

Evie watched until he settled in the colored lights from the sunlight streaming through the glass from the local dual stars. “Please, ask away,” she said, taking another small sip.

“I know spacers can’t drink much in space. Especially crews the size of yours. Always on rotation and may need to respond with no moment’s notice in an emergency, therefore can’t afford any recreational impairment. But why is beer so important to new arrivals? It’s all they want. Not wine, not buzzbee, not whiskey or gin. Just beer.” The monk reached for the empty glass, accidently brushing the top of her hand where it lay on the bar. “I know you got The Neer, the near-beer substitute, but all spacers want is beer as soon as they arrive.”

“The Neer is worse than pis…not quite perfect.” Evie changed her words soon enough the high-ranking monk wouldn’t need to report them. The custom’s area did obey planetary regulations, mostly.

The Saint grounder shook his head. “I know it is not Blue Mountains or Crystal Stream, but the bitter and hops has a good mouth feel. Sure the foam is missing, but you can’t have that in space.”

“Worst thing inside the skin, needing to burp and can’t because the body doesn’t know how to in the microgravs.” Evie ran a finger through the condensation, wondering at it. On ship, those drops would be breaking off into balls of water she would be needing hunt down, while the other on-duty crewman would be adjusting environment to prevent more condensation from occurring. “Neer isn’t beer, even with the trippy version providing the five minutes relaxation effect. No bubbles. The bitter is off somehow. Gravity holds the world.” She shrugged, taking another sip. “Drinking The Neer is like … a memory of kiss. When all you can have is the memory, you turn it over in your head a thousand times.” She looked at Father Andrews for a moment, pushing against at least four commandments but worth it, making eye contact with eyes that exactly matched Adrian’s in color. “But nothing can compare to being held and kissed by one you love.”

(words 1,002; first published 1/21/2024 – created 11/14/2023)

Flash: What are they really trying to sell?

Image from freedigitalphotos.net

“Telly off.”

“Hey, I was watching that.” Karter complained to his mother.

She picked up two dishes, then stacked a third between them, showing off her skills as a human waitress. “And I told you, no screen time until your studies are done for the day.”

“I got it done, mostly. And what I didn’t finish isn’t important.” He flopped over on the floor to look up at her. “Consumer awareness is complete yesteryear.”

His mom’s eyes twitched, and her lips formed a flat line. “Fine, then tell me why that commercial, selling a car I couldn’t afford on two years hustling tables, and certainly not something you can buy at your age, showed up in your feed?”

“Um … because it is cool?” Sitting up, the fourteen-year-old looked around the room for clues. “Maybe related to a new three-dee-show?”

“That is a start. The HyundaiHondaHover is used a lot in Fifteen Rings over Cylan, but reverse the logic.” The adult lifted the plates. “I’m drop these into the cube and set dinner heating, but I expect a better answer by the time I get back or you will be on screen blackout tomorrow.”

“Aw mom, no, tomorrow is MechBattle.”

“Karter, this is important to me, and I believe it will be important to you in the future. Use that implant and gray matter to come up with something.” She stopped in the threshold and looked back. “I’m not being unreasonable. I know that is what you are thinking. But remember, I’m your mom. I’m always on your side even when it doesn’t feel like it. The sellers, with those commercials and ads, are not. Know who is your opposition and who is your support system.”

He rolled his eyes but activated the EdYou screen.

***

Karter made his way to the kitchen after the dinner ding came through. He discovered the reason why his mom hadn’t came back immediately was she had been folding laundry. Tucking his head down, he sat at the table. That folding and delivery chore should have been completed by him two days ago.

The near-beef stew with a side of real bread from her work smelled delicious. Automatically he reached for her hand across the small table.

“We remember to be grateful in the small things for they build the best parts of our lives. We remember to be grateful in the small acts for they build the best friendships of our lives. We remember to be grateful for the small ideas for they build the best principles of our lives. Confirm.”

“Confirm.” Karter solemnly closed the grace. Dropping his mom’s hand, he dug into his fourth calorie allotment of the day.

She let him eat about half before asking, “Do you have the report ready?”

“Hm, maybe. Obviously if it is an officially registered commercial, they are either advertising, selling a product or service, or marketing, selling a concept or reputation. Since we aren’t in the position to buy, under proper targeting for advertising, I shouldn’t have seen the flying car commercial.” He tore two more pieces of bread off his slice and dropped them into the soup and stirred it. “So the question is, what are they marketing?”

“And you had speculated maybe a movie or telly show.”

“But that isn’t right, because product placement would be doing the reverse, unless it is selling nostalgia like using old cars in shows.” He scrunched his nose. “Since the HyundaiHondaHover is a newer line, only two years old according to the implant download, and they are pushing next month’s model, the new show is selling the car, not the car selling the show. Like you said, reverse the logic.”

“You do listen to me sometimes. Good to know.” His mom smirk turned into a smile. “I appreciate your thinking so far. But you haven’t answered why are they dropping a commercial for a private car into the feed of a family only able to afford public transportation, and not even the special services like individual taxi and flame jumps, only the mass transport.”

“Well, if it isn’t advertising, it has to be marketing.” Karter used the last of his bread to empty the bowl, then jammed it in his mouth before he continued talking. “I don’t think it is the concept. We are aware of the flying cars using the flame streams to triple their speed. I’m sure they want to drop that in every now and again, so if we ever get insta-rich, we want to pick up one immediately. But the HyundaiHondaHover ads came on three times today, and there were another couple for the MercedesCadallicWind. I could see one or two every few days, but five in one day is a lot to aim at someone my age.”

“Just how long were you on screen today?”

“Um, do you want me to answer that or finish the report?” Karter asked hopefully.

His mom pinched the bridge of her nose. “Finish the report.”

“Since it isn’t a concept, it has to be reputation.” He pushed his bowl to the center of the table frowning. “They want us to WANT flying cars even when we can’t afford them. They want us to desire things beyond our ability, to make them more valuable to people who can afford them because other people can’t. Make some people feel better when other people are hungering after the idea they have access to, the small ideas. But this twists the small ideas, corrupting people’s principles with envy, instead of the pillars of support, growth, and beauty.” Karter looked at his mom. “That is some premium grade therapy-need.”

“Yes, and they also take it further.” His mother stacked her bowl into his and stood up from the table, moving the dishes over to the washer cube for loading. “They will sell you models of the cars, clothing with the design, and posters for the walls, all to keep you aware of what you want but can’t have, and have you pay for the privilege because they own the idea and image. But, you know, Consumer Awareness is a boring, unimportant subject. It’s okay to blow it off and support the mega-corps products.”

“Mom, I haven’t been dipping on the psychology classes; reverse-pysch is complete yesteryear.”

“I accept correction.” Having finished loading and activating the washing cube, his mom leaned against the counter. “But I do have one last inquiry before you put away the laundry.”

Karter rolled his eyes and groaned.

“Are you going to continue to dip on the Consumer Awareness?”

“Do you think that they will continue to hit me up to ride the envy flame?”

“They hit you five times today.” She shook her head in annoyance. “No screen time tomorrow until ALL your studies are done. But, let me tell you as someone with a few more years living the marketing stream, they hope you don’t bother with your studies, and if you do, they hope that they can wear you down with a constant stream. They want you to want a flying car really badly. And other stuff like it.”

Karter glanced around their small eating room before he said, “I would like a flying car.”

“So would I.”

(words 1,206; first published 12/10/2023)

Flash: Misty Lake

Image from freedigitalphotos.com

Holding the screen door, Brona carefully shut the rental’s front door and then guided the screen to frame without a sound. Likely the only time the screen hadn’t slammed shut from the over-pressure pneumatic closer since the two-week vacation started. Carefully picking her way down the path in the twilight over the slippery pine needles and new fallen autumn leaves, the girl made it to the pier between the four bungalows the family rented for the annual reunion so her mom and aunts could keep in touch and the cousins could know “the meaning of family.”

The mists for which Misty Lake was named rose as the first light of day kissed its surface. Air and water waged a temperature war in the heady transition of humidity. Perfect for a last kayak trip.

Ducking under the weather-worn cedar pier, she tried to pull out one of the brightly colored single-person boats. A few choice words the thirteen-year-old learned never to say around grown-ups slipped out quietly.

“They’re chained.” A deep voice said above.

Brona jumped, hitting her head on underside of the silvered wood. “Fuck.” She managed to bite out in an undertone, before she shimmied out to find who caught her sneaking around before dawn. The masculine voice worried her.

Sitting midway down the pier, huddled over his ever-present sketch book, sat her cousin Delaney. At fifteen, his voice alternated between his old sweet child voice and the gravelly bass his oversized Adam’s apple promised would be its final form.

“Scare a girl, why don’t you?” Brona hissed, stepping onto the pier to join him watching the mist.

He shrugged his narrow shoulders, running a pencil over his paper.

Brona dropped beside him, pulling her legs against her chest. “What’chu doing?”

“Drawing.”

“At least that is a two-syllable word. You’ve been mostly monosyllable this trip.” Brona quirked a smile, looking over the landscape being sketched. “But if a picture is worth a thousand words, I guess you’ve been talking up a storm all week.”

“Yay.” Delaney chuckled. “That’s a good one, shrimp.”

“Thanks.” Brona eyes darted between the sketch and the feature her cousin picked out from the lake, on the paper the twist of two trunks hinted at a stork shape with the mist swirling about it like the ancient wood could take flight. “Been here long.”

He shrugged. “Didn’t need to sleep after the fireworks last night.”

“Won’t your parents be worried?” Brona hugged her legs tighter. “Aren’t you cold?”

“No and no.”

“But what about—”

Delaney slapped his book shut before turning his dark eyes, mostly hidden under black bangs and unkempt hair, to her. “I don’t need to talk. Do you?”

“I…I…” her voice broke, struggling in the face of his apparent anger. “no.” She dropped her eyes and whispered. “No, sir.”

“Brona?” The teenage boy reached out a hand to her long brunette hair, touching it gently. “You okay?”

Try as she might, she couldn’t help but to flinch away from his touch. “Sure.”

Delaney drew his hand back slowly. It curled into a fist, then straighten out a finger at a time before he placed it palm down on his ten-by-twelve yellow sketchbook. He stared at her. “I don’t believe you.” The crickets and frogs screamed in the early morning light, muffled in the mist. “Why did you want to take a boat out alone?”

Brona buried her head into her knees.

“Shrimp, come on girl.” Delaney took off his flannel shirt and dropped it around her shoulders. “You know I ain’t going to tell anyone. I’m the king of monosyllables, right?”

“I can’t.” She sniffed noisily. “I can’t go … I won’t go back. Not with him.”

“Your dad?”

“Don’t you fucking call him that.”

“Damn.” Delaney tucked his sketchbook into his backpack, before he asked. “Just hitting, or… um … the other too?”

She turned her head to him and whispered. “All of it.”

“All of it.” Delaney’s dark eyes became pits of sorrow. “That is why you want to take the boat.”

Brona nodded. “I can’t kill myself. I don’t want to go to hell. But, since people have disappeared on the lake this year, I thought maybe, that wouldn’t count?”

Being Irish-Catholic like her, Delaney understood unaliving oneself isn’t an option. “The big house might have a canoe we can use.”

“What?” Brona asked, watching Delaney stand and offer her his hand.

“No one should die alone, and it’s not like I got a lot to live for. Come on, shrimp.”

The teenager wiped her hands over her face before letting her cousin help her up. “Why?” Brona touched the flannel and made to take it off, but he shook his head.

Delaney shouldered his backpack while she poked her arms through his overshirt.

“Why what?” Delaney jumped off the pier, heading toward the large house about a quarter mile away. The people who owned it, owned the lake and all the surrounding area, renting bungalows out throughout the year. “Why do I think the house might unlocked canoes? The disappearances didn’t start until midsummer, and the Regans only stay in the house in the spring. The caretakers are keeping a sharp eye on the boats the visitors use but usually don’t mess with the big house. Since everyone is pretty much a regular, no one messes around because we want to come back next year. At least, that is my thought.”

“Wow, you can talk when you get going.” Brona chuckled as she walked beside him. “But, no.” All humor fled when she asked her question. “Why don’t you want to live?”

“I’m gay.”

Brona stopped on the path, her mouth opened in a small “o” before rushing to catch up.

He glanced down at her. “The parents sent me to conversion camp. It’s why I was late showing up this year. I ain’t going through that again. I was going to run away after I finish sophomore year. I think I could fake it for a year. You can do things at sixteen.” Delaney shrugged. “But you. You can’t wait. May as well be the two of us.”

“What if…” Brona waved a hand. “What if whatever is out there only does it with one person.”

“Nope, one boat only, but it was one guy, known for being stupid so no one thought much of it, two people who snuck out for their affair, then one old woman who just wanted some quiet in the morning, for a total of four. At least that is what Mr. Kennedy said.”

Once close to the house, a heavy mist deadened all sound. The deep waters around the house whispered as the fog rose. The two slipped along the wet, overgrown path until they came to the boat house. Locked.

“Look for a can or fake rock.” Delaney ordered.

Brona picked up an edger stone, lining the path from the boat house to the lower pier. “Like this?” She flipped it over to reveal a key held in a cavity by a magnet.

“Exactly.” He plucked the resin rock from her hand and removed the key. Moments later they were inside the boat house, picking out the lightest canoe and a couple oars. They moved the boat to the edge of the water. Delaney stopped her before she climbed in for him to push them off. “We need to leave a note.”

“No.” Brona shook her head vigorously, black hair flying. “No, we don’t.”

“Shrimp, you got two younger sisters.”

Her hand flew to her mouth. “He wouldn’t.”

“When did he start?”

“I was eleven, just after my period started.” Brona met her cousin’s eye. “Riley turns eleven in November.” Her face hardened. “I’ll write the note.”

They left Delaney’s backpack on the pier in plain sight. If nothing happened before the mist started burning off, then they would collect it. If they didn’t get back, it would be easy to find.

The backpack was easy to find when two sets of angry parents went looking for them after packing was finished at ten.

***

Rowing through the mists on the twisty cedar water lake revealed shape after shape. The two moved in unison after a lifetime paddling in these waters. A dip, a turn, a lift. Drip, drip, drip as the paddle switched sides. The twin trunks wishing to be storks were far behind. They passed the alligator log, cattails alongside the favorite splash pond brown-to-bursting. Sun streaked, blinding through the denuding trees as the autumn leaves fluttered and fell, the bright light turning the mist into pure white fog.

Neither talked, both hoped, feared. Praying whatever happened would be swift, but nothing in their pains had ever been quick. Determination pushed them on; weirdly growing more tense across their young shoulders, and also feeling their twisted bellies relax in the quiet morning.

Brona dropped her paddle into the water, turning it sideways to slow the canoe, drifting the aluminum boat to the left.

Looking up, Delaney made eye contact with his cousin and she lifted one hand from the paddle to wave at something. A wall, white-gray visible as they turned the bend. An emerging building with crenelations and a glass dome. A building that never existed in the fifteen years Delaney spent the final two weeks of summer at the lake.

The moss growing up the side, the cracks and chips, told a story of a building older than a summer build. Cloudlike mist swayed through formal gardens near a gravel shoreline, leaving water-drops like diamonds on roses and small berries. The two drew alongside the anomaly when the gravel had been washed aside along a sculpted cement drain way, the top of the shaped-stone ended against the building where a gargoyle with a wide mouth sat at the bottom of a downspout. Beside it rested a kayak and a rowboat against the building.

“Well…” Brona whispered, grabbing onto a pole beside the drain way.

Delaney brought them to a complete stop. “Yep.”

“Can’t be any worse.”

“No going back.”

Their black eyes met again, a thousand words passed between them and nothing was said. Brona stepped out of the boat, onto the submerged cement ledge, soaking her already wet shoes, pulling the canoe toward her. Delaney used his paddle to rotate the boat so his end bumped against the shoreline and got out. Together they ported the canoe to where the other boats were located and stored the paddles inside, out of the weather.

The other two boats showed signs of being out in the elements for a while. Leaves gathered around the bottoms, some spider webs between them and the building. The rowboat had moss growing in the shadow against the building; the kayak looked cleaner.

“Which way?” Brona asked.

Delaney looked southeast and then northwest along the building. More stonework pathways existed to the southeast side. “I think the front is this way.”

(words 1,820; first published 9/5/2023)