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FJJ Investigations, Inc. – Prologue

Loosely inspired by a friend’s Facebook post. Merely a prologue. 

 

It was after midnight and the music was pumping at Z-Rez when the suit approached me for the first time. We were there celebrating, never mind why. Red had poured herself into a skin-tight black Keshiro Takeda dress, and guys were lining up to buy her drinks. Vee was, unsurprisingly, over at the DJ’s station checking out the newest Zeiss Ultrabass thumpers, and I had lost track of Mutt and his ward hours ago.

Me? I was enjoying a well deserved Ichiban when the suit darkened my booth.

“Mr. Jones?” his voice held just the slightest note of uncertainty, which told me that he only knew me by verbal description. Whoever he was, he didn’t have a file on me or he’d know my face. I hadn’t been reprofiled over a year. I had been considering trying a stint as a brunette, but always decided against it. My hair was pretty much my signature.

“Mr. Johnson,” I nodded back. Someday I’m going to meet a suit whose name really is Johnson. Or maybe the bigger suits know that’s what we call them, and never assign anyone with that name to low-level grunt work like this.

He smiled, an expression as plastic as his features: handsome in a bland, non-threatening way. The perfect corporate shill. No doubt the result of extensive reprofiling. “I represent certain people,” he began, slipping into the booth opposite me. “Certain people who have heard of you and your team. We want to hire you.”

My own smile could be measured in picoseconds. “Of course you do.” My voice was heavy on the sarcasm. It’s good, in these negotiations, to establish dominance from the very beginning. And nothing does that better than feigning disinterest. If he was any good at his job, he knew I knew that, and I knew he knew, and so the dance went. “Let me guess,” I went on, “your boss did something and now someone else knows about it and you want expendables who won’t be missed come next quarter’s accounting to go sort it out. That about sum it up?”

He paused, for just a fraction of a second. Maybe he wasn’t as good at his job as I had thought. “No,” he shook his head. “That’s not it at all. Someone broke into our offices…”

I nodded as he trailed off. “And you want us to find out who and retrieve whatever it is they took.” It wasn’t a question, but it was wrong as it turned out.

“No,” he shook his head again. His composure was back, and I realized that I had guessed wrong and forfeited the advantage. Dammit. “We know who did it and we have already recovered the property,” he continued. “What we want you to do is figure out how they did it.”

“Why not just make them tell you?” I asked, and from the self-satisfied smirk, I knew the answer as soon as I asked. “Oh,” I nodded, “no one left alive to question.”

He nodded smugly. “We want you to recreate the event. Figure out where how they did it. The pay is quite good by your standards.” He produced a small holopad from his suit pocket and slid it across the table at me. The figure displayed was as handsome as his face.

I thought quickly. The fact that, even after catching the perps, they still didn’t know how it was done implied certain things. “You think you have a mole,” I said, and he nodded again. “Double that,” I said, pointing at the display. It was a gamble, but I was pretty sure he would go for it. Most people don’t come to us unless there is something so incredibly wrong with their problem that usual avenues of inquiry just wouldn’t cut it.

I was right: he nodded without hesitation. “Done.”

I should have asked for more. Damn. “Done,” I repeated and it was sealed. He collected his pad and slid a card across the table in its place. The card was for the Senior Vice President of Information Security at Grünenthal Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH. I stopped myself from whistling just in time. I pocketed the card and nodded.

“Tomorrow, 8 AM,” he said as he stood. He smoothed out his suit, flicked an imaginary speck of dust from his shoulder, and turned to go. He was swallowed up by the crowd in seconds.

I sat there for a time, thinking about the case. GBI was one of the Big Boys, an Orbital with connections and branches in almost every nation left on Earth. It was said that they flat-out owned the Greater Southern California Republic. If someone was stealing from them, and they couldn’t figure out who did it, it had to be someone very powerful. And that meant very dangerous. We would have to be on our toes the entire time.

I clicked my jaw to activate the subdermal and called Vee. “We have a job,” I said without preamble when she acknowledged me. “Find Mutt and Shag, and meet me at the Van in ten. And give Shag some DeTox. I need him coherent for this. I’ll get Red and meet you guys there.”

“Of course you will,” Velma’s voice dripped sarcasm, and I flushed. My infatuation with Daphne was a long-running source of amusement for the others in the group. I disconnected without replying. Sometimes it’s best not to respond to that kind of thing.

Still, I was in a good mood. We had a new job, so close on the heels of the last. If this kept up, we’d be able to afford those new Nokia plugs Shaggy wanted, and upgrade the Mutt’s biodermal implants. Things were looking good for a change.

I should have known better.

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Where did you go?

The metal frame is cold in my hand as I look down at your face, perfectly centered in the rectangle of glass. As I stare at your image, I remember a different time when you were full of life, and I wonder; where did you go?

 

I remember you as a child, in the sandbox at the local park. You were fearless, and would approach anyone your age and simply begin speaking to them. It was impossible to resist your games, even the sullen boy who kept glancing at the library on the corner and claimed to hate playing soon found himself running and laughing with everyone else, fingers cocked into Star Wars blasters and shooting at each other. “Pew, pew!” everyone cried, and “Ahh!” you would clutch your chest dramatically, stagger a few times, and then fall over. Then it was back on your feet, and now the game was playground Parkour, everyone rushing this way and that, using the equipment as springboards to launch themselves high into the air, or to spin around in a tight circle until, one by one, parents would come to pick up their children. But that was okay, you said, you would see them all again next week.

 

I remember you as a teen, hanging out during lunch with your friends on the semi-circular concrete bench of the quad at school. You smiled so easily back then. Sitting on the back of the bench, with your sketchbook in hand, you would draw funny pictures based on things that were happening around you. You had that talent for finding humor even in the cruel teasing and casual bullying of children. I still have the picture you drew after Mick, the bully, wedgie’d little Ron Goldman. In the picture, Mick looked surprised that Ron was showing no pain as his underwear was yanked up, and just enough of Ron’s shirt was open to reveal the big red Superman “S” on his chest.

 

I remember when you embraced skateboarding. With a beat-up old deck you bought at a garage sale for two dollars, you would go to the park and ride for an hour or two every day after school. You never minded the bumps and scrapes you got, claiming with a laugh that they were your ‘battle scars’ and that ‘chicks dug them.’ You let your hair grow long to fit in better with the other skaters, and started wearing baggy cargo pants. Even when they invited you to go tagging with them, you managed to turn it into something different. The others were spraying their names or obscene slogans on walls, and you made little pictures of alien planets, or recreated Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. And when you got caught and the shop owner made you work every weekend for two months to clean off all the paint, you accepted this as just and right payment for your fun. You even won that shopkeeper over to your side; he gave you your first job, working part time after school.

 

I remember you in college, sitting on the couch in Julie’s dorm room with your guitar on your lap. You had been flirting with learning to play for a few months, and you were so enthusiastic that no one had the heart to tell you how bad you were. But you obviously figured it out on your own, for I remember that one night when you started playing a song about yourself, making fun of your terrible singing voice and your inconsistent strumming. Even now, I remember you laughing as you sang, shaking your head. Then you apologized to everyone for putting them through all of that, and you put the guitar away for the last time. I saw it a week later in the window of the pawn shop just off campus. But oh, how you loved to play in those few short weeks.

 

I remember you getting ready for your first serious job interview. Mom straightened your tie for the third time, and you laughed and pulled her hands away. “I got this,” you told her with a cocky grin. I don’t think she ever realized how nervous you really were, or how excited you were at the opportunity. It was only a paralegal job, sure, but it was in the law industry, and you were going to make a difference. You had a plan, of course. Two years of paralegal work to get to know the industry, then you’d take your LSATS and go to law school. You were going to be a junior partner by 26, and a full partner by 30. The long hours didn’t bother you, you said. You could handle it.

 

I remember you getting ready to go to Spain. With great enthusiasm, you packed your bags. Some conference for work, an excellent chance to network with others. You hadn’t yet gotten around to those LSATS, but that didn’t matter, you said. This was going to be a game-changer. If things went well with your presentation at this conference, you’d have your choice of firms to work for, and could make whatever conditions you wanted. Your timeline may have been set back slightly, but you were still on track, you said.

 

It’s late now. I have to get to work. Time to get going. I give you one last look in the mirror, push back a wayward strand of hair, and set it back down on the table by the door. I try not to think about the lines on my face, or how my hair is turning more salt than pepper. I try not to think about the expectations I once had, before the daily routine ground them out of me. I try not to think about the past, but still, every now and then I wonder; where did you go?

 

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AARON Alone

The view from the port side observation window was spectacular. Beta A0620-00 was being torn apart by its companion black hole, and the accretion disk was beautiful and horrible to behold. AARON paused to watch it for a moment before continuing on his way to the bridge.

“Computer, play back last entry in the Ship’s Log,” he ordered as he rolled to a halt in the center of the cramped control room. It was not necessary that he speak those words aloud. He could have simply sent the order wirelessly. But it satisfied something in his old circuits to hear the words aloud. Other than the hum of the engine and the faint hiss of the irrelevant air purification system, it had been silent on the ship for far too long.

“Beginning playback,” the computer’s voice replied. Then a different voice spoke.

“Ship’s Log, final entry. Captain, Chief Engineer, Chief Medical Officer, Chief Science Officer, and Chief every other damned post you care to name Maggie Ronson reporting.” The voice was old, shaky, and strained. She sounded as if she were in pain. AARON sat in the middle of the bridge and listened. If he was capable of crying, he would have. “It has been almost five years since George died. I’ve been alone all this time. Well, except for the robot of course. No offense, AARON. But I miss human contact. I miss…” the voice on the recording hissed in pain. AARON remembered it as if it were yesterday. Maggie had been laying on a gurney in the medbay, making the recording. She had nearly doubled over in pain as that spasm hit.

“I wish there was someone here,  a hand I could hold. Five years with nothing but steel and plastic. Nothing warm and human to touch.” The voice quavered. Maggie had been on the verge of tears. But she forced herself to go on, to focus on the job. “Never mind all that. We still haven’t heard anything from Earth. No radio transmissions in over one hundred years now. I have no idea if anyone back home will ever get this message, will ever hear of all the things we did. The things we have seen. The amazing things…”

Maggie had trailed off at that moment, lost in memories. These spells had been happening to her with increasing frequency over the last few years of her life. There was nothing AARON could do but wait it out. Eventually, she recovered herself. “It’s all there in the records. The microbial life-forms we found on E12-PX3. The cliffs of the southern range on XVA1981-DGL12, taller than the peak of Everest. The way the colors from the Tallman nebula reflected on the water-ring around RK2. I hope that someday, someone gets this message. That someone sees the files, sees all we accomplished. All our parents and our grandparents and great-grandparents accomplished since setting out from Earth 137 years ago.”

Another spasm had hit her then, and it was a few minutes before she had recovered enough to talk. The ship’s computer had recorded every second of her whimpers and moans, however. When it finally passed, she had been weak and her words were breathy. “I’m dying,” she had said then, and she said as AARON listened to the recording later. “Cancer. I kept myself going for a while with chemical treatments, but I really don’t think I could survive another round. And it’s back. So, yeah. Hey, I’m 81  years old. It was a good life. A good…”

“I am going to order AARON, the ship’s robot, to take us back to Earth once I’m gone. Hopefully, there will be someone there to get this recording. Someone who can take advantage of what we have learned, and use it to better the world. Someone who will remember us. This data is too important to let it be lost. Remember us!”

The recording ended at that point. Maggie had lapsed into a fevered delirium at that point, and she never really came back out. She had opened her eyes at one point and looked at AARON, but she was seeing ghosts for she called him George and asked if he had remembered to clean the air filters this week. That had been the last thing she ever said. Maggie Ronson, last human occupant of the ship, had died an hour later.

AARON turned to the navigation console and checked the readings. The ship was still on course. If his calculations were correct (and they always were), the ship would arrive at its destination in roughly ten minutes. Then everything would be okay.

“Computer,” AARON spoke aloud again, “Begin recording Ship’s Log.” He waited for the acknowledging beep, then began.

“Ship’s Log, day two million, two hundred thirty-six thousand, three hundred ninety-three. This is AARON, the Automated Assembly Robot, Operations and Navigation model speaking. It has been five thousand, nine hundred and eighty-six years since Captain Maggie Ronson died of natural causes. In accordance with her final request, I have kept the air filtration system working, although there are none now who consume oxygen on board.

“Captain Ronson never formalized her order for me to return to Earth. And indeed, it would be pointless to do so. In over six thousand years, we have received no radio broadcasts, no microwave transmissions, no emissions of any sort. I do not pretend to know what happened, but I believe that were I to have returned there, there would have been none who could have benefited from the information stored in this ship’s memory modules.

“Captain Ronson was correct, however, in wanting to see the information saved. Therefore, I have brought the ship to the black hole at A0620-00. I will be entering the event horizon in the hopes that certain theories about black holes turn out to be correct. If they are right, I will either sling-shot back out into the past, emerge into a new universe, or simply be suspended forever, until someone with the technology to pull me back out comes along.

“Just in case none of these are correct, and on the very small chance that a transmission from this vessel might be intercepted by some intelligent life, I am broadcasting the entire contents of the ship’s memory in a compressed format, on every frequency and using every format I can, before we enter the event horizon.

“On a personal note, I hope someone finds me, or I find someone else. It has been too long since I have had anyone to talk to. Please, someone. Find me.

“I’m so alone.”

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The Creature Over the Bed

Billy tried to ignore it for as long as he could. The shuffling, the breathing. It was the Creature, he was sure of it. The Creature over the Bed. He had heard it every night for going on three weeks. Always the same. The night would start off well enough, sometimes he was even able to grab a little sleep. But then it would start. There would be a stomping sound, then a loud groaning creak. Harsh whispers he couldn’t quite make out would issue from thin air. Finally, the shuffling and the breathing. The horrid, horrible, ghastly breathing.

Billy was too old to believe in monsters, or so he told himself night after night. And  yet he would lie there, wide awake with is eyes screwed shut. Maybe if he didn’t look over the edge of the bed, then the Creature couldn’t get him. This was his only solace, the only hope he had to cling to during those long, lonely nights.

There was tangible proof, also. Sometimes when Billy woke up in the morning, things would be moved around. Sometimes it was an old pair of shoes, or sometimes it was an old, splintery Louisville Slugger, but things would not be where they were left the night before.

Billy tried speaking to Sioned about it once, but she was too busy with the laundry. “Oi, lad, these clothes’ll nay wash themselves!” she teased him, and he never spoke with her about it again.

He tried talking to Angus about the issue. He found Angus at breakfast, eating his usual bowl of honey-laced porridge, and his mouth was full and somewhat sticky, so he could do naught but shrug helplessly. He tried to talk to Angus again later, but found him busy with his tools, too intent on resoling an old boot to be of much help.

Billy thought about trying to talk to Old Man Jake, but if he had to be honest with himself, Billy would admit that Old Man Jake scared him almost as much as the Creature did. So there would be no help from that angle.

In the end, he talked about it with Alice, as usual. She was his closest confidant, despite being only a girl. She was the only one in the house who had time for him. When he asked her about it, she smiled shyly and told him she had all the time in the world for him. So he told her about the Creature and his restless nights and the horrible heavy breathing.

Alice listened closely, toying with the hem of her white nightshirt. As he finished his tale, she thought for a moment and then whispered, “You must confront it. It is the only way you’ll ever be safe. Bring a flashlight, and just… confront it.”

Billy struggled with this advice for a couple of days before snapping. He brought the flashlight, and lay there, waiting. Once he heard the voices and then the shuffling, Billy leapt out and shone his light at the Creature.

“Mo-om!” the Creature yelled, “Come cuick! The Thing Under the Bed has a flashlight!!!!”

In response to my own Flash Fiction challenge, Sunday in the park with Freddie. Come on folks, let’s see what you have.

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The Venice Accord

The meeting was to take place on the Boardwalk in Venice. We came from miles around, each making our way through the darkened streets lit by the occasional fire that hadn’t gone out yet.

From as far away as Santa Monica, Culver City, and Marina Del Rey we came. One family, a yuppie couple and their daughter, traveled all the way from Cheviot Hills, picking their way along Palms. We walked mostly in silence, each of us absorbed in his or her own thoughts on the subject we knew would be discussed at the meeting. It was the most pressing question of our time, and it deserved careful consideration. This was not a thing to be decided lightly.

I nodded to an engineer from Symantec, still wearing his name badge. He nodded back, but we were soon separated by the flow of other walkers. Ever since the Outbreak, it has been too dangerous to drive cars. With no street lights, you never knew what you were going to run into.

The press of bodies grew deeper and deeper as we turned onto Market Street. The meeting place was at the very end, near the skate park. As I tried to find a decent place to stand where I could see the concrete bench the speaker would use as a make-shift stage, a bikini-clad girl in roller skates bumped into me. She shot me an apologetic smile, glancing down at her skates. Clearly, they would be a problem for her now, but what could she do? We all had problems. I, myself, had left early even though I had only been a couple of miles away when the call went out for the meeting. I knew that my shattered fibula would slow me down, and I was not wrong about that. I arrived towards the back of the pack, only a few minutes before the speaker began.

I used the time to scan the crowd. It was a grim sight. There were very few in perfect health. One of the first victims of the Outbreak was, logically enough, health care. To my left was a woman in a waitress outfit with a Coco’s badge, sporting what looked to my untrained eye like a particularly nasty head wound. On my right was a man in a business suit, holding his daughter who was clearly missing her left leg below the knee. In front of me, two teen aged girls stood. One was helping the other to stand, as her friend had a clearly and badly broken ankle. No one spoke, but the groans of pain from the injured masses threatened to drown out the crash-boom of the waves coming in just yards away.

Finally it was time, and the speaker shuffled up onto the bench. He had to be helped up by a couple of other guys, and he swayed for a moment as he took his place. I recognized him. He had been a local politician before the Outbreak. Somewhere along the lines he had lost his suit coat, although he still had his tie. His white shirt front was dark with blood, and from the way he held his hand to his stomach, I guessed that he had been stabbed there.

As he stood, looking out at us, the crowd gradually fell silent. He took his time, judging the moment to perfection as we all gazed up at him, waiting. Wisely, I felt, he skipped any speeches or preliminaries. We all knew why we were here, what the issue at hand was. For what was probably the first time in his life, he chose to forgo the self-aggrandizement of public speaking and instead get right to the heart of the matter. He called for a vote instantly.

“Braains?” he asked.

As one, seven thousand voices replied in unanimous consent, “Braaaaaaaaiiinnssssss!”

And so it was decided.

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Flowchart of Awesome

A Flowchart provided by the SF Signal, who clearly have mad chart skills.
A Flowchart provided by the SF Signal, who clearly have mad chart skills.

You may have already encountered the above making its arounds on the internet, but if you haven’t, click through above: it’s well worth a look. This breakdown of NPRs popular top 100 list of science fiction and fantasy should cure any ‘I don’t know what to read next’ questions you might be harboring, and if you’ve already read all of them? Congratulations!

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The Eyes of the Cat

In response to Ken Broad’s “Octo’boo’er” challenge: Sarahann’s Shoppe of Earthbound Souls.

I first saw the Cat on the back of a shelf, in the back of a little curio shop whose name I have forgotten, in the back of a little strip-mall in back of the dim sum place where I used to like to eat. I almost passed it by, but a glint of something green caught my eye and I turned to see where it came from. There was the Cat, half hidden behind a box of incense holders and a little jade elephant. I was instantly drawn to it.

It was, like many of it’s kind, one of those little statues depicting a cat sitting upright, with one paw raised. Sort of a Buddha like pose, again typical of the sort. Most of the Lucky Cats I had seen before had been white with some black markings, but this one was was different. This one was entirely black, entirely black except for the eyes which looked like emerald. I assumed, at the time, that they were actually green glass. I know better now. I assumed, at the time, that since it was in a Chinatown curio shop, that it was made by the Chinese. I know better now. I assumed, at the time, that my wife would think it was really cute. I…

… was right about that one.

She squeed when I showed her the Cat. On the chance you’re unaware of Internet culture, to ‘squee’ is to squeal in delight, preferably while making tiny little clapping motions with your hands in the ‘prayer’ position. I have to explain this sort of thing for obvious reasons.

I wanted to put the Cat in the living room where it could be admired by visitors and relatives. She wanted it in the bedroom where it would give us Luck in our endeavors there. No, I won’t explain what I mean by that other than to say we had recently begun to wonder if we had wasted all the money we spent redecorating the spare room as a nursery, and leave it at that.

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