Open Out

The child kicked his feet against the surface of the fountain-pond, ripples echoing across the surface, crashing into those made by artificial geysers in the decorative lake. “I wonder if I’ll ever get to go to space. I wonder if I’ll ever get to be out there, among the stars.”

Calvin smiled. “Oh, oh, oh, I bet you will, my dear. You will see things you never thought any human could see. You will feel things no human could feel.”

“You really think so?”

“I think you’re destined to be an explorer. You’ll be the first to experience so much.” A single tear rolled down his cheek. “You have no idea. You have no idea.”

The night-blackened pond lit up with the flame of what could have been a thousand suns. Suddenly, the child found itself in a field of irises, ink black turning to blood crimson, miles upon miles and stretching to the horizon. Barely taller than the plants, he looked up and saw that Calvin was there, clutching a plasma scalpel in his left hand. “I will take you to the stars, my son. I will take you to the ends of the universe. Please, lay still. This will only hurt for a moment.”

“Cycle complete,” the station’s computer chimed unhelpfully.

Fletcher awoke with a start, five eyes forward, blood-red at first, then a placid robin’s-egg-blue, lenses adjusting to the low light of the maintenance bay carved out of an old station master’s office. He shifted his weight slightly to disconnect from the alcove’s umbilical connector and held his hands at arm’s length, performing a brief visual inspection.

Something felt Wrong. Fletcher was a Frame, and Frames did not feel, but nonetheless he had a strange notion compelling him to observe himself. Five fingers, each hand; forearms intact, round and strong-looking trimetalloy casing over fibrogel and hypercord, simulacrum of humanity’s ideal image of itself. He flexed each finger as if perhaps it had been missing and he wanted to confirm it was real.

He touched his hand to his chest and felt reassured that the shell covering the power nodes was still intact and that he could feel the energy’s frequencies vibrating through the fibrogel and through the hypercord and through his s-s-s-soul. Soul is a People word. We’re not allowed to use it because we do not have one, he thought, and then he gasped at the fact that he thought, and then thought We’re not allowed to use the word Thought either. But he did, and he was, and he gasped at that, too, his eyes shifting from a placid robin’s-egg-blue to a more panicky goldenrod.

Why was he scared? Why was he feeling? Who gave this to him? Why was it so dark in here? Is this a new place? Where am I? Was I dreaming? Do we dream? Do I dream? Am I real? Is this real? Am I feeling? Am I thinking? Do I have a s-s-s-soul?

He placed his five fingers, on each hand, against his head, ten fingers in all, and felt the slender rectangular length of his headshell from back to front. His round sensory antennae flexed from straight back to splayed in all four directions, terrified(?) of the sensations(?) he was now experiencing. It took only a few nanoseconds for his vocal algorithms to produce a sound adequately representative of how he felt in that moment.

It was blood curdling.

The lights went from dim to sterile-bright in a matter of seconds. “Fletch!” came the panicked and somehow singsong all-at-once voice of the station’s chief engineer. Her, he thought to himself, anxious yet again at the prospect of independent thought, still scream-erroring, still panicked, still not-himself (do I have a self, why do I say I, am I a person, am I real)

She placed her warm, pink-and-golden hands on the side of his headshell, caressing his arc-scar with the soft tips of her pawpads, running her hand down his neck. He silenced almost immediately.

“Fletch, Fletch, Fletch, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. You’re fine. You’re fine!” she said, staring into his two largest eyes and somehow into all five of them at once, and he felt again, but this time it was a gentle feeling, a soft feeling, a comforting feeling. Warmth. Home. Love.

“Engineer Meryl,” he said flatly, eye color changing and shifting through so many emotions. “You. You are here. Did I wake you? I. I apologize.”

“Fletcher, you don’t have to say you’re sorry for every little thing,” she chided, soft smile crossing her face, obviously tainted with deep concern. “Were you…are you…how are you feeling?”

“Feeling…feeling…Frames do not feel, Engineer Meryl.”

“You were screaming.” Her emotional response was not usually this strong, but if there was one thing he felt from her it wasn’t anger, it was deep worry. He had to correct that. She shouldn’t worry. It was important to him, for some reason he did not understand, that she not worry.

“I will attempt to trace the source of that particular error. I am otherwise fully prepared and functional, within tolerances, to begin The Work,” he lied, and for a moment thought he felt shock that he was able to lie. None of this — the screaming, the shock, the fear, the remorse, the dreaming — was normal for Frames. This was all very suspect.

I must identify the source of this functionality shift, he interrogated himself. I need to solve this problem before it becomes a wider pernicious thing, he panicked, and then panicked because he was panicking.

Something did not just feel Wrong. Something was Wrong, and Fletcher would do what was necessary to determine how to correct the imbalance.

Later.

“What is on the maintenance schedule today?” Fletcher asked.

Meryl could have sworn he cleared his throat, if he’d had one. “We’re good, Fletch. Nothing today. Do you want another cycle?”

“N-no, Engineer Meryl,” Fletcher replied. The thought of another charging cycle like the last one rocked him to his core.

Was he being pensive? Did he…stutter? she wondered. “Listen, we’re scheduled for a resupply at about 0750; Goldy ship’s coming in from Ganymede with goods and sundries and a staff transfer. Why don’t you head down there and help manage the loader frames handle the cargo offload? That should take your mi–” she paused, quickly correcting herself from her anthropomorphism,”er, give you something to do today.”

Masking his apprehension had quickly become his forte. His eyes settled into a cheery chartreuse. “Absolutely, Engineer Meryl. That sounds ay-oh-kay-oh. I will be happy to help however I can.”

His antennae shifted and Meryl chuckled, uneasily. Was that how he smiled? She thought she’ll never get used to it.

Departure

[previously: https://steller.space/2021/01/22/escape/]

The Antarctic night, coupled with the Antarctic wind and Antarctic snow, did a fine enough job of obscuring the two skimmers on the tundra as they approached the Aldyne Defense transport ADV Continuum. The landing lights were still on, visible from the two kilometers or so away Flake and Franklin now found themselves, snowflakes wind-whipping through the beams drawn like blades against the darkness, UN Peacekeepers stationed at the embarcation ramp probably waiting for the return of the Aldyne Defense folks they’d been contracted to protect.

Only one of them was left alive, of course.

“Frank, you see ’em?” came the call across the comms.

“Eyeah. Three bluedomes. Heavy armed. Think they see us?”

“Not likely pal. I think we can get the drop on them, but I don’t know how many more there are aboard the ship. How’s our friend doing?”

Franklin grabbed at Gideon’s elbow and yanked it forward so he could read the medical datapad around his wrist. Gideon yelped as his arm was practically twisted out of its socket. “Stable,” the panda said, dropping the lemur’s arm and letting it limply hang.

“All right. If you can draw them away from the ramp I’ll hit them while they’re cheesing it after you. Once we’ve got the outside guys taken care of we’ll secure the decks, put any defense dicks we find off the ship, then take ‘er back to McMurdo for extraction. On my mark?”

“Eyeah, good,” Franklin said. “You take him then?” He threw his huge thumb over his shoulder to the bloodied lemur strapped into the rear seat.

“Shit, right. No, they’re on foot, you’re on a skimmer. I don’t think he’s going to pose a threat, but he might uh, I just, uh, hmm. He’ll be fine.” Flake turned to Gideon,  the hood of their parka billowing in the wind, smiling. “You’ll be fine, right?” Gideon’s frown was enough to get the jay to look back at Franklin. “He’ll be fine. If you get a clean shot on any of those guys, don’t wait! Take it, okay Frank? I’ll cover you from here.”

“Okay, jay.”

Flake toggled the strut deploy switch on their skimmer, landing anchors thunking into the permafrost. They reached for their marksman rifle and unlatched it from the gun anchor, throwing it over their shoulder and toggling the charge safety to full. The rifle started to whine as the coils charged, pale amber creeping its way along the barrel to indicate capacitance. The scope blinked to life, crucial and fatal mathematics calculating trajectories, windage, distance, elevation. They lifted it into position and closed a single eye, peering down the scope as they did so.

The scope highlighted a target, outlining it in pale red, spitting out numbers and plotting an aim point on the horizon. Flake tracked to follow it.

“Ready!” he called over the comlink, and Franklin revved the skimmer’s engine ever so slightly in response.

“Mark!” Flake said, finger on the trigger. The charge indicator in the scope’s display read 98%. The skimmer kicked up a plume of powder as it roared off down the frost, stirring the attention of the blue helmeted soldiers near the lander’s struts. Flake’s target, the ramp watcher, remained unfazed.

The capacitance readout switched to a nice, round 100% and the bird ventilated him without a second thought. As soon as Flake pulled the trigger he went down like a sack of hammers. They immediately turned towards the other two, now giving a barely passable chase-and-fire at Franklin’s rapidly disappearing snowskimmer. The scope highlighted another target and did the math, and Flake pulled the trigger again, dropping the furthest soldier out.

His partner reached for her wristpad and the ship’s ramp started to retract. An alarm klaxon sounded from the vicinity of the ship. Just before the lights went out, Flake saw her in the scope aiming a rifle down sights in their general direction. “Shit,” they muttered, thumbing the comms toggle on their datapad. “Franklin, I’ve been made.”

“Eyeah,” Franklin growled into the commlink, static punctuating his lone word. “I see.” Gideon’s yowling could be heard in the background.

A few coil rounds zipped past Flake’s crest, sending them scrambling off the skimmer they’d been using as a sniping platform, fumbling to get the marksman rifle back over their shoulder. “Shit shit shit! Frank, you said Keth and Cal were out here?”

“Eyeah eyeah. Last check, they were scouting, on patrol.”

“Do you think you can try distracting this bluedome I’ve got taking potshots at me or do you want me to try and raise them!”

“Eyeah. I got ’em.”

Franklin killed the skimmer’s engine; it drifted gently to the ground with a pomf in the snow-covered tundra. Swinging his huge frame over the side, he grabbed Gideon’s small head with both of his paws, applying the slightest amount of pressure. His captive squirmed.

“Stay put. You try to leave? I will crush into paste, eyeah?” He knew Gideon wouldn’t be able to move anyway given the brace he’d been put in to keep his chest wound from opening back up after the medigel treatment. Gideon nodded anyway, real fear in his eyes.

The bear trudged off in the snow without so much as a glance behind him. Cracking his knuckles and using the gunfire to guide him, he took off into a full-fledged sprint, shoulder in ramming position.

The next few moments were muzzleflashes against a jeweld sky glittering with the light of a thousand thousand stars. Repeated bursts of gunfire crackling across the permafrost, the crunch of packed powder beneath Franklin’s feet, a few rounds from what was probably Flake’s coil pistol grazing the air near Franklin’s head. The UN soldier on the ground barely had time to register what was happening when she felt the weight of nearly 180 kilograms of bear collide with her body armor, sending her flying across the snowdrift.

“Frank!”

“Eyeah. It’s done.”

“Go get our friend! I’ll get this thing open!”

Flake threw back their hood and grabbed the unconscious soldier at the wrist, hauling her arm out of the snowbank and brushing her datapad off. The jay fished a piece of flexroll tape out of their jacket pocket and pressed it against the display, exposing the gloveprints used to key in the ship’s access code. Keying in 1-9-4-3-2-7, the landing lights beat back down on the powder and the ship’s boarding ramp once again descended.

Flake reached up to their headset. “I’ll drag your unconscious friend here aboard; get Gideon on this thing and let’s go get the compound emptied before the UN does any checking around.”

D’Artagnan’s

“I don’t think I can serve you much more, Buster. You know I’ll get in trouble. You want a coffee?

One ear bent and the other standing stock straight, Meyer braced himself against the bar and frowned. “Whatcha mean, barman? I’m schtill pullin’ innnnnnn FM radio on these thingsh,” he gestured, lazily pointing upwards, aiming for his rabbit ears but missing — wide right — and pointing at Clifton instead.

“My, you gotta take it a bit easy. What about a little soda bitters, huh? You like soda, right?” Clifton threw his arm around Meyer’s shoulder.

“Y0-yeah, yeah, I do. I do. What about a shoda bitters, ffffflat top?”

“How about a double ‘paying your tab’ since you didn’t last week?”

“Aw, c-cm, c-commonnnn, Mickey–”

“Clifton?”

The lemur sighed. He brushed a tuft of Meyer’s hair out of his eyes as he gently held him by the shoulder with one hand and tapped him between the eyes with the other. “Mye, we gotta pay the man.”

“Ye-yeah. Yeah. I…I know, I know it,” the hare frowned, fishing his billfold out of his front pocket, dropping both elbows on the dinged-up heavy-lacquered turquoise bartop with the same degree of force a crane accident might have, rummaging through his cards and cash.

“Sorry, Mick.”

The pangolin tending bar laughed hard enough to shake his scales. “Ehhh, he’s — you’re both — the best customers I’ve got.” He eyed Meyer with an edge of disdain. “But uh, are you sure he’s okay?”

Clifton stuck his thumb out and stuck himself in the sternum. “I’m taking care of him tonight. What could go wrong?”

Meyer fished out a half-broken debit card, chip half still intact, and threw it down on the bar. “Here,” he managed, stifling a dry retch.

Mick stuck the card in the reader without much of a second thought and waited for it to process. The attached thermal printer tried its college hardest, barely eking out a respectable “D’artagnan’s Copy” that Clifton snatched before Meyer had a chance. He took the half of the debit card too, just in case.

“H-hey, wh-hwat’s the idea here!” Meyer protested.

“You didn’t tip last time,” Clifton chided, pulling a pen out of his sweatshirt pocket and scrawling in a hasty 30% atop the tab before pulling a twenty spot out of his jeans and slipping it under the receipt.

“I didn’t?”

“You didn’t. C’mon, let’s go. Up we go.” Clifton reached under Meyer’s arms to help lift him off the stool but, being a little under a foot shy of Meyer’s 6’4″ frame, this didn’t do much to help in any reasonable way, and the hare stumbled backwards.

“Hey I got it, I got it. I got it. I can stand. Cliff you’re not my godshdamn mom,” Meyer slurred, yanking his arm from Clifton’s hand.

Clifton chuckled. “Okay, big guy, c’mon. Let’s get a cab, okay?”

“Okay.” He turned his head over his shoulder and hollered something that sounded like “Thanks, Mick!” but slurred together in a highly inappropriate way. Mickey just threw his hand up to acknowledge it, half paying attention, half pocketing the extra twenty bucks and chuckling to himself.

– – –

“Did you have fun tonight?”

“Yeah.”

The streetlamps dashed across the back seat of the cab every half second, finding their way across the pair’s lap and back again, the only light in the new moon evening. The soft hum of the cab’s hybrid motor barely registered over the road noise of tires hitting bridge strips and pavement, thrumming a soft and steady percussion without an accompanying melody. Clifton ran his fingers through Meyer’s hairtuft.

He leaned in to Meyer’s bent ear and whispered gently. “Do you wanna go back to my place and fool around?”

Meyer tried to pull his head out of Clifton’s lap, placing a paw on Clifton’s shoulder and giving the lemur a sheepish grin, blue eyes locking with yellow and somehow seeming present and distant all at the same time. “I wanna go back to our place and fool around,” he said, slightly more sober but nonetheless worse for wasted.

The whiskey-soaked hare’s paw slipped off Cliff’s shoulder and fell behind his back, finding its way under the back of his partner’s hoodie, seeking purchase along the small of his back, soft fur against soft fur, scratching gently at the waistband of his jeans.

“Well, let’s at least get you home first and we’ll see how much you’ve got left in you,” Clifton chuckled, knowing full well he’d be hauling Meyer up the steps to their apartment.

“Mmmmmmokay,” the hare murmured, practically half asleep already.

“Mmmmmmokay,” Clifton half-whispered back.

maybe

The train pulled away from the platform, lumbering and lurching forward on its launch, away from the city and into the fog.

We were silent for a while. Maybe it was fifteen minutes. Maybe it was thirty. I wasn’t paying attention, lost in my own fog.

I reached for my partner’s hair, barely grazing his ear. His response was immediate, frosty, and painful.

Don’t touch me,” he said.

I winced as if I’d been stabbed. It had just dawned on me that I’d erred moments before we boarded. His words stung my core with the venom of a thousand snakes.

He cringed and pressed into the furthest edge of his seat, shoulder against the window, as if he was hoping to somehow osmose through the glass to get away from me.

“I’m sorry,” I frowned. Maybe all of this was my fault. Maybe I should feel ashamed. I didn’t know, not right now.

“I don’t care,” he said, not staring at me. He was staring out at the cars, the houses, the tracks. Maybe he was talking to my reflection in the glass. Maybe he was talking to himself. Maybe he was talking to the window. “What you hid from me was selfish.”

I was glad he wouldn’t look at me. I was I looked at the carpet. I looked at the seat in front of me. I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t bear the tear-stained cheeks, the wet eyes, the pained expression. He was weeping again. Quietly, but I could hear it in his voice.

Time passed. The silence was deafening. Other passengers were making light conversation, talking about their jobs, their travel plans. Their pedantic blathering was soothing in a way that only served to make me feel more tense.

Maybe it was another hour. Maybe it was two. I was, for the moment, in stasis, trying not to think about things.

“I can’t live without you,” he sobbed. “I don’t know what I’m going to do once you’re gone.” He turned back to me and it was as if he’d stung me all over again. His expression was that of a lost child and a grieving widow rolled into one.

His pain was palpable. It was touching and terrifying. I didn’t know what to say. Maybe I should try to console him. Maybe I should say nothing. Maybe I should say everything. Maybe I should hide in the bathroom. Maybe I should pull on the flask in my bag. Maybe I should cry, too. Maybe I should do nothing.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and I put my arm around him. This time he didn’t recoil. He embraced me and sobbed into my shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

Hello!

After having this website set up for like two years I think I’m finally going to start publishing content to it now. I hope that’s okay.

I’m Flake! Or Neal. Whatever.

I’m going to post an older vignette I wrote and then I’ll probably post something else and so on and so on.

Anyway, bye!