Want – A Horror Short Story

want cover2

Author’s note.

I seldom write or read horror, but several years ago I was given the opportunity to write a horror short story for an Anthology, Off-Kilter 2, put together by my old writers’ group (I miss you guys!). I’m sure you’ll note the various opportunities I took to inject a bit of science into it.

This being horror, I must preface this story by saying there is some adult content! That said, I  do not condone or wish to make light of any of the violence or suggested violence in this story. This story is about self-control, a defining attribute of our humanity, and what might happen if a virus stripped that away.

 

Want

By Philip A. Kramer

            She breathed. It was all she could do. The cold made every breath ache within her chest and each exhalation appear before her as a frosty white plume against the black night.

It was too dark for him to see her, she was sure of it, but if he came any closer to the thicket of bushes she hid within, he might catch her scent or hear the rattling of her breath as her body sucked it in.

Rebeca did not know where the two men had come from, but they had seen her within the ransacked mall, rooting through the remains of trampled clothes for something to her liking. She didn’t hear them enter the department store until she saw one of them staring at her as she tugged a blouse over her head.

They stared at her for only an instant before their eyes glazed over with that look of desperate lust she had come to fear. Had she her baseball bat handy, she would have taken it to their heads then and there, but her pack lay against an empty shoe rack a dozen feet away. So she did the only thing she could do, she bolted and could hear them stumbling after her a moment later.

She had outrun one of them, a blonde man with a hobbled gait. As she had emerged from an alley, though, the second man had seen her and given chase.

Now here she was, a mile into the back woods of some small town, hiding within the dense brush with no jacket or weapon to speak of. Rebeca looked down at the orange blouse she wore, her only barrier to the cold, and wished she had had the sense to find something that would serve as better camouflage.

It was impossible to tell an infected from a looter in a town like this, both were just trying to survive, but where most looters avoided one another, once an infected saw you, you were only safe if you carried nothing they wanted.

She was seventeen when the hoarding first began, a long-legged, lanky thing who perpetually wore a baseball cap and the jersey of her high school team. As soon as news of the muggings, abductions, and burglaries hit the news, her family packed their bags and drove to the family vacation home in the mountains of North Carolina. Her uncle had arrived a week later and it didn’t take long for them to notice his strange behavior.

It started with the disappearance of their meager food stores, which had later turned up in her uncle’s room. Then other things began to disappear: her mother’s jewelry, her father’s watch. Then the sickness took him fully, and he began to take anything and everything he saw that he wanted. A look would overcome him, a lustful expression at the sight of the glimmering silverware, the feel of a scarf.

He could not contain himself, none of the infected could. The sickness stole all self-control, overwhelming them with an irresistible urge to possess anything they desired. The feeling would only leave them the moment they hid the item away in a place they considered safe, a hoard, as she’d begun to call them. That long ago life ended the moment he saw her mother, his sister-in-law, and tried to take her.

Her mother had always been a beautiful woman, and when the virus ran rampant through her uncle’s brain, he could no longer resist having her.

Rebeca still remembered her mother’s screams and the sound of her father bashing at the door to her uncle’s room with her baseball bat.

Her mother and uncle died that day, the latter bludgeoned to death by her vengeful father. Her father was never the same after the incident. For days, he wept, leaving her to fend for herself. She knew something was wrong when he began to steal the food she made, taking it and the silverware to his room. He never ate all of the food, but left it to rot under the bed. He would become angry and frantic when she tried to clean it up. Later, he would apologize, not knowing what had come over him. She knew. She had seen that lustful gaze before, the involuntary dilation of the pupils accompanied by a sharp indrawn breath.

He was infected too.

She had to leave then, not because she feared him, but because she knew it would destroy him entirely if harm came to her by his hand. If Rebeca ever came between him and something he wanted, he would only discover that he had hurt her when he regained control of himself.

The men that pursued her were different; they wanted her.

She glanced down at the blouse she wore. She could take it off, bury it to keep her invisible, but taking clothes off was the last way to avoid a hoarder taken by lust. She was no longer the same lanky girl of her youth, she had grown, matured, and like her mother, she was pretty. She knew better than to drop her unflattering disguise, to wash the mud from her face, unbind her breasts, and put on something pretty for a change. Just this once, she had told herself. Idiot.

A shuffling pair of feet plowed through the blanket of dry autumn leaves just beside the brush in which she hid. She clamped her hand over her mouth, biting her finger in order to stifle the scream that threatened to emerge. Her mouth was flooded with the taste of moss, dirt, and blood.

She hoped the man would move past her, but the rustling of disturbed leaves stopped. Through the foliage, she could make out his wide eyes and the wolf-like flare of his nostrils.

He stepped closer.

Just as she considered bounding out of the bush to begin her run anew, a second pair of feet came hurdling into view. That would be the second hoarder, she thought, but as she stared at the black and white, mud-caked sneakers, she knew they were too small to fit a grown man’s feet, and this hoarder didn’t hobble.

The first hoarder whirled to face the newcomer and an unintelligible growl issued from his throat.

“Say cheese!”

A sizzling sound preceded a blinding flash and a deafening howl of pain. The hoarder stumbled back, his thick boot landing mere inches from Rebeca’s hiding place.

Whimpering, the hoarder fled.

Rebeca blinked away the image of branches and twigs that had burned into her retina. She made to run, but the person she saw as she scrambled to her feet was no hoarder at all. A girl, a young teenager at most, stood a few yards from her, her black hair cut short, ending at a straight line at her jaw. She wore a pair of goggles, shaded black such that her eyes looked like two large gaping holes. She held the casing of a utility light aloft like a lantern, and smoke rose up from the empty wire cage.

“Magnesium powder,” the girl said, pushing back her goggles to reveal a set of light blue eyes. “Scares the shit out of ‘em.”

Rebeca blinked, several warped lines obscuring her line of sight.

“Your vision will come back soon, unless you looked directly at it,” she said as Rebeca continued to blink. “You didn’t, did you?”

Rebeca shook her head, still uncertain what to do. Her instinct told her to run; avoiding contact with people was her one and only rule, but the girl standing before her looked so harmless, without so much as a gun or knife for protection.

“Who are you?” She said. The sound of her own voice was strange to her. How long had it been since she had spoken with someone?

“Tam,” she said, shaking the glowing ashes of the magnesium from the casing and onto the ground. She extended an arm.

Rebeca didn’t take her hand, instead looking around her for any evidence that the hoarder was still near.

“He won’t be coming back,” Tam said as if to assuage her fears.

“There was another one too,” Rebeca said. After a minute of listening, but hearing nothing, she returned her gaze to the girl.

“What are you doing out here all by yourself?”

“I’m not by myself. I have my grandpa with me.”

Rebeca looked around once more.

“Not here. About a mile back at our camp.” The girl looked her up and down while idly flicking a lighter open and closed. “Why don’t you come on back with me, you look terrible.”

Rebeca was quiet for a time, considering her options.

“I should be going. I need to go back for my things before someone takes them.”

“In the dark, half-frozen, weaponless, and with a hoarder still out there somewhere? You are either very brave or very stupid.”

Rebeca bristled, but found herself rubbing her cold arms and conceding the point. It was stupid.

 “Have it your way.” Tam continued when Rebeca failed to respond. The girl hooked the utility light to her belt and began to turn away. “If you change your mind, we have food.”

“Wait,” she calling out to her. “Food?”

Food was, in truth, the one thing that had driven her to the mall in the first place. All she had managed to come up with were some saltine crackers and some ketchup packets. She had consumed them shamelessly.

The girl nodded.

Rebeca breathed in relief. She could always return to the mall tomorrow to collect her things, and by then the remaining hoarder would have forgotten about her.

Tam set off into the dark woods, and Rebeca mustered enough courage to follow. The sudden flicker, flare, and then quenching of the flame from the girl’s lighter gave her the impression she was following a firefly.

As she trailed behind the girl, she longed for the feel of her wooden bat in her hand and her thick jacket around her shoulders.

“How did you find me?” She said to fill the unnerving silence.

“I was scouting the perimeter of our camp when I saw the hoarder. I thought he was on his way to his hoard so I followed him. You can find some useful things there.”

Rebeca knew the truth of that. Some of the more successful hoarders had squirreled away more food than they could ever possibly eat, while others had mounds of jewelry that would put a pirate’s hidden treasure to shame. Half the items in her pack she had found in such hoards. They were not always easy to find, and it was dangerous to be caught looting through one by its owner.

“What were you doing in the town in the first place?” Tam asked in a tone that suggested she already knew the answer or just didn’t care.

“Looking for some food and clothes. I didn’t think anyone would be there. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen anyone.”

“I guess you haven’t been to the right places. Pops and I were in a town two weeks ago and there were hundreds of people milling around.”

Rebeca’s eyes widened.

“Aren’t they afraid of being infected?”

The girl snorted.

“I take it you haven’t heard. The virus is gone. People are coming together again.”

This was news to her.

“That can’t be right, I see infected all the time.”

“No, you misunderstand. The virus is gone. Eventually when the population thinned enough, and people learned to avoid each other, the virus just petered out. The brain cells it infected though, the ones that control impulses, those stay dead forever. My grandpa was a professor, so he can explain it better than I can.”

Rebeca stared at the passing ground ahead, her thoughts as scattered as the fallen leaves. Hope filled her for the first time in years, hope that life could return to normal. But no, the girl said it herself, the infected could never return to normal. She could never return home to her father.

The silence extended around them like the darkness as they walked. After what felt like hours, a dim glow appeared in the distance.

As they approached, Rebeca identified the source of light as a well-kindled campfire. A grey-haired man sat next to the campfire on a mushroom-laden log. He seemed to value the warmth of the fire more than the illumination it gave. A thick piece of cloth encircled his head, obscuring his eyes. They were well within the circle of the light provided by the fire before the man registered their arrival. He stumbled to his feet and brandished a walking cane.

Rebeca did not feel the wariness that typically came over her when she met new people. Her sense of ease might have been the man’s age, but more likely, it was his blindness. She was invisible to him.

“It’s alright, Pops. It’s me.”

Tam’s words did little to pacify him. He hefted his cane higher and motioned in Rebeca’s general direction.

“There’s someone else with you,” he said, his voice was grating and weary, like the shuffle of feet over gravel.

Rebeca stopped short of the fire and the wavering point of the cane and glanced at Tam with uncertainty.

After a moment, it became apparent that the girl did not intend to introduce her, but then, Rebeca had never given her a name.

“I’m Rebeca,” she began, watching as the man’s blindfolded head swiveled toward her. “Tam rescued me from a hoarder.”

Slowly, the point of the cane lowered to the ground. The old man chewed his lower lip as if considering whether his granddaughter’s deed was noble or reckless.

“That’s why you took so long?” He asked, the question directed at Tam.

The girl had dropped her gear beside the fire and was rifling through another pack that lay against a squat tent.

“It wasn’t that long. I was hoping to follow him back to his hoard, but he was just after her.”

The old man sputtered. “I have told you time and time again not to be snooping though hoards. It’s dangerous. What if he’d caught you? You can’t expect an old man like me to rescue you.”

“I had my mag charges,” she said in a resigned voice that suggested she had indeed heard this many times before.

“Which aren’t easy to light in a hurry. What if you didn’t get your goggles in place? You don’t want to end up like me do you?” He said, gesturing to his eyes. “And how do you know this girl isn’t one of them, and won’t get all crazy-eyed the moment she lays eyes on our food?”

Rebeca took a step back to stay out of reach of the cane, which swung back and forth with the man’s every gesture. Tam had retrieved a pot and several cans of food from her pack and returned to the fire. Tam gave her a suffering glance and rolled her eyes.

“She’s seen our food, Pops. I think we’re safe.”

Had Tam been aware of the surge of longing Rebeca felt at the sight of the food she might have reconsidered her stance. Rebeca found her hand pressed against her stomach in a futile attempt to stifle its growling.

“And if she’s drawn to my alluring figure?” the old man said with an odd sway to his hips. He leaned in Rebeca’s direction. “I wouldn’t blame you, dear; Tam’s had to fend off hundreds of hoarders from me.”

Rebeca coughed and felt blood rush to her cheeks. He had to be kidding. The man’s long white hair fell over the edges of his blindfold in a dirty mass, and his clothes were hardly more than rags covering his twig-like arms and legs. She did recognize smile lines among the countless crags of his aged face. Her mother had had those lines.

Tam mimed putting a finger down her throat.

“I…I think I can resist.”

“Hmmmm,” he said, his expression doubtful.

Tam stabbed a knife into the lid of one unlabeled can and began to saw it open. The brown sauce that clung to the knife from the can’s mysterious contents made Rebeca’s mouth water.

“Then let’s eat,” The man proclaimed, throwing his hands into the air.

Rebeca flinched at the sudden sound but breathed deeply to calm herself. If society was reforming, she had better start getting used to people again.

Tam and the old man sat beside the fire, but even as Rebeca joined them, she felt unsettled, knowing that at any moment the second hoarder could materialize from the blackness and grab her.

Tam upended the can over the pot and a thick gravy drizzled out, carrying with it lumps of potato and chunks of meat. She placed the pot into the center of the fire, casting a swarm of sparks into the air.

Temporarily, the nervousness twisting in Rebeca’s stomach gave way to hungry anticipation.

“Where did you get the food?”

“Traded for it at the last settlement we traveled through,” Tam said, her mouth forming into a frown.

“Why didn’t you stay? At the settlement, I mean.”

The old man shifted uncomfortably on the log.

“They weren’t very nice,” Tam explained. “They said everyone who stayed had to work.”

“I can work just fine,” the old man grumbled. “I built this fire without anybody holding my hand.” She could not see his eyes, but it was hard to miss the anger in the set of his mouth.

“And he’s brilliant,” Tam said. “Aren’t you, Pops?”

That devious smile returned.

“I’ve been known to dabble at the brink of genius,” he said, shrugging one shoulder.

Rebeca raised an eyebrow.

“Tam said you were a professor once?” She said around a mouthful of bread.

“He was,” Tam said. “He was the one to come up with the magnesium powder. We’ve been raiding chemistry labs for the stuff ever since.”

“Why not use a gun like everyone else?” Rebeca asked.

“Because a single mag charge can take out a whole crowd of hoarders, leave them stumbling around blindly,” Tam said. “The infected can’t want what they can’t see.”

“Guns,” the old man interjected. “They put you in danger as much as keep you safe. These days everyone wants guns or ammo, so if a hoarder sees it on you, they’ll come after you, heedless of injury. I guess it has its own dangers though, he said, gesturing to his blindfold. Didn’t get my goggles on fast enough. On the bright side, no pun intended, we have loads of the stuff and nobody wants metal shavings.”

Rebeca nodded. “I use a bat. Most hoarders won’t fight you for a bat.”

“Smart girl,” the old man said, tapping his temple with a crooked finger.

Tam declared the stew finished a few minutes later and handed Rebeca a small bowl and a bent metal spoon. She burned her tongue on the first bite and forced herself to slow down despite the blissful taste. It sure beat saltine crackers and ketchup.

She finished her food long before they did and sat in silence while they ate.

She felt exposed in the light of the campfire. At first, she was contented by the dozen yards of illumination in every direction, but as the fire dwindled, the constricting black dome of darkness came nearer. She imagined a hand reaching out from that dark shroud to grasp her. The sounds of leaves rustling in the wind and bare branches rattling against each other heightened her unease.

She asked if they had a spare tarp and, after a moment of sniffing the air, the old man declared it wouldn’t rain and told Tam to gather the rain tarp.

Sitting beside the fire, Rebeca wove the strings of the rain tarp into a single cord on either end. It was no great substitute for her old hammock, but it would serve. She glanced into the trees for a perch.

Tam was picking something out of her teeth when she followed Rebeca’s gaze.

“You’re gonna sleep up there?”

“I haven’t slept on the ground in years. You would be surprised how few people look up,” Rebeca replied, smirking at the incredulousness on the girls face. She preferred trees for the cover they offered, but found streetlamps and billboards equally effective when no forest was near.

“I don’t think Pops would enjoy it.”

“I can be spry when I want to be.” He demonstrated this by leaning back on his log and clicking his heels together.

Rebeca smiled and stood, then stepped close to a promising tree near the tent.

She stared up the trunk for a few moments, judging how well she’d be able to scale it.

With the fire behind her, she felt the chill seeping in through her shirt. She rubbed her arms.

Tam stood and withdrew a sweatshirt from her pack. She held it out to Rebeca who took it with uncertainty. It was a grey sweater, tattered at the cuffs, but clean.

“Keep it,” she said.

“You two have been kind enough already. I can’t accept it.”

Tam bit the inside of her lip and glanced at Rebeca’s thin blouse.

“Trade then.”

Rebeca looked down to the orange blouse smeared with dirt. A sweatshirt was infinitely more valuable to her with winter approaching than a gossamer thin blouse. She could not deny she needed it, even just for the night.

Rebeca nodded and set down the rain tarp. She glanced at the blind old man. Content that he was well and truly blind, Rebeca lifted her shirt over her head and shivered as the cold air met her skin.

“That’s why they were after you?” Tam asked, her hand raised to her chest. Apprehension clouded her eyes.

“Bind them,” Rebecca whispered. “When they start to fill in, bind them tightly with cloth. It’ll help you go unnoticed.”

Tam gulped and nodded.

Rebeca handed her the blouse and pulled the sweatshirt on over her head.

Tam absently rubbed a bit of dirt from the blouse.

“You can stay with us if you want.”

Rebeca paused, her hand on the rough bark of the tree.

“I…I don’t know. Avoiding people has kept me alive so far. I don’t think I know how to be around people anymore.”

Tam looked to the ground.

“It’d be nice to have another girl around,” she said softly. “Pops is great, but he doesn’t understand the stuff I’m going through.”

“What about your parents?”

“They got infected a few years back. We tried to keep them away from any triggers, but eventually they both saw something they wanted and, well… you’ve probably seen what happens when two hoarders fight over something.”

Rebeca cringed. What could she say to that? Sorry your parents tore each other apart over a can of baked beans? She opted for changing the subject.

“I will think about it.”

Tam shrugged one shoulder and wiped her sleeve across her nose.

“Yeah, alright.”

She bent to sit on the ground next to her pack and began to scrape the plates and pot clean with a spoon.

With years of practice, Rebeca scaled the tree nimbly, her fingers clinging to every knot and branch for purchase. When she reached a height of about twenty feet, she lifted her leg over a branch and sat for the space of time it took to tie the cord of the rain tarp. She scooted down a few feet to tie the opposite end of the tarp to the branch before testing it with half and then all of her weight. It held. Rebeca climbed into the makeshift hammock.

The branch above her bisected the star-strewn sky. Beyond it, countless other branches swayed like searching fingers trying to snuff out the flickering stars.

The tarp was cold, but after a few minutes, warmth slowly stole over her with the aid of the sweater and the fire below. Weariness weighted her eyelids, and she drifted off into sleep to the sounds of the old man humming a soft tune. She had nearly died earlier in the day, but now, for the first time in years, she felt safe. Maybe, just maybe, she would stay with them.

*          *          *

When she woke, it was not to the sight of sunlight creeping through the trees, but to the sound of leaves scattering before shuffling feet.

It was still dark.

Her fatigue forgotten, she strained to listen. Surely it was the old man going in search of a place to relieve himself. Despite her own reassurances, she wouldn’t be able to sleep until she knew. She sat up and surveyed the campsite.

The red embers of the fire gave an eerie red cast to the trees and the tent beneath her.

It was not until the sound of disturbed leaves began again that she saw who’d caused it. The man was not old and blindfolded, but had youthful pale skin and sandy blonde hair. His gait was disturbingly familiar; the gait of man with one leg slightly longer than the other. It was the second hoarder from the mall. A red gash was centered on his forehead, probably dealt to him by the other hoarder as they pursued the same quarry.

Rebeca stared wide-eyed as the man continued toward the tent. He was still in a lustful trance. She knew this even without seeing his eyes. It was in the way that he bent at the knee as if ready to pounce, and most tellingly, in the eager expression he wore now that the object of his desire was so near.

It would be fine, she thought. He would see that she was not there and move on. He could not see her up in the trees.

The world became silent except for the pounding of her blood in her ears.

The hoarder stood with his head cocked as he looked at the tent, his face illumined by the pale red glow of embers from the fire.

He stiffened as the sound of movement within the tent and then took a step forward as the tent flap was pushed open.

He lunged, and Tam screamed.

Rebeca nearly fell from her hammock as she bolted up, barely keeping her hold on the branch above her.

The old man began to curse and shout.

Rebeca saw the hoarder emerge from the small tent, dragging Tam out by a leg. The girl flailed her arms in all directions, reaching for anything that would give her purchase. She caught the corner of the tent and it buckled as the support rods yanked free of the ground. The old man thrashed beneath the canvas as he sought the tent opening.

Tam wore her orange blouse.

“Tam!” she shouted. She leapt from the hammock to the trunk of the tree, her feet and fingers biting into the bark to slow her decent as she slid down the trunk. The bark scraped her hands raw and tore through her jeans and into the flesh of her inner thighs.

She fell the last few feet to the ground, and her legs collapsed beneath her.

“Tam!” she yelled again the moment she pulled in enough air.

The girl’s screams continued in the distance, beyond the fringes of the embers’ glow.

The old man nearly tripped over her as he finally escaped the folds of the tent, his cries cutting through her like a knife.

This was her fault. She had brought the hoarder here, and the man had mistaken Tam for his real prey, who’d once worn the same orange blouse.

Rebeca came to her feet and searched for her bat before remembering she’d left it at the mall.

“We have to find her!” The old man barked in her direction.

Rebeca tore into a pack and found the utility light casing and several cotton sacks filled with what felt like sand. Magnesium powder. The old man continued to scream helplessly into the trees.

“Shut up and hold this,” Rebeca told him, shoving the magnesium and utility light into his chest. He stumbled back, clutching the items in quivering fingers. Do you have any other weapons,” she asked, even as she came to the bottom of the pack.

“No,” he said in a distraught voice that rasped out of his raw throat.

Growling incomprehensibly, Rebeca found the lighter by the fire and gave it to the old man.

“You’ll help me find her?” he asked, sounding hopeful.

“He’s probably taking her to his hoard. He won’t do anything to her until they get there. We have to catch them.” What would become of her if they didn’t? She was just a kid.

“What’s your plan?” The man asked.

 “You should just stay here,” she said, thinking furiously. The last thing Rebeca needed was to babysit this blind man the whole way. “You won’t be able to keep up with me.”

The old man sputtered in disbelief.

“Right, and you’re going to light the magnesium yourself?”

Rebecca was about to take the magnesium and lighter from the man’s hands but this brought her up short. She didn’t have goggles on her and if she did it incorrectly she would be just as blind and helpless as this old man.

“I can find another weapon,” she said with a bit of uncertainty.

“No time for that, they are getting away,” he said, his voice dropping to a growl. “Lead the way and I will follow. I won’t slow you down.”

“Fine,” she said, dashing off in the direction she had seen Tam disappear. The old man, to her surprise, stumbled after her.

Tam had left deep gouges in the dirt where she had been pulled by her attacker, her struggle not ceasing for several hundred yards. After that, the hoarder’s footprints become deeper where he must have lifted her from the ground.

Rebeca slowed her pace to ensure she did not veer from course, and the delay made her grind her teeth in frustration. The man said nothing, but she could tell that he wanted to.

They proceeded at the slow pace for what felt like an hour. They had gone at least a mile before she saw a glint of moonlight against something in the distance. She stopped and the old man ran into the back of her.

“Quiet,” she hissed.

He settled to the ground on his knees and pulled the bag of magnesium powder from his pocket. He stuffed the sack in the base of the utility light fixture and held it aloft, lighter at the ready.

Maybe he would be useful to have around after all, Rebeca thought as she crouched beside him.

She searched the area again and saw what had reflected the moonlight. It appeared to be a metal serving tray, its mirror like quality interrupted by some filigree and a handle. On further inspection, the tray rest on a heap of other objects. Sacs and shopping carts of every shape and size were filled to the brim with clothes, bottles, and cans.

It was the hoard, but there was no sign of the hoarder or Tam.

Rebeca leaned closer to the old man and outlined her plan. She would circle the hoard and locate Tam. She would then distract the Hoarder and lead him back into the open where the old man would blind him. The plan felt wrong to her, and it took a moment to realize why. It was a plan that required her to rely on someone else. She was not accustomed to placing her trust in anyone.

She left his side and darted from tree to tree for cover.

She didn’t fully appreciate the size of the hoard until she narrowly avoided stepping on a bag of instant noodles. She peered around the tree and saw that she stood on the edge of a massive mound of loot. This hoarder had been active since the beginning, she realized. That was the only way he could have amassed such a wealth. Hundreds of unopened cans and bags of food stood nearby and Rebeca began to reassess the plan. They would save Tam of course, but if they took out the hoarder, they could keep it all to themselves.

The moment of distraction was nearly her undoing as the sound of breaking glass punctuated the feel of something crunching beneath her foot. It was all she could do to keep from sprinting in the opposite direction. She pressed flat to the tree, feeling the rough bark against her lips as she whispered a silent prayer that the hoarder had not heard.

After a moment of complete silence, Rebeca glanced down to the offending object, a crystal decanter with a golden rim. She lifted her foot hesitantly and stepped free of the remains, taking care to pay more heed to her footing.

The sparse illumination from the waning moon above the canopy offered little aid as she skirted the hoard. When she believed herself to be on the far side of the mound from where she had started, she knelt behind yet another tree to take in the scene before her.

Had she not followed their tracks here, Rebeca would have doubted they had ever been there, so still was the hoard, so foreboding the silence.

The sound of a whimper brought her eyes to the hoard’s center and made her heart thunder.  At the summit of the mountain of objects, a makeshift fort of lopsided lamps and slanting carpets stood in testament to the hoarder’s activity and dedication. Few objects escaped this hoarder’s desire, and the current object of his desire lay at the center of it all. Thick, knotted ropes bound Tam’s hands and feet.

Stamping down her desire to run to the girl’s rescue, she searched for the hoarder. She hoped he had woken from his trance to find Tam was not the girl he had been after. But if that were the case, why would he bind her? No, she had to work under the assumption that he was nearby and would be capable of anything if he found her trying to steal his hard-earned prize.

Rebeca had gone long enough without a weapon.

Keeping low, she took two long steps into the hoard, stepping over a porcelain platter with the half-eaten remains of a cake now desiccated and covered in leaves. She grabbed the first blunt object at hand, a polished brass candleholder, its heft and balance reminding her of her bat.

Steadily, she made her way into the hoard until the clutter became too thick. She restricted her climbing to objects that appeared sturdy or soft enough to support her weight without giving her presence away.

She had just scaled a mass of decorative pillows, soggy from a recent rain, when a hacking cough issued from the center of the hoard. She froze where she was, feeling the tracery of the candleholder bite into her palm. She was close enough now that she could see Tam’s frightened expression and wide eyes. She desperately wanted to call out to her, tell her she was not alone, but a pair of arms parted the curtains beside the prone girl. Tam pleaded in a voice that lacked her usual hard maturity as she stared up at the shadowed figure. The whine transitioned sharply to a scream as callused and dirty hands fell to grip her orange blouse at the shoulders and tugged her further into the fort at the center of the hoard.

Rebeca scrambled off the pillows and clambered atop another pile of odds and ends, heedless of all but the sharpest objects as she rushed toward them.

“Tam,” she called. Her plan was falling apart. She could not hope to distract him now.

She plowed forward through a hanging carpet, brushing it aside with an arm and flourishing her candleholder in preparation to cave in the hoarder’s skull.

The sight of several bodies lying within the fort, all in an advanced state of decay, thwarted her headlong assault. Tam lay against one corpse, her limbs twisting against her bonds.

Rebeca stumbled into the middle of it, her hand coming to her mouth and nose in a futile attempt to block out the stench of putrefaction.

Another carpet exploded inward to her right and the hoarder was atop her, his hands gripping her wrist and slamming her to the ground.

Rebeca threw every free limb at him in a desperate attempt to be free and bludgeon him, but behind his strength was not only that of a well-fed man, but one who fought with the depth of passion only the fervently deranged could achieve. The irises of his bulging eyes were just a thin ring around a massive pupil.

She only became aware of her screaming when the man grasped her throat, causing the shrill sound to abruptly end. Dimly, she could sense Tam’s struggle to become unfettered and aid her. It was too late; the man’s fingers were closing around her windpipe. Her free hand clawed ineffectually at the man’s sweaty face. Soon even the darkness that made up the night became even darker, and her flickering awareness faded.

“Close your eyes!”

Before all sense was lost to her, Rebeca registered the characteristic rasp to the voice, and her eyes slammed shut.

The blinding light the ensued was visible beyond her eyelids as a flare of red and still her eyes ached with the intensity of it.

Within moments, the hand that encircled her throat fell away, and Rebeca forgot everything but the bliss of a lungful of air.

The hoarder roared and rolled from atop her. Her immediate instinct was to curl into a fetal position, but the sounds of another struggle brought her to her knees, gasping.

Somehow, the old man had made it to the center of the hoard and ignited the magnesium charge. The smell of smoke was only a brief reprieve to the stench of death.

A singular splotch of white filled Rebeca’s vision, and she struggled to blink it away.

Just feet from her, atop the lumpy, carpeted mound of sparkling jewelry and other treasures, two men wrestled and grappled for dominance. The grunting of the old man suggested it was a losing battle.

Rebeca came to her feet and wavered as her newly restored vision swam around her. She was surprised to find that she still gripped the candleholder in her hand.

With one last effort of will, Rebeca gave all her strength to a swing of the heavy, brass candleholder and heard the crack of bone as it fell atop the hoarder’s head.

Rebeca fell to her knees again and shook her head, the sudden silence making her fear that she had finally lost consciousness. The pain of her throat seemed her only anchor to reality.

The sound of Tam’s whimpering came to her, and Rebeca shuffled toward the girl, finding her bound hands and feet and beginning to untie them.

As the numbing fear and adrenaline began to subside, Rebeca felt relief overtake her. They had gotten Tam back and they had won themselves an immense hoard, unparalleled in size and riches.

“You’re safe,” Rebeca told her, and the girl sniffled and sobbed. “I won’t let anything happen to you. I’m here to stay.” She meant every word. No longer would she be alone. If Rebeca couldn’t have her old family back, she would find a new family to call her own.

The old man cursed as he pushed the hoarder from atop him, mumbling incoherently as he felt around and came to his knees.

“No…” Tam said in a disbelieving whisper. “No no no no…”

“What is it?” Rebeca asked, her fingers fumbling at the tight knots of Tam’s bonds.

“Run!”

She looked over her shoulder to see the blind man, a hand searching his head for the now absent blindfold.

The infected can’t want what they can’t see, Tam had said.

Her blood went cold as she locked eyes with the old man.

His pupils dilated, and he pulled in a sharp breath.

 

 

I hope you enjoyed reading “Want” originally published in Off-Kilter 2 in 2016. If you like this story, you’ll love the others in the Alabards anthology. Click the image below to be directed to the Amazon page.

off kilter 2

A shout out to my friend, Matthew Goodin, for the anthology’s cover art. You can find his website by clicking here.

Until next time, Write well and Science hard.

Quantum Quietus- Free story

Freestory

As mentioned in a previous post, my short story, “Quantum Quietus,” won 1st place in the 2017 N3F short story contest. They have since published it in Eldritch Science. Since there were no terms of exclusivity, I am free to publish here for you all to read. I hope you enjoy the free story!

Quantum Quietus

By Philip A Kramer

      Joe threw the ball too hard this time. He held his breath as it left the small, inner-city park, and plummeted toward the crowded sidewalk. Even Artemis, his black lab, stopped short and watched its descent.

The ball was seconds away from hitting a man, when the stranger turned, reached out a hand, and caught it.

“Take your pills,” he called and tossed the ball to the waiting dog. The man carried on down the sidewalk, shaking his head.

“Thanks,” Joe called back with an apologetic wave.

He shouldn’t have worried. These days, almost everyone was on Quantanax, the latest drug from Prescience Pharmaceuticals. It gave people the near supernatural ability to see into the future. With just a few seconds of foresight, their reflexes became quick, their actions unerring, and their mistakes erased before they ever happened. They called it Feedback, the new sixth sense.

Had things turned out different, Joe could have been like them. His life would be free of unpredictability and hardship, better in every way. Unfortunately, he was among the small percentage of the population allergic to the treatment.

A sour envy formed in the pit of his stomach. He tried to suppress the feeling; nothing good had ever come of it. His bitterness had pushed away all of his closest friends, ruined his marriage, and made him regret everything he did.

The tennis ball rolled to a stop between Joseph Dunham’s feet. Artemis turned in a quick circle a few feet away and then sat flat on the grass in polite anticipation. Her body quivered with pent-up energy.

Joe’s fond smile was short-lived. They’d have to leave soon. Artemis would chase just about anything that flew, and with more people gathering, he didn’t want her running off with a Frisbee or baseball.

Already a pair of youths had started a game on the tennis court beside the small Brooklyn park. They couldn’t have been more than twelve years old, but they played better than any seasoned athlete Joe had ever seen. There was no end to the advantages of Quantanax.

“Tomorrow,” he told Artemis as he stooped to pick up the ball. He grimaced as his fingers encountered a film of slobber. He placed the ball in the pocket of his windbreaker and withdrew a leash.

All the energy evaporated from the dog when he clipped the leash to her collar.

It was getting dark, and the smell of rain was in the air, making the pub across the street stand out like a warm, bright beacon. The crowded establishment should have turned him off straightaway, but he had gone far too long without human contact, long enough to forget how pointless it was. In the end, he decided he was hungry and could use a drink.

He tugged the leash and trotted across the street between cars. He was not worried for his life. Even on this highly travelled street in Brooklyn, accidents were rare.

Joe tied off the leash to a bike rack just outside the door to the pub and tousled the lab’s black, floppy ears.

Patrons occupied all of the tables inside, but a few seats remained empty at the bar.

Joe claimed a stool and ordered a drink and a sandwich. The man to his right had his laptop out at the bar, seemingly oblivious to everything around him. To his left sat a woman with large glasses, their dark frames extending below her cheekbones. She wasn’t his type, but a beer or two could change that. He should talk to her, some part of his brain insisted, but instead, he turned his attention to the TV above the bar.

He hadn’t always been this shy, but these days he regretted every word out of his mouth. Without the feedback granted by the treatment, he had no way of knowing what effect his words would have. Everyone else could stop themselves from making a social blunder, but he would always be a blabbering idiot.

The bartender arrived with his drink, but as he accepted the beverage, a bit of it sloshed onto the bar-top. A towel appeared from the bartender’s back pocket, and he mopped up the spill. Joe offered a quiet apology.

When the bartender withdrew his hand, a bright yellow pill sat on the bar.

“We all forget to take it sometimes,” the bartender said.

Joe grunted and nodded his thanks. He swept the pill from the bar, pretended to pop it in his mouth, but slipped it into his pocket instead.

Ever since the government had subsidized the Quantanax, everyone was handing it out like candy, candy that could kill him in minutes. As if he weren’t enough of an outcast, this same government now mandated that people like him wear a medical bracelet because of their propensity for accidents. Joe never wore his. This small act of rebellion was all he had left.

Just then, a scattering of applause rose out of the comparative quiet. On the TV above the bar, a Yankee batter hit a home run a moment later and began running the bases.

Joe settled in to watch as he waited for his food. He enjoyed baseball more than he ever had before, though he usually watched when not in the company of people who would moan or applaud before the ball left the pitcher’s glove. Forbidden from receiving Quantanax, the players always displayed genuine surprise and frustration. Even these famous and talented players spilled their beers, Joe told himself.

Then, all around him, conversations trailed off, and the TV went dark. A tall figure walked onto the screen. A white mask obscured his face, and he wore only white clothing. The man glowed in the darkness, illuminated by some hidden black lights. The mask made his eyes look like deep, black pits, and the line of his mouth, a chasm.

“Greetings, New York,” the figure said in a voice that was more robot than human. The slit of his mouth did not move with the words.

“What’s this?” said the man to Joe’s right, breaking his trance.

“Some sort of advertisement?” Joe hazarded.

“I’m delighted to see humanity ascend into the Quantum Era.” The man on the screen continued in his digitally synthesized voice. “It’s a glorious time for our society. We’ve come a long way these last few years. Murder, suicide, and countless other preventable deaths are at an all-time low. We now excel at everything we do and have few regrets. Our lives are finally falling into place.”

Joe became more and more certain that this was an advertisement, a reveal of the latest version of Quantanax. This man would promise to make everyone’s lives even better, while Joe, and those like him, fell further and further behind. He glanced out the window to see Artemis, tangled in her leash. Rather than attempt to extricate herself, she slumped to the ground and licked at her paw. Joe considered getting up and leaving, but the air in the bar had become tense and uncertain.

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“But, unfortunately, this makes us more vulnerable than we’ve ever been before.” The man reached out as if to pinch something, and then with a swift motion, a cart materialized. It wasn’t magic, but a black cloth, making the cart invisible under the glow of the black light. Atop the cart sat a large, cylindrical device with a metallic sphere in its center.

Gasps and moans of dismay erupted throughout the room.

“I have hidden this nuclear weapon somewhere in this city.”

It was now Joe’s turn to gasp, and the man next to him spewed a mouthful of beer onto his laptop.

“Is he serious?” the man asked between curses as he attempted to mop up the beer on the keyboard.

Joe didn’t answer. A knot of terror had formed in his throat.

“I’ve armed the bomb with a quantum random number generator,” the white clothed figure said. His gloved fingers encircled a small handheld device on the cart and lifted it to eye level. “It could detonate the moment I press this button, or any time in the next twenty-four hours. It’s impossible to say. If humanity continues to allow the principles of quantum uncertainty to direct our future, it will discover just how uncertain that future is.”

Anguished cries filled the room as the man lifted his thumb and brought it down onto the button.

People fell. Joe’s head swiveled from side to side, mouth agape as the other patrons crumbled to the ground or slumped in their chairs. To a one, their limbs jerked from side to side as if to fend off some unseen threat. Above the screams and the staccato thumps of bodies and chairs hitting the floor, he could hear Artemis barking from outside and the sound of cars crashing into one another.

The woman with the large glasses struck her head on the bar as she fell. Joe leapt down from his seat to kneel over her. Her glasses lay broken beside her, and blood streamed from a gash above her eyebrow. She continued to spasm and flinch, oblivious to the injury.

The man on the TV spoke again, his voice calm and robotic.

“Those of you hearing me now, for one reason or another, you have chosen not to partake in the treatment. You have inherited this city. You can leave it or stay, that is up to you.”

The station returned to its regular broadcast.

Fallen bodies littered Yankee stadium. The players on the field, banned from the treatment as they were, wheeled in slow circles. Their fans, who had been cheering for them moments ago, now convulsed in their seats.

The woman in front of Joe curled into the fetal position, her body still spasming. Her heart thundered beneath his hand where it rest on her back.

“What’s happened to them?” Joe asked. His mouth had gone dry, and the words came out as a quiet rasp.

“They’re experiencing their deaths.”

Joe turned to see the other man from the bar. He was wearing a loose red tie and an unbuttoned blazer. He gaped at the chaos around them. They were the only two not writhing on the ground.

“What?”

“To them, the bomb is detonating every second,” the man said.

“But the bomb hasn’t gone off.”

“Not in our reality.”

Joe didn’t waste time puzzling over the man’s words. Seeing the woman would not hurt herself, he stood and went to check on Artemis, who was barking with increasing insistence.

After untangling Artemis from her leash, he pulled her in the direction of their apartment. Dozens of cars had piled into each other outside the bar, their occupants seizing. As he trotted across the street, shattered safety glass crunched beneath his feet, and a lone hubcap rolled to a stop a few feet away.

“Where are you going?” called a voice from behind him.

“Leaving,” Joe said, not looking back. The thought of a bomb in the city, one that could go off at any second, filled him with an irresistible urge to get out, to see the city shrink in his rear-view mirror.

“We can’t leave. What about all of these people?”

Joe slowed to a stop on the other side of the street and brushed a cold raindrop from his cheek. How could he possibly help them? They were all dead weight. Then he thought of the women in the bar. She was small and light enough to carry as were the two youths he’d seen in the park.

“I’ll try to get a few people in my car, leave the city. You said it was the bomb doing this. If I drive far enough…”

“Not with roads as they are. You’ll never get out in time.”

Joe hung his head. If all of the roads looked like this one, walking was the only way out, and then he could only save himself.

The man stepped out from the shelter of the bar. Rain spotted his red tie, and a growing breeze tousled his brown hair. His eyes studied Joe.

“We have to find the bomb and shut it down.”

Artemis stared up at Joe with dark, worried eyes that blinked as rain pelted her black fur.

He had friends and coworkers in this city. There were babies out there crying for their parents. All of his problems: his allergy, his failed relationships, they were nothing compared to the raw torment of those inside the bar.

Joe met the man’s eye and nodded.

The man sighed.

“What’s the plan?” Joe asked as he walked back to the entrance of the bar.

“We need to narrow down the search area somehow. There are tons of live traffic and weather cameras all over the city. If I see people unaffected, they are probably too far away from the bomb. The bomb should be near the epicenter.”

“That sounds like it’ll take a lot of time.”

“We already have two data points. If it is affecting those here and the stadium, its epicenter should be somewhere in Manhattan. I can try to narrow it down as we walk.” The man glanced at his laptop on the bar as if to reassure himself the other patrons were not going to steal it, and then started walking.

Heart racing, Joe followed. Never in his life would he have guessed he’d willingly travel in the direction of a bomb.

While they walked, rain darkened the sidewalk. His companion slouched over his phone to keep off the rain as he searched live traffic feeds. Joe slowed as they crossed an intersection littered with broken-down cars. The vehicles that hadn’t already crashed were idling forward, grinding alongside other cars until they encountered something immovable. Their occupants twitched and thrashed just as violently as those on the sidewalks.

“You said they were experiencing their deaths. How?”

“Do you know how the Quantanax works?” The man asked, not looking up from the phone.

“Not really,” Joe replied. He was an electrician, not a scientist. He had heard peoples’ accounts of the experience though. It was like waking up, they said, a sudden restoration of all senses and emotions. Some called this the quantum era, but most called it the Awakening.

“It’s in the name. ‘Quanta’, for quantum state, and ‘Na,’ the atomic symbol for sodium. The drug binds to and activates sodium channels in the brain. There are two electrons in the molecule that become quantum entangled. There are some complicated physics involved, but simply put, this entanglement occurs over time, not distance. When they experience something, it activates sodium channels a few seconds in the past, making their neurons fire and imparting a kind of foresight.”

“But more than a few seconds have passed and there hasn’t been an explosion.”

“That’s where the other realities come into play. You’ve probably heard the argument before. If this drug gives you the power to change the future, was it really the future to begin with? If you stomp on your brakes to avoid a car accident, where does the feedback come from now that you’ve prevented the accident?”

“So you change the future, so what?”

“Breaking causality causes all kinds of contradictions. The only way it can happen is if the Many Worlds Interpretation is true. For every decision, for every instance of quantum uncertainty, a new reality is made, one where you were always going to slam on your brakes.”

“So… they’re experiencing an explosion in another reality, but then they come here, to a version of our world where the bomb hasn’t gone off yet?”

“Precisely. It’s the timer he’s got on that thing that makes it so terrible. If a random quantum event triggers the explosion, it will happen in every reality, but at a completely random time.”

“How do you know all of this?” Joe asked.

“I’m a reporter. I’ve done a few stories on the dangers of Quantanax.” His voice turned bitter. “Not that anyone’s ever read them.”

“Is that why you didn’t get it?”

The man shook his head.

“Allergic,” he said, lifting his arm. A golden medical bracelet hung from his wrist. He gave Joe a knowing smile. “Same as you I suspect. I saw you put that pill in your pocket.”

Embarrassed, Joe nodded. For once, he didn’t receive a look of pity, but one of understanding. This man knew what it was like to be an outcast.

The sidewalk transitioned into a walkway made of worn wooden boards as they came to the Brooklyn Bridge. The prone bodies of native Brooklynders became those of tourists with selfie-sticks. They all experienced the same symptoms, their limbs beating against the wooden walkway in a sound that was indistinguishable from the patter of the rain. Beyond them towered the massive skyscrapers of Manhattan.

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They stepped around one couple who had huddled into one another’s arms.

Joe frowned and took out his phone.

“Who are you calling?” the man asked as Joe put the phone to his ear.

“My wife.”

“If she’s in the city…”

“She lives in Phoenix with her mom.”

The phone rang, and Joe took a deep breath. It had taken all of his willpower not to call her these last few months, but now that it was happening, he wished he had done it sooner. If he didn’t survive this, there was something he needed to say.

“Well this is a pleasant surprise,” his wife said.

“Ana, can we talk?”

“Joe? Joe?” Confusion replaced the sarcasm in her voice.

“I’m here,” Joe said. He glanced at his phone to make sure he hadn’t pressed the mute button.

“Sorry, Joe. Give me a second. I’m feeling dizzy.”

Joe waited a few breaths, but couldn’t wait any longer. The bomb could take this last opportunity away from him.

“We need to talk.”

“Now? Why?” She let out a breath. “I’m sorry, Joe, but I’m feeling really strange right now. Can I call you later?”

“There might not…” he stopped himself from saying there might not be a later. “It’s important.”

“Is she experiencing feedback?” His companion asked. Joe looked up to see the man’s brow furrowed and eyes wide. Joe had fallen back a few paces for privacy, but it hadn’t stopped him from eavesdropping.

“Who is that? Who are you with?” Ana asked.

Joe cursed silently at the interruption.

“This is, uhh.” He’d never gotten a name.

“Hugh.”

“Hugh,” Joe repeated. “He was just asking if you were getting some feedback?”

At Hugh’s urging, Joe put his phone on speaker and held it flat between them. Fat drops of rain pattered against the screen, leaving domes of water that magnified its red, blue, and green pixels.

“It does kind of feel like feedback. Are you guys doing this? It isn’t funny, Joe. It’s giving me a headache.”

Artemis barked and panted at the sound of Ana’s voice. Like Joe, she hadn’t heard from or seen Ana in months.

“It’s not me,” Joe said defensively. He raised his eyebrows at Hugh in question, but the man’s eyes were fixed on the phone.

“What does it feel like?” Hugh asked.

“I don’t know. Confusion? Maybe a bit of anger? It won’t go away. I can hear you just fine, but I keep trying to pull the phone away from my ear to see if you’ve hung up on me. Do you know what’s causing this?”

Hugh finally pulled his eyes from the phone and gave Joe a tight-lipped frown.

He didn’t need to explain it to Joe. She was hearing them die, killed by a bomb that hadn’t gone off yet.

“Have you seen anything in the news?” Joe asked.

“No, I just got home from work.”

“Put her on video chat?” Hugh said, tapping Joe’s shoulder excitedly.

Joe resisted the urge to shrug off his hand.

“No. Why?”

“I’m not video chatting,” Ana said, overhearing Hugh’s request. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

“Someone hid a bomb in the city,” Hugh blurted and Joe gritted his teeth. He hadn’t wanted to worry her. He wanted to say his last words and hang up. She would have thought him drunk and dismissed it, at least until news of the city’s destruction reached her.

“A bomb? Did I hear that right?”

“A Nuke.”

“Shut up,” Joe hissed as he nudged Hugh with an elbow. “She didn’t need to know.”

Hugh stopped. Rather than look offended, his expression was serious.

“We need her help. I know how to find the bomb, but we need to video chat.”

Ana was saying something, but Joe had pressed the phone to his chest to keep her from overhearing.

“What happened to your plan?” Joe asked. Hugh’s phone had disappeared. He had abandoned all attempts to triangulate the bomb through traffic and weather cameras.

“That was going to take too long. This will be faster, and every second counts. Trust me.”

Joe stared into his eyes for a long moment. He couldn’t trust a man he’d just met, but he couldn’t deny his logic. If the bomb was going to detonate in the next twenty-four hours, Ana’s discomfort was a small price to pay for locating it in time.

Joe lifted the phone from his chest.

“Ana. Sorry about that. Listen, I need to video chat. Just for a minute. Please.”

“I’m not video chatting, Joe.”

“It’s a matter of life and death,” Hugh said.

“Fine,” she said, heaving an exasperated sigh. “But if this is some kind of prank, I’m never talking to you again.”

She’d agreed. Anxiety formed a knot in his stomach. How any emotion could rise above the terror of having an armed nuclear weapon nearby was a mystery.

The call-in-progress screen on his phone displayed a new message.

Accept Video?

Joe’s thumb trembled over the yes button for a moment before committing.

“You better be right about this,” he said to Hugh as the video connection was made.

He angled the phone toward him.

Ana’s face filled the screen and his chest ached at the sight of her. Her features were lit by a lamp in the corner of the room. Behind her was the unsightly backdrop of green and yellow wallpaper that adorned her mother’s living room.

Ana’s cheeks had gotten fuller since he’d seen her last, and her eyes were no longer heavy with fatigue. She looked healthy and radiant. Until now, he’d never fully realized how destructive he’d been to her health and career. She was supportive of his allergy in every possible way. For a long time, she resisted getting the treatment, but when her colleagues at her firm rose in rank, leaving her behind, he’d encouraged her to take it. The drug changed her the same way it changed everyone.

One day they’d argued, and she asked him a simple question. She asked if he loved her. He could see the disappointment in her eyes even before he opened his mouth to reply. He didn’t know what he’d been about to say, or if he gave her an answer at all. Whatever feedback she’d received, his answer hadn’t been the right one. She left the next morning.

The moment Ana’s video loaded, she flinched and turned her face away. A second later, she peered at him through her eyelashes.

“God, what is that?”

Hugh pressed close, coming into frame.

“What is it? What do you see?”

“I can barely keep my eyes open. What is that?”

Hugh pumped his fist in victory.

“It’s your light reflex.”

“She’s seeing the light of the bomb?” Joe asked, incredulous.

“Not exactly. The light doesn’t exist in our reality. She’s receiving feedback from an explosion in another reality.”

“What are you talking about?” Ana asked.

Without asking, Hugh snatched the phone from Joe’s hand.

“Ana, right? I need you to tell me when the instinct gets worse… or better.”

Hugh made a little cone with his hand and placed it over the camera to display only a thin wedge of the Manhattan skyline. He then revolved in a slow circle.

“Are those people? Why are they on the ground?”

“Just tell me when it gets worse. Warmer?”

Joe shook his head. Hugh wanted to play a hot and cold game with a nuclear bomb.

It took a few slow revolutions before his wife responded to the odd request.

“Yeah. There. There’s the worst.”

“Alright. It looks like it’s coming from somewhere in Midtown.” He handed the phone back to Joe. “We can make it there in an hour if we hurry.”

Joe gawked at Hugh, who was now jogging down the bridge. His ridiculous plan had worked.

When Joe lifted the phone to eye level, Ana was pinching the bridge of her nose and looking like she might throw up.

“Joe? Is it true? Is there a bomb in the city?”

“Yes. A terrorist made the broadcast about twenty minutes ago. The thing’s on a timer that… well, I don’t know how it works, but it’s incapacitated everyone with the treatment.”

“And you’re trying to find it?” she said, her voice trailing off in horror.

“Yes.”

Her response was immediate. She clutched the fabric of her blouse to her chest, and tears formed in her eyes.

“Oh, god. Something else is happening. The feedback…”

Joe frowned. He hadn’t considered this. Now that she knew what she was seeing, she was experiencing the emotional feedback of his death. He couldn’t help but wonder if this meant she still had feelings for him.

“Then I’ll let you go. I’ll call when this is all over.”

“Joe.” Through her moistened eyelashes, Ana peered at him. “I wish you were here.”

That did it. The answer to the question she’d asked so long ago spilled free.

“I love you, Ana. I’ve never stopped. I’m sorry for everything I put you through. You deserved so much better.”

“Don’t say that, Joe. This isn’t goodbye.” Her tears came faster, unchecked.

He smiled sadly.

“I miss you. Artie misses you. As soon as this is over, I’ll be on the next flight to Phoenix. I will make you proud, I promise.”

For the first time in years, he had a sense of purpose. His allergy had made him an outcast, but now the entire city was relying on him.

They ended their call, and he and Artemis ran to catch up with Hugh.

Hugh had reached the end of the bridge before Joe caught up. Rather than continue their jog, the man stopped beside a tourist.

“Notice anything different?” Hugh asked breathlessly.

Joe took a step forward, and Artemis sniffed the prone body of the tourist. A shattered camera lay on the sidewalk beside him. He was different from the others. Rather than involuntary spasms, all of his muscles were rigid. Sweat or rain created rivulets of moisture down his forehead.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Their spasms have grown closer together as we’ve walked. I think they’re reacting to the light of the bomb, but only until the blast wave kills them. This guy’s only had enough time to tense his muscles before he dies in those other realities.”

Joe thought he might be sick.

“What’ll happen to them when we get closer?” He asked, swallowing bile.

Hugh shrugged.

“I don’t know. But so long as the symptoms are changing, we can narrow down the location even more.”

Joe tugged Artemis’ leash, cutting short her inspection of the tourist, and the three of them continued into the city.

As they traveled though Lower Manhattan, the symptoms lessened. The total paralysis gave way to a city of the blind. According to Hugh, they had only enough time to blink before the blast wave reached them. It hadn’t even been an hour since these people were going about their day confident they could respond to anything the world threw at them. Now they were helpless, walking into walls or sitting on the curb and crying, their eyelids unresponsive to all attempts to open them.

Just a block north of Madison Square Park, they encountered a crowd of people who seemed entirely unaffected. Those who had umbrellas milled about in the steady rain as they read the horrifying news on their phones or conversed with others. Anyone who tried to leave the area instantly experienced symptoms.

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“These people don’t even have time to process an explosion before they die, so the Quantanax doesn’t give them any feedback,” Hugh whispered as they wove through the crowd that had gathered near one of these invisible boundaries.

One man was so distracted by the content of his phone he tripped on the curb and fell to the sidewalk. Rather than stand up, he sat there, jaw gaping at the sight of his skinned palms and broken phone.

It appeared the people nearest the bomb received no feedback at all.

They continued along Fifth Avenue until they encountered a similar crowd just blocks away from the Empire State Building. Hugh turned around and gestured at the buildings lining the street back the way they had come.

“It has to be a building in the middle of these two crowds,” Hugh said. “In the basement, I’d guess.”

“How do you figure?”

“The broadcast was in a large, dark room, but all of these buildings have windows.”

It was better than any of his ideas, Joe thought.

Street lamps had come on, and the rain was letting up as they made their way to the entrance of a large brick building in the center of the two crowds. Once through the revolving door, Artemis shook off the dampness from her fur in a shower of droplets. Joe absently patted her head.

Bright fluorescent lights illuminated directories for law offices and medical specialists, and a vacant reception desk in the lobby.

They moved to the nearest stairwell.

Before they opened the door, Joe unclipped his multi-tool from his belt. He’d forgotten to remove it after work.

Hugh watched with brows raised as Joe flipped out the knife.

“He could still be down there.”

Hugh nodded and gestured for Joe to go ahead of him.

Joe breathed and took the first step into the stairwell. He had never come face to face with a terrorist. Things like this happened a world away, not here at home.

The sound of their footsteps as they descended the stairs made Joe clench his jaw until his teeth ached.

On the door at the bottom of the stairwell, an Authorized Personnel Only sign greeted them. He gathered his courage and pushed through the door.

Inside, a black light set into the rafters made the room glow in a false light. On one side of the room was a storage area for tables, chairs, boxes, and old computers. Among these was a camera mounted on a tripod. Centered in the camera’s field of view sat a cart holding the large cylindrical shape of the bomb.

They had found it. As he stared as the weapon of mass destruction, Joe wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or terrified.

Hugh walked to the bomb and made a couple circuits of the cart, examining it with a critical eye.

Artemis tugged at the leash as if she too wanted to explore the room. Joe swallowed his unease and unclipped Artemis from her leash. Once free, she darted into the room, sniffing every surface as if she hoped to stumble onto something edible. If there was a terrorist lurking in the shadows, she would root him out. He watched her disappear into the darkness, her black fur reflecting little of the black light.

From behind the cart, Hugh lifted the remote detonator.

“Found it.”

“Think you can disarm it?” Joe asked as he approached the cart. He set down his knife and leaned close to examine the handheld device. It was slender, but simple in shape, with a dim red light glowing on the side, and a black button on top.

“I don’t see any other buttons,” Hugh said, holding the device away from him like a snake.

Joe bit his lip. It was against his nature as an electrician to press buttons on unfamiliar devices, but they couldn’t afford to waste more time. After a few seconds passed, he gave Hugh a single nod.

“Here goes nothing, then.”

Hugh pressed the button, and the faint red glow of the LED faded. He let out a long sigh.

A knot of anxiety unraveled within Joe, and he sagged in relief. They had disarmed the bomb. They were heroes. He could only imagine the look on Ana’s face when he told her of this.

As Hugh replaced the remote detonator on the cart beside the bomb, Joe took a few steps further into the room and squinted into the darkness, looking for Artemis. He saw her sniffing the floor just beside the camera tripod.

Curious, Joe approached the setup.

“Shouldn’t you leave that to the police?” Hugh asked, but Joe had already turned on the camera.

There was only one video file, the one the terrorist had filmed. He was about to turn off the camera, but saw the file details.

“That’s strange. It says the video was recorded yesterday.”

Hugh shrugged.

“So?”

Joe picked up a dangling cord that could have plugged into a computer.

“So it means he recorded the video and then broadcast the message a full day later.”

“He probably didn’t want to be in the city when he activated the bomb.”

Joe shook his head. It didn’t make sense. The terrorist would have had to broadcast the video and then activate the bomb at the same time he pressed the button in the video. But if he took the remote detonator with him, how had Hugh found it here.

Hugh was looking at him, his head tilted. The black light made the man’s eyes appear black, and the white button up shirt shone brightly from within the confines of his blazer.

Joe stiffened.

He remembered when he’d first seen Hugh, sitting at the bar with his laptop open, watching the TV. Hugh claimed to be a reporter, one of the few people who knew how to broadcast a video from anywhere.

Whatever Hugh saw in Joe’s eye, it made him slump in defeat.

Joe stepped forward, but Hugh was faster. He snatched the knife off the cart and brought it between them.

Joe stopped, staring at the blade in a nauseating mixture of anger and fear. How had he not seen it sooner?

“You’re very perceptive, Joe. Damn how I wish you weren’t. Do you know how long I sat in that bar waiting for someone like you to come along?”

Joe shivered. Hugh had been waiting, waiting for someone to spill their beer or show some other sign of not taking the treatment.

“You had the detonator this entire time,” Joe said, his voice trembling. “But why activate the bomb if you intended to turn it off? Why bring me into this?”

Hugh’s lips pinched together.

“As vocal as I’ve been about the treatment, people would have suspected me. But with you as my witness, placing me far from the bomb,” Hugh shrugged. “I’d be in the clear.”

“Is that what this is about? You wanted to be a hero? You wanted me to tell your colleagues how you solved the mystery, how you were right about the treatment all along?”

“I’m not the bad guy here, Joe. This is bigger than you or me. Prescience Pharmaceuticals has known about their drug’s weakness for years, but they’ve done nothing. And now our enemies have figured it out. Can you even imagine how much they hate this drug? Our economy has boomed, and our soldiers are indestructible on the battlefield.” Hugh gestured at the bomb. “But with one of these, our enemies could have marched an army into our cities with no opposition. They would have done it too, had I not talked them into a compromise. They gave me a bomb, and I made sure everyone stopped taking the drug. Now that I’ve exposed the weakness, nobody will touch Quantanax again. After today, things will go back to the way they were before.”

Joe was at a loss for words. Joe knew anger and resentment, he had allowed his jealousy to estrange all those he knew and loved. He would have done anything to be like them, to be free of the allergy. But Hugh had gone too far. Joe didn’t care how Hugh rationalized it; he had risked the lives of millions of people so he wouldn’t be an outcast anymore.

“So what now?”

Hugh looked around the room, his expression souring.

“I didn’t want to do this, Joe. I can live without the credit of disarming the bomb. But if I let you leave, I’ll be a fugitive within the hour.”

“So you’ll kill me then?” He said, his words reticent and quavering.

“I’ll make it quick, I promise.” To his credit, he sounded sincere and apologetic.

Joe had made a promise too. He told Ana he’d make her proud. Weakness or no, Quantanax had prevented millions of accidental deaths, reduced the rate of murder, gambling, and made people great at almost everything they did. It had made his wife happy, something he had tried and failed to do. Taking that away from humanity was inexcusable. Joe would not let Hugh walk away from this.

Joe fingered the cloth above his pocket, feeling the round edge of the pill the bartender had given him. He reached into his pocket and withdrew the yellow pill. Before he could give it a second thought, Joe tossed the pill into his mouth, and tilted his head back. He swallowed.

Hugh had ceased his advance, and the tip of the knife lowered.

“What are you doing? It’ll kill you.”

Joe took a deep breath and clenched his fists by his sides.

“But it will kill you first.”

Ghostly sensations flooded over him.

An icy dampness pressed against his hand, making him look down. Artemis approached from behind and nuzzled his hand with her nose. Then there was a sudden pressure against his leg, and Artemis sat down and leaned her weight against him.

This was Feedback. This was the Awakening.

He ruffled her floppy ears and smiled.

Hugh took a step back, but Joe was already giving chase.

There was a sudden pain in his right side, causing Joe to flinch back in time to avoid the tip of the knife as it flashed toward him.

Joe made to grab for the knife, but paused when a surge of disappointment struck him. He redirected his hand a little, and there it was: satisfaction. He followed the feedback until his hand closed over Hugh’s wrist.

Joe ducked to avoid a punch to the head, and without see it, pivoted his hip to block a raised knee. Joe twisted underneath Hugh’s arm, never letting go of the wrist, and Hugh’s shoulder let out a creak and then a sudden pop. Hugh screamed and dropped the knife to the floor.

Out of nowhere, a heart-stopping terror enveloped him. Joe looked over just in time to see Hugh reaching for the cart. The detonator.

Joe leapt for it, but he was too late. Hugh’s hand closed over the device, and his thumb pressed the button.

All feedback stopped.

Joe staggered forward and blinked when all of his sensations became a thing of the present.

The bomb was erasing the feedback.

When he wheeled around, Hugh leaned back and threw the detonator. It sailed into the darkness of the basement to clatter to the ground on the opposite side of the room, outside the illumination of the black light.

Joe dove and together they fell to the floor in a tangle of limbs.

A fist made contact with Joe’s temple, stunning him. When his vision snapped back into focus, he found his hands around Hugh’s throat. He squeezed.

Hugh pried at Joe’s fingers, but with only one uninjured arm, he could gain no leverage. Instead, he clawed at Joe’s face.

Joe didn’t let go, and soon Hugh’s futile attempts to dislodge him slowed and then stopped.

Even after the light left Hugh’s eyes, Joe remained atop him, his hands squeezing until they ran out of strength.

Joe rolled off Hugh, and tried to crawl across the floor toward the detonator, but he didn’t make it a dozen feet before he collapsed. A shroud of darkness formed around the periphery of his vision and he desperately sucked air through his closing windpipe. This was anaphylaxis, he thought dimly.

Hugh had thrown the detonator too far, too far for him to reach in his current state. It was lost in a place where nobody would find it.

His only comfort was that, in at least one reality, he had disarmed the bomb, had made his wife proud of him.

Something rolled to a stop beside him. Joe turned his head to see Artemis sit down a few feet away. Under the black light, slobber glowed on the handle of the detonator.

She could never resist chasing something thrown near her.

Breathless and panicked, he took the detonator in his trembling fingers, for once uncaring of the slobber, and pressed the button.

The red LED faded, and moments later, so did he.

 

I hope you enjoyed the free short story. If you’d like to be notified of my future posts, please remember to follow me here and on Twitter @PhilipKramer9.

Until next time, write well and science hard.

2017 N3F Short Story Contest- 1st Place Winner!

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I have exciting news!

I’ve won another contest!

This one happens to involve three of my short stories. In December, during my vacation, I came across a writing contest by The National Fantasy Fan Federation (N3F), the oldest international Science Fiction and Fantasy fan club on Earth. They’ve been publishing stuff since 1941. Per contest rules, I could submit up to three short stories. It just so happened that I had some sitting around, waiting for a publisher to snatch them up. I submitted all three, and a month later, I received an email that went something like this (excluding story-specific feedback):

“To the Author of Nautilus:
[…] Great story! Exquisite pacing, excellent construction, a beautiful dramatic build-up to the climax, a strong and active climax, flawless narration, and good dialogue. […]
Your story did not win in the 2017 National Fantasy Fan Federation Short Story Contest, but was one of the nine Finalists.

“To the Author of “Icarus Drowned”:
[…] Everything about this story is great. There is absolutely nothing I could teach you about writing!
Your story did not win in the 2017 National Fantasy Fan Federation Short Story Contest, but was one of the nine Finalists.

“To the Author of “Quantum Quietus”
[…] Wow! This is a totally nifty story! It brings new ideas to the table, in new ways. The protagonist is well developed, the narration is strong, the dialogue is mature, and the *ideas* are just staggering! […] The story is a gem and a joy.
This story has won First Prize in the 2017 National Fantasy Fan Federation Short Story Contest!

So in addition to taking up a third of the finalists’ slots, I also got 1st place!

True, I have no idea how many people entered the contest, but I’ll get some prize money out of it and a shot at getting another of my stories published.

The inspiration behind the winning story:

I was inspired to write “Quantum Quietus” after researching the strange and instantaneous communication of quantum-entangled particles, even over large distances. The only way to make sense of the phenomenon was to conclude that time itself did not apply to entangled particles. By acting on one, that action would reach back in time to the moment of entanglement, and define the properties of its partner. I envisioned a day when the pharmaceutical industry could make a drug that entangles our minds, allowing us to receive Feedback from seconds into the future. The story also delves into the dangers of playing with quantum uncertainty. In the words of the antagonist, “If humanity continues to allow the principles of quantum uncertainty to direct our future, it will discover just how uncertain that future is.”

Summary of the story:

Joe is one of the handful of people allergic to Quantanax, the latest drug from Prescience Pharmaceuticals. It gives people the near supernatural ability to see into the future. With just a few seconds of foresight, their reflexes become quick, their actions unerring, and their mistakes erased before they ever happened. They called it Feedback, the new sixth sense. Had things turned out different, Joe could have been like them. His life would be free of unpredictability and hardship, better in every way.

When television broadcasts are hijacked, and a man with a mask and synthesized voice walks onto the screen, Joe realizes he’s more fortunate than he first believed. The masked man has placed a nuclear device in the city, one triggered by a Quantum Random Number Generator. As the man activates the device, nearly everyone drops to the ground, catatonic, and overwhelmed as they experience their deaths second after second. Unaffected, Joe is the city’s only hope to find the bomb and shut it down.

 

I’ll be sure to supply the link to the award announcement as soon as the N3F newsletter is released, and another link to the story if/when it gets published.

I apologize to my readers for yet another writing update. I promise to get back to my regular Science in Sci-Fi posts soon. I do quite a lot of science writing for my day job, so my brain has been over-saturated lately.

Until next time, write well and science hard! (I think this will be my new slogan).

 

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“Feldspar” is now published

I’m happy to report that “Feldspar,” the story that won me the 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award, has officially been published on the Baen website, where you can read it for free!

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Screenshot of the Baen main page’s listing of “Feldspar.” Click the image to be redirected there.

Here’s the blurb they wrote for the story in their newsletter:

“In the future, a gaming company is accomplishing what governmental space agencies tried and failed to do: they’re slowly making Mars suitable for human habitation. But to do so they’ll need the help of a team of gamers back on planet Earth. One such gamer is Blake; his remote-controlled rover is Feldspar. But not all Martian exploration is done from the safety of an ergonomic chair in front of a computer desk back on Earth. Astronauts still make the dangerous trip to the Red Planet. And where human space flight is concerned, things can go very wrong very quickly. Now, Blake and his intrepid rover are all that stand between one astronaut and certain death in “Feldspar,” the grand prize winner of the 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award.”

Last month I flew to St. Louis to attend the International Space Development Conference to receive the award, and to meet with Baen editor, Tony Daniel, and the contest administrator, William Ledbetter. I had the chance to meet with several other authors at the conference, including the runner up, Stephen Lawson, and the third place winner M. T. Reiten. Baen also published Stephen’s story, Bullet Catch. It is a story stuffed with fascinating characters, science, and suspense. It is well worth the read.

Group photo

From left to right: M. T. Reiten, Me, Stephen Lawson, and Bill Ledbetter

Tony surprised us with a request for an interview at the conference to discuss our short stories and our backgrounds. You can listen to the interview below, which was aired on the Baen Free Radio Hour Podcast on May 26th.


The talks at the conference were amazing, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a huge nerd. I heard talks on space elevators, space beacons, space medicine, planet colonization and exploration, Mars simulations, and new ways to harvest asteroids and solar energy. I even got to share the award banquet with Linda Godwin, a former astronaut and recipient of the Missouri Space Pioneer Award. Needless to say, I came away from it with all kinds of new story ideas.

Linda Godwin presentation

Presentation by Linda Godwin

I don’t believe my own acceptance speech was recorded, but I’ve transcribed it for you below. To hear the introductory speech Tony gave, listen to the above podcast.

“Thank you, Tony.
It is an honor to receive this award as both a writer and a scientist, and to be here at this amazing conference.
I’d like to thank all those who helped make it happen, especially my family and friends who gave me valuable feedback on the story,  Bill Ledbetter, the contest administrator, and all the judges who chose my story from all the other entries. It couldn’t have been an easy decision. Finally, I would like to thank Jim Baen, for the impact he had on science fiction, and the legacy he left behind.
It would be difficult to find a scientist here who was not in some way inspired by science fiction. I think we’ve all dreamed of a future where traveling to space becomes no more routine than getting on the bus to work each morning. The part of me that’s a writer can only dream of this future; it’s up to the scientist in me, in all of us, to make it a reality.
Thank you.”

Last but not least, I got to explore St. Louis with my girlfriend, Megan. First on our to-do list was to RE-explore the City Museum. The last time we went, we lost a large number of our photos due to a cell-phone malfunction, so we had to re-document the amazing place. We felt like kids again.


Now for my regular readers, I’m happy to tell you that I’ll be getting back to my regular science in sci-fi posts. I have a big one planned for next month, so stay tuned.

Writing Update-December

For those of you who didn’t notice, I failed to write a single post during the month of November. I didn’t forget about you. November was packed with all kinds of distractions. The first half of November was spent preparing for and then attending a science conference (Society for Redox Biology and Medicine) in San Francisco. I had a blast and learned a lot, but couldn’t get a whole lot of writing time in. The conference ended the weekend before Thanksgiving and I stayed in San Francisco to spend it with some family in the area. Because this post is light on visuals, I made this little squirrel to represent how I felt after the week of Thanksgiving:

thanksgiving-squirrel

November, as many of you know, was also National Novel Writing Month. I never participate in NaNoWriMo, but I did plan on getting my book edited. Sadly, after spending weeks without any creative outlet, I couldn’t bear the thought of editing. Instead, starting Thanksgiving week, I began a short story project. The story has been bouncing around in my head for a while, but I now had a reason to get it out on paper.

That reason is the Jim Baen Memorial short story award. I stumbled on to this contest last year, but couldn’t meet the deadline (Feb. 1st). The thing I love most about this contest, besides the fact that it is free to enter, is that they allow short stories of up to 8000 words in length. I have a hard time writing stories shorter than 4000 words, which is the norm for most contests. The other thing I love about this contest, is its mission. Not only is it requesting strictly science fiction stories, but stories that can help inspire scientific progress. This isn’t just meaningless propaganda either. They will give the top three finalists free admission to the 2017 International Space Development Conference as well as a bunch of other prizes.

I am almost finished with the short story and hope to share more details in the near future. In short, it is about a Mars rover operator who finds himself in a position to save the life of a Martian astronaut. I am tempted to call it brilliant, but I am still coming down from a creativity high. Its true quality will be determined during editing.

For my last bit of news,  I participated in the Twitter SFFpit event for a few hours earlier today. I had one acquisitions manager from a small press show interest in Quotidian but I am holding out for a literary agent who can get me the best deal. For those of you who don’t know, SFFpit is very much like other Twitter pitch contests. Summarizing your book in 140 characters is no easy feat. To give you an idea of how short that is, this sentence is 132 characters long with spaces, and I haven’t even included the hashtag. You can check out my twitter feed on the bottom of the page to see what variations I tried. The SFF pitch event was hosted by Dan Koboldt. If you recognize his name, it’s because I recently wrote a guest post for him on Enclosed Ecosystems and Life Support.

December will be a bit light on posts as well as I will be in lab for 10+ hours a day trying to crank out some data before the holidays. Speaking of holidays, I will be in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, so there is little to no chance of me blogging during that time. I will be on a beach somewhere drinking cocktails and soaking my pale Seattle skin in sunlight.

With that, I am behind on editing and have a lot more to do before I can send my book to beta readers early next year. I’ve already put together a beta-reader book cover (below)! Wish me luck.

cover-quotidian

Beta-reader cover for Quotidian. It depicts a scene from the book.