#AtoZChallenge: Time Lapse

It was another quiet summer day. Tina Davis was in the kitchen, washing the dishes after lunch. she was trying not to cry too audibly, lest her seven year daughter Sandy hear her.

Sandy had been diagnosed with leukemia only a month ago, but things were already looking grim. It wouldn’t be too long before she had to be put into hospice care. Tina didn’t want to dwell on what would happen after that. How could things possibly have gone so wrong? She put the last plate on the rack to dry and walked out the back door into her yard.

She pulled out a pack of cigarettes from her apron and put one between her lips. She’d given up smoking almost a year ago, but it was the only solace she could find from everything that was happening.

As Tina fumbled in the pockets of her apron for a lighter, she saw a strange flash of light in the small wooded area behind the house, right near the neighbors’ yard. A glowing door had appeared there. Through squinted eyes, Tina could just make out a shape emerging from the door, which closed immediately after.

The figure that emerged from the door was dressed like an astronaut, or rather, a child’s idea of what an astronaut looked like. It wore a bulky rust-colored suit with a large chestplate that had a timer on it. Black tubes ran from the plate to the helmet of the suit, which was opaque. Yet somehow, Tina had the sense that the thing was looking right at her. It flipped open the visor of its helmet to reveal darkness. It had no face or head. Just a swirling void. Tina felt her mouth go dry and an odd tingling sensation all over her body, as if she had just touched a doorknob after shuffling her feet on the carpet.

The sensation stopped.

Tina couldn’t remember why she had come into the yard. She looked around at the cloudless sky, the lush trees, the empty space by the neighbor’s yard. What was she doing out here?

“Mum!”

Sandy’s voice jerked Tina back to the present. She turned to see her smiling face on the other side of the kitchen door. Tina smiled back. She still couldn’t believe the miracle that was standing in front of her. It was close to two years ago that Sandy had been diagnosed with leukemia, doomed to never recover from it. But then, she got better. Tina didn’t remember how. In fact, she couldn’t remember the past year at all. All she knew was that Sandy was alive, and one of the happiest nine year olds she had ever seen.


 

Dr. Adam Wilfrey walked up the steps to the Bureau of Time Management, fumbling in his coat pocket for his ID card. Doris at the security desk buzzed him through.

“Ah, thanks, Doris,” he said, still trying to find the card as he walked to the elevator. “Oh, and good morning!”

Doris smiled and shook her head.

The Bureau of Time Management was a nondescript office building in London’s West End. It had been established a few years ago, when time travel had started to become commonplace, and temporal anomalies started popping up from misuse of the technology. The Bureau was formed to track and contain the anomalies and to make sure that there were no lasting disruptions in the time stream.

Adam Wilfrey was in charge of the Bureau and liked to get in early to make sure everything was running smoothly. He made himself a cup of tea in the break room and walked into the main laboratory to check on the chronometers. They were running as expected. Dr. Wilfrey took a satisfied sip of his tea, but didn’t get to savor it for long. He was staring at one of the chronometers, which was showing something rather odd.

The previous year was missing. All of it. But there were no alarms, no notifications. Nothing at all to indicate that something was wrong.

Dr. Wilfrey put down his tea and picked up the phone on the desk. It was going to be a very long morning.

#AtoZChallenge: Sweetest Sound

Sonmore High School was quiet at midday, quieter than it had ever been.

Most of the students were in class.

A small group was hiding under the bleachers out by the football field. One of them had a packet of cigarettes, stolen from his mother.

A couple of young lovebirds had snuck into one of the supply closets to fool around.

Ms. Tanner was writing out an equation on the board. Her chalk slid along the slate surface without making a sound. Her students looked at each other in confusion.

Mr. Patrick’s class had been giggling about his odd haircut mere moments ago. Their grins turned to shocked stares as their voices died in their throats.

Stacy Hicks had been reading aloud from MacBeth in English class. She continued sounding out the words, looking around the room for any signs that the others heard her, growing more frantic as she saw the fear on their faces.

The boy by the football field dropped his cigarettes when he could no longer hear his friends joking amongst each other.

The couple in the supply closet screamed when their loving moans died away, but nobody heard them.

Not a sound was heard anywhere in the school. No talking. No yelling. No laughter. No droning lectures. No footsteps. No heartbeats.

Ms. Sybil walked into the library with a smile on her face. Silence at last. Just the way she liked it.

#AtoZChallenge: Rained Out

“Another ‘impossible drowning’ case. Victim found dead in a suite at the Chesterton Hotel. This one’s even weirder than the others.”

“How’s that?”

“The suite’s on the 50th floor.”

“Damn. How the hell does that even happen?”

“Ya got me, partner.”

Detective Roger Bakshi was stumped, and he wasn’t the sort of man who was stumped easily. Three murder victims in the same week. All three drowned. None of them were near a body of water. A waterlogged car sitting in a garage, a greenhouse that got turned into an aquarium, and now this. It didn’t make a damn bit of sense.

Two men and a woman. Different ages. Not all the same race. No professional connection. No common interests. No thread that ran through them. But they had obviously been killed by the same guy. Or gal. How, though? How does someone flood a sealed room unnoticed? Even clogging the toilet and tub wouldn’t cause that to happen.

Bakshi arrived at the Chesterton and was escorted up by the manager.

His partner, Chandni Harrison, was already at the crime scene. His scuffed shoes squelched on the wet carpet as he walked over to her.

“So, what have we got?”

Chandni gestured to the bloated gray body lying on the giant double bed at one end of the suite. “Meet Prabhat Wallace. CEO of HighPoint, an online rag focused on celebrity gossip and ridiculous rumors. He was found by the housekeeping staff in the morning when they went to clean his room and noticed a large puddle of water under the door. Little did they know that was just a teaser.”

She tapped her foot on the floor, which reeked of mildew. “The victim was probably killed last night, though there wasn’t any record of him having visitors.

His body fell onto the bed when the water was drained. That’s about all we can determine for now. Course, it doesn’t look like he was getting ready to turn in for the night.”

The victim was dressed in a loud buttoned shirt and slacks, probably on his way out to enjoy the nightlife or have a few drinks at the hotel bar. A look of shock was frozen onto his bloated face. No kidding. Who wouldn’t be shocked about drowning in their hotel room? Aside from every surface being wet or water damaged, there wasn’t a trace of outside interference.

“He wasn’t planning to go for a swim either. Did the killer use a fireman’s hose or something?”

“Thing is, there’s no record of abnormally high water usage in this area. It didn’t come from the faucets or the fire hydrant at the end of the street.”

Bakshi rubbed his stubbled chin in frustration. This case was making less sense by the minute.

One of the uniformed officers approached them. “Detectives. This might be of interest.”

He held up a book that was found hidden in the victim’s briefcase. On the front cover, bold, snaking letters read: ‘Indraloka: Cult of the Rain God’. The two detectives exchanged a look.

“So our guy was in a cult?” Chandni asked.

“Looks like it. And, hey, hold on a second.” Bakshi’s brow crinkled. “I’ve seen that book somewhere before – Professor Mitra!”

“The history professor who drowned in his car?”

“Yes! I saw a copy of the book in his house!”

Chandni’s eyes narrowed. “You’re right. I remember seeing it too. Second row on his bookshelf. Wanna bet the third victim had a copy as well?”

The faintest trace of a grin crossed Bakshi’s face. “That’s just easy money.”

The both of them thanked the officer, then headed back to the station. Cult of the Rain God? That might explain why the victims were drowned. But it still didn’t provide a damn clue about how.


 

“Need anything else?”

The waitress had a pretty smile. He had noticed that the moment he walked into the place. She could easily have been half apsara. He smiled back at her with a radiance that belied his drab gray clothes.

“No, thank you. Just the check please.”

He looked out the window after she had gone. Fat drops of rain splattered against the glass; it sounded like the tapping of giant fingers. He could have stopped it with a mere thought, caused the clouds to retreat and brought the sun out again. But he liked the rain. There was beauty in the chaos of the storm, in the symphony of thunder and lightning. If it were up to him, he would spend the rest of the day sitting by that window, humming to the rhythm of the rain.

Idly, he ran a finger along the water glass in front of him, causing its contents to bubble and froth like the ocean on a stormy night. He put a stop to it before the waitress returned.

The man in the gray overcoat paid his bill, left a generous tip and walked out the door. The whole world was dripping wet, but not a single drop of rain touched him. They merely bounced off, as if they were little rubber balls.

He took a small notebook out of his pocket and consulted the list of names written on the first page. Three had already been crossed out. He traced a finger along the fourth, then put the notebook back.

It was time to go to work.

 

#AtoZChallenge: Quantum Dislocation, or The Assassin Who Brought No Spare Pants

Quentin was stuck and couldn’t see any way out. When he had woken up that morning to the chiming melody of his holo-alarm, he couldn’t possibly have guessed that mere hours later, he’d be sinking in quicksand. Yet there he was. Life could be funny sometimes. Not funny like a good joke, but you get the point.

He was sinking fast and had not time for a flashback, but Quentin would be damned if he didn’t get some exposition in before dying.

Quentin Fiddleswitch was what they called a ‘ghost’. Not in the sense that he was dead, but more in the sense that he could phase between dimensions at will. He could, for example, exit the dimension of this story and enter the world where you’re sitting at your computer reading this. Or at least, he could if he still had his phase disruptor with him. Alas, he did not. All he had was a very sinking feeling and an aversion to bad puns.

I should also probably mention that he was an assassin. That’s important for the next part of the story.

Quentin had been hired by The Organization (a secret society so secretive that they didn’t even have a real name) to eliminate a high-ranking government official, because who would bother paying him for one of the low-ranking officials? Or an intern? Could you imagine a man such as Quentin Fiddleswitch being hired to kill an intern? Hardly.

The official was a member of the Council for Inter-Dimensional Regulation and Safety Against Interlopers From Other Dimensions, which, aside from being a terribly impractical name, also meant bad news for Quentin and his ilk. So he set out on his task, gathering intel on his target and working out the best way to kill him and make it look like an accident. When you’re a shadowy and ominous group like The Organization, it seems you would just kill people and not worry about your PR, but they were very finicky about hiding their involvement in these things. It didn’t really matter to Quentin as long as he got paid.

At last he had the perfect plan. The official was going on a jungle expedition in a parallel universe. Some sort of inter-dimensional political maneuver, but basically a paid vacation and photo-op. Quentin knew exactly what he had to do. It involved an irate crocodile (though on further examination, he was certain it was an alligator), a poison dart, two cans of whipped cream and a pit of quicksand. It was inspired. A true work of art. A plan so ingenious that it would be pointless to explain it as you lot wouldn’t comprehend its sublime intricacies anyway.

No offense to you.

But it was a good plan.

However, as you’ve probably figured out from reading the introductory paragraph, things did not go to plan. Of course you did. I never doubted your intelligence for a second.

Through a series of rather improbable and frankly ludicrous events, Quentin ended up accidentally phasing into his own trap. The alligator ran off with his disruptor belt, the official escaped unharmed (and with several lovely pictures of his expedition to have as keepsakes or to share with strangers on the webbosphere) and all Quentin had left was a half empty can of whipped cream. It was of no use to him at all, so he threw it away.

He was struggling to escape and regretting the little detour into the past. Instead of narrating previous events, I could have been talking about how he got out of his perilous situation. But then how would you have caught up on what’s happened? It’s not like there’s a pamphlet accompanying this story or anything.

As he sank another inch, Quentin realized there was only one way out of this. He needed a deus ex machina. An author-devised solution that would save him from the most impossible odds. Fortunately, he had one. An improbable series of events that led to Quentin being pulled out of the quicksand by the very same alligator that had put him there. Call it irony, providence or contrived drivel, it did the trick. Quentin was out. Unfortunately, he was also naked and watched the collar of his shirt disappeared into the pit with a sorry gloop.

After a grueling gator-wrestling session, Quentin retrieved his phase disruptor belt. Since he had failed in his mission, he needed to get away and lay low for a while. The governments of several dimensions would be displeased about the attempted assassination and The Organization didn’t forgive failure. Though honestly, it wouldn’t be much of an evil society if it did.

So Quentin strapped on his belt and piloted a course for the one dimension where he could be safe for a while. I can’t really tell you where he went,of course, but it’s a place where The Organization’s influence doesn’t extend. Not yet, anyway, but that would be a story for another time.

So that’s it then, the tale of Quentin Fiddleswitch and his failed assassination attempt. You can move along and get back to your daily lives. Writing biographies or shopping for new hats or whatever it is people do in their spare time. And if you happen to see a naked little man wearing a strange belt run past, don’t be alarmed.

Just find him some pants.

#AtoZChallenge: Peacekeepers

Pavel tapped his staff against the ground. He had already been waiting for fifteen minutes and old age hadn’t build up his patience much. He scanned the sky again, but it was still clear. He was on the outskirts of the city, standing outside a makeshift hut in the ruins that existed at the edge of the desert. It was a good place to think and to discuss matters of importance, away from the prying eyes and ears of the faction leaders.

It also gave him a good view of the city skyline and the low surrounding buildings made it easy to spot anyone, or anything, coming by air. So far, he hadn’t seen anything other than a few scout drones. Then a dot appeared on the horizon. Pavel drove his staff into the ground and stood up on shaky knees. Pallas had arrived.

She swooped low over the half-demolished buildings, circling one before landing a few feet away from the old man. She was tall, towering over his hunched form easily. Her golden armor had a dull sheen to it, and the gilded wings on her back were wide enough to shade him completely. As she strode toward him, the wings retracted into a small pack on her back. The visor of her flight helmet pulled back to reveal an angular face with skin the color of burnished bronze, a few strands of silvery hair peeking out from under the helmet’s rim.

“Pallas,” he said, standing as tall as he could but still having to look up at her. “What tidings do you bring? Has a decision been reached?”

“They’ve agreed to a truce.”

Pallas had been sent to negotiate peace between the Monduti and the Revain, two of the most powerful clans in the city. They each controlled several territories and had alliances with many of the other factions, but it was never enough. They were ready to rip the entire place apart if neither of them could control it. Pavel and his Peacekeepers had to step in to prevent that from happening. They were the official arbitrators of the city, tasked with keeping it in harmony by masters who had long been forgotten.

It hadn’t been easy getting the Monduti and the Revain into the same room without causing a bloodbath, but Pallas had a knack for persuasion. She wasn’t the Captain of the Peace for nothing. She had managed to broker an agreement between them.

“But there are conditions,” she said,  “And if even one is not met, the whole thing collapses into chaos again.”

“I see.” Pavel turned away from her, his shoulders drooping. “It can never be easy, can it?” He ran a hand through his matted gray beard. “But it’s a start, at least.”

“Yes. It is.”

Maintaining the peace between warring factions was an uphill task, and as more factions splintered, forming their own groups and coming into conflict with each other, it was only going to become more of a challenge. Pavel couldn’t afford to lose control of any of them.

“What are the conditions of the truce?”

Pallas pressed a plate on one of her gauntlets, causing it to project a small holographic screen. “The Monduti had a spy in the ranks of the Revain. The Revain want the spy executed in public to discourage any such betrayals in the future.”

“And what do the Monduti want?”

“Control of one of the Revain’s smaller territories.”

“Sounds simple enough.”

“The Revain are willing to hand over control, but the territory chief isn’t being cooperative. He’s prepared to fight. That could upend everything we’ve done so far.”

Pavel considered that for a moment. “And if he surrenders, will that satisfy them? Will it put an end to this war?”

Pallas inclined her head. “For now.”

“It will have to do. Very well. Convince the chief to surrender. If he’s still feeling stubborn, kill him swiftly.” He locked eyes with Pallas. “Do not give him any opportunity to fight.”

“Understood. And the execution?”

“Yes, that’s fine. Just ask them not to turn it into a celebration. We’re satisfying basic conditions, nothing more.”

Pallas nodded. Her wings extended themselves again and flapped once, sending up a cloud of dust. She took off, headed back to the city.

Pavel shuffled over to his hut and sat down on a wooden crate, feeling it creak under his weight. The factions enjoyed testing the limits of his tolerance. But if it helped him maintain the peace, he could live with it. The occasional bloodshed was a small price to pay for the larger goal.

#AtoZChallenge: Outsider

Olive Orkin never fit in with the other children. As she grew up, she never fit in with other adults much, either. She was forever the outsider, watching others huddle into close-knit groups while she hung around by herself. In her family, she was the odd duck, the one who stood out from the rest.

Even her uncle Bainbridge, the black sheep of the Orkin house who had tarnished the family name several times over through acts that none of her relatives dared discuss in the open, fit in better than she did. Such was her lot in life.

Most people worried that others would speak about them behind their backs, but that was never a problem for Olive. They spoke about her when she was right there, though to them she seemed invisible.

Olive was getting ready for her first day at a new job, and she was not looking forward to it. She knew the routine. People would remark on her newness and how she would soon be part of the group, yet within minutes, an unseen wall would crop up between them, cutting Olive off from the rest of her co-workers. She had been bumping into that wall her whole life with no hope of climbing over it.

After getting off the bus, which stopped a ten-minute walk away from her office, Olive trudged her way to the gleaming building and in past the sprightly receptionist who would likely forget about her within the week, if not sooner.

There the usual hellos and welcomes. She was given a quick tour by the office manager, Alice. She was shown the break room, the copy room and two meeting rooms. Finally, she was shown to her desk and assigned her tasks for the day. She buried herself in her work and tried not to worry about anything else.

People walked by her desk throughout the morning, often in pairs or small groups. Whenever she got up, she was alone. But she was used to it. She had been expecting it.

At lunchtime, a few people went to the break room. Some would head to the cafeteria on one of the lower floors, and one small group took over one of the conference room, bags of takeout in hand. Olive decided the break room would be the easiest option.

Alice was there, along with Delia, one of the accountants, and another new girl whose name Olive didn’t quite catch; she had started work the week before. The three of them had their backs to Olive, paying her no mind. It was just was well for her. She shrugged and started walking to the mini fridge, but never made it all the way to the fridge door.

Alice, who still hadn’t seen Olive come in, took the new girl’s hand in her own and pulled it toward her mouth. Olive’s cheeks reddened. She hadn’t expected to walk in on something so intimate, and certainly not in the middle of the day. Were public displays of affection a regular thing around the office? Just another awkward social wave that she’d have to surf? She thought it best to just enjoy her lunch in peace and worry about that later.

The new girl didn’t move or make a sound. She wasn’t even looking in Alice’s direction. She was staring at the wall. That seemed odd to Olive, but then, if her manager suddenly decided to get cozy at work, she might do the same. Delia just sat and smiled. Alice leaned in, as if she were about to kiss the girl’s hand. But that’s not what she did.

Alice bit down on the girl’s hand, just between the thumb and forefinger; Olive saw two little streams of blood flow out, then retreat under Alice’s lips. That’s not very romantic, Olive thought, her mind still catching up to the situation. As Alice was feeding off that hand, Delia took the other and did the same thing. Olive stood transfixed. Minutes later, both of them let go of the girl, who still hadn’t moved.

Delia’s head whipped around, followed by Alice; they both fixed Olive with a steady, calm gaze. Olive looked from one to the other. She wasn’t really sure how to react to this revelation so she gave them an awkward smile, her lips parting just enough for her fangs to catch the light. They smiled back and offered her a seat at the table.

Olive sat down, feeling in much better spirits than at the start of the day. Maybe she wouldn’t be an outsider after all. In fact, she thought, as she examined the twin bruises blossoming on the new girl’s hand, she would fit in just fine.

#AtoZChallenge: Nemesis

It was another quiet afternoon in the neighborhood and Neville Bartson was looking forward to a warm cup of tea while sitting out on his lawn. He was growing accustomed to retirement, to hours spent without worrying about tasks that needed to be completed, and naps that weren’t interrupted by crisis. It had been two years since he moved into the neighborhood looking for a change of pace, and he’d certainly found it. He had no family to speak of, though he had come to know his neighbors quite well. Neville was truly enjoying his golden years.

He went out to the little garden that he had started tending. A few buds were starting to sprout; it wouldn’t be long before the flower bed would be a bloom of colors. Satisfied, Neville was about to walk back inside when he saw someone standing on the sidewalk, watching him.

The figure was covered from head to toe in copper-colored armor, with little touches of black and steel gray to break up the color. A dark cloak was slung around one shoulder and he wore a helm on his head with two curving bull-like horns and a slot through which baleful eyes glared. A scabbard hung from his left hip with a sword that might have been half the length of his body.

“Hello there,” Neville said, with a small wave. “Are you looking for someone?”

The mysterious figure raised one gloved hand, each finger covered by several overlapping armored segments. He pointed right at Neville.

“It is you I seek, Neville Bartson!” His voice was like thunder booming in an auditorium. “I have traveled many leagues on a journey of many days to find you. Long have I awaited our meeting. ”

Neville’s forehead wrinkled. “I’m sorry, I don’t believe I know you.”

The figure thrust its armored chest out and loomed over him. “I am Glomdar the Misfortuner, Terror of the Saltlands and Scourge of Fenhall!”

“Glomdar…” Neville thought for a moment. “Hold on, are you the Gillings’ boy from across the street? I always thought your name was Kevin. You work in insurance, don’t you?”

“I know not of this Kevin! I am Glomdar of the Ravenspit! Despair is my helm and Devastation my cloak!”

“And that pays well, does it? Sounds more exciting than insurance.”

Glomdar gawked at him in disbelief. “Enough of this!” he roared, waving one hand in a loud, clanking gesture. “I have not come here to speak of insurance! I have come for you, Neville Bartson! I am your nemesis!”

“You are?” Neville scratched his nose. “Odd…I don’t remember hiring one. Very well then, you may be a nemesis if you like. I’m not reimbursing you for meals, though.”

Glomdar stiffened. “What?”

“Look, I don’t fully understand the terms of our contract, but if you’re going to be my nemesis you’ll have to cover your own expenses.”

Glomdar was trying to assess the situation, his dark eyes darting around furiously behind his helmet. “I had not expected this. I was told that you were a formidable foe, Neville Bartson. But you are just…just…”

“Old?” Neville smiled. “You may mock me now, young man, but one day, you’ll have aching joints to worry about too. Rather soon, I expect, with all that heavy armor jangling about.”

The both of them stood where they were in silence. A car passed by, slowing momentarily as the driver did a double take. A bird chirped somewhere above them.

“Would you like some tea?” Neville said.

Glomdar was dumbstruck. He clenched and unclenched one fist, considering this unexpected proposal. He nodded.

“Come on in then.”

Neville got out his most elegant tea cups, white porcelain with a floral design along one side. They had always been reserved for guests, but Neville didn’t have too many people coming around of late. He filled them with boiling water, put tea leaves in two strainers (Neville never used tea bags) and let them steep for a few moments. Glomdar was sitting at the small round table in the kitchen, shifting and adjusting his armor.

Neville placed the cups on a tray and brought them to the table.

“I’m sorry, I should have asked if you wanted any sugar.”

Glomdar shook his head. “Sweetness does not suit me, Neville Bartson.”

“You can just call me Neville, you know. No need for such formality.”

“Very well. Neville.”

The little china teacup looked even more dainty in Glomdar’s giant hands, as if he were cradling a newly hatched bird. He took a sip, taking care not to scratch the cup against the sharp edges of his helmet.

“How do you like it?”

‘It pales in comparison to the nectar of the Dire Gods, but it is quite nice.”

“It’s chamomile.”

“Ah.”

Glomdar placed the cup gently back on its saucer with a soft clink.

“I am grateful that you invited me into your home, Neville. But I must fulfill my purpose. As your nemesis, I have come to challenge you to a duel from which only one of us can emerge victorious. Prepare yourself for battle. I will give you fifteen mi – ”

Glomdar paused then, and his eyes widened as he looked at Neville. Both hands clutched at his throat.

“You cheated!” he croaked, before toppling to the floor in a clanking heap.

Neville finished his tea, put the cups away and walked up to his attic. Soft cooing sounds greeted him. He smiled at the white pigeon that sat in a small coop by the window, its feathers tinged with silver. There was a desk near the coop with a sheaf of parchments. Neville took a parchment and scrawled a message on it, then went to the coop and tied it around one of the pigeon’s legs.

“Godspeed, Cloudpiercer.”

The pigeon fluttered out of his hands, circled around the neighborhood twice, then disappeared into the clear spring sky. Neville went back down and set about removing Glomdar’s armor. He had given up the old ways so long ago. He didn’t think anyone still remembered his name anymore. It was flattering to think that some young upstart should consider him worth of a challenge, but he was well past the age of dueling.

Neville preferred to kill his enemies with kindness. A little cobra venom didn’t hurt either.