With gills fully functioning Lucy slipped into the briny undertow. It feels so good to be home. An interminable six years of university, three years of residency, and five years of medical research weighed heavy on her spirit. Lucy had been landlocked during that time learning to heal the soilbounders. Every homesick minute on land she had ached for the gentle support of salt water, the slow hum of the ocean, purified air to flow across her gills and whistle deep into her dual-stage lungs. A strong swimmer, even among a species of swimmers, this morning she surged sixty feet down to the bottom. Sixty or seventy feet was the maximum depth at which her kind, the coastal-folk, could survive. There she lazed on her back gazing up at the reflected sea surface. For the first time in fourteen years she tasted sweet fresh kelp from the ocean floor. She smiled as a family of four glided into the kelp for lunch.
Her lungs and air bladder had combined to defy gravity her entire life until she was inducted for service and forced to live ashore. Getting the hang of walking had been a long process; building the required musculature and coordination was arduous, but necessary. The soilbounders required servitude of all coastal-folk. In return for a decade of servitude coastal-folk were allowed to return to those shallow shoreline zones where the soilbounders hadn’t built condos — yet. Each year those zones grew smaller as soilbounders encroached ever further along the seashores. That meant the coastal-folk needed to be herded into ever diminishing areas.
Lucy had graduated first in her class at med school, far ahead of the salutatorian. A once in a century brain, her professors had said. We can’t let this one go back to the sea. With a mind like that she may even be able to cure cancer. Lucy had agreed to spend the rest of her life on land but had worked to negotiate conditions in the process. The soilbounders felt she was valuable enough to try to keep her happy and conceded to her request to spend one month, with a tracking device, in the coastal waters. When the month was up she would return to land, medical research, and a life of service without any chance of retirement. They promised to provide better than the standard coastal-folk dormitory lodging; they even agreed to pay her a salary. She’ll be the first of her kind to actually cash a paycheck.
Lucy felt the slow tidal current slip over her hide as she laid out in luxury sixty feet below the surface. She dreamed of a free people roaming the coastal waters of every continent. She dreamed of life without servitude. She dreamed of vast kelp beds repopulating the ocean floor.
The crowded lifestyle of the soilbounders guaranteed the virus she had created would take hold and spread rapidly. She knew the airborne virus was deadly, deadlier than anything experienced before. The pandemic would be devastating. It would take gills to survive.
Dave Morehouse writes music, poetry, and short fiction while practicing for the A.D.D. Olympics. Some of his published work may be found at Every Day Poets, Crack the Spine, Blackheart Magazine, Postcard Shorts, Postcard Poems and Prose, and an inspirational book — Psalter for the 21st Century. He plays fiddle and concertina by Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in his spare hours.
The hum of the glider’s engine was barely audible over the braying of a colicky mule tied to a post outside Saint Jöhnssbury’s Cathedral. The craft’s pilot and passenger was a tall, taunt man, attired in late-19th century stylized fashion, whose rose-tinged pince-nez complimented his chestnut-hued complexion. He leapt off the glider, avoiding the superconductive G-rail and the churchyard’s patchwork of dung heaps and mud puddles.
The traveler entered the cathedral: filtered sunshine was refracted by dust motes suspended in stagnant air; and the benches flanking the aisle were beetle-bored planks. However, in contrast with the dingy surroundings was a small room at the rear of the central nave — the cathedral gift shop — with a brightly lit storefront window, and a sign on its door that read OPEN.
The gift shop was filled with memorabilia of the old religions. The traveler smiled when he saw a bright-blue statuette of Vishnu in a bin filled with figurines of Jesus and Buddha.
“Bugger off! Bugger off!” cried an elderly man in a black frock who swatted a broom at the floor.
“If it’s a bad time I’ll leave,” the traveler said. He looked at the elderly man: his body was bent, but his eyes were bright, like beckoning stars in the abysmal void.
“Hello, good sir! Oh my… I did not mean for you to… It was one of those bloody rats! Ha!” the elderly man exclaimed.
“It’s quite all right,” the traveler replied.
“What can I help you with, sir? Ah, perhaps that Vishnu interests you?”
“No thank you,” the traveler replied. “I’m actually here to see the relic — if I may?”
“The relic? I’ve taken great pains to preserve it since becoming caretaker. It’s all but forgotten now and would have probably been discarded if not for my insistence. It’s in the back, in a closet constructed where the altar once stood.”
The traveler followed the caretaker to the rear of the gift shop. The air inside the closet was devoid of the mustiness of the moldering cathedral.
The caretaker flicked on a switch: a rectangular slab spanned the small room; it was covered by a white drop cloth, which was carefully removed by the caretaker.
“This was one of the clerestory windows — Stained glass! — Such a shame that’s become a lost art!” the caretaker exclaimed.
“I agree,” the traveler responded. “Such fine craftsmanship — for example, you can only achieve that rich ruby color by precise addition of gold flecks to lead glass.”
“Ah! No wonder you’ve come to see the relic: you’re a connoisseur,” the caretaker said.
“Actually, I’m more interested in the natural sciences,” the traveler responded. “Just look at that fascinating organism there, the one by Sir Palamedes.” He pointed at the green-glass reptile pursued by a knight on horseback.
“Oh, that’s the Questing Beast from Le Morte D’Arthur – product of Malory’s overactive imagination,” the caretaker replied.
The traveler adverted to a depiction of another knight in pursuit of a beast. “Here we have Saint George and the dragon.”
“Perhaps George encountered a crocodile while in Libya.”
“Perhaps…” the traveler said as he leaned forward and studied the mosaic. “That must be relatively recent, from the Second Mumbaikar Dynasty of Earth: Sir Sunil driving a drakon back into space with his mighty arc-scimitar!”
“Oh, that was in the early years of interstellar travel when literature was rife with fantastic aliens!”
The traveler turned to the caretaker. “My colleagues and I recently collected cell samples from ancient sword blades and other artifacts. They weren’t from any known organism. We cloned the cells and started to grow an embryo in an artificial-womb… Unfortunately we had to incinerate it — ”
“The cells were derived from an imprint-mutable organism.”
“Basically, the organism is a shape shifter. We call it the basilisk. It can assume the attributes of any animal it encounters. Also, its cells are immortal — if the basilisk dies, its cells remain infectious; its DNA can override and excise the host’s DNA.”
“Amazing! Excuse me, sir, but I do not believe I caught your name,” the caretaker said nervously.
“I am Sir Sunandan McLafferty, cryptozoologist, KCSI — ”
“ — Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of — ”
“ — Indeed. And you, sir, are not caretaker Oliver Farginstone. I met him six months ago and we enjoyed tea in front this relic. He was an ardent investigator of cryptids — including the basilisk — and quite accurate in his hypothesis regarding its unique biology. He also suspected his life was in danger… rightly so.”
The eyes of the knight and the caretaker met in a dead-on stare. The latter man’s skin turned green, irises transformed to gold slits, and teeth elongated into fangs. He lunged at the knight, who sidestepped and pivoted, delivering a snap kick to the back of the leg of the assailant, who fell to the floor.
The knight produced a stylus-shaped object from his breast pocket and pointed at the hissing creature pushing itself off the floor. There was a flash of violet light that reduced the creature’s strugglingto an imperceptible motion, like those of a spider trapped in viscid syrup. Soon its movements ceased and its body compressed to a two-dimensional sheet, which fluttered to the floor.
“I have to thank R and D — this Higgs compressor is exquisite.”
The knight picked up the basilisk, folded the flattened creature in half, and tucked it under his arm. “You’ll enjoy the laboratory once you’re decompressed. We’ve designed suitable quarters for you.”
A woman and a young boy were approaching the entrance to Saint Jöhnssbury’s Cathedral as the knight departed.
“Look, Amma, he’s got a poster of a gecko with a frock on — Brilliant!” the boy exclaimed.
The knight smiled at the boy and winked. “That’s right — you never know what you’ll find in a cathedral gift shop!”
The most recent stories of James Zahardis have appeared in Flashes in the Dark, Deimos eZine, 365 Tomorrows and Thrills, Kills ‘n’ Chaos. He holds a PhD from the University of Vermont in Chemistry (2008) where he is currently employed as a research scientist and lecturer. He is a fan of the literature of Joseph Conrad, Alexandre Dumas, H.P. Lovecraft, and Herman Melville. When he’s not in the laboratory, lecture hall, or library, James is most likely to be found bass fishing on Lake Champlain or taking an excursion to some woody patch to watch birds.
We flying monkeys get no respect.
Tassel flew into my room, face scrunched in worry. “The Artificer’s going to kill us all.” He pulled at his fez, but the damn things only came off when the Artificer so commanded.
I nervously groomed my beard. “What’s going on?”
Tassel pointed at the window. “Lucky and Hap are being taken into the lab!”
I hopped up to the window ledge. The huge coal-fired engines chugged away in the yard below, turning gears and lathes and whatnot. Two dozen flying monkeys struggled to clean a giant gear that had been pulled from one of the machines.
Past the chugging engines stood the Artificer’s lab. A clanking automaton carried a cage toward the lab’s portal.
The work party stopped their efforts and stared wide-eyed as the metal man strode past. Two flying monkeys were inside the cage. One beat the bars and screamed. The other huddled in a corner, weeping. The door slid shut behind the automata, silencing monkey screams.
“He promised no more experiments,” I said.
Tassel shivered and folded his wings. “Jack and Lance got sent in this morning. Now Lucky and Hap.” He swallowed. “We have to leave. Now.”
Tassel pulled at my brocaded jacket sleeve. “If you tell me to fly away, I will. You are First Monkey!”
“It won’t work. I can’t even say the word.” Away. My fez prevented me.
A patrol of flying monkeys flew past, in tight formation, bound to the Compound like the rest of us.
I shuddered. The Artificer had charged our fezzes again yesterday, hundreds of filaments stretching from his steaming steel gauntlets, each filament attached to a fez, sending hot wires into the back of our skulls.
I grabbed Tassel by the shoulders. “Besides, were would we go? That murdering witch at Chasm Castle would do anything to get us back, and the Wizard at Splendid City hates us.”
“But he’s going to kill us.”
I flew out the window without answering, soaring over the yard and the glass-roofed lab. I spotted a metal table behind the lab and my heart froze. Jack and Lance lay on the table, their dead eyes staring into nowhere. The tops of their skulls were gone, and their brains were missing.
I vomited my breakfast over their corpses.
Tassel hovered above the yard, and spun in a tight circle as I joined him.
“What did you see behind the lab?” He asked.
The cool air calmed my retching stomach. “Lance and Jack are dead.”
He covered his face with his hands. “What do we do?”
I clenched my jaw. “We have to kill him.” Somehow.
“But we can’t hurt him. The fezzes won’t let us,” Tassel moaned.
As long as we wore them our fezzes protected the Artificer, prevented us from disobeying or harming him. Only his order would remove them. They bound us to this place. Somehow the Artificer had remade the fezzes which the Witch at Chasm Castle had originally fashioned to control us through her magic. Instead the Artificer bound us with his strange science.
The patrol was making another pass. Crimson led the formation. Crimson followed orders, including mine as First Monkey, as long as those orders didn’t contradict the Artificer’s control.
The Artificer called me his clever monkey, which was why I was First.
“Come on,” I said to Tassel.
I waved Crimson to a hover.
“Sir!” Crimson saluted me smartly. The patrol hovered behind him. One thing about having wings along with arms, you could salute.
I swallowed. This would only work once. “An imposter has infiltrated the master’s lab!”
Crimson’s arms face set in a grim expression. “Sir!”
I leaned in closer, beating my wings harder and whispered instructions to Crimson.
“Got that?” I asked him.
He nodded. “Sir!”
I landed outside the lab’s door.
“What are you doing?” Tassel shouted from above.
I banged on the steel door with a rock. The door opened and a clanking automata loomed over me.
“What’s this?” The Artificer asked from inside the lab. “Ah, First Monkey. Come in!”
I entered the lab. Wires and cables twined across the floor in all directions like an army of snakes. I gagged at the stench of hot wire, oily smoke and blood.
Hap and Lucky were strapped onto tables, their fezzes off, the top of their skulls gone. A spidery machine sewed something silver into their brains as the Artificer watched. Drool dribbled from their slack mouths.
The Artificer snapped his fingers and pointed at me.
“Of course! Your brain will make this work, leading the others’ brains in helping me create an ultimate weapon to use against the Witch.”
We would die to help him against Her.
“Come here,” he ordered. My fez made me obey. The Artificer lifted me and placed me on an empty table.
“Fez off,” he commanded. With a loud snick the wire withdrew from my head. He reached for the table straps.
Crimson and his patrol circled above the skylight. I somersaulted off the table and pointed at the Artificer. Crimson saluted and flew off with the patrol.
“Show some dignity, First,” the Artificer said, reaching for his big net gun. “You’ll honor yourself with your brain.” He aimed the net gun at me, but I scrambled under the table.
“Come here.” He bent down and I scurried to the far side.
Crimson, his patrol and the work party, reappeared above the skylight carrying the giant gear the workers had been cleaning.
I waved and they let go. The skylight shattered, the huge gear hurled to the lab floor right where the Artificer stood, crashing down like a thunder clap. The gear rolled a dozen feet, wobbled, and then toppled to the ground with a boom.
Crimson and the others swooped down toward me, their fezs falling away like leaves.
I picked up my fez and hurled it at the broken, bloody remains on the floor.
“We decide our lives now,” I shouted.
Dale Ivan Smith is currently writing a weird western, as well as revising his super hero serial, Weed. His stories have appeared in 10Flash Quarterly and Every Day Fiction, and can also be found at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other eBook stores. His website is www.daleivansmith.com.
Gendelman kept refusing every offer for the shop.
A peculiarity of the lease rendered him untouchable, though the landlord’s heirs hoped Gendelman’s bereftness after Dina might end their misery. But he came of an older stock that goes on.
Some people shrivel with grief; Gendelman seemed larger to me, containing an immensity of longing. He only let show his humor and his grace.
“Idiot!” said Merlensky, surly because his own place across the street wasn’t the object of anyone’s lust. “Now the buyout is half!” But Gendelman hadn’t cared about the money.
“What is the point?” Merlensky howled. “Who goes in there?”
I did; it was a place to linger, and Gendelman didn’t value customers by what they spent.
“For him,” Dina said, “the right match is everything.”
Gendelman would laugh, but he savored books more than he sold them; he preferred them to go to good homes.
A warmth of sensibility infused the whole place. Gendelman had not cared for fluorescent lighting — an abomination, he said, to those who delight to read.
The back room looked like a family parlor, huge sofa in counterpoint to Gendelman’s big old desk.
The shop held some battered bookrests, too, and a miniature lectern, and Dina’s favorite — a small glass case full of elderly fountain pens. But those weren’t walking out with anyone.
They never spoke of life beyond the shop, but Dina was sometimes not there.
“Busy with other things,” Gendelman said. That’s an answer that stops more questions.
Then the shop was shuttered for a week, and when Gendelman reopened, he replied heavily, to all inquiries, that “she has gone now.”
He still managed to twinkle at me, and I got over feeling helpless and tongue-tied every time I stopped by. “I know!” he said once, squeezing my shoulder, and though the offering of comfort seemed going in the wrong direction, he’d known exactly what I needed.
I was too tired, one gray wintry Friday, to grant myself even a few minutes browsing through wonderful things, but Gendelman’d kept an eye out and hailed me.
“Ah! he said, “today you are not in heart! Never mind! But come tomorrow, five o’clock.”
I was never much in heart these days. I stood up for myself at the miserable crappy job I couldn’t afford to leave, but something in me diminished a little more each day.
“So!” he said. “You remain gloomy!”
I’d put my nice smile on but it must’ve slipped a little as I walked down the street. Maybe the sleet knocked it sideways.
“Never mind!” he said. “Everything will be to rights shortly.” He pulled me inside, big square hand closing around my wrist. “To the back!” he said. “We are having a little party.”
He’d set out a splendor of Old World delicacies. An electric samovar bubbled on a corner of his desk.
“Well,” I said, “Thank God you skipped the borscht.”
“It is only because you have never truly known winter,” Gendelman said, “that you scorn beets.”
But he patted me with approval; the sight of the walnut cake and its layer of raspberry jam had perked me up nicely.
“So,” his voice rumbled at me. He refilled my glass with a thick dark smoky brew. “It is time I join my family now.”
“This is a strong tea that you are not used to,” he said. “Soon your head will clear.”
“What a deep voice you have, Mr. Gendelman!”
“Yes!” he said. “The old stories never lose their power! Not like this empty junk they try to fill the children with today. Be careful!” he said, leaning close, his eyes growing larger and larger, “books can take you anywhere! Anywhere you choose…”
I didn’t know I’d slept til I woke up, long after midnight, a thick blanket tucked around me. The radiator was hissing softly and the desk lamp had been switched to its dimmest setting. A thermos and mug sat next to the unplugged samovar. The rest was cleared away, including Gendelman.
On the carpet was a neat little stack of books.
The thermos was brimful with hot cocoa. I poured myself a mug and picked out a handful of titles from what Gendelman’d left for me, and then I fell asleep again over one of them…
Merlensky’s grandson came in, stamping off the snow, with a bull-eyed little girl by the hand. She had more of the family resemblance.
“My niece,” he said. She’d been squalling and was just in the midst of replenishing her lungpower.
“Couldn’t in conscience buy her any more candy,” he said, “but she disagrees with my moral values.”
I hunkered down to her eye level. “Candy,” I said, “has a really bad habit of disappearing forever when you eat it.” She stared at me.
“But a book, now — you can devour the same one over and over again. Forever.” She didn’t quite understand the verb, but it sounded rapacious enough to suit her temperament.
“You follow me,” I said, “and let’s see if we can dig out the one that’s been waiting here just for you.”
Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine; her posts on the craft of writing keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)
Under the chapel of sky, the wheat whispered to John McIntosh. It spoke of the rain, the sun, the rich, rich earth, of his father and grandfather who had worked these fields before him, and of Daniel, who would work them after he was gone.
Daniel watched the wheat bow as his father passed through the south field. Even after a decade, Daniel still struggled against the stalks.
John stopped, planted his hands on his waist. His body ached and not just from the pains of work and age. Arching his back, he breathed deeply. The new wheat smelled dry, and with no rain in the forecast, the field would need water tomorrow.
Hesitantly, Daniel put his hand on his father’s elbow. Something was wrong, but his father had always spoken to the wheat better than his family.
The wind had tangled his boy’s straw-colored hair. His blue eyes were deep as infinity. Daniel was still small and skinny, like he had been at fourteen, but John knew the muscle would come.
The wheat would see to that.
The thought cut like a threshing blade.
“Went to the doctor,” John said, struggling to keep his voice flat. “Been having fierce pain in my back…” He was dithering when he knew to-the-point was needed. The wheat caressed the legs of his jeans, giving John courage. “This will be my last harvest.”
Through the winter, the wheat slept.
John mourned in silence, like he’d done when his wife had died. But seasons pass, and minute by minute, the days lengthened and warmed, and the wheat came alive again. As the harvest neared, John took Daniel into the south field, where the wheat heads hung heavy and golden. John scrapped kernels into his hand and handed them to his son. He drew sharply a breath.
As the wheat had grown taller, his father had grown frailer. Daniel had urged him to rest, but his father only worried about the wheat. Daniel knew the drugs no longer masked the pain, but his father had declined stronger pills because they would cloud his mind, making him incapable of bringing in the harvest.
“Is it time?” John asked.
Daniel rubbed the kernels between his hands then opened his palm. The breeze swirled the chaff away. The kernels popped between his teeth and grew softer as he chewed. His father watched him, eyes wide, pain momentarily forgotten. Daniel wanted to be right in his assessment… the kernels should to be soft, but not gluey. Soon, he thought; then looking at his father, too soon.
“I think it’s ready,” he said after he knew he could delay no longer.
John rubbed a wheat head between his own leathery palms. The chaff, like earthly skin, flew into the wind. The kernels weren’t ready yet.
Three days, the wheat whispered.
John eyed the grey clouds on the western horizon. A hard rain now would ruin the crop.
Daniel looked at his dusty boots. Like his father’s face, the wheat seemed to droop. Some men had an ear for the wheat. Those were farmers who could will their lives from the land.
The wheat closed in around John like arms holding him up. For the first time in his life, he didn’t want the harvest to end, but they had already cut the east field. The northwest field would be ready tomorrow. Soon the season would be over. Too soon.
“The east field is fallow next season.” John said. The stalks bent closer to hear his words, and if necessary to whisper to him what needed to be said. Like his father, John never seemed to know what to say.
“I know,” Daniel said, irritated. He wanted his father to talk to him.
All John’s life the wheat had demanded his labor, his attention, his blood. When he died, he hoped his soul came back as a stalk of hard red winter wheat.
The wheat sighed and bent close once again, whispering assurances. The wheat would watch over his boy as it had watched over him.
Daniel felt the heat of the sun reflect off the golden shafts. He strained to hear anything, but he heard nothing, no matter how he tried. To lie hurt, but the truth would hurt his father even more.
“Look around you, son,” his father said. “This isn’t wheat. It’s the sweat of my grandfather, when this was nothing but dust. It’s the tears of my father, when the rains were late. It’s the blood of my life, when the banks tried to bleed me dry.”
But all Daniel saw was wheat. All he heard, wind.
As they worked to bring in the northwest field, John McIntosh collapsed. Daniel found him, a ring of wheat bent over him in prayer.
Glassy eyes, reflecting gold, stared up at the vault of heaven. “Bring the harvest home, son,” John whispered, his voice barely a rustle, and then he went quietly, like the fields into fallow.
Daniel left his father there, in the arms of the wheat. The harvest had to come in. Unlike Daniel, the wheat was ready.
On the morning he cremated his father, Daniel went into the south field alone. In his hands he carried a simple box; inside, the ashes of a simple man.
Although Daniel tried not to, he cried.
The earth drank his tears.
Around him, the wheat sighed and bowed. It caressed him until his sadness flowed away. As Daniel stared across the golden wheat, heads heavy beneath the infinite blue sky, he heard his father’s voice in the rustle of the stalks.
“I am ready,” he said.
D. Thomas Minton recently traded a tropical Pacific Island for the Pacific Northwest of the continental USA, and now lives a short walk from vineyards and an alpaca farm. When not writing, he can be found working in his garden with his wife, daughter, and too many cats. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, InterGalactic Medicine Show and numerous other publications.