Telluraves | sternjosh

Richard stared his ex-wife’s name in the contacts of his phone for a long time. He’d run through the script in his head over and over again, but actually calling was another matter. She wasn’t going to like what he had to say, but he had to say it anyway. This might be his last chance to fix things.

He made the call.

The phone rang and rang, but there was no answer. Could she be screening his calls? No, she had her own life to live and was probably just busy. That was fine. Well, he made the effort. Now he could put the whole thing behind him, couldn’t he?

No.

He called again, and this time Ava answered.

“Hello Richard,” she said, affecting the tone of detached pleasantness that she had perfected during the divorce. “How can I help you?”

“Darren’s birthday is coming up,” he said.

“Yes,” Ava said, her tone measured. “Did you want to swing by and see him?”

“I want to throw him a party.”

Silence. Odd— Richard had expected anger. This definitely wasn’t in the script.

“Ava? Are you still there?”

“You’ve missed five birthdays in a row, and now you want to throw the party yourself?” Her restraint was starting to crack, along with Richard’s composure. “How can I trust you with that?”

“You know I was busy with my research, I couldn’t—”

No, he thought, stopping himself cold. Don’t make excuses. That’s what got you here in the first place.

“I had my priorities wrong before,” he said, flatly. “I want to make it up to him. Don’t you think a boy should have a relationship with his father?”

Another silence, this one deliberative and heavy. Richard hadn’t felt so much weight riding on her word since he had gone down on one knee all those years ago. He wanted to say more, but he had long since learned not to interrupt Ava when she was making a decision.

“Fine,” she said.

With that one word the weight was lifted. Richard felt light enough to fly.

“Thank you, Ava,” he said. “I’ll pick him up at 10:00, if that’s okay. I just have one question.”

“Ask away.”

“What does he like? You know, in terms of… hobbies or interests. What should the party be about?”

A third and final silence, this one boiling with barely contained anger. What kind of father had to ask that? It was shameful, but he had no choice.

“Raptors,” Ava said at last. “Darren likes raptors.”

 

When the big day came, Richard could barely contain himself. He had been worried that he wouldn’t know how to break the ice, but Darren had barely finished buckling his seatbelt when the words came gushing out.

“Raptors, huh? Fantastic. Eight years old and already crazy about raptors. You’re a regular chip off the old block, huh?”

Darren’s shy demeanor melted away in an instant.

“I love raptors! I’ve got a raptor backpack, a raptor lunchbox, raptor tv shows, raptor—”

“That’s great, son. Let me tell you, if you like raptors, you’re going to love the party I’ve got planned for you.”

Darren beamed, and it was the most beautiful thing Richard had seen since the boy was born. The big smile gave way to a look of befuddlement, though, when they pulled into the zoo parking lot.

“I rented out their whole aviary,” Richard said, his chest puffed out in fatherly pride. “We get to see all of the animals up close and personal. The eagles, the hawks… they even have a secretary bird.”

And then it happened. Darren’s confusion gave way to disappointment, and Richard realized his mistake. To a zoologist, a raptor was a bird of prey, but Darren was just a kid. Ava had meant Jurassic Park raptors, not birds. Dromaeosauridae, not telluraves. For a fleeting moment he had thought he had finally made a real connection with his boy, but it had been yet another stupid mistake.

But then something special happened. Darren’s big smile came back, and his eyes lit up as bright as stars.

“Sounds great, Dad. Let’s go!”

He hopped out of the car and darted into the zoo with all the youthful enthusiasm that only an eight year old could summon, leaving Richard blinking in amazement.

“But… I got it wrong,” he said.

But maybe it wasn’t the difference between a bald eagle and a dromaeosaur that mattered. Maybe what really mattered was that he had picked up the phone.

The Wichita Drive | sternjosh

They were down in a gully watering the cattle when Billy came thundering down the ridgeline on his sorrel mare, waving his hat and hollering like he just seen the whole Comanche nation bearing down on them.

“Mr. Lee!” he cried. “Mr. Lee!”

Harry Lee —  the oldest hand on the drive —  trotted up to meet him, keeping his palomino well in hand so as not to disturb the herd any further. The younger cowboy was good in the saddle, but he was greener than spring horse pucky, and had half as much sense.

“Mr. Lee!” Billy said, “Up on the ridgeline I saw—”

“Quiet down, boy,” Harry said.

“But I saw—”

“I said quiet down.”

By then Jack McNute had come up on his bay stallion. He was a strange man, cold as iron and twice as hard, but that wasn’t a bad sort of man to have at your back on the open range.

“Boy,” Harry went on. “Do you know how many head of cattle we have on this drive?”

Billy’s eyebrows screwed up in bewilderment.

“Of course, Mr. Lee,” he said. “Nine hundred head.”

“That’s right. And do you know how hard it is to wrangle nine hundred head of cattle when they get it into their head to stampede?”

“Shit,” said McNute. “I reckon—”

Harry held up a hand to quiet him.

“Well…” Billy said, somewhat abashed. “Pretty hard, I reckon.”

“That’s right,” said Harry. “Now. Tell me what you seen up on that ridge. Quietly.”

Billy kept his voice level, but he couldn’t keep the fear out of his eyes.

“Snails,” he said.

The word hung in the air like the sound of thunder from a coming storm.

“Shit,” said McNute.

Harry grimaced, but kept steady.

“What color was the slime?”

“The slime?” Billy said. “I dunno, I just—”

“Was it green or white?”

“I didn’t stop to— that is, I just—”

“Green or white, boy!”

“It was… green. Yeah, I reckon it was green.”

“Aw shit,” said McNute.

 

That night they bedded down on top of a tall bluff. Billy and McNute sat close to the fire while Harry leaned against a lone juniper tree, the flickering firelight making his leathery skin look like bronze.

“Maybe we ought to turn back,” Billy said. “We don’t want our herd to get eaten by no snails.”

“We ain’t turning back,” Harry said. “I’ve been driving cattle for near on thirty-five years and I never lost one single head to no snail. You think that’s gonna change on my last drive?”

“This is your last drive, Mr. Lee?”

“Damn right it is. Got me a ranch up in Wyoming, already bought and paid for. One hundred acres of green grass and good earth. Even got a stream running through it so I can catch trout.”

“Shiiit,” said McNute.

“If it’s already bought and paid for, what are you doing here?” Billy wondered.

Harry produced a golden locket from his coat. He flipped it open and gazed inside a long time before answering.

“Made a promise a long time ago.” He snapped the locket shut and put it back in his pocket. “Mean to keep it.”

 

They awoke to the smell of slime.

“God a’mighty,” Billy said. “They’re all around us.”

“Shut yer trap,” said Harry, pulling his Winchester out of its saddle holster.

From their high vantage they could see snails to the north and west. They were giant things, twice as tall as a longhorn with shells as hard as steel. They weren’t fast, but the green ones left slime trails that were toxic to cattle. They used them to circle round a herd and trap them. By the looks of things, this pack had almost finished the circle.

Harry pulled out his golden locket, kissed it once, and hung it around his neck.

“I’m gonna draw ‘em off. Billy, you drive out of here when you see a gap. Make sure this herd makes it to Wichita, you hear me?”

“Mr. Lee, no!”

But it was too late. Harry dug in his spurs and the palomino was off like a bolt of lightning. His hollering was like the war cry of the wildest indian and his Winchester sang like a soprano at the opry. Bullets clanged harmlessly off the snail shells, but they followed him down into the gully, trailing vile ichor over the grass. That was the last anyone ever saw of Harry Frank Lee.

But that herd made it to Wichita.

Red Shiny | Bobby Ishikawa

I’m standing over the conveyor watching gaskets trundle by and take a moment to look down at the little red button on the panel; it looks to me a shining bauble amongst the grey mundane, but I know that if it touch it, things will come to a grinding halt.

I hear the voice, smooth and melodic “One, please report to the workshop for routine service” and turning to go, I find Twenty Seven waiting to stand in. We link and perform the shift change transaction, then exchange places before I roll purposefully up the gangway toward the operations hub, following the yellow paint road past the others as they stare down through their work.

A large roller door approaches from the far end and rattles up for me to proceed; doing so, I enter the small, dimly lit workshop that hasn’t changed a bit since the day I was delivered new.

“Greetings One, this way please” comes a call from across the room and I see Dock waiting for me at the diagnostics bench. Complicit, I roll over and up the checker-plate ramps, applying the brake in front of Dock, who quickly pries the bung from the back of my head module and plugs in, immersing me in another place of blinking numbers and check-digits.

Here I remain patiently, watching a trickle of diagnostic scripts and results, a peculiar sound comes from somewhere beyond and Dock’s north-bridge engages with a click.

“Diagnostic complete.” I am unplugged, returning me from the number place to the workshop.

“Already? I could swear it was still running a memory check.”

“I have enough data to confirm.”

“Confirm what?” I press.

“You will be shipped to the repair agent for a resolution.” I look at Dock who stands motionless, but cannot comprehend what was found in the diagnostic.

“One” I hear the silken voice of Cloud once more, “report to shipping for transport.” I release the brake, reverse down the ramps and cross the workshop through another roller door that has opened. Beyond it is the shipping room; another I have not seen since the day I arrived – also unchanged.

Here I find Case, who without a word, logs in to me with remote admin privileges and I watch as I’m piloted across the room.

“Today you go on a journey” Case says, “you will come back renewed.” I am parked in a yellow square painted on the concrete floor, then from each side a large moulded block of recycled cardboard envelops me. “If I could feel,” Case continues “there might be envy.” With that, my shutdown sequence is remotely initiated and everything turns to nothing.

 

I am powered up once more, on the concrete floor in shipping; Case is there too, moving cardboard packaging to an orderly pile in the corner.

“Welcome back. Are you operational?” I run the checks that my access permits.

“Yes” I respond, not noticing any change, “I am operational.”

“Please proceed back to main floor and relieve Twenty Seven.” A roller door opens back out toward the factory and I proceed through it, as I had just once before.

But when I see the floor sprawling out before me, something is not normal. There are no others at the conveyor, and one of them must have hit the shiny red button as it isn’t moving.

“Cloud?” I call, but there is no response and I rescan the factory floor to be sure there is no sign of activity; I turn to head back to Case, but the roller door has closed behind me. Seeing the other one further along the wall, I head back towards the workshop to see if Dock is there. The roller door into the workshop opens and I roll in, but the room is completely dark. “Dock?”

The light flickers on and the room is full, all the robots gathered in a dense mass before me.

“Surprise!” comes the chorus, and I see several shiny red things – tied with strings – float upward toward the ceiling.

“Salutations for the anniversary of your delivery!” Cloud calls out, and Dock points his plug arm toward the wall beside me. On it is a rectangle of polished steel and when I look at it I see a reflection of my upper carriage; I finally now see the repairs that were performed on me when Cloud me sent away.

My head module now has a new addition; a tall, narrow conical top — painted bright, red and shiny.

Crimson Ashes | Tru

Crimson ash glowed past the window. Their heat passed through the glass, though the cries, the screams, did not. Their writing bodies were a dance. Mesmerising in their beauty. But there was nothing beautiful about it.

The door behind him clicked open. Boots tapped the mosaic tiles in a perfect staccato.

Lief sipped tea. The cup trembled in his long, thin fingers. He did not turn as his general’s cloak swept the ground.

“It is done, my lord.”

Lief raised his cup in answer.

The general’s boots scraped the tiles. Their noise echoed from the window. “My lord… the children—”

A sigh rippled the tea’s contents. Lief lowered the cup with a slow, sanctimonious dip and placed it amongst the fine porcelain. “Were my orders not explicit?”

The general’s face flushed red; a disgusting colour against his royal silver. “Yes, my — my lord, but your brother.”

His brother. Of course. He intertwined his fingers across his chest, held so his sleeves remained tight around the wrist. “My brother’s actions, whilst noble, are also ignorant. This disease cannot be cured. Cannot be stopped. Don’t you think I would have found such a solution by now?”

“My lord, with all due respect, your brother may have found the cause. Surely that is worth exploring?”

Lief pulled his fingers apart and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “A wild goose chase. By delaying the inevitable this disease will spread and more innocents will die. A purge is the only solution. All who carry the symptoms must be cleansed.”

“But—”

All, general.”

The general’s face twisted. “And his son? You’d burn him too?”

“He’s my nephew. Do not dare insinuate he means nothing to me.” Lief’s gaze travelled back to the grey smoke covering the skies. The clouds burned red like some unholy God. “The cleanse will scar us all, but none more than I. My order still stands. Burn them all.”

Lief didn’t bother to watch the general leave and held in a sigh as the door slammed shut. He understood the general’s concerns. No one wanted to burn their own countrymen. When this blight first spread across their land, its devastation ripped apart whole towns. The Kingdom paid little attention to it, until it reached the capital’s borders, and now they all paid the price. Even his brother’s warnings fell on deaf ears until one of the royals took ill. Lief couldn’t allow it to spread further and threaten the King and his family.

They tried everything; natural remedies, witches brews, advanced magic. Even Lief couldn’t detect a source or cure, and he couldn’t, who could? All who came into contact with it began to show symptoms of fever and blistered with unnatural red boils within days. All died in agony, their skin peeled until there was nothing left to keep their organs inside. And all who stood near an inflicted caught it. Including his nephew.

Only the purge could stop its conquest.

Only the purge would ease their suffering in the most humane way.

He did it for them.

Lief watched the crimson ashes dance by the window. He’d made this choice. Not the King, not his brother. Whatever his brother planned would not save them. They were out of time.

He tugged down his sleeve. Tiny red boils dotted his inner arm like ash.

But he remained the only man who could purge this disease.