Wednesday, September 20, 2017


 

The Uncivilized Ones
By Nora Cook Smith
 

The Igahi are an unattractive people. Think of a cross between a Tasmanian Devil and a cockroach and you might get the picture. Throw in a Venus flytrap for a personality description, and you’ve nailed it. The only reason I agreed to a medical rotation on their backwater planet was the knowledge I would work only with their young. A young Igahi, before metamorphosis, is small, round, and doesn’t have the stench of freshly killed meat on its breath. They did pull on my long blond braids when anxious, which was often, and with good reason.

            My tour of duty was almost over that morning I entered the natal tent. Dr. Cole greeted me, as did LiciBo, who did not use the doctor honorific. She was from the Zidon system where every citizen was a genius. Competition was foreign to them. I was glad to be working with LiciBo, but I wished Darius Cole had drawn another shift. An Earthie, like me, his contempt for the Igahi extended to their young. He was professional, but dismissive, even to the little ones who had been harmed by their parents. That happened a lot. We only saw survivors. Many an Igahi youngster disappeared before their maturing. Apparently, they were a delicacy and hard to resist.

            Cole raised his bushy brows. “Dr. Gladstone, I hear you’re retiring.”

            I looked up from scanning my patients’ charts. “Thinking about it.”

            “You should while you’re young enough to enjoy all that credit you’ve obviously built up.”

            I blinked. I hadn’t known he’d followed my career. Like all traveling physicians I’d gone from planet to planet. Unlike most, I’d taken the tough ones. Hardship pay was generous, but I’d done it for adventure. This planet was different. I longed to be free of it.

            Cole slammed down a little pink body. It whimpered. He ignored it. “What’s the point of us bringing healing to monsters? I say let them all die in their rush to kill each other and any other species they find.”

            I looked around at the innocents in their cribs, some of which wouldn’t be innocent much longer.

            “You hear about those tourist kids last night?” Cole’s tone was angry.

I hadn’t watched news vids that morning and told him so.

“They were murdered by Igahi. Not even dead before they ate them.” He shuddered.

            I felt sick. It had been months without an incident. Long enough to become complacent.

“People don’t learn,” Cole shouted. “There’s a damn good reason tourism to this hellhole is discouraged.”

“You said they were kids,” I reminded him. “The ruins here, they fascinate people.”

“Yes ruins, Liza. Remains of sentient beings murdered by the Igahi.”

I huffed. “That’s not been proven.”

“Of course it’s true. And people like you and me are here, saving the Igahi when what they need is annihilating.”

I stepped back, shocked. “You don’t mean that.”

“The hell I don’t. Three of those murdered were earth kids. Barely old enough to leave home by themselves.” He stalked away, muttering something about the Igahi being uncivilized and why didn’t someone just kill them all?

LiciBo had tears in her eyes. I gave her a solemn stare. “Pay no attention to him.”

“Sometimes I think he’s right.”

Not her too! “He’s not. They have the right to live.”

She turned away. “Help me get the maturing ones packed up. I don’t like the way they’re eyeing each other. Or me for instance. We’ll move them to a separate tent.”

I grabbed a transportation cart. “You’re imagining things. They don’t begin exhibiting undesirable behavior until after they emerge.”

She shrugged. “So you say.”

Before we closed the lids I noticed several of the young were already spinning cocoons. They would be taken from the medical tents to a nearby forest. It was guaranteed safety. Adult Igahi ignore cocooning youngsters. They find the process distasteful.

I sat down and had a cup of tea with one pack of sugar. My single indulgence. Denying myself small pleasures kept me honed and focused on these difficult assignments. Never get used to the environment. Never let down your guard.

 
I called my mother that evening on a secure vid. She was vacationing on a nearby moon. The lag time was almost non-existent but enough that I saw her distraught expression before she spoke. “Oh darling, one of the children killed yesterday was the Morelands’ son. He was just 18.”

My heart stopped. Not Ronnie Moreland. I’d babysat him before I went off world. Little dark haired, dark eyed, Ronnie. Now nothing more than a meal for a savage species. I must have expressed my sorrow. Must have tried to comfort my mother. All I really remember is falling across my bed, weeping inconsolably. I know the evening involved whiskey. There was an empty bottle beside my bed the next morning.
 

Interplanetary police surrounded the natal tent when I arrived late for my next shift. I showed my badge, and tried to ask what was happening, but they glared at me. My coworkers were inside, huddled in a corner. LiciBo gave me a wave as did Cole, and several others. I started toward them, then the inner flap opened as an officer exited. In that brief second I saw pooled blood. I pushed the flap fully open. Little round bodies everywhere. Not one moved.

I turned my frightened eyes to my friends. “The Igahi? They dared come here?”

Cole stepped forward. “No. They don’t leave bodies behind. I do believe they think it was one of us.”

I examined each face. Closed. Impassive. Even LiciBo’s.

“We must be as one,” Cole said, incorporating each of us in his dark glare. “We must not let them find out which one of us did this.”

I felt feverish, looking at all those tiny bodies. Then Ronnie’s face swam into memory, and I steeled myself against my inner horror. I let the inner flap fall like a gauntlet. Cole was right. Civilized people stick together.

 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017


An Infinite Deal of Nothing

                                                 
            I lie on the stockroom floor between rows of bridal gowns. The concrete beneath me should be cold. It’s not. I feel nothing. I think I’m dead.

I arrived early at the salon this morning. Being manager, I usually do. The salesgirls, Mellie and Tiffany, start later. My boyfriend, Phillip, who’s also the owner, is chronically late.        I remember walking through the gowns, daydreaming about Phillip leaving his wife for me. He’s promised it will be soon.

            I sensed someone behind me, then something squeezed my throat like a vise. Burning pain cut off my breath, I woke to whatever state this is.

I stare at the moose antlers on the wall. They were there when Phillip bought the store. He pretends he shot the animal. What a crock. He’s no hunter. I am. I pursued him for three years before catching him.
 
The door opens. Mellie screams. Phillip’s face swims into view. He drops to his knees. “Denise!”

Tiffany yells, “Don’t touch her! I’m calling the police.” She sounds strangely in charge. Meek, quiet Tiffany is never in charge.

 

The officers surround me. One they refer to as Detective Murray shakes his head. “Damn shame. Beautiful woman.” He turns to another cop. “What’s that?”

            The officer holds a veil in his gloved hands. “Found it under the rack.”

            Murray grimaces. “That’s what the killer used to strangle her. There’s lace marks on her throat.” He turns to Phillip. “No sign of forced entry. Who has keys?”

            “Mellie. Me. And of course the victim.”  Phillip says.

            I feel anguish at Phillip referring to me as “victim”, but know he’s using caution. We’ve kept our affair secret.

            Mellie produces her key.

            “Mine are on my desk.” Phillip walks away.

            I rise upward and follow him. Sort of. Even without a body, I have substance, but my movements are clumsy, like I’m learning to walk again. Phillip grabs his keychain, looks confused. “Here’s my keys.” He holds them out to Murray who has tailed him, as have the others. “But the store one’s missing.”

            Murray’s eyebrows rise. “When did you last see it?”

            Phillip shrugs. “I don’t know. I rarely use it. Denise opens the salon. Mellie on occasion.”

Mellie frowns. “Denise opened this morning. The door was unlocked when I arrived.”

“Plus you found her,” Tiffany adds.

I recall my last terrifying moments. Who hated me so? Cop shows always cite motive and opportunity. Did Mellie murder me? I did hire her on a hunch even though she had a murky past. But we get along. She’s an excellent employee.

 

They carry out my body. I stay. I must find out who killed me.

Murray takes statements.

“Traffic was bad,” Phillip says. “I came in just as Mellie screamed.”

“I overslept, so I was late.” Tiffany gives Phillip a nervous glance which he appears to ignore.

Mellie rubs her forehead. “I arrived on time, but familiarized myself with today’s appointments before coming to the stockroom.”

When the police leave, Phillip closes up shop. I need answers. I follow him home. I love him so, but his embrace with his wife stuns me. He tells her about my murder. Next thing I know I hear them upstairs having hot sex. I float into their room. Phillip lies on his back while she cuddles into him. Bastard. I wish I knew how to haunt them or if that’s even possible. I linger near while they have post-coitus chatter. Damn him.

Later, Phillip goes golfing, and his wife and her friend sit together drinking bourbon.

“It’s terrible about Denise,” his wife says. “But that means Phillip’s latest fling is over.”

We were so careful. How did she know? Did she take Phillip’s key? Hide in the stockroom? She could have. Who would suspect? The security camera is broken. I hate her.

I will myself back to the stockroom. If I could cry, I would. It’s just me and the antlers for the night. I pace. It’s odd. I’ve regained my body’s outline, Eileen Fisher dress and all, although I’m transparent. That’s when I realize I’m missing the garnet ring Phillip bought me. Where did it go?

 

Murray returns often, trying to catch someone out. Mellie is red-eyed all the time. Is that for me or has her boyfriend left again? She keeps the place going. Phillip does zilch. I flatter myself he’s missing me, then I remember that bedroom scene. He jumps every time Murray catches him unawares. There’s an odd smile on the detective’s face. He reminds me of a cat stalking a bird. I spend time in the stockroom. Often Murray comes in. We search for clues together. I wonder if he feels my presence. I wish he did. I am so alone.

Phillip gives Mellie my job. She leaves her shared office with Tiffany, moves into mine. I ponder this. Is it good business sense or something else? I can’t figure it out.

The fourth day I go into Tiffany’s office. She unlocks a drawer. Why? None of us lock drawers. Intrigued, I lean in. The drawer slides open, and there are Phillip’s missing key and my ring. I’m stunned. Murray’s in the stockroom. If only I could summon him, but then there he is, in the doorway. He calmly asks her to explain.

“I never saw those before,” she shouts. Murray stares, and she breaks down. “Okay. I killed her."

Phillip and Mellie come to the door, and Tiffany points at Phillip. “It’s his fault. He said he’d leave his wife for me. Then he fell for that bitch, Denise.” She cries as Murray reads her rights.

I give Phillip one last glance. He looks neither guilty nor surprised. His expression is neutral. I realize it doesn’t matter anymore. I have to get out of there but instead of going back to the stockroom, I drift out into the beautiful summer day. I don’t know where I’m headed. I only know I’m free to go.

 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The River Trusts the Current



The wild boar exploded out of the brush, straight toward me. I pulled my rifle trigger. Only a click answered. Time slowed. Heaving tusks filled my vision. Then the air tore apart with an explosion. The boar dropped.

            “Irena Mann, you owe me a favor.”

            I spun. Saw Alan Tallman and his rifle.

            By force of will my shaking limbs stilled. I’d faced bear. Taken out rabid foxes. Beaten cancer at the age of 13. My life had been nothing but close escapes. No need to fall apart now.

My rescuer was tall, rangy, with stone grey hair, “I’m glad you showed up.”

            He snorted, sounding like a boar, himself. “I’ll bet you are, young lady. But I came looking for you.”

            “Me? Why?”

            “Something’s up with the river. It’s too low.”

            “There’s been no complaints.”

That probably wasn’t true. The poor, who lived furthest from The Park, had no voice. The wealthiest, who lived in the closest neighborhoods got the most water. It was the middles that fussed. Always screaming the inner dams were holding back too much. Not that they cared their own dams were making life hell for those downriver from them. When I was a newbie Park ranger I’d taken my turn reading their complaints. Being promoted to Forest Ranger meant I no longer had to.

“The River’s always rising and dropping,”

            “I feel it, Irena. I don’t see it.”

            That stopped me. The Tallmans along with the Byron family held controlling interest in The Park. Most of them were as high society as the Byrons, but Alan was different. He identified strongly with his Native American heritage, spent most of his time in The Park. There was something almost feral about him.

            He pressed on. “You have to go upriver. Find out what’s happening.”

“I can’t get permission for that,” I protested. “You know the rules. Three times a year we can invade the sanctity of The Forest. It’s not yet time.”

            He frowned. “At least they let you Forest Rangers go up there.”

            “Like that’s some cushy part of my job?”

            “Government should let you clear a path up to The River head.”

            I laughed. Government? The ongoing nationwide drought had all but destroyed central government. Power resided in local council. The wealthier the family, the more control they exerted over The Park, and The Park owned The Forest. All paths into it had long grown over. The Forest attracted rain. Rain gave us The River.

Alan had a good thirty years on me. He knew all this. Why were we arguing? “We’re lucky to live here, Alan. Not too many places have the water we do.”

I meant that. He was doubly fortunate. Only the Byrons and Tallmans roamed The Park at will. Everyone else came in by lottery. Being in The Park Service meant I lived there. I was lucky too.

“Please, Irena, I can’t go where you can. The River needs you.”

 

My boss, Keith, was not receptive. “It’s too soon. I was just up there last month. What are you even looking for, anyway?”

“Alan says the water is diminishing.”

            He frowned making his eyebrows knit. “That would be obvious at the first dam.”

            “He thinks it’s happening too slowly.”

            He tapped his foot, stared out the window. “Alan’s no fool. I respect him, but he’s asking a lot. Nose around. See if anyone else seems concerned.”

 

            I’d been in the Byron compound before. My fellow employees were impressed with their luxury. I resented the water they wasted; the private golf course, the pools. I noticed a new helicopter. Rice Byron, heir apparent to the lion’s share of family fortune liked his toys.

I hated contacting Rice, but if anyone in his family knew anything it would be him. His heavy hooded eyes were considered sexy about town. This surprised me. I found him handsome, mesmerizing, but gossip insinuated he was ruthless.

“What can I do for you Ms. Mann?” The silky way he said my name made my skin crawl.

Not wanting to bring up Alan’s name, I asked, “Are you satisfied with the water allotment coming into your family’s use?”

His eyes softened. “I’m touched. Really I am. Everybody cares about the poor, their little needs. No one has ever asked how my life is going.”

I couldn’t believe it. He thought I was concerned about his selfish world? I turned, hiding my disgust.

 

To my surprise, two mornings later found me headed upriver in my canoe. Keith had given in. The dense forest quickly walled me in. A mile in I hit the first rapids. A vicious whirlpool sent my canoe careening into a half-submerged rock. I went overboard. I kicked upward. Struggled not to breathe.

Strong hands pulled me to the surface. I came up sputtering, saw Alan’s face in front of my own. Then we were both in the canoe. I was cold, shaken, but rocked more by the implication of his presence. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Saving your ass again.” He smirked. “I’ve been tracking you all morning. I cleared it with your boss.”

“Keith gave you an official pass?”

“No, but he’ll vouch for me if necessary.”

It was unprecedented. If anyone found Alan had entered The Forest, Alan, Keith, and me could face charges. Still, I was almost glad to have him. With both of us paddling, we would reach the River’s head before sundown. Alan stopped from time to time, peered into The Forest. He looked like a grey wolf scenting prey. It made me shiver even after the sun dried me. No one intrudes lightly on The Forest. Yet here I was with a forbidden companion. Call it conditioning. Call it superstition. It felt real.

By some miracle my gear had not fallen out or even gotten wet. My bruised knee ached, but I’d felt worse pain.

When the first of a series of three waterfalls hove into sight, we had two miles to go. I pointed toward the bank. “We beach the canoe here. Go on foot. Stay close behind me, Alan. There’s no path, but I know the way.”

We climbed steadily to the top of the first waterfall. The River narrowed. Our path rose steeply, high above the tumbling water. Alan huffed behind me reminding me of the 40-odd years difference in our ages. I felt, rather than heard, him slip. I turned to give him a hand, but he wasn’t there. My heart stopped.

“Help!”

I peered over the cliff’s edge. He hung on with both hands to a small scrub sapling embedded in rock. Below him the waterfall raged.

Dropping to my stomach, I extended a hand. He seized it, dug his feet into the rock grabbing toe holds for purchase.

At last he was lying next to me. “Blast it.” He snarled.

“Funny way to say thanks.” I fantasized slugging him.

“It’s my ankle.” He pulled off his boot and sock. We both stared at the bruising beginning to stain his skin.

“You can’t climb anymore.”

“The hell I can’t.” He rummaged in his backpack, produced an elastic bandage.”

We started out again. He had to be in pain, but other than occasional oaths, I heard only small stones we dislodged.

Just before sundown The River head cliffs rose up before us. Alan gasped. “I never expected to see this.”

Fire was forbidden in The Forest. We ate cold sandwiches, drank water. Alan watched me do my evening tai chi. “How long you been doing that?” he asked.

“Since I was a kid,” I replied. “It helped me endure chemo.”

 

Birds woke me at sunrise. Alan was up, pacing the water’s edge. “The River’s voice is stronger here. Our problem is nearby.” He strode toward a loose pile of boulders at the base of the cliff. That’s manmade.”

I put my hands on my hips. “They’ve been there ever since I started coming up.”

“Probably started out natural, but someone’s added to the pile. “Help me” he ordered, dropping to his knees, pulling rocks away.

I did, wiping sweat from my eyes within a few minutes. Alan didn’t stop until we’d uncovered a cave mouth. “Let’s go in,” he said.

I shook my head no. A huge unease had stolen over me.

“Anything in that oath you took forbid you from going into caves?”

I had to admit there wasn’t, but I’d been tasked with checking for water level changes. Nothing about going underground. He went in though so I followed him. The passage was narrow and quickly dimmed. A bend led us into what should have been total darkness, but there was a faint light coming from somewhere. Also, the unmistakable sound of a generator.

We rounded another bend and found ourselves in a large cavern. The River here was inky black in the faint light. I also saw a row of what appeared to be large metal tanks.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Alan grabbed my shoulder. “Looks to me like someone’s hoarding water.”

“Well, aren’t you smart?” Rice Byron stepped around the edge of the closest tank. He pointed a semi-automatic in our direction. “But what are you doing here?”

My breath caught hard in my chest. I slid my eyes slowly toward the opening we’d just come through. “Just checking on The River.” I didn’t like the look of Rice’s Glock. Why hadn’t Alan or I thought to grab our weapons? Really, really dumb, I thought, going unarmed into a dark cave.

            “What is all this?” Alan asked.

            “It’s my hedge against the future.”

            I felt sick. “Against what future?”

            Rice sneered. “You fools think the drought’s going to end? Sooner or later The River will dry up, but I’ll be ready.”

            Alan craned his neck. I wondered if he was counting tanks. “How’d you get this stuff up here?”

            “Stop trying to divert me with stupid questions, Alan. This entire area’s rich with caves. Lots of ways in and out. Bought some cable cars, set myself up a system. No one much cares what a rich playboy does.”

            All those toys, I thought bitterly. Large crates arriving at the Byron compound would be nothing new.

            “Let us go.” I tried but failed to sound menacing.

            “You two should have minded your own business.” He tossed a rope in Alan’s direction. Tie her up. Both her hands attached to the ring on that closest tank.”

            “But why?” I asked. “We’ll be missed.”

            “Not if you both go over the falls. It’ll look like an accident.”

            Alan apologized as he tied, especially when Rice told him to make my bonds tighter. “She won’t be tied up long enough to lose feeling.” His laugh held no humor.

            “Now you.” Rice motioned to Alan to get moving. Slightly limping, Alan did as told. Feeling impotent and enraged, I watched them head outside. I listened for a scream. Thought I heard one but I knew all I really heard was The River.

            Too soon Rice was back. Alone. “I’d like some fun with you, Ranger Girl, but no time for that.” He approached. I could have kicked him, but he had the Glock. I really believed he would use it, figure out some way to mask how I’d died.

            Seconds later I marched ahead of him, headed toward the same fate as Alan. At the waterfall’s edge, I balked.

“I’ll just bash your head in. They’ll think it was the rocks.” He rushed me, swung his gun toward my head. Without thinking, I blocked, dropped, and rolled. Rice’s momentum carried him forward over the edge. This time I heard a scream.

 

            I found Alan below the second waterfall. He’d gotten caught up in an eddy. He looked battered, but he was alive. There were no cliff walls here. It wasn’t easy, but I hauled him out. He opened his eyes. “Hot damn, I guess we’re even now.”
            I don’t remember the climb down much. We were both exhausted. Rice’s body washed up against the first dam the following day.