Thursday, September 22, 2016

Morgan Fewster: Goddess

The worst day of Morgan Fewster’s life was the day her parents left her behind at the zoo when she was four, because they came to pick her up again and wouldn’t let her stay with the lions. The second worst day was when her best friend moved away in Year 5. Which made today only the third worst day, though with the bright sunshine stabbing her retinas like silver blades and her mouth tasting like dead mice, Morgan thought at first that it might give the others a run for their money.
“Urgh,” she said, and flopped off the bed onto the floor. It wasn’t that continued sleep on the floor was impossible; it was just less comfortable, especially as she’d landed with her elbow under her hip, and that combined with the alarm blaring on the far side of the room made it ever-so-slightly more likely that she’d actually a) get up and b) be on time.
The sweet, sweet smell of coffee percolated its way into Morgan’s brain, and her nostrils twitched. Mmm. Coffee.
“Morgan Fewster,” Breanna called from the kitchen. “If you don’t shut that alarm off in the next ten seconds, I swear by everything good and holy, you won’t get a drop of your precious wake-up juice this morning.”
Morgan, conflicted by opposing messages in her brain, performed a stagger-flop with astounding grace and hit her nose on the bed leg as she simultaneously tried to get up and stay lying down. “Ow.”
“Five seconds!”
Clutching the throbbing nose that now matched her seared eyeballs and pounding head, Morgan disentangled herself from the sheets and stumbled across the room, flipping her phone over to silence it. She sagged against the dresser in relief, having successfully passed yet another Herculean round of Morning: Getting Up. “Coffee,” she muttered, dragging her hands over her face and through her hair. Her appearance was probably something close to the living dead right now, but as her thirst for caffeine was probably something close to a zombie’s thirst for brains, that was probably okay. Probably. She shook her head and shambled out towards the kitchen, following the smell.
Breanna, blonde hair gleaming gold in the sunshine that streamed in through the wide kitchen windows, was the picture of domestic goddessery: blue-and-white apron neatly tied around her neatly-belted waist, hair neatly twisted into a neatly-perfect bun, neatly-manicured hands pouring a neat stream of –
“Gimme gimme gimme.” Morgan made grabby motions at the mug and Breanna handed it over, lips pressed to hide amusement.
“Morning, Sunshine,” she said.
Morgan slurped the coffee down in one long mouthful, eyes streaming as it scalded her throat. Coffee, my one true love, I’ve missed you. She finished with a contented sigh and plonked the mug back on the bench. “Hi.”
Wordlessly, Breanna handed over an envelope before turning back to the sizzling frypan.
“For me?” Morgan murmured as she tore it open. “You shouldn’t have.”
“I didn’t,” Breanna replied cryptically, stirring the eggs.
Morgan wrinkled her brow as she pulled a playing card and a folded piece of paper out of the shredded envelope, then remembered what her mother had always said about frowning. Quickly, she smoothed her fingers over her forehead.
Breanna returned to slop scrambled eggs onto a pair of plates already bearing thick, rustic-style toast slathered in butter. “So,” she said, scraping out the pan, “what is it?”
Morgan flourished the contents at her. “A card that I believe is supposed to tell me I’m about to die,” she wriggled the playing card whose front bore a picture of a black-robed skeleton on a white horse, “and a Wikipedia article on bull worship.”
Breanna made a noncommittal sound as she rummaged in the drawer for cutlery, a noise somewhere between an entire orchestra tuning and a thousand plates all shattering.
“Dear heavenly elephants,” Morgan swore, squeezing her hands over her ears. “Must you?”
Breanna arched an eyebrow in her direction. “It’s Thursday. You should have been home sleeping soundly last night.”
“I was!” Morgan protested, throwing her arms wide in a gesture of intended innocence. “I slept like a baby!”
“Yes,” Breanna agreed wryly, shoving a plate across to Morgan. “Exactly like a baby: from about one a.m. until seven, with numerous awakenings in between.”
Morgan took her plate and marched to the table, nose held high. “It’s all right,” she said loftily. “I couldn’t expect you ordinary people to understand.” She flopped onto a chair and snatched at the salt shaker. “So, is it a hint?”
“Is what a hint?” said Breanna, setting the second plate of eggs down on a placemat and bracketing it with cutlery.
“Vuh car,” Morgan said around a mouthful, waving her knife at the remains of the envelope on the bench.
Breanna glanced cursorily at it on her way back to the kitchen, summoned by the popping of the toaster. “I have no idea.”
“Wew ven…” Morgan swallowed. “Who’s it’s from?”
“I went to a psychic.”
“Ooo ven—“ Morgan cut off as she breathed in egg and spluttered. After hacking and coughing for a moment in which she made a whole mental noteboard covered in metaphorical memos-to-self about not talking with a mouthful of eggs, she cleared her throat and tried again. “You went to a psychic? Also, I nearly died here, and you are heartlessly eating muffins! What is up with that, I ask you?”
“Don’t be melodramatic, you’re not dying. If falling from a third-storey window or ingesting an entire bottle of drain cleaner can’t kill you, I seriously doubt some scrambled eggs down the wrong tube will. Also,” she said, setting a glass of juice down on the table by the other plate, “you never said I shouldn’t go to a psychic. Doctors, yes; psychiatrists, yes.” She counted them off on her fingers. “Psychologists, teachers, parents. You never said anything about psychics.”
Morgan scowled. “Psychics are a bunch of…” She waved her fork vaguely.
“People who might be able to finally figure out what you are?” Breanna suggested.
“Ha ha. I don’t need figuring out,” Morgan said and shovelled another forkful of eggs into her mouth. “Mm perfec uz uh mm.”
“Just… Go see the psych, okay? She was interested in you. She might be able to help.” Breanna folded her arms over her chest and pinned Morgan with a challenging glare. “I want you to know why you can do…” She fluttered a hand in irritation. “That stuff. You need to know.”
For a moment, Morgan considered doing exactly ‘that stuff’; if she fluttered her eyelashes winningly, parted her lips just so, and widened her eyes like Bambi incarnate, all but the rocks would be unable to breathe and would beg to do her bidding. Instead, she sighed and pressed her face into her fork.
“Fine,” she said. “For you, I will suffer this fate worse than death. But if she wants to out me to the media and the paparazzi find out where we live and they lay siege to the house day and night, and our doors are broken down by people who have seen my smile and are unable to resist, and I’m carted away to some scientific laboratory so they can dissect me for testing, I’m holding you responsible.” She gave Breanna a sidelong glance, checking for remorse.
“Fine,” said Breanna, remorseless.
What am I doing wrong? Morgan heaved another deep sigh. Some days, you just can’t win. She fluttered her eyelashes at her reflection in her fork, just to make sure she still could. Her heart trilled at the sight and this time her sigh was of contentment. “Hi there, pretty girl.”
“Morgan, stop making out with your reflection and finish your breakfast. The address for the psychic is on the back of the envelope. She’s expecting you at nine.”
“At nine?” Morgan turned her innocence up full blast. “But Breanna, darling, I have school! I can’t possibly be there at nine! What a ridiculous time to make an appointment for me. And how did you know I’d go anyway?”
“One,” Breanna started, again with the counting on the fingers, “you cut school every other week for inane whatever-it-is you do, and two, I didn’t make the appointment, she did.”
“But how did—“
Psychic, Morgan.”
“Oh.” Morgan sat back in her chair, temporarily flummoxed. “But I can’t see a psychic today, I have—David! Good morning!” she finished brightly as the third occupant of the house emerged from the hallway. Mention of anything relating to Morgan’s ‘special qualities’ always sent David into a dither and so were unofficially banned when he was around.
He peered at her suspiciously through eyes that looked weak and pale without their usual magnifying lenses. “What have you done?”
“Me?” Morgan beamed at him like a human sun. “Absolutely nothing!”
“Mm,” he disagreed, sliding in his chair. “Thanks for the eggs, hun.” This last was directed at Breanna, who stooped from her muffin-munching to nuzzle against his neck.
“Children, please,” Morgan said with longsuffering. “You have a room for that sort of sickening display.”
Breanna rolled her eyes and picked up her handbag from the chair at the head of the table. “Behave.”
“Angelically,” Morgan replied, posing with her very best saint-like expression.
Breanna rolled her eyes again and departed.
“So, really: what have you done?” David eyed her contemplatively over a mouthful of toast.
He chewed like a cow and had the same approximate intelligence, but, Morgan reflected, he could be stupidly persistent when he wanted to be. And besides. That was probably unfair to cows. “It isn’t what I’ve done,” she said, flashing him a gleaming smile. “It’s what I’m planning to do.”
He froze, fork halfway to his mouth. His eyes darted towards the front of the house where Breanna was pulling away in her dinky little hatchback. Seeing the all-clear, he reached his foot out under the table and rubbed against Morgan’s ankle. “You mean…”
Disgust filled Morgan’s stomach and she pushed her unfinished breakfast away. “No!” She really had to try harder to remember not to be charming when David was around. “You creep. Breanna, remember her? You’re practically married to her!” She stood up from the table and headed towards the bathroom.
“That didn’t seem to bother you with Simon,” David called after her, cutlery dinking against his plate.
Morgan fought the impulse to freeze. Bastard. How did he know about Simon? Besides, that was another mistake, a momentary lapse where she’d forgotten to keep her charm under control. It wasn’t like she’d meant to steal Jessie’s boyfriend.
Bastard. Whatever. She didn’t have to reply to him. Instead, she slammed the door to the bathroom and hurried to the mirror. The reflection confronting her had a serious case of bedhead and panda-eyes, but she turned a sultry smirk on it anyway, and it smirked back. “Hey there, sexy. Let’s get you looking decent.”
Her reflection willingly complied, and for the next careful hour, as she painted and brushed and sculpted and flossed, nothing was wrong with the world.
David bashing on the door broke that illusion. “Hour’s up,” he yelled. “Time to go.”
The mere thought of sharing a car with him this morning sent shudders through her, nearly making her smudge the last coat of eyeliner she was applying. “No thanks!” she called back. “I’m catching the bus this morning!” And apparently she was seeing the psychic after all, because the alternatives were car-pooling with David, or catching the school bus with Simon and Jessie, and right now, despite the imminent threat of scientific mutilation, the psychic seemed like the lesser of three evils.
David moaned at the door, something about how she could have told him earlier, and then he could have been early for work, or something equally trivial, and then he was gone in a jangle of keys and muttering and finally, the motorbike engine roaring to life in the garage.
Morgan sighed and unlocked the bathroom. She’d been keen to make an entrance this morning, too—that new fellow, Jason, he wasn’t half cute, and the bike did wonders for her reputation. Still, she’d gotten careless with David earlier, and that meant she’d have to try to avoid him as much as possible for the next twenty-four hours, since he seemed more susceptible to her charm than most. Stupid, given how besotted he was supposed to be with Breanna. Wasn’t true love supposed to protect against lust, or something like that?
Sighing at the complexity of life, Morgan snatched up her Louis Vuitton bag, gathered up the shredded envelope from the bench, and emerged into the sunshine to do one of the three things she’d promised herself she would never, under any circumstance, do: see a psychic.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ji Min and the Unnamed Enemy

Ji Min shook feeling back into her hand as the medibot released her arm. The scar tissue from where Harrison had etched his name into her flesh was healing nicely. After a day at the beach no one would be able to distinguish anything had happened.

She stood, collecting her uniform coat, but stilled as the commanding admiral walked in. "Sir?"

"Sit, captain, we have things to discuss with the medic before you go."

She obeyed the order with no show of reluctance. This was not the time to act out of character. "Did my tests results come back abnormal, sir?" She'd run three gauntlets in the hours since dawn, and she was certain she'd been near her top time on the obstacle course. Quickly, Ji Min reviewed her memories of the written tests she'd received. All her answers had been perfect. Unless there was a hidden test she'd missed. A color test perhaps? With a frown she considered the possibility that her eyesight had been damaged in the last mission. That would be inconvenient.

A medic – a human one this time – walked in with a datpad. Her black hair was pulled in a regulation knot that matched Ji Min's but that's where the similarities ended. This woman was nervous. Fear rolled of her in waves. Her smile was tight and never reached her eyes.

Ji Min raised an eyebrow, consciously lowering her pulse rate to appear calm and collected. The little medtech could learn something from her. Hopefully the girl would be smart enough to just that.

"Captain Zhang, Admiral Dai, thank you for meeting with me." The girl's nervous eyes darted to Ji Min and dashed away. "I've... I've taken the liberty of reviewing your files, captain. You were very thorough."

"Thank you," Ji Min said. She made a mental note to speak the hospital's commanding officer on her way out. This medtech wasn't fit to do more than apply bandages. Fortunately she didn't need a doctor to tell her anything. All her injuries were familiar ones.

"I have a treatment plan for you," the medtech said.

"Yes," Ji Min said. "I completed the final tests this morning."

The admiral stirred in his chair. Hairs on the back of her neck went up.

"Sir? Was my test time less than desirable?"

The admiral shook his head. "It's not that."

"You were tortured," the medtech said breathlessly.

A lightbulb moment. The girl was worried, possibly traumatized by the report. "I'm fine," Ji Min said with a patient smile.

"You aren't," the girl said. "You sustained severe torture over a period of twenty-three days."

"I was trained to withstand torture," Ji Min said with perfect patience.

"Nothing like this," the medtech argued, seeming to gain confidence.

Ji Min turned to the admiral. "Sir, the first week doesn't count. All they did was withhold food. It was a love tap."

"It was torture," the admiral said gruffly.

"I didn't break," Ji Min pressed. "I'm not a security risk."

The admiral's dark gray eyes were filled with anger.

Ji Min straightened her shoulders. Anger she could work with. "It was a high stakes mission. I took four days longer than planned to accomplish my goal but I had a six day window. Everything went according to plan."

The medtech cleared her throat. "Captain, this is your sixth traumatic incident in less than fifteen years of service."

"The first two don't count," Ji Min said imperiously. "They were both my first week as a cadet and were not my fault."

"You were the only survivor of a fleet cruiser!" The medtech gasped for air.

Ji Min's lip curled in disgust. "Leave. Find someone who can control themselves. Your fear is grating on my skin."

The medtech's hands clenched into fists but didn't budge. "You are being medically retired."

"No." Ji Min looked at the admiral.

"It's for your health, Zhang. You need to spend a few years in rehab. Get mentally adjusted. It's for your mental health."

She snorted in amusement. "You won't let me have leave because I cause trouble when I'm bored and you want to make me a civilian? That's not going to go over well." Her eyes snapped to the medtec
"You were given an order to leave."


The admiral pointed at the door.

In a flurry of frustration and fear the girl excited the door.

"You scare her," the admiral said once they were alone.

"She insulted my training." Ji Min gave the admiral a flat look. "I was trained to withstand torture. I am by far one of the most experienced soldiers in the fleet. My record is near perfect. That girl shouldn't have been intimidated by me, she should have been watching me, trying to learn and improve herself. If that's what the academy is turning out these days there will be a drought of decent officers in the coming years."

The admiral scowled at her. "She was scared because your anger was making the walls vibrate."

Ji Min glanced at the brick wall. "Only a little." She waved off his concern. "It's a side effect of the medication I took during the control test this morning. Everyone knows that."

"Nevertheless, you are a dominant mindpath and frighten weaker minds. Even someone with no intrinsic skill can sense you're dangerous."

"And this is your argument for making me a civilian?" She settled into her chair, resting her hands on her knees and waiting for his rebuttal. He wasn't going to find a good one.

The admiral mimicked her calm position. "Six incidents of extreme emotional or psychological trauma. Two near-death experiences. Over six months of hospital time."

"Over fifteen years," Ji Min said. "Not all at once."

"The fact is, no unit will take you. You're bad luck, Zhang."

She smiled as sweetly as the tiger seeing her prey. "You need a commander who isn't a coward."

"I can't name one that would want you."

"Then promote me. You'll have the benefit of my expertise, lessen the risk of the civilian population suffering from close contact with a dominant, and have a commander who isn't a craven fool. The perfect solution."

"No," the admiral said coming to his feet. "You need time to rest. Medical leave if not retirement."

Ji Min's skin cooled as she contained her emotions. "Send me with a trade delegation."

The admiral turned in startlement. "What?"

"We have three trade delegations leaving within the month, I'll go with one of them. There will be less cost because I won't need a large security detail, and the Emperor gains the advantage of me using my skills on our trade partners. We'll do very well if I go." The number of people who could tell her no was somewhere near zero. She obeyed orders because she enjoyed the discipline of the military and recognized the need for a chain of command. But even within the command there were very few people who she couldn't persuade to see things her way. That was the great skill of being a dominant. Telekinetic skills that allowed her to move things without physical contact were a bonus.

The admiral crossed his arms, retreating into a defensive position. "No."

"You have to give me something to do," Ji Min said calmly. "Bored, I'm too much of a threat to balance of a healthy society. I'm a typhoon in the harbor. The sudden wind as you climb a mountain peak. Dominants go into military training early for a reason. Left to my own devices at such a young age I might do something silly, like start a revolution. You can't endanger the populace that way."

"You are menace."

"All good soldiers are."

He looked at the window panel with the projected image of a formal water garden. "There is one place I could assign you."

"Frontline in a war zone where I can die like I ought?" she guessed with a smile. It was an old military joke. Back before the current emperor's ancestors claimed the throne the destruction of dominants was considered the best thing for society. They were caged, trained to be monster, and unleashed on war like the titans of old. Now dominants were perhaps not revered, and not always trusted, but their lives weren't wasted.

"How familiar are you with the wasteland situation on the edge of the Hani 667?"

Ji Min shook her head. "I've read the reports. Hanni 667 is a dead star with no planets orbiting. There's a few mining outposts collecting minerals there. Rumors of trouble."

"They are more than rumors. Ships going past the system never return. Probes show nothing but darkness."

"A black hole perhaps?"

"There's no gravitational anomaly to support that theory. There are, however, signals."

That caught her full attention. "Communication?"

"Possibly." He watched her face.

Ji Min smiled.

The admiral nodded. "It isn't our territory."

"No one owns the system."

"It abuts our own territory and the provinces of the Sunlords."

Her heart rate fluttered with delight. "I've heard stories of the Sunlords. How many of them are true?"

"We don't know. Until recently their only communication with us has been to tell us where their boundaries were and order us to stay on our side. They aren't aggressive. The borders on our side haven't changed in two centuries and we've no reason to believe they wish to expand."

"But they've contacted us?" she guessed. Everyone was wrong. She had the best kind of luck.

The admiral nodded, eyes sparkling with amusement. "They have been asked by the miners in the system to defend them from an unnamed threat. In turn, the Sunlords have extended an invitation to us to work in tandem since it is a shared border."

"A sign that they have no intent to attack or are they testing us for weaknesses."

"Either is possible. Or perhaps they are considering a trade agreement of some kind. Isolated cultures do not last forever."

Ji Min nodded. "Do we know whether they'll accept a mix gendered crew?"

"They gave no indication of their status, but requested anyone of rank. Would a single gendered crew be a limitation for you?"

"Never." Dominants were dominant whatever gender they professed. Smacking down a few chauvinists was child's play, although things would be easier to the Sunlord commander was equally dominant. She gave it a one in twenty chance. Every civilized culture saw the value of using dominants as officers. Even if they weren't openly recognized personality dragged most people like her to the spotlight.

The admiral nodded. "I'll have your promotion, orders, and packing list prepared by this evening. You'll ship out first thing tomorrow."

Ji Min smiled as the old man walked away. A free day all to herself. She swiveled her chair around in thought. Somewhere on the planet there was a sunny beach where she could intimidate a few sharks and work on her tan. The equatorial islands were nice this time of year. Lilac sand, blue waves, and fruity pink drinks were calling her name. With a sharp smile for the cowering medtech waiting in the hall Ji Min stalked down the halls with a smile, her jet tickets were bought even before the transport arrived to take her to the port.

It was a beautiful rainy day. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Kitten Psychologist

There once was a little kitten who had decided that the outside was bad. One hundred percent, unequivocally, without question or shadow of a doubt dangerous.

"I mean, why else," said the kitten, purring and cleaning its paws, "Would we live in houses?"

But, alas, one day, the kitten's humans took it outside. Carried it right out the door.

"It was terrible," the kitten told me over Skype after the event. "One hundred percent, unequivocally, without question or shadow of a doubt, terrible. There was snow. It was cold and wet and it stuck in my fur. My humans laughed at me when they put me down and I refused to move."

Of course, I thought that this kitten was being unreasonable.

"Your ancestors lived outside. I'm sure they loved the snow. You should try it again."

"Your ancestors grew crops along the Volga River," the kitten pointed out. "Are you planning on trying that anytime soon?"

Darn kitten had a point.

I tried a different tack.

"There's all kinds of things you can do outside that you can't do inside."

"Oh, sure, catch diseases, fall on ice, get attacked by wild animals or drunk drivers, and then die. Although I suppose you could still die inside." It flicked its tail thoughtfully.

"Dying without having ever left your house. That's depressing."

"Fruit flies do it all the time." The kitten's eyes widened. "That is depressing."


"Then I'll just live a long and healthy life inside and, when I'm dying, I'll have my humans take me outside where I can be with nature and junk. There. Problem solved."

The kitten just glared at me before being scooted off the desk by its human, who had returned to continue our conversation.

I was then able to follow the cat's activities using my arcane writerly powers. Over the next few days, it would approach the doors and look out windows whenever it thought its humans weren't looking. But they were. They told me about their kitten's change in behaviour, wondering aloud whether they should let it outside again. It was at this point they also showed me the Youtube video of their kitten standing indignantly in the snow. I have to admit, it was pretty funny.

Not long after, the kitten called me up on Skype.

"You know, I've been thinking," it said.

"Really? And how did that make you feel?" I adjusted my imaginary spectacles and picked up my imaginary clipboard.

"Shut up. I'm trying to talk." The kitten stuck out its wee pink tongue and I couldn't help but laugh, at which point the kitten glared.

"Sorry, continue."

"I will. As I was saying, I've been thinking. About the outside. You know, I'm only a few weeks old. I've got a lot of life left in me. I really could just go out there and try out this whole snow thing again, or I could stay inside for a while. There's lots of time. But then I thought, do I really have as much time as I think? I could die at any moment. The fridge could fall over when I'm trying to open it and squash me, or I could get my tail stuck in an electrical outlet. Someone could be too curious in my vicinity. You know."

I nodded.

"And what if I don't die like that? What if I spend my whole life just staring at the outside instead of prancing out there and just owning it like cats should? What if all I do, for the rest of my life, is wait? I mean, it's not like there's anything stopping me from going outside. There's just… me."

"Sounds like you've made some important progress."

"But what if my humans laugh and take videos of me again?"

I took this moment not to mention that I'd both seen and laughed at the video. Instead, I gave my most thoughtful face.

"So, what you're trying to say is, you would rather go outside without them?"

The kitten stretched before answering. "I'll admit, they're much better as servants than they are as escorts. But they do happen to be able to reach doorknobs. Don't they make doors in more cat-friendly sizes?"

"Yes," I said. They're called doggy doors, I thought, but didn't say.

"Excellent." The kitten purred. "I want one. Just for the back yard. I needn't parade myself before the general public just yet."

"I'll mention it to your humans--" I suppressed a snigger at the phrase-- "I'm sure they'll listen to me."

"Of course they'll listen to you. What else have I been paying you for?" With that, the kitten hung up.

I've really got to tell my friends where their money's been going.

Meh. I can wait until they get their next bank statement.

(Read part two, The Kitten Psychologist Broaches the Topic of Economics, here.)