Flash Fiction Friday: The Case of the People vs. Pandora

I.

Long, long ago in the first years of the Thirty-First Century, the great, the good, the wicked, and the terrible, all gathered from across the Seven Galaxies for the Trial. They came in their rockets and solar sails, their hyperdrives and trans-dimensional cannons, their teleporters and astral projectors. The Judicial Station show court could comfortably hold almost 2,000 assorted life forms, 2,500 if they squeezed. The tickets were exorbitantly expensive. One Baroness sold three moons and a minor comet to raise the necessary funds. For those without enough celestial bodies to sell, the trial was simulcast across the known universe. This was the trial of the century, perhaps even the millennium—the case of the People vs. Pandora.

Her guilt was undeniable, the evidence overwhelming, but her motives were vague at best, and there were questions whether all the evils in the universe could actually be contained in a small cube twelve centimeters high. Astrophysicists, philosophers, and theologians had all been consulted to no avail. A minor cult had even managed to form over-night preaching that releasing the evils of the universe was a divine act and claiming Pandora as their saint. They had already filed the appropriate paperwork requesting her bones as relics, in case of execution.

 

II.

The press swarmed the station like locusts. The great Media Conglomerates of Ursa Minor, the TransGalactic News Network, even the Daily Mail were all represented. They ambushed the three-headed judge in the restroom, planted listening devices in the jury room, and generally made a nuisance of themselves. Despite their best efforts, Pandora herself remained out of reach. Her lawyer, however, proved only too happy to give an interview.

Mr. Burr was the most famous defense lawyer in the galaxy and he liked it that way. He had worked his way up from the mean streets of Gamma Crucis representing the Gacrux Mob, before successfully defending the infamous Stellar Thief, who was found innocent on twenty-three counts of solar theft, despite being caught red-tentacled with a star in her pocket. Mr. Burr was loud, colorful, and used to winning. This would be his greatest success yet.

He had consulted the Oracle Mainframe and made the appropriate digital sacrifices, but it didn’t take calculative prognostication to realize that this case was important. No one would ever forget the Pandora Trial, not if she was found innocent, and no one would ever forget the man who made it happen.

“The question is not whether Ms. Pandora opened the box,” he told the assembled reporters. “That’s meaningless!” He slammed his hands on the desk. “I propose to make this about the real criminals. The ones who set up my client.” They were eating up his every word.

“I propose to put the so-called ‘gods’ on trial,” he said and grinned a shark-like grin. The reporters murmured approvingly amongst themselves. They could smell blood.

 

III.

The Box was forged from dwarf-star alloy in the fires of Hephaestus Prime by the finest craftsmen in the known universe, and commissioned by the Olympian Sect, a splinter group of transphasic multi-dimensional life forms, who sometimes referred to themselves as gods. Vain, squabbling creatures, they were quite capable of destroying entire planets with a thought. After the Great Dimensional War of ’67, they had more or less kept themselves to themselves. More or less. It, therefore, caused quite a stir when Mr. Burr called their leader, Zeus, to the stand.

Zeus appeared as an elderly, gray-bearded gentleman dressed in the latest galactic fashion, but there was nothing remotely human about him. His shadow twisted behind him in strange and terrible shapes. He entered the witness stand imperiously brushing the oath aside. He was a god, after all. Mr. Burr gathered his notes, nodded reassuringly at his client, and rose to begin his questioning.

Zeus was the first so-called god he had questioned, but Mr. Burr had dealt with more than his share of dangerous egomaniacs. He began slowly, with all due deference. He was flattering and circumspect until he reached the heart of the questioning.

“I understand the Box in question was constructed at your behest,” he said, “as a wedding gift.”

“It was.”

“Dwarf-star alloy is used primarily in intergalactic construction,” said Mr. Burr, “and you wanted it for a 12cm wedding gift?”

“It was the only thing strong enough to contain what was inside.”

” You are referring to the evils of the universe? You maintain that the box did, in fact, contain them?”

“I put them there myself.”

“Why?”

Zeus’ face was the picture of contrition. “To atone for the damage caused in the Wars.”

“A noble effort,” Mr. Burr said solemnly, “but I would remind the jury that none of the astrophysicists, philosophers, and theologians we consulted have been able to verify his claim.”

“The metaphysics is beyond mere mortals,” scoffed Zeus. The bulkheads creaked ominously under the weight of his voice.

“Perhaps,” Mr. Burr said, shifting gears, “but returning to the wedding, it was between the defendant and Epimetheus?”

“Correct.”

“And what is your relationship with Epimetheus?”

“A distant cousin,” Zeus sneered.

“Meaning he is also a multi-dimensional life form from an opposing sect?”

“Yes.”

“And, as I understand it, you personally punished his brother for providing us with the secret of stellar manipulation?”

“It was not his to give!” The whole station shuddered out of orbit. In the control room, alarms blared as the crew tried frantically to realign the station.

The courtroom erupted into worried whispers. Mr. Burr watched the jury.

“Were you aware,” he asked at length, “that Pandora was a clone?”

Zeus blinked. “No.”

“She was engineered for beauty and paid for by the Dyeus Foundation, a subsidiary of your sect. You didn’t hide your tracks very well there.”

“What are you insinuating?”

“Nothing, but it is suggestive that you apparently built both the bride and the box.”

“How dare you!” Zeus rose to his full height towering over the courtroom. This time the crew was ready. He was not the first multi-dimensional life form they had dealt with. Stabilizers were activated, stasis fields calibrated.

“There are no thunderbolts in space,” Mr. Burr said with his sharpest smile. The courtroom erupted.

“No further questions, your honor.”

 

IV.

Pandora was beautiful. It was an empirical fact. She had been designed that way, as a wife for a Titan, as bait. Her purpose had been etched into every cell; her actions wired into her brain chemistry. She had no choice, whether she knew it or not. Cloning was a delicate art and she had been sculpted by the best. But now the certainty was gone. She had lived her life with an infecting, all-consuming purpose but now it was fulfilled, leaving only emptiness. Despite the rumors, she was not stupid. Intelligence had not been a priority for her designers, but she was as smart as the average being. She knew what she’d done. She knew who was to blame. But more than anything, Pandora knew she wanted to live. That awareness kept her sane, made her human in the eyes of the law, but it couldn’t fill the emptiness, not entirely.

 

Mr. Burr had intended to use her testimony as the finishing touch. He had kept her away from prying eyes and ears, a waste of effort in the end. By the time Pandora had taken the witness stand, meek and irrefutably beautiful, the trial was over. Across the known universe, everyone had already decided. It wasn’t her fault. She was the victim. They were right, as far as that went.

 

V.

Pandora was found not guilty by a jury of her peers. She did not live happily ever after.

Flash Fiction Friday: Concerning the Proper Uses of Cyanide

Picnic with Ruins copy

I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing apples, bananas, and cyanide. Cyanide is crucial to the success of any proper picnic, or so my mother used to say before the men in white coats took her away to Happy Town. A little pinch of cyanide can go a long way. I learned this for myself, when I was seven and my sister was three. Terrible little brat. Given to tantrums and chasing her big sister around the house with a cleaning implement. Half a drop of cyanide in her milk every other Monday for four months soon made her as docile as a lamb—a lamb with cyanide poisoning. She lived, of course. I was very careful, even as a child, that the doses be just so. I love my sister, truly. She just needed to learn her lesson, and she did, admirably. Even mother was proud. So very proud. I was her darling angel. Father, on the other hand, had his own ideas about poison.

My father was a doctor by trade, a forensic pathologist to be precise. As a practitioner of so-called ‘morbid anatomy,’ he was well versed in all manner of poisons, both exotic and mundane. His breadth of knowledge far exceeded dear mother, although his experience was of a more academic nature. He had examined countless cadavers in the morgue or on the operating table, but no matter how he dreamed, not a single one was because of him. He remained resolutely innocent until the end of his days, which did not come until he was well into his eighties.

For mother, I think he was an eternal disappointment. She thought she was marrying a forensic pathologist with homicidal tendencies. As it turned out, however, she had married a forensic pathologist with repressed homicidal tendencies, and he remained resolute in his repression. Even worse, from her albeit warped point of view, he was too intimate with poisons and their antidotes. During the course of their marriage, he survived, to my knowledge, nine separate poisoning attempts. I have no doubt there were others I was not privy to. Nevertheless, father visited her once a week in Happy Town for the duration of her stay, and after he passed away, she followed him only three months later.

Poison was suspected but never proved.

New Short Story “The Painletter” is Now Available

 

The Painletter

The Painletter is a short, psychological horror story about illness, pain, and Lovecraftian horrors. It is currently available for $0.99 at AmazoniBooks, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble.

Here is the Blurb and a Brief Excerpt:

Arthur Bettleheim is a man in pain. 

Every moment is spent in unending, inexplicable agony. Every limb aches. Every nerve is on fire. Through pain-filled eyes he glimpses a hidden world of secret knowledge and monstrous shapes. The monsters stalk his days and haunt his nights, bringing him to the brink of madness. There is no escape. No respite. 

Bettleheim consulted doctors and psychotherapists, witch doctors and quacks. He visited hospitals and sanatoriums. No one could help him. 

Then he hears rumors of a man who can take away the pain. 

For a price…

***

The painletter was a soft-spoken little man with grubby hands and the stench of whisky on his breath. He was not at all what I had been expecting. I had heard the rumors, of course, whispered softly in the sanatoriums and sickrooms of Europe, rumors of a man who could extract your pain like letting blood, and in my desperation I had even begun to believe, not entirely, but enough. It was not credulity that had brought me here, but need. I needed to believe. There were no other options left. I had tried them all. For years now, my life had been a litany of never-ending torments, of horrendous treatments and learned doctors, of monsters, and, I feared, of madness. It appeared now that in my desperation, at least, I was not alone.

The painletter ushered me into a small, cramped waiting room. I could find no trace of sympathy or concern about him. He seemed distracted, impatient, and almost eager. I appreciated that lack of sympathy. I had come to find pity abhorrent. It was nothing but a degradation, a humiliation born of self-congratulation. They were always so proud of their compassion, as if it alone could save me. I longed to spit in their smug faces, but I held my tongue. I always held my tongue. For his part, the painletter was practically rude in his brusqueness. I treasured that rudeness, basked in it. I hadn’t felt so human in an eternity.

The waiting room was windowless and narrow. There was a door on the other end, a handful of rickety chairs with faded upholstery, and an unexpectedly ornate wall clock. Everything else about this place was broken down and crumbling, from the wallpaper to the people, but the clock looked brand new. Perhaps it was a gift from a grateful patient.

There were four other patients already there, waiting their turn. I recognized most of them. There was Kindlmann, my former cubical neighbor from a shower bath in Dresden. Next to him sat a scrawny Spaniard I remembered from a sanatorium in the Alps, and hunched over across from him was an elderly Greek I had met at a mineral bath in Turkey. The only one I had never seen before was the woman, but she had the same haunted eyes and shrunken body as the rest of us.

“Bettleheim,” the Spaniard greeted. I mustered a wan smile in return and nodded to the others. I had forgotten his name.

These were my people, my fellow travelers, but as I peered into their feverish, haunted eyes, I felt no kinship. I had no room left in me for any suffering but my own. The journey from my hotel had been harrowing, a now familiar odyssey of torments, and my energy was all but spent.

I had walked from the hotel, several miles across the city through teeming thoroughfares and winding cobblestone streets. Flagging down a cab or boarding one of the newfangled trolley cars would have been faster, but being trapped in those enclosed spaces, subject to every jolt and jostle on the road, might have been the death of me.

Every stumbling step had sent burning, aching flames through my legs, but I could set my own pace. I could rest from time to time. Sometimes, though, a sudden pain would bring me up short, breathing heavily as the crowd was forced to part around me. Other times I was twisted around, my body tying itself into unnatural knots.

The daylight too was painfully bright. My eyes ached under the strain and my ears rang. Every voice, every creaking cart and trolley bell, vibrated inside my head, and struck me like a physical blow. I felt dizzy, adrift in a city that was not my own, and a world that was out of joint. I could feel people’s eyes on me, judging me. My shriveled humiliation on parade for all to see. I knew it was my imagination playing tricks, dredging up demons from my mind, but still I could not help my sense of persecution and shame.

My mind was proving as treacherous as my body. From the corner of my eye I saw shapes and monsters on the streets, leering at me, but when I turned to face them head on, I found they had vanished as if they had never been. I could never see them properly through a haze of light and agony, but they had become familiar companions, counterparts to my strange aches and sharp pains. I feared that I was going mad, driven to it at last in my final extremities. It would be natural for a man of my proclivities, a writer and dabbler in the occult, to hallucinate monsters and demons when faced with a mysterious pain.

More than that, my torments had begun with a dream, or perhaps in a dream—a dream of horror and agony. Afterwards, I felt as though all the suffering that followed had pursued me out into the waking world. It was an absurd notion and I am not an absurd man, but I could not shake the sense that the pain was not my own, that my limbs and nerves had been abducted and subverted by some outside ineffable force. I turned to absinthe for the sweet release of oblivion. When that failed I self-prescribed a number of opiates, but they only made the dreams worse, full of jagged edges. That was the start of my long and fruitless odyssey through the darker side of medicine.

***

If you want to read more, you can pick it up at AmazoniBooksKobo, and Barnes & Noble.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Brief Journey of the Malcontent, Doctor H. H. Foster

Dr. Foster went to Gloucester in the pouring rain. He had not intended, when he woke that morning, to go to Gloucester or, indeed, anywhere at all, but circumstances of a pressing nature had unexpectedly arisen, and thus he found himself donning his hat and his coat and venturing forth into the downpour. It was a cold and blistery September morning. The rain, which had started the previous evening with a relatively harmless drizzle and drazzle, had proceeded during the night through the varied stages of mizzling, tippling, luttering, and plothering and now resembled nothing so much as a deluge of biblical proportions[1]. Nonetheless, Dr. Foster, clutching an umbrella in one hand and a well-wrought traveling bag in the other, made his slow plodding way to the train station irritably jostling the other pedestrian’s umbrellas and becoming, ever more ill tempered and disgruntled.

It must be said, in all honesty, that Doctor H. H. Foster’s[2] irritable temperament was not an altogether uncommon occurrence. Indeed, even when he was not graced with such ideal circumstances for irritability, Dr. Foster could generally be relied upon to furnish his own rationale. No longer a young man, Dr. Foster had been raised under the auspices of his Great Aunt, an uncommonly stern and opinionated woman even among that set which is largely defined as stern and opinionated. She had been possessed of very definite ideas regarding education, behavior, and, curiously enough, headwear[3]. Dr. Foster had therefore, received an eccentric[4] upbringing. He was not particularly fond of his Aunt. She had, after all, been a firm believer in ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ and had not been given to either sparing or spoiling. Dr. Foster was, however, enormously fond of the substantial fortune she had left him in her will. It had allowed him to retire from the terribly coarse business of dealing with other people’s medical problems and live a life of leisure and comfort. He went to an expensive tailor for his suits, to a shirt maker for his shirts, and a shoemaker for his shoes, an indulgence that would, no doubt, have annoyed his Aunt immensely. Dr. Foster was more irritable and wet than ever when, within sight of Cannon Street station he slipped on the street corner, where a thousand other pedestrians had slipped, into a rather large puddle. He sunk up to his waist, his expensive shoes undistinguishable in mire, his tailored suit ruined, even his well-wrought traveling bag splattered with mud. Grumbling to himself, Dr. Foster pulled himself out of the muck and decided then and there that he would never again go to Gloucester[5].


 

[1] Which was unfortunate, since no one had yet demonstrated the foresight or wherewithal to construct an ark, or ascertain how animals might be compelled to board said ark. A gentleman of the Royal Society was believed to be pondering just that question with an untimely lack of results.

[2] His given name was Humphrey Foster, the first H. being purely ornamental.

[3] She was heartily opposed on general principle, which made any excursion difficult given popular fashion. She once referred to London as “an excrement of confounded hats!”

[4] and hatless

[5] And he never did.

Flash Fiction Friday: Secrets and Smiles

Dorothy was perched atop the veranda, her legs dangling aimlessly. The party was starting to wind down after an afternoon of cocktails and gossip. Twilight was approaching and there was a chilly nip in the air. Laughter floated up from the garden below, but Dorothy didn’t even turn her head. She knew that particular laugh—her mother’s special laugh. Once upon a time, her mother had kept those special little laughs hidden away, and would only take them out for special occasions, or for Papa, of course. But these past few months she’d spent them generously, usually when Messrs. Pilbeam and Fry were nosing around. Dorothy didn’t like it, didn’t like them, but she bite her tongue. Silence was golden. Children should be seen not heard. She curtsied prettily and nodded attentively, but she wouldn’t smile. She never smiled.

They were coming up the stairs arm in arm in arm, smiling and laughing with frivolous abandon. The girl watched them, resisting the urge to kick the pillar petulantly. It wouldn’t have been ladylike.

“Hallo!” called Mr. Pilbeam. “Enjoying the party are we?” He grinned down at her ingratiatingly.

Catching the warning glint in her mother’s eyes, Dorothy nodded. “Yes, Mr. Pilbeam,” she replied with just enough civility to pass muster.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Fry took this opportunity to teasingly suggest that what Dorothy had enjoyed most about the party was the youngest son of one of the guests. Messrs. Pilbeam and Fry laughed boisterously, and even her mother joined in with her special laugh. Dorothy blushed prettily like a good girl, but didn’t smile. The others didn’t notice, too busy giggling. They never noticed. Children should be seen and not heard. Papa had listened sometimes, but more often than not even he would forget. Forget that even when silent, children could still see, still hear, and Dorothy saw and heard more than most.

Trailing behind, she wondered if Pilbeam and Fry would be laughing quite so loudly if they knew what stolen moments and passing remarks she had seen and heard behind the mulberry bush. She wondered if her mother would ever laugh her special laugh again. Dorothy was a good little girl, though. She would keep her secrets; never breathe a word. But she would always be watching and listening, and she would never ever smile.

 

Flash Fiction Friday: The Mouse and the Dragon

Long, long ago in a great cave high in the mountains a mouse and a dragon played poker. The mouse was quite a little mouse but brave, as mice count such things. He had traveled far and wide in his youth, from the country to the town and back again. He had gone on many adventures, or at the very least appeared in the background during the adventures of others, usually clumsy humans with far too much time on their hands, and not nearly enough cheese. And now he found himself, entirely by chance, perched upon a rock desperately trying to clutch five cards in his little paws, and having the time of his life. Of course, it was entirely possible that his life would only last as long as this next hand. The mouse was, after all, playing for his very survival.

“I call.” The dragon’s voice came rumbling from above. With its great talons it threw down what appeared to be a rib and a clavicle. They landed with a clatter atop of a pile of bones in the center. They were using discarded bones for chips. Clearly a primitive attempt at intimidation, but the mouse was not afraid. One of its left whiskers started to twitch.

This was the moment of truth. There was no backing out now. No room for error. The mouse had once safely braved the terrors of a cleaver wielded by a particularly vicious farmer’s wife. He had fought off seasickness as a one legged-pirate plotted mutiny and murder not ten feet away. None of those could match the danger of this moment, but the mouse was determined to face it with the same stalwart daring as everything else. One of its right whiskers started to twitch. He began slowly and with comical determination to push his last chips, a femur and phalanges, into the pot.

“All in,” said the mouse.