Tag Archives: #shortstories

Decameron 2020: Pestilence

Pestilence
by Art Cerf

If statuary can wear a mask, so can you. This pandemic is still in its early stages, folks.

Hello. Let me introduce myself. I’m Pestilence, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Death, of course, is our leader. War is a bit of a blowhard but is always busy. Both Famine and I are background players but believe me, we do more than you can imagine.

I go back thousands of years. I like to say I put the Hit on the Hittites. Through the years I come and go. Back in the 14th Century was one of my triumphs…the Black Plague. I won a Golden Tombstone for that one (sort of like your Oscars). Got another for the great flu of 1918-19.

Through the centuries, I spread cholera, smallpox, typhus and so many more. I’m particularly proud of AIDS. But now, I’ve come up with Covid-19. I hate the name…it should be something catchier like the Black Death or The Spanish Influenza. Oh well, it’s an international triumph.

I want to give thanks to the Chinese communist government for covering up the disease long enough for it to spread…and even disciplining the doctor who tried to point it out. Also kudos to the American President who denied at least two months of warnings and then dismissed it as nothing to worry about because we had it well in hand.

People keep asking when will we get back to normal.  My friends, this IS the new normal.

Decameron 2020: Leo Ledbetter

Leo Ledbetter
by Art Cerf

This is a chipmunk, not a squirrel, but it is still cute.

Leo Ledbetter started his day like any other since his wife, Miriam’s, passing last summer. He’d shower, have a little breakfast and then dress in his suit and tie. From there, he’d take a train and then two buses to get to the cemetery where his beloved was buried…and hour and a half trip.

He’d spend an hour or more seated on a bench beside her grave, talking and recalling their golden memories. Over time, he noticed a little squirrel hanging around the area. So the next day, he brought some peanuts to feed the squirrel.

This went on for months, rain or shine, blistering heat or icy winter days. It got so the squirrel would eat right out of his hand.

Then came the pandemic. Leo paid it no attention. He figured if he died, he’d die…and maybe then be reunited with Miriam.

And as expected, he caught the virus and he died.

The little squirrel missed his visits until one day another squirrel appeared in the cemetery and from the first moment, they got on terrifically and stay together for the rest of their days.

Decameron 2020: Elementary Human Nature

Nope, again this has nothing to do with the story, but it is a beautiful swampy nature preserve in Wisconsin.

Mrs. Peebles loved her first-grade class. Each of her 20 students was a clever little sponge soaking in knowledge, exploring and learning in their own ways. High-energy and mostly adorable, she wished she could protect each one from all of the dangers in the world.

To help keep them safe, near the end of the school year, she’d have a special class to warn them about the dangers lurking within their own homes. She explained how bleach and ammonia could be wonderful cleaners for their homes, but they could also be deadly poisons if drunk. Just getting the chemicals on their skin could hurt them, if they didn’t wash them off quickly. She let the kids come up and give a quick little sniff of each chemical to make sure they knew what they smelled like and should avoid.

Next she warned them of other dangers, such as hot stoves and space heaters.

She would wrap up the discussion with a dire warning never to stick anything other than an electric plug into a light socket. Electricity was vital to powering their lights, TV and computers, but it also was deadly when touched directly. She explained how a shock could stop their hearts or burn them.

After answering the children’s questions and reassuring them that all of these dangerous things could be very safe if only used properly, she began to put away her sample chemicals in a locking cabinet behind her desk.

At the very second she knelt down, there was a loud pop in the classroom and the lights flickered.

She stood up and screamed when she saw little Johnny Whozit lying unconscious next to an electric outlet on the other side of the room, a small pair of scissors clenched in his hand.

***

Dear Friends,

It is easy for us, as adults, to see that Johnny had a severe lapse in judgement when he was just told that the very thing he was about to do could kill him. The vast majority of us don’t need to stick things in an outlet to know it is an insanely terrible idea. The overwhelming majority of us have never stuck anything other than proper plugs in an outlet.

While quarantine totally blows goats, for the life of me I cannot understand why grown adults think it is suddenly a good idea to drink bleach, break quarantine and stop wearing masks in public, in close proximity to other people.

With increasing repetition, I’m hearing all manner of virus conspiracy theories, as if Covid-19 has ideological intentions.

It doesn’t. The virus isn’t liberal, conservative or even political. It is a mindless microscopic thing that isn’t even a complete single-cell structure that scientists define as only being on the “edge of life.” It isn’t living in the traditional sense that we understand living to be…but it isn’t quite not-alive, either. No wonder it is difficult to treat. It only has two goals: quasi-live & replicate. It sickens and kills everybody equally, regardless of politics, race, religion or wealth.

I am blessed to count many EMTs, nurses, doctors and police officers among my friends and customers. Many of them have told me how insanely contagious this disease is. Most of them have seen people die of the disease…many people, in some cases.

Many of the best scientific minds in the country are working on cures and vaccines to save the rest of us from this plague. At the moment, we have no known, proven cure. We’re mostly keeping our fingers crossed that it doesn’t kill us. True, for as many people who get it, only a small percentage of them die. Who wants to take that risk when a cure or vaccine might be just around the corner?

Yes, the economy is in rough shape. Absolutely, people need money to continue on. All of us would love to gather with friends and family once again. We all want life to return to normal as soon as possible…and I hope with as little suffering and death as possible. OMG! Warm weather and a beautiful springtime make it even harder to stay indoors. I get it.

But these are extraordinary times, and they call for extreme measures to protect our family, friends and neighbors as much as humanly possible.

One of the most dangerous parts about Covid-19 is that you can get it and never know it. You can also get it and spread it for up to 14 days before coming down with symptoms. Why put yourself at risk? Why put your family and friends at risk? Why pass it on to some friendly elderly person you accidentally bump into at the grocery store? Who knows how many people someone you might infect can then turn around and infect?

Until we have a cure or vaccine, the only thing we can do for ourselves and everyone else is stay home…and wear a mask if you have to go out for supplies. It totally sucks, but it is the only way to stay safe…minimize the spread of the disease…and buy the many doctors and scientists working around the clock to find a better way to kill, cure and prevent this disease a little more time.

Regardless of politics, for the health and lives of our families and friends, we need to unite as a nation and a planet. At no other time in human history has it been easier to be a hero that helps save humanity. All you have to do is continue to shelter in place.

With great love, health and respect,
Nathaniel

Decameron 2020: The Story of Job—Part 2

The Story of Job: Part 2
by Art Cerf

Here’s a photo of a birch tree that is quite lovely and has nothing to do with this story. I just felt like sharing.

God and Satan were having their weekly meeting and would banter about who was the best dresser, who had the best haircut and the like.

Satan suggested a contest on who was more popular. God agreed but then asked who would be a fair judge. Satan thought for a moment and then said, “Why not Job? Remember he stuck with you when you killed off his family and covered him with boils. He might still be loyal…or he might be rather pissed.”

God thought it over and agreed to resurrect Job…without the boils…and would send an arch angel with him just to help him adjust to the 21st century but in no way tip the scales.

So Job arrived in America, and he could hardly believe his eyes. Planes overhead…rolling carts in the streets…towering buildings. He loved the fact the clothing was more comfortable and you could have more than just one set. And he loved that almost everyone lived inside…and could turn up the heat or cool the air. And food? It was everywhere.

But on the other hand, the air always smelled. The angel told him that was car exhaust and air pollution from factories, whatever they were. They went to the beach where the shore was littered with all sorts of refuse.

And when he was shown television, he couldn’t believe how immodest women were and how violent the men were. And then there was this orange man on the box every afternoon, telling everyone how the pandemic was under control and what a good job he was doing when Job knew that was bullshit.  He saw the death figures rising every day…he saw people afraid to leave their homes…and he even saw ambulances carry two bodies away from the building where he was staying.

He asked the angel if the orange man was king. The angel said, “No, he was elected.”

Job asked, “By whom? Religious leaders and town mayors?”

The angel said, “No, in America, everyone can vote and pick their leader.”

Job said, “And the people voted to pick him?”

“Not exactly,” said the angel. “The other candidate got three-million more votes but through a technicality called the Electoral College, the orange man won.”

“And will he be the leader until he dies?”

“No,” said the angel. “There will be a new election in November.”

Job said, “And everyone can vote?”

The angel said, “Well, in theory, but the party supporting the orange man is trying hard to keep those who don’t like him from voting.”

Job said, “I’ve seen enough.” And in a whisk, he was back before God and Satan.

“Well,” they said, “Who did the better job?”

Job looked at both of them and said, “Satan, you placed the plague upon the earth which was a really shitty thing to do. And you, God, allowed all those people to suffer. Shame on you.”

God and the devil looked at each other, nodded, and in a wink, Job exploded into a billion pieces.

God turned to Satan and said, “So who do you see in next year’s World Series?”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Happy birthday, Dad! Thank you for this most dad-liest of stories.

Decameron 2020: Caleb Connor

Caleb Connor
by Art Cerf

Just another bird photo that has nothing to do with the story. Looks nice but is meaningless, just to catch the eye. Nah-nah.

Caleb Connor had the visage of a young man. But he was there when the pyramids were built.

He marched with Roman legions and sailed with Vikings. He survived the Black Death in the 14th century and was good friends with Henry VIII…his daughter, not so much.

He stood with the rebels on Bunker Hill and played cards with Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

He watched Pickett’s Charge from Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg and he rode with the 7th Cavalry to the Little Big Horn.

36 years later, he was on the maiden voyage of Titanic and a few years after that, watched his friends die from the Spanish influenza.

He watched Babe Ruth in the ’20’s and lived through the Great Depression.

He watched Japanese planes bomb Pearl Harbor and fought at Iwo Jima.

Connor traveled in JFK’s motorcade in Dallas and watched Nixon’s operatives arrested at the Watergate.

He was in New York for 9/11 and still there in 2020 when the Corona virus struck.

He tried to follow self quarantine measures but the boredom got to him so he roamed New York’s hospitals at night. He could actually see the virus…little red dots wafting through the air. And he could see death on the faces of patients, nurses and doctors…an almost invisible circle on their foreheads.

He walked into the men’s room, wondering when will all this pain and suffering end? He splashed some cold water on his face and looked up into the mirror and had his answer.

Decameron 2020: Jason Turnberry

Jason Turnberry
By Art Cerf

Jason Turnberry was a jerk, but he had a marvelous cat name Hector.  Well, actually, Hector belonged more to his wife, Mary, who adored him. The cat and Jason kept a wide berth of each other. Yet, if anyone else came into the house, Hector was happy to greet them and curl up in their laps, purring.

One day while Mary was out shopping, the doorbell rang and it was Mary’s great Aunt Agatha who Jason had met only once at the wedding. She was in town from California to visit with Mary’s mother and dropped by to say hello.

Jason invited her in and told her Mary would probably be returning within the hour.

As she entered, she spied the all black Hector, sleeping in a sunbeam. She said, “Oh, a black cat…that’s bad luck.” She then smiled and added she knew it was a silly superstition but she couldn’t give them up.

Jason smiled and started inventing a story.

“We got Hector from a nursing home. He was a very solitary animal but he became famous within the building because whenever he’d go into a patient’s room and hop on the bed, that person would die within a few hours. It’s like he knew beforehand. ”

He added: “The nursing home had to find a new home for him because there were so many pandemic deaths.”

At that moment, Hector woke up and trotted into the living room to greet the guest. As per usual, he hopped up on Aunt Agatha’s lap.  She screamed, fearing Hector had spotted death in her, too.

She made quick apologies and fled the place. Later that night, Mary received a call from her mom that Aunt Agatha had passed away of an apparent heart attack. Jason knew in truth, she had been scared to death but he wasn’t about to tell that to Mary.

As he sat on the couch consoling her, in came Hector and jumped on his lap, something he had never done before.

Mary said: “Well look at you two…I swear, if I didn’t know better, I’d say Hector was smiling.”

Decameron 2020: July 2021

July 2021
By Art Cerf

Sunset Behind the Wisconsin River. Wausau, Wis. April 2020. By Nathaniel Cerf

By now, billions of people, indeed, half the world’s population had succumbed to Covid-19a.

A year ago, people got tired of sheltering in place and ignored all the scientific warnings to stay in place and keep social distancing, much to the virus’s delight (if viruses can feel delight.).

Then in the fall, the virus mutated once again and became ten-twenty times more deadly and masks and PPE no longer worked.

Billions died…economies collapsed…governments fell. And of course, half of all the doctors, nurses, healthcare workers and scientists perished, too. There was no vaccine, and it looked like there wouldn’t be one.

On the other hand, skies hadn’t been this clean since farmlands in the 19th century. Rivers ran pollution-free. Animals on the endangered species list made a strong comeback. It was as if Mother Nature was cleansing the planet…of humans.

I walked back to my car, marveling at how I now could see the stars at night and how the earth had changed so.  If we survived this plague, would we learn any lessons about protecting the planet? I truly hoped so.

I was headed home and hoped to find an open gas station on the way. So many had closed. Still I only had less than a quarter of a tank full on my Hummer.

Decameron 2020: The Fencing Champion—Part 2

Among my many careers, I was a fencing portrait photographer. The following are photos I used as advertising and pose options. I own the copyright to all of them, so please don’t steal them, without permission.

Latching the floor cord to the D-ring just above Jill’s left hip, Dan took a moment to appreciate that he was standing in her shoes only 20 short years earlier.

When Jill finished plugging in her favorite electric foil that she named Annibelle the Cannibelle, she rushed to get to her en garde line and start the final bout of the women’s national foil tournament.

Seeing her haste, Dan grabbed her wrist and pulled her back to him.

The 18-year-old was bright and smiling from the joy of fencing for the title, but Dan could also see the nervous tension around her eyes. He had butterflies in his stomach, but he didn’t show it.

Placing his hands on her shoulders, he looked deeply into her brown eyes for a second before speaking.

“It feels just like yesterday that I was teaching some skinny little 11-year-old girl how to kick the asses of 2 17-year-old boys twice her size.”

She exhaled a laugh, and the tension left her face. “If they could see me now.”

“They’d shit their pants and be grateful you didn’t kill them.”

She laughed, again.

Now that her nerves were steadied, Dan helped her focus: “Don’t think about the title. Only think about the touch in the moment.”

She nodded.

“How are you going to beat this girl?”

“First, I’m going to figure out how the director calls right-of-way. Then, I’m going to test her distance, comfort zone and weaknesses.”

“Good,” Dan encouraged. “What else?”

“Fence for only 1-light touches. There’s no trusting the call on double-light actions,” Jill replied. “Oh, and listen to her coach give away her strategy.”

“Excellent,” he said. “What do you do if your attacks stop working?”

“Play defense.”

“And if your defense isn’t working?”

“Go on attack.”

“Perfect,” he said. “So, in other words, this is just a normal bout for you.”

She nodded.

“Good. Just keep in mind one more thing. Give yourself a little extra space until you know her reach and abilities. Never hesitate. You have the best instincts in the game. Trust yourself.”

“Got it, Coach.”

“Good. Stay grizzly.”

She gave him a low, menacing growl with a lop-sided grin.

He winked back at her. “You’re ready. Go kick her ass.”

Jill turned on her heel and strode confidently to her en garde line, her sweaty brown pony tail swaying with each step.

He watched her from the coach’s box like a proud father. Jill was not his daughter, but she had become very much like the daughter he never had.

***

Upon winning the silver medal at the national championship, Dan was more determined than ever to take home the gold. He trained like a man possessed. He won countless tournaments and defeated many world-class competitors, but, at the following national foil championship, he failed to make the semi-finals.

And so he would preserver in the years to come. Through bad romances and good, economic boom times and bust, his love of fencing never wavered. Back in college, he assumed adulthood would be glamorous. With a professional career would come professional paychecks that would finally pay for the travel and gear that he could not afford in college.

What he did not count on was that a professional career also required far more time out of his day. The more he succeeded at work, the less time he was able to devote to training. While he remained one of the most gifted naturals in the sport, the general effects of age and the inability to train and travel as much as in college cost him his dream of a national title.

Still devoted to the sport and fly-over country, Dan began helping out more at a local park district club, like where he first learned.

Fencing had changed over the years from a mostly adult sport to a mostly kid sport. On the circuit, 12-year-olds just getting into the sport were practically too old to have a chance. The kids who started at age 8 were nationally rated and winning major circuit events by age 12.

Teaching had moved on from classical fencing where students were taught all of the moves until they learned each to perfection and also taught how to think and react under pressure to teaching kids a few basics and then one or two power moves. The power moves were dominant and won tournaments, but the kids knew nothing else and became proud and arrogant in their ignorance.

Most flicking had been eliminated from the sport by stiffening the foil blades, but directors still based their calls almost entirely on footwork, regardless of the way the rules remained written.

Poor sportsmanship was promoted to appalling levels. Dominate young fencers were encouraged as young as 9 to create their own victory dances and war whoops after every touch scored. The days of fencers winning and losing with stoic grace, dignity and honor were long dead.

As Dan began teaching kids, he taught them the old ways. Realizing 90% of the kids he taught were only interested in living out their pirate and Jedi fantasies, he had fun with them, adding more advanced classes for the kids that actually wanted to learn something and try competition.

Dan didn’t remember meeting Jill. She was just another scrawny 11-year-old who was rather shy and quiet. He never really took notice of her until he noticed two of his nearly grown high school students going way too rough on her in the advanced class.

“What on earth are you guys doing over there?” Dan called out across the gym. He left the two younger kids he was helping.

One of the older boys stammered, “She wanted to fence us. She said for us not to go easy on her.”

Dan looked at him doubtfully and asked the girl.

“It’s true,” she agreed enthusiastically. “I’m tired of beating everybody else in the club. These are the only guys I can’t beat, and I want to learn what they’re doing that I can’t beat.”

“You mean you’re beating all of the other students?” he asked doubtfully.

“Haven’t you noticed?” she asked, hurt in her big, brown eyes.

Dan felt horribly because he hadn’t.

“Aren’t these guys hurting you?” he asked.

“Yeah, but it is the only way to see what they are doing so I can beat them.”

Dan looked at her thoughtfully, as she gazed up earnestly. Dan placed a hand on her shoulder and turned her away from the boys, and they walked a few steps.

Squatting in front of her he whispered, “You can’t beat them fencing them like they fence you. You’re too small.”

“I hate being little,” she said. “I can’t wait to grow up.”

“Are you kidding me?” Dan asked. “Being small and fast are the two best things for a fencer to be.”

“No, they’re not,” she dismissed him.

“Yes, they are. You have no target area to stab when you’re small,” he said. “Put your foil down and go en garde.”

She did, and, crouching down to her level, he went en garde, extended his right arm and index finger, gently poking her leading right shoulder.

“Now, extend your arm and finger.”

She did, poking him in the bicep.

“Who is going to win this fight this way?”

“You are,” she said.

“Now, how are you actually going to beat me?”

Jill thought a second and cautiously bent her arm, parried Dan’s arm—which he kept rigid—, stepped closer to him, resting his straight arm across her belly, extended her arm and finger and poked him in the right shoulder.

“Very good,” he said, genuinely impressed, as he stood back up. “You made yourself safe from the tip of my foil and put yourself in a position to stab me repeatedly with impunity. Go over there and kick those boys’ butts.”

Jill smiled and ran back to her en garde line.

Dan stood in the director’s position and loudly told the boys, “I want you to fence your best against Jill and not give her any easy touches. BUT, you also can’t fence to hurt her. There is no reason at your size and skill level that you can’t beat her without ever letting her get close enough to you that you even accidentally leave a mark.”

One of the boys volunteered to go first. Jill scored the first two touches and was beaming at Dan. She then lost 5-2, when the boy changed tactics. Still, that first boost of confidence was there and Jill dug in. At the end of a month, she was an even match against the older boys. At the end of two months, she dominated the boys, who were now taking special instructions from Dan on how to beat her.

Dan added more classes for the kids who wanted to go even further in competition. Plenty of boys and girls signed up, and the group gelled as a team, working together to always get better.

Over the years, several qualified for the national tournament.

Jill had been qualifying since she was 13. Now, at 18, she had gone as far into the championship as her coach, who was barely competing and mostly focusing on his students.

***

Jill snapped a sharp salute with earnest intensity, as her coach had before her.

When the director said go, both women rushed forward.

Jill’s much taller opponent suddenly dropped down with perfect poise and form, scoring a touch on Jill’s 8, just below her sword-arm elbow.

Jill replayed the move in her head. For as surprising and perfectly executed as the move was, Jill noticed the woman’s hips seemingly unhitch, as if she were double jointed. Then the opponent kicked with her front leg and pushed off her back leg, extending it completely until the contours of her left calf and thigh lay flat on the floor, her left bottom cheek smacked the floor and her right thigh angled up to her knee positioned directly over a shin that was perpendicular to the floor. The competitor’s torso was erect, right arm straight as an iron rod that was holding a 35-inch long foil. This woman gracefully covered 10 feet of ground from her back foot to the tip of her foil.

The entire maneuver didn’t take more than a second to execute. When her back side tapped the floor, it gave her the momentum she needed to pop back up into en garde.

Before the director called the point in her favor, the woman unleashed an ear-shattering, primal shriek of a victory cry.

Jill’s parents looked at Dan from the stands, mortified. Neither they nor most of the audience had ever seen a fencer move like that and sound so intimidating.

Dan nodded reassuringly to them.

“Taylor Swift!” is all he shouted to Jill.

Jill performed a little hand-flicking dance move from the “Shake It Off” video, as she reset herself on the en garde line.

Given how closely they listened to opposing coaches screaming and yelling at their fencers, Dan only spoke in code to his fencers at tournaments. He taught them to think and act for themselves. Jill’s little dance move told him she’d seen the woman’s hips unhitch and that she knew what to do.

When fencing resumed, both women rushed off the line. Two steps in, Jill stopped as the other woman’s hips unhitched. Jill waited for what felt like an eternity, as she let her opponent overcommit to the attack. Once the shrieker’s arm was extended, Jill swept down for an almost clumsy parry 8, riposting for a touch in the middle of the opponent’s chest.

Jill was soundless and expressionless, her actions were more intimidating than any screaming.

Dan clapped three loud, rapid times, indicating nice touch. Get back to work.

Jill’s opponent looked back at her coach a little nervously. Nobody had previously denied her the long-lunge touch in 8. Jill heard him tell her to switch attacks, and she knew what was coming.

When her opponent rushed her, sword windmilling counter clockwise, Jill waited, feigned a parry, retreated a couple steps and picked off the attack with ease, riposting and then parrying one last time to guarantee 1 light.

2-1 Jill.

Clearly, this was the shrieker’s second favorite attack, as she did it again. Jill easily defeated it.

3-1 Jill.

The attack came again, but this time Jill skipped a step in her defense. The opponent landed and shrieked.

3-2.

“Don’t get overconfident,” is all Dan told Jill.

Emboldened, the shrieker renewed her efforts with the same attack. Jill recovered her form and defended it easily.

4-2.

Not willing to believe Jill, of Fly-Over Country, could beat her special moves, the opponent asked the director if she could test her foil on Jill. Both acquiesced, and the equipment worked perfectly.

The opponent’s coach was furious with the shrieker, yelling at her to change the direction of the attacks.

The shrieker tried three more attacks from the opposite direction. Jill was waiting for them, and when the first 3-minute period of play came to an end, she was up 7-2.

Jill swaggered over to her coach for the 1-minute break.

“Stop right there!” he reprimanded, handing her her favorite sports drink. “You’ve got nothing to strut about, yet. Right now her coach is plotting your demise, and she didn’t get this far by giving up. What do you think he’s telling her?”

“Play defense,” Jill said, sobering up.

“Right,” Dan said, softening.

“What should I do?”

“Well, do you want to try winning by risking running the time out or by mopping the floor with her dirty-blonde head?”

“Mopping,” she said, with a grim set to her jawline.

“Give her a dose of her own medicine. Finish her off before this period ends. Don’t give her time to think.”

The director called the end of the break.

Jill took a last swig.

“If you’re in such a hurry, old man, you better start filling that bucket with soap and water,” she called back to him, making her way to her en garde line.

Dan loved her moxie, but he hoped it wasn’t overconfidence.

When he saw Jill blaze across the strip, windmilling and flicking with a hard shot to the stomach, he knew Jill was focused and playing for blood. 8-2.

The next attempt had her opponent ready. Another shriek and it was 8-3.

“You’re a shark,” Dan shouted, letting Jill know she froze her feet at the end of her failed attack. After all, sharks and fencers have one thing in common, when they stop moving, they die.

Re-invigorated by the parry-riposte touch she just earned, Jill’s opponent went back to her own windmill attack. Jill was waiting for it. 9-3.

“Crazy Monkey!” Dan called out.

The Crazy Monkey attack was Jill’s own invention. It took the windmill attacks that were so popular to a whole new level. She could land the tip on all four corners of the body and on the back by windmilling, which all top fencers could do. Her special ability was to keep moving forward and reversing the windmill in a heartbeat while also stutter-stepping to throw off the timing of the attack…or more specifically, throwing off the timing of the defense, allowing Jill enough time to pick where she wanted to most safely land. To make it harder to defend, Jill would also change her height from normal to low to up on her tip toes, never stopping forward progression and losing right-of way. It was extremely difficult to parry, until you got used to it.

Jill’s opponent fought with desperation, hypnotized by Jill’s elusive foil point that connected with her again and again.

It was 12-3 now, and Jill was so locked into the zone, she couldn’t hear the spectators. She could barely hear the director. She couldn’t even hear Dan.

As she began running down her opponent on the next action, she noticed the woman backing up far earlier than previously. That’s when she spotted the woman unhitching her hips.

Although it wasn’t what she planned on in her attack, Jill was so focused, she didn’t hesitate to press on, sweep a parry 8, bind her opponent’s blade and throw the entire weapon out of her opponent’s hand before dropping in to lunge dead center on the shrieker’s sternum.

Jill held her lunge for effect, and her opponent stood dumbfounded.

The crowd roared at the thrill of the site. 13-3.

Jill was so focused, she didn’t hear the crowd. She didn’t hear the director. She stalked back to her en garde line, lost in her own thoughts of strategy.

Dan saw it the instant the foil flew out of the hand of the woman across from him.

Jill didn’t see it until after resetting en garde. As her tall adversary tugged at the body cord by her hip to pull her foil back to her hand, Jill could tell she had broken her opponent’s spirit.

For a true warrior, it is both a beautiful site and a little sad. It is fun to be a lion and take down a wildebeest. Yet, there is little joy in putting down a whimpering wounded animal.

“Stay grizzly,” Dan warned. Jill looked back and growled. All he could see were big white teeth behind her black-mesh mask.

Jill made solid attacks that were responsibly cautious, given that her rival was no longer putting up much of an obvious fight. It was quite anti-climactic.

When the director awarded Jill the 15th touch, Jill trotted back to her line, gave a sincere, crisp salute and walked up to her opponent for a customary handshake and whispered, “Good game.”

To the dismay of the fencing officials, Jill never shouted, danced or screamed. She didn’t need to rub it in, as her opponent wept at the side of the strip.

Wearing the biggest grin he had ever seen, Jill swaggered back to her coach, joy radiating. He offered her his customary high five, and she wrapped him in a bear hug.

He hugged her back, picked her up and swung her around. They were then mobbed by her family and teammates.

After the awards and photos, when things started to calm down, Dan asked to hold her medal.

He looked over the enameled front and read the inscription on the back. It wasn’t real gold, but he stared at it wistfully, as he hefted it.

“Thank you,” Jill said. “I never could have done it without you.”

“Nonsense,” he said, looking up at her with a wan smile. “All I said were silly things like ‘Be a shark,’ and “Taylor Swift.'”

“No,” she softly protested. “You took me all the way to the finish line.”

He shook his head. “I shined a flashlight down the path for you. You did all of the work, and I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

She attempted to say something, but Dan held up his hand to stop her.

“I’ve been chasing this damned thing all my life,” he said, as he gently placed the ribbon back around her neck. “And I have to admit that it makes me ten times happier to see it on you than on me.”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I also never coached any national champions. The passion, strategy, changes and sensations in this story are all true. Fencing has given me 25 years of joy, which I hope I passed on to my students…and maybe you, with these stories. In the event you want to learn, you are never too old to start. Although I’m taking a break from the sport for a little while, I hope to be fencing into my 70s, like my mentor, the great Jack Warner of Spokane, Wash., not Hollywood. If he is still with us today, he’d be about 95 or so years old. Yet, at age 70, with 50 years of fencing under his belt, he’d mop the floor with us cocky 20-somethings who foolishly believed their youth would destroy his experience and strategy. Special thanks goes out to him, Blue-Hair Cathy, Maria D. and Bakhyt for teaching me so much as a competitor and Tracy for teaching me so much as a coach…and to all the many other wonderful friends, teammates and students along the way. It might not sound possible, but you are all the best.

Decameron 2020: Carlotta

Carlotta
By Art Cerf

Carlotta was a killer. Ruthless, relentless and no regrets.

She had been that way it seems forever, and she never considered being anything else. And if she had children, she assumed that they would be killers, too.

And she showed no bigotry in selecting her victims, black or white, rich or poor, Christian, Muslim or Jew.

She had her next victim in sight. Sure, he carried a wicked-looking pocket knife and a concealed carry Glock but to no avail.

She’s simply sneak into his office or home and hide, waiting for him to accidentally brush against her.

Carlotta, the killer…virus.

Decameron 2020: The Taste of Brown

The Taste of Brown
By Nancy Bach

This White-Breasted Nuthatch in its tree-hole nest has nothing to do with the story. Stories just seem to get more attention with photos.

Crouched in the humid, smothering darkness, Magda Zeller examined the dead thing. It lay buried in a shallow trench at the base of the newly set foundation wall of the administration building. Or what would be Admin when her crew finished construction.

It was a windem, one of the tree-like, tribal, semi-intelligent beings that inhabited this world, and its presence on site made acid churn in Magda’s stomach. It would likely mean a delay. A delay could mean no bonus and no bonus meant a late loan payment to the Garicola brothers. Her palms sweat. Would they just kill her, or torture her first?

In the east, an alien god brushed fat fingers across the horizon, painting dawn’s purplish blush across the bottom of the sky. Compared to that, and the glow of a trio of moons, the stabbing, slashing beam of her flashlight felt heretical. Magda shrugged off the transgression. She had bigger problems. Besides, it wasn’t her god.

She squatted by the foundation and scowled at the thing in the trench, while her crew chief, Jared Montgomery, paced behind her. The windem had been interred so close to the foam-crete that it had become partially encased in it as the foam hardened overnight. Seeing it here, stuck in her wall, Magda relived the argument she’d had with the site surveyor about the wisdom of building a settlement this close to the forest. From everything Magda read before accepting this job, relations with the windem had been benign. That was in part, Magda thought, because the Governor was a smart man, keeping human activity to the broad, grassy plains that covered great swaths of Baeder IV.

This new intrusion butted up against the shore of the purple, leafy ocean of a forest that washed in rolling, hilly waves over the top third of Baeder’s one enormous continent. The activity could be construed by the indigenous creatures as a move into windem territory. Magda reasoned that although the windem had shown no signs of violent behavior over the thirty or so years Baeder had been colonized, it didn’t mean they weren’t capable of it.

The first day the crew started digging, a handful of the windem showed up. They stood at a distance, in a cluster like a miniature wooded glade, watching. Sometimes they gestured with their branch-arms, although whether to the workers or to each other was anyone’s guess. Each successive morning, more appeared at the edge of the forest. Just standing. They never stayed long. Magda would look up from some task and they’d be gone.

She peered down at the thing melded into her foundation, a scant ten centimeters from her maker’s mark, a small seashell from Earth she placed in the foundation of one structure in every colony she’d helped build. The shell was a tradition, started by her father, and continued after she’d taken over the family business upon his retirement. A little piece of her, a little piece of the place where humanity started, now resided on every far-flung outpost Magda worked on.

She hissed out a breath. Hell’s bells.

The windem in the trench was an old one from the look of the patchy gray, bark-like skin. The young ones were green, with limbs like vines, moving through the canopy of the forest like excitable monkeys. As the windem aged, they grew stiff, more earth-bound and sedentary. Cal Martinez, one of the team’s explorers, said he’d seen some that were rooted to the ground, like real trees. This one, the one in her foundation, had root-like growths at the base of its six lower limbs to which clung dirt and dead leaves, like it had been uprooted before being brought here.

Behind her, Montgomery cleared his throat. “Is it dead?”

Magda held her breath and gently poked the thing, fully expecting to be grabbed. The body felt cold, but she’d never touched a windem before. Maybe they were always cold. When there was no reaction, she laid her hand on the creature’s bark-covered torso, felt for a heartbeat or signs of breathing. Did windem even have hearts?  Probably not.

The thing didn’t stir, and it hadn’t moved since being placed here, or it wouldn’t have gotten trapped like a bug in amber when the foam-crete hardened.

She frowned up at Montgomery. “I sure as hell hope so. If it’s alive, I have no idea how we’ll excavate it without hurting it.” She played her light over the form, looking for some sign of how it had come here and who had brought it. Other than her and Montgomery’s boot prints in the ocher-colored soil, she saw nothing. “This is how you found him?”

“Yep. He was covered over some with dirt and a bunch of leaves. I cleared a little away so’s I could figure out what it was. When I saw it was one of them, I called you.” He ran a shaky hand across his closely shaven head. “What should we do?”

Magda stood. “Rouse the crew. Get Halloran and Coretti to stand guard here. Issue them weapons but keep it quiet. Then question everyone.” If it were some fool’s idea of a practical joke, Magda would have their ass sent to the worst job site she could think of, and she knew some real hell holes. “I want to know if anyone saw or knows anything about this.” 

“On it, boss.”

 Montgomery loped away towards their camp, a cluster of habidomes situated on a small rise a couple hundred yards from the construction site. He’d be glad, she thought, that she hadn’t assigned him to stand watch. The faceless windem gave him the willies.

The first rays of a ruddy sun spilled across the denuded, dun-colored ground, setting off sparks of light from the mica-like flakes bound into the substrate. Beauty wasted, Magda thought, on aliens who had no eyes.

The trials of the day ahead made her head throb. She’d need to call Dr. Ramanujan, the local Exo-Anthropologist, stationed in Rewey on the far side of the planet. Magda had studied all the lit about the indigenous lifeforms on Baeder before accepting this job, but nothing she read told her why a dead windem was lying in a trench on her building site. She didn’t have much faith that the Exo-Anth would know, either, but that was the logical place to start untangling this mess. And it needed to be untangled, fast. She had two weeks to get the priority structures built. It wasn’t just her reputation on the line, although that was critical to getting future jobs. Her bonus hung on that accelerated timeline, too. Without that payment, the financing partners–okay, call a spade a spade, the loan sharks–who had helped her replace her outdated and glitchy diggers and material synthesizers, wouldn’t get paid.

In the growing heat and humidity of the morning, Magda shivered. Then she tapped her com, calculated what time it was in Rewey, and hoped Indira Ramanujan wasn’t doing anything with her night she didn’t mind having interrupted.

#

“What do you mean you can’t get over here?” Magda paced the yellow-brown ground, cupping one hand over her ear to silence the whistle of the wind in the earpiece implanted there. “I have a dead alien in a hole and about three dozen of the live variety standing a dozen meters away watching me jackhammer the dead one out of a foundation.” She smeared dirt across her sweaty forehead as she pushed up her short bangs.

The anthropologist huffed in what sounded like frustration. “Well, this is great timing.” There was a moment of silence, then a sigh. “I doubt they will do anything but watch you, Ms. Zeller. In the thirty years we’ve been here, they’ve never done anything else.”

It had taken Magda two hours to get hold of the Exo-Anthropologist. Meanwhile, she’d re-questioned everyone on her crew after Montgomery had finished with them, slammed back two strong cups of coffee and a pain reliever for a burgeoning migraine, and arranged for a work crew to start breaking down the section of foundation so they could repour the foam-crete. Now she stood and supervised while they carefully excavated the windem’s body from its concrete cocoon. The air, as thick with humidity as a milkshake, tasted tangy and sour when she sucked in a breath. “And if they do?”

“Do what, Ms. Zeller?”

She flung a hand up. “How the hell should I know? You’re the bloody alien expert!”

She winced at a squelch of interference. Mankind had been traveling the stars for ten generations but somehow still couldn’t get intra-planetary communications to work. “Listen, I’m desperate to come out there, but I have one shot to meet with someone who’s only passing through the system. My grant, the money that will help us learn more about the creatures, depends on me keeping that appointment.”

Money, Magda thought, it always came down to money, no matter who you were.

There was more background noise, some distant, tinny announcement, and Ramanujan continued, puffing a little as though she were out of breath. “I’m sorry, I have to go. My flight Upstation is boarding. Document the incident and call me if anything changes. I’ll be back in a few days.”

God damn it, the woman was leaving the planet. “Wait! You can’t go. This is–”

She nearly ripped out the earpiece, and to hell with the nanofiber circuitry, when she realized Ramanujan had hung up. She spun, wishing she had something to throw, nearly ran into the tall, rangy form of Montgomery.

“Boss?”

“What?”

“It’s done. Had to use a hammer and chisel at the end there. Can’t get any closer to the thing without taking off bits of him. It. What do we do with it now?”

Magda frowned down at the dead windem, then across to the live ones, standing in their silent, motionless vigil. “How heavy is it?”

“Not very. Probably weighs about what you do. It feels sorta, I don’t know.” Montgomery shrugged. “Dried out. Like maybe it’s been dead for a while.”

Weirder and weirder. She cursed the Exo-Anth and climbed down the slope. “Good job,” she told her crew. “Montgomery, you take the roots, I’ll get the, uh, arms.” She gestured at the six ropey side appendages.

Montgomery looked like she’d just asked him to roll in a pit of fire ants.

She narrowed her eyes. “Just do it, Monty.”

He swallowed, stared down at the windem. “And then what?”

She gripped the body underneath the branches that she equated with arms and hefted it. If she had to, she figured she could just drag it herself, but it felt disrespectful to do so. “Do you like your job, Monty?”

His lips twitched. “Most of the time.”

“Then grab its legs and help me carry it. We’re gonna give it back to them.”

Montgomery’s eyes widened like a frightened horse. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, boss.”

“Fine. Guess you don’t need a paycheck.” She tugged the body backwards a few feet and Montgomery finally picked up his end.

They moved toward the group of windem. Magda’s plan was to place the dead creature close its live brethren and back off. As they neared the windem, reflux acid burned her throat.

“Lower it to the ground, Monty. Carefully. Don’t just drop it.”

Montgomery followed her lead. Then with his eyes glued to the aliens, he murmured, “Now we go back, right?”

She sighed. “Yes, go. I’ll be right behind you.”

His heavy boots thudded against the ground as he ran back the way they’d come. Magda stood her ground however, wondering how to make eye contact with a creature who had no eyes. She inhaled more buttermilk air. “I’m sorry about your, um, elder here. I don’t know how he died, but we can’t have him in our site.”

One of the creatures was taller and grayer than the others. It had something around what could roughly be called shoulders, something like a necklace of vining blossoms. Maybe it just grew there, part of its body, she couldn’t tell from this distance. None of the others had a similar decoration, so she addressed her next comments to him. “We don’t mean you any harm. In fact, we’d like to be friends. Okay?”

The change occurred without warning. A grey-green haze, like murky contact lens, colored her vision. Her stomach lurched and she couldn’t catch her breath. The pond-scum air grew thicker, hotter. Her heart stuttered, memories of childhood panic attacks flooding her with the need to run and hide. Every cell in her body screamed, this is wrong, the world is wrong.

The creatures at the tree line hadn’t moved, yet she felt them swarming her, closing around her, and the world tilted. The ground beneath her feet seemed to shift and lurch, sending her to her knees.

Then it was lights out.

#

She came to in the chill air of the med dome. Taking a deep breath that for a change wasn’t like sucking air through a straw, she pushed herself up from the cot Montgomery had dropped her on. “What happened?”

Gail Wu, their medic, shoved her back down. “You passed out. Montgomery said the aliens did something to you.” Wu gave Montgomery the side-eye. “Can you verify that, Magda?”

Magda considered. “Probably just the heat.” She didn’t believe that, but better to lose face than try to explain something she didn’t herself understand. She glared at Montgomery, jabbed a finger at him. “You don’t repeat that, Monty.”

He winked. “Repeat what, boss? I didn’t hear a thing.”

Wu stuck a couple of sensors on Magda’s temple and chest, consulted her comp. “Elevated adrenaline levels, heart rate. O2’s a little low.” She passed Magda a suck tube of clear liquid. “Drink that. It will help balance your electrolytes. I’d tell you to take the day and rest, but I’d be wasting my breath.”

When Wu backed off, Magda sat up. The world swam and sparkled. She closed her eyes, forced down the sweet-salty liquid. When the dizzy glitter cleared, she climbed to her feet. Montgomery’s doleful brown eyes studied her, lips downturned. She waved off his concern. “What happened after I passed out?”

Her crew chief shrugged. “I ran back, carried you off. Put the crew to work on the foundation again.”

“And the windem?”

He frowned. “I didn’t see, but I assumed they disappeared back into the forest.”

“Did they take the old one with them?”

“The what?”

“The body, Monty, the body.”

“Hell if I know. Kinda had my hands full lugging you back here.” He smirked. “Might wanna lay off the sausage and biscuits, boss.”

Typical Montgomery. Snark aside, he’d missed the real point. The corpse of the windem was important. Magda didn’t know why, but she knew to rely on her instincts about things.

She swung her legs off the cot. Montgomery was a great crew chief and an expert at dome construction, but what he had in site smarts, he utterly lacked in imagination. Like always, Magda was the only one thinking ahead. Ahead to their schedule, their bonus, and what this interruption might mean to both. She pushed past Montgomery and out of the med dome. The sense of unease she felt before she fainted still squirmed inside her.

By the time she’d hiked back to the site and reached the spot where she’d left the body of the windem, the sun sweltered directly overhead and the crew had broken for lunch. A flattened section of tall grass between the bare earth of the construction site and the edge of the forest remained the only indication of their encounter.

She searched the trees, looking for any of the watchers, but the deep purplish-black and magenta foliage of the forest had swallowed them up.

Her skin crawled. Something felt wrong, she could taste it. Sour, gritty, murky grey. None of those things were feelings, and yet those were the only words she knew to describe the way she felt.

She shook her head, marched back to camp, hustled her work crew through their meal and back to the site. They had to make up the time they’d lost. She didn’t care what the tree-creatures did with their withered corpse, just so long as they didn’t get in her way again.

She pushed her crew hard, offering double time to work past dark. By the time the second moon had risen, they’d repaired the damage and even gotten a start on the foundations of three other buildings. While Montgomery supervised the pouring of the foam-crete, Magda worked on her own, installing the ribbing for the plasti-steel dome walls on the Admin Center, a job she could do with her eyes closed.

Still, money and loyalty only bought so much extra work. After the last rib had been welded in place, and before the grumbling started in earnest, Magda called it a night. Even she had run out of steam, despite the specter of having various body parts irreparably damaged by her creditors. Trudging back to her sleeping carrel, she stripped off her sweat-soaked jumpsuit, dumped it in the cleaner then collapsed onto her cot and into oblivion.

#

A flutter of cool touched Magda’s face. Someone had entered her sleep carrel. Her eyes snapped open to dim lighting indicating early morning and she rolled into a sitting position, swinging her legs over the edge of the cot. “What?  What is it?” She groped for her jumpsuit at the end of the bed, remembered she’d put it in the cleaner the night before.

Montgomery stood in the entryway, arms crossed, a little “v” between his eyes. “Sorry, boss, but you gotta see this.”

Magda fetched her jumpsuit from the cleaner, pulled it on, zipped up. She’d been looking forward to a long session in the sonic shower followed by a hearty breakfast and several cups of coffee made from the real coffee beans she’d brought with her. Yeah, those kinds of pipe dreams never came true. She didn’t notice Montgomery’s side arm, clipped to his belt, until she was shoving her feet into her work boots.

“Shit.”

“Happens.” Montgomery’s lips quirked up. “Especially to us.”

She pushed out a breath. “Talk while we walk.”

He did.

The windem corpse had shown up again sometime during the night, tucked into the foundation of one of the new buildings, the commissary this time.

Magda scrambled down into the foundation pit. Two of the work crew hustled to install electrical conduits and plumbing pipes, studiously avoiding the dead windem, which rested just under what would be the entryway to the dome.

Montgomery stayed on higher ground, peering down. His hand hovered near his weapon, as though he expected the corpse to leap up and attack. Magda knelt on one knee and examined the thing. It lay on its side, facing the foundation, but not touching it, so it hadn’t gotten stuck in like the other one had.

“Not the same one,” she called up to Montgomery. “No concrete on it.” She eased the body onto its back. Gasped. A daisy chain adorned the thing’s torso, the same green viny, blossom-bedecked necklace she had seen on the elder windem she’d addressed the day before. She had no way to tell if this was the same individual or another who wore similar decoration. She shuddered. Surely, they hadn’t killed the elder and placed him here. And if they had, why? A threat of some kind? Some other kind of message? Damn it, this was a problem for the resident Exo-Anth, not Magda.

She squeezed her eyes shut, expecting to feel the tightening in her head which was prelude to yet another of the migraines she’d been plagued with since arriving on this hot house planet. Oddly however, the pain didn’t come. In fact, sitting here, her hand resting lightly on the sinuous, braided branches that formed one of the windem’s arms, she felt calm. Peaceful. All her problems dissolved in a single intake of breath. Gone was the gray-green feeling, replaced by a cheerful blue one, like the color of a still lake reflecting clear, blue skies back home. Skies she hadn’t seen in decades. She sighed. Maybe it was time for a trip back to Earth. Maybe when she’d settled this mess with the Garicola brothers, her debts paid and the monkey off her back, she’d take some time.

“Boss? You okay?”

The blue, happy feeling slid away. She forced herself to pull her hand from the windem’s body. “Yeah, fine.” Standing, she shaded her eyes and squinted up at Montgomery, silhouetted by the ruddy sun. “Come on, let’s move him.”

Montgomery’s jaw clenched. “Why me?”

“Because I pay you the big bucks.”

He groused a bit, but ten minutes later they placed the corpse in the grass in front of a new assemblage of windem. Again, Magda tried speaking to them, this time focusing on one that had a crown of blossoms on what Magda thought had to be its head. “I’m sorry to disturb your elder’s rest, but we really can’t have his remains in our building site. It wouldn’t be proper.”

The creatures just stood there, the long line of them. Silent. Motionless. There had to be forty or so of the things.

Magda turned to go. This time, when the ground beneath her feet lurched, she was braced for it. Sensations swarmed her. Deep-rooted unease. Wrongness. Mental world-tilting, like the sky was down and the ground was up. That same, murky gray-green. She swam in it, was filled with it.

“Ah, shit,” she heard Montgomery say.

She groped for his arm, found it, steadied herself. A few seconds went by and the sensations slowly subsided. She opened eyes that she hadn’t realized she’d closed. “I’m good, it’s okay.”

“You don’t look good.”

The world righted itself, the ground back where it belonged. She sucked in air, regretted it. Thick, sour, like rancid milk. “God, I want off this rock.” A glance over her shoulder revealed the windem had gone, every one of them, the dead one included. She shook off Montgomery’s hand and directed her steps towards the construction site. “Come on, let’s get this job done.”

For a change, Montgomery offered no argument.

#

Sore muscles, a pounding headache, and incipient nausea accompanied her into the sonic cleaner after chow that night. Her cot called to her, but damn if she’d go another night without removing the sweat and grime. She yearned for a long shower under stinging hot water, but their temporary habidomes weren’t equipped for it. That much water was just too expensive a luxury right now. Soon though, she consoled herself. Soon, they’d finish this damn job and get the hell off-planet.

Sitting naked and blessedly cool on her cot, she grabbed her com unit, found a message waiting for her. Hoping for a response from Ramanujan, who she’d been trying to reach all day, she played it.

A high-pitched, weaselly voice enunciated each word in her ear. “Ms. Zeller. Your payment is due in fifteen standard days. Please remit to your account by midnight, Earth UTM. We hope you can continue to enjoy your stay on Baeder.”

She tossed the com onto her cot and put her head in her hands. She began to shake, and a wave of nausea swept over her. They knew where she was. Of course, they did.

Damn it, she needed this bonus. Pulling herself together, she grabbed her com unit again and attempted to reach Ramanujan for the sixth or seventh time that day. The woman answered just as Magda prepared to hang up.

“What is it now, Ms. Zeller?” Her clipped, central hub accent grated, even more terse than usual.

“We’ve had another run-in with the windem. I tried to get hold of you yesterday, left you messages. They left another corpse in our construction site.”

A pause ensued, longer than the delay warranted by the distance between. “Another one?” She made a musing noise. “Are they burying them?”

“The first one was covered over in dirt and leaves. The second was just there, at the base of the foundation.”

The annoying pause again as Ramanujan’s response traveled back from Upstation. “Were there any grave goods?”

“No.”

More waiting. Then, “Tell me you took vid or at least stills. Are they still in situ?”

“No, and no. I gave it back, just like the last one.”

The pause was extra-long this time. A snort finally ensued. “Damn it. I told you to document. How could you not at least have taken pictures? We’ve never seen a windem burial. If it happens again, I want full documentation. And keep the body.” A shorter pause. “What happened when you gave the remains back?”

Magda shrugged. “They took it and vanished back into the forest.”

Seconds ticked past. “That’s all?”

It was Magda’s turn to take her time. Should she tell the Exo about her fainting spell? It didn’t seem relevant, and Wu seemed to think was probably heat-related, coupled with the number of hours Magda had been working. “Pretty much, yeah.”

“They didn’t try to communicate in any way? We’ve seen them touching branches with each other sometimes, especially the lower limbs that look like roots. They may use mycorrhizal communication, the way plant life on earth does.”

“Nothing like that.” She sighed, figuring she’d regret things either way. “I did feel a little woozy both times.”

More waiting. Magda had time to rearrange the small holo-cube containing family pictures, and her e-reader into a more balanced and pleasing arrangement on the small shelf near her cot. It was suddenly important, that balance. Things in the right place.

There was some background noise, a clinking sound and a man’s voice murmuring something Magda couldn’t make out. Was the woman out to dinner? Ramanujan spoke over the noise. “That happens to a lot of newcomers on Baeder. Should have been a note about it in your planet brief. Some people report dizziness, fainting and some free-floating anxiety. It should pass in a few weeks.” A much shorter pause followed. “Damn it, I can’t get downside for another forty-eight hours, but if another incident with a windem body happens, I need you to leave the body in situ and contact me immediately.”

Oh, hell no. “Sorry, Doctor, but I’m on a tight schedule here. We lay floors on all buildings tomorrow, once electrical and plumbing are in place. Walls go up on the domes the day after that.”

“Ms. Zeller, this is important! Your floors will have to wait. This is unprecedented contact. I need you to be my eyes and ears.”

A part of Magda wanted to help, but the part that valued having intact arms and legs won out. “Nope. I have express instructions from the governor that this site needs to be ready for occupation on the 15th. If I don’t get floors down and walls up, that won’t happen.”

“Then I’ll speak to the governor myself.”

Magda chuckled. Good luck with that. “Feel free.” She’d be doing the same, right after she got off with Ramanujan, reminding the man just how much that delay would cost, not only in labor, but in their agreed on bonus fee structure, not to mention the cost of housing all those colonists who were arriving on planet to occupy the site. The governor, unlike the Exo-Anth, was no idiot. “Any words of wisdom beyond that, Doctor?”

Waiting, waiting. “I’ll be back on planet in two days. Please, just wait for me.”

Yeah, that wasn’t good enough. The woman never should have left. “Sorry, I think we’re losing the connection. Can’t hear you.”

She didn’t wait for the sputtering reply, just ended the call and immediately contacted the governor’s office. People in Rewey would just be waking up. For once, somebody’s god, probably not hers, made the com-sat link work and in five minutes she had the permission she needed to carry on, so long as the windem weren’t interfered with. She fell asleep with a smug smile on her face.

#

The comp on her shelf read 3:33 a.m. when that weirdly soothing blue happy feeling roused her from a dream about balancing precariously on a wooden plank atop a beach ball done up to look like planet earth. The gray-green sensation which had dogged her since her encounter with the windem the previous morning lifted as she blinked blearily. She felt peaceful. Energized, even.

Knowing that she’d be getting up in a couple of hours anyway, she rolled out of bed, dressed and slipped out of the sleeping dome. Grabbing a couple of ration bars, a to-go container of coffee from the commissary, and a flashlight, she headed out to the construction site.

According to the scientists, there was little nocturnal activity on Baeder. No night bird-type creatures sang, no frog-type things croaked. No scary predators stalked. A few weeks ago, she’d found the silence and the emptiness eerie, but tonight, that buoyant, blue mood had her whistling as she climbed down into the foundation of one of the three dorm units. By the light of all three moons and a huge work light, she pulled a little storage box from her jumpsuit pocket and selected a peachy-orange scallop-shaped shell from the mix within. This she placed in the still-hardening foundation to replace the one that had been destroyed, and blueness washed over her. With a smile she couldn’t repress, she began to assemble the struts that would brace the flooring. The familiar, repetitive work soothed her, and a cool breeze wafted over her as she schlepped equipment and fitted connections. She’d nearly completed the grid of struts and was contemplating whether to try hefting the floor sections into place by herself when she heard a shuffling sound behind her. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled.

Straightening, she turned slowly.

They stood, three of them, above her. One had a crown of blooms and she knew with certainty it was the same windem she’d seen that morning.

Blue came the feeling, barreling into her like an excited puppy, yellow nipping on blue’s heels. A ruddy yellow, a yellow tinged with orange, like the light of Baeder’s sun. It made her feel warm. Hugged. Secure.

The creatures’ root-like lower limbs twisted and undulated like a deep river flowing as they descended the earthen ramp built to haul construction material in and out of the foundation pit. She’d never seen a windem move before. She thought they’d scuttle, insect-like. Instead the three windem rippled towards her, single file. They each helped carry the horizontal form of another of their kind.

Another body.

Magda took a step back, hit a strut with her shoulder blade, stopped.

The windem bent their trunk-like bodies as though they were made of rubber, not bark or wood, and streamed along beneath the floor grid to deposit their burden at the base of the foundation just beneath where the door would eventually be. Right next to her seashell. They turned towards Magda again.

Their root-feet undulated, touched one another’s. Some form of communication, Magda thought, like Ramanujan had talked about. She’d give almost anything to know what they were saying.

Blue. Yellow-orange. Solid earth beneath her feet, no tilting.

They were speaking to her. Those colors, those feelings, they were messages.

They shifted and the one with the crown of blossoms gestured with one of its vine-like branches toward the corpse. It was in the shadow of the foundation wall, shrouded by darkness. Magda took a tentative step toward it and when nothing except more blue happened, she got closer. Using her flashlight, she examined it.

The body had to be extremely old. The bark was gray and crumbling, covered with something like lichen. Ocher-colored earth clung in places, caked between patchy sections of bark. Something hung around the “neck” of the corpse, a withered, desiccated garland of braided vine upon which hung a circular object with a hole in its center. Stone maybe? No, she thought, not stone, coral. The amulet was a piece of faded blue coral.

She shone her light onto the ornament, the center of which was filled with ochre soil. A rich, leafy smell wafted up from the corpse. It must have been reclining in some deep part of the forest, like a fallen tree. The idea of the windem disturbing that repose, bringing it here, like some kind of offering, staggered her.

Magda’s emotions were a swirl of colors. Deep emerald green spun through her, along with the sky blue and orangey-yellow. Happy. Contented. Peaceful, peaceful. Calm. In balance.

Blue. Balance.

Coral.

She thought of her seashell. A piece of her, of her home world. Something she brought with her to make this place her own. Humanity’s own.

She turned to face the windem, a glimmer of understanding twinkling firefly-like in her mind. She thought about how she had felt when she’d returned the other bodies. That sickly gray-green color/feeling. Wrongness. Illness. The sense that the world was shifting beneath her feet, that dizziness and the inability to regain her balance.

Magda smiled. She had no idea if the windem could recognize a smile, but she hoped they didn’t find it threatening. In her mind, she conjured the feeling of blueness. Happiness. Balance. “You’re trying to fix our intrusion into your world, aren’t you?  Trying to balance our presence with something of your own.” She glanced toward the body, now sure that this body was someone who had been revered. They’d been upping their game with each body they’d brought, bringing a more important, maybe even more sacred member of their tribe to the construction site to counterbalance the intrusive human presence.

“Boss!”

She felt a flash of white, biting, stinging, fearful, as Montgomery appeared over the lip of the eastern foundation wall. She raised a hand as the beam of his flashlight played over her and the three windem. In a calm tone, she said, “Stay where you are, Monty. It’s okay.”

She saw him reach for his sidearm. White swirled around her like a blizzard. “Monty, no!” She threw herself in front of the aliens. White, snow, ice, fear, death, horror, bowled her over. She tumbled into the windem, fully expecting to feel the searing pain of a bullet.

Arms caught her, steadied her. Embraced her. Blue slid over her, and emerald green, coating her like a second skin. The world was aqua, streaked with sunny yellow-orange. Happy, safe, balanced. Through, behind, beyond the colors, Montgomery stood with the unfired weapon in his trembling hands, his mouth agape.

Respectfully, gently, she pushed away the braided vine-arms, murmuring her thanks. She strode toward the wall. Hoisting herself up onto one of the sturdy struts, she pulled herself over the lip of the foundation wall and onto solid ground, projecting blueness as she went. “It’s okay, Monty. Put down the gun.”

His rigid stance eased. “They grabbed you. God, I nearly shot you. What did they do to you?”

She stopped in front of him. “Nothing, just helped me up when I fell. Really. It’s okay.”

He didn’t look convinced. “You sound funny.”

She laughed. “And you look funny, but I’ve never held it against you.” Beyond him, at the bottom of the layer-cake horizon, the sky glowed deep purple. “I’m all right.” And she was. Calm, peaceful, happy. She was in balance. The site was in balance, the gray-green intrusion healed.

“I thought they were going to kill you.” He gestured with the sidearm.

Calmly, bluely, she reached for the weapon, took it away from him before he shot his damned foot off. “Nope. We were just having a conversation.” She looked back toward the windem.

They were gone. Gone as though they’d never been there.

Montgomery pointed his flashlight into the foundation. The beam caught the body of the ancient windem elder in its sweep. “Shit. They left another corpse.”

Magda nodded. “And we’re going to leave it there.”

“What? Why?” He shuddered. “The crew isn’t gonna like this.”

“I’ll explain it all over breakfast. Then we need to call the Governor, and Ramanujan. They need to understand what’s going on here too.” I hope she got her grant. She was going to need it now.

He holstered his weapon. “You’re the boss.”

“That I am. But if it makes you feel better, I’ll share a cup of my real coffee with you.”

He grinned.

“But only,” she cautioned, “if you let me get through the story without interrupting.” She could afford to be generous. She’d be able to afford more of those rare beans now that they’d get their bonus. Hell, with the information she now had on how to communicate with the windem, she might get an extra spiff.

Montgomery grunted in appreciation and followed her back toward camp.

Walking into the lavender morning, giving the little box of seashells in her pocket a pat, Magda imagined the flavor of her freshly ground coffee, one of life’s true pleasures. Rich, acidic, soothing.

It tasted brown.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Read and learn more about Nancy Bach on her website: http://www.nancybach.com and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NancyBachAuthor/. Be sure to give her a “like.”