We celebrate fall this year with three Halloween goodies: two vastly different stories from E. M. Eastick and Brandon Ketchum, and a special bonus flash contest winner from Sheri Graner Ray. Read, ruminate, and relish!
~ 1 ~
The Panda Express
by E. M. Eastick
While Jillian, gorgeous in a Wonder Woman costume, flirted with some fit dude annoyingly dressed as Conan the Barbarian and smelling like Old Spice, I tried to act cool by the snack table. The cracker spiders looked bland, the oyster brains smelled nasty, so I tried an egg and black-olive eyeball.
The olive caught at the back of my throat and made me gag. With watery eyes, I pushed through the patio doors, past Cleopatra and Papa Smurf deep in conversation, and staggered into the kitchen for a glass of water.
A portly panda stood with his butt against the island and sipped a red-colored drink through a straw set in a tall glass. His costume covered everything but his face. The whites of his eyes were startling in the black makeup, which I guessed he’d applied himself without a mirror. As the only other person in the kitchen, he greeted me with a weird, black-lipped smile. “What’s up?”
I steadied my breathing, wiped my eyes, and took another gulp of water. My face must have been red, but the panda seemed unfazed by my near-death condition. “Well, I almost just choked on an olive made to look like an eyeball, but otherwise, it’s a pretty good party, don’t you think?”
The panda nodded. “Guess so.” He slurped his drink loudly as the red-colored liquid gave way to a jumble of ice cubes.
I wasn’t in a hurry to rejoin the others. My Indiana Jones outfit, the whip sadly imitated by a bright yellow nylon rope, was sexy, Jillian had said, but who could compete with the sword and bare chest of a recreational body-builder?
The panda watched me process my jealousy. I expected he would go searching for another drink, but instead, he belched, which for some reason, made me chuckle. I was beginning to like this guy.
“I’m Todd,” I said reaching out a hand. The panda accepted it in a furry paw, releasing a whiff of stale sweat as he lifted his arm.
Instead of offering his own name, the panda had another go at extracting his beverage from his empty glass, this time by upending it to his lips while holding aside the straw and blocking the deluge of ice cubes with his paw.
“And you are–?”
He set his glass on the countertop. His mouth clicked as if he were sucking something out of his teeth. I guessed he must’ve tried the beef jerky bats, which I reluctantly avoided because of too much salt. “Death,” he said nonchalantly.
“I’m Death,” he said.
In the pause, I tried to reason with the strange response. “Like, Megadeth or something, except without the Mega?”
The panda shrugged. “Guess so.”
I wished I had my drink with me, but I’d left my bourbon on the snack table out on the back deck. “I might go and see what the others are up to.” I nodded to the patio doors. “Nice meeting you, um, Death.”
The panda crossed his furry arms and watched me, disinterested, as I turned away.
The scene on the deck wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Costumes crowded the snack table, as if the frozen banana ghosts were the most original thing ever, but instead of chatter and laughter, the guests cried and mumbled. Jillian hunched over what looked like a sleeping person, a man judging by the trousers and boots. I couldn’t see his face, but the bright yellow nylon rope that hung from his hip was unmistakable.
“You ready, then?”
The panda laid a paw on my shoulder.
“This is a joke, isn’t it?”
The panda sighed as I pulled away from him and strode to Jillian. When I reached her, she felt like nothing to my touch. She smelled like nothing. When I said her name in her ear, she heard nothing.
Death was beside me, looking over Jillian’s shoulder at my body.
When Jillian turned with red eyes and a tragic expression, I knew it was true. She loved pandas more than anything, but she didn’t see Death at all.
~ 2 ~
Lady Donegal's Fuel
by Brandon Ketchum
"If necessity is the mother of invention, greed must be the mother of flubs," I said.
Joe-Huan Chow lounged back in his pilot’s chair, feigning cool. "Disaster, botching, blunder, the list goes on. This is a monumental flub, Ange. One teensy word won’t do. I warned you--"
"--this could happen. Yeah, stow it, spacer."
We had taken on a load of fresh fruit in Eringee to deliver to New California. A rep from a far-flung pioneer asteroid colony needed someone to deliver medicine ricky-tick, so they offered silly money for the run. Their regular cargo shipper contract had skipped with their payment. We’d have just enough fuel for the side trip, and earn buckets of cash. Easy.
Easy my left tit, I thought. The coordinates led us to empty space. No asteroid, nothing. A comms pulse gave us new coordinates, a two-day flight away. Our ship, the Lady Donegal, might not have enough juice left to make New California or Eringee afterwards, though, and if we ditched on the new contract, the colonists would sicken and die.
"What’s the fuss?" Costigan, one of my mercs, had asked. "Chill with the asteroid locals, wait for their next re-supply, and mooch some fuel."
"Nice try, Costigan, but our primary cargo will spoil if we wait too long, and we’ll miss our delivery date." Our engineer, Shu Shen, swore she could tease our fuel out enough to get us to New California. We all clung to the fallacy of protecting our rep against the big liners putting us out of business. Sure, we had to protect our rep. Money, money, money kept rolling through my head.
"All right, Joe-Huan, gather the crew for a powwow on the dining deck."
"Uh, captain?" The word brought me up short. The crew referred to me as Ange, Angie, Lange, or Bitch, depending on the occasion. "I’m tracking a ship."
"Motherhumper. We could’ve spent a comfy week on New California instead of worrying about our fuel levels. Chow?" I read the sudden tension in his features.
"The ship’s coming from the colony’s sector, not towards it. And they’re tracking us."
"Feckin’ pirates," I said, clenching my teeth.
"No." I relaxed my jaw, releasing my anger in a moment of soothing clarity. "Assemble the crew, like I said."
"But--" He cut himself off, realizing I had something up my sleeve.
Minutes later we met around the big square table. Joe-Huan set us on auto pilot. Costigan and his partner Dobbs joined us, as did Shu Shen and Borrins, the medic.
"The cargo shipper didn’t bail on the colony," I said. "A pirate took them, and those thieving bastards are tracking us as I speak."
"Shouldn’t we be at battle stations?" Dobbs said.
"What good would it do?" I replied. "We have one deck gun. Any pirate takes down a cargo shipper will blow us out of the sky." I grinned, showing my teeth. "We’re just a poor little transport ship what can’t defend itself. We’ll surrender meek as lambs, won’t we?"
Costigan’s face lit up. "Sure, let’s go welcome them aboard."
Dobbs grinned. The rest caught on quick enough.
The pirates docked without hindrance. The Space Dog boasted twin deck cannons to port and starboard, and a bow chaser, each more than doubling the caliber of Donegal’s lone gun. Fighting them would have been suicidal.
Borrins met the enemy captain at the inner hatch, hands in the air. The rangy man who stepped aboard, flanked by twin bruisers, wore an arrogant smirk under his black hair and beady little eyes.
"Sir, please, do you have a doctor aboard?" Borrins asked. "Our captain wanted to run, but our merc shot her. The crew subdued him, and I stabilized her, but...." His voice trailed off as I edged away.
Their captain left only one of his goons behind to guard the hatch, while he and his other merc followed Borrins into my ship. I slid out of the maintenance panel inside our airlock chamber and struck the guard across the back of his head with a wrench, knocking him unconscious. The ruse had worked.
Just inside the Space Dog’s hatch stood a rack of walker suits. I pushed behind the rack and went to one knee, drawing a sidearm and crouching low. Gunfire exploded from within the Donegal, right on cue, the lone shot echoing back. Moments later, pounding feet on deck alerted me to readiness. Three more armed men jogged towards my ship, but three squeezes of the trigger did for them.
I strained my ears, but no one else appeared. Instead, a voice crackled over the Space Dog’s loudspeaker. "Lay down arms," their captain said. "They got the drop on us."
With their muscle gone and captain captured, the remaining pirates surrendered. Ten minutes later my crew and I again met on the dining deck, minus Costigan and Dobbs, who kept watch over the captive crew. We had us a visitor.
"What’ll our freedom cost, Captain Lange?" their captain asked. "We have tons of rich merch, but you can’t carry it all. You have your pick."
"We already have a full hold. I’m only going to take some fuel."
He narrowed his eyes. "You’ll let me keep my cargo after I planned on" -- he chose his words carefully -- "plundering yours?"
"That's not all. You know the medicine you swiped off that contract cargo shipper a few days ago? You're going to deliver it to the asteroid colony a few days from here. I’ll leave you just enough fuel to make port there. I've sent a comms pulse; they know you've got it, so don't try acting like you don't." He wilted at the sight of my wolfish grin. "Don’t worry. Frontier justice is harsh but fair."
I also took their ammunition load, so the pirates couldn't turn on us when we left. I delivered the fruit to New California ahead of time and sold off the excess ammo and the duplicate cargo of medicine. We came out on top, but I had learned my lesson. Maybe greed isn’t the mother of flubs, I thought, but I don’t aim to tempt Lady Luck again.
~ 3 ~
This summer, Space Squid conducted our annual flash-fiction writing contest at Armadillocon. In it, contestants had five minutes and a very un-ergonomic setting to generate a story and read it for our discriminating audience. Our winner is the following piece by con panelist Sheri Graner Ray. Our second place winner was J.J. Litke and our third place winner was Cameron Stewart.
Armand the Armadillo
by Sheri Graner Ray
Armand the armadillo adjusted his glasses and squinted.
She was beautiful.
He had taken his week’s vacation and splurged on a seaside condo, trying to get away from the day to day routine of working in the brewery. He knew there would be sun and ocean. He had expected the sunburn on his shell, but he hadn’t expected her.
She was laying on the beach, in a striped suit. Her white belly turned up to the sky. He’d never seen such beautiful curves.
“I must talk to her,” he thought. “I must know her name.” He shifted from foot to foot. How to approach her? He bit his lip, trying to come up with the perfect pickup line. He looked at the sun. She was as beautiful as the sparkles on the waves. That’s what he would say!
He took a deep breath and started toward her.
“Joey! Don’t!” The little girl squealed as the little boy kicked the beach ball off into the waves.
Armand looked on in horror as his angel flew away.
About the Creators
In between posing as a writer of no-fixed form or genre, E. M. Eastick maintains a secret fascination for strange scientific facts, especially those pertaining to carnivorous insects and oddly-shaped vegetable matter. Additionally, she can be found lurking as a co-writer at www.arielstone.com.
Brandon Ketchum is a speculative fiction writer from Pittsburgh, PA. He has attended Cascade Writers Workshops, In Your Write Mind Workshops, and the Nebulas. His work has appeared in a variety of publications.
Sheri Graner Ray is an American computer game designer and writer.
World's Shortest Creator Interview
If your brain were an extinct animal or mineral, what would it be and why?
Aluminium, because that damn fool, Mr. Hall, had no business messing with the i.
If you could change one thing from your childhood, what would it be and why? (Please include the phrase "hot pink orangutan" in your answer.)
I always wanted to live in Borneo with the other hot pink orangutans, but my parents stuffed up the visa application. I suspect they weren’t my real parents. If only I'd made more of an effort to be with my own kind. Life could have been so good.
Who's your favorite imaginary companion, and what makes he/she/it distinctive?
What are you talking about, imaginary? Little Frankie resents the implication he isn't real. In fact, in his latest philisophical rantings, he has suggested to me that YOU aren't real. "Silly Frankie," I said to him. "If they're not real, who is publishing my story?"
Due to a bureaucratic mixup, you have just been appointed Czar of All Mammalian Nutrition. What is your first edict?
Steak night becomes our new national holiday.
About the Artists
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology. He does the Space Squid illustrations, editing, and other squid stuff.