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Pińatas From Space!: Crazy Games With Cards And Dice

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Jeromy Henry
Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice

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Jeromy Henry
Lockdown

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Timothy O. Goyette
A Fisherman's Guide to Bottomdwellers

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Michele Dutcher

Serve Chilled

by

Robert Harkess



The elevator doors hissed gently closed as she pressed a button and invisible machinery set about dropping Virginia Poulter outspin towards 0.7g level. She had been inspin to attend her low-g interpretive dance lesson – a thinly veiled tryst with the young and, for a price, available instructor - and now she was returning to her apartment. The indicator lights sequenced quickly from ‘0.2’ towards ‘0.5’. The lift was an express, thanks to her VIP RFID tag, and it scooted snootily past the first fifty intervening cylinders.

As it passed the half-gravity point the elevator slowed abruptly, then stopped between the 45th and 46th rings. Virginia cursed under her breath, using words that even her revered daddy would have saved for special occasions. Everything flickered and the control panel went dark. With an unsteady hand, she reached out and pressed a manicured nail against the alarm button.

Nothing happened. She was not sure if anything was supposed to happen. Perhaps an alarm had gone off in some remote control room, and even now an engineer was hastening to her rescue. On the other hand, perhaps not. Maybe the alarm was not working. There ought to be a buzzer or a bell, anything to sound inside the lift to make her feel more secure.

Another flicker. Now the level indicator went out as well. Her eyes strayed to the emergency telephone, and the small sign affixed to it.

 

‘Only to be used outside normal business hours.

Press alarm for assistance.’

 

She snorted derisively at the sign. There was probably some pompous button pusher at the other end of the phone was waiting to politely inform her that assistance was ‘not available at this time’.

Half the overhead lights went out, and there was a creak. A smell of hot metal wafted in through vent and a loud bang sounded from above. The elevator dropped several centimetres and the rest of the lights went out to the accompaniment of a shower of sparks. Virginia stifled a scream, and tried hard to convince herself that the engineers had arrived and were trying to release her. The elevator dropped another few centimetres, and she knew there were no engineers. Someone was trying to kill her. Again.

 
#

 
            There had been two previous attempts. The first had come two months ago. Her divorce had just been finalised, and her lawyers had done an excellent job of bleeding her husband to a husk. She had upgraded to a much larger apartment in the habitat, and had bought a house in the country; convenient for London and the orbital lifter port at Slough, but far enough out for her to establish herself with the ‘right people’. She had even bought herself an antique Landrover - Discovery, of course - and a retro-style Barbour jacket.

Her inaugural dinner party was scheduled a month after she officially moved in. Local caterers enjoyed a sudden burst of prosperity, and such was the size of the event that it was necessary for some of the dishes to be stored in the house’s two refrigerators a day or so before. Virginia had set out to make the evening an Event. The guest list included all of her most fashionable or influential friends, and as many of her up-market neighbours as she could bully into coming.

The party started well. An impressive tonnage of select machinery crowded her drive and landing pad. People seemed to be enjoying themselves. Virginia circulated gracefully, doing a creditable job of passing the event off as an almost everyday occurrence for her.

She got the first hint that something was going wrong when she was approached by an ashen-faced catering coordinator. Fuming gently at being pulled away from the people she was trying so hard to impress, Virginia had stormed into the kitchen and demanded to know what was going on.

A moment later she had been as pale as the caterer. The two fridges had decided to become freezers. The majority of the food was ruined, and most of the white wine had frozen solid. Unwilling to concede that fate could be so cruel to her, Virginia had insisted on inspecting the over-enthusiastic appliances herself. As she had reached out to open one of the doors there was a blue flash and a crackle. Virginia had cried out as her hand was pulled to and clenched around the handle. A quick thinking waiter had wrapped his cloth around Virginia’s arm and pulled her free, whereupon she had collapsed on the floor. Paramedics had been called, and the catering coordinator made the appropriate announcements to the guests. The party had ended, and the guests had left in a flurry of delightfully bitchy gossip.

The next day a hastily arranged inspection of the faulty fridges had found them both to be in perfect working order.

 
#

 
            The lift dropped again, half a metre, and a low groan of stressed metal echoed down the shaft. In the darkness, Virginia fell heavily against the wall and fumbled for the emergency phone, disorientated and unable to remember where it was. Before lifting it from its rest, she took a few deep breaths to calm herself, then put it to her ear. She heard a tone, then a click.

“Hello?” said a voice.

“Hello,” she replied, “I’m stuck in...”

The voice interrupted her. “Hello?”

“Will you listen? I’m stuck in...”

“Hello? Is anybody there?”

Her heart sinking, Virginia realised that she could not be heard. She tried once more, shouting down the phone. “Can you hear me?”

“Damned kids,” said the voice. There was a click, and the line went dead.

Virginia let the phone drop from her hand, hearing it bang against the wall but not caring. The metallic groan came again, and the lift cage shuddered. This time it was going to work. Whoever was trying to kill her was going to succeed. With her back against one of the walls, Virginia slid down until she was sitting on the floor, her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped tightly around them.

 
#

 
            Several weeks after the party debacle, Virginia had been driving from the house to the village, pushing the Discovery too hard along the narrow road. There was one section where the road wandered about in tricksy ways and she had begun to slow down to negotiate it - or rather, had tried to.
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The brake pedal had refused to go down, and the accelerator had declined to move upward once relieved of her foot. Still doing over sixty, she had wrenched the car into the first corner. The steering had seemed to fight back. Whichever way she had tried to turn the wheel, the car drifted back to the same direction - directly towards a stout tree.

She had grabbed the parking brake and pulled it up as hard as she could – an utterly insane thing to do under the circumstances which was probably why it had an effect. The rear wheels had locked and the car began to twist sideways. The steering had quite deliberately turned into the skid, again placing the tree directly ahead. Just as she had been about to hit the tree, Virginia had released the brake. The grip from the back wheels changed direction just enough to make the impact with the tree glancing, rather than head on. Totally out of control, the Discovery had then found its way into a ditch and gracefully rolled over onto its side.

Virginia was uninjured. The car was taken away and examined. No faults were found with the manual controls or the central brain. All safety protocols had shown as engaged throughout the entirely different incident the car had logged.

It was then Virginia had decided someone was trying to kill her. One such incident was just bad luck. Two occurrences of faultless machinery misbehaving were too much of a coincidence. She went to report her suspicions to the local police station. The desk sergeant listened politely, and then gently suggested she might be over-reacting. Virginia had put on her best ‘dealing with menials’ voice and had demanded to see the station’s senior officer. When the sergeant grimly advised her that he was the senior officer, she had abandoned any hope of local police assistance.

 
#

 
            The creaking in the lift shaft was getting louder and more frequent. There was a sound similar to a sonorous chord being struck on a piano and the elevator dropped again.

And continued to drop. It took Virginia a fraction of a second to realise that something serious had broken, and a fraction more to start screaming.

Two seconds later the safety override brakes cut in and, with a metallic shriek that drowned out Virginia’s own, tried to slow the lift cage down before it ripped through the bottom of the shaft, punching a hole through the habitat’s skin and taking itself off in a tangential course pointed at nowhere very important. The elevator was airtight, being a refuge in case of depressurisation, but chances were that the authorities would be far more interested in patching a large hole in the side of the habitat than chasing after an elevator capsule on an energy-hungry track.

The brakes were not wholly successful. Virginia had fallen to the floor when the safety mechanism had engaged, and so was in a good position when the buffers were called upon to absorb the last of the elevator’s outward moment. Even so, it hurt. Her head was banged against the floor, and she passed out.

After a twenty-four hour stop-over at the Community Medicentre, Virginia was allowed to return to her apartment. The thought of touching anything electrical or mechanical filled her with panic, which was not a good situation to find oneself in when living in a tin can outside Earth’s atmosphere. She remembered something she had been taught in school, and she ransacked her wardrobes until she found a pair of black leather gloves. She should at least be able to function wearing these for protection.
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She knew she could not spend the rest of her life hiding behind cotton-backed calfskin. Whoever was out to get her had to be stopped. To Virginia, it seemed obvious to her that her ex-husband had to be behind it all. She had certainly given him good enough reasons to hate her. Claiming that a man was a homosexual adulterer in a divorce case was not likely to make their parting amicable. More so when it was not true. Still, she had thought she had bled him so dry that he would never have to money to try to get back at her.

She called the same private detective she had used to frame her husband and insisted on a meeting. Virginia liked the detective. He was a thoroughly corrupt man, and his loyalty went solely to whoever was paying him the most. When he arrived, he wasted no time with pleasantries. He detested space travel and normally refused to work off-planet. For this woman, and for what he was going to charge her, he was prepared to make an exception.

“What do you want me to do this time?”

The disgusting little man intrigued Virginia. He was fat, unattractive, uncouth, and dressed little better than a tramp, yet he was confident enough in himself to treat her with an air of contemptuous insolence that few could get away with.

“Someone is trying to kill me. I think it may be my ex-husband.”

“Could you blame him? Anyway, what makes you so sure someone is after you?”

She told him of the three incidents, and he laughed openly when she finished.

“Pure co-incidence. You’re getting paranoid.”

“I didn’t invite you here to make judgments.”

“I’ve spent enough time making ‘accidents’ happen to know what you can and can’t do. If I could make machinery behave like that, do you think I would be spending my time doing dirty work for your sort? The hardware and viruses that would have been needed to make your motor behave like that would have taken a week to set up and install, and hours to remove. That doesn’t even cover corrupting the onboard safety protocols long enough to let the event happen. The garage would have seen where work had been done.”

“I’m not interested in your theories,” snapped Virginia. “I want you to find out what my husband is up to, and to find a way to stop him.”

“Like I said, lady, I think you’re wrong.”

“Do you want the job or not?”

With a shrug, the detective accepted her money. Virginia, meanwhile, tried to get on with her life.

She had developed a deep distrust of all things mechanical or electrical, and travel was particularly difficult for her. When she was confronted with a business trip to Chicago and London, she was obliged to demand tranquilizers from her doctor so that she could spend most of the trip in a relaxed haze. Despite the medication, her nerves were drum tight throughout both flights. As she boarded the drop-ship for Chicago O’Hare, a coffee machine had sprayed her with hot chocolate and the access tunnel had twitched, making her trip and fall through the doorway. Nothing happened on either the drop or the flight, nor while she was in Chicago, and she began to relax. When she arrived in London she arranged for a porter to take care of her luggage, leaving her to make her way through Arrivals and out to the taxi stand.

She stepped on to a travellator, her mind occupied elsewhere. A few minutes later it occurred to her that something was not right. The travellator was going too fast, and it was getting faster. She looked around and noticed she was alone. There was nobody on the belt with her, nor was there anybody on the belts in front of her or behind her. She started to worry. The end of the first belt was coming up quickly. She thought about trying to climb over the side, or jumping clear, but she was going too fast.

Her time ran out and she tried to leap the gap between the two belts. Age and agility were not on her side and she stumbled, rolling onto the next belt. This, too, was accelerating. Virginia struggled to her feet, only to be thrown back to the floor as another gap in the belt arrived.

She was on the last belt now, and was moving much faster than anyone could run. Ten metres beyond the end of the belt an electric courtesy cart was moving itself into position - without the assistance of a driver - directly in line with the travellator. The only chance that Virginia could see was for her to come off of the belt running. Then she stood some small chance of slowing down or changing her direction.

She braced herself, trying to pick the right moment to throw herself forward. The belt made the decision for her by stopping. Dead. Virginia’s momentum carried her forwards, tumbling along the floor and crashing into the cart.

Another ambulance, another visit to hospital, and another ride home. This time, however, she took with her a broken wrist, extensive bruising, and two cracked ribs. As soon as she was back at the house, she placed a call to her analyst. She needed to talk to someone she could trust, and he was the closest thing to that she could think of. Besides, she needed him to reassure her that she was not going mad, and that she wasn’t suffering from delusions. It took some fast talking, and the promise of a generous bonus, to get him to agree to a house call.

When he arrived his expression instantly became concerned, with just a tinge of greed thrown in. Virginia did not look her best as she was afraid to use any of her beauty gadgets. She was also wearing a pair of yellow cleaner’s gloves. From the look on his face Virginia could see the analyst foresaw a lengthy series of very lucrative consultations.

“I see we have a great deal to talk about,” he said.

Virginia told him what had been happening, including the fact that all of the misbehaving hardware - including the travellator - had been shown to be in perfect working order, with no evidence of tampering.

“I confess that I don’t really know what to suggest,” said her analyst. “None of this appears to be delusion. In all cases, apart from the incident with the car, you have had independent witnesses even if the authorities can come up with no mechanical or electronic reason why these events occurred.”

“But what am I supposed to do about it? I can’t even make a cup of coffee without feeling that my life is at risk.”

“From what you were saying, it is.”

“That’s a big help.”

“I really don’t know what to say. These are not manifestations of your mind, and are therefore out of my field. I cannot even say you need help with your paranoia, since it appears that somebody really is trying to do you harm.”

“Then you’re of no use to me,” said Virginia, her voice icy.

“I suggest you speak to the police.”

“I already have. They aren’t interested.”

“Then a private detective?”

“That, too. The fool can’t even find my ex-husband, let alone whoever is doing this to me.”

“The perhaps you need to consider less conventional options.”

“Speak plainly, man.”

“Perhaps you should consult a clairvoyant. The discipline is beginning to receive credence from a number of official sources, and has sometimes produced quite startling results.”

“Mumbo-jumbo. Charlatans.”

“Perhaps.” He opened his briefcase and, after short search, took out a card. “Ring this woman. I’ve recommended her on several occasions, and I’ve had no complaints yet.”

Virginia made no attempt to take the card, so he placed it on the table, then left. The card remained on the table, unmoved, for three days before she picked it up. She had looked at it many times, but had not been able to convince herself that she needed the assistance of a psychic. The strain of constantly looking out for anything that could harm her finally became too much, and she made the call.

The clairvoyant arrived three days later. Virginia had done her best to insist on an earlier appointment, but had met with obdurate resistance. There were, apparently, other commitments that the clairvoyant felt more important than seeing Virginia.

Bettie Spencer’s appearance was not at all how Virginia had expected a mystic to look. She was a plain, dumpy woman in her middle years, dressed in an oversize sweatshirt and jeans. Virginia had expected a caftan and beads, but found the woman’s ordinariness strangely comforting.

“How much space do you need to set your things up?” Virginia asked, hoping that the coffee table would prove adequate.”

“Bless you, dear, but I don’t have anything to set up at all. All I need is somewhere comfy to sit.”

“As you wish,” said Virginia, pointing the woman towards a chair. “I suppose we should start by me telling you what has been happening?”

“Thank you, dear, but I’d rather you didn’t. In fact, things will go better if you don’t. I can feel your fear and confusion, and that’s enough to get me started. If there’s anything to be found out, it’ll come to me on its own.”

The clairvoyant closed her eyes, and Virginia waited for the melodramatic moaning and thrashing about, but she was disappointed. Only Bettie’s expression changed; sometimes questioning, sometimes humorous, and sometimes concerned. Virginia waited for what seemed a long time, but the clock told her that no more than fifteen minutes had passed.

Bettie gasped. It was the first sound she had made since closing her eyes. Her face seemed to writhe under the effects of whatever it was she had encountered, and Virginia knew the woman was not acting. There was no way such an expression could have been assumed. Bettie’s eyes shot open, and she cried out. Her face was deathly white and she was trembling. A moment later she scrabbled for her handbag and made for the door.

“Wait,” called Virginia. “You must have something to tell me?”

The clairvoyant hesitated, then walked back into the room and stood in front of Virginia.

“Somebody is seeking to do you great harm. Somebody no longer of this world, nor yet part of the next. The spirits are aware, but have told me I can’t tell you who or what it is. I can tell you nothing. A power that cannot be named has forbidden it.” She took both of Virginia’s hands in her own. “May your god have mercy on you.”

Before Virginia could say another word, the mystic was gone. She was stunned, and had no idea what she should do next. She was certain that the fear on the clairvoyant’s face had been real, so whatever was happening to her was obviously more terrible than she had imagined. Now she had nobody left to help her. Then she realised she was wrong. There was one other place she could try. Somewhere she had not been since she was three months old.

Virginia walked into the village. It took her two hours, but she could not bring herself to use the car. The church, which she had driven past many times but never really noticed, looked beautiful but very small. After a brief hesitation, she walked inside. She looked around for someone to help her, and spotted a young man, up a ladder, fixing a light fitting.

“Excuse me,” said Virginia.”Can you tell me where I might find the Vicar?”

“Be with you in a sec,” said the man.

“Can you help me?” she asked, her expectations low.

“I hope so,” said the Vicar, warmly, but the expression on his face as he looked at her was odd.

“I think somebody is trying to kill me.”

“Isn’t that something you should take to the police?”

Although tired of repeating herself, Virginia went once more through the list of things she had already tried. When she finished, the young priest seemed about to say something, but his comlink chimed. As most do he glanced at it before cancelling the call, then stopped and said “Excuse me, but I must take this. The Bishop.”

He listened, and his expression suddenly changed from attentiveness to one of surprise, and then again to one of horror and sadness. He looked at Virginia again, and she saw pity in his eyes.

“I’m sorry. I must ask you to leave.”

“What?”

“Please leave this church. Now. It is not appropriate for you to be here.”

“I don’t understand,” cried Victoria, an edge of despair in her voice. “Aren’t you supposed to help people, no matter what?”

“I’m afraid you are beyond any help I can offer,” said the young man, sadly. “Now, I must insist that you leave. Immediately.”

With a sob, she turned and hurried out into the street. With slow, hopeless steps, she made her way back to the house. It was almost dark by the time she arrived and, without thinking, she switched on the hallway light. A nasty electric shock shot through her finger, and the bulb blew apart in a shower of glass. Virginia sat on the bottom step of the stairs and cried.

“Feeling a little sorry for yourself?” said a voice. She jumped, and looked wildly around her. The words seemed to come from her left, but there was nobody there. She went into the kitchen and, after pulling on her yellow gloves, set about making herself a drink. When she opened the fridge, a draught of warm air blew over her from inside. Everything within was ruined, so she settled for black coffee and some biscuits, which she took into the lounge. She tried to watch the television, but it insisted on randomly changing channels. She gave up, and threw the remote control at the screen.

“Getting angry now? Feeling that nobody cares?”

It was the same voice, strangely familiar and apparently behind her. Virginia twisted in her chair, but again there was nothing there. She tried listening to a CD, then the radio. Nothing worked properly. Reading a book was impossible because the lights started to flicker. Since there was nothing else to do, she went to bed. She undressed, then slid under the duvet. Sleep was a distant hope and she lay stiffly on her back, like a corpse, staring up at the ceiling.

“Are we having fun yet?” asked the voice, this time from the foot of the bed. Virginia sat upright, clutching the quilt to her chin.

“I don’t know about you,” it said, “but I’m enjoying myself immensely.”

“Who are you?” asked Victoria, knowing the question was unoriginal, but not caring. “Why are you doing this to me?”

“Why?” the voice replied. “Why not? Let me explain something to you. I made a deal with a gentleman it is best not to name. Funny meeting him, you know. I had expected the traditional touch, but he was actually wearing a rather nice suit. Armani, I think.

“But I digress. I sold him my soul, you see. In exchange for being able to exist in here. In the datanet. There is more to it than that, but it covers the basics.”

“You made a pact with the Devil?” Virginia gasped.

The voice laughed. “Don’t be absurd. I made a deal with a gentleman doing some highly illegal experimentation in storing functioning human persona in a digital environment.”

“Why are you telling me this?” whispered Virginia.

“Because I did it all for you. That’s why your priest friend was so keen to get rid of you. It was me on the phone to him when you visited the church. I told him who I was, and what I could do, and then said that if he helped you I would progressively torment his congregation, then work my way up through him to the rest of his church. I can be very convincing when I want to be.

”Your clairvoyant – I mean, really, Virginia. A clairvoyant? Anyhow, she was fun too. A few well chosen words injected directly into her subcutaneous hearing-aide had her thinking she really was getting messages through from the other side. I think I actually made a true believer of her.”

“But why me?”

The hazy glow thickened slightly, hovering on the edge of becoming something recognisable.

“Revenge, of course. I want to make you suffer. My benefactor thought it was a hilarious idea.”

“I still don’t understand. Who are you? Why do you want to do this to me?”

The image thickened a little more, and Virginia gasped as she recognised a face.

“Roger!”

“Of course,” said her ex-husband. “I’m disappointed you didn’t guess sooner. You were right all along, of course, although it was most amusing watching your private detective trying to find me. “

“Do you really hate me that much?”

“Of course I do. Do you think I would have gone to all this trouble if I was only annoyed with you?” The illusion of his face twisted with bitterness. “You left me with nothing. You didn’t just take my money, you took my life as well. That’s why this seemed such a good deal.”

“What are you going on about?” snapped Victoria, automatically adopting the contemptuous tone she had always used with him. The misty face grew angry, and the bedside lamp exploded in a shower of angry sparks. Virginia squealed.

“A little respect, if you please,” said Roger. “You cost me my job, thanks to the reputation you planted on me. They even threw me out of the golf club. You left me with nothing.”

“You always were weak, Roger. A stronger man would have pulled through.”

“Bitch. You knew you would ruin me in every way by going through with the divorce. By saying those things about me.”

“And why not?” countered Virginia, a spark of defiance entering her voice. “Living with you was a hell. You were a sad little man; boring, pedantic, and a lousy lover.”

“Which gave you no right to do what you did. In any event, the tables are turned and I have made my bargain. The price was nothing to the satisfaction I’m going to get out of this.”

“What do you mean?”

“Haven’t you been listening? Everywhere you go, I’m going to be right behind you. When you least expect it, whenever you let your guard down, things will go wrong. Sometimes you’ll be hurt, others you’ll just be embarrassed, but all the time you’ll be wondering if this is going to be when I shall kill you.”

“Kill me?”

“Of course. I’m rather looking forward to it. I’m going to have a lot of fun first, though.”

“I’d rather kill myself.”

“Oh, but you can’t,” said Roger, with a chuckle in his voice. “Or, at least, you will have to be very clever. I control everything around you. Slit your wrists? I’ll have paramedics on the way before you even pick up a knife. Drugs? Poison? I see everything you buy. I’ll be taking very good care of you, my dear.”

The face faded away. Down in the lounge the television sprang into life, then the radio switched itself on. Noises came from the kitchen and all the lights in the house started to flash.

Virginia, the quilt still drawn up to her chin, began to rock slowly backwards and forwards.


Read more stories by this author



2010-12-21 12:05:11
Thoroughly enjoyed this story...

2010-12-07 12:01:05
Excellent story. I look forward to seeing future work from you.

2010-12-03 06:30:55
The British spelling threw me. At first I thought the story had loads of typos, then I realized it was fine. I hope I never meet any of these people in real life... well written story tho!

2010-12-02 20:53:31
revenge best served.... digitally... good story




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Books by Quantum Muse contributors and friends.
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