This week, another Drabblecast Trifecta, this time with the theme: Friends Close, Enemies Closer. We bring you three stories, with three different narrators, by three different authors! Time Cookie Wars, by Benjamin C Kinney, Sandy, by Bruce McAllister, and Oh What a Privilege to Dwell in the Grand Palace of the Tungerils! by Kelly Moore.
Good evening. Below you are 2,478 feet of air. Yes, study the carpet, little Wesley. Whatever you do, don’t stomp! Just kidding—what you should be doing is taking off your clothes to ready yourself for this journey. All of you—Ms. Linden, and your glasses, too. Don’t worry. Over 2 feet of concrete and rebar lay between that long drop and us anyway…
The Time Cookie Wars
by Benjamin C. Kinney
Ten hours smiling at potential donors to the Temporal Branching Lab,
and two more tour groups to go, but my snack stash held only a box of
crumbs, without even a fleck of chocolate. The other graduate students
had left some milk and a few wrinkled apples in the break room fridge,
but stealing those wouldn’t be worth the trouble tomorrow. For
cookies, though, I’d shiv the lot of them.
My stomach growled. “Past self, why did you let the cookies run out?
Current self wants cookies. Come on, past self, get with the program.”
I crept back to the lab’s main room. I had told a hundred rapacious
philatelists: it takes you to a different timeline, so you won’t
change history; and the mass calibration term has 1.3 kilograms of
leeway to bring things back. Things like stamps. So why not cookies?
I flicked a switch, and the Temporal Branching Machine began to hum.
I rifled through the cupboard, setting aside the chocolate chip and
peanut butter as I dug toward the Milanos deep within.
A woman stood in the break room doorway with phone in hand, its
titanium case flipped open, her thumb over the Call button. A tallish,
round-faced woman. A very familiar woman.
I said, “Oh! Hey, Sanna. I ran out of cookies. Mind if I grab a box?”
“What the hell? Get your own cookies!”
“These are my cookies!” I pushed my hand into my pocket and pressed
the recall button. “Thanks, past self!”
“That’s not how it works, you stupid–” She hurled her phone at me,
but I was already gone, carrying her snacks into my present.
I dunked the Milano’s edge into the glass and watched the milk drip
from biscuit to chocolate.
Another Sanna said, “Oh, Milanos! Is this the first time you got them
from the past?”
“Wait, what?” I dropped the cookie, and it vanished into the milk with
a liquid plop.
My future self, Sanna-3, waved a hand dismissively. “Anyways,
brilliant idea. I do it all the time now. I just need the milk, d’you
mind?” She plucked the half-empty gallon of milk from the fridge, and
vanished in a pop of air.
“What a complete asshat! What is her–my–problem?” I slammed my fist
on the table and sighed. I lifted the glass of milk and watched a
murky blob of half-dissolved cookie swirl through the white.
I had more cookies, but some asshat had stolen the milk.
Two could play at that game.
I arrived with my arms around my head, but in this timeline, my past
self was staring in bemusement, her phone nowhere in sight.
“Hi!” I waved. “Got any milk?”
Sanna-4 recoiled. “How would I have milk? You stole it already!”
“What? I didn’t steal anything. I mean, not from you.” I hesitated.
Who else would have the tools and the motive? “Does this happen to you
Behind her, Sanna-5 looked up from the cabinet and rolled her eyes.
“Apparently. Because all she has left are these peanut butter cookies.
Why did I even buy these?”
Sanna-4 whirled around. “Because someone kept stealing the Milanos!”
“Hold on!” I raised my hands. “We can all get cookies, you know that?”
We shouted in unison, “What do you mean you’re sold out?!”
“The — uh — I’m sorry, miss — the six of you were just in here, and–”
Sanna-18’s baseball bat hit Sanna-31’s head with a sickening crunch,
and the latecomer crumpled to the floor. The leather-jacketed version
locked eyes with me and raised her gore-stained bat.
“Wait!” I raised my empty hands. “What’s going on?”
“You don’t know yet?” Sanna-18 lowered the bat, her face furrowed with
exhaustion. “We’re such asshats sometimes. Infinite timelines to steal
cookies from, we thought. You know what happens when you divide
infinite thieves by infinite targets? Every target can still get
infinite goddamn thieves.”
“Oh god. I didn’t realize.”
She smiled bitterly. “I can’t exactly throw stones, can I? Look,
future self, if you’re new to this, you don’t want to go back unarmed.
Take the bat.” She winked. “Plus, now your hands are full.”
I reappeared with bat in hand, stomach still empty, as a knife spun
across the break room floor. Sannas 32 and 33 wrestled on the
linoleum, struggling for a pistol. Outside the window, a siren wailed
over the faint pops of more arrivals.
I lifted the bat. “Quit it, you two!”
Something flashed. I lay on my back, my ears ringing, a starburst of
agony across my chest. I fumbled with my shirt, searching for the
wound, cursing all my past and future selves.
Twisted metal stung my hands. Not blood, but the crumpled titanium of
my phone case.
My other two selves still wrestled, fists and teeth and desperation.
Cookie thieves I could understand; can’t exactly throw stones, as 18
had said. But these asshats came back armed.
I rose, grit my teeth against the pain in my ribs, and lifted the bat once more.
I wrenched my bat from the corpse of Sanna-whatever. I had lost count
sometime before dawn. I pressed my back against the burned-out shell
of an ice-cream truck, but no new Sannas appeared, for a few moments
at least. Guns crackled in the distance. Maybe some locals still held
out, confused and afraid, trying to save their last scraps of food
from the endless, hungry horde of time travelers.
Another half-mile and I’d be home. The pantry would be ransacked, but
I might find a few raw ingredients. Not enough, not of the old kinds,
but this world had one resource in abundance. I would get my cookies
at last, if I had to bake with the blood of the future.
by Bruce Mcallister
Because she had four arms and a six-fingered hand on each arm, Sandy could look for four-leaf clovers faster than I could. I also understand now—because I’m older and know what you do if you like someone—that she found more of them than I did at the bus stop, but never told me she did. She’d show me only as many as I showed her, probably hiding the others under her big feet, which were more like hooves, though you couldn’t see them in the clunky shoes she wore.
Why did I think Sandy was a “she”? Because she had long blonde hair like human girls I’d known, wore the clothes that human girls wore, and had big beautiful eyes that stared at me and made my face get hot. And her voice was higher than mine, too. I don’t know if she really was a she. It’s more complicated than that for the Tacuz, I know, but she was a she to me; and I don’t think she minded that I thought of her as the same gender as my little sister and mother—both of whom she knew I loved.
I called her “Sandy” because I could tell without touching it that her skin, so much paler than mine, was like sand. I’d heard a man—a friend of my father’s in the apartment building where we lived (he worked on the monorails too)—say, “Their skin is like a shark’s.” I didn’t know what that meant—sand was sand—but I knew it wasn’t a compliment. Sharkskin must have been ugly. He didn’t like them—Sandy’s kind.
We exchanged glances at the bus stop that first time and didn’t sit together on the bus, but looked at each other a lot across the aisle. Those big eyes!
The next day, I g ot to the bus stop early—I lied to my parents about why—hoping. She didn’t come early, though, so I sat on the grass and looked for four-leaf clovers. I’d found one before. Just one, and I’d thrown it away when it dried up. If I found another, I’d give it to her. But I didn’t.
The day after that, she did come early. I got there first, knelt in the grass, and finally, when I looked up, saw her walking from the big apartment buildi ng we both lived in toward the bus stop. She was looking at me, smiling, and I was smiling back. She was making that rolling motion of her body that the Tacuz make when they walk—something about the way their hips are built and something that disappears when they start to run, running faster than any human can.
I’d found a four-leaf clover. I’d certainly had time, getting to the stop thirty minutes early (you do this kind of thing when you’re young and hopeful)—and as she came up to me, I gave it to her. She cocked her head, as if puzzled, but took it with her inner right hand, twirling it in her two index fingers. She didn’t have a thumb, but she didn’t need one. The bowed index fingers Tacuz have are like magic.
“Thank you,” she said. Her mouth twisted a little with the words, working hard to say them them and and making a whistling sound as it did. It was wonderful.
So we got there, both of us, early—really early—every morning after that and looked for clovers together, stopping and standing up only when the other kids, humans and Tacuz both, started to arrive.
And we sat together on the bus. We weren’t the only ones. Carlos and a Tacuz–a “boy,” I remember thinking, because its hair was short—sat together, too, and a human girl sat with a Tacuz with long hair, just like Sandy’s. It was nice to have it this way—not like first grade, when we’d sat separately, the Tacuz at the back and humans in front, and the human bus driver (at least that’s how it seemed) meaner to the Tacuz kids.
I don’t know why it happened. There was a boy named Kirk. He wasn’t big. He’d never acted like a bully. But one day on the bus, coming home, he grabbed Sandy’s hair and pulled. He pulled way too hard. He was laughing and looking at the boy beside him, showing off, and that other boy, human, was laughing, too. He pulled so hard Sandy made sounds I’d never heard her make, and something like saliva—a lot of it—came out of her mouth, which had only two teeth on top and two on the bottom. Her four hands clenched, and I thought she might be crying. But then she did something I’d never expected. She turned around and hit Kirk in the face with both of her outer hands, which she could swing the hardest.
Kirk’s nose started bleeding, but he didn’t cry. He hit her back. He was ferocious, angry in that way that makes you think someone is mad about something else. He hit her in the face, hard, and when she looked over at me, I could see blood—the clear pink blood the Tacuz have—running down her face, oozing from the slit of her nose, covering her thick lips, one of her teeth gone.
I didn’t play sports. I didn’t have older brothers I rough-housed with. I’d never hit anyone or been hit, but I knew I had to do something. After all, Sandy had looked at me. I was part of it now.
I climbed quickly over the seat and onto Kirk, and it was pretty silly. He was punching and not connecting, I was punching and not connecting—we were too close to do damage—and his human friend was hitting me on the back, which didn’t hurt. But then Kirk went limp under me. I pulled myself back, looked down and saw that Sandy’s four hands were around his neck and that he wasn’t moving.
“No, Sandy!” I shouted. “No! Don’t!” I tried to pull her hands away, but couldn’t. They were like stones. “Please!”
When she finally let go, it was because the bus driver, a big guy, human, with muscles and tattoos on his arms, was towering over us, his face white as a sheet. He was shaking and I wasn’t sure why. I thought maybe it was because Sandy had killed Kirk, and I just didn’t know it yet.
But Kirk wasn’t dead. He moaned in his seat and squirmed to sit upright. I got off him. The bus driver was still white, looking down at Sandy’s face, at the pink, honey-like blood dripping from her chin.
“Please sit up front with me,” he said gently to her, and his voice was funny. It sounded scared. “There’s a seat up there right behind me. Please sit there until we get to your stop.”
Sandy stood up. I stood next to her. I knew my nose was a little bloody, too, because I could see a red smear on the back of my hand where I’d wiped it. When she took a step, it was unsteady on her big shoes, but she headed toward the seat just behind the driver’s, and I followed her. The driver looked at me as if to say “No,” but Sandy glanced at him, and he backed off.
We sat down where we were supposed to. Behind us, way back in the bus, Kirk wasn’t crying. The other kids were talking, but quietly. Someone said something to Kirk, and he said, “Shut up!” I was watching the back of Sandy’s head, her long hair, worried about her face. But I shouldn’t have been. “Tacuz are tough,” my father always said. “They heal faster than we do.”
When the bus was moving again, Sandy turned to look at me with those big eyes of hers and said, “You are a wonderful human being, Argun. I will tell my fathers.”
A few months after that, we were all—all human beings on Earth—and just ten years since the Tacuz had arrived to “colonize kindly,” as they put it —rounded up and put in camps behind fences. The Tacuz had had enough, my parents said. My sister was still too little to know what was happening, but I wasn’t. “Enough what?” I asked.
My father was quiet and then said with a laugh that wasn’t really a laugh, “They don’t want to share anymore.” I was only eleven, but I knew what he really meant: We don’t play well with others.
My father said that one day after The Separation, when he and I were standing inside the fence—one taller than two men, coils of razor-sharp wire on the top of it shimmering with some kind of electricity—and looking out at the endless suburbs we’d once lived in, abandoned, and the endless groups of Tacuz, some official, some not, that every day passed by the fence, looking at us but saying nothing. I was thinking of Kirk, why he’d done what he’d done that day to Sandy’s hair. Why would you do that?
Six months after that, when my little sister was sick and we were worried she would die, we were moved to a better camp, one with more doctors, equipment and supplies. I knew Sandy had made it happen. My father had no idea what I was talking about, but when the envelope arrived in the camp mail, I was sure. At first I thought it was just grass in the envelope. Then, looking more closely, I saw it was dry, curled-up four-leaf clovers. Thirty-six of them. (I counted.) “I know,” the note said, as if she were still talking to me on the bus that day—and in that strange, angled handwriting Tacuz fingers make—“that you think I am wonderful too, Argun. Sincerely, Sandy.”
Oh What a Privilege to Dwell in the Grand Palace of the Tungerils!
by Kelly Moore
Good evening. Below you are 2,478 feet of air. Yes, study the carpet, little Wesley. Whatever you do, don’t stomp! Just kidding—what you should be doing is taking off your clothes to ready yourself for this journey. All of you—Ms. Linden, and your glasses, too. Don’t worry. Over 2 feet of concrete and rebar lay between that long drop and us anyway.
Now you all should know, since I just linked my hippolautus (or “hipp,” for short) to your brains through your nasal canals, that you are here because you were specially picked out of your population to serve at the pleasure of the Tungerils. How many got that message—show of hands? It should feel something like a little finger tickling you behind your nasal canal.
You will follow me please as we walk the tunnels, which were built just for your kind to move in your signature languid, bipedal manner (and your four wheels, yes, we haven’t forgotten you, Dorey), unseen unless called forth, up and down the glorious expanse in which the Tungerils live.
Oh what a privilege for all of you to dwell in the grand palace of the Tungerils! To play such an important role in the lives of these dignitaries! (Shambiss, please be sure to mark the physical responses to trigger signs just employed.)
As we reach the darkness of the inner cavern, you must begin to navigate by zunce—through your connection to my hipp. Do you feel a certain pull toward my voice, a strong urge to follow that itch behind your nose? You will have a prosthetic hipp of your own once you master zuncing (though it will of course lack the telepathic abilities of a natural one). You’ll find zuncing is a bit like hearing, in the way that taste is like smelling for you. Soon enough you will be able to zunce not just the distances of the path before you but also the forms and faces in front of you. For instance, I can now zunce from your contorted expressions as you fall upon your knees that the zunces in your heads, coupled with the sounds in your ears, which hear an entirely different frequency, are a bit overwhelming for you at this moment.
You will learn to ignore the sounds in your human ears the way your eyes long ago grew used to ignoring your nose all day. Today you must start, like children, by putting your index fingers firmly in your human ears. Yes, that’s it. Stick your tongue out if you like! You’ll catch more high frequency red waves in your nasal cavities this way.
Oh, Manvitta—already it starts! Roy, stop her, please. Folks, pay no attention to the pretty patterns you think you see in the pitch black. Your eyes will be of no more use here; in fact, they are a danger to you. Envisagement is powerful in your kind, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how many before you have imagined in complete darkness an angel, a giant Luna moth, a colorful helium balloon, and longed for that image like a savior so passionately that she simply followed it off the edge of the path and into the expanse.
In a moment we will discard them, your eyes, but first: a reverie. Let us pause in absolute stillness and just zunce for a moment…Zunce the click-click-clicking all around you—in the tunnel ahead, the expanse below, and the faces next to you. Over time, those clicks, which are emitted at a high frequency from every hipp in this cavern and bounce off surfaces before returning to you, will differentiate into a diversity of zunces that you will learn to associate with just as many shapes in the world.
Now for a quick run down of the rules and culture of the Tungerils. Our kind live divided into three separate lobe-dwellings. Two lobes at all times must have conjugal activity in order to keep the population’s generative rate ahead of its disintegration rate. Their typical growth span is 5 years, so, as you can see, this is the only way. The third lobe may have conjugal activity as well, but only by petition approved by both of the other lobes’ chairmen, who are often busy and would each prefer the other to sign first. Typically the third lobe is divided into pods for important activities not easy to perform while generating, such as designing bridges and other infrastructure projects, running small businesses, upgrading technology, governance, and, oh yes, Human Experiments. Newcomers like you spend most of their time serving in the latter pod. Not to worry–most of these experiments involve language and may remind you a bit of your “language poetry.” Never heard of it? Hm. (Note that, Shambiss.)
Oh! Yes, I sense that you all want to know in what capacity you will serve. Not to worry–our pursuit is dignity above all. I believe your word for this sort of job is “butler.” We have, in fact, designed these halls and your quarters based on the servant quarters in a grand 19th century English house in order to put you at ease. (Shambiss, mark physical responses to trigger signs.)
I’ll be honest, so far, we’ve kept you all rather heavily sedated–in certain regions of your brain such as emotions, talking, and fight-or-flight responses, that is. We do want this to be an easy transition for you, but ultimately, you must choose for yourselves to live here (or die, honestly, but that is an option).
We’ve reached your quarters. Please, find a bed for yourself and lay down! Yes, Tempurpedic pillows and memory foam mattresses all around! Beside each bed is a prosthetic hipp of your very own, lacking the telepathic powers and tentacles of a natural one, but useful for zuncing nonetheless. In a moment, I will remove my hippolautus leaving behind some extra helpful chemicals for you in this transition period, and you will be free to put on your own. We will reconnect tomorrow, but for this evening after I withdraw, I think you’ll find yourself severely lacking without your hipp. Put it on. Use this time to practice zuncing. Navigate the room, get to know each other with your hipps. Don’t worry, we’ll lock the door behind us, so you’ll be safe from getting lost or falling off into the expanse.
We’ve put bissaroons in the corner-keep in case you have to relieve yourselves. Pretty self-explanatory.
Now before I go, there is the matter of your eyes. We have found that the best way to avoid delusional episodes, which really are quite dangerous to you, is for you to remove them early on yourself. This memory will shore up your understanding that the mirages in your imagination are simply that–mirages.
Would you believe me if I told you that you will remove your eyes yourself, of your own free will? You have already been anesthetized, and the internal snips were made by my hippolautus. All that’s left is to–excuse me, but there’s no better way to say it–to pop them out! Does that sound horrific? I know you’ve been rather attached to them for so long, but they’re no use to you here, and you really will find it a relief when they’re gone.
And now there may be some discomfort as I withdraw my many-tentacled hippolautus from your nasal passages–not pain but an overwhelming rush of all the zunces the hipp would normally filter. Like a searing bright light that only grows brighter or the rushing of high-pressure air up your nose until you can’t breathe, coupled with every emotion we’ve suppressed for you thus far. I think you’ll find it quite a relief to pull those dead bulbs out and replace them with your hipp. It will go in nicely through those sockets and feed in behind your nasal passageway and make everything feel normal again.
Yes, yes. Excellent, Daniel. There you go, Thi. Janie, yes, very good. Well, you can keep them if you like, or just feed them to the bissaroons.
As they say in your world, “Good night! Until tomorrow!”