GUEST INTERVIEW: Jeff Parsons Interviews ME

It’s not often that I get sent a handful of questions, but each time, it is super exciting to take part. This year, along with an author interview and guest post (a true story), Jeff decided that he wanted to send over a set of questions for ME. And what a great set of questions it was. So, without further ado…

Jeff: What inspired you to create your blog?

Me: I wanted a place that was mine where I could talk books. At the beginning of The Gal in the Blue Mask, which was the blog before Meghan’s House of Books, Goodreads was a rather dramatic place to hang out. Authors and bloggers/reviewers were bickering and both sides were being rather unpleasant to the other, doing things I considered very wrong. I wanted a safe place, a happy place, where I made the rules and everyone was welcome.

In 2019, after a couple of years of just feeling lost when it came to blogging, I decided to rebrand myself as Meghan’s House of Books. It wasn’t that I didn’t love The Gal anymore – I do, and it still exists, for always – but I just felt like I had grown out of it. And so the front doors of “my house” were opened…

Jeff: How do you get your blog noticed? Marketing, blog-to-blog outreach, word of mouth?

Meghan: To be honest, it’s mostly word of mouth. I don’t really fit in with the other bloggers, or so it seems. I’ve tried to make friends with fellow book bloggers, even ones that like the same kinds of books I do, and I’ve done all the stuff they say to do – comment, like, follow – but I’ve never really clicked with most of them. Never really been given the chance. Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing…

Jeff: What are some interesting things you’ve learned from talking with authors?

Meghan:

  • They’re all just normal people.
  • They don’t always know what they are doing.
  • The anxiety is real with them as well. (They don’t often see themselves as we do, and question whether they are any good at all.)

Jeff: How do you respond to people who say horror is for disturbed minds?

Meghan: I ask them if they’ve actually read a book in the genre and often suggest a few that they should read because, to me, horror is a way to handle the horrific of the world, a way for us to better understand the “disturbed minds” out there. Not all horror is gore for gore’s sake, which I know turns a lot of people off, or extreme. A lot of horror is psychological or things that can actually happen. Those things say with you long after you close the cover of the book or the credits finish rolling.

Jeff: Why do some people dislike Halloween? Are they afraid of something?

Meghan: There’s a reason that one of my questions in this year’s interview was why Halloween was their favorite (or second favorite) holiday. It’s one of my top two and I wanted to see if people felt the same way about it as I do. To me, Halloween is a lifestyle, and there are horror things up in my home office year round. I’m a spooky girl all year, until November 1st when I become all Christmas all day, and around January 10th I go right back to being a spooky girl. I think people dislike Halloween because they were brought up being told to not like it or that it is evil or they just don’t understand it. Halloween is a time when you get to be a little different, when you get to dress up and pretend you are not the same boring person you are every other day, when you get to enjoy being scared and the things that go bump in the night. “Are they afraid of something?” That’s a great question. Maybe they are afraid of the things that COULD be in the dark. Or maybe they’re just afraid of being judged for liking something that usually the “nerds” are the ones enjoying or because they think it’s kids’ stuff. Maybe they’re afraid to let go and enjoy themselves. And, as I said above, maybe they just don’t understand it.

Jeff: What if Halloween represented a dark side of life that we’ve repressed over the years? What do you think would be scary if we fell back into believing our older superstitions?

Meghan: I’ve never really found Halloween or superstitions scary. Old wives’ tales are often something that has worked over time and handed down through generations (i.e. chicken soup curing a cold). Some are based on religious beliefs (i.e. Friday the 13th and not walking under a ladder). Some were used to scare children into behaving themselves, and they had to have worked or they wouldn’t have stuck.

I grew up in a very religious household, and am still religious. Sometimes I think that we SHOULD fall back into believing our old superstitions. Let’s take Krampus for an example. Kids used to behave because they were truly afraid of being on that bad list. They believed (and maybe it was based on a true story at some point in time) that Santa would send Krampus to get them if they misbehaved. And there are lots of Christmas stories like that – Gryla, the mother of the Yule Lads, who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children; Pere Fouettard, who is St Nicholas’ servant, with the sole job of dispensing punishment to bad children on St Nicholas Day; Perchta, who rewards and punishes during the 12 days of Christmas, best known for ripping out the internal organs and replacing them with trash; and, of course, the Yule Cat, who can apparently smell laziness on a child, who are then sacrificed to him.

Jeff: What do you think Halloween will be like 100 years from now?

Meghan: Less fun? Everything is so politically charged these days, and people are so offended/triggered that the fun is being drained from things like Halloween. We’re told that we shouldn’t like things because of this or reason or this reason. Those of us who have heard this our whole lives are fighting back, but in 100 years, who will be around to defend the weird and wonderful that we love all year round?

Jeff: What can writers do to improve their stories?

Meghan: Since I am an editor, one with over 20 years experience that includes working for two of the big five, I’m going to say that the best way they can improve their stories is to hire a well-read editor and listen to what they have to say. Now I know there are some people that think they don’t need an editor, that say it is an expense they can ignore, especially if they are a self published author, but a good editor is really worth their weight in gold.

I’ve heard horror stories – trust me – which is why I say to talk to the person before you decide to hire them. Let them tell you what they can do for you, let them tell you about their education, their training, and what they have edited so far. (You can even ask to talk to one or two of the authors that they have worked with.) Get to know the person and decide if the two of you would make a good team or not – and I say team because that is basically what the two of you will be, especially if you are writing a trilogy or series, as you’ll want to have the same eyes looking at it each time to ensure consistency and continuity.

I will tell you that a good editor WILL discuss things with you, WILL explain why changes are necessary. YOU will learn from them and THEY will learn from you. It will be a true partnership, but the story will ALWAYS be yours. They will help to make your story better all while retaining your voice. They will never change things (other than misspellings and punctuation) without talking to you first. And they will be available to talk to you at least once during the project. You have to be able to trust them because, in essence, you are trusting them with your baby, so don’t ignore those little things that make you question.

If you simply cannot afford an editor, which is understandable, you should (at the very least) get a good BETA reader. (Note: Some editors do provide a BETA read for a cheaper price, where they will give you an honest opinion of the story in front of them and point out any major flaws with the story.) It doesn’t necessarily have to be an editor, but it should be a well-read person who you can trust to be completely honest with you and invested in your success. Honesty is the only way you are going to learn and your story is going to get better. (And I suggest that you sit down with their notes with an open mind because they really are just trying to help you.)

[Here’s my chance to plug me for a change: Any author that mentions this interview gets 20% off their first edit project with MeghanH Editing.]

Jeff: What are some of the best story hooks you’ve ever read?

Meghan: I am drawn to horror that is set during either Halloween or Christmas, and I absolutely love stories where the setting is a carnival/circus or something haunted (homes, asylums, hospitals). (There should be more carnival/circus horror, people!!) At the same time, I am often truly put off if there is a vampire, werewolf, or zombie involved, which saddens me, especially with vampires and werewolves, because those were the things I loved as a kid. They have just become so… boring… for me, but there are times I give those a try, hoping for something different, hoping for something to grab my attention and pull me in like they did when I was younger.

You’re looking for specifics here, though, so let me pull out a few that have stayed on my favorites list over time.

I love when a stranger comes back to get revenge years later, causing the main character to suffer in the same way that they once tormented the stranger. Even better if there’s been enough time between the two events for the main character to have forgotten or almost forgotten what had happened. A good example of this would be Desolation by Kristopher Rufty. Even better because his story is told from both sides.

I also love watching the main character slowly go insane. That’s a fear I think a lot of people have in life, that they will slowly lose their mind, and it’s interesting to see when done well – and it sicks with you. A good example of this is Six Dead Spots by Gregor Xane.

I know I said that I am bored with werewolves, but maybe it’s because I’m looking for something different. A few years ago I read one by Jonathan Janz (Wolf Land) where the victims became werewolves themselves.

I find stalker stories interesting. I read one not too long ago where a man puts a spell on the woman he loves, and after she loses her memory, pretends to be her lover. As the story goes on, she slowly starts finding out more and more about the man and what he would do to keep the woman of his dreams while she also starts… changing. I was hooked. (The book in question was Rose by Rami Ungar.)

I’ll tell you right now – if you put Krampus or any of his ilk in a story, you’ll have me from page one. I was just “surprised” by a short story in The Best of Indie Horror: Christmas Edition (published by KJK Publishing, edited by Kevin J Kennedy) – I can’t tell you which one because I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, but I would definitely suggest picking that anthology up (I’ll be reviewing it shortly).

Along the same path, and even though it’s not necessarily horror – well… maybe… possibly… – if you put any holiday character into a book and give them a backstory not expected (for example, the Claus series by Tony Bertauski), you’ll have a hard time not catching my attention.

I guess, you could say, that it’s the psychological horror that really gets me – the things that could actually happen to someone, taken to that next level, the things that stay with you long after you have finished reading the story, that are the hooks I like best.

Jeff: What’s more important to you – characters or plot?

Meghan: Both? You sort of need both to make a gripping story, but I guess if I HAVE to chose one or the other, I’ll say that characters are the most important. Without characters, the plot won’t matter at all. And if the characters we are supposed to love are dreadful, then we really won’t care what happens to them, no matter how good the plot is.

Jeff: What got you interested in horror?

Meghan: My father. He was always reading or watching something interesting. Usually something I wasn’t supposed to be reading or watching. He told me one time that horror was a good scary because I can be scared but not hurt by the things that happen in books and movies.

My first “horror” movie was Jaws. I’ve told this story a billion times, but what’s one more time? We were at my mom and dad’s best friend’s house. The husband and the oldest son (who I had a crush on at a very young age) were watching the movie, and though my mother told me that I would probably not like it, I decided to watch it with them anyway. I honestly can’t tell you much about the movie, nothing beyond the shark and how scared I was, and I have never attempted the movie again. It didn’t help that the same oldest son told me that the light in the deep end of the pool was Jaw’s eyeball. Seriously. His EYEBALL. It took me a good year before I would set foot inot that pool again. One day, there was some work being done on the pool and my dad pointed at the hole and said, “See? It can’t be Jaw’s eyeball. There’s no body.” Now, up until that point, and quite a few more points over the years, I thought my dad was the smartest man on the planet. At that moment, though, I seriously questioned how smart he was. It could still be Jaw’s eyeball without his body there. And sometimes, in the dark, out of the corner of my eye, I swear I see that big eyeball winking at me…

Jeff: What stories can be written in horror that can’t be expressed in other genres?

Meghan: That’s a very good question. I honestly believe that only horror can really go into the depth of someone’s soul, only horror can really explore our true fears. Horror is that one step further, that one step that other genres are afraid to take, with characters that are not afraid to take themselves to that next level, that aren’t afraid to let themselves be depraved or evil, and on the other side, aren’t afraid to feel that depravity and that evil to cone out fine, but often changed, on the other side. I think that all stories in other genres have the potential of being horror, but only horror allows that exploration, only horror creates the opportunity feel that fear (in safety), and really, it’s only horror that gets away with all of the above because it is expected and accepted.

If you think about it, a good romance can lead to a horrific murder spree if we find out that the beautiful woman he fell in love with doesn’t even know he exists. A good science fiction can become horrific if, rather than the people on the spaceship becoming friends with the new alien life they have just encountered, they choose to repeat atrocities from the past and wipe those beings and their planet from space. The cozy mystery can lead to a horrific story if the witty chef who solves crimes in her spare time ends up being the murderer and takes her killing fetish to the extreme, all while setting innocent people up for the murders that she is committing. A fantasy needs to just up it’s Brothers Grimm-anti to cross the line into horror.

Jeff: The lines between horror and other genres often become blurred. What do you think real horror is?

Meghan: This is the one question that I truly struggled to answer, but knowing how annoyed I get when someone doesn’t answer all of the questions in an interview I worked hard to put together, there was no way I was going to do that to you.

Horror is very hard to define because of those blurred lines and each person you ask is going to have a different answer as horror means something different to each individual. Why? Because we all fear different things.

I personally think real horror challenges our belief of what is good and what is evil. Therefore, I think the horror genre is the epitome of that uncertainty. And many of its themes are things that are considered socially unacceptable. As I’ve said elsewhere in this interview, horror gives us a chance to figure things out, to analyze, to really look in-depth at the things that scare us and see it in a different light, to see the wizard behind the curtain.

Jeff: Considering the awful truth of what can happen in this world, how far do you think a horror writer can go to describe the truth before it’s considered unacceptable?

Meghan: I think that as long as it is in some way believable, that if some part of it *could* happen, there will always be someone (or a group of someones) who will accept it no matter how far the author takes it. I think there should be horror that fits in with the horrors of the world because those stories will help us to better understand it. Authors just need to keep in mind that not everyone sees the same horror in things, not everyone has the same story. Current things, full of all kinds of emotion, where the true facts are not always known, are harder for people to stomach than, say, something that happened in the past. Your “horror” may not be my “horror.” We saw that when we look back at WWII. People who went through the events, who were in countries where the events took place, understood the atrocities on a completely different level than those who did not. The war itself was hard on everyone, and a lot of people lost their lives, but it wasn’t until after the war ended – years after the war ended – that the true evil and depravity was shown to life. It wasn’t something that you saw on the news, it wasn’t something that was happening to your neighbor or your family (at least for a lot of people), and even when it was, people did know know what was *really* happening at the other end of a train. People were conditioned to believe that what they were doing was right, and some truly believed that one people were lower than another. Some people did things because they had no choice, or they had to make the decision to do what they had in order to save their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Other people believe it could not have possibly happened because how could we do something like that to our fellow man?

Jeff: What do you think most future horror stories will evolve into? More towards “I’m all alone” or a cosmic-level dread?

Meghan: We’ve found out, most of us, during this global pandemic, that being “all alone” is actually quite nice and easily sustainable. We’ve found out, most of us, that we don’t need other people physically in our lives, and with the options to have things, including groceries and food, delivered to your home, there’s a good few of us that would love living like that the rest of our lives, only having to venture out if we need to. We all have friends that live all over the world, friends we can talk to every day, friends we can see every day. Hell, we’ve even had holidays across the world while sitting in each other’s living rooms. Being “all alone” just isn’t scary anymore.

I think the “new scary” is definitely cosmic horror. Now we’re venturing into things that before we THOUGHT could NEVER happen. (But then we also thought that a global pandemic could never happen. Also: locusts in Africa, devastating fires in both Australia and California, murder hornets, ebola. So maybe a giant octopus creature *could* come from the ocean depths. I mean, it *could*… right?) Cosmic horror makes readers uncomfortable (in a good way), plunges common fears and anxieties into the minds o readers, and focuses on the mysterious and the unfathomable, rather than violence and bloodshed. It makes us realize that, in the great scheme of things, we’re really not very important after all. Maybe that’s the scariest thing of all.


Boo-graphy:
In addition to his two short story books, The Captivating Flames of Madness and Algorithm of Nightmares, Jeff Parsons is published in The Horror Zine, The Horror Zine’s Book of Ghost Stories, Aphelion Webzine, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 4, Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine, Chilling Ghost Short Stories, Dystopia Utopia Short Stories, Wax & Wane: A Coven of Witch Tales, Thinking Through Our Fingers, The Moving Finger Writes, Golden Prose & Poetry, Our Dance With Words, The Voices Within, Fireburst: The Inner Circle Writers’ Group, Second Flash Fiction Anthology 2018, SNM Horror Magazine, and Bonded by Blood IV/ V.

The Captivating Flames of Madness
This book’s title comes from the reality that – like a moth to the flame – we’re all just one event, mishap, or decision away from things that could change our lives forever.

What would you do if fate led you astray into a grim world where you encountered vengeful ghosts, homicidal maniacs, ancient gods, apocalyptic nightmares, dark magic, deadly space aliens, and more?

If you dare, why not find out?

Read for yourself the twenty-two gloriously provocative tales that dwell within this book – but be warned, some of my dear readers have experienced lasting nightmares…

GUEST POST: Jeff Parsons

True story

Long ago, I worked as an usher at a Boston movie theater. One of the movies playing was Poltergeist. Very popular, it stayed there for almost a year. I got to watch that movie over and over and over. I’d seen it all. And also the reactions of people in the audience: jolted out of their seats, involuntary screams, covering their eyes, reaching out to hold their partner’s or friend’s hands…

I saw one thing at a late-night show that has stayed with me.

A guy was helping his distraught friend leave the Poltergeist theater. Let’s call them Guy and Friend.

Friend collapsed onto the red carpeted floor with a long, low moan. Guy asked for someone to call an ambulance. One of my coworkers ran off to tell management.

Foamy spit bubbled from the corners of Friend’s mouth. His whole body was trembling. Not something I’d ever seen from a body builder type. Friend went into a fetal position, rocking his head back and forth slightly, sobbing softly. This wasn’t convulsions or a seizure. Something else was going on. This man was terrified.

My manager showed up – the frothy behavior went on for a while – we all felt helpless.

Two Boston policemen appeared, quietly, surprising everyone. Unlike any other experiences I’ve ever had with cops, before or since, these guys were oddly detached, cold, and menacing.

One of them prodded the shoulder of the prostate Friend with his shiny black shoe tip. That policeman laughed, then said, “Soft as a grape.”

In a disgusted voice, the other asked, “What happened to him?”

The Guy said, “We were watching the movie and he started saying no, no, no, not again.”

“Whaddya mean?” the disgusted cop asked.

The Guy answered, “Something about the ghosts scared him.”

The paramedics arrived on scene. The policemen reluctantly helped lift Friend’s limp body onto the gurney. He was taken away.

It makes me wonder what caused him to react that way?


Boo-graphy:
In addition to his two short story books, The Captivating Flames of Madness and Algorithm of Nightmares, Jeff Parsons is published in The Horror Zine, The Horror Zine’s Book of Ghost Stories, Aphelion Webzine, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 4, Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine, Chilling Ghost Short Stories, Dystopia Utopia Short Stories, Wax & Wane: A Coven of Witch Tales, Thinking Through Our Fingers, The Moving Finger Writes, Golden Prose & Poetry, Our Dance With Words, The Voices Within, Fireburst: The Inner Circle Writers’ Group, Second Flash Fiction Anthology 2018, SNM Horror Magazine, and Bonded by Blood IV/ V.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Captivating Flames of Madness
This book’s title comes from the reality that – like a moth to the flame – we’re all just one event, mishap, or decision away from things that could change our lives forever.

What would you do if fate led you astray into a grim world where you encountered vengeful ghosts, homicidal maniacs, ancient gods, apocalyptic nightmares, dark magic, deadly space aliens, and more?

If you dare, why not find out?

Read for yourself the twenty-two gloriously provocative tales that dwell within this book – but be warned, some of my dear readers have experienced lasting nightmares…

SHORT STORY: Crossing the Line by Dan Zeidler

Crossing the Line

Our destination appeared suddenly outside the viewport, a technological landscape whose horizon curved away from us under the cold and distant stars. The shuttle was moving slowly enough for me to pick out the mysterious details of the other ship’s hull and I studied them carefully as we flew past. I thought everything I saw seemed to be in good working order. There were no broken and warped hull plates, no scorch marks or discolorations from the heat of fires that might have once burned within the vessel. It looked like a perfectly ordinary, if somewhat dated, interstellar transport that should have been peacefully plying a routine and uneventful path between the stars.

“So,” the Navy Man beside me in the passenger cabin of the military shuttle said abruptly. He had not bothered to introduce himself and his uniform was devoid of any helpful name badges or rank insignia. The running lights on the other ship made a feeble attempt to shine through the viewport and did little to push aside the dull red cabin lighting, but every now and then we flew past a particularly bright light that gave me a clear picture of the Navy Man’s face. He motioned with his chin toward the two travel cases in front of me and gave me a polite smile. “How does that thing work anyway?”

“Oh, well… it, aaah,” I took a breath and tried to concentrate on being calm. After six years of schooling I knew how the camera worked. I could explain it to him if I was calm. Another bright flash of light shone through the viewport and the expression the Navy Man had on his face almost concealed his expectations of a long, boring, and extremely technical answer. “The camera itself is nothing special; we can use any one of a number of commercially available models. The lens, however, ah… you can think of as being an extremely small version of a starship’s Jump drive. Instead of bending time and space to allow something to travel a great distance in very little time, the lens only bends time to allow… to allow us to catch a brief… echo of what happened as much as twenty-four hours in the past. It burns out the capacitor module pretty quickly at that focus, but you can get the capacitors to last a little longer by focusing in on more recent timeframes.”

“A miniature Jump drive, eh?” Navy Man frowned thoughtfully at the camera case and then at the smaller case containing the spare capacitor modules for the lens. I wondered what his specialty was when he was not escorting crime scene photographers to old battered starships that exited Jump with no sign of the crew or passengers. As I thought about it, I realized there had to be some sort of sign of what happened to the crew or the Fleet would not have requested a crime scene photographer. Navy Man peered at me through the dull red light. “I heard this was costing the Fleet a pile of credits. We have to pay for however many capacitors you use, I take it?”

The metal landscape outside the viewports slowed abruptly and I knew we would be docking soon. The witty reply I intended to give the Navy Man faded from memory as my stomach lurched. I managed to smile politely and nod my head. Navy Man frowned again, this time disapprovingly, as if he felt the Security Directorate had no right to send the Fleet a bill for anything. He started to say something but was interrupted by a chirp from the comm panel.

“We are lined up for docking, but our engineering team doesn’t seem to feel like answering our hails. We could circle around and wave to them through one of the bridge viewports if you like.” At any other time I would have appreciated the pilot’s dry humor, but my attention was focused almost entirely on the inner hatch of our airlock and the darkness beyond it.

Navy Man looked over at me and I tried to maintain a neutral almost bored expression. He muttered something about damn engineers in what could have been an apologetic tone and then jabbed a button on the comm panel. “The comm system on the ship is fried so it might be generating too much interference for our hail to get through. Either that or both of them are down in engineering trying to bring the system back on line. Just engage the emergency override for the boarding hatch.”

“Can do. Should only take a couple of minutes.” The pilot replied and my stomach stopped doing flips. It did not seem fair that I ended up feeling worse.

I felt the shuttle vibrate slightly as the pilot moved us in to make contact with the docking clamps and quickly knelt down to inspect my camera so I would not have to watch the tell-tales over the hatch turn from red to green. When I heard the hatch roll open I closed the carrying case for the camera and looked up to see Navy Man smiling at me patiently. He gestured through the linked airlocks toward the dimly lit interior of the other ship. “After you.” He tipped his head to one side as I picked up my two carrying cases. “Would you like a hand with those?”

“That’s okay, thank you. They are both pretty light… and, I know this is silly, but our regulations say I am not supposed to let anyone else handle them – because the capacitors are so hideously expensive. You know how the bureaucrats are,” I said lightly and Navy Man replied with a rueful chuckle. Everyone knows how bureaucrats are. The cases weren’t that light and I was stretching the truth a bit about the regulations, but I was afraid if my hands were empty that they might start shaking.

I took a breath and walked purposefully up to the threshold of the shuttle’s airlock. Time seemed to slow to standstill as my eyes followed the deck past the inner and outer airlock hatches and into the area that had, only a few moments before, been exposed to the vacuum of space. It was a simple thing to spot the line marking where the shuttle ended and the other ship began. If something went wrong with the docking mechanism it would first become apparent somewhere along that line. Then the hatches would automatically slam shut and anyone who had the misfortune to be standing between them at the time would be trapped as the atmosphere around her slowly, or perhaps quickly, vented into space. I tried to tell myself it was impossible, but my eyes kept going back to that line.

“Is everything okay?” Navy Man asked from beside my shoulder. My mind raced.

“I… I thought it was impolite to board a Fleet vessel without doing that… ah… boarding ceremony thing,” I moved one hand to make a vague motion with a carrying case toward the other ship, “with someone on the other ship?”

“Oh,” Navy Man said, probably after he’d concluded that I was a Class 1 Airhead. I glanced back at the thin line between the ships that was all that separated us from the nothingness of space and my heart began to pound. Perhaps I was an airhead, worrying over a silly line. I realized Navy Man was talking to me and shifted my attention back to him. “Yes, there should be someone here to welcome us aboard, but the engineering team is apparently a bit on the absent-minded side. I’ll have a chat them with them about it and I guarantee they won’t be offended that we decided to forgo tradition rather than wait for them make their way to the airlock.”

Navy Man’s tone of voice chilled considerably as he spoke his last sentence. He was annoyed and obviously looking for someone on whom he could vent his annoyance. I did not want that someone to be me. “Well then, we best get to the crime scene.” I had no more excuses for delaying so I took a breath and walked quickly through the open hatch. The few steps I took in the short passage linking the two ships were lost in a blur that cleared once I stood on the deck of the other starship. I chastised myself for hesitating and tried to believe that the next time I walked through the airlocks would be easier.

The boarding area was smaller than I expected and decorated in shades of brown, orange, and cream. The ornate carpeting on the deck was slightly worn, faded in some places and stained in others. The furniture was likewise worn and dated in its styling. The dim light from the antique lighting combined with the warm colors of the room to give it an almost cozy, homey look when compared to the high tech polish of the Fleet orbital station or the Fleet shuttle that were my only other points of reference.

Navy Man stepped nonchalantly through the hatch and gave me a look as if he expected me to do something interesting.

“Do you know where the potential crime scene is or do we have to find one of the engineers first?” I arched an eyebrow at him when he responded with a puzzled expression.

“This is the potential crime scene,” Navy Man said with a gesture that took in the room.

“This? Here?” My voice squeaked. Dammit. My heart began to race as I realized that the hatch I had just so casually stepped through, well, hesitantly stepped through, must have failed and the passengers and crew had been pulled through it to their deaths. People liked to tell me such things never happen, but obviously in this case they were wrong. My eyes went back to the line. What was to say that the seals or the locking mechanism or any one of the other arcane mechanisms involved in the workings of an airlock would not fail again? I wondered if the two engineers had not returned the shuttle’s hail or met us at the hatch because they too had been sucked out into space.

“Yes, here and, well, the rest of the ship. There are no clues as to what happened to the passengers or crew and no internal sensor logs for the last twenty-four hours. We’ll need images of the entire vessel in order to figure out what happened.” Navy Man had the gall to shrug his shoulders casually. “We may as well start here though, right?”

“You want me to photograph the entire ship? By myself?” My voice squeaked again, but that time it was justified. Dammit. “Do you have any idea how many days it would take one person to complete full-coverage photography for every room and hallway on this ship? No, of course you don’t, because not even I know and I am the expert here. This ship has already been sitting here for two hours and that means the furthest we can go back is twenty-two hours before it came out of Jump. Every minute that passes is one minute less that we can see back in time. If we hope to get any useful coverage of the entire ship we will need a team of photographers – a huge team of photographers.” I paused to shake my head in angry disbelief. “I can’t believe you only requested one photographer…”

“Ummm… sorry?” Navy Man had edged out to what he must have felt was a safe distance while I had been talking and had left me a clear path back onto the shuttle. I set my jaw and proceeded to march determinedly through the open hatch. “Wait, where are you-“

I thought I had built up enough momentum to carry me past the line, but my feet seemed to stop of their own accord as I reached it. I spun around to cover my hesitation. “You said the comm system doesn’t work over here. I have to go back to the shuttle to make the truly humiliating call to my Captain to let him know I am not capable of doing this job by myself and that he will need to mobilize just about everyone to come help me.” It was more than I meant to say even if it was true. I turned back around so Navy Man would not see me closing my eyes before I forced myself to walk the rest of the way through the airlock. The second time was unfortunately not any easier than the first.

It took only a few moments to establish a link to headquarters which unlike me was resting safely and firmly on the surface of a planet and blanketed by miles of atmosphere. It took only a few moments more to explain the situation to the Captain and much to my surprise he quickly offered an apology. “Ah! Klari, I’m sorry. It was my fault for assuming the Fleet would only want you to photograph one or two compartments. I should have known they meant the entire starship. Send that Fleet shuttle back and by the time it gets here I’ll have a team assembled and ready to go. We should meet back up with you in about 90 minutes.”

“Yes sir,” I struggled to keep the disappointment out of my tone, but I knew the Captain would know how I felt.

“I’m sorry again, Klari. I know you were looking forward to your first solo case even if you were not looking forward to your first trip off planet,” the Captain said as he smiled encouragingly to me from the vid-screen. I felt my face flush with embarrassment. Now Navy Man and the pilot knew just how much of a rookie I was. The Captain’s face became serious. “Don’t worry. You’ll have your chance to shine.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll see you in ninety minutes, Captain.” After the Captain made his farewell I tapped the disconnect button without taking my eyes off the vid-screen. It was uncomfortably quiet in the shuttle. I glanced cautiously over at Navy Man and the pilot.

Navy Man spoke first. “Is this really-“

“Yes. It isn’t my fault this is my first solo case. Everyone has a first solo case,” I snapped before he could finish. I could put up with him acting cold and distant, but I would not tolerate being patronized. “And not everyone enjoys leaving behind a nice safe planet to go traipsing about deep space…” My voice trailed off as Navy Man and the pilot tried to secretly exchange an angry look. “And now you’re both angry with me. That’s just great. Just great.” I really was not doing well on my first solo case. I grabbed my camera and made a beeline for the airlock. I closed my eyes and may have also held my breath as I stepped through the inner hatch. I stopped a few steps inside the boarding area of the other ship and waited for Navy Man to catch up with me.

“Klari? Agent Dielle?” Navy Man’s voice said from within the maw of the connecting passage. I turned to face him and was startled by how close he already was to me – as if he had run after me. Navy Man looked down at me with a hard edged-alertness in his eyes that was not there a few moments before and I realized he had unsnapped the flap on his pistol holster. I doubted very much that he considered me that much of a threat. He smiled as the hatch rolled shut behind him. “Listen, we weren’t angry with you. You’re right; everyone has a first mission. There are also plenty of people who never get up into space, but for everyone else there is a first time for that too. So don’t go thinking we were angry with you. No, we were angry with your boss for setting you up. I mean, if he wanted to send you on your first solo mission and have you get your space legs at the same time, well, he should have made sure it really was the right mission for you. A good boss takes care of his troops like that.”

“The Captain is a good boss. Usually. I guess he just made a mistake this time.” I paused to take a breath. “Like I did when I snapped at you and the pilot. I’m sorry about that. I guess I am just a little tense… about being in… space…” My gaze drifted toward the airlock as I began to feel that something was horribly wrong.

“Most people get a little nervous their first time off planet,” Navy Man glanced over his shoulder toward the airlock and grinned. “You don’t have to worry about one of these failing.” He thumped the only thing between us and a very grim death much harder than I felt was strictly necessary. “Mankind has been building airlocks for thousands of years now. Even on a tub as old as this one the airlocks would be failsafe.”

I gasped and said, “Oh my God!”

Despite Navy Man’s recent assurances to the contrary, he looked quickly over his shoulder to see what was wrong with the airlock.

“The spare capacitors! I left the spare capacitors on the shuttle!” With my hand over my open mouth I dropped back into a nearby chair. Forgetting a carrying case full of spare capacitor modules would not be the end of my career, but it would be uncomfortably close.

“Oh,” Navy Man said in the tone of voice of someone who does not understand. “You don’t have to worry about that; the pilot is a good guy. He’ll stow them someplace before he docks with the station so no one will know. Listen,” Navy Man said with a quick glance over at the boarding room’s comm panel as he took a small interference generator out of one of his pockets just long enough for me to catch a brief glimpse of it. He dropped his voice and spoke quickly. “There is more going on here than you know, Agent Dielle. Earlier I thought you were, ah, playing a different role in this scenario.” Navy Man gave the comm panel another glance and raised his voice to a normal level and pace before I could say anything. “I’m sorry for being rude to you before. The name is John Blanchet. There are three other guys named John in my section so pretty much everyone just calls me Blanchet.”

Blanchet gave me a smile that appeared genuine and offered his hand. I shook it after a slight hesitation I hoped was not too obvious. “Most people call me Klari. I tend to be the only one in any group,” I said and Navy Man, Blanchet, nodded his head encouragingly. The airlock loomed behind him, both menacing and tenuous, and I decided that I wanted a few more airtight doors between me and the new line marking the boundary between safety and deadly emptiness. “So… we have ninety minutes before the shuttle returns with the rest of team. I should probably do something useful while we wait. I only have one capacitor module, but it will be enough for a detailed study of one room on the ship. Is there any place you can think of on this ship where it would be a good idea to take some pictures? “

Blanchet smiled approvingly and I began to wonder if this was some sort of training exercise. “You’re right. No point standing around here, is there? Let me think… the bridge would probably be our best bet. We can see what the crew was doing during the last few hours before the ship came out of Jump and we will be able to see what the displays were reading which will give us a good idea what was happening on other parts of the ship. I am also curious to see how long the engineering team has left the bridge unattended,” Blanchet said as he crossed the room to tap a button on the door control. The door snapped open crisply to reveal a dingy, moderately well-lit hallway or corridor or whatever they were called on starships. I picked up my camera case and Blanchet smiled at me again. “Yes, the bridge is perfect place for us to be.”

I had high hopes about the perfection of the bridge as Blanchet led me deeper into the starship, putting layer upon layer of solid metal between us and the vacuum of outer space. The empty hallways and rooms that we passed had an odd stillness about them that reminded me of walking through an old and unoccupied building. I did not realize it was unusual until I noticed Blanchet never let his hand stray very far from his pistol. It took us several minutes to reach the door leading to bridge and Blanchet made me wait to one side while he made sure the room was clear. It was not until he told me that it was safe to enter that I realized that Blanchet was a madman.

My attention had been focused on my camera and running the lens through its startup routines so I was looking down when I stepped onto the bridge. As the door slid shut behind me, I looked up and gasped.

Windows. Three out of the four walls were nothing but floor to ceiling windows. Windows with spindly support structures that could not possibly strong enough to hold them in place against the strain of the atmosphere pushing out toward the waiting vacuum of space. Windows that did nothing to conceal the naked stars beyond them, glittering in the endless nothing through which the ship drifted as lifeless and empty as a tomb.

The bridge most certainly was not the perfect place to be.

Conflicting desires tore at me from within: I wanted to run, to hide in a corner, to stand my ground and face down that terrifying vista. Time seemed to be moving very slowly. The transparent material of the viewports seemed flex against the strain. I knew it was my imagination. I knew I was not about to be flung out into that cold void where the vacuum of space would force the air from my lungs and leave nothing to replace it. My heartbeat thundered in my ears. I forced myself to take a breath.

“I know what you are thinking, Klari,” Blanchet said. He sounded like he was talking to me from the other end of a tunnel. “The view is breathtaking.”

“Breath taking. Just what I was thinking.” I heard a slight tremor in my voice. Blanchet was obviously a madman, but at least he was not thumping the viewport glass to prove how sturdy it was. A small shiver ran down my back as I knelt down to rest the camera case on the deck. I hoped concentrating on photographing the crime scene would distract me from the siren call of the stars. A quick visual survey was enough for me to see that the best place to set up my camera was coincidentally the one place on the bridge I wanted to be – near the center of the back wall as far from all the viewports as it was possible to get without leaving the bridge.

“Are you able to record video or are you only able to take stills?” Blanchet asked as I set the camera to float at a comfortable height above the deck so I could program the photography sequence. From his tone I could tell that he thought he already knew the answer, but wanted confirmation.

“I could do video, but it would drastically reduce the life of the capacitor module. We also wouldn’t be able to watch it as the camera was recording it; we would have to wait until the sequence finished,” I explained as I composed the image using the live feed. I set the lens to wide angle and through it saw Blanchet staring at me with a thoughtful expression. I looked away from the camera and met his gaze.

“I really do want to see how long those two engineers have left this bridge unattended. If you don’t mind, could you please make me a video record of the bridge with a start time of… oh, say…” Blanchet glanced down at the chronometer on his wrist. “Ninety minutes ago?”

There were little clues in Blanchet’s voice, in his facial expression, and in his body language that told me he more than had the authority to make his request an order. He was opting to be nice about it rather than obnoxious. I nodded my head in casual affirmation. “That won’t take me very long to program at all. We will still have to wait a bit for the camera to finish recording.”

“Understood. Thank you, Klari.” Blanchet said, again in that subtle command tone. I wondered why he was pretending to be a lowly nobody who was stuck babysitting a crime scene photographer.

Blanchet said nothing as we waited for the camera to finish its sequence. I noticed he was always sure to keep himself between me and the door leading on to the bridge and that his right hand never strayed very far from his holstered pistol. Wondering who he really was and why he seemed so ready to shoot someone kept me from thinking about how the only things separating me from the emptiness of space were some panes of high tech glass. If Blanchet did start shooting at someone and missed then he would probably blow a hole in one of the enormous viewports. The same would apply to whoever Blanchet decided to start shooting at – if that person missed then… a cold feeling of dread filled me as I realized if that person did not miss then Blanchet would be dead and I would be trapped on an empty starship with some sort of gun-toting maniac. I had a hard time trying to decide if that was worse than getting sucked out into space after someone blasted a hole through one of the viewports.

When the camera was through recording it took me a few moments to reconfigure it to play back the imagery. Blanchet stood close beside me and peered over my shoulder at the grainy picture on the small playback screen. The two engineers moved around the bridge pausing every now and then in front of one console or another. A few minutes into the fast-forwarded playback, one of the engineers left the bridge and his partner settled into the chair beside the communication console. A few moments after that a dark shape passed in front of the camera when the other engineer returned to the bridge.

“Wait! That isn’t the second engineer.” I slowed the playback down for Blanchet’s benefit and watched in horror as the mysterious individual stealthily approached the first engineer from behind and killed him with a single thrust from a long, wicked-looking knife. The killer did not bother to check to see if his victim was dead, he already knew, instead he merely bent down and cleaned his blade on the dead engineer’s uniform. When the killer paused and stared back in the direction of the camera I froze the image. I felt myself sliding down the wall and ended up sitting on the cold, hard deck.

“This must be the first time you have seen someone murdered, Klari?” Blanchet asked, his voice a mix of concern and surprise. I shook my head no and he frowned at me. He looked thoughtfully back at the screen and then turned to study the wall over my head. “Any idea what he is looking at?”

“Me.” I forced myself to say it. My instructors had told me about killers like this and I did not want it to be true. “He is looking at me.”

“What?” There was no longer any surprise in Blanchet’s tone, only concern. There should have been surprise.

“This is the best place for a crime scene camera. He knew there would be a photographer here. Some killers stage their murders for the camera; it isn’t common but it happens. The ones who stage their murders for the crime scene photographer though…” My eyes drifted to the chair where the engineer had been murdered. Killers who staged murders for the crime scene photographer and who deliberately reached out, either through a look or some other message, were extremely rare creatures. They always followed the same pattern. Always. “He killed everyone on this ship someplace where it would be easy to get pictures of the murder. In each case he would have left a message for the crime scene photographer to see because he knew that-” I glanced up at Blanchet and saw his right hand was resting lightly on the butt of his pistol. A sense of betrayal made my heart pound furiously. “You- You- You’ve known all along that this was an elaborate trap set by some lunatic who wants to gets his hands on a crime scene photographer!”

Blanchet moved faster than I thought was humanly possible and reached down with his left hand to grab me by the arm. He was much larger than I was and strong enough to haul me to my feet like a rag doll. He let go of me to point a finger at my face. “Now is not the time for this, Klari. Pack up your camera. We are going back to the boarding area. It’s the safest place on the ship.”

Three walls of floor to ceiling viewports may have been frightening, but unlike the airlock in the boarding area the viewports were at least not designed to open up to the vast and terrifying emptiness of the universe. Blanchet snapped his fingers loudly in front of my face. “Hey! Focus, Agent Dielle!” He grabbed my other arm and spun me around to face the unblinking gaze of the cold and distant stars. “I know you are terrified of that, but I also know that you don’t let it beat you. This killer is just a man and he is nothing compared to the vastness of the Universe. Got it?” I took a breath and felt my heart rate slow down a little. With my eyes closed against the stars, I nodded my head. Blanchet let go of my arm. “Good. Now, camera.”

I deactivated my camera and packed it quickly, though still securely, inside the carrying case. Blanchet had drawn his pistol when I was not looking and he motioned for me to follow him into the hall outside the bridge. The bridge door opened noisily; far louder it seemed than it had the first time we went through it. The hallway beyond was empty… and dark… and menacingly quiet. The killer could have leaped out at us from anywhere, but we made it back to the boarding area without seeing him.

I moved to one side of the room and turned my back on the inner hatch of the airlock hoping if I could not see then I might be able to pretend it was not there. Without the airlock the boarding area looked like a normal waiting area and as a general room of thumb people did not die of decompression in normal waiting areas. Blanchet shut the door and pulled a blue crystalline cylinder from another of the many pockets on his uniform. He glanced down at the door panel and hesitated for less than a heartbeat before turning to me.

“This a Fleet Emergency Access Key, or an E-Key for short,” Blanchet said as he handed me the key. “You can use one of these to unlock any door on a civilian starship and if you use it to lock a door then only someone with another E-Key will be able to open it.”

“Are you leaving me here and going after the killer?” I did not think that was the brightest course of action. The only way the Fleet would not have detected the killer was if he had a camouflage net that would have hidden him from their sensors. It meant he had prepared his trap very carefully, but his type always did.

“The look on your face is priceless, Klari, but this isn’t the first time I’ve tracked down a bad guy on what was supposed to be an empty starship.” Blanchet gave me a crooked smiled as he pressed the key into my hand. He nodded his head toward the door control panel. “You lock that door as soon as it closes behind me. I’m going to make my way to the auxiliary comm room to see if I can’t contact our shuttle. When the shuttle docks, the pilot will call you on your comm unit so you will know it is not the killer trying to get in the airlock, okay?”

“Okay. I still think you are crazy, but okay. Be careful.” I said and with a nod of thanks in my direction Blanchet slipped through the door. I did as Blanchet instructed and passed the E-Key in front of the ID sensor on the door control panel. There was a satisfying clicking sound and a series of red lights sprang to life above the door. I took a breath and turned to face the airlock.

Blanchet was correct – this was, much as it pained me to admit it, the safest place on the ship. Even if the killer was insane enough to deliberately go outside the ship it would be impossible for him to sneak in through the airlock. Airlocks had alarms and flashing lights and things of that sort and, as the name implied, they locked. I decided it would not hurt to see if the E-Key would also secure the airlock, but pulled my hand back when I noticed a set of scratch marks near the airlock control panel. The marks were parallel and closely spaced; almost as if someone had used a flat metal object to force the panel open. I stared thoughtfully at the airlock for a moment and then slowly turned my head to look over my shoulder at the door control panel.

Blanchet had hesitated when he looked at it.

I concentrated on keeping my breathing even as I crossed the room for a closer look at the door panel. I quickly found another set of scratch marks near the edge of the panel. I kept my mind empty of all thought as I set my camera case down and took out my camera. The capacitor status light was glowing a greenish-yellow so it was in relatively good shape. I set up the camera by the airlock and pointed it across the room to the supposedly locked door leading out into the hallway. The killer knew how crime scene photography worked and he wanted us to see his handy work so that meant he would have waited until a few hours before the ship was due to exit Jump before killing everyone else on board. He would not have risked being caught tampering with the doors before then. I programmed the camera to record events that had happened from six to three hours in the past and then made myself sit patiently in one of the plush chairs while the program ran. When the camera was through the capacitor status light started glowing a bright amber.

I fast forwarded through the recording until I saw the killer enter the boarding area. He had stood in the doorway for a moment staring thoughtfully at the airlock. Then his gaze shifted slightly and he stared into the camera lens. He smiled and shook his finger at me reproachfully before turning to work on prying open the door control panel. I stopped the recording and bit my lip thoughtfully. I had no way of knowing what the killer had done to the door or the airlock since I had no experience with starship tech. It was possible he had done nothing and he was only toying with me. It was more likely that he had rigged the door controls so he could override anything I might do on my side of the door. He could then open the airlock and jettison me out into space or worse, he could slowly vent the air in the room out into space until I fell unconscious. Then he would be able to take me alive.

Blanchet had realized all of this and had decided to offer himself up as bait for the killer in the hopes that he could keep the game of cat and mouse going long enough for help to arrive. The killer was too well prepared for Blanchet to have much of a chance. The safest thing for both of us would be to stick together. I grabbed my camera, unlocked the door, and stepped cautiously out into the hallway. The only way for me to know which way Blanchet had gone was to set the camera up for a short snap shot into the past. I hoped that I would find him before the capacitor switched from amber to red.

I walked in near silence down the dimly lit hallway, more due to the soft carpeting than any skill on my part until I came to a T-junction that had a ladder leading to the decks above and below me. There was no carpeting – a visual cue, I guessed, that the area was intended for crew only, not passengers. There were congealing puddles of blood glistening on the bare metal floor.

Again, I kept my mind blank and concentrated on setting up my camera. Blood, I told myself, was an excellent indicator of how far in the past an incident had occurred. I studied the blood for a moment and then programmed my camera. The video took a disturbingly short time to record.

On the small screen I saw Blanchet turning right at the T-junction. I saw the killer leap out of the shadows in an attempt to stab Blanchet just as he had stabbed the engineer on the bridge. Blanchet had not been taken entirely by surprise though; he twisted his body around and dodged slightly to one side. The killer’s blade still ended up with blood on it, but it had not been a killing blow. The killer lunged again, but Blanchet dodged nimbly and shoved the killer into the ladder. The killer vanished from view as he fell through the hole in the floor for the ladder. Blanchet leaned heavily, almost falling, against the wall. He picked up his pistol and staggered down one of the corridors. I started to breathe a sigh of relief.

Then the killer pulled himself back into view. The fall had not been kind to him and he limped heavily as he shuffled down the corridor in pursuit of Blanchet. Judging from the trail of blood Blanchet was leaving behind I knew he would not last long when the killer caught up to him. I was not authorized to carry a gun, all I had was my camera. With the anti-grav disk shut off, however, it was a very heavy camera. I decided if I was able to sneak up in back of the killer I could hit him with my poor camera. Then Blanchet would have time to shoot him.

I knew it was a dumb plan, but it was all I had.

I followed the blood trail, pausing every now and then to use my camera to see how far ahead of me Blanchet and the killer were. After several minutes I reached another T-junction. The hallway ran off to my left and my right, but the blood trail led to a closed door in front of me with a sign identifying the room beyond as the secondary communication node. I kept to the relative safety of the shadows and set my camera up once more. The capacitor light had dimmed to a reddish orange but I knew it had enough life left in it for one, perhaps two more glimpses into the past.

I watched Blanchet stagger across the hallway to the door. He paused for a moment and deliberately looked back, not at the killer I realized but at where he knew I would eventually hide and set up my camera. My heart began to pound heavily as I wondered how he had known I would follow him. The door opened and Blanchet fell through it. Then a few moments later the door opened again and I saw Blanchet sitting on the floor with his back against a closet door staring at something just inside the room. His lips were moving slightly but they soon grew still. A few moments more and the killer limped into view. He stared at Blanchet’s body for a short time and then turned to look angrily back down the corridor, but thankfully not at my hiding place. The killer swore and then limped off camera to the right, presumably so he could get back to the boarding area where I was supposed to be waiting.

I stared at the closed door for a few heartbeats. In all likelihood the killer had also disabled the inside controls to lock the door so I would find no safety on the other side. For some reason though, Blanchet had wanted me to follow him into that room. I crossed the hall, stepping carefully so as not to leave footprints in the blood outside the door, and the door glided silently open.

The room was extremely small. There was a desk with a chair immediately off to the left and a bank of electronics off to the right. On the other side of the room Blanchet’s body was still slumped against the closet door with his legs splayed out in front of him and the soles of his boots were no more than two feet away from the door where I stood. The metal floor was almost completely covered in blood and the smell of it was almost thick enough to taste. I stepped quickly into the room and closed the door behind me. Blanchet’s sightless gaze was focused on an empty corner of the desk – a spot just large enough for my camera. I replayed the recording I had just made and saw that Blanchet had been staring at the same spot just before he died. His lips had been moving … perhaps, hopefully, he had left me a message in time.

I set my camera up under the baleful red gaze of the capacitor status light. The best I could hope for was a few seconds of imagery. I programmed the camera to record what had happened after the door had closed and was dismayed to see the capacitor did not have enough life to go back that far. I pushed the start time forward one second at a time until the camera accepted the program then hit RUN. I winced when I heard the capacitor pop. We were supposed to replace the capacitors before that happened to avoid the risk of damaging the lens. It seemed likely my boss would make an exception for a photographer being stalked by a homicidal maniac.

I played back the recording and saw Blanchet’s deathly pale face staring back at me. He was moving his lips slowly, trying to carefully mouth each word so I would understand, but it only made it more difficult to read his lips. In the few seconds of video I had been able to capture Blanchet repeated his silent message several times, but the only word I was able to understand was closet. “What are you trying to tell me, Blanchet?”

I jumped, perhaps even yelped a little, when the intercom speaker crackled suddenly to life. “There you are. You really should have stayed in the boarding area. It would have been easier on you,” a rough voice said over the intercom. “Now I am going to have to go all the way back to the auxiliary comm room and I will not be happy when I get there. Don’t try to hide. I know all the hiding places on this ship and it will only make me more annoyed.”

I slapped off the intercom. “Oh, not good…” The killer was right, there was no place I could hide. I glanced down at Blanchet’s empty holster and wished fervently that I had a pistol. My eyes swung quickly back to the playback screen on my camera where the video was still looping. Blanchet’s lips moved slowly forming the words ‘in the closet’ – he had hidden his pistol in the closet and then blocked the door with his body!

I leaped across the room and almost lost my footing on the slick floor. I grabbed Blanchet’s arm and tried to pull him away from the door, but he was much heavier than I expected. I tried to give his body another heave, but my feet slid out from under me and I landed roughly on the floor. I tried very hard not to think about what was soaking through my clothing and pushed myself up on my hands and knees. I crawled over to the other side of Blanchet and tried pushing him off the door. Several tries and one more fall later I had managed to move Blanchet far enough from the door for me to open it a few inches. The pistol, thankfully, was within easy reach. I grabbed it and turned to face the door.

Things happened very quickly after that. The door opened. I brought the pistol up. The killer started to charge into the room. I pulled the trigger. I pulled the trigger again. When time slowed back to normal I realized I was sitting on the floor staring over the barrel of the pistol at an empty doorway.

“Agent Dielle! Imperial Marines! Hold your fire!” A voice shouted from somewhere beyond the doorway. I lowered the pistol slightly. A dark-visored helmet appeared cautiously around one side of the doorframe. “Oh my God!” the voice said through the helmet speaker. An Imperial Marine stepped fully into my view and shouted down the hallway, “Get Doc over here now!” He snapped open his helmet to reveal a baby face I did not think was old enough to be a Marine and crossed the room to knee down beside. “Hang in there, Agent Dielle, Doc is on the way.”

“I’m not hurt.” My voice sounded unusually quiet.

“Yes ma’am. Ah, if you don’t mind, ma’am, I’ll just hold on to this for you,” the Marine said as he slipped the pistol out of my hands.

“I think it’s broken. It stopped working after a couple of shots.”

The Marine glanced down at the pistol and an uncomfortable expression appeared on his face. “You fired more than a couple of shots, ma’am; you drained the power cell. You, ah, definitely stopped the bad guy though. Please don’t take this wrong, Agent Dielle, but I never want to make you that angry at me.”

“Oh my God!” Another armored figure, this one with a woman’s voice and medical insignia on her armor, said suddenly from the doorway. The medic shooed the Marine away from me as she snapped her helmet open and took his place by my side. “Where are you injured, ma’am?”

“I’m not injured,” I said as the medic ignored me in favor of her hand-scanner. I motioned toward Blanchet’s body. “Blanchet hid his pistol in the closet and then blocked the door with his body before he died so the killer couldn’t get it. I slid and fell a couple of times trying to move his body so I could open the door. He is very heavy.”

“Yes, ma’am. Hmmm, you aren’t hurt.” The medic sounded surprised.

“Oh my God! Klari!” My Captain was the next to appear in the doorway. I thought it was nice of him to come along. There was not enough space in the small room though for him to enter it as well.

“None of blood is hers, sir. She has a few bruises, but otherwise she’s fine,” the medic reported and a look of relief appeared on the Captain’s face.

“You knew this would happen!” I yelled at him as I jumped to my feet. I lunged toward him, but the medic held me back. “Is that why you sent me? The rookie was the most expendable person on your team?”

“No one on my team is expendable, Klari. I sent you because you were the only photographer on the team with a psyche profile that indicated a chance of surviving if things went bad, like they obviously did.” The Captain frowned and nodded his head like he did when he made a decision about something he had been thinking about for a while. “It is obvious that your talents are being wasted with you being just a photographer. I’m promoting you to full Investigator effective immediately.”

“Full Investigator?” I was breathless. It was a promotion I had not expected to happen for several years. I glanced over at Blanchet’s body; if both of us had been armed from the beginning then perhaps he would still be alive. I looked back up at the Captain “Would I get to carry a gun?”

The Captain nodded his head. “Of course.” He cleared his throat politely after the Marine handed me back Blanchet’s pistol. “I did not mean she would get to carry one now, Sergeant.”

“You’re safe, sir,” the Marine replied crisply but I had seen the humor in his eyes when he had handed me the pistol. “The power cell in that pistol is completely drained.”

“Why?” I threw the word out, a verbal gauntlet demanding an answer to my challenge.

“The lens alone would fetch an enormous price, you know that, but an Imperial crime scene photographer who actually understands the technology behind the lens is even more valuable. Someone has put out a contract for the abduction and delivery of a Imperial crime scene photographer. The Empire needs to find out who so we can discourage anyone else from getting similar ideas.” The Captain smiled a very cold smile. “Now that we have the body of the man hired to do the job, we can trace his movements back and find out who hired him. Then we can dispense a little Imperial justice, but that is something that none of you need to trouble yourselves over.”

The Marines chorused a “Yes, sir!”

I picked up my camera as more Marines filtered into the corridor. I surmised their shuttle had been waiting out of visual range but much closer than the ninety minutes I was told it would take for the Captain to bring a full photography team. The medic, the Marine sergeant who found me, and the Captain began to escort me back to the boarding area. The other Marines stopped to stare at me and I began wonder just how much of poor Blanchet’s blood I had on me. Just as we reached the boarding area a second horrible thing became clear. “Captain? As a full Investigator, would I have to, ah…”

“Yes, Klari,” the Captain said with tolerant patience. “You will have to make trips off planet into space. I’ve told you time and time again: there is nothing to worry about, space travel is perfectly safe.”

I was so surprised he had said it with a straight face that it took me a moment to realize that I’d stepped over the line dividing the two airlocks without thinking about it.


Boo-graphy:
Dan Zeidler is a writer of science fiction and fantasy and the author of the upcoming science fiction adventure novel Ghosts of a Fallen Empire. Dan began expressing his love of writing at an early age with the parentally acclaimed poem Trains are Great which, along with other early examples of his work, earned a place on the prestigious Refrigerator Magnet Gallery. While nothing can be done for his poetry skills, which haven’t improved a whit since that train poem, a steady diet of great stories ranging from ancient mythological tales to Arthurian legends to classic sci-fi and fantasy and on up to Star Trek and Star Wars have improved his storytelling abilities considerably. To further refine and enhance his writing and storytelling skills, Dan lived a life of adventure first by getting a degree in geoscience, then by serving in the US Air Force, then by embarking on a career as a data analyst… hmmm… okay, let’s go back a bit to the part about how a lifetime of reading as many great stories (and many not so great stories) as he could have inspired Dan to write his own stories; stories that above all strive to be fun and entertaining reads.

Dan currently resides with his family among the rugged, forested hills of his home state of Connecticut.

Makhtar Series 1:
Ghosts of a Fallen Empire
In the distant future an isolated human world has survived the Nomad Wars and the Fall of Imperium. Together with their non-human allies, the Dussakairay and the Bregus, they repopulated and rebuilt their devastated region of the galaxy to form a 40 system Commonwealth. For over five centuries the people of the Commonwealth have known only peace and prosperity, but an ancient enemy has been watching from the ruins of the old Imperium, slowly rebuilding their forces, and waiting for their opportunity to reduce the Commonwealth to ashes. The founders of the Commonwealth may have given up their Imperium, but they did not give up all of the Imperium’s secrets. Now the only hope for the people of the Commonwealth lies with the Ghosts of a Fallen Empire.

SHORT STORY: Twitch by C.M. Saunders

Twitch

It started with a twitching left eyelid. Nothing major. More annoying that anything else. She’d had similar afflictions before, but they usually petered out after a while. This one didn’t.

It just kept getting worse.

The eyelid developed a life of its own, fluttering away seemingly at will. One spasm led to another, then another, until eventually she lost all control of her facial muscles.

The condition spread to her limbs, and all she could do was lie on the floor covered in her own vomit, drool and excrement, her entire body convulsing and contracting.

Demonic possession is no joke.


Boo-graphy:
Christian Saunders, who writes fiction as C.M. Saunders, is a freelance journalist and editor from south Wales. His work has appeared in almost 100 magazines, ezines and anthologies worldwide including Fortean Times, the Literary Hatchet, ParABnormal, Fantastic Horror, Haunted MTL, Feverish Fiction and Crimson Streets, and he has held staff positions at several leading UK magazines ranging from Staff Writer to Associate Editor. His books have been both traditionally and independently published, the latest release being Back from the Dead: A Collection of Zombie Fiction.

Website
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Back from the Dead
A collection of zombie fiction from British journalist and dark fiction writer C.M. Saunders, featuring two complete novellas alongside short stories previously published in the likes of Morpheus Tales and Crimson Streets, plus a brand-new novelette. Also includes an exclusive introduction and artwork by the award-winning Greg Chapman.

Featuring:
Dead of Night: young lovers Nick and Maggie go camping in the woods, only to come face-to-face with a group of long-dead Confederate soldiers who don’t know, or care, that the war is over.

Human Waste: Dan Pallister wakes up one morning to find the zombie apocalypse has started. Luckily, he’s been preparing for it most of his life. He just needs to grab some supplies from the supermarket…

‘Til Death do us Part: When the world as we know it comes to an abrupt end, an elderly couple are trapped in their apartment. They get by as best they can, until they run out of food.

Roadkill: A freelance ambulance crew are plunged into a living nightmare when a traffic accident victim they pick up just won’t stay dead. He has revenge on his mind.

Plague Pit: A curious teenager goes exploring the Welsh countryside one summer afternoon and stumbles across a long-abandoned chapel. What he finds there might change the world, and not for the better.

Dead Men Don’t Bleed: A gumshoe private eye is faced with his most challenging case yet when a dead man walks into his office and asks for help solving his own murder.

Drawn from a variety of sources, all these tales have one thing in common; they explore what might happen if our worst nightmares are realized and people came BACK FROM THE DEAD.

GUEST MOVIE REVIEW by Thomas R. Clark: Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Venom: Let There Be Carnage
2021 – PG13 – 1 hour 37 minutes

Director: Andy Serkis
Screenplay Writer: Kelly Marcel
Story Writer: Tom Hardy

Stars:
Tom Hardy
Woody Harrelson
Michelle Williams

Eddie Brock attempts to reignite his career by interviewing serial killer Cletus Kasady, who becomes the host of the symbiote Carnage and escapes prison after a failed execution.


Why VENOM LET THERE BE CARNAGE is the Cosmic Horror Super Hero Movie We Needed This Halloween Season

I love cosmic horror and all things related, complete with tentacles. The science fiction aspects of the horror genre are gateways to twisted aliens, elder gods, death cults, abominations, and a whole lot of insanity. I’m fascinated at how cosmic horror’s tropes can weave their nefarious tendrils into non-science fiction properties. It meshes well with folk horror, for example. THE RITUAL, Adam Nevill’s excellent novel and subsequent film adaptation, is a great example of this mash-up. Comic Books, and superheroes in particular, are also riddled with cosmic horror elements.

The Marvel multiverse is filled with Cosmic Horror, and the current Phase 4 appears to be going all sorts of Lovecraftian. There have been a few attempts to translate these horror elements in the past, and not all of them have been successful. Going back as far as HOWARD THE DUCK, (YES – I invoked HOWARD THE DUCK) in which the “Dark Overlords of the Universe (aka ELDER GODS) want a piece of the earth, we’ve seen a cosmic horror element in Marvel properties on film. Most recently, Josh Boone tried (and failed) to bring the horror of mutants into a then FOX film, with THE NEW MUTANTS.

With the creation of the Multiverse, it only makes sense some of Marvel’s true Cosmic Horror entities make their way to the forefront. Take the alien symbiote, VENOM, for example. You cannot deny the cosmic horror origins of the character. His first film outting was in Spider-Man 3, the overbooked and underwritten finale of Sam Raimi’s trilogy. SONY’s decision to bring a revamped incarnation, the anti-hero Venom has become in the decade since, proved to be wise. The 2018 film, albeit flawed, made a mint in the pre-pandemic world. Tom Hardy’s reimagined Eddie Brock is the perfect likeable sad sack. And his dual role as the brain eating symbiote lured viewers in and promised a sequel featuring a showdown with one of Venom’s greatest adversaries: Carnage.

And we were all ready to get it in 2020… until the Pandemic hit. We were forced to wait an entire year, with the date getting pushed back and forth as studios tried to adapt to the difficulties of the pandemic. The date of 10/1/21 turned out to be more perfect than we could have imagined. Why, you ask? Because it’s the start of Halloween Movie season for many horror fans. And what could be better than shape morphing aliens chomping off peoples’ heads?

Oh yes, VENOM LET THERE BE CARNAGE, although mostly bloodless, is a PG-13 superhero cosmic horror delite. After a seriously scary prologue featuring teenage Cletus Kasady in a mental institution, the new movie moves to where the last film ended, with Eddie being summoned as the chronicler of serial killer Kasady’s final statements before being put to death. The homages to Silence of the Lambs are not forgotten, and used as catalysts to move the plot forward.

Yes, I said plot.

You see, unlike the previous VENOM entry, this movie actually has a story and a plot. At a brisk 96 minutes, director Andy Serkis wastes no time getting down to business. Kelly Marcel, co-writer of the first Venom, brings a solo screenplay full of chills, thrills and laughs. But in the end, it’s Woody Harrelson, doing his best Nicholas Cage overacting, and Tom Hardy’s charisma that make this movie leaps and tendrils better than the 2018 film. There are plenty of heads eaten by bad guys and anti-heroes, and more than enough one-liners to make you giggle like a 5th grader.

I hope we get an R-rated home release with some blood and gore in it at some point. You see, on a written page, the VENOM films would be extreme cosmic horror novels, complete with as many mind fucks and brains sucked out as any book from the genre. I’m a believer the more extreme aspects of horror can be mainstream, it’s in the manner you present them. And doing so through a superhero property is an easy way to do it. Godless has seen great success with their Splatter punk anti-hero line, GODLESS LEAGUE, which includes characters as diverse as John Baltisberger’s vengeful Rabbi, STABBERGER, and Drew Stepek’s head squishing buzz topped DOZE.

The only thing I didn’t care for was the mid-credits scene. It felt like a shoehorned cop-out, but I digress in my search to find something in the movie that didn’t work. Make no mistake about it, VENOM LET THERE BE CARNAGE is a horror film. It’s the perfect start for your Halloween and a welcome entry into the modern era of the Marvel Multiverse and superhero movies.


Boo-graphy:
Thomas R Clark is a musician, writer, and podcast producer & engineer. He is the author of the 2021 Splatterpunk Award Nominated BELLA’S BOYS, GOOD BOY, and THE DEATH LIST – published through Stitched Smile Publications, and the forthcoming THE GOD PROVIDES, from St. Rooster Books. His short fiction collection, A BOOK OF LIGHT AND SHADOW is available through his personal imprint, Nightswan Press. Tom’s journalism has appeared in Rue Morgue, This Is Infamous, and House of Stitched Magazine. He lives in Central New York with his wife and a trio of Jack Russell terrier companions.

The God Provides
The foothills of Upstate New York are alive with something terrifying. It hunts, it tempts, it traps, and there’s no escape. Thomas R Clark re-invents Irish Mythology and takes you on a bloody, emotional, and horrific journey back through time with the tale of the McEntire clan, and the devastating secrets they hold. The author of the Splatterpunk Awards nominated Bella’s Boys: A Tale of Cosmic Horror has crafted a story that’s part The Wicker Man and part Cycle of the Werewolf, but at the same time like nothing you’ve read before.