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The Power of One

Sometimes a story comes along in which one character captivates you, or one person steers events in surprising and satisfying ways.  Or one act that makes a meaningful difference.  Or one life that, only months before, had not existed but whose story needed to be told for the benefit of the cosmic alignment of stars and universes.  

We have three such stories this month.

First, a story from Leslianne Wilder, “Cliona’s Coat.”  I remember first reading this story some months ago.  I remember being so taken by this one mysterious woman with her collection of fur coats, and fascinated when I discovered…  Well, you’ll find out.  Wonderful story well told.

Second, from Aimee Picchi, “Death Comes for the Microbot,” a work of science fiction that explores the potential costs of the relentless forward march of technological advancement.  This one will really hit home to those of us who still pull out the old Game Cube once in awhile because the Wii just isn’t the same, or who occasionally eschew the Bosch when hand kneading feels right.  This one little microbot struck the sentimentality bone with me.

Third this month we bring you “Star Box” by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks.  People come and go on this little blue planet.  People suffer and triumph every day.  The task of helping everyone who needs it seems impossible.  But what if we could do one small thing for one small person?  Would it be enough?  Sometimes, yes, it is.

We hope you enjoy our stories, and that you have a happy and productive New Year, and that you find the Power of One within yourself.

Suzanne Vincent

Editor-in-Chief

Flash Fiction Online

 

patreonfriend

 

 

Cliona’s Coat

THE OLD WOMAN SITS NIGHTS on the porch of Marcel’s bar in Le Havre, on the side facing the waves, wearing a fur coat. Her fingers are gnarled mangrove roots around a glass of something thick and amber that Old Marcel refills for her without being asked, and without ever asking to be paid. Each night’s coat is different: a cumulus of white and gray rabbit pelt; a fox-fur stole old enough to have been looted from a headless aristocrat; a jacket lined with a high wolf trim; supple mink sewed together, so the faces and claws still show they were beasts before they were evening wear. She wears them all with equal restless dissatisfaction.

Sometimes, when the old woman’s mood is light, Marcel can coax her to sing for the patrons. Her voice shakes, and she has never lost the accent of a rocky island far to the north, but she still kisses life into the jazz they played in Paris before the tanks rolled in- not the disco the children like now- and to the somber songs after the peace.

The patrons sing along to the old Trénet that passes heavy and melancholy through the old woman’s lips: the argent waves, the clear gulfs, the heart that is rocked for a life by the sea. She sings this one more often than any other, and everyone knows the words. Sometimes, newcomers who know she speaks English ask for the version in that language, where there is a lover instead of just the waves. Those nights she goes back onto the terrace with the spray and the cold north wind, and neither shouts nor pleading will draw her back.

From time to time, a student or journalist comes to Marcel’s and asks for her by name, prospecting for history. The old woman receives them like a hermit blessing pilgrims but sends them away empty-handed. No articles are published.

Secrets, the patrons whisper into wine. What is she guarding?

Not one of the patrons has ever seen the old woman eat.

Sometimes they complain to Marcel that the old woman drinks for free, and Marcel leans over the table and shows the patrons the antique murder under his sagging eyebrows. “She fought for the Resistance,” the old man says. His hands are not soft. They do not quake. None of the patrons know how many men, how many women, Marcel has killed, only that the number is not zero. “What did you do, eh?” Time has ground Marcel’s voice sharp. The patrons agree they will pay for their own drinks, and some for the old woman as well, because they are not too drunk to be afraid.

When Marcel is gone, they whisper: “Is she even real?”

When the bar empties and the chairs on the tables are crenelated towers, Marcel limps out to the old woman. He draws a seat and, together, they meditate before the surf.

“What a life!” he says, because that is the ritual. He cradles an unlit cigarette with his lips. Saltwater glitters in the cracks on the old woman’s cheeks.

Marcel would cup her hands, kiss the creases of her fingers, and lead her gently to the room he keeps above the bar as if they were still young, but he knows better than to salt an open hurt. Tomorrow, he will buy fresh fish for her again, and with love in his eyes, he will watch her devour them raw.

Tonight she tells the story again, though Marcel could recite it himself now. “Damn him,” she says. “Damn him. I thought I hid the coat so well, but naked I came out of the ocean, and there he was, standing like he’s proud of himself, demanding I be his wife. As if I’ll love him because he has a hostage, because I can’t go home. I looked for it.” She draws the sharp edge of her hand against wet eyes. “I looked so hard, all those years. When I left he was heartbroken- the bastard- like it was me who betrayed him! Like I should want nothing but a linen dress and his kitchen.”

“Think,” Marcel whispers, “of the adventures you would have missed…”

“I’m not sorry I left him,” she says, resolute and vicious.

Marcel knows there was a trip she never speaks of, back across the channel to a bombed house and a grave where someone had chiseled “beloved husband” into mossy stone; to chests torn open and emptied to the spiders. She is quiet, except for the slosh of her drink.

The waves roll and Marcel cannot see the dark shapes moving in beneath that darkness, cannot see black eyes that should be dull and animal but instead shine brighter than any human’s. He imagines them, but he has only ever seen their shape in the lacuna of the old woman’s scars.

Tonight, she slams back the drink and hugs the fur around her, restless and dissatisfied. She watches the sullen roll of the sea.

Tonight, Marcel kisses the bottle, refills her drink, and stands to leave her to memories. He will not press, but should she surface on her own, he will offer his hand.

Tonight, for the first time, her fingers loosen from the glass and reach across the cold air for his. Tonight a soft sable shawl slides discarded to the floor.

There is no replacement for a lost coat, but tonight, maybe, this will be enough.

Death Comes for the Microbot

BEE WAVED ITS ARTICULATED CHROME ANTENNAE at Dr. Nesbeth’s hunched shoulders. When the doctor remained focused on the Petri dish, the microbot launched into the air, wings creaking, and hovered near the doctor’s eyes.

The microbot’s internal code flashed a warning that wing failure was imminent.

The doctor sighed.

“Yes, Bee, I see you there,” she said. “But can’t you tell I’m busy?”

“Spider is dead.” Bee settled on the edge of the Petri dish. It teemed with bio-nanobots, self-replicating machines that Dr. Nesbeth had said would be both cheaper and more useful than old prototypes like Bee. “It happened while you were at lunch.”

***

Bee walked on six spindly legs to the spot where Spider had stopped moving.

Bee, whose job was to record the doings of the lab, had been across the room, but its video feed had captured the moment. The tiny arachnid-shaped bot had been monitoring the bio-nanobot colonies when it teetered and fell, alone.

“Can you fix Spider, Dr. Nesbeth?” Bee asked.

The doctor shook her head. “It’s not worth the money. You know that funding for AI-microbot projects ran out years ago.” She wrapped Spider in a bit of tissue paper and tucked it in her desk drawer. “I’m sorry, Bee. And I’m sorry to see Spider go.”

Bee didn’t entirely understand how the lab’s funding worked, but it grasped how the years had passed.

When Bee had been created, the lab had teamed with a dozen insect-inspired microbots, prototypes for a new line of workplace robots. Among them had been Snail, who cleaned lab goggles, slowly but thoroughly, and Moth, who dispelled shadows with wing-embedded lights.

The doctor had replaced Moth with a swarm of bioluminescent nanobots. The new tech was cheaper and virtually unbreakable, unlike the microbots with their expensive, fragile components, Dr. Nesbeth had explained to Bee.

The swarm performed the same function, but Bee missed Moth’s quiet fluttering.

Now it was just Bee and Cricket.

Bee took a chance with its wings and flew to where Cricket was hiding in a dark corner.

=“Spider is dead,” Bee said.

Cricket didn’t move.

]“Are you dead, too?” Bee asked.

“No.” Cricket’s legs wobbled as it emerged from the corner. “Spider didn’t die. It became non-operational.”

“We were made to aid the lab,” Bee said. “Why doesn’t Dr. Nesbeth help us?”

“Our design is obsolete,” Cricket said.

Cricket used to perch on Dr. Nesbeth’s shoulder, providing her with instant access to its database. That was before she linked a bio-nanobot swarm to the Cloud.

Bee moved closer to the older microbot, afraid it would retreat to the corner where it now spent its days. But the older microbot remained sitting, its dark eyes focused on Bee’s yellow exoskeleton. Bee took that as permission to continue. “May I ask your database a question?”

Cricket rubbed its front legs together. “Proceed.”

“Where do the dead go?”

The database took over Cricket’s circuits, making it stiffen at the effort.

<Physical forms are disposed of in various ways. Burial, for instance. Some believe Death, an anthropomorphized entity, attends at the moment the body expires, and collects souls to transport to another world.>

“Why?”

Cricket was silent for a moment. < The idea – that one is not alone at death — provides comfort to some humans.>

By now, Cricket was trembling. Bee placed a leg on Cricket’s shoulder, not wanting to stress the old microbot. Cricket nodded and backed into its corner.

***

The next morning, Bee opened its image-editing software.

Bee searched its memory for recordings of Moth, with its soft, reassuring face.

It coded the program to run when a microbot’s central processing unit slowed to non-operational levels. Enough time for a microbot to register someone was there. Old Cricket wouldn’t be alone when it died, not like Spider.

Bee projected the hologram next to the Petri dish. Made of light particles, Moth swept across the counter like a caped hero.

Bee thought over some phrases Cricket might like to hear.

<You are not alone.>

<You have done good work.>

<You will be remembered.>

Bee was so deep in its coding, it felt a shock of surprise when a blow sent it tumbling. It tried to activate its wings, but they clutched and froze.

As Bee fell through the air, Dr. Nesbeth turned away from the lab table with a yawn, her hand grasping the Petri dish of bio-nanobots. Bee realized it had been knocked accidentally when the doctor reached for the dish.

Bee hit the floor. As its wings shattered in a clinking of brittle chrome, it called out for Dr. Nesbeth.

The work had drained its energy stores, and Bee’s voice was faint even to its own aural receptors. The doctor didn’t turn around.

Bee tested its legs. Only the front two worked.

Too tired to work more on the Moth program, Bee dragged itself to the corner. It backed up its data to the server, curled into a ball, and clicked into sleep mode.

When Bee woke, the lab was dark. It tested its legs; now, none responded. Bee cried out for Dr. Nesbeth, but the lab was empty.

A shape emerged from behind the table leg.

“I noticed the upload and was curious,” Cricket said. “Your program needed some work. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No,” Bee said. It wanted to thank Cricket, but talking was difficult.

“Do you want to see it now?”

Bee waved its antennae in approval.

Moth was backlit by a silvery glow, and its wings shone with a prism-sheen of luminescence.

<You are valued, Bee.>

Moth seemed to touch Bee’s face, a brush of light.

<You will be missed, old friend.>

Cricket moved closer, resting its body against Bee’s. Bee wanted to tell Cricket how beautiful it was, how the program was everything it had hoped it would be. But it was easier for Bee to close its eyes and feel Cricket’s larger body, and to know it wasn’t alone.

Star Box

THE OLD MAN OPENED THE OLD WOODEN BOX and lifted out Betelgeuse, red and shining, and the other stars of Orion followed like pearls on a string.

He arranged the constellation on his work table. Orion’s shoulders and legs were the brightest points, and the belt glowed blue. Beside the constellation, the box radiated starlight to the rafters of the small cabin and out the low workshop window into the day. The Old Man flipped shut the lid, the hinges popping like the gnarled joints of his fingers. He adjusted his magnifying goggles and bent to his work.

From her high perch, a phoenix flapped her one good wing to half-fly, half-fall to the table. She looked at the Old Man with an unspoken question.

“Ah, Europa,” the Old Man said, his eyes magnified through his goggles to huge orbs. “You wonder what I’m doing.”

The phoenix clicked her beak.

“The sword is loose.” He pointed his tweezers at the stars hanging from Orion’s belt. “It wouldn’t do for it to fall off in the night sky.”

She clicked again. Nipped at his fingers.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be careful. Orion is one of my favorites, too.”

He returned to work, repairing the links between stars when a crash from outside the cabin interrupted him. The Old Man and the phoenix looked up. A girl climbed through the window. She had brown skin and brown hair in braids. Her foot caught on the window frame, and she tumbled to the floor.

The Old Man set his goggles atop his white hair. “Goodness. What’s this?”

The girl dusted off her dress. She smiled at the Old Man.

“Oh, it is you. I knew it would be.”

“How did you get here?”

She took a tentative step, as if not sure it would be permitted. “Amanda is sick. I saw starlight through the window in her hospital room, and I climbed through.”

“Amanda? Who is that?”

“My sister.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Anna. And you’re the man with the star box.” She walked to the table, where the phoenix watched her. “You have a pretty bird.”

“Europa belongs to no one,” the Old Man said. He pinched the blue giant Bellatrix with his tweezers to lift up the half-finished constellation and set it on the box’s lid. The stars fell in a jumbled pile.

“Is she an eagle?”

“A phoenix. She’s injured, you see. Her wing. Her chick was snatched from the nest. She tried to save it, but she couldn’t. She’s staying with me until she’s healed.”

Anna stroked Europa. “Poor bird. How long will that take?”

“She could heal herself now, but she’s not ready. She’s mourning her chick.” His frowned returned. “You shouldn’t be here. It’s impossible.”

“But my sister is sick.”

“Yes, you said that.”

“We used to look at the stars together. Now she can’t. She’s been in the hospital for weeks, and the doctor told Mama she might never leave. Amanda says she misses the stars.” She looked longingly at the constellation atop the box. “I heard about a man who keeps the stars in a box in the day and lets them out at night. That’s you, isn’t it? I know it is. Can I have a star to show Amanda?”

“You want a star?”

“Only to borrow. I’ll bring it back. I promise.”

With a sad smile, the Old Man said, “What you ask is impossible, child.”

“You said it’s impossible for me to be here.”

“This is different.” He touched the box. “The stars don’t belong to me. I am merely the caretaker. I can’t hand out stars to whoever comes asking.”

Anna stood beside the Old Man’s chair, starlight from Orion casting a glow on her cheeks. “Has anyone asked before?”

“No.”

“I want to do this for Amanda.”

The Old Man stood, slower than he had when he and the stars had been young. With his arm around her shoulders, he guided Anna to the window. “The best you can do is be with your sister. Go back to the hospital and your parents. Go on now.”

He waited until Anna, her small face grave, climbed through the window, one skinny leg over the ledge and then the other, and was gone.

The Old Man returned to the table. Europa nipped at his fingers, hard.

“You disapprove. I know. You too have loved and lost. But I told the truth. The stars are not mine to give.”

He glanced once more toward the window. When the girl did not return, he settled his goggles over his eyes, laid Orion out on the table and returned to his work.

In time, daylight darkened to dusk out the window. The Old Man straightened and popped the joints in his back.

“There. Done.”

Europa peered at him with one eye open.

“It’s time,” he said.

He took the box and the repaired constellation to the window. A valley spread out below the cabin, cut through with a river and bordered by snowy mountains. Soon the world would gaze upward in search of the first star of evening.

He opened the box. Stars rose out and soared. Hundreds, thousands, millions, to glitter in the night sky. When the box was empty, the Old Man lifted Orion on his open palm to coax it to join its fellows.

Behind him, Europa leaped from the table, flew over his shoulder, snatched Orion in her beak and went out the window.

“Europa!” the Old Man yelled.

At first, she struggled. Her injured wing drooped. Then the wing burst into flame. Bones mended. Feathers sprouted. As the fire died, the phoenix soared over the valley and vanished from sight.

The Old Man shut the box.

“Take care of this gift, child,” he murmured to the girl who would find a phoenix at the window of her sister’s hospital room. “And forgive a foolish old man. The sky can do without Orion for one night.”

 

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