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  1. So despite a total lack of interest in the adventures of Leland Lonely thus far, I've decided to continue it. "Why," you probably are not bothering to ask? No real reason. I guess I just like the guy.

    Leland Lonely:
    Killer Instincts

    The Aviary Café outside El Doderitita’s single-story shopping centre was not really a café, so much as it was a petrol station that neglected to sell petrol. It was the sort of store where everything that was not prepared in a microwave was instead deep-fried, and the most you could hope for was that the fryer had been cleaned recently. It was that particular type of store that for some reason was allowed to consistently disappoint you, safe and secure in the knowledge that you would be back. It was also exactly the sort of store where someone like Leland served at the front counter, although that is such an obligatory callback to the original joke that it hardly invites good humour.

    Leland stood at the front counter with a charming smile on his face. He loved helping people. It was his favourite part of the job. Usually, anyway.

    “Can I get some service, please?” asked an extremely impatient woman as she approached the counter.

    “Certainly, madam,” Leland said charmingly. “What type of service would you like?”
    The woman answered him with a glare that stung like acid. It seemed she was not warming to his charm.

    “I would like your nicest table,” she said, indicating with a twitch of her nose exactly how nice she assumed it would be. “And the least horrible item of food on your menu. Unless that proves to be too much of a challenge for you.”

    “Well, if I may suggest, one of the tables outside still has most of the umbrella intact,” Leland replied, trying his hardest to maintain a smile. “And the chef is doing a particularly splendid fisherman’s basket today.”

    The woman sighed in response and turned away, exuding contempt with every step. Leland briefly fantasized about doing something nasty to her food, and knew with absolute certainty that he would not.
    “Leland! Pigeon!” shouted Hugo Wattleferry from the kitchen. Mr. Wattleferry was both the owner and cook of the Aviary Café. He claimed to be the Oxford-educated son of an English noble. He had never chosen to explain why he had a thick Russian accent.

    Leland grabbed a broom from under the counter and ran into the kitchen. The name of the café was, unfortunately, appropriate. Hordes of seagulls and pigeons raided the kitchen daily through a hole in the roof that had developed through years of neglect from Hugo. One animal in particular had become something of a problem; a mean looking pigeon, coal-black in colour, that had one day gorged itself too much to fly away. It had resisted Leland’s hesitant attempts to remove it, and had now taken up permanent residence in the cavity under the sink. Thriving off Hugo’s general apathy and, more specifically, his aversion to emptying the bins, it had grown larger than a tomcat and even more aggressive.

    The pigeon was currently standing on the counter trying to snatch a chip from one of the fisherman’s baskets. Leland raised the broom and tried to brush the pigeon to the floor. It dodged the feeble attack, turned to Leland and hissed in a worryingly saurian manner. It crouched into an attack position, screeched and leaped at his face. Leland started back and managed to swat it out of the air with a few wild swings of the broom. It quickly scuttled under the sink, where Leland could hear it crackling around in a makeshift nest of paper bags and pie wrappers.

    “This is getting a bit much, Mr. Wattleferry,” Leland gasped, suffering the aftereffects of a sudden fight-or-flight reaction. “That thing is so territorial, I can’t even do the dishes without getting attacked.”

    “Throw this out! Pigeon pecked it!” Hugo yelled in his obviously Russian accent, forcing a hot oily basket into Leland’s arms.

    Leland headed back to the door, contemplating his deceptive and unfriendly employer. He had often considered doing a little research on Hugo’s supposed homeland, then asking him questions till he caught him out in a lie. He’d never had the courage, however. The rogue pigeon under the sink had a killer instinct that Leland himself lacked.

    “Come on, Leland, time is money,” said a very familiar voice. Leland stuck his head around the door. “Oh, hello, Whiney,” he said, placing the broom back under the counter.
    “There’s a woman in my seat,” Whiney complained. “I always have the seat under the umbrella outside, and some woman’s taken it.”
    “What do you mean, always?” Leland enquired. “I’ve never seen you here before.”
    “Well, I have to go somewhere, and this is on the way… oh, never mind.” Whiney said. “The point is I was going to take that seat and she stole it from me.”

    “Well wait a minute, I have to…” Leland considered the befouled meal in his hands. He looked at it for a very long time. Perhaps it was all the adrenaline pumping through his system after his brush with permanent disfigurement. Perhaps it was the way the woman had been so needlessly rude to him. Perhaps it was simply a random misfiring of neurons, brought about by the inherent chaos of the universe. But somehow, that basket of fried aquatic animals took on an entirely new light.

    This meal had been touched by a filthy wild animal. If the woman ever found out, she would be furious. But if she didn’t find out…
    “Excuse me, madam?” Leland called out as he approached the table. “I’m afraid there has been a terrible misunderstanding. This table has been reserved for this extremely valued customer, here. The good news is your meal is ready for you, if you would be so kind as to relocate to another table.”

    The woman shifted her gaze from the earnestly smiling Leland to the cruelly smirking Whiney. “Very well, then,” she said pleasantly, making it perfectly clear that she was in fact furious.

    “Perfect,” Whiney said, sliding into the shaded seat. “Now I can’t stay long, Leland. Got places to go, people to see. Get me one of those fisherman’s baskets, quick.”
    “Certainly, Whiney,” Leland said, keeping one eye on the woman as he headed back inside. She was inspecting a fish fillet with some suspicion. Her uncertainty satisfied Leland in a way he had never felt before.
    Now all he had to do was get through the rest of his shift. Like Whiney, he had places to go, people to…
    “Leland! Pigeon!”

    Leland sighed and ran inside.
  2. As roughly none of you may have noticed, I've been less than active on this website of late. The reasons for my absence were manifold and many, but after a month or two of literary solitude, I began to feel something. The thing that I felt is something that I believe a lot of you here have felt, if not at one time, then perhaps at another. The thing that I felt is that thing that makes you want to write something unique, the thing that would make you want to write even if you knew that no one else would ever read the words.

    The result is not something I want to put in the review room, because it seems to be somewhat rambling and pointless (not unlike this introduction). It's my first serious attempt at writing with humour. Forgive it, readers, for it knows not what it does.

    Leland Lonely:
    Look to the Shadow

    Far away from the big cities, far away from the places where more ordinary things tend to happen, on the border between a country that spoke English and another country that mostly didn’t, lay a town known only as El Doderitita. To be precise, it was known by some as “Old Doddery Titter,” but this was due to a phonetic misunderstanding and was not officially recognized by any governing body.

    El Doderitita was the sort of town where it would be a waste of energy to look for someone to complain to if a bus failed to turn up on time, or if the driver’s ability to navigate or even control the vehicle somehow came into question. It was that very peculiar sort of town where things like power and water seemed to keep running out of habit more than anything else. It was also exactly the sort of town where a man named Leland Lonely was pulling a tray of nachos out of an oven at the precise moment this story begins, although that is such a specific descriptor that it hardly invites comparison.

    Leland pulled the tray of nachos out of the oven. Leland’s nachos were the talk of the town every January 3rd, where an old town statute decreed that locally-prepared food be the topic of every conversation. He was a bit disappointed that the townsfolk seemed to never speak of his nachos any other day of the year, but he was also relieved that their curiosity was kept at bay by their thoughtfulness and tact. If anyone ever actually asked him how he prepared the salsa, they might realize it was actually just the canned stuff from the store. Then he wouldn’t be the talk of the town on January 3rd or any other day.

    “Soup’s on!” he declared as he entered the dining room where his three friends sat at the table, with the tray of nachos on his safely mittened hands and a cheerful grin on his face. Soup? On a tray? How absurd. That was why his three friends always agreed to hold the poker nights at his house. Because he was funny.

    “You’re not funny, Leland,” whined Whiney Whine-Whine, Leland’s oldest and dearest friend. “You make that same stupid joke every time, it’s so annooooyiiiing.”
    Whiney had a way of packing a huge amount of force into a whine. The nachos trembled in place for a moment.
    “Are we putting in a pot for this game or not?” Chris Chrisonephston, Leland’s second friend asked. “Only because I gave all my money to this dealer on the way here. Look what I got. They’re like shrooms, only they look exactly like regular supermarket mushrooms so the cops can’t get you.”
    “Oh Chris, your self-destructive, crippling addiction will be the death of you,” Leland joked hilariously, putting down the nachos and taking his seat. “But why, if I may change the topic entirely, is the seat opposite from me unoccupied? Where is our fourth friend?”
    “Look to the shadow, for that where I be,” said an unnecessarily ominous voice in the shadowy corner of the room.
    “That’s a grammatical nightmare, Marita,” Whiney Whine-Whine insisted on saying.
    “True, though,” replied Ninja Assassin Senorita Marita as she leapt from the shadow. “Ninja-Assassin-Triple-Spring-Leap!” she cried as she landed neatly in her seat, somehow already holding nachos on a plate Leland had not even provided.
    “Was the corner shadowy enough for you, Marita?” Leland asked helpfully.
    “Not at first, Leland, though I appreciate your concern. However, in the two days I spent here in preparation for our get-together I managed to perform a Ninja-Assassin-Ultra-Oneness Meditation Ritual, and created a microscopic black hole that sucked out some of the light.”
    “Oh, really?” Leland tried to make a joke but found he knew absolutely nothing about astrophysics.
    “A black hole, here?!” Whiney screamed, spitting out chips. “Shouldn’t we flee?”
    “It’s small enough that it won’t pose any real threat until shortly before the heat death of the universe,” Marita replied. “I will deal with it then.”
    “Yeah, great,” Chris said, slowly grabbing and releasing his own nose over and over. “But about the money…”
    “I collected twenty dollars from Leland and Whiney when I came out from the corner just then,” Marita said. “The money is in a safe place. However, Chris, your wallet was empty, and I found nothing of equal value in your house.”
    “I’ve got my watch,” Chris replied, pawing clumsily at his wrist. “That’s got to be worth a bit.”
    “But… that’s a garden sprinkler tied to your arm with string, isn’t it?” Leland asked awkwardly.
    “Yeah, it was all the rage in the ‘80s. Charlton Heston wore one in Planet of the Apes.”
    “He absolutely did not,” Whiney petulated petulantly.
    “He did so, my dad told me. It was his last words before he died. He loved science fiction. I don’t think he was even mad when he was crushed under debris from a satellite whose orbit decayed over our front yard.”
    “Wow, what are the chances of a satellite falling from space onto your house?” Leland asked.
    “No no, it fell from our roof. Dad was always building satellites. He figured if the NASA scientists could build satellites that orbited the whole planet, it should be easy to build one that could orbit one little house.”
    “Oh… really?” Leland was again stumped by his unfamiliarity with the topic, but he had a strong feeling that something was wrong with this theory anyway.
    “So his last words were ‘never forget, son, Charlton Heston wore a stupid sprinkler around his wrist in a stupid movie that wasn’t even really set on another planet,’” Whiney scoffed scoffingly.
    “Oh, wait a sec, no, that’s not what he said,” Chris laughed, smacking his forehead a little harder than he’d intended to. “His last words were ‘turn off that sprinkler, son, before I backhand you.’ So I became an obsessive science fiction fan, just like him, and wore the sprinkler on the back of my hand ever since to remember him. Funny how things get mixed up in your head for no reason, isn’t it?”
    “Not for no reason, I think,” Whiney muttered mutteringly, eyeing the bag of mushrooms.

    The evening sauntered on, with very little to recommend it. The progress of the poker game was slow and largely uninteresting, with Whiney eventually the only one paying attention. He collected his winnings and left, muttering under his breath about a mysterious twenty five percent shortfall in the pot. Marita left shortly after with Chris hanging off one arm.

    Before going to bed Leland wandered over to the shadowy corner where Marita had been in hiding. Surely she hadn’t been telling the truth about that black hole nonsense. He certainly couldn’t feel any black hole. He didn’t know what a black hole would feel like, but he assumed it would be noticeable. All the same, it seemed like the light from the bulb over the table just wasn’t quite reaching the wall.
    “Nonsense,” Leland said aloud for no particular reason, and went to sleep in his racecar bed.

    (I should point out that more will follow. How much more, and where it will lead, I don't precisely know, but if I haven't entirely scared you off then watch this blog.)
  3. This is one I wrote in response to the 'Monsters Under the Bed' Halloween short story competition.

    “So,” said the woman at the front of the room. “Can anybody tell me why we are here?” A few hands twitched feebly into the air. The woman ignored them and they slowly lowered again.
    “We are here,” she continued, “because this office has had a few problems with tolerance.” She emphasized the last word with back-breaking contempt. “My name is Jennifer, and I am going to run you through the company’s guidelines regarding equality and diversity…”
    I leaned back in my chair, carefully located as far back as I could go without drawing too much attention to myself, and rubbed absently at an old scar on my leg. They are different from us, said a little voice in my head. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or crazy.
    Jennifer was talking again. She had pinned up some pictures – Count Dracula, he of the bared fangs and the stiff collar; the Creature from the Black Lagoon; a snarling werewolf with a tattered shirt hanging off his arms. “Can anyone tell me,” she asked, her gaze once again sweeping the room, “what it is that we have here?”
    “Monsters,” came one man’s tentative answer. Jennifer turned quickly to the source of this grievous error, who hunched slightly into his chair.
    “Wrong,” she said firmly, gesturing to the pictures. “What we have here are stereotypes. Damaging stereotypes which unfairly profile a valued section of our workforce…”
    Through the window I could see a few of the office’s non-human employees going about their work. Maybe I’m the one who’s crazy.

    Bad as the seminar was, at least only humans had to attend. Later I sat at my desk, frantically rifling through piles of paper. I was looking for a lost scrap of paper I’d written a client’s private number on. I already knew I wouldn’t find it, but I kept searching; it delayed the inevitable. I already knew I only had two options. The first was to not call back, and invent some awkward excuse when it finally came up that I’d been ignoring a client. The second was to ask Rob to write out the number for me again.
    Rob was “differently aligned.” That’s the official term for the slimy, tube-mouthed bog monster who sat at the receptionist’s desk. Ron looked like he was stitched together from swamp mud and the nightmares of children, and for all anyone knows, maybe he was.
    I approached the desk with a carefully calculated casual look. Jennifer was standing beside me. Her and Rob were chatting. Rob looked up, and his mouth – the tube-thing that dangled below his twitching slit nose – flopped around horribly. My legs went weak at the sight.
    “Hey there, pal,” Rob said cheerfully. His voice was the deep bubbly echo of water going down the bath drain. I’d always been scared of that sound as a child.
    “H-hey, Rob,” I replied, detecting a slight tremor in my voice and trying to mask it as a cough. “I just need a new copy of – uh, that number you gave me earlier…”
    “Oh, sure thing,” Rob regurgitated in reply. He discreetly wiped his webbed hands on a moist paper towel before scrawling out the number on a new scrap of paper. He wasn’t quick enough, however; a rope of green-brown sludge, freshly secreted from his damp leathery skin, dripped down the length of the pen and soiled the last few numbers. He held it out to me anyway. Jennifer stared at me intently, daring me to object. I hesitated just a moment too long. Rob’s bottom-feeding proboscis flattened out, curling up slightly in some grotesque smile. I took the paper and tried not to show that I was turning the stained side away from me. I glanced up briefly, once I was safely at my desk. Jennifer was writing something down, one eyebrow arched in disapproval.

    That night I dreamed. The dream started a little different every time, but I always knew how it would end.
    I am young again. Four, maybe five. I have just finished my bath. I have dried myself off and put on my pajamas, but the bath is still full. I don’t like the sound the water makes as it gurgles down the drain. I imagine it is the laughing of goblins as they wait in the darkness below. I plan to pull the plug and run out of the bathroom as quickly as I can. Rehearsing the action in my mind, I roll up one sleeve and reach down to pull out the plug.
    But this time my plan fails me. The water doesn’t gurgle but roars; it is pulled down the drain with incredible force, and I am sucked down with it. I am half-drowned and battered about in confining darkness, helpless in the pull.
    Eventually the water settles, and I find myself in the ocean. I am wearing a snorkel now – like the one I received on my ninth birthday, the day my family and I went to the beach – and I watch the fish. That is when I see a jellyfish, drifting lazily towards me. I take a few strokes back, confident I can keep away from it. I don’t move. With sudden panic I turn and try to swim away, but still I make no progress. Nature has conspired against me and I am trapped in an undertow.
    The jellyfish approaches unhindered, its tentacles slowly spreading out to snare me. I feel them – horrid soft things that slide slowly up the back of my legs. There is no pain, not quite yet, but the strength drains out of me and I can no longer even try to resist. As the tentacles reach inexorably upward the stinging pain hits. I look back and see my legs disappearing into the massive, swollen mantle of a creature far bigger than the one that left a scar on my leg on my ninth birthday. This monster is bigger than anything, bigger than the world. As the tentacles encircle my waist it speaks to me. Hey buddy, it whispers, the words buzzing in my ears. I am pulled in up to my chest, my shoulders, my neck.
    That was when I woke up. And I thought the same thing I thought every night; that as terrible as my fear is, the fear of being judged is greater.
  4. Such a clever thing you are, he thought with approval. You won the arms race on your planet. I guess ours just went on a little longer, pushed us just that little bit ahead of you.
    He tried to sleep, and found that he could not.

    Twenty four hours later Clinton reported to the medical lab. Technician Zeke was once again on duty, and Technician Zeke was once again unimpressed.
    “Well, you managed to catch this one a little earlier, it seems,” he commented, disdain clear on his face. “But I must wonder once again how you managed to go an entire day without noticing what should have been as plain as the nose on your face.”
    Clinton, one hand pulling down the collar of his shirt, shrugged. “Like my professor said, the Screener uses up resources. At first it was just a bump. I didn’t want to report for a burn till he sprouted, to make sure.”
    Zeke stared at him skeptically for a moment, then shrugged. “All right. Get in the cube.”
    Clinton stood once again in the centre of the cube. He took his shirt off and held it beside him; he wanted a clear view. It looked up at him, like the last one had. This one was younger, however; the eyes were milky white, not yet developed.
    Zeke raised his hand, indicating he was about to turn on the Screener.
    “So long, buddy, Clinton said. Light flooded the chamber. The thing on his chest did not react.
    It took Clinton a few seconds to register what had just happened. The thing looked up sightlessly, alive and unmarred by the radiation.
    “Uh…” Clinton could not think of anything to say, but Zeke must have caught the alarm in his voice. He wheeled around, looked into the cube, incredulous.
    “Did the emitter go off?” he asked. Clinton nodded, noticing for the first time how the black and yellow filter made Zeke look a little unwell. A little sick.
    “Don’t worry, I’ll dial up the power. This must be a glitch,” he said, turning back to the controls. Clinton did not say anything.
    Again the flash went off, brighter this time. Clinton shut his eyes against the sudden glare. When he opened them again the thing was still there. And as Zeke ran to the emergency phone to summon the doctors, the milky white sheen left the thing’s eyes, and they stared into Clinton’s with their horrid yellow intensity. Clinton once again imagined the millions upon millions of virus particles that were now travelling through his blood. Imagined a million million tiny little parasites eating him alive all at once.
    And Clinton felt a twinge of fear.
  5. This is my second "Ends of the World" story.


    Clinton sat in his quarters and watched the thing slither. He knew it was feeding on him; knew it owed its existence to his flesh and blood and warmth. He didn’t mind. A quick trip to the medical lab and all would be right again. In the meantime... it was fascinating.
    Clinton knew the history; biology wasn’t his field, but the germs were the reason everybody was here. And the stories of the microscopic life-forms that had chased humanity off this otherwise pointless rock two hundred years ago were now a matter of public record.
    The thing writhed constantly, yearning for the moment it would be strong enough to break free of his body and make its own way. Already eyes were becoming visible, the scaly skin more defined from the fleshy pulp it had been.
    Clinton poked it again. He couldn’t help it. It snapped at his finger, and he quickly withdrew. He wondered if it knew that a bite would spread the infection to his other arm, wondered if it would avoid creating a competitor if it could.
    The thing was actually composed of billions of independent virus particles. When they came into contact with a food source – human cells, to name one example – they fed, reproduced, and formed together into a multi-cellular organism. It was the only species in recorded history that began life as a virus, grew into a parasite, and finally ended up as a predator.
    It had taken over as the dominant life form on this distant planet, spreading across the continents and over the mountains. Even the human colonists had fled from its aggression, containment suits and antiseptic washes considered insufficient protection against this intruder.
    “Whoa… what is that?”
    Clinton shot a look upward. Damn; his roommate, Josh, returned from the geological survey.
    “I found it after the daily topside session,” he lied, forcing a grimace. “Guess my suit wasn’t tight.”
    “Damn right it wasn’t. You’d better get that burned out.” Josh’s genius reply.
    “Yeah, I was heading there now.”
    Clinton slipped into a containment suit – protocol in case of exposure – and headed out into the hallways of the massive city-ship. He didn’t have to go far, as there was one medical lab and one technician per fifty crew quarters.
    Time to get you burned out, little buddy, he thought with a smile. In the old days, the saying would have been “checked out.” Because in the old days, only a doctor would have been qualified to deal with something so serious. Today, of course, that was all different. With the development of the Omni-Screener, virtually every harmful foreign invader could be identified and burned out of the body by any minimally-trained tech head. There were only about twenty medical doctors on the whole ship, among a population of about ten thousand. Technician Zeke would flash-fry the little bastard out of his arm with no problem.

    “What the hell is this?” Technician Zeke was not impressed.
    “Must’ve been a rip in my suit for this morning’s topside session,” Clinton mumbled, trying to shrug off the assault. Zeke’s gaze didn’t drop.
    “This is at least a three-day growth. Are you trying to tell me you didn’t notice this till now?”
    “Look, I don’t know, Doc,” Clinton said, putting a little more emphasis on the title than he needed to. “How about you just fry the sucker before it eats us both?”
    “Fine. Get in the cube.”
    The Omni-Screener was within a cube of tinted glass in the middle of the lab. Rays of light from the emitter in the center of the roof of the cube bathed the entire inside of the cube in radiation. Any organic cell that was not Clinton, barring the probiotic bacteria nestling in his gut, would be instantly vapourised. It was the ultimate cure-all. It had waylaid the endless arms race between constantly-evolving viruses and the scientists who created better and better immunizations.
    Clinton stood directly under the emitter and looked out at Technician Zeke. Through the protective tinting in the glass walls, it was like he was in a submarine, looking out at a yellow-and-black sea. Zeke did some fiddling with the controls, and without turning around, asked if Clinton was ready.
    Clinton raised his arm for one last look. A fleshy pod of a head, gnashing lipless jaws that were capped with single jagged plates rather than true teeth. A thin stalk for a body, merging messily with the volcanic eruption that had been his flesh. Tiny, beady, little yellow eyes stared into Clinton’s own.
    The great plagues of old Earth history, Clinton thought. Smallpox, HIV, the Black Death. If someone had to visualize that ravenous hunger, put a face on the hateful murderous nature of the virus, and they came up with this, no one would say they’d done a bad job.
    Clinton kept looking into those eyes as they filled with light and turned to dust before him.

    Clinton knew he would have to be careful. If it appeared that he had been infected too regularly, if it appeared he wasn’t following safety protocol, he could be put under probation, even kicked off the research team altogether and confined to quarters. Three months, he had decided after leaving the lab. That’s got to be long enough. He shouldn’t have let it grow so much – Zeke was already suspicious. All the same, he had needed to let it grow.
    Clinton wasn’t quite sure what was so attractive about it. All he knew was that letting the thing grow, watching it, touching it, gave him a vicarious little thrill that was equal parts exciting and repellant. He thought anyone who had ever relished the experience of ripping off a chunk of blistered dead skin might understand what he felt.
    And like those people, he couldn’t wait for the next batch to grow. It was only his fear of probation that kept him from exposing himself every time he went topside. Three months, he repeated to himself over and over within his space suit as he and the other research students scrambled about on the blasted rock of the semi-arid planet. Three months, he thought as the hole in his arm left by the virus gradually healed. Three months.
    And then came the day. Three endless months of waiting. Four days looking for the right moment. And then, with Clinton’s group spread out across the landscape cataloguing plant life, a snake wandered into view.
    It wasn’t really a snake. Most of the forms the virus had been known to grow into were basically serpentine in shape, but this one, common to the cliff sides the research group was traipsing all over, was particularly low-slung, gliding along the ground on short stubby clawed legs. Clinton wondered about the best way to infect himself as the snake, rock-still, stared at him from the ground. A bite would be too obvious, they’d make sure he went to the lab for a burn. Maybe if he could collect a sample and smuggle it in…
    “Oh, jeez! Professor, Clinton’s got a live one!” A shout from behind. Clinton jerked in shock, and the snake reacted in kind. Rearing up on its hind legs, it growled and bared its teeth. Clinton quite suddenly remembered how dangerous the adult form of the virus could be.
    It struck at him, lightning quick. At the same moment came the deep bass thump of a sonic round being fired past Clinton’s head. Dark red blood splattered across his visor and the snake crumpled to the ground, its face shattered by the blast.
    “Any penetration of your suit?” The crisp, economical tones of Clinton’s research professor. “No sir,” he replied, turning around. “I think I’m tight.”
    The professor allowed a momentary glance at his suit before losing interest. “Yes, you seem fine. Don’t check in for a burn unless symptoms present themselves, no need to waste our limited resources.”
    He wasn’t overly concerned. Why should he be? Why should anyone? The institutional germaphobia of the past was more or less extinct now. As long as an Omni-Screener was handy, no one need fear infection. If there was no risk, there was no harm in ignoring it. Or, Clinton thought with barely-concealed glee, cultivating it.
    He returned to his work, the appearance of the model student. Taking a twig from an utterly uninteresting scrub of a bush, he dipped a leaf in the blood that still streaked his helmet and stored it in his specimen canister. The canisters weren’t submitted to the Screener; if a student had actually succeeded in finding a new species, it wouldn’t be in the database of permitted life forms and would be burned along with anything else. Clinton’s sample would be safe – in a manner of speaking.

    Clinton sat in his quarters, alone with a drop of cold blood sitting on a leaf. The snake had been killed, but the virus should be alive in the blood, and all it took was a tiny infection to grow into a new organism.
    In a brief moment of insanity, Clinton wondered what would happen if he ate it. He imagined a million tiny living particles spreading throughout his entire body. He imagined them all growing, all consuming, all destroying him at once, and was a little disturbed to discover that he found the idea somehow erotic.
    Pushing the thought away, Clinton moved to dab the blood on his arm.
    Wait, wait. He thought. Can’t give Zeke any more reason to be suspicious. If he looks up the encounter he’ll know it shouldn’t be on my arm. An infection would have to have hit my face, maybe my neck. He elected his chest instead, about halfway between the collarbone and his left nipple. His neck seemed a little too vital.
    He lay on his bunk. His skin seemed to already be tingling, but it was probably just the dampness of the blood. It didn’t coagulate like human blood; it stayed runny for days, improving the chance of infecting new hosts.