Can't Get Much Worse - Chapter 10
Interstellar Sympathies - Who needs them!?
I haven’t published any short stories on Substack - yet. Here’s one that came about because I joined nine other storytellers in the Great Substack Story Challenge 2, sponsored by the fab forces at Fictionistas!
This collaboration works such that each chapter stands on its own, telling the same story but from a different pov. Mine is the 10th and last chapter. Once you read it, I encourage you to read the others as well for the craftsmanship and high entertainment. A big shoutout to for herding us to get this done!
Interstellar Sympathies — Who needs them!?
Funny, I now use human curses even in my head.
I knew this woman spelt trouble the day we met. But I ignored my spidey sense and went in anyway. Which means nothing in this assignment has gone as planned. It’s been over 20 years - human years - and I’m stuck. Stuck in the mission. Stuck with her. When I was assigned it was to be for five years, seven max, but then… Kate.
Still, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to hurry this up.
Kate is one of the smart humans. Quick, passionate, fearless. Why she was “recruited” young, in college. That’s where I came in. To woo her, gain her trust, get her to marry me. She fell in love. The way she’d look at me. At first I just mimicked her and it was nothing. But over time… I don’t know. I scared myself one day when I reached over wanting to hold her without reason. Shrugged it off as sheer… well, competence. Told myself, that’s how completely I embody the mission.
It’s been over two decades now, and we’ve carried out many jobs. As partners, as a married couple, as lovers. She thinks she’s saving her planet. She’s right in a way but bigger powers are at play. Including the realization, I had along the way, that I didn’t want her getting hurt.
At my last check-in, my handler mentioned the bosses were asking if I’d developed sympathies - code for human feelings. Towards Kate. Of course not! I reiterated I have to play the part. Human feelings do happen in such close and extended proximity but they’re rare. Highly unlikely in my case, anyway. I mean she’s funny, wicked smart and easy on the eyes. That makes the mission smoother but sympathies? Not me!
Besides, the mission is nearing completion. No point botching it up now. It’d be near impossible to find Kate’s replacement. She aced the interview process for the finance job we’d zeroed in on. Within five years she’s risen to CFO, and gained the trust of the CEO whose laptop we need access to. We’re solidly placed to execute.
The only problem is Kate’s human emotions have lately been throwing wrenches - the latest one with the kids. Her kids - not mine, btw. Yeah, interventions like that are standard practice so the human mother never suspects. Although I nearly choked when she cracked, Eric fires blanks, laughing her big, easy, warm, laugh. I laughed along nervously, hoping no one will find it too weird. Thankfully, they all think it’s just Kate being Kate.
But things haven’t been going well for the family, and that's diverted her focus. First “our” son Drew upped and left after a fight with her. She’s been miserable ever since, even neglecting “our” daughter Dawn. I don’t want to see that kid get hurt either. Again, no sympathies; just a detached concern - for the mission. Thing is Dawn likes bad boys and that never ends well. She’s taken a fancy to Wills - the driver I planted in Drew’s crew. Sneaks out at night to see him. I’ve warned Wills to steer clear.
Haven’t told Kate. She’s already stressed over Drew. Our marriage has taken a hit. Need to fix that. So I’m being more attentive. Devising games for us to play daily. This week’s game is “silver lining challenge” - finding something positive in everything. I love how she gets all competitive. Comes alive every evening when she’s recounting her score. Sexiest thing you’ve ever seen.
The mission has evolved, bringing us to this grand finale: Stage Z10. All the pieces are finally in place to acquire the five blocks of code for the inter-stellar missile technology from the vaults, along with passwords from Kate’s CEO’s laptop. Both held in the same office building! Terrible security design. Great for the mission.
Once we acquire both, I carry the rest forward. Kate and I’ve talked about how this goes down. Kate, with her friend Lauren’s help, will get to the passwords. Creating a distraction, which supplies the right circumstances for such access is my job. The CEO already delegates famously to Kate, and Lauren, the cleaning-lady-cyber-hacker-in-one, can make herself available at the right juncture. Meanwhile I have a team to grab the code from the vaults. Once the transfers go as planned, we’re set.
But then I’ll be told to get out. No more family. No more Kate. That’s not a conclusion I like. I need a way to stay. A little screw up might do the trick. Which is why I got Drew involved. That poor idiot child. He’ll be a pawn for his alien-“Dad”, who’s now a pawn in the most pathetic way, desperately trying to extend his earthly stay! All Drew has to do is follow simple instructions and get away with the code.
After that, I keep him under wraps for a bit. Once the goods are in my possession, I buy myself some time to negotiate an exit to “retire” on earth. Yeah, Earth - bad food and all. It’s a long game and a dangerous one but I want to play. The one complication is making sure that idiot child doesn’t get himself killed. Called in a favor - got a guy to keep Drew safe. The rest I’ll handle.
Big day! Stage Z10, well Stage Z10* … with my little modifier.
Told Kate to hang out downtown today with Lauren, close to her office. Bring Bear, Lauren’s Pomapoo, along so it looks like any regular Sunday. I’ll meet them there. At some point a distraction will be staged, which’ll give them the opportunity to get over to the CEO’s office and access the laptop.
Annoying Arnold called me, asking to come along. Lauren probably told him she’s meeting Kate downtown. Arnold, Kate’s old friend from college, comes with the Kate-package so has to be tolerated. Him and his bad teeth! Unfortunately he’s dating Lauren and wants to marry her. Loose ends, I don’t like. But Kate assures me she’s got him handled; besides Lauren’s dumping him soon. Unfortunately the poor sod’s been shopping for rings. I’ll take him along. Makes the meetup look more legit.
Lauren, on the other hand, is a find. Cleans offices to pay the bills, while mastering cybersecurity! Kate found her and placed her: cleaning job in Kate’s high security office building. Background checked out well enough. No one thought to ask what other skills Lauren may have acquired on the side. Human prejudice provides all the blind spots we need. Smart Kate!
Arnold and I are walking towards downtown. I decide to get Kate’s favorite burritos from that awful, smelly Burrito Palace. I tell Arnold about our silver lining game. She has to find something good in the worst of it! Watch how she reacts to my challenge.
Arnold is surprised, Who, Kate? Can’t imagine Kate without her razor sharp take on life…
I chuckle, Oh, my skinny Roseanne Barr! She’s competitive as they come, she’ll surprise you!
We reach downtown, two blocks from Kate's office. I see Kate and Lauren. Kate’s wearing purple again. Stunning! And yappy little Bear. That’s the other thing I didn’t get at first - human attachment to animals. Fortunately, I can hear what dogs are thinking. Kate thinks I’m some sort of dog whisperer. Won me a ton of points while wooing her. Dogs on the other hand smell me as “different”, offering a gentle reverence. We usually nod at each other from a distance and carry on. But Bear fancies himself a fearless wolf; usually comes right up to me, demanding a belly rub. I allow him the indulgence. More evidence of sympathies? Nah!
The street is alive. The wiener guy’s flipping his wares. Bear’s going nuts. Maybe I’ll get him a wiener, once I have a clear signal. Annoying Arnold’s grumbling about Lauren - apparently she’s turned vegan. And secretive. Well, hell yeah! This guy better not blab too much. I look at my watch. Drew and crew should be getting ready to make a break from the vaults. Within the hour, I should have a signal that they're out of the city. My guy will take Drew to the safe house and hold him there. Amidst the ensuing chaos, Kate will run into her office to insist on “securing” her CEO’s laptop.
Before we reach Kate and Lauren I spot Lurch, the giant from The Agency, coming down the sidewalk. Yup, The Agency’s here too. They’ve been spying, listening in on Kate. They think the operation’s about money. I’ve told Kate to let them be - keep the conversation mundane; complain about me, if you need to. We both chuckled at that.
Whoa! Lurch ran right into them, spilling their stuff. Clumsy, giant, undercover has to be an oxymoron. Kate’s picking up something from the ground, “Drop a contact?” I ask. As she rises, I smell her perfume. Goes straight to my head. When the mission began we were warned about this. Keep yourself inoculated from the smells. We’re more affected by smells than humans. Likely why I’ll never like the food here - can smell the tiniest contamination. I stopped the inoculation sprays years ago. Probably what’s landed me here.
I tease Kate with the burritos. Let’s eat at the park. Someone crapped on the floor in Burrito Palace. They’re still cleaning it up.
Her eyes sparkle at my “silver lining” gauntlet. She rises right back at me, I’m not eating that… Until I get a kiss. I love picnics!
That’s my Kate. Never a missed beat. I kiss her.
Just then everything spins out of control.
There’s a loud explosion. A car comes careening down the street, loses control, screeches its brakes, and flips, landing within a few feet of Kate. Kate picks up Bear, stands frozen. Arnold grabs Lauren. It’s Drew’s getaway car. What on this bloody, stinky planet are they doing here? They should’ve been getting out of the city. Before I reach Kate, four men in masks climb out of the car. The uniformed guard from the vault turns the corner and is racing towards them.
The men grab bags from the car and the driver - I know right away it’s Drew - takes off his mask. Kate sees him! Why’s he driving?! Where’s Wills, the guy I handpicked for getaway driver? No wonder they’re in this hot mess! Stupid boy is grinning at Kate.
She looks like she’s seen a ghost, Why aren't you in school?
The fool turns to me, Dad, Why didn’t you tell her? I glare at him, trying to signal he better get out of here.
In a split second, one of Drew’s mates - my guy, planted to watch Drew - pulls a gun on the guard. The guard shoots back. My guy falls. I can’t do much. It’s too risky. Drew has to make a run for it. I’m not even sure he has the goods. Two of the other masked men raise their hands and the guard shoots them both. As they fall, the guard points his gun squarely at Drew, smiling smugly.
That’s when Kate does her crazy. She throws Bear high into the air towards the guard, yelling, “No! My dog!!” The valiant guard drops his gun, along with his smug smile, to catch Bear. Drew takes his chance and shoots him in the head. In the meantime, my guy - not Drew - has risen, and jabbed himself with serum to quickly exit. The chances that he’ll be there for Drew down the road - literally speaking - are slipping away with him. He’s probably headed to the extraction point six blocks away. Damn!
Drew continues to raise the stakes. Instead of making off with the gun, he tosses it to Kate, blowing her a kiss, “Thanks Mom!”, and mumbles something. I see one duffel bag on him. It better be the right one. Kate looks stunned. Should’ve cut him loose long ago.
As Bear dashes back to Lauren, I run over to the guard to check if he’s alive. He’s a goner. Kate has fallen back on the sidewalk. I want to run to her but I’m surrounded by cops pointing guns at me. Someone says, “Not that guy! He’s trying to help. The killer went that way.” The cops lower their guns and run in Drew’s direction.
I run over to Kate, put my hand on her shoulder. She looks at me, “You knew?”
I face her, “Drew told me he dropped college a few months ago. Not that he robbed banks.”
She nods. Within minutes she’s on her feet and she and Lauren are taking off towards her office. Once there, she’ll insist she has to secure the CEO’s laptop. They’ll call the CEO who’ll give her full access. She’ll have the passwords before the day is out. My Kate.
Meanwhile I have to find Drew before the cops and The Agency get to him. And locate all of the code. Plus placate the bosses who’re no doubt discussing my sympathies this very minute. But I’ve bought myself another two, maybe three, years on Earth. With Kate. Mission-Stage Z10* accomplished!
That kinda’ interference can get an interstellar mission man like me in serious trouble. What to do? I’ve grown accustomed to her face.
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