The Pill Bugs of Time

by Angel Martinez

Vikash Soren, the perfect police officer except for his odd paranormal ability, never seems to lose his temper. Always serene and competent, he’s taken on the role of mediator in a squad room full of misfits. But on the inside, he’s a mess. Unable to tell his police partner that he loves him, Vikash struggles silently, terrified of losing Kyle as a lover, partner and friend.

But life in the 77th Precinct doesn’t leave much room for internal reflection. A confrontation with a stick-throwing tumbleweed in Fairmount Park leads to bizarre consequences involving pill bugs, statues and…time travel? If Vikash manages to survive the week and stay in one point in time, he might be able to address normal things like relationship problems. He just needs Kyle to have a little more patience. Maybe a few centuries’ worth.

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Excerpt:

Normal was something one left at the door when assigned to a paranormal police station. Officer Vikash Soren had seen that demonstrated the first time he had set foot inside the 77th. During roll call, the man who would later become his partner had accidentally shot fire from his fingers at the ceiling. Someone else’s fire, as it turned out. In the weeks that followed, he had encountered an animated leather jacket, worked with a vampire, a lizard man and various officers of dubious paranormal talents, and had helped stop the killing spree of an alligator snapping turtle the size of a sedan.

It would follow that nothing should surprise him anymore.

But when he walked into the squad room that morning, late due to a doctor’s appointment, his colleagues had gathered around the periphery of the room to watch Greg Santos in a fistfight with a puddle of water.

Coffee cup in hand, he wandered over to lean against the desk beside his partner.

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“Hey, Kash.” Kyle gave him a quick glance, his attention fastened on the unlikely pugilists. “Everything go okay?”

“Yes. Shoulder’s fine.”

“You’re not even going to ask, are you?”

Vikash sipped his whipped cream-drowned mocha latte. “You’ll tell me.”

“You saying I talk too much, Soren?” Kyle nudged him with an elbow. “One of us has to. The suspect was originally an ice tree. Tree-ish. Thing. It was ice and looked like a three-year-old had built a tree out of Legos.”

Carrington Loveless III, the department’s nutritionally challenged vampire, came to lean against the desk on Vikash’s other side. “It was, as I understand it, standing on the Ben Franklin Parkway and hitting people as they walked by. Didn’t seem to be causing injury, but we can’t have an ice beast swatting tourists’ asses. Harassment, at the very least. Bad for the city’s image.”

“It melted?”

“Why, yes. Yes, it did.” Carrington’s smile was just half a fang short of evil. “Melted through the net in which Santos had snared it, and the resulting puddle goosed him. Things escalated rather quickly from there.”

Greg didn’t seem to be making any headway, other than getting soaked. “Should get an Odo bucket,” Vikash murmured.

“A what?”

Kyle chuckled into his coffee. “Seriously, Carr? You never watched Deep Space Nine? The character who could only retain a solid shape for so long?”

Carrington sniffed. “Masters level courses in geek. Between the two of you, that’s what I’d need to decipher half your conversations.”

“This from someone who sings opera in the car,” Carrington’s partner, Amanda Zacchini, muttered as she walked past, her steps hindered by the piece of equipment she carried. Shira Lourdes, Greg’s partner, hurried after her with an armful of some sort of corrugated hose.

“I like a lot of music!”

“Moody, dark, emo music, sure,” Amanda countered, though her attention was on what she and Shira had brought in, most likely from Amanda’s truck, since they’d tracked in snow as well.

When Amanda attached the hose, Vikash finally recognized it—a Shop-Vac, of the sort people had in their garages or by their workbenches. He shook his head as he hurried over to get the vac plugged in for Amanda. While the male squad members had been standing around watching the struggle, some of them taking bets, their two female members had been deriving a solution.

Without another word, Amanda switched on the vac, sucked up the water combatant, removed the hose and jammed a rubber ball in the opening, effectively trapping the animated water and leaving Greg panting on the floor.

Lieutenant Dunfee had just emerged from her office, eyebrows raised. “Do I want to know?”

Perched on top of the lieutenant’s doorframe, a bright-blue and neon-pink bundle of feathers flapped its wings and let out a raucous croaking laugh. Edgar, the department’s foul-mouthed raven, finally decided to weigh in. “Water sports!” he called out. “Not safe for work! Fucking amateurs!”

Lieutenant Dunfee shot him a withering glare. “Enough with the editorial, Edgar. What the hell is going on out here?”

“Under control, ma’am,” Amanda deadpanned. “But I’m filing an expense report for a Shop-Vac. Just so you know.”

“Get it on my desk. I’ll sign it. See what the bean counters make of that.” The lieutenant pinned Greg with a hard stare. “Santos? You need medical assistance?”

Greg climbed to his feet hastily, wiping the back of one hand across his split lip. “No, ma’am.”

“Good to hear. Back to work, ladies and gentlemen. Try to keep the violent confrontations to a minimum today.”

A rather disgruntled and damp Greg Santos stalked off to the men’s room to clean up while Shira continued with booking the combative puddle.

“Just another day,” Vikash murmured as he finally took his seat at the desk he shared with Kyle.

“Hmm?” Kyle glanced up from his typing. “Oh. Yeah. Though I’m thankful for any day free of explosions and imminent death. Or are you having a paranormal existential crisis again?”

“An amused one.”

“Well, damn. If it’d been the other kind, I could get us takeout from My Thai, light some candles and put on Princess Bride when we got home.”

“Kyle. Work.” Vikash said it gently, but it was all he could do to keep his gaze from darting about to see if anyone had heard.

“It’s not like I’m yelling,” Kyle hissed. “God’s sake, Kash. The paranoia’s getting a little old.”

“Work is work and home is home.”

“Yeah, yeah, and never the twain shall meet. It’s not like I’m cornering you for a quickie in the conference room. Or locking lips over lunch.”

“Interesting development.”

“What?”

“The increased alliteration when you’re upset.”

“I’m not upset. Just a little irritated that you keep jumping and twitching if I get too close anywhere outside one of our apartments. We’re both professional at work. I don’t insist we hold hands those rare times we go out to dinner. Ticks me off that you keep acting, I don’t know, embarrassed about us.”

“You promised to stick to professional at work.”

“Easy, Soren.” Carrington patted his shoulder as he strolled past. “Suggesting takeout for dinner is hardly unprofessional.”

“You heard?” Vikash’s heart thudded against his breastbone. The whole department knows. Everyone can see.

“Vampire ears, my dear. What don’t I hear? Seriously, though, relax. No one has time to care about your little illicit tryst.”

Vikash might have taken the advice if Virago hadn’t bellowed across the room, “Hey! What’re you girls whispering about? Going to some rainbow and glitter bar?”

“Only if you come with us!” Kyle made kissy face noises in Virago’s direction. “Don’t forget your purse!”

“Shut it, Vance,” Amanda muttered as she stalked past and smacked Virago on the back of the head. “Your conf…confucking…what’s the word, Carr?”

“Conflation,” Carrington called back without missing a beat.

“Yeah, that word…of gay men with actual chicks is offensive.”

“Sorry, Manda.”

Normally, Vance Virago, self-proclaimed tough guy, cringing as he apologized would have been amusing. Vance couldn’t have heard them from across the room. He was merely bullying Kyle as he always did. But the timing was horrible, and between those homophobic words and Vikash’s twitching, they had managed to erase the contented ease from Kyle’s face. It gutted him that Vance could do that. Worse still, Vikash had no idea what to do about it.

“Kyle…”

He didn’t have a chance for even a minimalistic explanation or apology though, since an alert popped up onscreen from the lieutenant, ordering them to a disturbance in Fairmount Park.

Vance shoved violently back from his desk. “Aw, man!”

And our resident homophobe is our backup. Irritation crawled up Vikash’s spine. Kyle had never done anything to Vance except refuse to crumple under his bullying. Some days it was bad enough that Vikash wanted to file harassment charges on Kyle’s behalf, though Kyle would resent the interference. Still, it was wrong and— Oh, damn.

Through his rising anger, Vikash felt the uncomfortable heated ball of power at his core heralding his strange talent manifesting. He nearly panicked, the urge to reach across the desk and grab Kyle overwhelming. Together, they had a chance to direct the lightning blast of anger somewhere harmless. Maybe the old paper shredder that jammed after every page. But touching Kyle also meant the power would amplify in some bizarre melding of their broken paranormal talents. Not to mention, touching Kyle in the squad room just gave Vance more ammunition.

Then it was too late for choices. The power surged from him as he sat stone still, fighting to keep any reaction from his expression. A pop and a distinct electronic sizzle sounded on his left and he cringed.

“Fuck me!” Vance shouted, batting at his smoking computer monitor.

Jeff stood to help him smother the tiny flames with a towel. “Damn it, Vance. What did you do now?”

“I didn’t do it! I swear!”

“Lieutenant’s gonna stop letting you have computers if you keep breaking them.”

Vikash turned back to find Kyle staring at him instead of watching the commotion, his lips clamped together in an angry line.

“I don’t need you to protect me, Kash.”

“It wasn’t…it got away from me.”

Kyle snorted. “Obviously.”

Tamping down a sigh, Vikash grabbed his hat and followed Kyle out to their squad car—white with the blue blaze like all Philadelphia city police cars. Their department had the black and gold 77th shield over the blue stripe as well, though, forever branding them as something different.

For once, Vikash wished the ride to a scene were longer. Not for the first time, he wished he could be light on his verbal feet. “Kyle…”

“Put it all somewhere safe for me, Kash.” Kyle reached over to pat his knee. “Hold on to whatever’s percolating and baking in there. Right now, we’ve got two phrases we need to worry about. Disturbance and attacked by a ball of sticks. Let’s not lose focus when we don’t know what the fuck we’re walking into.”

“As usual.”

“Yep. I love surprises.”

“You hate them.”

“Shh. I’m trying for a bit of self-delusion here. Don’t spoil it for me.”

There it was again. Despite all his guilt and doubt, Kyle had bent the wire hanger of his words, jimmied his way in and hooked a smile from Vikash. Sometimes, like now, a little burr of irritation went with the smile—that Kyle could make him lose even that speck of control. But it still wrapped a layer of warmth around his battered heart. Kyle was like a blanket straight from the dryer on a winter morning. The rather sappy image made Vikash snicker.

“What?”

“Nothing. Blankets. And dryers.”

“You are so freaking weird some days.” Kyle nodded to their onboard computer. “Please tell me we have an update on the last location. Saying in Fairmount Park is as bad as saying somewhere between here and Lancaster.”

“Mount Pleasant.”

“Thank you, gods of specific landmarks.”

Vikash turned his head as a street sign flashed by. “The GPS says to take Kelly Drive.”

“The G-freaking-PS can go fuck itself quietly in the corner. I’ve lived here all my life, Kash. Reservoir’s gonna get us there faster.”

“The GPS isn’t really designed for that.”

Kyle flashed him one of those beautiful, crooked grins Vikash adored so much. “Probably not. But it could have a lot of fun trying.”

Four inches of snow had fallen the night before, coating the browns and greens of the park in a uniform layer of white, softening the aggressive lines of statue plinths, hiding the imperfections that the spring thaw would reveal in shameless stripper fashion. Bright winter sun plucked golden sparks in Kyle’s red hair. Kyle Monroe, with his once-broken nose and his burn-scarred hands, who couldn’t have been more beautiful to Vikash if angels had burnished his skin.

I’m in love with him. I’m in love with my partner and I can’t tell him. Don’t dare tell him.

For Kyle, being with a man wasn’t a big deal. Nothing relationship-wise seemed to be with him. As far as Vikash could tell, Kyle had never had a serious, long-term boyfriend. While Vikash? He had always struggled—to explain to his family that he was bi, to re-explain that fact constantly to every significant other he ever had, to hide who he was at work with meticulous care. Bad enough to be a gay cop, but an out bisexual cop? It would be like tossing a chocolate unicorn in a locked room full of starved squirrels. Picked apart bit by bit until there was nothing but crumbs.

Every time his reserve, his well-hidden anxiety, his inability to pick a side—as his last girlfriend had put it—had scuttled his relationships. They had seen it as a lack of commitment, as if his bisexuality were an automatic gateway to infidelity and promiscuity. Kyle wasn’t asking him to change. Kyle at least said he understood, but the restlessness had begun, the irritation with the fact that he simply couldn’t be open and out in public, that he had to keep work and home life in hermetically sealed boxes. It wouldn’t be long now before Kyle reached his limit.

Vikash had insisted they each keep their own apartments. He insisted they come to work separately. He was the one who twitched away when Kyle tried to take his hand across a restaurant table. Self-sabotage? Probably. He was good at that. Though this time it was a choice he didn’t want to make between relationship and career, and the longer he avoided facing that choice, the more he guaranteed spectacular and messy relationship failure.

When Kyle turned onto the normally peaceful, tree-lined avenue of Mount Pleasant Drive, there couldn’t be any doubt they were heading in the right direction. Small clusters of screaming people rushed past their squad car, one man nearly running straight into Vance’s bumper directly behind them.

In the absence of tourists and park-goers, the circular drive in front of the mansion proper was deathly quiet. The main house of white trimmed in red brick with its matching outbuildings crouched in a forlorn huddle against the snow, fancy teacakes lost in an explosion of white icing. The deceptively peaceful scene sent a shiver up Vikash’s back. Unless the stampeding crowd had all reached the same sudden painful epiphany about the meaninglessness of existence and had run off screaming in a mass existential panic, something was lurking nearby.

Vikash scanned the grounds as he got out of the car, unwilling to make a move in any direction yet.

“It’s quiet. Too quiet,” Kyle muttered the old movie cliché and Vikash had to stifle a nervous snicker.

“We’re at about fifty percent humidity.” Jeff Gatling came around the car to Vikash’s side. “Vance? Got spark?”

Luckily, Vance was intent on the hunt and not on tormenting Kyle. He held up a hand, fingers pointed skyward. Smoke curled up, then a dark puff erupted before flames danced over his fingertips. “Oh, yeah. We got spark. Bring it on.”

“Contain if we can,” Jeff admonished softly. “Incinerate as a last resort. You hear me, Vance?”

His partner grumbled, but joined them as they all retrieved nets and bags from their squad cars. Movement caught the edge of Vikash’s sight. He turned slowly and spotted a quick flash of something vanishing behind the outbuilding on the left.

“There.” He pointed, moving slowly but deliberately across the snow.

“Did you see it, Kash? How big?” Kyle moved out a few feet to the left, in case their culprit decided to flee.

Vikash shook his head. “Didn’t see enough.”

The snow was new enough not to have a crunch to it yet, muffling their steps as they worked their way around the building, Vikash and Kyle to the left, Jeff and Vance to the right. When the thing broke cover, it did so with alarming speed, barreling from behind the building and knocking Kyle to the ground before rolling over him.

“Kyle?” Vikash called, even as he tried to herd the thing back to Jeff and Vance.

“’M all right.”

While Vikash wasn’t convinced, he couldn’t go back to check on his partner yet. Seven feet in diameter, the bizarre apparition that had caused a stampede appeared to be a giant ball of horticultural debris. It rolled and bounced toward the river, sticks, dried leaves and vines all tangled and prickling unevenly along its surface like a bad haircut. With his longer legs, Vikash outdistanced his colleagues easily and so was directly in the line of fire when the tumbleweed of madness stopped abruptly, shook itself, and hurled a mass of stick missiles his way. He dove to the side, his jacket taking the brunt of the assault. Behind him, he heard a sharp cry of pain.

The tumbleweed rustled again, apparently readying a second volley. Vikash covered his head and risked a glance back at Jeff, sprawled on the ground with a two-inch diameter stick embedded in his shoulder.

COLLAPSE

About the Author

The unlikely black sheep of an ivory tower intellectual family, Angel Martinez has managed to make her way through life reasonably unscathed. Despite a wildly misspent youth, she snagged a degree in English Lit, married once and did it right the first time, gave birth to one amazing son, and realized at some point that she could get paid for writing.

Published since 2006, Angel’s cynical heart cloaks a desperate romantic. You’ll find drama and humor given equal weight in her writing and don’t expect sad endings. Life is sad enough.

She currently lives in Delaware in a drinking town with a college problem and writes Science Fiction and Fantasy centered around gay heroes.


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