From the author: Monsters! Fireworks! Struggling small business owner! Independence! Ingenuity! Injustice!
The building shuddered as something nearby exploded. In her office, Gafney Vrek heard the familiar sounds of chaos. Screaming, running, more screaming. She put her head in her hands. At this rate, Vrek’s Light Works would be defunct by the end of the week, instead of year's end. Her insurance company was going to raise her rates higher than a booming twelve-inch shell — if they didn't cancel her altogether which, after the army munitions debacle, the warehouse fire, and the maiming of her top three firing technicians in a "work-related accident" involving whiskey and a series of triple-dragon dares, was pretty fucking likely.
She rested her forehead on her desk and wondered what the idiots blew up. Please let it be something small, something unimportant, something she didn't have to report to the Work Safety Commission. Or a delivery truck. She could survive losing a delivery truck. Maybe.
Her walls shuddered again. A roaring sound made her head shoot up. Oh, God, had they accidently driven a loaded lorry into the office? She sprang to her feet, ready to sprint to the closest emergency exit. She paused when her phone rang.
It was Pitki from Human Resources. Not her usual harbinger of doom. She answered. "Tell me we're not about to be confettied."
"Could you come down to my office? Now? Please?" His voice wavered. It hadn't done that when the Commander General threatened to use Pitki's intestines for twine if he didn't hand over the names of everyone who'd worked on Vrek's Best Exploding Mortar. Pitki had held his ground then.
Gafney saw the reason for the quivering voice the minute she neared HR's rubble-strewn hallway: Pitki had a monster in his office. The hulking, black-hide-crackled-red, spiky, toothy, scary kind with three mouths — two definitely for eating. It sat on the splintered remains of a couch. Half its vaguely humanoid body remained outdoors, where it'd broken the wall trying to squeeze in. It turned its head as she approached. Twin orange eyes appraised her. They seemed...weary.
Pitki said, "He had an appointment."
She handled explosives. She could negotiate with a monster, right?
"I'm Vrek." She sounded confident, good. Pitki slunk out. She didn't blame him. If she had a future, she'd've skedaddled, too.
"Chenowick," the monster said, using the small, toothless mouth below his eyes. She tried to ignore his hands. He had fingers like stalactites on one and a snapping mouth on the other.
She said, "Where's your wizard?" because every monster had one. Without wizards leashing them, monsters ran amok. With them, monsters only destroyed what they were told.
"Don't have a wizard."
Bad news. One, monsters weren't known for being reasonable (much like insurance agents), and two, she didn't have coin to hand over.
Gafney asked what he wanted. He said, "A job."
That was unexpected. She stared. Black scales flaked off him and onto the floor, revealing angry red skin.
"Sorry," he said. "I don't usually shed, but someone set me on fire."
"Because of the extorting?" She was still trying to process the job part. What exactly did he think he could do at a light works?
"No." More flakes flew. "For being an independent monster."
Gafney related. Vrek's sales tanked when she was named CEO because people didn't trust women around explosives. What's the difference between a woman and a firecracker? You know when a firecracker will blow. And yet, it was her brother who'd popped himself (a Vrek's Best, better known as Vrek's Wrecks, was involved). She said to Chenowick, "Ever have a wizard?"
He shook his head, said, "You have to own your own monster."
Gafney liked that. Almost liked him. She decided to bottom-line her position. He seemed a reasonable sort.
"Look, Chenowick, I can't afford to hire anyone. I'm already bleeding money and now I have to replace the walls you knocked down to get in, maybe the whole building, and that's the least of my problems. This place'll probably close by month's end." Not to mention it was illegal for monsters to work without a wizard. Gafney figured he knew that part, no sense in generating ill will by bringing it up.
Then Chenowick showed her his stars. Lit 'em up, right there in HR. Tiny flares, nothing too dangerous. Just enough so she could see his colors. They were freakin' marvelous. Indigoes, greens, purples — the coveted fireworks' hues. She'd spent crazy coin in the last six months trying to create such colors. With the monster's pigments, Vrek's could be the premier light works. Customers wouldn't care who was in charge if Vrek's products were extraordinary.
Gafney eyed him. "You can make more? Cheap?"
"With the proper materials."
She didn't ask what those were, just helped him fill out the government-required employment forms — his hands weren't made for holding pens. "Place of birth?"
He hesitated. She said, "I'll put Hadlyme. I.D. number?"
He rattled one off. She hoped it'd pass. She knew it wasn't valid. IDs were for people. Monsters got the Registrar. She almost offered to pretend to be his wizard, but didn't want to offend his sensibilities. She'd been offended when her father wanted to come out of retirement, in name only, after her brother's death. "We have the same name," she'd said.
Chenowick moved into the warehouse known as the pit since the fire/explosion. He fixed it up nice. His hide healed nicely, too — a mottled gray-green.
Gafney got some pushback from the old timers. They didn't like a monster "taking jobs away from people"; didn't want to work with him; didn't think it right, a monster with no wizard. Who'd keep the monster in line?
Gafney told them, "No monster, no sales, no Vrek's, no work. Don't like it? Quit."
Her father was harder to handle, but he shut up when he saw the first shells made with Wick's stars. Didn't even grumble when Gafney opened a second business to procure Wick's materials. She lost a driver or two and a couple loaders, then.
"I don't mind the monster, honest. Didn't I take him shopping last week?" one guy said. "But I don't like hauling dead bodies back home." She didn't point out that, technically, he was hauling corpses both ways. They were just packaged prettier on the ride out, with paper, paste, and string.
A couple of displays with the new fireworks and Vrek's Light Works' sales skyrocketed. Funerals by Vrek did okay, too. At first, Gafney couldn't watch when Wick harvested organs and chewed them into chyme, but soon it became nothing more than another step in the star-making process. And no one was being harmed. They simply repurposed the newly dead. (A little experimental graverobbing proved the fresher the corpse, the brighter the colors. Hence, the grand opening of the crematorium.)
"A little spit, a little magic and voilà!" Brains, Wick shared, made the best purples, the liver those envied blues, kidneys burnt bright yellow, the heart green, and "Stomach is just tasty". Gafney's stomach winced at the last part, but she put it down to cultural differences. Wick was her best employee, the only one who never had an on the job injury.
One day, a concerned group of citizens from a neighboring town showed up. "We hear you have an unwizarded monster."
"He's an independent monster," Gafney said.
Disapproval radiated from them like ignited quickmatch. "Monsters can't be independent. It's against the law."
She should've claimed to be his wizard. Gafney closed her eyes. Own your own monster, she thought and met their collective gaze. "Actually, we have two," she said, then led them into the pit to become stars.
This story originally appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.