A debt brought back from the war

This is a response to a TerribleMinds.com Flash Fiction challenge: a story about rebellion. I thought that it would be fun to base it on a historical event which is considered one of the all-time great cases of failure to rebel. 


In another timeline very close to ours, the 11th Hussars nervously took their morning meal under a hazy, blue-grey Ukrainian sky. The greenest of the troops joked that waiting for orders was the worst of it, but those with more experience pointed out that it was only once the orders arrived that their situation would get truly unpleasant. No one laughed, which suited the veterans, who took their tea in silence.

A group of the seasoned men sat huddled closer to a small cooking fire than the warm morning required, mostly out of familiarity but also so as to be able to speak with lower voices and, perhaps, greater candor.

Corporal St. James, whose first name was Cecil but was universally known as “Knebby” as he was born in Kneworth, slurped his tea messily. Private Reginald Shrew, a godly man who sat more upright than could possibly have been comfortable. With them was their unit leader, Sergeant Samuel Vinegar. Vinegar was the sort of leader the men could really get behind, as getting behind Sergeant Vinegar meant you usually survived the battle. Vinegar resented being regarded as an authority, but not as much as he resented people who looked down on him and his men because they possessed even more authority.

"General Cardigan's been having his sword polished all morning," said Shrew, who wasn't as careful with his phrasing as he might have been, hence Knebby's smirk.

"Must think we'll be on the move this morning, and not back to London." Vinegar was watching something on a nearby hill.

"I'd settle for Paris," said Knebby wistfully. "I've got a girl back there."

"In a cage, like as not," thought Shrew, who was charitable as the next man, but there were limits.

"There's a horse coming. Looks like he's coming from HQ. Look alive gentlemen," said Vinegar.

"Yeah, coz we might look somewhat less so by tonight." added Knebby, not quite under his breath.

The rider was Captain Nolan, aide-de-camp to the Brigadier Airey and his presence could me only one thing: The generals had moved the figures representing the 11th Hussars across their game board representing the battlefield, probably knocking a few over in the process to represent expected casualties. Lieutenant Vinegar wondered how many of his men would be among those “knocked over.”

Nolan rode directly to Cardigan’s camp and the two of them began an animated discussion. Nolan dismounted hurriedly and read what must have been the orders to the general. Vinegar and his men couldn’t hear what was being said, but it was being said with great passion, or at least great volume.

“Why do you suppose they’re yelling at each other?” asked Private Shrew.

“I’m no great shakes when it comes to reading lips,” offered Knebby, “but I figure it might be somethin’ to do with that Russian artillery on the other side of the valley.”

“Ah, that would explain why they’re gesturing and pointing in that direction!” Shrew brightened up a bit as though he’d placed a piece in a puzzle.

“That’s certainly one possible explanation,” said Vinegar, who was considerably better at working puzzles than Reginald Shrew.

Before long, the horns called the entire brigade into formation. Soon, several hundred light horsemen were gathered and awaiting their orders. General Cardigan rode out in front of the assembled ranks and drew his saber something he did only when he needed to deliver an exceptionally rousing speech.

“Men of the Light Brigade, we have received orders from General Raglan. We are to impede and harry attempted Russian withdrawal of cannon and support personnel.”

“It’s ‘cannons’,” whispered Knebby.

“The plural of ‘cannon’ is, in fact, ‘cannon’,” Shrew replied under his breath.

Knebby lifted his eyes in the direction of the glinting Russian field pieces. “I mean the plural of the plural, if you know what I mean. Bloody lot of 'em."

Cardigan continued, caught up in his speech and unaware of the murmuring in the ranks.

“I won’t pretend that it will be a walk in the park. These Russians look up to the task and I expect them to give us their what for. I would wager most units, even the finest in this man's army, would break before the barrage we're likely to encounter. You, however, are going to become legends today. You will be remembered as heroes, willing to face near certain death and risk all for God, for country, and for the Queen!"

Vinegar said nothing but thought that he might prefer to be remembered as a husband and father, and that becoming a legend is something that is most often done posthumously. He sensed a nervousness in the men around him. He could almost feel Knebby about to say something a little too loud that would get him a month's hard duty if he were to survive these suicidal orders.

"On my signal, prepare to charge! Boldly we charge in to the jaws of death! Into the mouth of hell! Our glory shall not fade!"

Lord Cardigan was rather proud of that bit and hoped it would be met with "huzzahs" from his men, or at least indistinct cheers. Instead, he heard nervous mumbling and shuffling (not an easy thing for mounted troops to manage).

"Bugger all this!"

"Who was that? Who? Show yourself! Come forward!" Cardigan had dealt with dissent before and knew he'd best deal with it swiftly, in front of his men. Vinegar shot the guilty-looking Knebby  a look, broke ranks and rode to meet his commander.

"Now then, sergeant. What..." Before Cardigan could say anything else, Vinegar broke in.

"Is it your intention to lead us in a charge in to that artillery barrage?"

"Eh, what? Yes, of course. Orders, you know? Ours is not...*gurgle*" The gurgle was the sound that escaped Cardigan's throat as Vines drew his knife and, in one swift motion, cut Cardigan's throat. The general slumped over and fell from his mount as Vinegar wheeled his horse around and faced the men. There was still an air of nervousness, but it was now tempered with no small measure of relief.

"Men, I have just killed our commanding officer on account of the fact that he was about to lead us into certain death or near enough to it for the sake of following orders even when the orders are pig-headed load of bollocks. Take me in to custody for the murder of a superior. I'd do it a hundred times over to prevent some idiot with too many feathers in his hat leading us to certain death."

There was a a good deal of awkward looking-at-one's-stirrups in the ranks of the 11th Hussars. No one seemed eager to approach Sergeant Vinegar and place him under arrest.

"Oh come on, you have to do it. You're all equally guilty if you don't when word gets back to the brass in the command camp. Every one of you saw it."

"Matter of fact, I'm not rightly sure what I saw." It was, to everyone's surprise, Shrew. "Seems to me that, just maybe, it was the artillery what done him." 

There was a murmur of assent among the 11th Hussars. Sergeant Vinegar saw the mystical power of Really Wanting To Believe take hold of the men. Their memories changed before his eyes and he knew that it was pointless to continue to argue.

"All right then, how about, since you insist on being damned fools, we try to do something that makes sense. Let's make for the coastal gun emplacements. The scouts say they're being re-positioned and we might just catch them unawares."

The men all sensed that this plan would be considerably less suicidal than charging into the teeth of artillery emplacements and, well, any port in a storm. And so, the 11th Hussars of the Light Brigade circled the coast near Balaclava and caught retreating Russian forces with their pants down. There were no casualties beyond the unfortunate loss of General Cardigan to a stray artillery shell. He was, however, posthumously awarded all manner of honors.

A week later, news of the victory in the Crimean campaign reached London. The poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, read of the deeds of the crown's forces with great interest. Finding nothing of particular poetic interest, took a nice walk and wrote some unmemorable doggerel about birds instead.

Please Do Not Read This Until A Cure Has Been Found

This is a response to a TerribleMinds.com Flash Fiction challenge: a story about a non-traditional apocalypse. Because, you know, most apocalypses are so mundane these days. Anyway, I'm working on one that's a good deal more serious and personal, but it's not ready for prime time. This one's not either, but it was fun to assemble and format (thanks to Nicole for solving a really ugly roadblock). Either a whimper or a bang work equally well in this one, although describing them might be problematic.


The key to beating any disease is not, as many believe, having a cure. Prevention and resistance are the first lines of defense; destroying the ailment after it has been acquired is nothing more than the last resort. We knew this, of course, but it prevention does no good when the attack arrives from an angle previously unimagined.


The most fearsome plagues are those which not only destroy their hosts, but also cripples any attempts to fight back. When we first began to suspect that something was wrong, that we were under attack, it was already too late. The very tools we used to solve the riddle were rendered ineffective almost immediately.


We created some workarounds, crude at first, increasingly intricate as the disease progressed. Our counter-measures were slow, too slow, to halt the progress of the malady, but we live in hope that these works will be the seed which will set humanity, what survives that is, on the road to recovery.


If you'll allow me an aside here, you may well wonder why I am even bothering with committing this account to paper. That is a reasonable question and I have no satisfying answer. I could say that I am documenting the nature of our demise in hope that future generations, if there are any, will learn from it. That's just a sick joke, though, given the nature of this particular plague.


Besides, to be honest, while we have grown to understand the mechanics, the physical manifestation of the illness, we have made no progress in understanding its nature. How can such a thing happen? one theory is that, while we experience what we believe are external symptoms, it is the instruments of our perception which are under attack. That would explain the universality of this plague which manifests in such a localized manner that it beggars belief.


Another theory posits that the attack is not viral, bacterial, or neurological, but rather algorithmic. This is a tidy concept, but it altogether too simple to properly explain how the experience is equivalent, but not identical, for victims in okinawa and Leipzig. If the attack is one based on a set of logical rules, and the rules have been devised so as to work identical in such radically different environments, then that suggests an intelligence behind the attack. That is a proposition to diabolical, not to mention unlikely, to merit consideration.


Regardless of the source of the enigma, it was effective to a degree I would not have imagined possible. While we were able to swiftly identify the pathology of the attack, we were unable to contain the general panic it caused. Even today, it seems unlikely that such an apparently harmless (at least physically so) bug would engender such a violent reaction. Every loss set off riots, even when we reached the point where we could accurately calculate the period between each event. Steady as a clock it was, and yet each of its ticks may as well have been the click of a detonator.


With what we now know, the end was always inevitable. We fought, and fought well. We tested incessantly. If we could know nothing of the source or the cure, then at least we could understand its behavior. The printed word suffered in the most obvious way, but we were more than a little shocked when we discovered that the speech was equally impaired. How could that be so? nonetheless, we created visual meta-languages which could be used to get by, if not to move forward. We used sounds, variations in pitch and tone and rhythm, and we made more progress than you might have guessed, but it was all for naught. We determined much too late that machines were affected in the same way we were.


Whilst humanity is quite resilient in finding new paths when another is blocked, machines are almost entirely devoid of this facility. When the communication between bleeping box and glowing rectangle started to fail, there was no stopping the rot. Soon all manner of devices which relied upon communication were rendered utterly unable to function. not only did media fail, but so did the banking system, the power grid, telecommunications, and ultimately, all governmental authority. Chaos did not do it justice.


I am saddened to report that our better natures abandoned us at this point and all higher creeds and moral codes were replaced by “every man for himself.” A few of us who adjudged ourselves to be the best hope for reversing the disease walled ourselves into bunkers and let the rest of the world fend for itself. It fared poorly. And, if I am to be wholly honest, I would confess that the altruism of our isolation was more of an excuse than anything. we sought safety and if any salvation were to come of it, well, that would be nice as well.


funnily enough, we have never discovered the vector for this plague. It is entirely possible the paper on which you are reading it is infected. perhaps it becomes imbedded in the very language itself, crippling the unsuspecting reader by the mere act of reading. Should that be the case, then it strikes me as extremely unlikely that there is anything to be gained by writing further. The disease will have its hooks in you and, presuming that it progresses as the pace we've previously observed, you will have only a few random letters arranged on an otherwise white page from which to deduce my intent. pity.


So I will leave you now as the prospect that my report will not only fail to serve its purpose, but in fact provide this plague with new victims, depresses me mightily and depression is one thing I have no further need of. Should you, by some miracle, safely decode this, then I hope that it is of some use in preventing the further spread of this dread disease. or, dare I hope it, that the plague itself has been conquered and you are reading this free from the confusion which condemned us to a noisy, wordless fate in the shadow of the remains of a modern tower of Babel.

The Mask of Auberon

Another of Chuck Wendig's Terribleminds.com flash fiction challenges. This one's called "KIDS SAY THE DARNDERNIEST THINGS." I like this a lot better after a major rework and dumping half of it, but it's still more of a snapshot of an idea than a story. 

 

I kept an aluminum frame chair under the huge live oak tree out on my property. I kept it there for nights like this. The sun had just dipped down out of sight but half the sky was still a brilliant cobalt blue. This time of the year, mid-summer, the fireflies put on a show and tonight was no exception. I had a bottle of wine with me, but hadn't even opened it yet. I was just enjoying the show. 

I just wanted you to know that I hadn't been drinking. I don't touch drugs, other than a drink or two from time to time. I need you to know this, to know that I was doing nothing out of the ordinary. I don't understand why it chose to show itself to me, but the important thing is that it did, that I'm not mad or drunk or dreaming.

---------------------

It was wearing a swarm of bees in place of it's head (I have to remind myself not to use gendered pronouns for whatever these things are, not matter what body or name they're using at the time.) The bees appeared to orbit a dim, golden light at the center of where it's skull would have been. They were silent, too silent for bees, but there was no comfort in that. There was a sense of movement in the orbit of the bees as though Auberon were turning its head to face me.

I shuddered. Somehow, the dry wings and stickly legs found a voice and it spoke to me.

"I can still see without a face."

I doubled over, only just keeping myself from retching, and closed my eyes. I've seen them do so many things that the bodies they were wearing weren't suited to do, but never up close, only on a screen and at a distance. It paused, probably regarding my reaction, and spoke again.

"I've upset you. It is difficult to anticipate how you will react. I thought it beautiful."

I opened my eyes, looking for a rock or log to sit on, settling instead on a grassy spot near an enormous live oak. In retrospect, it was right. The fireflies were unusually active and seemed to be more so the closer they were to the slender figure in a long purple cape over a loose white shirt and purple trousers, a twentieth century idea of sixteenth century finery. In place of its head, the orb of bees with the dim golden glow coming from inside the globe. A photograph or painting of the scene would have been stunning.

It was in movement that the beauty became something more disturbing. They never quite got the hang of how bodies worked, so the limbs moved like a spider's, independently and far too deliberate. The location of the joints seemed uncertain and changed from moment to moment. Even when their faces were human, they didn't know how to mimic human expressions, or perhaps they didn't care. When the were more creative with their visages...I forced myself to face it. So long as it wasn't talking, I could take it.

"What are you called?" it rasped and whispered through tiny legs and wings.

"Wendell," I answered, concentrating on not concentrating on the movements on the surface of its not-face.

"Wendell. Yes. Good." They are not known for their humor but I couldn't help but think it was pausing waiting for me to react. I flubbed my lines and so it continued. "Wendell, I call myself Auberon here." 

I nodded because I didn't know what the hell else to do, and asked, "Auberon...that's one of ours, isn't it? Why Auberon?"

"It is. We immerse ourselves in cultures. We wear bodies, faces, and names when we can visit. Sometimes, they are local, more often not. Cut and paste."

I stared. "Cut and paste?"

"Think of writing Mary Poppins in to Star Wars. It is not important. I am cheating by doing this. Auberon is not just who I am wearing; Auberon is a metaphor."

I closed my eyes. Watching bee bodies form words was not easy. "Auberon is a fairy. Auberon doesn't have bees."

It's arms moved in a gesture I didn't recognize but nothing about it suggested that Auberon liked my answer.

"No, Auberon does not have bees. But I do."

"Like a mask?"

"Haven't you heard? I wear no mask," and again, an expectant pause. I took a deep breath, tried to guess at what response it wanted, and again failed. 

"I'm not really very good at this."

"I am not making it easy on you, and for this I am sorry. I am not permitted to be more clear, and I am taking a risk by meeting you in this form and saying what I have said."

"I don't understand. I mean, I don't get what you're worried about. You're not really Auberon. You're not really a person."

"No, Wendell," and a low drone was forming behind its voice, "and how is it that you are certain that I am not Auberon?"

"Auberon isn't real. Auberson is a role you're playing. You're wearing him like a coat over whatever it is you are."

-----------------------

It was at this point that I am certain that the bees of its face swirled into, if not a smile, then a look of satisfaction or something. I blinked and Auberon unhappened. It wasn't there, and it had never been there.

I swear as God is my witness I don't know what the hell that was about. I know I'm not crazy, I know what I saw, but I can't make any sense of it. I'm not sleeping well these days. I know, I just know that it thought it had told me something important and if I could just work it out, it'd be the most important thing I've ever done. I'm not going to be right again until this is over. 

Help me, please.

Halo One

To say that I'm not proud of this one would be an understatement, but it was a little bit of self-motivated pastiche was fun to toss together, even though the result fell far short of what I was aiming for


It's the early autumn, 1989 and it's all coming together for the first time. Four, maybe five nights a week and my drug of choice is going mainstream. No, it's not X, although I get that a lot. To keep my stamina where I need it, I drink a quart of orange juice before getting started and I don't touch alcohol because it derails me at just the wrong time. It's a thousand times better than being drunk anyway. I've never been in better physical shape, just over six feet and so thin I have to cinch my jeans around my waist to keep them up.

I'm not wearing jeans tonight. I'm wearing Cavariccis with those pointless buckles across the crotch. Boots from the Wild Pair, with steel on the toe and shank. I've replaced the heels twice at this point and will do again twice more. Girbaud shirt which buttons diagonally across my chest, long sleeves, never rolled up no matter how hot it gets. A bolo tie, one of a half dozen I own, this one a relic from Mardi Gras with a lapis pull in the shape of an apostrophe. Sunglasses by MTV, but sold at JC Penney back in the day, with metal sidepieces sort of like Sting's which only function to kill my peripheral vision. And, of course, look cool, which is the whole point. Everything's black, of course. I do two loads of laundry: Black and non-black. It's not necessary, of course, but it puts me in the right frame of mind. 

Back when I started, I'd get there early, but I know better by now. The early hours are for the happy hour crowd, tourists, people who want to say they're part of it but don't want to actually do it. Not judging, but that's the truth of it. Their money's as good as mine, so no one minds much, but there's no need for me to show up until ten or later. Local station broadcasts the whole thing starting at ten, so I listen as drive, hoping I don't miss anything, but I almost never do. The DJ's save the good stuff for later.

So I show up, pay my cover, go inside, and just feel the bass for a little wile before getting into it. I'm long since over my fear of getting on the floor, but the right song, or at least a right song, helps get me started. Some kitschy thing is playing, and that is most definitely not what I need, so I lurk and grab some water because I'm going to need it at some point. Next up is the Bolshoi and that'll do. I make my way to my favorite spot, third level, right underneath the fog machine nozzle. I close my eyes.

It's not about seeing, or being seen. It's about the music, moving to it. I've have guys tap me on the shoulder and tell me to "dance right," but if they're watching me instead, they're missing the whole point. It's too loud to talk, to dark to flirt, and to amazing to ignore. A weird techno-industrial "New York New York" followed by Love and Rockets' cover of "Ball of Confusion." I'm just coasting now, not really in to it, but ready for whatever is next. Book of Love "I Touch Roses," and for this DJ, like a nervous tick, he follows it with the Cure's "Fascination Street" and I'm completely gone now. I may flail into people, I don't know and most definitely don't care.

Three track in a row with massive hooks in the chorus. I'm going to need to get my boots fixed again because of it. Spin on my heels four beats until the chorus. It's getting serious now. The Thrill Kill Kult's "The Devil Does Drugs," which got exactly zero radio play but everyone in the room knows it and goes nuts. We kind of coast through Men Without Hats' "Safety Dance" which isn't really a great song for the club. My rule is that if the song has to mention dancing in the title or implore you to dance in the lyrics, it's not a great dance song.

And then it happens.

Bass way too deep even for the ridiculous cones at the club, vocal samples as percussion, and a weird, clicky beat instead of a snare. You see, it's 1989 and, while we know our industrial and I have more Wax Trax records than any other label and we've even had Pop Will It Itself's "Def Con One" in heavy rotation for four months, we've never heard anything remotely like Nine Inch Nails. It's not really industrial, it's not disco as some people who have no sense of these things have suggested, it's just Nine Inch Nails and it's changing everything. We're still months away from Pretty Hate Machine, but "Down In It" is already everywhere and we're not inoculated against it yet. 

It's as close to rapture as I'm every likely to get.

The rest of the night is memorable. I feel like I already have electric sparks shooting from my fingertips when they play Shriekback's "Nemesis." It was old even then, and it was maybe the fourth or fifth best song on Oil & Gold, but that just means that Oil & Gold was one for the ages. Then a huge blast of neopsychodelia  makes me glad I camp under the fog machine. I've lost several pounds to sweat and the dry ice cools me off even if breathing it probably isn't helping anything.

It's getting late and they finally play Front 242's "Welcome to Paradise" because, in 1989, you couldn't not play it.  Next up, there's the delay loop guitar of "How Soon Is Now," and everyone who was in the dark corners of the club makes their way out on to the floor. We're still a year before the release of "Hippychick," so no one has to hold their breath waiting for the drums to make sure. The DJ plays a chunk of Sisters of Mercy's "This Corrosion" because playing the whole thing would be cruel, and then closer songs, the same ones every night, back to back: Malcolm McLaren's "Madame Butterfly" followed without irony by PiL's "The Order of Death."

The lights come up, and no one wants to be seen in those lights, and we're gone.

It's 2:30 now. Four hours without a break and I feel amazing. I could run a marathon. I could climb Denali. I could read the bible backwards in Aramaic. I could do anything, but first things first.  Four hours on the floor and we're starving. I was there with my friends, you see, but I didn't see them the whole time. It's not about dancing with anyone. We go to any 24/7 place that isn't Denny's or IHOP and drink coffee and eat anything with carbs, usually fried potatoes, and recount our stories from the night. We were all there, in the same place, doing the same thing, at the same time, but all of our stories are different. We're describing something more like alien abduction, what happened to us as much as what we did.

I get home around 5:00 and realize I have a meeting in two hours. Our monthly staff meeting outside of our open hours. No point trying to sleep, or even trying to change clothes. I show up in the same getup I wore to the club, even the ridiculous sunglasses, and I'm grinning like a wolf. What did all you people do last night? I had the time of my life.

And I'm going to do it again tomorrow.

 

HIDDEN BONUS TRACK:

Here's my playlist for tonight. 

Oh my lord, I need to do some editing, don't I?

“The End of the Beginning”

This is another one of Wendig's Flash Fiction thingies. The instructions are longer than the story:

This challenge is, as many of them are, both simple and complex, both easy and difficult.

I want you to write a story in five sentences.

No more than 100 words.

You can view it, if you’d like, as:

Sentence 1: Beginning / Inciting Incident

Sentence 2: Middle

Sentence 3: Middle peak, act turn or pivot

Sentence 4: Climactic turn or twist

Sentence 5: Resolution

That is not a strict map, but rather, a reminder that a story is a story, not a snapshot: it has a beginning, a middle and an end.

I'm pretty happy with how it worked it, even though I accidentally posted the unedited, 138-word version on his site. The first sentence makes me happy, but it sent me down a path that owes a debt to Arthur C. Clarke. 

------------------------------

When the apocalypse arrived, it did so in an unobtrusive, almost apologetic fashion.

For years, we carried on as though nothing had happened even though the future was slowly draining away.

It felt like we should be doing something but how do you confront something like the world coming to an end?

In the end, we didn't; we embraced it instead of going to war with it.

The end of the universe was just the end of who we were and all we needed to do was to let it go to become what we were always meant to be.

Every Man Builds A World In His Image

Here's what I came up with for the Terribleminds.com Flash Fiction Challenge: The Subgenre Tango. It's kind of "military sci-fi," but it's very much not at the same time, and the mythology aspect of it is very modern and very obvious. It's not my best work, but it does have the virtue of being genuinely "flash" in that I wrote it in one sitting and it's actually under the assigned word count for a change. 

I was in a bad mood when I wrote this one.

---------------------------------------------------

Sergey M'tume's tour of duty in Zone M was less than a week from complete when the distress call came in. If things had just stayed quiet for another seven standard days, he'd have entered the entangler/detangler device, watched the think suck a hellish amount of power from God knows what source, maybe geothermal but probably a pair of nuclear fission reactors, and wake up the next morning next to a similar EDD close enough to one of Earth's Lagrange points to start thinking about being home with his family.

Sergey M'tume really, really wanted to be home with his family. 

Tours were long because, although long distances could be traversed at speeds that still felt magical to Corporal M'tume, the energy costs were so high that they were largely restricted to military usage and even then, they were used judiciously. A common joke among troops was that every time they were deployed, you could see the sun grow dimmer. 

M'tume was, of course, the only troop in the area. Early warriors used weapons which would require to several blows to incapacitate a single opponent. By the twentieth century, it was possible for an individual to carry a device which would reduce a city to rubble. The continuation of this trend meant that Corporal M'tume had at his disposal the capability to wipe out all life on a planet if he needed to. Several times, in fact, although you had to have a seriously twisted imagination to think of reasons why you'd ever need that kind of ordinance.

The signal came from Dalt 3. "Of course it did," thought M'tume. Getting a call this late into your rotation was bad enough, but the folks on Dalt would only ask for help when things got really bad. Don Dalt was a legendary individualist, rugged and charismatic. When the overcrowding on Earth finally reached the point where borders became unenforceable and people had to live face to face with their neighbors. Dalt bristled at having to restrict himself in any way, feeling it was a moral failing to submit in any ways to the will of a "society." Dalt and like minded unique individualists, fed up with accommodating proximity to other people, packed up and left. 

The Daltian exodus was unique in human history. Instead of rag tag refugees carrying whatever possessions they had on their backs, these were some of the wealthiest individuals on the planet. They had connections, both civil and military, which allowed them to bring a substantial portion of their goods with them. 

Recent surveys had found an Earthlike world in a system which didn't even have a proper name yet. The Earth government spent a small fortune setting up an EDD station nearby. Dalt and his crew claimed the planet, which would become known as Dalt 3, and sailed their enormous yachts to the Lagrange EDD station. No one is certain how they received clearance to move so many massive vessels. The energy cost would have bankrupted even men as wealthy as Dalt. Rumor had it that they'd managed a subsidy from the Earth government, but this was never proven.

They'd been the best, the brightest, and certainly the most confident individuals on the planet. They were leaving behind a world that did not appreciate their contributions. When they left, both the standard of living and productivity of the planet spiked in a way which was hard to explain, but Dalt and his people suspected that the government was cooking the books. What else could it be?

Corporal M'tume's ship suddenly started picking up....he wasn't sure exactly what. There was signal, but there was so much noise that he was reasonably sure his vessel didn't have the ability to pick out any specific communications. He frowned. He had no great love for the people of Dalt 3, who complained about the presence of even a single troop in their sector, but the electromagnetic cacophony M'tume was receiving boded very, very ill for the Daltians.

Dalt 3 was a marvelous beautiful world. The surface was approximately ninety percent water, but the land poking out of the seas was uniformly magnificent. The terrain was rugged, mountainous, lush, green, and warm year round. The large amounts of ocean allowed the Daltians to keep a good distance from each other. No doubt this was a good thing as the Daltians were fanatical about their individualism and protected it fiercely. Weapons which had been outlawed on the surface of the Earth, similar to some of the ones carried by Sergey M'tume and his ship, were commonplace on Dalt 3. Most Daltians would look at your suspiciously if you didn't have one with you. Of course, most Daltians would look at you suspiciously anyway.

As Corporal M'tume began the long process of matching orbits with Dalt 3, he finally was able to get some definition on his telescope. The early images had been fuzzy and out of focus. Sergey pulled a stock image of the planet up and compared the new visuals he was getting. There was no more green on Dalt 3.

There were no ships in orbit.

There were no cities.

There were no buildings.

Corporal M'tume suddenly became conscious of the complete lack of anything resembling communications on any band. Later, in his report, he would say that he was overcome with grief at the realization that Dalt 3 was now completely free of human life or, as surveyors would later learn, all life of any sort. In truth, his next thought was "How the hell am I going to write a report on this?"

Over the next three days, Corporal M'tume deployed all of his communications buoys in low orbit and took as much detailed footage of the surface as he could. Dalt 3 was now a world of lifeless rocks and apparently lifeless water.  He used the time to try to piece together how it had happened.

The military electronics on his ship did a better job of picking needles out of the haystack of noise than Sergey had expected. His machines identified no fewer than six deployed devices which had the ability to wipe out a substantial portion of the planet.  Right before the first one, there was a serious of communications between the Dalt Ranch estate fisherman Clem Monday and his family.

Dalt Ranch: "Unidentified fishing boat. You are in Dalt Ranch waters. Please remove your vessels to outside of the Dalt Ranch beacons."

Clem Monday Fishing Vessel: "Dalt Ranch, this is the Clem Monday Fishing Vessel. These are open waters outside your legal claim. That makes them ours. We will not comply."

DR: "Monday Vessel, under the Treaty of Mount Atlas, these waters are recognized as Dalt Ranch property. If you do not remove your vessel, we will do so for you."

CM: "We do not recognize this claim. We have fished these waters for decades and we will continue to do so."

DR: "Monday Vessel, drones are now en route to your location. Prepare to be boarded. Your vessel well be remotely piloted out of our drones outside of our waters."

CM: "Dalt Ranch, we will not permit the boarding of our vessel by your drones. We are prepared to resist if necessary. Please recall your drones."

DR: "Monday Vessel, this is your final warning. As you have made no attempt to comply with your legal obligation to remove your vessel, our drones will now take control of your vessel."

CM: "Stand your ground!"

And after that, noise. Far too much noise for even the advanced military devices on M'tume's vessel to parse. It was enough, though. Corporal M'tume was going to make his rendezvous at the EDD after all. He spent the next couple of days reading up on the history of the Daltians and was struck by how ridiculously inevitable this conclusion was. 

--------------------------------------------------------

Two weeks later, when Corporal Sergey M'tume's report reached one of the more secret branches of Earth government intelligence. A bureaucrat whose name didn't matter and probably didn't match the one on his badge carefully read the report. He looked up the agency's files on Dalt 3, grimaced a little, filed M'tume's report along with the rest of the material and then closed the file on Dalt 3 as "Status: Inactive." He added a small note: "Situation resolved itself as anticipated. No further updates expected."

 

The Hero Will Not Be Automated

 

This one's a response to Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Ten More Titles over on Terribleminds.Com. If this challenge seems similar to last week's, that's due to the fact that Mr. Wendig got a little lazy. Fortunately, the titles we were given this time around were spectacular. 

This story's a little...different. Enjoy?

1 September, 2019

 

Greetings students of the Newman-Phillips school,

We are pleased to inform you that, as a result of your completion of your coursework at the school, you have been selected to participate in a project which will surely seem so incredible to you as to appear impossible.

You are going to be a time-travelers.

While this will be a great adventure, perhaps the greatest experienced by any human, we must be blunt: Your journey has a purpose, and it is not one to be taken lightly. The future is broken.

In a time between yours and ours, humanity lost their way. They ceased to be the masters of their own fate. They very nearly ceased. They may yet. We have selected you so that you might arouse your species, our species, and steer them clear of the disaster ahead.

Here is what will happen: This evening, you will meet in the gymnasium cavern. It is being equipped with beds, terminals, and enough food and supplies to survive your journey. You will go to sleep tonight and when you awaken, ten years will have passed. You will be administered drugs to ensure you sleep. We have not tested the effects of time travel on a waking mind, but the results of our simulations are disturbing. You will not want to be awake.

The device which will allow you traverse will require time, perhaps a week, to recharge. When it has recharged, you will go to sleep again and make another jump of ten years. You will repeat this process several times until you arrive at the critical time, prior to the beginning of troubles.

We have tried to anticipate your concerns. Here are the answers to some of the questions we presume you will have:

1. The machine is a small gravity wave generator. It is not ideal, but we were limited by how much information we could send to your time and what resources were available.

2. We can send matter, and even living beings forward in time, but only information can travel to the past. Otherwise, we would have been equipped to solve the problem ourselves.

3. You can use your waking hours to learn about the current time period, but you will not be able to leave the cavern. We cannot afford the possibility that any of you might be abducted or otherwise unable to continue your journey. You are all of enormous importance. We will attempt to provide additional information as is possible. However...

4. Time travel is an imperfect activity under the best of circumstances. These are not the best of circumstances. Your jumps may not all be exactly ten years in length and you may under- or over-shoot the expected time of arrival. You are the brightest minds of your generation. We trust you to improvise.

5. When you arrive, you will not only be able to leave the gym cavern, but you will also be able to leave the complex. It will be terrifying, but we know that if anyone can adapt, it is you. Again, we trust you.

6. We have located a small network of people living near the time period when we expect you to complete your journey. You will be provided information about them during your waking periods. They will help you acclimate to the new world. They will assist you in any way possible. They will be your most valuable resource. Use them well.

This opportunity will not be extended to any others. The cost in time, effort, and most especially resources to coordinate this effort in our distant past is immense. We teeter on a very fine edge between success and failure. Success would restore humanity to it's rightful role. Failure would mean oblivion.

We understand that this must sound insane. It is insane. It is the last throw of the dice and, in such circumstances, one does not always have the luxury of consulting the odds.

We deeply regret having pulled you in to this without your consent. We know this is a long shot, but understand that you exist in the blind spot of what humanity is up against. They'll never see you coming. You can do this.

We love you. We believe in you.

Good luck,

The Future

 

Shit," Carl said to himself, waking up at his desk for the third time this week. He shook his head, trying to clear it, and felt articulate enough to elaborate on his initial reaction.

"Shit shit shit shit shit shit."

2039 was just starting to come online, right on schedule, and, while Carl had made all of the tweaks he'd planned on making, it didn't feel finished. He was a stickler for details, but he had to keep reminding himself that he was comparing his work to his own experience, something the students couldn't do.

In the early 2000's, with the rise of the internet, it became possible to access an unprecedented fraction of human activity. Shortly thereafter, it became possible to make a backup of what was essentially the entire network. In theory, one could then restore the whole thing and experience the internet as of a certain date in the past. 

In a sense, the hard part was over. Running the students through the most of the first two decades of the century offered the most opportunities to fuck up the continuity, to give the kids a chance to bump up against the walls of their garden. If they'd made it this far, the rest should be easy. They'd only be spending a week in 2039 while “the tunnel machine recharged” and they'd spend most of that seriously disoriented.

People had been anticipating the singularity long before it actually happened, but they'd gotten it almost comically wrong. Most people assumed it would be started by an artificial intelligence which made the leap to self-awareness, growing in all ways imaginable at incredible speed, outstripping the human ability to react.

What actually happened was so much more mundane, so much more ridiculous, people never saw it coming. Instead of a big, bad AI enslaving humanity, it was all about marketing. Tiny bots, scripts, and agents were increasingly used to push advertising and advertising-disguised-as-content to users.

Users responded with their own little automated surrogates, some of which blocked the adbots, some of which worked with them to make the decisions about purchasing staple items or even planning entertainment. It was this virtual swarm of automatons which was half arms race and half evolving API which wound up leaving humanity in the dust.

The template for the singularity turned out to be a short story about lucky cats.  It wasn't slavery per se in that the agents were really serving the users, but it wasn't what anyone who lived before the singularity would recognize as "living," either.

The question that Carl and everyone else on this project asked themselves was “How the hell do you fix it?” . There just weren't enough people who wanted things to revert to a state where humans called the shots. Hell, there weren't even many who felt there was a problem with their state of domestication.

Since education was as automated and spoon-fed as everything else, new recruits were hard to come by. Malcolm, their de facto leader, had a mad idea at the beginning, almost two decades ago.

“What if we raise our own allies, off the grid? An underground, bonsai society? We'd control every aspect of it. Raise them to be rebels, to think for themselves?”

“They're kids, Malc. You were one once, right?” That was Janx. She had the strongest educational background among the leaders. “How often did you do what you'd be taught to do?”

Everyone was silent for a moment, and when Malcolm finally spoke, it was almost to himself. “Not very often, but just often enough to know that reverse-psychology wouldn't work any better.”

Malcolm sighed. “What we need, then, is more of us. Anyone have a cloning machine?” He paused for a few, dark chuckles to pass. “We need people raised as we were, who knew what it was like. People who fight against today because they remember yesterday.”

Carl remembered he'd had a fierce internal debate before coughing and raising his hand. He'd known it was crazy, he'd known it would swallow his life, but he was the sort of guy who couldn't help speaking up when he'd thought of something no one else had.

“Actually, I think there might be a way...”

That was twenty years ago. Now they were just a few weeks, or a few decades, away from the end of the planning and the beginning of...whatever came next. They were just a few short weeks away from delivering the letter.



Muddy Stars

This is a response to the writing prompt Flash Fiction Challenge: Choose Your Title And Write on Chuck Wendig's Terribleminds blog. 

-----------------------------------------

Edison always got out of bed when Derek's alarm went off even though his husband inevitably hit the snooze at least twice. Having spent the first thirty years of his life only seeing a sunrise when the party went a little late, Edison was now a born-again morning person. It was a source of pride to him to get up before Derek, even though it was Derek who had a ninety minute commute ahead of him.

Getting up early let Edison get the coffee started. Even though they owned a machine which would grind and make the coffee at a set time, Edison insisted that the machine's version of coffee didn't do justice to the beans they had flown in from the Caribbean, so he ground them himself in a spice mill and put the water to pour over the grounds on the stove. It pleased Edison whenever Derek told him how good the coffee was that Derek always made an effort to mention it.

When Derek left for work, Edison gave him a quick, but not at all rote, kiss. Now alone, he changed into his cycling clothes. Early morning, just as the sun came up, was his favorite time to get on the bike and get his workout in. His morning rides gave his tall, slender frame a tautness that nearly countered the less-careful years of his youth. As such, he looked good for his age, but he didn't look young for it.

He timed his rides so that he would get home shortly before Derek arrived at his office. Edison asked Derek to call when he got to work, just to make sure the trip was a safe one. Even though a text would have served the same purpose, they always spoke, even if just briefly. It was going to be a long day for Derek. He was a vice president at a company which expanded and contracted with regularity. Today, Derek would meet with a client whose continued business was required to avoid a contraction and the layoffs that went with it. The outcome of the meeting was far from certain. It was a wonder that Derek could sleep at all. Some night he didn't.

Edison showered, regarded the thinning peninsula of jet black hair in the center of his scalp with the eyes of an executioner who was trying to decide “when,” not “if.” He decided “not yet.” Still in his bathrobe, he went upstairs and locked himself in to his studio.

Edison and Derek lived in one of those modern homes built on a lot too small to contain it. There were no curves in the design, just blocks stacked up blocks. The third story, a loft which was probably meant to be a bedroom, was where Edison made his films.

Edison came to film making relatively late in life. He'd always wanted to do it, but to do it right, the way he wanted to do it, it took time and money. He was working for a marketing firm when he and Derek met. It wasn't precisely love at first sight, as the two of them were strong personalities who had little tolerance for drama. Their courtship had some of the characteristics of a negotiation, but however they got there, they arrived in a place of almost cloyingly romantic devotion. Derek wanted to give Edison what he'd always wanted the most, so Edison resigned from the firm and started working on his studio.

The next step in Edison's routine, and a routine it was, was to put on some instrumental music to put him in the right mood. He checked his mail, skimming past the usual spam and not-quite-spam-but-not-worth-reading messages. The only message was from Sharon, one of his oldest and best friends, and one of the few people Edison regarded as a peer. Sharon was checking in to make sure they were still on for lunch today. Sharon possessed apparently limitless resources, surprising amounts of free time for someone who held a full time job, and a taste for bleeding-edge technology. The fact that she'd sent an email was a concession to Edison's preferences which Sharon regarded as kind of quaint.

Now that the lunch plans were firmed up, Edison had only a few hours to kill, not nearly enough to do any serious work. It was, however, just enough time to check out the Moroccan film he found last week, mis-categorized, in an obscure corner of Amazon. A big part of making films was seeing as many, from as many sources, as possible. Most weeks, he saw as many as eight, sometimes ten movies. It was time-consuming, but Edison felt it was a critical part of the job. This one struck Edison as a competent re-telling of the Walter Mitty story, but with better music.

The lunch was at a place within walking distance of Edison's house. The movie ran a little long, so Sharon had already been there for fifteen minutes before Edison arrived. He'd ordered drinks for both of them. The restaurant was famous for two things: Having the best sausage supplier in town, and having access to rum of the sort that a little neighborhood restaurant shouldn't be expected to have. Neither Sharon nor Edison ever missed out on sampling at both.

Sharon waved to Edison, who had already seen her since she was the only other customer in the restaurant at 11:15. Not that it was difficult to pick Sharon out in a crowd. Sharon looked more like Sharon than anyone else on the planet. She wore her hair, and had always worn her hare, in a page boy cut which had probably been in style when she was twelve. She was very slightly cross-eyed, and she wore thick glasses a little too big for her face. Somehow, no matter what she wore, she looked like she was dressed “business casual,” even when she wasn't.

Sharon painted whenever she wasn't working or having drinks with Edison's circle of friend. She was good, too. Not terribly original, but her work was too good to be explained by having all the best supplies available to her. If she'd had lessons, and she almost certainly had, she never let on. She was such an engaging conversationalist that people seldom noticed how little she'd say about herself.

She asked Edison about his progress on his third film. It was going slowly, much more so than the first two. He had pushed back his completion date to a full two years from today and he regarded that as optimistic. Sharon suggested, not for the first time, that he consider released it on the web in segments. Edison didn't even try to hide his contempt. Not only was this film meant to be seen as a whole, but it was meant to be seen in a proper theater.

Edison was adamant about this. He made animated movies on his computer and then filmed them using 35mm because he felt it added an element of warmth and authenticity he couldn't get from computer animation alone. His films were dense, recursive, and difficult to digest in one sitting. They were not made for YouTube.

The first film had been a transparently fictionalized account of his own life, so it was much easier for him to make. The second was a story from the recent past, thirty years ago. It was a film of portents for the future, of unheeded cautionary tales. Neither had found a distributor or had even received a showing at a major film festival. The new film was a synthesis of the first two, set in the near future, full of references to its predecessors. Edison felt the quality of his craftsmanship and storytelling had improved greatly over the last decade and had high hopes that the new film would be the one that got him noticed.

Sharon suggested that he contact her friend Carson and see if he could drum up some interest in the new work. Carson had connections. A lot of Sharon's friends had connections. Sharon was about to jet off to the east coast to spend the weekend with the kind of artists whose work you'd recognize even if you didn't know their names.

Edison took this, correctly, to mean that it was time to wrap up lunch. Their waitress brought the check to the table and accidentally pulled a notebook, a Moleskine knock off, out of her apron and dropped it on the table. The waitress looked mortified. Sharon handed it back to her, but not before Edison caught a glimpse of cursive formatted in a way that just screamed “poetry!” He half-chuckled and shook his head. Sharon picked up the tab. It's not that Edison couldn't have afforded it, but Sharon always picked up the tab and there was no point in fighting it.

A little buzzed, Edison walked home and thought about the sad little notebook. The difference between people like her and people like himself was, he noted, that he committed to his art. No half-measures. No day jobs. He made films because he had to make films and he couldn't serve two masters. He considered her a dilettante who wrote just enough that she could call herself a writer without actually writing anything.

Home again, Edison fixed himself some more coffee and locked himself back in the studio. Today's task was to re-write a scene lampooning millennials for their lack of work ethic and sense of entitlement. He was struggling with finding the right satirical tone. If it was too funny, people might miss the point, but if the point was too salient, it would come across as pedantic and dull.

After a couple of hours of wrestling with the scene, gave up and went down to the kitchen to start dinner. He had planned to go to the grocery store to pick up some heavy whipping cream and a couple of eggs, but he didn't feel like he was in any condition to drive, so he left a message with Derek to pick them up on his way home.

When Derek finally made it to the house, he was exhausted. Edison gave him a slightly sloppy kiss, handed him a glass of wine, took the egg and cream, and finished up making dinner. It was rich, hearty and delicious, but it had no name as this was an Edison original. The workday slowly melted away from Derek's face as Edison recounted his afternoon.

Edison cleared the table and did the dishes and Derek put one of those comedy news programs on the television. Edison couldn't see the appeal of them, but they made Derek happy. This one was already half over. The interview segment was with an astronomer who was talking about trying to find habitable, earth-like planets in other solar systems.

Edison could think of few less-engaging topics, but the astronomer was really into it and it was hard to ignore. He was talking about how most of the stars in the sky are brown dwarf stars. Brown dwarfs are stars that didn't quite have what it took to become full-blown stars. They give off a little light and a little heat, but they never burn brightly like a true star.

It was at this point that Edison thought of the waitress and her notebook again. Like most “aspiring artists,” she just wasn't going to make it. She didn't have “it,” the thing that turned people who want to be artists into artists. She was a muddy star that would never fully shine. Edison smiled at his insight and looked around for somewhere to make a note of it, but couldn't find anything at hand. Edison had a slightly perplexed, nervous look on his face.

Derek, noticing this, told Edison that he was working too hard and ought to take a break tomorrow. Edison caught himself smiling, wondering what he'd done to deserve this life.

Improbable Sunday

This one is for Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Now Choose Your Title. The title comes from the previous week's challenge, which I didn't link because it's just creating a title, which isn't easy, but also doesn't make for much of a post. This is probably the first one I've done where I've felt it sounded like "me" if that makes sense. It needs an edit or two, and some filling out some of the characters, but this one, I like.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The thin line of warm sunlight crept across her bedroom floor from between the blinds and the window frame. The light started on the sill, then slowly, so very slowly, worked it's way down the wall, over a pair of flats which really ought to have been put back in the closet, over the grey tabby which had a gift for anticipating sunlight, up the side of the bed, finally reaching Beth's left cheek. Her eyes fluttered open behind stray strands of long brown bangs and she smiled precisely the sort of smile you would expect to find on someone who is tucked into a comfortable bed and is sleeping in on a weekend morning.

Which was a curious thing as just ten hours ago, it was Tuesday night.

Normally, when Beth was awakened by sunlight on the morning after Tuesday night, she goes from fast asleep to an abruptly upright position, adrenaline working more swiftly than any amount of coffee ever could. Sunlight meant she'd overslept, and "the morning after Tuesday night" meant "Wednesday." Wednesday meant having taking a shower in the dark, drinking something that bore no resemblance to a "shake" no matter what the printing on the can insisted, and driving half-asleep in to the office. 

Instead, she pushed herself up on her elbows, twisted her torso slightly, picked up her glasses from the night stand, and pressed the side of her iPhone. It read "9:17 A.M., Sunday." Sunday meant sleeping in, so she leaned out of the bed and stretched the curtains to cover the sunny little gap. The cat gave her a dirty look, stretched, and hopped up on to the bed, making biscuits in the knitted blanked bunched at the foot of the bed. Beth pulled the sheets back up under her chin, closed her eyes, and dozed back off, never even wondering why there was no date next to "Sunday" on her phone.

---

The fact that the day following Tuesday was, quite improbably, Sunday this week, was accepted by most people with surprisingly little resistance. In hindsight, perhaps it wasn't all that surprising. After all, when everyone knows and agrees that a day is Sunday, then arguing otherwise was just contrariansm and the people who adopted this position did so without any real hint of enthusiasm.

No, the heated arguments, the ones containing passion and tears, were reserved for the "how" and the "why" of the matter: "How did Sunday manage to wedge it's way in to the week after Tuesday, and why on Earth would it do so?" 

---

Luis was an old man ten years ago when they renovated the park in the middle of town. Figuring that "becoming a fixture" was a fitting thing for a man of his advanced years to do, and that "the park in the middle of down" was a good place to do it, he'd been spending most of his days on the benches, at the long-planked wooden tables, and on the crushed orange stone walking paths for a long time now. 

He was an expert on the ebb and flow of traffic in and around the park and could tell when there was going to be a special event like a parade, or when there'd been some sort of public tragedy, just by watching the movement around the park. Oh sure, he also read the news religiously, but if push came to shove, he could tell you a great deal about the local scene without doing any reading at all.

His morning circuit of the walking paths confirmed what he had felt when he woke up. For whatever reason, today was Sunday. Luis didn't really worry too much about it beyond that. Most days were pretty much the same to Luis, but Sundays were always nice since there were most families and fewer drunks in his park. An extra Sunday suited him just fine.

Making his way along the North edge of the park, something clicked. This was the main drag, the street where people who had some sort of romantic notion of local shopping bought books and antiques. There was even a little hardware store. The strange thing was, they were all closed. There weren't any blue laws anymore, but everyone was acting like there were. The only open doors on the street were those of Koval's BBQ and everyone knew that barbecue joints were closed on Mondays.

Luis tipped his hat to Rita, lovely Rita as he hummed to himself. His elbow didn't bark the way it usually did, and he slowly became aware that he wasn't favoring his left hip like normal. 

"Heya Luis! What do you make of this Sunday we're having? Damndest thing, isn't it?" Rita, forty years Luis' junior and all freckles and red hair that wouldn't stay in a bun if you used super glue, was the hostess at Koval's. Seeing Luis making his rounds always brought a huge smile out of her.

"Don't know. Don't know and don't mind an extra Sunday. Wish we had more of 'em." His voice sounded stronger, younger. "I'll tell ya a secret, though: This isn't just any Sunday," and he swept his arm down the street indicating the closed shops, "It's an old Sunday."

Rita just laughed because how the hell else do you respond to something like that?

---

The national, 24-hour news networks spent a lot of air time discussing Sunday because 24 hours is a lot of time and there really wasn't much else going on. It was proving to be a remarkably incident-free day, but incident-free doesn't make for compelling television. 

"If we don't figure out how this happened, how can we be sure it won't happen again? How will we prevent it from happening again?" The speaker was Robert Hastings, who was a popular guest on talk shows as he'd been the CEO of several companies, so he had plenty of credentials. He'd also been largely unsuccessful in those stints, so he also had plenty of availability. He was wearing his navy suit with a white dress shirt and a red silk tie, which is all anyone could remember him wearing.

"Why would we want to do that? What's so terrible about an extra Sunday?" Dr. Caroline Hsu was, in fact, an medical doctor, but when the network called her to appear opposite Mr. Hastings, it was because they wanted her insight as a former campaign manager for a New York senator. Not that either MD or campaign manager qualified her to talk about Sunday, but exactly weren't very many people who had experience in that specific and previously non-existent field.

"Caroline, even you can see what kind of chaos messing with the calendar could create." Dr. Hsu winced at the "even you" but held her tongue. "The NYSE is closed today. Closed! Financial reporting is going to be a disaster. It could take the markets months to recover."

"Mr. Hastings, how do you know that?" Dr. Hsu spoke slowly and carefully, a decrescendo to Hastings. She did this consciously, maybe to keep the discussion at a level she was more comfortable with, maybe to irritate Mr. Hastings. "Do you have any experience with Sundays appearing in the middle of the week? If you could share your data with us..."

"Caroline, you know we've never seen anything like this before. This isn't even possible, and that's why it's so important. If the markets were open, they'd be in chaos."

"But they're not."

"But they would be. How do we know that this isn't an attack? Maybe next time it will be a Monday."

"An attack? A weaponized calendar?" Even viewers with old, curved screen, cathode ray tube television could see Dr. Hsu's eye-roll even behind her vintage, cat-eye glasses. It was one for the ages. "Mr. Hastings, as eager as I am to avoid any additional Mondays, I can't imagine any way to interpret today as an attack."

"Well, Caroline," Mr. Hastings smiled, letting on that he was enjoying this, which he always did but seldom admitted, "What's your theory? How does Sunday end up smack-dab in the middle of the week? It's not possible, but it happened. How? Why?"

"I don't know." Dr. Hsu paused, closed her eyes, and took a breath. Did she really want to answer that? "I don't know, and I don't think anyone knows. Maybe Sunday just wanted to be here today?"

"That's pathetic," Mr. Hastings grinned, remembering his high school English just well enough to get his own joke. "The idea that a day could 'want' something, could even be aware of itself enough to move through the week. Where do you come up with these things?"

---

Ed went to bed last night at his usual time, but he hardly slept. He was a decade older than Dawn, but for some stupid reason, her health had failed before his. By the time they diagnosed the cancer, even though she felt fine, the odds of successful treatment were slim and they faded to none over the course of six short months. At first they were counting how many years she had, then months, then weeks. They were down to days now, and there weren't likely to be too many of those.

Ed did most of his crying alone, in the bathroom and the shower running, so Dawn wouldn't hear him. 

Dawn was the kindest person Ed had ever met and, even forty years later, he puzzled over what she saw in him. That was always the first word that came to his mind. She wasn't a saint by any stretch of the imagination, but when there was no one else willing to be kind to someone, there was Dawn. 

The hospital sent Dawn home with Ed last week. The cancer wasn't going to respond to the treatment, and cancer treatment itself is hell, so there was no point in continuing it. Dawn offered to stay in the hospital so Ed wouldn't have to care for her by himself, and Ed wouldn't hear of it because the dog missed her and because he couldn't bear the idea of her in a hospital bed any longer.

"Please just make it to the weekend," Ed thought to himself, but he knew that she probably wouldn't. They'd worked for decades, neither of them giving much of a damn about their jobs, but their jobs allowed them time off and let them spend time together on the weekends. Those were the best times, the times that counted and meant the most. When they walked, they walked together, in love, with a protective shield, like deep sea divers in their bathysphere. The world and all of it's stupid, sharp-edged, pain couldn't reach them when they were together on weekends.

And so, when Ed awoke on this unexpected Sunday morning, he did not expect to see Dawn in the kitchen preparing him breakfast like she did back when he used to say he didn't like breakfast. She'd always made it anyway, and he'd always loved it.

"I feel better today, honey."

"You look better."

"I think, after breakfast, I'd like to go to the farmer's market, and then the park. I think I can do that." Dawn looked back at Ed sweetly and said, "So get your lazy ass out of bed so I don't have to go by myself."

It was as close to a perfect day as Ed could imagine. Time was acting funny, and he couldn't properly tell what happened when, but they spent the day walking together, having lunch downtown, visiting the book stores, and just being Ed and Dawn. For the first time in months, just being Ed and Dawn.

That evening, when it was much later than they usually went to bed, Dawn nodded off to sleep. Ed made sure she was snoring, then got up, and went into the bathroom and started the shower.

"I don't know if you can hear me, but I think I get it. I bet tomorrow, it'll be Wednesday, and there won't be anyone even remember that you were here. Is that how it works?"

Ed was crying again. Happy, sad, and everything in between.

"I'll remember though, won't I? Everything will go back to normal tomorrow and Dawn and I, we'll be the only ones who remember.  I expect you've done this before, is that right?"

Ed grabbed a towel, wiped his face, and continued talking to Sunday.

"These last six months. They've been...I can't even describe it. I can't imagine life without her. Well, I can. I just can't imagine wanting it. And watching her, the best thing in my life, slowly fade."

"Thank you. Just thank you. You did this for us, didn't you? This means so much to me...to Dawn..."

He was now lost in his tears.

"Thank you."

Martime and the Dragoons

This one's in response to Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Your Very Own Space Opera. This promised to be a lot of fun and it was, but man, I had to cut a ton of flavor out to get to the bones of this one and it's still too long. I have a ton of unused background for Martime and this universe, so I plan to find some way to use that in the future. I like her a lot. You don't get to know her like I do in this one, but her time will come. Trust me on this one.

--------------------------------------------------------

The crate held in the clamps of one of her ship's cargo arms exploded directly with far too much energy to be an accident. This was the first hint Martime had of the Dragooons' presence, which was big problem. Her proximity alarms were now going berserk, but they should detected the nearby ship or ships several minutes ago.

She braced herself for the next shot, but nothing happened for several seconds. The public channel "incoming message" light was blinking, so she waved it in and looked up at her screen. Beyond the wreckage of her cargo arm and the crate it had held were two Dragoon ships: Sleek, fast heavily armed, armored, and ugly as hell. The message played:

"On the authority of [some bullshit entity she'd never heard of], freighter A2N of the Banasaic League is ordered to stop and receive a boarding party. You are suspected of carrying stolen cargo."

Somehow, in parallel, several thoughts crossed Martime's mind at once:

1) "Yep, they're right. All of these crates are stolen. The entire barge is full of them."

2) "They're faster, more maneuverable, and far better armed than I am."

3) “Why hadn't Goff, who might or might not be her boyfriend, and who was remarkably well connected with law enforcement, hinted that she might be in trouble?"

All three of these threads converged on a single point, a thought which neatly summed up each line of thought:

"I am so screwed."

The A2N was nominally a freighter, but it might better be describe as a tug. The ship, with all of the engines, life support, computers, and weapons, was a tiny half-spheroid which had all of the luxury appointments of an efficiency apartment. If Martime weren't comfortable being alone and in tight quarters most of the time, she'd have burned out at this job a long time ago.

"Shit shit shit shit shit," said Martime out loud to no one in particular. She fired the reverse engines to back away from the Dragoons, trying to buy a little time. Then something clicked in her brain. She didn't know much about Dragoons, but she knew they were dispatched in threes. “Boarding party?

She waved through a full external hull scan of the A2N and there it was, locked on the bottom of the half-sphere: The third Dragoon. One of the cargo arms was toast, but the other seemed to be fully functionally. Martime waved it underneath the hull and swatted at the Dragoon. The Dragoon was a state-of-the-art military interceptor; the cargo arm was a design older than Martime's grandmother, but it was built to shift cargo and even barges if necessary. It was no contest. The Dragoon's grip on the A2N failed and the sleek, black, slightly rumpled ship spun away, thrusters trying to control the spin.

Forget that one for now,” Martime thought and then, unhelpfully, “What the hell is a 'Dragoon' anyway? Across between a dragon and a goon?”

It was at this time that the entire cargo barge started to explode. The two remaining Dragoons were firing salvo after salvo, starting at the back of the barge and moving forward.

Oh you shits. It is so on.” Martime, all five foot one of her, brushed her asymmetrical bangs from her eyes, made sure she was securely bound in her chair, and waved the release command for the barge. The A2N was still lightly armed and armored without the barge section, but the mass to thrust ratio was suddenly much, much more favorable. She whispered “floor it,” and the A2N crushed her against her chair. Under absurd G-forces, she switched to eye-movement command. She aimed her ship directly between the two Dragoons, counting on them not to fire at each other.

Her faith was misplaced. The Dragoons, or at their gunners at least, we good enough to miss each other but not good enough to hit her. She considered throwing her ship into a spinning corkscrew to evade whatever explode-y beams they were shooting at her, but she settled on a slight random wobble so she wouldn't lose as much acceleration. It must have been enough, as the flashes of light that would have meant the end of her never touched the A2N's hull.

Now that her ship was lighter and had more thrust than her pursuers, they weren't going to catch her unless they disabled her ship. Martime considered the implications of firing on what were apparently some sort of official law enforcement ships. She weighed this against the fact that they'd fired on her and blown her barge to smithereens and made the only rational decision she could make.

“Arm missiles.”

Previously-dormant lights suddenly began dancing down the side of a rack of four S2S missiles. When the lights went green, they emerged on an arm from what might was well have been the bottom of the half-sphere vessel, between the lower-left and lower-right thrusters. Using her eyes, Martime set two of the missiles to track each of the Dragoons. The third, the spinner, was so far away she could afford to leave it alone.

“Fire.”

Deep breath.

“Ok, you assholes. You either veer off your pursuit course or you eat a missile at relativistic speeds. What'll it be?” Her pursuer's velocity worked against them when they had missiles coming down their throat. The missile's vector was exactly the opposite of that of the A2N, so dodging meant losing ground in pursuit.

One of the two Dragoons had made the U-turn ahead of his counterpart and was significantly closer to the A2N. The captain wagered his ship and his crew's lives against the chance that Martime's targeting would be off.

Martime's targeting was perfect.

The Dragoon's nose sparked briefly like a match head which failed to completely light, and then the entire ship become a brilliant, white-hot globe, a near perfect sphere, expanding from where the Dragoon's fuel had been stored.

The captain of the second Dragoon brought his ship around in a wide arc which the missiles couldn't follow, leaving them to race out of the galaxy unexploded but still incredibly fast.

Martime saw her pursuers disappear, one violently and one less so, and allowed her acceleration to drop to the point where she could sigh comfortably. She decided it was time to get back home and had her computer set up a velocity which would match the Sol system when she got out of hyperspace. As the computer calculated the course, she reflected on her luck. But...was it luck? Something about the encounter bugged her.

Think, Martime. Energy weapons, beam weapons. Those don't miss. Their computer is as good as your...it's bound to be better. Beams move at the speed of light. You don't dodge beams.”

She frowned. Now would be a good time for her brain to turn off, but it wasn't having any of it.

The Dragoon captains aren't stupid. They had to know the barge was detachable and that damaging it wouldn't damage the ship. The A2N is one of the most popular designs in the galaxy.”

Whoever, whatever was behind this, they didn't care about her cargo and they didn't want to kill her or destroy her ship. They wanted her….or something she had.

She considered waving the command to enter hyperspace, and thought about the months in complete isolation, unable to communicate with anyone or, more specifically, get any answers. She decided to do something else.

“Contact Goff,” she said aloud.

Goff's face appeared on the screen, but it was a static image. Goff's voice read what was obviously a rehearsed message.

“Martime, honey! So glad you called. I'm sorry I can't take this live, but I can guess why you've contacted me. I can't help with bail, but I'll vouch for you. They should let you go once they've got that chip necklace of yours. You should never have taken that, honey bunch. If you just give it back, everything will be ok, I promise. I love you!”

The message ended.

“Well...apparently 'I love you' is Goff-speak for 'I fucking sold you out.'” Martime was now talking to herself, loudly, and with a level of malice most machine intelligences would have recognized. She grabbed Goff's stupid necklace from one of her storage bins, stared at it, but wasn't able to guess what made worth sending three space bastards after her to retrieve.

There was a war going on in Martime's head. The rational voice was telling her that Sol was still the right destination. She had family and friends there, not to mention resources and, if it came to it, some confidence in the local authorities. The rational voice lost.

“Cancel destination. Set new course for Goff's home system. And reload those fucking missiles while you're at it.”

.

 

The Bookseller's Grandson

Here's another Chuck Wendig flash fiction special: Pick A Character And Go, Go, Go. The idea was to take a character from another writer's response to the previous week's challenge (Time To Create A Character). I went with Christine Chrisman's unnamed character. He seemed like an interesting fellow to take out for a ride. 

--------------------------------------

“You sure this is the right place? Looks kinda, you know, shitty, for a guy who has the kinda goods this guy has,” said the man in the black suit, fuchsia shirt open at the neck, and designer aviators.

“Shove it Carl. This place fits the description she gave us. This is it,” the older, shorter, and heavier man responded. Mr. Jenkins was wearing what he always wore to work: A baby blue guayabera, Dockers old enough that they may have once had pleats but you'd never be sure now, and a white straw hat. Mr. Jenkins knew that Carl disapproved of his look, but Carl was an idiot and could go fuck himself for all Mr. Jenkins cared. He respected Carl's work so much that, even though the younger man was the “muscle” on this gig, Mr. Jenkins had a Beretta tucked into his waistband.

The sign over the shop read “books,” or might have, if you gave the faded “k” and “s” the benefit of the doubt. Mr. Jenkins gave the outside of the store a quick look before pulling the door open. The windows dingy, which was unusual for a book store, but also free of the tell-tale yellow patina of nicotine, which fit. The display consisted of a dozen or so paperback by authors he'd never heard of (but his familiarity with books was limited to what one would see in airport convenience store, which is to say, Tom Clancy and not much else.) They were displayed on cheap wire stands on top of stacks of other books instead as opposed to, say, shelves. Based on what he'd heard, Mr. Jenkins wasn't surprised.

Mr. Jenkins nodded quickly to his partner and pulled the door open. His serious expression disappear instantly as he greeted the lone clerk behind the counter.

“Hiya! Can tell me where your Tom Clancy books are?”

The man behind the counter didn't make eye contact. His head stayed turned to his left, which Mr. Jenkins took to mean the books were in that direction.

“Thank you!”

Mr. Jenkins ambled to his right, slowly, and not quite directly, keeping his body slightly turned towards the counter. Carl's sunglasses hid a truly epic roll of the eyes. He hated this role-playing shit and just wanted to get on with it. He stood awkwardly just inside the doorway and checked his watch.

Mr. Jenkins got a better look at the shopkeeper. He fit the bill: Forty something, maybe fifty, glasses that would have been ironic on someone cooler, hair a mess, awkward slouch, and suspenders that even Mr. Jenkins recognized as a fashion faux pas. This was him. Mr. Jenkins didn't pay quite enough attention to where he was going and bumped into a stack of books topped with an impressive stack of unopened mail. He turned to apologize to the shopkeeper.

The shopkeeper reached down under the counter.

Carl reacted first and pulled his MAC-10 in a way that indicated he'd probably practiced drawing it more than he had firing it. He trained it directly on the shopkeeper. Mr. Jenkins pulled his piece as well, since, well, fuck it, if a gun's been pulled, might as well put all your cards on the table.

“Alright, whatever you're reaching for, bring it up, nice and slow,” Mr. Jenkins said in a voice that suggested he was comfortable speaking in an environment where guns were in play. The shopkeeper continued his motion as though he wasn't even aware of intended menace, made eye contact with Carl, and displayed a thin, white plastic bag from a c-store, stuffed full of books, wadded up clothes, and maybe some tupperware, but importantly, nothing remotely threatening. He walked out from behind the counter. Carl looked around and, to his disappointment, noticed there wasn't a cash register. It hadn't clicked with Carl that a cash register in this particular shop wouldn't have much in the way of cash.

“Alright pal, you're coming with us,” Mr. Jenkins ordered the man who appeared to already be coming with them. “And Carl? Put the fucking toy away.”

Mr. Jenkins put his gun back in his waistband and followed the shopkeeper out the front door. The man with the stupid suspenders just kept walking, maybe following Carl, but almost like he knew where he was going.

“Buddy, you wanna lock up?”

The shopkeeper  turned around, almost facing Mr. Jenkins,  and maybe mumbled something to himself or maybe to Mr. Jenkins, turned back around and continued towards Carl's Lexus (which Carl most definitely could not afford.) He did not look very much like a man who was being kidnapped. He did not look frighted at all. Much later, Mr. Jenkins would ask himself why this didn't concern him more.

***

The shopkeeper was thinking about King Arthur and about how putting a sword in stones and in lakes was a strange thing to do and then about how the water would taste with a a sword and a magical woman, or at least her arm in it and if you drank from it, would any of the magic be in the water and how you would bottle that water and how long the magic would stay active if you were to try to transport it and...

...and then two men walked in the door to the shop. Without staring, he nonetheless saw enough to understand that they weren't customers.

One man dressed in a cheap suit with a big gun poorly concealed under the jacked. The other made an exaggerated attempt to appear friendly, but he had a smaller gun. Neither appeared interested in books. Both appeared interested in me for no obvious reason.

The older man continued to feign joviality as he split from the younger, taller man who wore sunglasses indoors, apparently because he liked the look because sunglasses do not work like regular glasses. In most books, people who do this care a lot about appearance.

The shopkeeper reached for the bag of stuff he brought with him to and from work each day. Right as he did this, the older man tripped on some clutter in the shop. This distracted both men briefly, and when they noticed the book clerk reaching form something, they assumed the worst and drew their guns.

It is time to leave with them.One of them has a Dodge car key on the ring clipped to his belt loop. We will be leaving in the nearest Dodge vehicle.

As they left, the older man asked the shopkeeper if he'd like to lock the doors. He'd never locked the door since his grandfather, the shops original owner, passed away. He loved to come to the store when it was his grandfather's. He'd sit in the corner and read and ask questions and read some more and no one ever tried to talk to him.

He kept coming after his grandfather died. It seemed like the only thing to do. The store wasn't exactly his, but it wasn't anyone else's either. His grandfather seemed to have anticipated this and made arrangements. The fact that the utilities were never disconnected was due to his foresight in setting up an account to pay for these things so his grandson wouldn't have to. Grandfather took a great many precautions to protect his grandson, usually in the form of unusual gifts.

Since his grandfather's passing, he'd continued coming to the shop every day because what else was he going to do? So he read. He'd read every book in the shop exactly once. He'd heard of people re-reading books, but why? Did they forget them? 

Countless observations went through his head as he worked out what the next twenty-four hours would likely hold, but all that came out in a mumbled, staccato burst, were :

"Three. Distracted. One."

He watched the route carefully so he'd know how to get home when this was over tonight. He'd never seen most of the streets, even though they were near his store. He knew the maps of the city by heart, though, so he wasn't lost. He had stacks of maps in one corner of his shop. He'd looked at them all long enough to learn them. He hadn't forgotten, so there was no need to look at them again.

There is a Master Lock key on the key chain. We are going to a self-storage park. Based on the route, we are going to the one on Pecan Street, six blocks from here. These men are professional criminals, part of an organization, but not very high up. They do not like each other very much. They are not very smart.

The Dodge pulled in to the self-store place, a locally owned operation. The criminals led the shopkeeper into small, locked room, 12'x12' according to the sticker on the door but, as the shopkeeper immediately noticed, somewhat less. 

Cuts corners. Cheats his customers. No security guard. Good place for bad men.

The unit was appointed like a move interrogation room by way of a teenager's garage. There was a single, unshaded bulb hanging from the ceiling, but also one of those awful 90's torchiere things, an old but expansive sofa, a mini fridge, and, of course, the single wooden chair directly under the light bulb in the center of the room.

The shopkeeper, still clutching his plastic bag and largely avoiding eye-contact, sat down on the chair in the center of the room without being directed to do so.  The older man sat on the sofa, dead center, facing the shopkeeper and leaning forward. The younger one stood by the door, still wearing his shades, trying to look menacing and cool and not really sticking the landing on either of them.

"Pal, we've heard some interesting things about you," said Mr. Jenkins, his elbows resting on his knees, his hands clasped. "We know you don't talk much, so let me tell you a story. One of the guys in our organization did a little snatch job, a lady's luggage on a flight to Cali."

The shopkeeper looked over at the man in the cheap suit, scowled, and turned his head.

"Yeah, ok, it was him. Not surprised you knew. Anyway, he grabbed her carry-on when she got up to take a leak, stuffed it inside his empty bag, easy-peasy. She had some stuff our boss wanted, we got it, no problem."

Customer. Yesterday. She was a nice lady. Seemed uncomfortable.

The older man in the unfashionable shirt was trying to read the expression on the shopkeeper's face, but it was like most of the reading he'd done: He knew there was something there to be learned, but damned if he knew what it was. 

"What's interesting, though, is what she told the cops when she landed at LAX. She said a guy in a bookstore, the clerk, had said three words to her: 'Baggage, flight, night.' Coulda been just random chance, of course, but she sure as shit didn't think so."

Tickets in her purse, saw them when she paid. Anyone paying attention would have seen she had a night flight and she'd paid for a carry on. 

"So, anyway, me and Carl here, we hear about this and think it might mean something. Long shot, of course. Hell of a long shot. But, you know what? I start asking around and I start hearing stories. I hear stories about people who go to buy books, or comics, or whatever, and a guy who doesn't normally says shit says a few words to them, and those words wind up meaning something. Like a horoscope, only real specific. Sound familiar?"

Paying attention is easy. Anyone can do it. Why don't they? Sometimes words come out. Wish they wouldn't.

"Yeah, didn't think you'd say anything. So here's the deal: We kidnapped you already, so we're already talking felonies here. All things considered, killing you is probably less risky for us than just letting you go. Sorry about that, it's not personal, it just works that way. So now's the part where you got to convince us."

The shopkeeper did not give any indication of understanding, let alone trying to convince the man of of anything.

"If you got a gift, and I'm betting you do, show us. We play our cards right, we figure out a way to use it. So, say something, do something, that makes us think it worth the risk to keep you alive. Sure, you'll be working for us, but that's a lot better than the alternative, you know?"

I know. But I know they're bored, they're comfortable.

The older man stared for as long as he could, waiting. He said "I can wait here all night," but he didn't look like he was eager to do it. After a long minute, he got up, turned around and opened the mini fridge. He reached in and looked over at the taller man, and asked "You want one?"

The man in the suit and the sunglasses looked over, said "Yeah, sure, why not?" The older man tossed him a can, which he caught with one hand before he turned back to the shopkeeper.

"Oh fuck me," were the last words he said.

The shopkeeper's gun, his grandfather's WW2 era Colt,  was no longer in the plastic sack; it was in his hand and it was pointing directly at the older man.

He's the threat. The young man has an automatic, but he's clumsy and has never been tested. This one has.

The gun went off. The man, who was starting to turn around from the mini fridge, fell immediately. The shopkeeper turned moved the gun slightly to the right, aimed at the man in the suit who was most definitely not going to get his baby machine gun out in time, and fired again.

Should have frisked me. Lazy. Dumb. 

The shopkeeper put wrapped the pistol in a t-shirt that was also in the sack and picked it up.  He stepped over the body of the man in the suit, opened the door, and exited the car park. 

Three point two miles to get home from home. Two point five feet per step.Two thousand, one hundred twelve steps per mile. Six thousand, seven hundred fifty eight steps to get home. Six thousand, seven hundred fifty seven steps. Six thousand, seven hundred fifty six steps...

 

book.jpg

Cecil

This one's not a story, per se. Mr. Wendig's challenge  this week is to create a character in 250 words. For once, I've actually stuck to the suggested length, although only just. 

-----------------------------------------------------------

If you were to ask Cecil to describe himself, you wouldn't learn much. You'd get awkward, mumbled noises and few phrases designed to hide more than to reveal like, phrases like "I don't know, I'm pretty average, I guess.” You might better off asking his friends to describe him. If you did that, you'd find out that they all agreed on three things:

1) Cecil didn’t care much for the name "Cecil.” He spent his sixth grade year trying to give himself nicknames, but none of them stuck. His middle name was "Martin," but even Cecil couldn't imagine anyone calling him "C.M." He resigned himself to his fate when he was fourteen, but he's never been comfortable with it and he jumps a little when people call him by it.

2) Cecil doesn't like calling attention to himself. He's not the class clown; he's the guy who feeds the jokes to the class clown. He's not the only senior at the school who hasn't been on a proper date, but you can kind of tell he feels like it sometimes. He's reasonably athletic and he wouldn't be too unattractive if he'd do something about that bowl haircut and he could find pants that fit his 6’3”, 140 pound frame.

3) The strange thing isn’t that people tended to wind up doing what Cecil wanted. The strange thing is that they think it's their own idea.

There was not magic to this third item. Cecil was just a very clever boy.

No, you're not getting any hints from the picture. That would be cheating.

No, you're not getting any hints from the picture. That would be cheating.

Texoma by Torchlight

In response to Wendig's flash fiction challenge Another X Meets Y Pop Culture Challenge!

I made this tougher on myself than I needed to, but I got Snow Crash meets American Gods. The idea was not to write fan fiction mashing up the two properties, but to do it taking the core motifs of each of them and writing something about where they intersect. Here's where I went with it:

--------------------------------------------

I.

"Have we met? You seem kind of familiar," Danny hears himself asking, not entirely sure what it is about about the other man in the boat he thinks he recognizes.

"Nope, probly not. You might 'a heard of me, tho." 

The ragged man guns the little Evenrude at the back of the jon boat that, even in the darkness, Danny knows is absolutely certain to be olive drab. He's sitting near the bow of the boat, opposite end from its pilot, in the wind and something that was closer to splashing than the more-poetic "spray" and, even though it was hot as Hell tonight, he shivers and tries to make himself small.

Danny has no idea where he is or how he got here. Adding to the fucked-uppedness of the situation, he finds himself remembering parts of his chat with the gaunt, bearded fellow at the back of the boat.

“You say your name is 'Kieron'?”

The tall boatman faces the waters off to the side of the boat, although no direction looks any different than any other. He doesn't turn to face Danny, but he lets off the throttle so his passenger can hear him.

“Somethin' like that.”

Southern accent, Danny thinks. No, not Southern. Texan.

“Where we heading?”

“Across,” Kieron answers. His voice doesn't invite further questions and a wiser man would have paid more attention to his tone.

“Not in any hurry to get there, are we?” At this, he turns his head toward Danny. His eyes flicker with red light which might be a reflection of the running lights, even though Danny hadn't noticed any.

“Reckon I’m doin’ you a favor. The two bits your friend gave me back there get you across, but that all they get you. Anything else, you're relying on my good nature.” There's no malice in his drawl, but no empathy, either.

Danny does the math and quickly comes to the conclusion that Kieron's good nature is of extremely limited supply and not something one ought to test. He's damp, the damn boat is bouncing up and down on the waves and making his ass hurt, and he just can't stop shivering. He still doesn't know what's going on, but he does know two things: 1) He's fortunate to be on this boat right now because 2) Whatever is behind him is about as bad as it can possibly get.

II.

Danny is in his head now. It’s not a dream, but it’s also not not a dream. He’s in a room that won’t stay one size or shape, a room that expands or contracts depending on where he’s looking. He’s on a plain, stained pine chair which he knows isn’t comfortable even though he can’t feel it.

In front of him, no matter which way he looks, is a short man with a Jimmy Durante nose and almost no hair on his head. What little there is looks like it was trimmed with a weed whacker. He’s leaning on a dark cane, probably wood of some sort with snakes carved in to it, his head tilted to the side, regarding Danny. His eyes are bright but blank and he’s smiling faintly.

Danny, resigned to the fact that he’s simply not going to get his bearings in this place, decides to talk to the little man.

“The fuck, man. What is this? This isn’t real.”

The other fellow shook a little as if awakened from the lightest slumber, straightened his head, and responded:

“You don’t know what it is and you’re sure it’s not real? Cart before the horse, kiddo.”

“Ok, then what’s going on? Is this real?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s better. We’re in your mind, you figured that one out I guess, but is it real?  That’s one for the philosophers, ain’t it? Not my thing. I feel it, I touch it, I talk to it? Real enough for me.”

“That’s real helpful.” Danny and sarcasm, inseparable since birth. “Who’re you?”

“Eh, you wouldn’t know it or know how to say it. Just call me ‘Ask.’ Most folks do, if they call me at all.”

“Ask and ye shall receive, huh?” Danny didn’t laugh at his own joke. “Why…why all this?” he asked, waving his arm around the room and regretting it immediately when the vertigo hit.

“You’re in trouble kid. Big trouble. I’m tryin’ to help you out, but someone, someone very bad, decided to try to take you down. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“I got an e-mail from a girl. Didn’t know her, but she had a pretty name, so I opened it. Started reading, and next thing I know, I’m here.”

“Remember what it was about?”

“Huh. No, not really. I remember starting to read it and thinking it was weird as hell, but I don’t really remember what was in it.” Danny thought for a moment and then added with obvious disappointment, “No pictures.”

“About what I thought.” The gnomish man, who didn’t really look that old, but Danny could tell he was, took a step toward Danny, squinting, mumbling to himself, and scratched his ear, thinking.

“Son, you thought the wrong thoughts. You thought some very bad thoughts, some thoughts that messed you up in here,” he waved his cane to indicate the entire room. “I came here to try to help you, but it’s gonna take some work.”

“Dude, I read an email. Read. Just reading something isn’t doing anything. It’s not as real as this stupid place.”

“Danny, how’m I going to explain this to you? You got computers, right? You people have them now?”

“Sure,” Danny responded, because how the Hell do you respond to something like that?

“Ok, that’s good. I can explain this to you. Danny, when a computer runs a program, is it doing anything real?”

“I guess…maybe?”

Ask sighed and mentally backtracks.

“Does running a program make changes in the data, make things change on the screen, and the like?”

“Yeah, ok, it does stuff. So?”

“Good. You get that part. Computers can ‘think’ and their thinking changes things.”

“Yeah, but the email. That’s just data. It’s just text. Your analogy sucks.”

“Sucks, does it? Listen to the smart fellow. You ever read a book?”

“Yeah, asshole, I’ve read a book”

“You people think books are just information. Not so. Books can change the way you think. Sure, you learns things about whatever you’re reading about, but you ever find yourself thinking in the voice of one of the characters?”

“I dunno.”

“He doesn’t know.” Ask rolls his eyes and shifts his cane. Danny thinks he sees one of the carved snakes flick its tongue at him, which is stupid, but then, what about this isn’t stupid? “Take my word for it, you have. I can tell these things about people.”

“Yeah, fine. So what?”

“Here’s the thing: If ‘thinking’ is like a computer running a program, sometimes, part of the program is an operating system patch. Reading stuff can change your worldview which is as close to an operating system as this comparison will get.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, you think you’re just processing data, but you’re executing code at the same time, boyo.” Ask grinned his gnome-iest grin and continued. “And that is why you’re fucked, and it’s why I’m trying to un-fuck you right now.”

III.

It finally dawns on Danny that sitting clenched in a ball isn’t making him any warmer, so like a hermit crab that’s been knocked over, he slowly uncurls his limbs and leans out over the bow of the jon boat. The motor is buzzing along loudly, but they don’t seem to be making very good time. He thinks about asking Kieron why they’re going so slow and, thinking a second time, decides to keep his mouth shut. As if to reward Danny’s silence, the boatman speaks up.

“It looks like open water, but it ain’t quite that simple. There’s all kinds a’ things under the surface, waitin’ to foul the prop or knock us off course. It don’t take much; one nudge and we’ll never find the shore you’re aimin’ for.”

Danny waits until the silence felt like an invitation.

“What kind of thing? Logs and weeds?”

“Somethin’ like that.” Kieron grins and Danny shivers again. “The channel’s never exactly the same any two trips. I could do it blind, but seein’ as I have a passenger, it’s best if I keep my eye on the water.”

IV.

“I’m supposed to trust you to ‘un-fuck’ me, whatever that means?” Danny tried to sound agitated, but he was having a hard time actually feeling it.

“Only choice you got.” Ask was waving his cane around and mumbling something in a language Danny couldn’t identify, much less understand. “Lucky for you, I’m good at what I do. Hey, not that I couldn’t find out for myself by poking around in here, but what were you doing that made them send you that love letter? You don’t strike me as a theologian, no offense.”

“None comprehended.”

“I mean, you don’t seem especially devout, ya know?”

“Nah, not really. No one could ever explain why one God was better than any other. Even the myths, the Greeks and the Norse, made as much since to me as the ones at church. I kind of though anyone could make them up.”

Ask didn’t have much in the way of eyebrows, but he managed to raise what he had impressively. “Go on…”

Danny feels like he’s suddenly gone from being casual observed to being under the microscope. He doesn’t want to keep talking, but he can no more stop than he could down the Hind of Ceryneia and he doesn’t even know what a hind is and now he’s getting scared.

“So I read about some of the newer religions and thought those seemed suspicious, so I started making up stuff.  Heroes and Gods and adventures and stuff.”

Ask whistles and it could have been appreciatively but Danny thought it sounded more like a polite way of saying “You dumb shit, you’re in so much deeper than I thought.”

V.

Kieron lets the Evenrude idle and stands up in the back of the boat. He’s taller than Danny guessed, but he must not weigh anything at all. The boat doesn’t rock even the slightest when he stands.

“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but…are we lost?” Danny looks out over the lake and, if he stares at the same spot long enough, he can just make out a shoreline. He can make one out in every direction, which only makes sense if they’re in the center of the lake and he’s pretty sure they aren’t.

“’Spose one of us is, at least. Or used ta’ be.” Kieron takes a moment to stare at Danny, and it’s a stare Danny interprets as “How do you rate?” He lifts a tremendous paddle from the bottom of the boat and plunged it into the water. “Been a while since I made the trip in this direction. It’s comin’ back to me now.”

“Why the oar?” Danny asked, although he doesn’t notice any difference in speed.

“Eh, some folks are funny about expectations. They expect an oar so hard that they’ll see an oar. Nothin’ I can do about it.”

Danny doesn’t say anything, but he thinks a stack of them. He thinks “Why don’t you do anything about it?” and “What do you mean ‘this direction’?” and “I don’t rate, I’m just a kid who writes stupid comic books.” He doesn’t get any indication that the boatman wants any more questions, but he also doesn’t get any suggestion that his mind is being read again, so there’s that, he guesses.

VI.

"You just make up Gods, do you?” Ask always seemed a little amused, but he seemed a little more amused now.

“Why not? They make as much sense the other ones, and they’re probably just as real.”

“No, they’re not. Not yet. Might be later, if you’re any good, which most of you aren’t.”

“Bullshit. Gods don’t just pop into existence when someone makes them up. That’s dumb.”

“Ah, you’re right, you little shit. But when people start to believe in ‘em? Then it gets weird in a hurry.” Ask looked around for something, sighed, and lifted his can, struggling a little with his balanced. He drew a circle in the air. Somehow, the image of the circle remained.

“This is your world, Danny, this circle.” He drew another one, same size, not quite concentric. Two coffee cup stains on Danny’s mental notebook. “And this, this another world. It’s like yours, but it’s not quite as real. It’s the world imagined by people’s beliefs, their faiths if you will.”

“Less real? You’re either real or you’re not.”

“What do you know about real? You people and your binaries. Man/woman. Gay/straight. Alive/dead. There’s fractional values in between in every case. Fractals. OK? Think of this second world as a fractional reality.”

“Whatever.” Danny didn’t actually see Ask rap him on the side of his head with the cane, but he felt it.

“Smart mouth. Only part of you that’s smart. Here’s where it gets interesting. Let’s say this second ring is, oh, the Greek mythology reality. It’s the reality of people who believe in Zeus and that crew.” He hooked the cane on the second loop and moved it off to the side where there was almost no overlap with the first loop. “Now, what this means is that the people who still believe in this pantheon, their beliefs are all over the place.” He drew another circle where the one he moved had previously been, one that almost, but not quite, matched the first circle. “This one’s more like one of those recent faiths you were talking about. These fellas beliefs line up pretty close.”

“Great, the universes are like a big Venn diagram.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was getting at. They key thing to remember, which I’m sure you won’t, is that the more closely aligned the believers’ beliefs, the more closely it lines up with what you think of as the ‘real’ world.”

Danny stares blankly. He wants to ask dozens of questions, but he can’t think of any that make sense. He even raises his arm slightly, thinks, and rests it back in this lap.

“Why’s it matter? I’ll tell ya why it matters. Look at this circle, the one that almost matches your world. Lotta overlap, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Looks like it, but the only parts that matter are where the circles intersect,” Ask gestured with his cane, pointing out the two spots where the two circles crossed. “Those are the only places where the realities intersect and interact. Now, your reality, it’s got more dimensions than these two here, so there’s more than two places where their reality and yours might as well be the same thing.” Ask pauses, satisfied with his buildup, ready to savor the finish. “Look what happens when all the believers’ beliefs are in perfect alignment” and he nudged the circles directly over on another.

“Shit.”

“Shit indeed, my friend. Shit indeed.”

 VII.

 The shore is now clearly in sight, but that doesn't make it any clearer. If Danny focuses directly on one spot, it looks like any other prairie lake shore. When he lets his eyes or attention drift, the shoreline changes, like now, there's a faint blue glow lined with trees that couldn't possibly exist and massive, four-legged beasts lurking in the fog behind the treeline. Danny knows if he looks right at it and tries to recognize it, it'll turn back into tall grass and cattails. Doesn't stop him from trying, of course.

Danny guesses they'd probably be there by now, but the Kieron is bringing them in on a serpentine path, navigating a maze only he can see. For once, the boatman's the one who breaks the silence.

"Don't normally make the crossing this direction. Don't think the water likes it."

"You go back and forth, don't you?"

Kieron smiles and it's almost friendly. 

"You'd think so, wouldn't you? Always the same direction. No clue how. Life's mysteries, huh?" He thinks about what he said for a moment, and adds, "Hell of a choice of words there."

"Funny," Danny says without any real enthusiasm. "Why's the shore keep changing?"

"Figure Ask musta told you about the circles."

"Oh yeah," Danny responds, suggesting that Ask told him rather a lot about the circles.

"Loves them circles. Or just showin' off that fancy cane o' his. He's right, though, 'bout the way they overlap."

"This is one of those places?"

"Sorta the edge of it. That place we just were?"

"Mm hmm?"

'They all overlap there."

VIII.

Ask is on a roll now. Danny gets the impression that Ask doesn't have too many opportunities to talk to people and he makes the most of those opportunities he gets.

"Back in the day, priests had to memories holy books. They had to transcribe them, word for word, Hell, stroke for stroke. They weren't just being what you folks amusing call 'anal.' It wasn't just important to get it right, it had to be exactly the same every time."

"Sort of like the way a computer program doesn't work if you get one character wrong." Danny senses motion now. He's in the same room, on the same chair, but he feels like his moving even though his eyes tell him otherwise. His inner ear is not enjoying this.

"Yeah, yeah, you get it. Gotta get every brain processing the exact same information, lining everything up perfectly."

"I bet mass media's been a field day for them."

"Yeah, you'd think so, but that ain't how it works. Gutenberg, now Gutenberg was a field day. Didn't have to depend on drunken monks to get everything right. But the deal is, the mind has to process the words for it to work. Just looking at pictures? Watching a story? That's the difference between running a program and just looking at a screensaver. Didn't do shit."

"Huh," is all Danny can manage in response. "So, my stories. They're just stories. Nobody believes them. I don't believe them."

"Danny old boy, the folks we're talking about? They got a different relationship with time. If they think your stories are gonna mess up their game, they have a reason for it. By the way, you can thank me now. You are officially un-fucked."

"I don't feel any better. So, that e-mail. Words, because it takes a brain processing words to do this stuff, right?"

"That's about the shape of it."

"What they sent me is what fucked me up. Tried to kill me? Just hurt me real bad?" Danny notices that the walls of the room are fading and he's starting to see what's beyond outside them, and his brain feels like it's physically recoiling from whatever it is that's out there that's rotting, swarming, slashing, screaming, tearing, ripping, crying and pretty much everything that Danny never wants to see or think about every again.

"Nah, they can't do that. Doesn't work like that. They can't kill you. But they can send you to the land of the dead." Ask smiles as though admiring his handiwork. "Now let's get you the Hell out of here." He hands Danny a couple of quarters and says "When you meet my friend, you  might wanna put these in your eyes. He's kind of old-fashioned..."

IX.

 The boat is now approaching the shore, the right shore, the one that looks like a shore to Danny. He wants so badly to jump out and swim the last thirty feet or so, but he knows damned well it would be a disaster to do so.  Besides, something's bugging him and he guesses correctly this will be his last chance to ask.

"So, why are you and Ask helping me out?"

"Damn fine question. I 'spect our bosses, the folks up on the mountain, wouldn't much care for us helpin' you. They've pretty much lost interest in your world and don't much care if someone else moves in what used to be their turf." Kieron spoke slowly, sounding very serious, and very, very old for someone with such a Texan drawl. "Some of us, though, we took a likin' to y'all. We like the way your world works, the way it interacts with ours without being ours, if that makes any sense."

"No, not really. But not any less than anything else."

"Reckon it don't. Don't mean it ain't true, though."

The bottom of the boat scrapes the shore and Kieron digs the oar into the mud to push the bow up over dry land.

"Danny, keep writin' your stories. Stir up that pot real good. Don't let any of them circles line up. You do that, we're square. Don't even need to bring me any silver next time." Danny stood up and his front foot touches dry land for the first time in what might as well be an eternity.

"And Danny? Don't look back when you get off the boat."

 

 





Sustainable Greediness

I had to look twice to make sure it was really him drinking alone at the end of the airport bar. Given that the only thing I knew three things about Perry Kenwauld:

1) Perry Kenwauld was the most respected economist in the world according to the people most people thought of as the most respected economists in the world.

2) According to the very few available accounts, his appearance matched that of the little man sitting at the bar, from his off-center bald spot to his impish half-grin on the left side of his face, to his tiny hands, too small even for a man I'd guess was no more than five foot two wearing the pair of unscuffed roughout western boots he was sporting.

3) As far as I knew before today, Perry Kenwauld didn't actually exist.

So I just stared blankly for who knows how long until he got tired of pretending not to notice and waved me over to join him. 

"Not many folks recognize me, pard'ner!" I couldn't tell you where Kenwauld was from, but I could say with great surety that it wasn't Texas. Not that he wasn't trying to give that impression: He was turned out in pressed Wranglers, a floral-motif western shirt tucked in above an oversized silver buckle depicting a bucking bronco, and sitting on the bar next to him was a broad, unpressed Stetson that wouldn't couldn't possibly come close to fitting Kenwauld's head. And yet, somehow, his accent was even less convincing than his outfit. "Quit yer gawkin' and set yerself down next to me here." So I did.

"Can I buy you a drink?" I asked, not quite sure how to start a conversation. This tickled him tremendously. I still couldn't stop staring. He looked somewhere between twenty and two hundred years old, depending on how the light hit him.

"You buy me a drink? Son, that's about the funniest damn thing I heard all day. But since you asked, I'm drinking scotch. The best they got ain't worth a damn, but it'll have to do." He waved at the bartender and held up two fingers, and the bartender nodded and brought our drinks over. Apparently, Perry Kenwauld had been here a while.

"So...I 'spect you're in the industry. Can't figure how you'd a made me otherwise." 

"Yes. Yes sir. I'm just getting started, but I read a lot. Some of the stories don't make any sense, so I read more, and then, when I get to the part that reads more like fiction, that's when your name shows up. I'm Don, by the way. Don Richmond," I said, extending my hand.

"Heh...howdy Don. 'Spose you know my name. You like my get-up? I figure, I ain't real anyway, might as well be anyone I wanna be. What brings ya to RIC?"

"On my way out to a conference, actually. Another crack at trying to figure out why things are the way they are, and how to fix them."

"Fix them? Son, what makes you think it's broke'd? Hell, I can tell you why things are the way they are." He gave me a quick smile, more mischievous than conspiratorial, and picked up his previously-unnoticed briefcase and set it in his lap. He cracked it open and revealed...

...a Monopoly set. 

"You're funny," I said, making sure to emphasize it in a way that suggested I didn't mean it at all.

"No shit I am. But if you think this ain't the real deal, then listen up. You know this history of this here game, right?"

"Of course. The Charles Darrow myth, and the true story. The woman, Elizabeth somthing."

"Magie was her name. 'Course, that's not the whole story." I raised an eyebrow in question, but he didn't need the encouragement. "Elizabeth Magie. Hell of an economist, that woman. Taught at the facility. You prob'ly never heard of it. Called the University of Charlestons."

"Charles-tons? Plural?"

"Little joke of ours. Center of the real Bermuda triangle. Midpoint of Charleston, South Carolina, Charleston, Rhode Island, and Bermuda. Shoulda been a Charleston, Bermuda, too. Anyway, big ol' barge we kept out there, where we did, where we do most of the real economic work."

"The real Bermuda triangle?" I wasn't nearly drunk enough for this despite a second Laphroig magically appearing in front of me.

"Sure. Little misdirection. Word got out about sumthin' in the middle of 'the Bermuda triangle,' had to make sure people looked in the wrong place. Anywho, we'd been using the game y'all call Monopoly since Adam Smith invented it."

"That stupid game?"

"Well sure, it's stupid the way it's played now. But it's still one the best simulators out there."

"How so?"

"Well, all you gotta do is jimmy with the rules a little and you can make it do damn near anything. The original version, the one Smith started with, was a Libertarian model. No money for passing go, no Chance or Community Chest cards, and you bank. You borrowed money from other players and negotiated the rates."

"Huh," was all I could say. I was starting to feel like my leg was being pulled.

"'Course, it was a lousy game. You knew two or three turns in who was gonna win, but at least it was over with quickly." He paused, took another shot of whiskey, and struggled to focus his eyes. I started to wonder just how long he'd been here. "So, anyway, Magie, the woman, she decided she'd had enough of, hell, who knows what? Women, right? She took a copy of the simulator, stole a boat, and headed back to the states. Soon as we figured out what she was doing, giving out the simulator, calling it 'The Landlord Game,' we hadda do something. We invented that Darrow fellow and published the game with the current rules. Everyone just thought it was a game, ya know?"

"Yeah, I do. Still not really buying the 'simulator' part though."

"Lookit it this way. You wanna do a real simulation? You have one fella start with half the property. You make half the people immune to jail. You base the money they get for passing Go on how much property they have. That's how it really works. Works like a charm, too. Just like real life."

"Why didn't you make those rules THE rules?"

"Oh hell, just coz' it's realistic don't make it fun. People, and we test with people, abduct 'em to the Bermuda triangle..." He paused to giggle. It was not a nice giggle. "...and made 'em play the game. They hated that version. We had honest-to-God bloodshed sometimes, when the fellow who started with all the property finally won. No sirree, that's not way to unleash this thing on the public. Gotta make it random, but random in a way that makes people think it's about skill."

"What about a socialist model?"

"Shit, that was easy. Lot more money for passing Go. People think of the money from passing Go as a salary, but it's meant to be a government stipend. So, make that a lot bigger, increase the cost of property development, lower the rent...you got yerself a socialist paradise!"

"What was the problem with that one?"

"No one ever 'won.' The folks payin' my salary, everyone's salary, really hated that one. Besides, the players got bored."

I stared at my drink, then at Kenwauld, and then at my drink again. A question was trying to get itself asked, and I kept trying to answer it for myself, but didn't much care for where it was going. Finally, I spoke up:

"So, why are the rules the way they are?"

Kenwauld chuckled, reminding me of a guy who was just waiting for the other fellow to knuckle under.  He leaned in and whispered to me: "Right question at last. Alrighty, here's the secret: Winning ain't winning, at least not how my bosses see it."

"Huh?" Not a great response, but very sincere.

"OK, you know what happens when you win at Monopoly, right? Winning fella has all the money, all the property, right?"

"Sure."

"Hell no, he doesn't. Think, son. Sometimes, you win without all the property gettin' bought. And there's all that money in the bank, too. The problem with winning is you don't get no more after that. It's over. The game stops."

"That's the point, isn't it? I mean, it's a game..."

"It ain't a game, it's a simulation. I told you already. You don't want it to end. The trick...the trick is to come up with a set of rules that keep it goin' for ever and ever." I suddenly felt sick to my stomach, and it wasn't just the iodine-y scotch. He went on, "Monopoly's got an inflationary economy. More money comin' in than going out. You don't want it to stop, you want it to keep going but for all the money comin' in to go to the right fella, you know what I'm saying?"

I was afraid I did.

"The other fellas, they're just working for you only they think they're still in the game. Like those green folks like to say, 'sustainable.' " He found so funny he started laughing, then coughing, then almost crying. "It's called 'irony' son. 'Sustainable greed.' Funny as hell."

"It's not funny."

"Sure it is! You just don't get it coz' you're just starting out. It's always worked like that. The job, your job, even if you don't like it, is to keep everything moving, keep everyone in the game, and make sure the right folks win. Everything else is just for show." He stopped wheezing long enough to steady himself and take a long look at me. "You don't have the guts for it, do ya? You thought you wanted to be an economist, but you thought you'd change things. Fuck you. You're not changing shit."

I closed our tab and left him to his now thoroughly sour mood. He didn't even look at me as I walked out of the bar, stumbling a little towards my gate. I do not normally drink straight whiskey, unlike, apparently, Kenwauld. Lost in my thoughts, but not thinking completely straight, I got on the plane and thought about Monopoly, and rules, and how the hell I could fix those rules and make Kenwauld and his people shut the hell up and how to give everyone a real shot at winning. 

And hangovers. I thought about hangovers a lot.

 



Wife of The Woman

This story is in response to Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Six Random Titles. I wasn't particularly inspired by any of them, but once I figured out a direction for this particular title, it wound up being a surprisingly fun exercise. Plus, it inspired me to purchase and read an old short story, the title of which you'll probably guess in fairly short order.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Flinging open the door to the carriage, she spoke in a fierce whisper which struck the ears more forcefully than any shout, "Well, my love, it's been quite an exciting couple of days, hasn't it?"

Elizabeth Briony didn't look up even look from her book, an English translation of Manual de Anatomia Pathologica General, as the other women entered the carriage, although if you watched her closely enough, you'd have seen her cheekbones rise almost imperceptibly, indicating the slightest of all smiles. As the younger, petite woman  settled in beside her, slightly out of breath from unaccustomed haste, Mrs. Briony continued:

"We shaved that one a bit close, don't you think?

"Oh, do you think so? How very perceptive. How. Terribly. Clever. Of. You."

It wasn't possible to be certain if the younger woman's pauses were for emphasis or just due to the exertion, but the point was made nonetheless. Bess carefully shut her book, set it between herself and her companion, and, without the slight smile, responded:

"I'm glad you think so too, Rena.  If not for my, for our precautions, we would likely find ourselves in far more trouble than little Willy intended."

"You wouldn't call him that if you knew him as I did. Besides, he was never the source of peril, it was that slender fellow he employed and you know it. Speaking of fellows, what have you done with Godfrey? Leaving him behind would be asking for more trouble." Rena's hair, normally arranged flawlessly, was an umbra of willow-like tendrils, a condition which Bess found almost irresistible, but she kept her hands folded and forced her eyes forward.

 

"Godfrey's with us, in one of my trunks. I cannot help but think he'll prove useful again. Driver! We are settled, please carry on!" Bess' voice had none of the lilt of Rena's, but she could use it with surprising force when occasioned to do so. She was no beauty in the classic sense, being tall and, while lithe, broad of shoulder. "Handsome," perhaps, would be a better description.

They rode silently, the curtains of the carriage drawn tight. The women stole glances at each other, at first nervously, then conspiratorially, and finally, with some giddiness as it became  clear from the sounds and smells that they were no longer within the confines of the city. They were beginning to believe that they may, just may, be getting away with it.

Far from the gaslights, the night was dark enough that they felt they could risk opening the side curtains and let the fresher air of then country nighttime into the carriage. No one was likely to glance their way, and if they did, well, the chance of being recognized was slim enough to be worth the risk. They travelled throughout most of the night, making odd small talk, superstitiously afraid to discuss the nature of their good fortune as though speaking of it would burst the thin soap-bubble of providence protecting them.

Rina was the first to speak of the incidents. In hushed tones, she asked, "So, tell me. How did you work it all out?"

Around anyone else, Bess would have put on the air of one who knew all but revealed little, but with Rina, she shrugged her shoulders and admitted, "There was more luck to it than I'd care to admit, if I am to be perfectly honest with you. You know how I enjoy the art of fisticuffs?"

Rina cringed, as she knew but did not approve. Bess continued:

"Well, I have seen more fights than I can recount, and I've learned that it is very difficult for a man to let an inferior fighter win. Perhaps it is an affront to his manliness, but I think it more likely that, when instinct takes over, allowing oneself to accept a blow is not so easy as it looks." Bess' eyes became slightly distant. "Back when I was working, right before I met you, we tried to hire a professional fighter to perform with our troupe. It was a disaster. He was meant to be the villain, but he kept defeating our lead actor during the finale, oftentimes rendering him unconscious."

Rina was not especially thrilled by tales of this ilk, but listened on patiently. Bess, on the other hand, obviously found it rousing, and her focus returned to Rina.

"Well, when the scuffle broke out in front of the house right the other day, I was still nearby and I could not help but observe. The clergyman who intervened, the gentleman you invited in to tend to? He struck me as a more skilled pugilist than he let on. He had several opportunities strike at the other fellows, but instead seemed more interested in receiving a blow."

"How odd."

"How odd indeed. And how odd that, almost immediately after brought him inside, a fire should break out. More coincidence than I am was prepared to accept. I decided that I would do well to follow him. After all, while he knew you and Godfrey, I was a complete stranger to him. And so, I was able to follow him back to his hired room and listen to him lay out his entire scheme to his confidante."

"That's almost cheating, Bess!

"Well, there was some peril for me as well. In order to hear them properly, I had to unfasten the windows, but those window fasteners were child's play. After you told me about the glance to your hidey-hole for your personal papers, it all made sense. Why you keep your daguerreotype of your clients among our more...personal...photos, I will never understand."

Rina allowed herself a little clap of excitement. "You know I followed him as well!"

Bess frowned. "Yes, and I think he may have very nearly recognized you. You must be careful!"

If Rina felt at all chastened, she hid it exceptionally well. "Oh, hush. You know I can't let you have all the fun."

"If you thinking that dressing as Godfrey Norton, with his foppish mustache and ridiculous wig, is fun, then you are welcome to it." Bess suddenly looked serious. "This Holmes fellow is quite clever. Why do you suppose he failed to see what was right in front of him?"

It was Irene's turn to play the role of teacher. "Did you not see him around me? Every time I would deign to flirt with the 'clergyman,' he looked very much as though he wished to be somewhere else entirely. I think traditional romantic entanglements make him uncomfortable. I suspect he cannot even begin to conceive of the nature of our love. He's so absurdly brilliant, his blind spots are very blind indeed."

As Bess began to relax, she allowed herself the faintest of grins. “He really knows nothing of women, does he? He prattled on about how ‘women always this’ and ‘women always that.’”

“I think he knows as much about women as he does Mr. Wells’ frightful Martians. And to think he refers to me as ‘The Woman.’”

The two of them shared the laughter of all who have narrowly avoided a frightening situation. They laughed deeply, releasing all of their pent up worry in fitful, mirthful bursts. Bess then took on a look of exaggerated seriousness and said, “If you are ‘The Woman,’ then I shall be ‘Wife of The Woman.”

“So you shall! I dub thee ‘Elizabeth Adler.’ Or, should I say, Mrs. Godfrey Norton.”

“Oh God, poor Godfrey. Shall he be a ‘Freemason’ again, wherever we land this time?”

“Nothing like a secret society to protect a secret identity. Or, at the very least, a cheap replica ring and some carefully spread misinformation.”

“Well, Godfrey can wait. Tonight, I am Mrs. Irene Adler, and you, young lady, have some ‘husbandly’ duties with which to attend.”

The pair never returned to London, but, ever the cautious one, Irene Adler took care to insure that a false rumor of her untimely demise made its way through channels likely to be picked up by any interested parties. Thus free from any likely pursuit, ‘The Woman’ and her wife arrived in Portsmouth and found themselves bound for Adler’s native country.

But that, as they say, is another story.



We Are Nowhere And It's Now

So here I am, out in the middle of nowhere, and I have no clue what time it is although I'm not really sure that matters. The weird thing is that I'm pretty sure I just saw the most imporant thing in human history. 

Let me back up and explain.

This is a response to Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge of 6/26.

Go to your music player of choice, pull up a random song, and use that song title as the title to your story. You don’t need to make the story about the song or inspired by the song (unless you want to) — all you really need is the title to run with. On iTunes, it’s shuffle, I think, but if you google “play random song” you’ll find plenty of ways to conjure one from the chaos.

Write the story with the song title as your story title.

This sucker's gone through so many permutations so far, being a completely different story 3 days ago, that it's both a 13th draft and a 1st draft, so it needs a hacksaw to cut away huge chunks as well as some sandpaper to smooth it out. I like the story, though. I'll like it more, I suspect, the next time I go in and mess with it.

__________________________________________________________________________

So here I am, out in the middle of nowhere, and I have no clue what time it is although I'm not really sure that matters. The weird thing is that I'm pretty sure I just saw the most imporant thing in human history. 

Let me back up and explain.

Last Spring, Tomas and I were going through a rough patch. More specifically, I thought he was being distant and evasive and I was acting like a jealous asshole. We weren't exactly fighting, but we weren't exactly not, if you know what I mean. Tomas was ready for it to be over and I wasn't. That's the best way to put it, even if it lacks poetry.

Anyway, like any guy raised on John Cusack movies, I did the only thing that made sense to my panicked mind: The Grand Romantic Gesture. One of those stupid blinking ads that should have been blocked popped up on the right side of some story I was reading. It promised a romantic New Year's spent at the South Pole, where, for twenty four hours, you could re-experience the new year every hour, on the hour. 

I clicked on it and, by some force of sheer luck, didn't wind up with any ransomware. Twenty thousand dollars and thirty minutes later (their site was as shitty as the ad you'd expect from a company using pop-up ads), I'd booked the two of us on a ten day vacation highlighted by "the Longest New Year's Kiss on planet Earth!" 

Of course I didn't tell him exactly what I'd planned, but I made sure he knew I'd planned something big because, otherwise, what's the point? As you might have guessed, with the relationship already on fumes in the Spring, a huge New Year's celebration was too much, too late. Tomas was emotionally involved with someone else and was reaching the point where he didn't care too much if I knew. Which is all a long way of saying, I took off from Baltimore, heading as far south as a body could get, by myself.

Ten days sounds like a long time to spend at the South Pole and it probably is, but we never found out because all but about thirty-six hours of your vacation package is travel. By the time the dozen or so of us got off the little ski plane, we weren't going to be too picky about where we finally stop moving for a little while. A good thing, too, as our romantic day at the South Pole was going to be spent in a big, only slightly-glorifed tent.

The tent was huge, probably big enough for a hundred people, and it was weirdly festooned in some of the cheapest New Year's regalia you'd ever encounter at the dollar store. Lots of cardboard numerals indicating the year hung from strings, a needlessly plastic ice sculpture, folding tables with cheap white table cloths, and extremely harsh LED lighting. Oh, and there was champagne. There was a lot of almost decent champagne and, if you dug a little, enough vodka to keep us from paying too much attention to the cheapness of the fixtures after a very short while.

The key feature of the tent, centered around the thirty-foot tentpole, was a huge ring, with twenty-four spokes, one for each time zone. The idea, obviously, was that we would all huddle inside the slice representing the zone which would be experiencing the New Year next, and we'd yell, and kiss, and toast, and be merry for a short time, then do it again in an hour, fifteen degrees further along the circle. Not exactly what I would call "romantic." If I weren't so miserable and lonely, I would almost be glad that Tomas and his scientific brain weren't here to see this. 

Around the sides of the room were cots partitioned off by canvas walls. I presumed these were for people who couldn't hack twenty four hours of revelry, but it slowly dawned on me that the copious amounts of alcohol and the forced romantic nature of the event might tip the ickiness-to-horniness ratio enough to make sharing a cot seem like a good idea. Ew. I made note of two couples who seemed most likely to pursue that line of action: Two trust fund babies from an American university for whom the "mile high club" probably also seemed attractive, and a middle-aged German pair whose affection I may have mis-identifed as lechery, but there was no point in risking it. I avoided both couples all day and night as best I could.

Now, the first really strange thing I noticed was that, outside of a small crew in jumpsuits that were supposed to have sort of looked like tuxedos, obviously the "staff" at this establishment, there were sixteen people including me. It didn't take world-class math skills to recognize that there was either someone else alone or some group had an odd number of members. 

It didn't take long to discover it was the former, and the identity of the other loner wasn't too difficult to figure out. A young dude, tall, rail thin, dark curly beard and thick glasses that were more "old" than "retro." He hunched over slightly, wearing, of all things, a yellow Cleveland Cavaliers basketball tank top under and enormous, furry grey coat. I thought I looked out of place, but this guy was light-years past me in that regard.

We guests all milled around, staking out areas to put our stuff, chatting awkwardly with whoever spoke our language. For a five-digit vacation, it sure felt a lot like a high school dance. Fortunately, one of the perks of being a grown up is that you could spike your own punch up to whatever level of oblivion-inducing goodness your heart desired. One of the staff hit a button to start up a little generic techno and this party was, for better or worse, started.

slightly less conspicuously awkward, we gathered in the slice of the floor circle just this side of the "International Date Line" and counted down to midnight. There was a little thrill in being among the first people on the planet to transition to the new year, a big twang of loneliness at not having anyone to share this with, and then it was back to a bunch of folks with nothing to talk about, talking.

We repeated this dance a couple of times, getting more and more "festive" but at the same time less interested in the event of the new year each time. We'd blow our little paper horns, then step forward into the past, magically an hour earlier, and just mill around. Honestly, the times in between the times were the most interesting. The German man stepped outside to take a piss, which was not recommended by the staff as we had indoor facilities. He somehow managed to communicate with hand gestures and a few cognates that he was terribily disappointed that the stream didin't freeze while he was peeing. It was, after all, summer in Antarctica, at least as summer as it got.

The little pie slices were labelled with the major cities in each time zone. Somehwere between Tokyo and Singapore, I found myself sitting on a little plastic folding chair next to the other solo attendee. I wasn't paying too close attention, but as far as I could tell, he hadn't said anything to anyone all night. He just started a lot, made noises when a new year rolled around, and kept turning his head suddenly, like a bird. Birdman.  That's what I started to think of him as. Oh well, might as well talk to him.

"Do you speak English? My name's Dave. I'm American."

He turned to me, seriously, and said, "Charles. I am Charles."

"Where ya from Charles? Cavs fan?"

There was a short delay before he answered, during which time I noticed his face was...well, it was odd, but I'm not exactly sure how it was odd. Everying was right where it was supposed to be: Nose, eyes, lips, ears, all present and accounted for. Hell of a beard. But it was like the transitions between those parts were half-assed, if that makes any sense. Which I know it doesn't.

"Cavs?" he said, more to himself than me. "Cavaliers. No. Thank you. I have little English, Dave."

Ooookay. The only other single guy here and very, very much not my type. There wasn't enough vodka in the tent to even pretend. I was going to be a wallflower at this shindig.

I opened my mouth to say something and he cocked his head to listen, but I couldn't think of anything, so I excused myself to pretend to go talk to someone else. I don't think he was even watching, but you know how it is.

The endless birth of the year just kept going and going, but by now, the time we got to Nova Scotia, the alcohol had pretty much disabled our volume control. It was starting to sound like a party, at least until they switch the music when another year was looming, and everything got very, very big band sentimental. A pretty girl, Persian if my guess is right but it's just a guess, leaned into the man she was with and cried and cried. She looked happy, but he seemed very upset.

My favorite couple were Canadians from a university in Vancouver. Tomas and I always got along with educators: Tomas, the science teacher, and me, the middle school English guy. These two were right up Tomas' alley. Eddie was a smallish guy with an unfortunate hairline, but he was having a great time. He and Marie, his Quebecois wife, were dancing around the center of the room, laughing about how she'd get hours ahead of him and then he'd suddenly leap towards her, making up six hours in a single bound.

Eddie found time zones very funny. He was a topographer or something, studied shapes and dimensions. He found this whole exercise delightful, and it was contagious. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, even Birdman. He wasn't talking much, and he wasn't drinking, but he was smiling and even doing something that might have passed as dancing wherever he was from.

All parties hit lulls, and this one was no exception. We were well in our cups by the time Las Vegas rolled into the next year. We'd pulled the plastic chairs into a circle. The people who'd worn formal wear had long since discarded their coats, hats, and in the case of the German woman, her shirt, although her taupe bra provided more than ample modesty. Our bodies, the booze, and the always-on heaters had made the tent almost warm, which was welcome and unexpected.

In one of the quiet moments, Eddie folded his fingers together, stared straight ahead and spoke aloud to himself. 

"You know...time. Time as a dimension. Something you move through," and then a long pause.  "What shape is the universe, when you look at it from outside?"

"No such thing!" answered the American student, a little louder than she meant. "The universe is defined as everything. There's no outside, right?"

Eddie smiled a little. "Maybe from one angle, yes. But we are almost certain there are other angles, other vantage points. Starting from an explosion, like one of those big fireworks, everything going out from there. Even if there's nothing outside it, that's a globe."

"Love, you are boring the people. We are not here to work." Marie's, and her marvelous accent, stopped just short of scolding. Birdman, though, appeared very interested. His eyes were closed, but his body language was tense. Not drunk.

I jumped in. "Go on. This is fun, and besides, we're so drunk, you could just be talking gibberish and we'd never notice the difference." It beat listening to the speakers blare whatever dance song they were playing for the umteenth time and, besides, Tomas might be interested.

"Heh..thank you. Marie, I will try to keep it interesting." Eddie was having fun. "Here's the thing: I can stand in the center of this room, the puckered belly-button of this planet, and I can jump through time."

The Persian man spoke enough English to call bullshit. "No, I do not think you can. This is just a trick of the arbitrary lines of hours, is it not?"

Eddie thought for a moment before responding. "Well, it is and it isn't. It's not objectively true that we move through time this way, not in any sense you'd measure with the speed of light or anything."

He stood up now, looking up and to the left, on a roll. "But we subjectively measure time based on how we move through it. It is absolutely a true statement that I can take one step and move twelve hours on this planet and it is not a trick."

"So the fuck what?" The American student, one of them, not sure which. Their voices were remarkably similar despite the difference in genders. They were not really paying much attention anymore. Pretty much no one other than me and Birdman. Marie got up to refresh her drink, which was always champagne, never vodka.

"Well," said Eddie, "Ok, the universe is a globe, or sphere, or whatever, now, time. We don't really know time very well. But suppose time is like the dimension through which the universe spins. Spinning spheres have an axis..."

I'm not sure at what point during Eddie's speculation that Birdman got to his feet because I having to concentrate pretty hard on what Eddie was saying. He didn't move gracefully, but he was quick. Got right up in Eddie's face before the Canadian or his wife could do anything. He held...something...up in Eddie's eyes and, as if reading from a script, said,

"You are very drunk. You have had a foolish idea which would embarrass you if you told anyone about it. Sleep, now, and forget." 

Someone made a crack about "hypnotists!" without really going into detail while Birdman carried Eddie over to a cot and set him down. Birdman scanned the room quickly and saw me coming to help him with Eddie. 

Birdman watched me for a moment, then confided, "I have to leave now. You. You were watching the small man?"

I thought for a moment, and lied with all of my drunken might. "No, just staring off in to the distance. Not really paying attention."

Birdman had one of his weird pauses and then came to a decision. "I think you did watch." He reached for whatever he'd put in Eddie's face...

...and I put my knee into his gut. What the hell was I supposed to do? I kicked him, then brought my fist down on the back of his head, which seemed to put him out. 

This alerted the other guests, who drunkenly, swervingly, wandered over my way. I looked down, feigning disgust, and said loudly enough for them all to hear, 

"She was my sister, asshole."

In retrospect, it wasn't very convincing, but apparently, I didn't have to be. No one seemed to really care, to be honest. Marie rushed back, saw Eddie on the cot, and thanked me for taking care of him, which was sweet if somewhat undeserved.

Everyone else went back to seeing out the last few new years on the clock, more of a chore now than anything. I stayed with Birdman, dragging him up on to a cot. I kept my eyes on it. Which is why I was the only one to see his body move, as if dragged, in a direction I couldn't for the life of me focus on, and I was starting to sober up. 

Funny thing: Birdman wasn't on the guest list. I checked.

So here I am, in the middle of nowhere, who knows when, but I know something. I know something that, to the right person, feels like it could be very, very important. Someone sure thought so.

I bet Tomas would think so too. That thought warmed me a little, but you know what? Fuck Tomas. Marie gave me Eddie's contact info and I think I'd really like to visit Vancouver.

 




The Marxist Versus The Thing Called Yanndar

This was written in response to the Terribleminds.com Flash Fiction Challenge: Superheroes Plus. It was also an opportunity to dust off my favorite old City of Heroes character, the Marxist. Be glad it wasn't his trusty sidekick, the nuclear-powered Robo-Christ. 

It was a very silly game. 

Swinging around and throwing his best right hook, the Marxist flailed at thin air yet again, staggered back into the corner of the room clutching his head in agony. Behind his golden mirrorshades, a stream of blood ran like tears down his cheek. The Marxist fell to his knees on the cold, black marble floor. Could this be the end of Steel City’s mightiest hero?


Just this morning, Steel City’s top cop, police chief Justice, sent up the unmistakable hammer and sickle balloon. The Marxist wasted no time bounding downtown to the station. There was something happening to the children at the Hill School.   The parents were starting to worry. The children weren’t playing with each other anymore, or even with their siblings. The chief sent three of his best officers in to the school. Two of them returned and quit the force on the spot. The third stayed in the school’s office and made phone calls, tearfully apologizing to everyone who’d ever helped him for two days before the calls stopped.  No one has been in or out since.


The Marxist would charge hell into hell armed with no more than his own two fists, but he wasn’t above improving the odds if the opportunity presented itself. Child psychologist Louis Salome was the best there was at what he did, and he’s spoken to all of the children at Hill School after the “irregularities” began. The Marxist picked up his report. He didn’t like what he read.

“The children, all of them, are exhibiting a complete lack of empathy for other children. None of them will so much as lift a finger to help each other, their family, their friends or even their pets. There’s no apparent trauma or other proximate cause for this other this change in their behavior.
While there is no evidence for it, each of the children described a voice calling itself ‘Yanndar’ which visited them in the darkness. One child, the Nelson boy, described ‘Yanndar’ as an invisible friend who whispered ‘helpful’ things in his ear from just out of his range of vision. Other children described similar experiences. While none of them could provide any verifiable details, the fact that they all described these phenomena suggests that it is somehow related to the change in their behavior.”

“Marxist my man, what are you getting yourself into?”


Just this morning, Steel City’s top cop, police chief Justice, sent up the unmistakable hammer and sickle balloon. The Marxist wasted no time bounding downtown to the station. There was something happening to the children at the Hill School. The parents were thrilled. The children were learning self-reliance. The chief sent three of his own kids to the school and was considering quitting his admittedly unfulfilling job to teach there.


The building that housed the school had once been the home of disgraced industrialist Dan Rany. Rany was the great new hope of the “old” economy, building his empire on innovation and manufacturing (not to mention a family fortune). Rany made billions in government contracts making exotic alloys and telecommunications. Ironically, the whole empire collapsed when a minimum wage night watchman turned whistleblower and spilled the company secrets to the Marxist. Two months later, the DA locked the doors and Rany fled the country. It was one thing to be working on a secret device to broadcast thoughts into people’s brains for the C.I.A.; it was another to be surreptitiously shopping it to China and Russia at the same time.


Some heroes are subtle. Looking up at the old Rany family crest reading “Habeo Meum”, the Marxist briefly considered knocking before putting his black leather combat boot through the door. Entering the old building, he was struck by the pervasive silence and stillness of it. This may have been a school last week, but now, it was something else entirely.


Swinging around and throwing his best right how, the Marxist flailed at thin air yet again, staggered back into the corner of the room clutching his head in agony. Behind his golden mirrorshades, he caught the faintest glimpse of a grey, faceless figure out of the corner of his eye. Despite the pain, he forced his head to turn to face his foe, only for his foe to impossibly remain on the periphery of his vision.

“Yanndar.”



The Marxist fixed the tilt of his red beret and waited for his eyes to adjust. It was dark, but not lightless, and when his deceptively ordinary-looking shades kicked in to low-light enhancement mode, he could make out the posters on the wall. A mundane poster showing cartoon children holding hands now featured the words “Sharing is scaring” in red paint, scrawled in a childish hand. The Marxist shuddered both in disgust and actual physical revulsion to this place. The Marxist was good with his fists, but that doesn’t do much good when there’s nothing to punch.


“Mr. Rany’s doing some very bad things, Mr. Marxist.”

“That ain’t exactly news, Charlie. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is, can you prove it?”

“Yeah, Marxist. I can prove it. It’s just that…well, my family’s got to eat. Job’s don’t grow on trees these days. Rany doesn’t pay much, but his checks don’t bounce, you know what I mean? He’s an asshole, but I got a family to feed and we’re living paycheck to paycheck”

“Charlie, you’ve got nothing to lose but your chains. Say the word, and I’ll find you decent work. It’s hard, but it the pay’s ok, better than what you’re making, and you won’t be protecting the guy who’s keeping you from getting ahead”

“You know, when you put it that way…you got a pen? This might take a while…..”


The building that housed the school had once been the home of brilliant inventor Dan Rany. Rany was perhaps the last great industrialist and it would be by his example that Steel City, and later America, would be saved. Rany was a self-made man who proved that anyone could succeed if only they worked hard enough and kept their nose clean. An ungrateful employee, jealous of Rany’s success, planted lies of the ears of the credulous and he was brought down by the weak and the lazy and the powerless, a victim of his own success. 


Some heroes are subtle. Looking up at the beloved Rany family crest reading “Habeo Meum”, the Marxist felt an uncharacteristic reluctance towards striking the door and forcing entry into the school that once housed America’s greatest business family. He reconsidered kicking his way through the door, turned the handle, and slipped through the huge oak doors into the marble entryway that was incongruously littered with splinters.



The sense that he’d been here before and done this many times over would normally have provided the Marxist with a bad case of déjà vu, but this was more like microphone feedback in his head. The Marxist had taken the best punch the alien warlord Pugilistrix could muster without so much as flinching, but that was nothing compared to the pain deep in his skull. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a grey figure, crouching and whispering.


“Got you.”


“I know who you are, but I don’t know where you are.” I’ll take the house down if I have to. The Marxist crouched deeply and sprung up through the ceiling, penetrating two floors of the house and landing on the third. The school rooms and the attic were empty. The grey figure appeared once again in the corner of his eye. He swung he elbow behind him, catching nothing but empty air and then what must have been a load-bearing two-by-four. 


Half of the roof collapsed, but it was the pain inside his head that made the Marxist wince. He swung his right arm wildly, catching nothing but thin air yet again. He staggered back into the corner of the room clutching his head in agony. Behind his golden mirrorshades, he closed his eyes to try to clear his head and prevent his eyes from deceiving him again. The pain was getting the better of him.



“You want me to say some bad things about Mr. Rany, Marxist?


“That ain’t exactly news, Charlie. I got sixty-four thousand dollars for anyone who will do it.”


“It’s like this: Rany pays me good, more than I’m worth, but I want more, you know? He makes so much money and has a great car, a great house, and I want some of that, you know? I deserve it!”
“’course you do, Charlie. We all do. You got nothin’ to lose by doing this. You just give me some dirt, something inside that I can twist to make it sound shady, and I hand you the cash, easy peasy.”


“Well, when you say it that way….you just make sure I don’t wind up in the pen…”



The Marxist staggered and fell to his knees. His shoulders slumped with the effort of just staying upright. He saw the grey shape, just out of focus, just off to the side, slumped over, as if whispering into a…..


The Marxist summoned the strength to fight through the pain and stumble to his feet, struggling to the hole he’d made through the floor, and dropped back down to the black marble entryway of the first story of the school. He landed with a heavy, echoing thud. Even though his head felt as though a spike had been driven through one eye and out the back, he smiled.


And he stomped, shattering the marble and exposing the basement.


It looked like something out of a terrible forties sci-fi movie, full of tubes and valves and blinking electronics that couldn’t be anything other than props but were, impossibly, much more.


“You left the prototype in the school, you Scooby Doo motherfucker!” The Marxist jumped down to the basement floor and clutch his head. The pain was, if anything worse.


Dan Rany had been knocked over by the falling rubble, but he’d managed to get back up. Rany was in good shape, but he took one look at the Marxist and knew better than to struggle, but he couldn’t quite believe the Marxist was still standing.


“How…?”


“Your machine’s good, Rany. Real good. Turn it off. What’s it do? Take people’s memory and play them back, only with whatever ‘improvement’ you or the C.I.A. makes?”


“Close enough. I can’t program new memories. I have to read them out in real time, but that should have worked. That should have been enough.”


“It almost was. It would have been if someone else had been on running the show. You don’t know how I think, Rany. I don’t think you understand how any people think. Your version of ‘my memory’ was so alien, so jarring, it didn’t do anything but hurt. Turn it off, Rany."


“So you say, Marxist. But everyone I know thinks like I do. I get one phone call, right? I’ll call my lawyer and we’ll get this sorted out. I’ll just wait it out in Antigua until the legal mumbo-jumbo gets sorted out with my buddy the D.A.


“Ain’t gonna happen Rany.” The Marxist swung his arm, keeping his eyes on Rany He fist smashed found several very expensive-looking devices and reduced them to rubbish. The pain stopped.

 
“Oh, surely you’re not going to ‘take things into your own hands’, Marxist. You, of all people.”


The Marixst grabbed Rany by the neck and lifted him off the floor then grinned a very, very scary grin. “Oh hell no. I’m turning you over to the World Court.”    


Rany turned paler than he already was, something that would have seemed impossible just seconds prior.


“Oh, and Rany? That ‘Yanndar’ business? Obvious anagrams are a dead giveaway.”

 

                                  

 

What If The Slippery Slope Is Really Just A Waterslide?

“Well, that’s not something you see every day,” I said, knowing that, these days, it really was.

My co-worker Maria and I were enjoying a chilly autumn walk, talking a shortcut back from the convenience store, when she pointed out a gathering across the street. A dozen or so formally dressed people were gathered around a young woman in a wedding gown, kneeling on a grave. She was smiling broadly and holding back tears. Weddings will do that to you. She was, apparently, marrying her deceased mother. The happiest day of her life.

 “You see, I told you that was what was going to happen! You just kept saying ‘slippery slope this’ and ‘slippery slope that’ and, dammit, this is what we get!” 

Maria was upset. She gets that way when she’s right and no one is patting her on the back for it. She was right, but that didn’t stop me from rolling my eyes every time she brought it up.

“When I was on the Council for Real American Marriage in ‘16, we warned you, we warned everyone. This is what you would get if you forced people to recognize ‘non-traditional’ marriages. You and everyone else just laughed and said we were being alarmist, but nooooo….” She drew it out, betraying her early 80’s cultural heritage. “No, you just applauded as the whole thing went down the tubes. If you’d just listened…”

 Her longs strides were faster now, and her intense stare was burning into some unseen point down and in front of her. She was approaching Full-On Rant status. I needed to say something before…

“I swear to God, if I were in charge….” Her voice rose and her right arm pointed skyward.

“Ok Maria, you were right. But, seriously, is this so bad?”

She stopped (rant avoided), and turned slowly to face me (oh shit).

“Yes, Mister ‘Hold Hands and Sing Kum-bay-yah’, it is ‘so bad.’

“I know we’ve been over this, but why?” She gave the look that I’ve come to recognize as the “Are you fucking kidding me?” look, a slight shrug to her shoulders and a disappointed frown on her face.

“Because…because, look, quit being obtuse. What possible point can there be to marrying a dead person, or a dog, or a tree? Marriage exists for a reason, for many reasons, and none of them are served by a woman marrying a dead person. Even if you don’t believe in God (and how she managed such an admonishing tone in so few words, I’ll never know), you can’t believe that this is ‘marriage.’

“I don’t know why you’re so upset,” I said, knowing full well why she was so upset. She was upset because, in the wake of Cheval v. Gespenst, the Supreme Court had decided in favor of the defendant and the marriage was upheld. This case was seen as the tipping point in the establishment of the “We give up, so long as you’re not hurting anyone, go for it” doctrine.  Maria took the defeat personally and never missed an opportunity to let everyone know the future had vindicated her beliefs. The war was lost, but the battles were never-ending.

“Personally, I think it’s kind of sweet. I mean, she’s happy, and I doubt her mother cares greatly one way or the other.”

Maria was undeterred. “Of course you would say that. You’ve never been married. You don’t know what it’s like to see other people deface the institution you’ve invested your whole being into upholding.”

“That’s not fair,” I responded, not entirely sure that it wasn’t. “Just because I’ve never been married doesn’t mean that the Court’s decision didn’t affect me.” That was the truth, by the way. Cheval v. Gespenst and the new doctrine were applied in some truly novel and unexpected ways.  “My boss is a unicorn when he’s at work. My own sister has decided to identify as an effete English hero when she’s travelling. Most of my friends and family have been affected in at least some way.”

“Your sister? Really? Wow.” Maria paused briefly and her increasingly aggressive stance towards me relaxed slightly.

“Sure. Doesn’t bother me at all, either.  Why should it?”

“Isn’t it weird?”

“No…well, a little. It’s a little weird. But she’s happy. She has fun. We used to play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons when we were kids, so we grew up pretending to be whoever we wanted to be. She told me she realized that being who you ‘are’ is just another kind of pretending and she was tired of being herself all the time.”

“That’s just nuts.”

“Eh, maybe. I dunno. When I think about it, and think about how much of my personality is something I made up, or some affectation I engaged in long enough that I didn’t have to think about it anymore? I can see it. She says she thinks life’s a role-playing game anyway, and you don’t have to play the same character all the time. “

Maria was silent for a short while and made the face of a kid who was trying a spoonful of something new and was rapidly coming to the conclusion that, whatever it was, they did not like it. Then, abruptly, she scowled and pushed me back a couple of steps.

“You don’t have a sister!”

Busted. I couldn’t stop laughing.

“No, no,  hey, stop that,” I struggled to say as she continued to shove me.  “I was just trying to get you to look at it differently. Hey, isn’t your wife going to wonder where you are?”

“Well, you’re a fink and…” she stopped and checked the time on her phone “Oh crap, I’m supposed to be home in twenty minutes. Carla is going to kill me!”

*phew* I’d been saved by the proverbial bell.

“We can take this up tomorrow. Say ‘hi’ to Carla for me.’

I’d been in their wedding and they really do make a lovely couple. 


Note: This story is in response to the Terribleminds.com Flash Fiction Challenge: 

(p.s. This piece of ignorance and hate was part of the research I did for this story. I suffer for you people sometimes.)

Here's the photo:


Crazy Little Thing

You want me to tell you what I know about love?  Everything?  In fifteen minutes?  Well, grab a seat, then, and let's get started.

Early on, when I was just barely old enough to dress myself but not old enough to understand how badly I was doing it, "love" was just a word you mouthed to someone in response to their saying it to me. 

"I love you."

"I love you, too."

Ok, maybe that part hasn't changed all that much, but back then I had no clue what concept I was belittling by ritualistically repeating the sounds.  "Love" was a girl thing.  My sister wanted to name her tabby kitten "Heart" or "Love."  She eventually named him "Tiger Lily" and he chased off my white tom.  Go figure.

I guess love must be most easily described by its absence because I can't remember a whole lot of things that I make me think of "love" from when I was a kid, but I also don't recall any lack of it.  Does that make any sense?  We lived in the same house from when I was four until I graduated high school.  My folks and my sister were there for me, and no one really yelled at each other, at least not within my limited range of hearing. 

I had some friends whose parents split up and that seemed weird to me, but not scary, since I knew my parents had the perfect marriage and would be together forever.  You can probably guess how that will end.  But at the time?  My parents both took an interest in my interests and I never had to beg them to spend time with me and I never questioned how they felt about me.  That was love.  I wouldn't have called it that at the time, but sure, that's what it was.

Of course, my parents did split up when I was in high school and I thought I was too grown up for it to affect me.  I was all kinds of wrong, of course.  It wasn't that my parents didn't love me anymore, but they certainly had other things to deal with.  My father moved out and my mother went back to work.  Hey, it was a different time, you know?  Anyway, my schoolwork went down the tubes and I kind of lost focus on what I was going to do with myself.

On the other hand, my parents' divorce brought me and my sister together in a way that might not have happened otherwise.  It was the two of us against the world, or, at least the two of us against our parents.  Instead of trying to get each other in trouble, we covered for each other.  My sister's love has been a lifesaver for me and I don't care who knows it.

About this time I started trying my hand at romantic love.  What a mess.  First of all, even the least-macho teenage boy is a mess of hormones.  We genuinely believe that our intense desire to wrestle with that girl in the back of her '72 Impala is "true love."  No lie.  We believe it.  I know I did.  If you believe it with all your heart, is it love?  Hell if I know, but it's a good question.  I sure thought it was at the time.

Eventually, I formed an idea of love that put romance up on a pedestal.  I would succeed where my parents had failed.  I would find The Right Girl, romance the daylights out of her, get married, and stay together for the rest of our lives.  That was my purpose in life.  That was my goal.  You have guessed that making another person the purpose of my life isn't a wise thing to do and isn't particularly fair to that person.  Good catch.  Wish you'd been there when I needed to hear it.  Not that I would have listened, but still.

Here's how I thought love worked.  There was a girl I worked with back then.  Beautiful girl, smart as hell.  Her mom was a professor at a university.  She was nice to me, and I was kind of shy, so any girl is nice to me, I think she likes me, right?  We talk a lot, I make a point of trying to hang out where she's hanging out.  I don't ever actually ask her out, of course.  No, she's got a thing for one of the cooks.  But still, I figure, if I'm nice to her, and we spend a lot of time together, she'll start to have the same feelings I'm having. 

She moves overseas for a while.  We write letters, back and forth, back before there's an internet, a couple of times a week.  I'm smitten.  This is how it's supposed to work, right?  Courtship and all.  We send care packages back and forth.  Only, you know, I've never asked her out, or even talked about my feelings.  At the time, I just thought I was being patient.  Now I know better.  I was afraid that, if I said anything, she'd say she didn't feel the same way and I'd lose this marvelous romance I'd constructed.  Dumb, sure, but that was me as a kid, you know?

Anyway, she met a guy over there.  They got married.  I think she'd already met him when she came back home and I visited and finally mumbled something about how I felt about her.  She didn't have the same feelings.  Go figure.  Anyway, I figure I loved her.  Maybe I just loved the romance and the idea I had of what we would be like together.  It's tough to tell the two apart.

This was pretty typical of me through my mid-thirties.  My friends were always there for me.  They wouldn't tell me how dumb I was being until the bubble had burst and we had a few beers in us.  But they were there.  That's love, isn't it?  And my sister.  Always there.  In bad times, we'd go outside and just walk and talk for hours on end.  I couldn't tell you how many times she talked me back from a ledge of some sort.

So then I met my wife.  We hit it off real well and we had the same immediate goals.  We wanted to get married.  Man, I gotta tell you, when two people who see marriage as a goal get together, things happen fast.  We dated five months before we got engaged.  We got married and bought a house and moved in and...well, it turns out that marriage and living together are harder than my Disney-fed mind could have imagined.  Remember, my goal was to be a great husband.  It turns out that, if that's your only goal, you're a terrible husband.

We got divorced about a year later.  I was crushed, partially from the loss of a relationship I wasn't ready to believe was over, and partially from losing my whole purpose in life.  So much for succeeding where my parents failed. I lot of my ideas about love and marriage broke around that time.  Which, in hindsight, was for the best.  Marriage isn't the end zone of life and love doesn't make everything easy, let alone perfect.  I know this is probably obvious, but I'm a lot more naive than I let on.

Like I said, everything broke, but, in doing so, it let me rebuild my ideas about what love was.  I moved down here and started fresh and, honestly, I've never been happier.  I mean that.  That old view of love was a burden.  I was lonely at first and I got a cat.  Great cat.  Never had a better cat.  He was the very picture of unreserved, unconditional love.  He'd just hop up on your lap and dare you to be unhappy.  Coming home to a cat that loves you is a lifesaver when you're down. 

I miss that cat.  I came home after work to find him quiet and still one afternoon, about a year ago.  I can't remember being sadder.  I probably have been, but it was a sharp and stabbing pain of loss.  I've never been a parent, but losing someone or something that's dependent on you is hard and no matter how good a parent you are, you ask yourself questions.  I still get tears thinking about him.  He was the best.

Romantically, I think I do better now.  I don't have those awful expectations that someone's love is going to fix my life.  I don't think anything is has to be perfect to be worth loving, and I don't think I have to be perfect to be worthy of love.  Hate that word, "perfect."  Love isn't about perfection, and it isn't even about loving someone despite their imperfections. It's about loving their imperfections, maybe. 

It's also about being brave enough to pay the price of admission.  When I came home and found my cat, still and cold, on my sofa, I've never felt pain like that.  But when you love someone or something, you're signing up for that pain.   Maybe you live your whole life with someone, but even then, one of you is going to die first.  That's just how it works.  If you can't deal with that, love isn't for you. 

Un jeu de fous

It isn’t every day you wake up to find Jules Verne hiding in your closet. 


Its one thing to run into the Father of Science fiction at, say, a wine bar or maybe Starbucks, but finding yourself face to bearded face with him when you pull the little string on the closet light bulb?  Believe me, it’s jarring.


Verne looked at me desperately but with no apparent surprise and raised a single finger to his lips and, just in case I hadn’t guessed his intent, whispered “shush.”
I stepped back and looked around my bedroom. I couldn’t see any obvious threats, so I looked back at Verne questioningly.


“S'il vous plaît restez silencieux. Wells est à la recherche pour moi!”


I was too tired to react.  Not to mention, I don’t speak a word of French.


Verne tried it again in thickly-accented English, hissing the words below his breath. “It is Wells.  He is a difficult man from whom to hide.”


“Wells?  H.G. Wells?  Ha. Well, good luck with that. You missed him by almost 100 years.”
Verne looked at me with disgust. “Idiot!  Wells has his machine! How do you think I got here?”
My coffee-deprived brain couldn’t think of an answer, so instead, I just asked, “Ok…then, if you don’t mind my asking, what are you doing in my closest?  Why are you hiding from him?”


Verne’s lowered his tone.  “Wells and I, we have a rivalry.  We are uncommon minds, do you see?  We dream of what may be, and both take a strand of thread that is the science of our day and weave it into rich tapestries of what the future may bring!  That we should come into conflict was inevitable.”


He paused, grinned, and looked at his watch.  


“Also, I found him in three days, six hours, twenty-four minutes, and sixteen seconds.  I cannot let him find me in less!”As I stood in front of him, trying to process this, he hunched down behind my winter coats, and closed the closet door.  Through the door, I heard him mumble one last thing.


“Aussi, mon ami, un bon hôte doivent porter un pyjama dans son lit.”

Cartoon from Kate Beaton  who you should check out right this very moment.

Cartoon from Kate Beaton  who you should check out right this very moment.