“If this infernal heat doesn’t kill me,” Balthazar growled, “I’m sure the desert would love to fill my lungs with sand.”
“Why would the Equalizer be out here?”
“Think about it.” Balthazar tried not to snap at his apprentice. Gaspar was a good kid, and smart for his age, but he had an annoying tendency of not thinking things through. “If you wanted to hide something from the world, how smart is it to build a great structure out where everybody can see it?”
“But way out here? Wouldn’t you lose track of where you left it?”
“Not if you’re a Gods-damned Sage. Now enough with the belly-aching and give me the Astrolabe of Epsilon before I choke on the damn dune that’s come to play with us.”
Gaspar fumbled in his packs and produced the device. Balthazar squinted against the swirling sand, and tugged the dials into their appropriate positions. It was much like the other astrolabes in the world, but the one created by Epsilon, a sage so ancient even his name was lost, charted not the paths of the Sun and stars, but the lines of power that lay beneath the surface of the earth, invisible to the naked eye. He kept his eyes on it as he walked, stopping suddenly, turning, then moving on.
“The storm is getting worse!” Gaspar had to shout to be heard above the wind. “If we don’t find it soon…!”
“Please keep stating the obvious,” Balthazar replied, “because that certainly isn’t getting old.”
The Astrolabe of Epsilon rattled in his hands. No one was entirely sure how it knew, but it did. Balthazar pointed at the featureless sand at his feet.
“Here! We dig!”
Gaspar pulled the shovels out, and handed one to his master. It was hard to get started with the wind, but working together they managed to carve out a small hole in the dune. Gaspar’s shovel struck something about a foot under the surface, and when he tried to lift his shovel, it caught hold and there was a mechanical sound.
“Idiot boy! Back away before…!”
With a whirring, clunking sound, the trapdoor under the pair gave way, and they fell through the sand into the chamber beneath. The trapdoor shut almost immediately, and while the drop was short, it left both men half-buried in a small pile of sand.
“Augh! I told you Esvartus set up his laboratory this way! You should have been more careful!”
“I’m sorry, Master, but…”
Balthazar got to his feet and dusted off his robes. “‘But’ nothing. You need to pay more attention, Gaspar, and keep your mind more ordered. I know you’re young, yet, and visions of moaning women yeilding to your manly charms dance behind your eyes, but focus on where you are and what you’re doing, or you’re going to get yourself killed. Or worse, me!”
“Of course, Master. It won’t happen again.”
“By all the Gods’ knickers, it won’t. Now, let’s have some light.”
He extended his hand and spoke the right words. Elemental flame came to life in the air between his palm and fingers. He opened his hand more to give it more room to breathe. It illuminated the antechamber, showing pictograms and carvings on every surface, even the bottom of the trapdoor that had just admitted them into its bowels.
“Now. To find the Equalizer. Epsilon’s Astrolabe won’t work underground, so we need to go by Esvartus’ notes. What did you piece together?”
Gaspar pulled several half-ruined bits of parchment out of his pocket. “Only that to approach the Equalizer is to court the most dangerous of minds.”
“Pshaw. Esvartus wasn’t so dangerous that he wouldn’t let a pretty girl turn his head, either. You’d have liked him, Gaspar.”
“Why is that?”
“He died fucking.”
Balthazar picked his way through the corridor leading away from the antechamber, stepping over the skeletons laying over the various traps they’d triggered. Only a couple got past the first few feet of blades and spikes. The rest of the traps were cleverly concealed, at least from lesser minds. Balthazar made it a point to not tell Gaspar where they were. If the child was going to make it as a sage of his own, he’d have to deal with things far deadlier than static, ancient traps.
Once he reached the only other chamber in Esvartus’ hideaway, he turned to see Gaspar stepping gingerly over the last acid pit. Balthazar tried not to smile.
“There may be hope for you yet, shitbrain.”
“My hope is that you’ll stop calling me that.” Gaspar nodded towards the center of the room. “Is that it?”
Balthazar approached the dias, his unlit hand reaching towards the pedistal. “Yes. I believe it is.”
Balthazar stopped, whipping around towards Gaspar. “What is it now?”
“On the off chance that intruders were able to pass all of these traps, do you think he would leave everything else unprotected?”
Balthazar blinked. “Come on, Gaspar, he wasn’t that paranoid.”
“Wouldn’t you be?” Gaspar stepped up to stand beside his master, produced a long thin wand of yew, and touched the pedistal. A sigil appeared in the stone.
“A summoning glyph. Probably some form of bound devil.”
Balthazar watched agape as Gaspar twirled his wand in an anticlockwise motion, intoning the dispersal spell Balthazar had taught him the week before. The sigil disappeared with a soft sigh.
“Hmm. Perhaps a succubus. A good way to appear to offer an explorer a reward before destroying them.” Gaspar turned to Balthazar. “What?”
“Gaspar, I take back most of the bad things I’ve said about you.”
Balthazar did smile, now, as he removed the top of the pedistal and reached inside. The Equalizer was just past the stone lip. He pulled it out, and showed it to his apprentice.
“This is what the princes all fear?”
“What could men of power possibly fear from a book?”
Balthazar’s smile broadened.
“That proves, shitbrain, that you still have much to learn.”
Art courtesy zombie2012
For the Flash Fiction challenge Smashing Sub-Genres, the die of destiny chose Post-Apocalyptic and Steampunk.
Gideon’s stomach was telling him it was time to eat. The heat on his skin indicated it was late afternoon. The watch on his wrist had stopped ticking years before.
He wiped his hands on his trousers as he had a hundred times before that day, picked the axe back up and took a few more swings at the tree’s robust trunk. He rubbed his brow on the handkerchief wrapped around his left wrist, noting that past his sweat, it still smelled like her prefume. Scents like that were becoming more and more rare, and he cherished the fact she’d given this gift to him. He didn’t want to linger, however; the idea was to do what he needed to do and get out as quickly and quietly as possible.
Gideon slammed the axe into the tree once more and heard the trunk finally succumb. He hefted his weapon and stepped to one side, watching the tree come down. Past the falling branches, he could see what was left of the steel and concrete towers, vines and foliage of all kinds creeping up their sides, blocking windows, cracking brickwork, obscuring the achievements of man. As soon as the tree was down, he put his philosophical thoughts aside and set about breaking the tree up into logs, kindling from branches, and what seeds and flowers he could gather.
He already had a few piles around him, and he consolidated as expediently as he could. Once he felt everything was in order, he went to his pack and pulled out the flare gun. He loaded one of the blue shells, pointed it towards the sky, and pulled the trigger. The flare soared up above the tops of the abandoned buildings before it detonated, simultaneously releasing a bright burst of light and a distinctive, hypersonic sound. It would be picked up by the Elpis, but it also had a chance to attract the wildlife.
Sure enough, a growl emerged from the bushes nearby. Gideon slipped the cover over the head of his axe, slid it through the loops of his pack, and drew the tranquilizer gun from his hip. He only carried half a dozen darts, and as he loaded one and primed the mechanism to launch it, his eyes scanned the bushes. The source of the growl slowly emerged: a large dog, perhaps two feet at the shoulder, with a broad body and a stout build. In years gone by, it might have seen Gideon as a potential owner, or a playmate.
In this world crafted by the folly of old dead leaders, the dog only saw him as a meal.
Gideon did not make any sudden moves. The dog’s teeth were bared, bits of froth at the sides of its mouth. Gideon had been around long enough and met a few dogs to know that such behavior wasn’t indicative of a rabid dog, just a hungry one. He wasn’t sure if the dog was alone, or part of a pack or family, and didn’t want to put it out prematurely. The Elpis was supposedly on-station ten minutes away, on top of one of the buildings.
“West, you better have been at your post, or I swear…”
At the sound of Gideon’s voice, the dog lowered its posture and growled again. Gideon silently cursed himself for letting the tension get to him. With so many predators growing and thriving in the decades since The Last War, any places outside of Avalon held the potential for death if one so much as breathed too heavily or disturbed the wrong bush. This was no longer a world for humans, and it was only through wits and devices like the tranquilizer gun in Gideon’s hands that men and women survived.
The hound and the man stood staring at one another for a long moment. The rest of the overgrowth and the buildings beyond had fallen completely silent. Even the wind was still. Gideon thought, for a moment, that the dog might back off. Without warning, it left the ground, leaping towards him, jaws opening as it aimed for his throat. Gideon’s arms came up on instinct, pulling the trigger on the tranquilizer gun. The dart struck the dog at the base of its neck, the pneumatic force from the releasing tension of its gears knocking it off course and the anesthetic quickly taking hold. Gideon exhaled and reloaded, feeling sweat beading on his brow.
The dog tried to get to its feet, still glaring at Gideon even as its paws kept slipping out from under it. As it began to pass out, more dogs emerged from the bushes, all growling at Gideon. He primed the tranquilizer again, but knew he wouldn’t have enough time to take down more than one. His gun only held one dart at a time.
A great wind and loud noise slammed down on the clearing, scattering the dogs. Gideon looked up to see the
“Run into some trouble?” West’s grin was all teeth.
“A couple dogs. Nothing major.”
West began taking a tally, tapping a pencil against his chin. “Not bad, not bad at all. A few furnaces will be very happy with these, and Avalon could use the new trees. Captain Olsen’s going to love this.”
“She could use the break. She had to fight hard to get us out this far.”
“At least you can relax, my friend! Your part in this is over.”
Gideon nodded, but as he walked up from the cargo bay to the gunnery deck, he saw men and women checking and re-checking the machine guns and the main howitzer of the airship, whispers of pirates and scavengers abounding.
He sighed. His hunger would have to wait.
Courtesy Hunt for Alien Earths
For the Terribleminds challenge, Five Random Sentences.
“Tell us everything that happened,” General Hancock said.
“Just… start from the beginning,” Professor Ashby added. “And take your time.”
Clutching his tea, the pilot gave a short nod. “I’m still not entirely sure how it began. We set down on Epsilon Eridani B2 right on schedule. We got some photos from the moon’s surface, but nothing to indicate large fauna. Atmosphere, flora, water – everything else matched our deep-space telescopes’ images and preductions. Commander Laramie set out with the science team and Lieutenant Carlyle.”
“While Carlyle’s security team remained on the Zheng He with you, is that correct?”
“Yes, General. There were only two of them, Stiles and Tully. We were talking about what they might find out there. If the moon was already inhabited, and if so by what – you know, space mermaids, old gods, Giger horrors, that kind of thing.”
“When did you first realize that something was wrong?” The psychiatrist was taking notes tirelessly, adding her own observations to the pilot’s account.
“It was when Carlyle missed her second check-in. She never missed a check-in. She was the biggest stickler for protocol you’d ever want to meet.” The pilot paused, looking down at his hands, slowly closing them. “I…”
“Major.” The general’s voice was softer, but still had the weight of authority. “We need you to continue.”
“Stiles and Tully were talking about going out after them. Zeroing in on their locators and tracking them down. I was preparing a message packet for home. I knew it’d take months to get back to base, but I figured if I didn’t make it home…”
“You did the right thing, Major.” Ashby didn’t look up from her notes. “Your message arrived not long before you did. But we don’t know what happened after you sent it.”
The pilot took a deep breath. “I thought Stiles and Tully left. I didn’t hear a thing for about half an hour. And then…” He swallowed. And then… there it was. It walked inside the spaceship and then it sat down.”
“Describe it, Major. The ship’s internal cameras were not able to get a clear shot of it.”
“General, it… it was big. Like an oversized… ant. It sat at Laramie’s station and just… looked at me. I don’t know if it spoke English, but I tried to talk to it. I asked it what it had done to the others.”
“How did it respond?”
“It just kept looking at me, with these two big compound eyes, and then its… antannae started twitching. That’s when I saw… I saw…” The pilot bowed his head and brought his hands to his face. He ground his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to remember what it had showed him…
Ashby laid her hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, Major. You’re safe now. You’re home.”
General Hancock stood and began to pace. “The Zheng He‘s flight computer indicates you lifted off from the surface just three hours after setting down. How long was the alien in there?”
“Most of that, I think. Carlyle was supposed to check in every half hour, and it… it came in after she didn’t check in a second time.”
“The folks over in the labs are fascinated with the idea of telepathic communication.” The psychiatrist smiled. “Can you tell us more about how it spoke to you? Did it know our language?”
“No. It only used images. Sounds. It was like… it was like seeing the world through a different pair of eyes, hearing it through someone else’s ears.”
“Did it indicate if there are more of its kind there? How many? Are they armed?”
“They’re strong. From what I saw happened to Commander Laramie…” The pilot shook from head to toe, leaning back from the table to wrap his arms around himself. “… It was horrible.”
The psychiatrist put down her pen. “I think we can stop for now. You should get some rest, Major.”
The general said nothing, but glared at the psychiatrist. They both left the room, closing the door behind them. After a moment, the recording equipment picked up the pilot’s quiet sobs.
“What do you think?” The general watched the psychiatrist review her notes.
“I think we’re lucky we got as much as we did out of him. He’s been through an unspeakable trauma. This crew trained and lived together for 18 months before their 4 month near-lightspeed trip to that moon, and he had to spend the last 4 months alone on that ship that was his home.”
“We still don’t know much about the alien threat.”
“With all due respect, General, considering we landed on that moon without communication of intent and with fully armed security detail, we might seem like the alien threat to them.”
The general raised an eyebrow. “And what do you suggest we do about it?”
“Give him time to grieve. To heal. Then approach the situation for the sake of gathering intelligence, rather than interrogating him.”
“Hmmmm.” General Hancock turned to one of his subordinates, who was sitting by the recording equipment. “Get Professor Stevens from Science Division on the comm. We’ll need him and his boys to have a look at Major Armstrong’s brain.”
Professor Ashby blinked. “General?”
“I can’t sit around waiting for him to feel better if his alien friends decide to follow him out here. We have to take precautions, professor. We have to be ready.”
General Hancock turned and walked away without another word. Professor Ashby watched him disappear through the doors, then turned back to the observation window, looking at Major Armstrong. The pilot was wiping tears from his face, trying valiantly to regain his composure. She looked down at her notes, and the question she kept asking herself all throughout the debriefing.
What if the alien Armstrong describes never existed?
She turned to General Hancock’s subordinate. “Where is the Zheng He berthed?”
“Over in Drydock Beta, ma’am.”
“Get me a forensics team. Hancock wants Armstrong’s brain? I want a look in that ship.”
Art By Stephan Martiniere (Sources: Here and Here).
For the Terribleminds challenge “The Titles Have Been Chosen“. Pleased as I am that mine, “Always Have An Exit Strategy”, was one of the finalists, I didn’t want to just pick my own title. Maybe that’s just me.
“Cordelia! Where is that sulfur I asked for?”
Without the proper preservative, the professor’s experiments would not last into the reanimation stage. He looked down again at the first, he hoped, of many successful human subjects. The burst heart, damaged liver, and ragged kidneys had needed to be replaced, but the brain had been intact. He was not quite at the point of programming brains or toying with memories. However, Cordelia’s efforts in that regard had been promising so far. When the door to the laboratory opened, he smiled and turned to face her, beginning to loosen his heavy rubber gloves.
“There you are. How did it go?”
“The mortuary was empty, as usual.” Cordelia didn’t make eye contact with him. Her long, dark hair slid from behind her ear and obscured her face. The professor blinked, studying her. Usually she enjoyed sneaking into laboratories and mortuaries to get what they needed. But her body language was more nervous, even trepidatious. He moved away from his tray of tools.
“Cordelia? Are you all right?”
“Professor… I think I need to leave.”
The professor blinked. “What happened? What’s going on?”
Cordelia still didn’t look up. “When I was in the mortuary I saw a victim who looked like he’d been eaten by small animals.”
“That happens all the time.”
“How many of them have bites with acid burns?”
The professor furrowed his brows. “Weren’t you going to try and catch that mouse after it ate through its cage?”
“I did find it. I broke its neck and threw it in a hearthfire.”
“What? I could have used it! I could have rebuilt it!”
She shook her head. “No, Professor. I can’t let you do this anymore.”
“I don’t understand. Are you unhappy here? Have you forgotten the dreams we had when we attended university together? The notes passed during lectures given by narrow-minded fools? The long nights by the river, whispering of a better tomorrow?”
“They were foolish dreams, Professor. And I was a foolish girl.”
One of his gloves came off with an angry snap. “No. This behavior is foolish. We are so close, Cordelia.” He gestured behind him, at the corpse on the slab. “Everything is in place! We just need the preservatives, the excitable elements, the initial electrical spark, and…”
“We’ve stolen so much already, Professor. How much damage have we done? How much more will we do?”
“All science comes from sacrifice, Cordelia. It takes strength of will and clarity of vision to see past the tedium and roadblocks right in front of us, and stay focused on the ultimate goal. Think of it: a world where death is a mere inconvenience rather than the end. We’ll build a world of immortals, where the time you always felt you should have had can be purchased and gifted.”
“The price is more than money. We’ve taken these chemicals, these organs, from people that need them. In giving life back to one, we take it away from many. Science should make life for everyone better; it should not give us the choice of who lives and who dies.”
“Medical doctors make those choices every day. Are you going to stand there and tell me that they somehow have that right when we do not?”
“That’s triage. This is different.”
“It’s absolutely different! Imagine having the great minds of our age preserved and continuing to think and produce for ages to come!”
“Please. Just… just let me go.”
He removed his other glove and set them aside. “Cordelia, listen to me…”
“No.” Cordelia finally looked up, fixing the professor with her bright blue eyes. “No, you listen. I’m tired of this dreary laboratory. I’m tired of cleaning up all of your messes. I’m tired of simply being handed a dirty dish or container and being expected to clean it, without so much as a thank you. I’m tired of being used by you, for…” She shook all over. “For everything.”
He blinked at her. He struggled to find something to say, some way to keep her from leaving him.
“How about this… we start again. I get rid of all of this, and we start over. We share in the chores. We work together. And you… you don’t bring me dead things anymore. How about that?”
To his shock, she smiled a little.
“No. No, there’s one more dead thing I will give you.”
He hadn’t seen the revolver until that moment. He raised his hands, a gesture he’d always found odd in others. What, would the gesture magically ward off his scalpel, or his knife, or in this case, Cordelia’s bullet?
“I thought about simply leaving. Just going away with no note, no way for you to find me. But I know you would find me. And what you do… what we’ve been doing… it has to stop. There has to be an end.”
“I won’t follow this research any further, Cordelia. From this day forward. I promise.”
She smiled more. A bright smile, with teeth and dimples, the one that had captured his heart.
“Yes… I know.”
The revolver roared in the space of the laboratory.
He was cold throughout his body. That, he did not expect. His eyes dropped, and he saw the ragged hold in his lab coat, the red spreading out from it. He looked up again at Cordelia, as she stood in the doorway, strong and certain, smoking revolver in her hand.
He wanted to tell her he was sorry. He wanted to say he would stop treating her as he had, that he would not take her for granted. He wanted to ask her what he could do to make things right between them.
Bloody froth was all that came from his mouth.
His body dropped to its knees, disconnected from his brain and its command for him to remain standing. He hit the grimy lab floor a moment later. The door slammed shut, and he was left there, with the dead things.
This week, Chuck admonished us to choose our opening line, so I did.
It’s always midnight somewhere.
When you got one of the black business cards with these words embossed upon it, it was an invitation. It meant one of Madame Genevive’s girls thought you were really something special. Lots of girls in town had pimps; those that worked for Madame Genevive were a cut above as it was. Finding one of them “walking the beat” as they called it could be a rarity; getting an invitation to the center of Genevive’s operation was another matter entirely.
James looked again at the address on the back of the card. The storefront was an antique book store, stuffed wall to wall with tomes new and old. Baskets out front were available for browsing, signs saying there were discounted and even available for lending or those without books to take if they so desired as long as a note was left. Walking in, he found a beautiful girl behind the desk, her hair restrained by a pair of chopsticks, green eyes behind dark-rimmed glasses focused on a novel in her hands. He showed her the card. A small smile touched her ruby-red lips, and she cast her eyes to an antiquated grandfather clock in a corner of the store, within sight of the desk but hidden from the front door.
He walked to it, studying it for a long moment. The hands of the clock were unprotected by glass. He reached up, gently, and turned the hands until the clock struck midnight. It chimed, rumbled, slid back from the shelves, and swung aside. Stepping past the shelves, James found a spiral staircase leading down, low lights pulsing beneath him, the smell of incense and, faintly, sweat. Swallowing, he took the steps one at a time. The clock returned to its position behind him.
The lights in the underground room were kept dimmed, and the pulsing came from the dance floor, where a few couples gyrated together to the thumping beat. Some girls occupied poles, others laps, as men on the couches and recliners watched them move. A girl by the stairs smiled, told him the rates, and took his hand to place a small stamp on his knuckle. James examined it with a small smile – getting here had taken no small amount of effort.
The elaborate security meant officers of the law almost never made it down here unless it was personal business. He could see two city council members and a judge among the denizens in the shadows, drinking in the undulating curves before them. He tried to keep himself focused on the task at hand. It took a few minutes of wandering the floor and gently refusing the attentions of some very lovely girls before he found who he was looking for.
The man was well-built, his physique the mix of plastic surgery and body building that indicated the level of both his income and his vanity, and he was pulling the hips of a girl to him, slapping her ass on every downbeat. She continued to grind him, but her eyes betrayed an annoyance that James caught easily even in the low lights. She saw him watching, and the annoyance faded, replaced by curiosity. Does he like to watch? seemed to be the thought crossing her mind. James placed a finger to his lips, and flicked his eyes to the rooms towards the back.
The girl turned to straddle her eager companion. She whispered in his ear, and then took him by the hand to lead him towards an available room. James fell into step behind them, reaching under his jacket. When she opened the door to allow her john to enter, James slipped the thimble carefully into her hand, wrapped in a few large bills. He caught a glimpse of her look, then stood back from the door and found a place to sit.
Presently, the girl screamed. The woman from upstairs came running down. James ordered a drink from a shaken waitress, not even bothering to turn as the unfortunate man was carried out of the room. The conversation was hushed, uncertain, excited: Did they know who this man was? Wasn’t he the son of the local Don? Would there be retribution?
James smiled. The toxin was subtle. A little elevated heart rate was all it took to activate it, and as the poison stimulated the adrenal glands and other parts of the body, the heart just kept speeding up until it simply burned out. Anybody using plastic surgery to achieve that look was not above using a little blue bill for potency, and everybody knew those things had side effects…
The girl returned, wearing a short, frilly robe over her naked body. James met her gaze over the rim of his glass.
“He’s been coming here for months,” she whispered. “And every time it’s been…”
She shook her head. “Rough, I can handle. He was just so… He was a dick about it.”
“Did you know him?”
“Only from his reputation.”
She licked her lips, nervously. “Will the Don’s men be coming here?”
James set aside his glass, leaned towards the girl, and took her hand. “Who do you think hired me?”
Her painted lips, finally, began to smile. “I knew someone would come for him eventually. But I’m glad it was someone so handsome.”
“I have a few hours here before my next assignment. How would you like to fill that time?”
Her smile brightened. Her eyelids fluttered. And her robe hit the floor without a sound.
Image courtesy My Secret London
Gordon, ironically enough, wasn’t terribly fond of Gordon’s.
The wine bar had good vintages at good prices, it was true. It was at least a few steps from London’s main thoroughfares and foot traffic, making it good for meetings. The fact was, Gordon was taller than most, and he really had to stoop to function comfortably beneath the low ceilings in Gordon’s cellar. However, that was where Sir Bertram insisted on unofficial meetings. Gordon was inclined to oblige the man.
So, he shook off the rain from his Macintosh, divested himself of it along with his hat and walking stick, dug into his pocket for his pipe, and lit his cavendish mix as he walked down the stairs. Sure enough, Sir Bertram was in his favorite corner table, checking his pocket watch with one hand and lifting a glass of a dark red with the other. Gordon managed to make his way there and take a seat without causing too much discomfort, and also without his tobacco going out again. He leaned back and took a long draw from the pipe.
“Thank you for coming, Gordon.”
“You summoned me, Sir Bertram, I assume it was due to something important that could not wait until our next meeting at Scotland Yard.”
“Indeed.” The knight took a sip of his wine. “Do you remember George Stenz?”
“The German? He studied under your father at the seminary, did he not?”
“The very same. Our friends from the Kaiser told me he’s missing.”
“Missing! Where was he last seen?”
“He is, or was, serving as a missionary in China’s Juye County, along with two other men. He has never been one to refrain from speaking his mind, and he and his fellows were exempt from many of China’s laws. So, about a week ago, twenty to thirty armed men stormed their home, and hacked his fellow missionaries to death in their beds.”
Gordon removed the pipe from his mouth and passed his other hand across his forehead. “Bless my soul. And Stenz is missing, you say?”
“Indeed. The Kaiser is furious. His German East Asia Squadron is sailing for China as we speak.”
“Will there be war?”
“Not if the Chinese do what we have done for them many times in the past. A little kow-tow would go a long way to soothing William’s hackles. But there is the matter of Stenz.”
Gordon took a draw of his tobacco, his free hand’s fingers smoothing his mustache. “You need me to find him.”
Sir Bertram’s sideburns crinkled as he nodded with a stern expression. “As expediently as possible, there’s a good chap.”
“Are we that eager to do our own appeasing of the Kaiser?”
“It has nothing to do with appeasement.” Sir Bertram gestured for a waiter. “On the contrary. We can’t allow the Germans to have the only solid foothold in the region following this blatant attack on Christendom. In order to ensure we have something with which to bargain, and not wishing to have our own people hacked to bits, we want to return Stenz to his countrymen.” The waiter poured Sir Bertram a fresh glass. “And you, my boy, are one of the very finest in Her Majesty’s service at finding individuals lost in foreign lands.”
Gordon frowned. “My Mandarin is not as strong as my Farsi or Hindi. I’m out of practice.”
“You’ll be perfectly fine. I have every confidence in you, and so does Her Majesty.”
Nodding, the foreign agent got to his feet, stooping under the low ceiling arch of the cellar. “I’ll go make preparations.” He paused. “How bad do you think this could get?”
“Bad. The Russians and French are mobilizing delegations of their own. I have no idea what the Japanese are up to, but considering their proximity it’s a fair bet they’ll want to carve out something for themselves. Next thing we know, the damn Yanks could be involved.”
“And what about the Boxers?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The Boxers. The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists. Is it possible they’re behind this?”
Sir Bertram stroked one of his sideburns. “I suppose so. They do have a penchant for hunting down foreigners of different religions. But I doubt the threat will be that great.”
Gordon shook his head, bending closer to Sir Bertram, his hand on the brickwork arch above his head. “Sir Bertram, part of the reason I am as good as you and Her Majesty believe is because of my time spent abroad. I have spent enough of that time in China to know that the Boxers are not some minor insurgency movement. They are more numerous than you think and more disciplined than most civilian movements tend to be. They do not want us in their country, and if the Germans are the first European power to go for a slice of the Chinese pie with everyone following suit, their distaste for us could turn violent.”
Gordon took a deep breath and made a mental calculation he did not want to make. “If they do not persuade their rulers to resist us, they may rebel. There will indeed be war, and not amongst ourselves, but rather against an untested and unknown foreign power.”
Sir Bertram gave this a few minutes’ thought. Then, draining his wine glass, he looked up at Gordon. “In that case, your orders are thus: Find Stenz. Learn what you can about the Boxers. Then return here. You will give a full report at Buckingham Palace then.”
Gordon nodded, turning towards the stairs. “England must be ready, Sir Bertram.”
“Godspeed, young man. The Crown won’t forget your service.”
Gordon took up his coat and stick, replacing his hat as he stepped out into the foggy London afternoon. People bustled past, talking about the latest pie shop down the street or the price of this or that commodity.
Gordon paid them no heed as he marched towards Paddington. He had a life, and perhaps an entire empire, to save.
Read more about the Boxer Rebellion here.
In the pitch darkness of the stormy waters, he swam. Only the occasional burst of lightning far away illuminated the blackness. He was so deep, he could barely hear the thunder.
Somewhere his mind was insisting that this was wrong. Waters this dark and deep should have felt unnatural in their pressure and the demands on his lungs, but he felt comfortable here. Warm and lovely, the waters gave him an ethereal feeling, like he could float in their invisible currents with no effort and be perfectly safe. He had no idea how long he’d been down here; time lost all meaning in the depths.
Phantasms weaved in and out of his vision, gliding silently through the waters. He thought he could make out the shapes of dolphins, or perhaps sharks, but nothing was attacking him. He heard soft clicks, so his mind told him it was dolphins. He moved slowly, not wanting to spook them, and as his arms turned his body, he found his eye drawn to his wrist. A small circle of plastic wrapped around it, and even in the dark, he could make out his name printed upon it.
The feeling of wrongness in his mind grew as he stared at the bracelet. Beyond the thunder he began to hear another recurring sound. High-pitched, electronic, plaintive – his mind told him what it was, and he struggled to believe it. Everything felt slow and dark, smothered by the water. His arms barely moved when he commanded them to push, simply floating beside him like two lumps of lead. The overwhelming feeling of containment enveloped him, and he struggled past it towards the flashes of light and the soft, repeating beeps.
He closed his eyes, telling himself that his mind was right, that something was keeping him here, that this was nothing but a dream. He pushed that envelope that threatened to consume him, fighting ever upward, and even as the pain increased throughout his body, he pushed water away and kicked and strained as if his life depended on it.
His eyes slowly opened. The lights beating down on him blinded him for a moment. As the world came into focus, he looked around him. He was in the hospital, a doctor with the look of an undertaker near his life monitors – the high-pitched, plaintive beeps that had summoned him from the waters. His wife, holding his hand, sat nearby, her chin dipped downwards as she snoozed. Another doctor entered, much brighter than the first, and was saying something about the accident and the surgeries and the drugs. He didn’t care. He looked down at his wrist, remembered the sounds of the dolphins, and gave his wife’s hand a squeeze. She opened her eyes, focused on him, and rose slowly, lips trembling as she squeezed his hand back and whispered his name.
For this week’s flash fiction challenge, They Fight Crime
You take all sorts of jobs when you want to break into film. As odd jobs went, this wasn’t a bad one.
Lawrence Whitefield leaned back a bit and smiled as he strummed his guitar to the beat of the many drums behind him. The rhythms and passionate hand-strikes behind him permeated the room, matching the undulations of Minerva’s hips as her arms spread and her fingers touched cymbal to cymbal. He was smiling partially because they were firing on all cylinders tonight, but also due to his knowledge of the girl entrancing the audience. She was a great deal more than her gauzy skirts and the glistening scales of her outfit.
When her dance came to an end, the audience exploded into applause. Minerva blew a kiss to them, and turned to head backstage. He played just as well for the last dancer as he had for Minerva, noting that the tall, dark gentleman towards the back was there in the shadows near the door, as he had been for previous weeks. He tried to put it out of his mind and focus on the music during the final set. As the band finally broke up, he brushed off invitations for an after party and made his way through the venue to the back lot. Sure enough, under one of the lot’s lights, the dancer called Minerva was now in jeans and a t-shirt, bent over the engine of her GTO, a variety of tools at her feet, an old Sarah Brightman tune coming from the radio.
“How’s it look?”
She didn’t even look up to respond.
“I’m still not sure what’s causing the knocking in first gear. I may need to get her up and look at her transmission.”
“Sounds like a plan. I mean, I don’t know cars that well. Wouldn’t know a torque wrench from a socket wrench, honestly.”
“You don’t need a socket wrench for a camera?”
“Not most of them. Maybe an older one, you know, one of the ones you work with a hand crank? I don’t use those, though. I’m more of a digital artist.” He paused. “That sounds pretentious as hell.”
“What can I do for you, Larry?” She straightened and turned, wiping her hands off on a cloth. She had a small smear of oil on her face, now divested of makeup, and Lawrence thought she was just as lovely. Not that he’d ever put it in those terms.
“Well, I know you don’t like being filmed or even photographed, but I was looking to put together a film on the next show you all do, and I wanted to talk about it with you first before I got anybody else’s permission. You know, see if I can make it exciting for folks unfamiliar with belly dancing, dispel some misconceptions…”
He glanced past her, noticing some movement in the shadows. She took a deep breath and that brought his attention back to her.
“Look, I’m flattered. And I think it’s a good undertaking. Just don’t film anything I do, okay? I’m not… comfortable with that.”
The shadows moved again, and this time he couldn’t look away. Minerva followed his gaze, and her grip on the wrench in her hand tightened.
Lawrence didn’t need to be told twice. Instinct catapulted him forward, putting the bulk of the large car between him and whatever was out there. As he moved, the unmistakable sound of gunfire tore through the quiet night. Another sound joined the semi-automatic fire, one familiar to anyone who had ever been inside of an APC heading into a warzone. Moments later, Minerva was beside him, rubbing her wrist.
“Damn. I liked that wrench.”
“Are you okay? What happened?”
“One of Uriel’s laughing boys, I’d wager. He’s been stalking me for a while.”
“You have a stalker? Why didn’t you call the cops?”
“Unhinged angelic spec ops are a bit outside of their jurisdiction.” Minerva dug into one of her pockets, and began drawing on the pavement with chalk. “I just need a minute.”
More bullets slammed into the GTO. “I’m not sure we have that long!”
“When I say so, I want you to run out of here. That way.” She nodded towards the tail end of the GTO, away from the lot. “This isn’t something you can handle.”
Before Lawrence could protest, Minerva finished drawing the pentagram in the circle. She laid her left hand on top of it, placing her right against the car. There was a soft crackling noise, like popping popcorn, and her eyes closed as soft light came from under her hands.
He began to move as Minerva turned and stood. She thrust her arms forward, lightning streaking through the night to strike her assailant in the chest. He was knocked off his feet, the gun flying from his grip. Instead of running away, Lawrence turned and scooped up the gun. To his surprise, the assailant was back up, drawing a long sword from under his coat. Lawrence didn’t hesitate.
As he fired, he saw odd script etched into the slide of the automatic glowing with pale gold. Every bullet caused the inscription to flare. Each shot opened a ragged, luminescent hole in the man’s chest. After the fourth shot, the form of the man seemed to explode, and a murder of crows suddenly swarmed around him as they flew away.
Minerva emerged from behind her car. “You didn’t run.”
Lawrence looked down at the gun. “You were in trouble. I couldn’t leave you behind.”
“You seem pretty good with a gun, too.”
“Did a tour to pay for film school. I guess you never really lose the instincts. Squadmates called me ‘Hawkeye’, you know, like in the comic book?”
Minerva smiled a little. “Well, I’ll tell you what, Hawkeye. I think you’re about to get the biggest story of your life. The best part is, if you live long enough to get it on screen, nobody will believe it’s real.”
He’s a fast talking guitar-strumming filmmaker looking for ‘the Big One.’ She’s a disco-crazy belly-dancing mechanic descended from a line of powerful witches. They fight crime!
In response to being asked to generate a random sentence.
This child farms.
She knows that it is work mostly done by boys. It is hard, long, muscle-snapping, back-breaking work, from sun-up until sun-down. Tools large and small are used to till the fields, harvest the grain, milk some animals, slaughter others. This child does all of those things.
It would not be this way if the farmer’s wife had had a son. This child knows this. She does want a brother. It would stop the other children from laughing at her, calling her a boy when she’s a girl, pulling down her pants when she’s walking with her arms full and laughing because she lacks what boys have. It’s not my fault, she often thinks. Why are they so mean? They never drew blood, but on days like today, they would blacken her eye or leave parts of her sore.
This child’s father is not one for comfort. He is a hard man of a hard land. Years of living under the realm’s protectors have made him so. They come and take his grain, sometimes a pig or even a cow, and give nothing in return save promises that his fields will remain unburned, his wife and daughter unraped. He calls them ‘thugs’ and ‘brigands’ and worse when they cannot hear. But this child hears, and the acidic and unpleasant feeling of hatred boils in her guts.
When the distant bells in the village begin to toll, it is towards the end of the day. Too late for worship. And the tolling is rapid, panicked. Then the voices can be heard: something has men and women screaming, calling for the guard, begging for mercy.
The farmer gathers up his child to get her inside. She can peek out around his shoulder. The village is already ablaze, and she hears the deep-throated roar somewhere beyond the thick, black smoke, which is buffeted by the power of mighty wings.
Out from the village ride several figures on fearsome chargers. They do not wear the white of the realm’s protectors, and their chain armor is black as pitch. Helms in the shapes of skulls and screaming demons adorn their heads, and they wield flails and axes and short bows. One laughs as he raises his bow, pulling the string taut and letting fly into a fleeing woman. She falls dead at the edge of the farm.
The farmer seems, for a moment, unwilling or unable to let go of his child, the child he didn’t want, the child he has not even named yet, claiming she would earn her name if she survived the decade. One year away, and now her world was burning. The farmer sets her down near the house, telling her to climb under it, reaching for his scythe. He is telling her to protect her mother when the arrow finds his back.
He cannot keep himself upright, and collapses on top of his child. She is unable to move him, screaming his name, pushing against his shoulders, horrified by the sound of his rattling breath in her ear. She pushes with all of her might, but his body will not budge. A soft, pained sound comes from his lips, and then he is still. She squeezes her eyes shut against the tears and the smoke, struggling and moving as much as possible, doing anything she can to escape.
Flames wash over the farmyard. Screaming, her body twists and turns, desperate to escape the prison her father’s corpse has created. The heat climbs quickly, and she coughs, breathing smoke. She gives her body one final pull to try and free it, and feels something tear. She doesn’t know if it’s her clothing or her skin, and she doesn’t care. She screams in pain as she slowly pushes herself free from the burning body on top of her, staggering to her feet and losing her balance almost immediately.
She stares at her hand. Flames race up her sleeve, and while her skin grows hot, she feels no pain from it. As she watches, a cut received during her struggle to escape her father’s grasp cracks and boils, slowly peeling the skin back. But the tissue beneath is neither red nor raw. She holds her hand up to the fire’s flickering light as she stands, flames reflected in tiny dark scales. She hears the roar of the dragon over the din of slaughter and the cries of the dying, and something in her yearns to roar back.
On sheer impulse, she begins to walk, then to run. She runs through the fire towards the smoke. She feels her human clothing, her human skin, her human disguise, falling away into the heat. Pain washes through her as her shoulders push against her back, growth and change giving her both a surge of strength and an overwhelming appetite. She leans on the wall of a burning house for a moment, and looks at her hand again. It is no longer the pink, squishy appendage of a little girl, but a strong hand ending in vicious talons and covered in black scales. She flexes her hands, looks down at the rest of her scaly body, and then back up.
The other children of the village, fleeing the fires, have stopped to stare at her.
She looks up. Wheeling overhead is the dragon, wings wider than the breadth of her father’s field, looking down at the scene with eyes like molten pools. They fix on the girl, and she is struck by what she sees in them. It is a gaze she has seen before, a quiet love and a resolute desire to see her rise above all that opposes her… the look of a mother proud of her child.
This child looks back at her bullies. Her talons shine in the fire light. Her mother’s riders rampage through the village.
For the first time in a long time, this child smiles. Her mother roars, and as she runs forward, she roars back.
Having missed the posting of the Super Ultra Mega Game of Aspects like a champ, I fired up the Brainstormer app to get this week’s story going. The wheels gave me: Sacrifice for love, imperialist, forest animals. I may do the aforementioned Game of Aspects Thursday instead! We shall see.
Engelmore considered himself no more or less heroic than any other squirrel in the wood.
He was an excellent climber, a fair hand at foraging, and loyal above all. Yet small and stealthy as he was, he had never passed the border of the wood marked by the Knotty Tree, which marked the end of King Stag’s territory and the beginning of that conquered by the expansionist Wild Cat clans. Not until that day.
He moved from branch to branch with practiced ease, swinging out from the Knotty Tree to the next one over. Already he could smell the change in the air. As he clambored down the tree into the undergrowth, decay and neglect crept into his small nostrils, threatening to strangle the memory of brighter, better smells not far behind his bushy tail. His paw twitched, too eager by half to unsheathe the sword he’d stol… er, borrowed from one of the hedgehogs who’d fallen asleep guarding one of the food stores the wood kept on behalf of King Stag for the winter. Engelmore was certain the hedgehog’s name was Serverus, and he made a mental note to treat his ‘victim’ to an extra drink of ale when he returned.
But the task was ahead, and home and ale would have to wait. Engelmore moved through the bushes and grass to the next tree, and the one after that. Under the less than pleasant smells, the marked territory and the other scents he didn’t want to consider, he caught it – a hint of rosewater, a touch of jasmine on the wind. He was getting closer, and he prayed he was not too late as he picked up his pace. There was no telling how quickly the cats would get around to killing and eating what they caught.
Sure enough, several of his fellow forest denizens were hanging by their hind legs from one of the trees he happened across. Two raccoons, a possum, and another squirrel. He crept up the trunk of the tree, wary for any signs of captors, and called down to the squirrel.
The squirrel beneath him twisted against her bonds.
“Engelmore? Is that you?”
“It is! Are the other prisoners well?”
“I think Ser Edmond is dead.” She gestured towards the possum. “He has not moved in hours.”
“I live.” The possum’s voice was a soft croak. “Though only just.”
“I’m going to cut the lot of you free. It’s not far to the ground. The Knotted Tree is to the west. You can make a break for it!”
“But what about you?” Gwendolyn tried to get a better angle to look at Engelmore. “You are no knight, and these are Wild Cats.”
“No one else was close enough.” Engelmore hated the taste of the lie as he set about cutting their ropes, but he would not presume to voice his true feelings, at least not with danger so close.
“And what is this?” Silently, a pair of cats appeared from the boughs of the tree, one tabby and one calico, yellow eyes fixed on the intrepid squirrel before them. “Some fool come to join our feast of his own free will?”
His tail back and rigid, Engelmore raised his sword. “Back, devils! Or taste the good and free steel of the Stag King!”
“Oooh, sounds like the meal’s talking back, Stelios.”
“That it does, Acheron.”
“We don’t like meals that talk back, do we, Stelios?”
“No, we don’t, Acheron.”
Before he could think the better of it, Engelmore sliced the ropes holding the other creatures aloft, rather than carefully cutting them loose and lowering them. He heard soft thumps as they hit the undergrowth, and Stelios, the calico, pounced at the squirrel. For a moment, Engelmore saw only flashing claws and murderous eyes, and he raised his blade to defend himself. The steel bit fur and flesh, even as a claw opened his shoulder to the bone, and with a cry that was part fear, part pain, and part righteous anger, Engelmore shoved into the cat with all of his might. He was much smaller and weaker than the cat, but the interruption his sword had made in the predator’s smooth landing had left it off-balance, and it toppled from the tree.
Engelmore scrambled down himself, finding Gwendolyn, Ser Edmond and the others untying themselves. He pointed towards the west, holding his shoulder closed with his other paw. Together, they made for the Knotted Tree, even as the yowls of cats calling for reinforcements echoed behind them. Engelmore chanced a look behind them, and saw Acheron bounding out of the bushes towards them. Within sight of the Knotted Tree, he turned to face the oncoming tabby.
“Engelmore!” The voice was Gwendolyn’s, clear and sweet even in this dangerous time.
“Go! Get to the Stag King! I will hold them off!”
“Very brave, for a squirrel.” Acheron’s body was low to the ground, his movements cautious, patient. “But you know no squirrel achieves knighthood. You are not warriors.”
“Test me and find out.” Engelmore kept both paws on his sword’s hilt, as much as his shoulder pained him.
“So be it. I will enjoy eating your innards.”
They circled each other for long moments, neither willing to give ground to the other. Their turning brought the Knotted Tree into Engelmore’s vision, and he chanced a look in that direction. He saw Gwendolyn in the twisty boughs, with Ser Edmond, the raccoons, a skunk with a general’s collar and one of the Stag King’s buck princes, all watching him.
Acheron chose that moment to pounce.
“For the Stag King!!” Engelmore met his foe in mid-air, steel flashing in the sunlight.
Gwendolyn would later tell of the sound of Engelmore’s neck snapping, the war the Stag King declared, and the letters of confession left that spoke of Engelmore’s love for her. The story is a favorite of young lovers throughout the Stag King’s wood.
It is the story of the first squirrel knight in history.
So last week I talked about having goals, which in the case of the stories I’m writing means finishing Cold Streets and at least one other novel by the end of the year. The best way to get there, I would say, is one word at a time, but thanks to Chuck, I can move at a bit faster pace than that.
Writing a novel in less than a year can seem daunting, even to experienced authors and especially to mostly untested wordsmiths like myself. We’re talking tens if not hundreds of thousands of words, all within an ultimately limited timeframe. Like a pizza or a cake, however, you can manage things better if you divide it into smaller pieces. Hence this handy guide from Master Wendig. I highly suggest you check it out.
Other than last night, I’ve managed to stick to this, even working on multiple stories in one night. It definitely is easier to grok what needs to be accomplished when you’re worrying only about the next 350 words, not the next 3500. Weekends off is a neat idea, but I might squeeze in a few words here and there. I’ll also be checking out a local gym or two and building myself up to start running. This year already feels different…
Captured by Matt Blaze
The catacombs beneath the Mütter Museum stretched out for miles beneath the city. Between the sewer systems and the tunnels of the capitol’s mass transit system was a subterranean world few entered of their own volition. In fact, it was only the repeated disappearances that had prompted UBI agent Kirk Levitt to look into their entrance. He did not know what to expect; his sidearm was already drawn, its light moving back and forth through the darkness as he walked.
“Remember. When I tell you, douse that light. You will need it.”
His guide was a curious person. He worked as a tour guide in Philadelphia, mostly working the area around Fort Chamberlain, the refuge of then-President Lincoln and his family when the Confederates sacked Washington at the end of the Civil War.
“How long has this been going on?”
“Nobody’s sure.” She still wore her tour guide garb, right down to the tri-corner hat and flappy overcoat, the dress of a soldier from the Revolutionary War. “Even my master was never bold enough to come down here.”
“Yet you are?”
“Not on my own. I’d be arrested if I came in without pretense or credentials.”
Levitt blinked in the semi-darkness. “You just waited around for someone like me to finally look into the kidnappings and disappearances?”
“It’s not my fault the Union authorities are so slow.”
Levitt took a breath to protest, but then let it go. He was also often frustrated with the methodical pace with which the UBI operated, especially when it came to kidnappings.
They walked on in silence for long, dark minutes. Levitt wasn’t certain how the woman knew where she was going, but as he had no clue himself, he raised no argument, keeping his focus on the shadows before him, alert for any clues.
“Douse the light.”
He hesitated for a moment, then lowered his pistol and twisted the light until it switched off. He closed his eyes, counted to five, and slowly opened them again. A strong hand with long gloved fingers touched his wrist, and he nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Be calm. I’m still next to you.”
Her voice did little to reassure him, but he let her raise his gun back to its ready position.
“Keep your off hand on the light for now. When I give the word, turn it back on.”
“You don’t need it to see?”
“No. I can see.”
Levitt was about to protest when he heard her boots on stone next to him. She was walking. He followed, keeping his ears open for the sound of her footsteps to guide him. She moved quickly, not enough to wind Levitt, but certainly faster than a casual walk. It wasn’t long before he began to hear things other than their footsteps and his breathing. Out of the darkness floated a rattle of chains, a muffled sob, something whispered.
“Quiet now, Agent. Remember, when I give the word, turn on your light.”
He nodded, even though he could not see her. He felt something moist on his face, a thickening of the air. The temperature around him had gone up. As they moved, soft glows could be seen pushing back the darkness. They closed in on the meager lights, and Levitt eventually made out that they were small candles, set back along the edges of a large circular chamber, the flickering glimmers playing off shapes in alcoves beyond his sight. Yet, his mind began to process what he was seeing and hearing, and his experiences in the UBI told him what he was seeing.
“We have to help them.”
The candles also illuminated the large shape in the middle of the room. It seemed at first to be a plinth or altar of some kind. Then, as its lid slid aside, Levitt realized they were in a crypt, and this was the coffin. A figure rose from the stone sarcophagus, blocking some of the candles, two red pinpricks focusing on the intruders.
“Well, well. I was wondering when you’d find me.”
“Your evil has lasted long enough, fiend.”
“You’re one to talk. Unwilling to embrace what sets you apart from the sack of blood beside you, frightened of your own potential, lashing out at those who are more your kind than the cattle will ever be. Which is the truer evil?”
“I don’t abduct innocents.”
“Oh, they’re hardly innocent. What was it your mother did, again?”
Levitt heard a low growl next to him. “Do not speak of her again. You get one warning.”
“And what will you do if I do, child? I am centuries your elder. I’ve taken many a whore in my time, and I was told your mother was particularly special…”
Levitt twisted the light as quickly as he could. Somehow, in that half-second, the figure in the coffin had climbed out of it and was an arm’s length from him. There was a touch of genuine surprise on his pale face, but his eyes were fully red, and his mouth was open, showing long sharp fangs.
Levitt emptied his pistol.
The vampire didn’t go down, but staggered, the gunshots deafening in the small space. When the gun clicked empty, the woman leapt, her long cloak flapping behind her. Levitt saw vials, blades, and pouches underneath, and she had a long wooden stake in her hand. With a savage cry, she drove it straight through the vampire’s breastbone with a sickening crunch. Her coat had not settled before she drew a short but heavy blade, and spinning, she took his head from his shoulders.
The UBI agent caught his breath, keeping his gun on the headless corpse as the woman rose, cleaning her blade with a white cloth.
“That was a vampire. These are his captives. And you, Agent Levitt, have helped me hunt and slay him. This is who and what I am, and what I do. The question is: what will you do now?”
d10 of Destiny rolls: 8 (Parallel Universe), 3 (In a vampire’s subterranean lair), 7 (A mysterious stranger)
For the Terribleminds challenge, Write What You Know, I decided to both fictionalize and sensationalize the car crash I was in.
It’s funny how your brain starts click on after it’s been smacked around.
First thing I get is a smell. Gasoline, or something more potent. Imagine that smell you can’t get off your fingers after filling up your car at a two-bit gas station, then multiply it by about twenty. That’s what I’m smelling. I blink, and as soon as the light show in my eyes is done, I’m looking out the windscreen of a small, one-prop airplane. I remember getting in it; I remember flying towards Cusco; I remember needing to sneeze. Pollen, probably. My sinuses hate that shit with an unholy passion. I remember all of that, the date, the current President, my name.
I certainly didn’t remember laying on my side in my Beechcraft.
Normally if I’m sideways in a plane, I’m trying to do something fancy, to get out of trouble or to impress a girl. I’m not that flashy a pilot. It’s never been a major skill for me. Not like the self-defense course I’ve been taking. But that still doesn’t explain how I ended up nintey degrees to my left from upright in the middle of a rainforest.
I think back, trying to remember how I ended up here. It takes me a second; my brain must have been rattled pretty good in the crash. My bag ended up in the window to my left. Inside are the letters I got from the British Museum and the Smithsonian, a few days of rations, my canteen, water purification tablets, first aid kit, GPS locator, a couple flares, some ammunition, good old-fashioned matches, and a map. It’s old, laid out on some sort of animal hide – Druthers in London likes to think it’s human flesh, but it’s definitely not that, probably some sort of cow or pig hide. The point is it’s a map to Huayna Capac’s Tomb.
I use the history to get my head back together. Story goes that Huayna Capac was taken by disease before Cortez showed up, which touched off a nasty war for ascension. His wife and closest friends, according to the tale, carried his body, that of his son, and a good portion of his belongings to this secret place to keep them away from the invaders. The US and the UK have already worked out a deal: if I can find these treasures, they’ll spend half the year in Washington, the other half in London, occasionally getting loaned out around the world for a substantial sum. I’m entitled to a cut of it. If I live.
I gather up my bag as well as I can, unbuckling myself from the pilot’s seat. Getting myself upright is a bit of a chore. I look out my side window again, towards the ground. I see, instead of dirt, a lot of aluminum. The wing clearly snapped when I hit the canopy of the jungle. That explains the smell. Fuel is leaking, and that’s never a good sign.
I can’t open the passenger door, with gravity against me, but I can wind down the window. The plane was made for low altitude short flights, not high-speed trips at high altitudes where you have to worry about cabin pressure. It felt a shame to leave her like this, after several successful years together, and after the trouble of getting her onto the freighter that brought me down here. But I didn’t really have a choice. A part of my brain is asking me how I’m going to get out of the forest, but I hush it. One problem at a time.
I reach up and pull myself out of the plane. Sure enough, she’s leaking from her left side, and one of her engine panels is loose. I’m not sure if anything is loose in there, but it’s best if I get out as quickly as possible. I’m turning towards the trees before I remember something important.
I look back down into the plane, and it’s up against the windscreen. I stretch out and reach, the tips of my fingers brushing the leather. I got this akubra during my first trip to the Outback, from the man who taught me everything I know about surviving in the wild and not dying to poisonous bites and my own panic reflex, and I’m not about to leave it behind.
I hear a hiss from the engine compartment. That’s my cue. I grab the hat, slap it on my noggin, and jump from the fuselage. I get about ten paces from the plane at a dead run before the damn thing goes up in a really nasty fireball. The forest around me starts catching fire, and I keep running. I don’t stop until the fire’s a dull red glow behind me. It starts raining; that should help keep the damage to a minimum.
I check my inventory again, draw my revolver to make sure it’s not damaged (there’s no way in hell I’d bring an autoloader to the jungle – too much can go wrong with complex machines), and drink down a bit of water. I check the map, and pull out the compass I keep strapped to my belt.
I’ll figure out how I’m getting home first. I’d rather not get back to the States with only my swank hat to show for my trouble.
My entry for the flash fiction challenge Inspiration from Inexplicable Photos:
She’d gotten as far she could before her legs decided it was time for a break.
Martina counted herself lucky as she sat in the middle of the airport, leaning against a post, not a meter from a packed bench. People hustled and bustled past her. She caught snippets of conversation. Something about a performance troupe? Anyway, she wasn’t in terrible shape. Her heels, not well suited for her flight but kick-ass in look, had gotten her from his front door to here without too much stumbling.
This was going to happen sooner or later, she thought as she lit up a cigarette (what were they going to do, arrest her? Nothing new there.) and studied those heels. Good shoes and top-shelf booze could only keep her ignorant to the truth for so long. If anybody were to ask, it wasn’t the women on the side or the gambling or the elbow-rubbing with bad people she minded; in fact, some of those things were what had attracted her to him in the first place. No, it was the neglect. Being taken for granted. Putting unrealistic expectations on her and then flying into a rage when she fell short.
Martina thought back to one of the first serious conversations they’d had, after a night on the town followed by lovemaking on the roof of her flat. “I’m not housewife material, you know. I don’t do well when all the responsibilities of home are foisted upon me. To me, Dragomir, a relationship’s a partnership. We do these things together, or not at all.”
She blew smoke. It didn’t seem unreasonable, even after two years. But the truth was that he didn’t think it unreasonable. The truth was far, far worse.
She glanced around, but couldn’t see any cameras other than airport’s little black security domes all over the place. She fought the urge to show them her finger. Most days she worried about who might see her, who might realize who she was. Not today, though. There was too much bourbon and nicotine in her bloodstream to facilitate giving a shit. If her father knew she was here, in this state, he’d probably be furious. That made her smile.
It was because he’d be even more enraged when she told him why. Her father had been tolerant of her relationship, cordial with Dragonmir during the one dinner they’d shared. Even then, she hadn’t put two and two together. But looking back, she could see through his mask. The bastard had been far more interested in endearing himself to her father than just enjoying the meal or assuring her father that she was being looked after.
She looked at her heels again. He was always dressing her up. Every week or so, another club or event would require his presence, and that meant she needed to be on his arm, smiling and looking gorgeous. He wanted to be seen with her, to make sure others saw her with him, to draw conclusions based on how close she was to him.
It wasn’t as if her father was that terribly important. He’d taken a banking career into politics relatively quickly, certainly, and the paparazzi often sought sordid details on how he, not quite 40, felt about his only daughter being seen out and about at all hours of the evening. She’d learned in her early teens to dodge their annoying cameras and incessant caterwauling, and Dragomir did not go so far as to push them in front of those cameras. But he still made sure important and dangerous men drew the conclusions he wanted. He still dressed her up and brought her along to deepen and thicken his clout.
He still used her.
Martina threw the cigarette away. Getting to her feet was not as smooth as she would have liked. She picked up her purse from where she’d left it, pinned between the small of her back and the pole. The cash in her purse would serve her quite well. Dragomir had never been terribly circumspect in hiding where he kept his safe, and the combination was his birthday. She walked towards the gates, musing to herself that he might be handsome and ambitious, but smart was not among his qualities.
There was commotion behind her. She glanced over her shoulder, and caught sight of him. Dragomir. His shirt was wrinkled and he had a black eye. Three men were behind him, all large and broad-shouldered, no long hair, beady eyes. The last time she’d seen men like that, they’d been in the company of some well-to-do man with all of the personality and attractiveness of an oil slick. She wondered what exactly their business was with Dragomir. But, again, giving a shit was beyond her capacity.
Some of the performers in the lounge area accosted Dragomir and his big friends. This suited her just fine. Martina didn’t know any of them, but she was glad they were who they were, just trying to earn some coin by being amusing or entertaining. It let her get a few more steps ahead. She pulled her ticket and passport from her purse as she approached the security checkpoint.
She glanced behind her again. At least one of the big guys was dipping a hand under his jacket. She picked up her pace to reach the checkpoint. There were only two people ahead of her, and both of them got their pockets empty before walking through the metal detector. Martina grinned. One advantage to wearing a dress with no pockets was never needing to check them for spare change.
She breezed right through, picking up her purse on the other side of the conveyor. She turned fully, seeing Dragomir standing there, a crestfallen and hopeless look on his face. His three friends stared blankly, two of them already grabbing him by the arms.
She smiled brightly and said good-bye with a single finger.
Next stop? Somewhere nobody will know me, or my father. Somewhere I can start over.
This week’s challenge was a bit different. The task was, “tell a story in three haikus.” I played with a couple ideas before settling on this one. Enjoy.
My cat ate a gem.
It belonged to a smuggler.
Now we’re in big trouble.
The chase was merry,
From Rome to Moscow to Prague -
Bond would be jealous.
“Don’t touch my damn cat.”
Gunsmoke behind the tavern -
Sorry ’bout the mess.
This week, Terribleminds charged us with writing using a motif. The d10 told me to go for Swords, in the genre of Paranormal Romance with the setting of Route 66.
“This is insane, even for you. You need your rest.”
Simon Cooper ignored the suggestion. Part of him hoped that the traffic would have drowned him out, but Route 66 was quiet at this time of night. It had to be night, of course. He thanked the powers that things had happened so close to a full moon. He would need every advantage he could get.
“Tell me, Xavier, what would resting accomplish that not resting will not?”
“You’d be able to look at the situation with clear eyes. You’d get some cobwebs and trauma out of your head. And, I hate to say it, you’d see that…”
“You could just say ‘nothing’ and leave it at that.” Cooper was also ignoring the pain in his leg. The blade had gone clean through his thigh.
“Xavier, you insisted on coming along. Don’t ruin things by trying to convince me to quit. It’d be a waste of gas and, more importantly, time. Time that Esther doesn’t have. Now, listen. There’s a ley line under that diner, and I need everybody out to tap it. Run interference for me.”
Xavier put a hand on Cooper’s shoulder. “Just stop, for a second. Think.”
With a sigh of exasperation, Cooper stopped and turned. “What?”
Xavier took a deep breath. “The Legionnaire came for me. She gave her life to save me. I can’t bear the thought of not being there when they turn off the machines.”
“You will be there when they turn them off, because she’s going to come back.”
“Dammit, Simon. The sword went through her neck. It’s a miracle she survived long enough to get on life support in the first place.”
“The Legionnaire carried an epee. It was meant to pierce her defenses, not hack off her head or limbs. And it was enchanted with a spell to part souls from bodies, not nerves from organs.”
Xavier ran a hand through his hair. “If you’re wrong…”
“I’m not. Come and see.”
It was a slow time in the diner. Only two patrons and four staff members in total. Cooper used a pyromantic cantrip to start a fire in the kitchen, and Xavier helped people get out. Simon’s follow-up spells were a wide-area disruption of electronics and putting the fire out while Xavier locked the doors.
“Now, we can begin. The salt, if you would.”
Xavier handed Cooper the container of sea salt. The other man whispered to himself as he turned, pouring the crystals out in a circle around him. He handed the container back.
Carefully, Xavier removed the small leather pouch from Cooper’s pack. Once he had it, Cooper pulled the strings and gently freed the deck from it. He closed his eyes as he shuffled. He dealt one card to the north, shuffled as he turned, dealt to the east, and repeated the process for the south and the west, shuffling once more and turning over the top card before laying the deck at his feet.
Xavier never really understood the whys and wherefores of Cooper’s methods, as he was practically from a different world. But for all the years he’d known the warlock, no spell that had been worked in his presence resulted in evil or even much collateral damage, save for an incident in New Jersey that neither man talked about.
“Eight of Swords to the north. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. So I can’t hesitate. You can stop thinking I need to quit now, Xavier.”
“Hush. Three of Swords to the east, practically at your feet. A truth, hidden, that will be revealed, and change everything.” He opened his eyes to look at Xavier. “Do your superiors know?”
Xavier bit his lip. “What would they say, Simon? How would they react to a priest being in love with a witch?”
Smiling, Cooper held up a finger. “I won’t tell if you won’t. Just as long as you know that I know.” He closed his eyes again. “Nine of Swords to the south, behind me, meaning that I’ve left behind sleep and other mortal comforts for this. Good. I’m on the right path. And… Ace of Swords to my left. My left hand, the one I’d use to hold a scabbard, draw a sword from, sharp and ready… excellent, excellent. I can do this.”
“What about the one at your feet?”
Cooper looked down. “The Queen of Swords herself. Oh, this is good. Xavier, I was right. Esther isn’t dying because her body is shutting down, she’s dying because her soul was stolen. Some deity or denizen has been keen to her magic and wants her for some purpose.”
Xavier frowned. Then, without a word, he moved to the fuse box and shut down the diner’s power. He removed seven candles from Cooper’s pack, laid them out around the circle, and lit them.
“What else do you need, Simon?”
“My totem belt.”
It was a heavy grade piece of military surplus wear, to which Cooper had affixed several pouches, with everything from herbs to small relics to holy water Xavier himself had blessed. He strapped it on.
“Simon Johnathan Tesla Cooper.”
The warlock turned to the priest. Xavier didn’t often say his full name.
“Bring her back to me. Bring her back to both of us.”
“What did you think I was going to do, Father Xavier, watch as her body slowly gives up waiting for her to come back? She’s my sister.”
“I know you don’t believe in God…”
“Nonsense, of course I do. I just don’t believe yours is the only one. I’ve met too many.”
“… but may He bless and keep you.”
Simon Cooper managed a smile. “Thanks.”
He turned away, eyes shut, and spoke words in ancient tongues as he flicked various pouch contents into the candle flames. At the last, there was a flash, and he was gone.
Xavier sat on a diner stool, folded his hands, closed his eyes, and began to pray.
I don’t know how much light I’ve got left. But there’s plenty of air.
I can’t tell if the light I’m seeing nearby is reflected from my lamp or from another natural source. It’s enough to see by. And my God, this place is huge. Bigger than any sonar readings could have told us. Bigger than anybody imagined.
I’m still not sure why they brought me along. All the geologists and professional explorers and local experts, and then there was me. I’ve always found caves and mines fascinating, but from a historical standpoint, as indicators of what humanity needs them for and how it uses the tools it can create or is presented with, never from a rock formation or shale composition standpoint. I consider it a cruel irony that it was me who fell through the loose rocks above into this chamber below.
They’ve gone to get more rope to try and get me out of here. The camp is a few hours away. I guess that gives me time to explore, provided I don’t wander too far.
I think my leg might be broken.
It won’t hold my weight very well and it’s extremely painful to move it, let alone try to stand on it. I found some painkillers in my pack, and I have a good supply of drinking water. I’m going to see what I can do to cobble together a splint.
Hobbling is not the most expedient way of getting around, but I did discover something down here. Something that will change human history forever.
Under the calcification and fallen rocks, there are man-made structures down here. I’ve discovered what appear to be massive load-bearing columns, like support beams, all through this cavern. I can’t even begin to guess at the age of this stonework. Centuries? Millennia? I’m no scientist and have no equipment to measure such a thing.
All I know is that it bears further investigation. My watch tells me it’ll be a few more hours before the party returns. I’ll take a few minutes to rest, have a drink of water and perhaps another round of painkillers, and see what I can find.
This is becoming more and more impossible as I go on.
There are carvings in some of the structures. From what I can tell, mostly by shining light through the calcification, they resemble Scandinavian runes in passing. I say ‘in passing’ because we are pretty far from any Scandinavian countries. And while I am no expert, as I’ve only examined original Norse ruins and documents in passing, I have to say that many of these symbols are entirely unfamiliar to me. I will sketch what I can before I return to where I fell in.
I don’t know if it’s the painkillers or something in the air or if I’m simply going mad.
But I’m hearing things down here. Sounds that I am not myself making.
Checking my watch, the party should have returned by now. They need to return soon. I cannot get out on my own.
My light is beginning to fade, and unless my eyes are playing tricks, some of the other light is also shifting. It’s as if a shadow is moving somewhere beneath me.
And then there’s sound.
God help me, it sounds like drums.
Drums in the deep.
Art courtesy zombie2012
For The Wheel, Part Two, the die selected Steampunk, Someone’s Been Poisoned!, and A Secret Message.
The skyline of Paramount City was normally a welcome sight. It meant coming home. Today, as Captain Taggert held the wheel of his beloved airship, he saw the skyline in a very different way. The airfighters weren’t up yet, but they would be soon enough.
“How are we doing up here, Cap’n?”
He didn’t turn to look. He knew the voice of his mate, Ashley Sanders, almost as well as his own. Five years now they’d plied the skies together, and he trusted her almost more than he trusted himself.
“We’re making good time. Tavis hasn’t called up; how much is he really complaining about the boilers?”
“‘Bout as much as you’d expect. Not used to runnin’ her this hot just to get home.”
Taggert didn’t take his eyes from that skyline. “Does he know?”
Sanders walked up next to him. “No. Only ones who know what’s really going on are you, me, Doc, and poor Mike Palmer.”
“How is he?” Taggert reflected, as he asked, that he was standing in Mike’s spot, at the wheel of the ship. It felt a bit like walking on the man’s grave.
“Doc says he’s stable. Won’t be dancin’ a jig any time soon, but provided Doc stays with him and makes sure he’s takin’ on fluids proper-like, he’ll pull through.”
Taggert nodded, glancing to the scroll case sitting on the radar console to his left. The man who’d been carrying it, a passenger they took on from the border with the untamed jungles to the south, had been nervous from the start. Next thing anybody knew, he was on the radio, calling in the Wayward Albatross as a pirate ship and a danger to the Empire, and when Palmer had confronted him, the pilot got a poison shiv for his trouble. Taggert dealt with the passenger in what he felt was a fair and equitable manner: he escorted the man off of his airship, without the benefit of a parachute.
The message, though, worried him. It bore the Imperial seal, and was obviously meant for someone important. He wasn’t sure who the intended recipient was, nor for whom the man had been working, but the Empire took all reports of air piracy very seriously. Taggert kept his eyes peeled for airfighters even as the radio crackled to life.
“Airship Wayward Albatross, this is Imperial Control. Come in, Wayward Albatross.”
Sanders picked up the microphone, clearing her throat. “This is the Albatross, Control, what can we do for ya?”
“You will heave-to and tie up at the Imperial port spire in the south-eastern docks. Your ship will be inspected and your crew questioned.”
Sanders exchanged a look with Taggert. “We have a sick man on board, Control. He needs medical attention.”
“Negative. Heave-to immediately.”
Sanders released the mike’s switch. “We can’t let them split Mike from Doc, Cap’n. He might not make it in that case.”
“And if we hand over this message it might just disappear, along with us.” Taggert frowned. “Call down to Tavis. Get her as stoked as possible. Then sound evacuation and get to the rescue planes.”
“I’m taking her in, Sanders, and the fewer folks at risk, the better things will be.”
Sanders, for her part, didn’t argue. She just looked at Taggert for a very long moment before leaving. Moments later, he felt the Albatross surge forward, steam billowing from her vents. The airship could move quick when she needed to, and Taggert needed every iota of speed he could muster. An inner voice told him this was foolhardy, maybe even suicidal, but he hushed it. He had other things to worry about.
Airfighters were now appearing from the military spires that marked the inner quarter of the city, where the aristocrats and non-landed well-to-do lived and worked. Sanders re-entered the pilot house as Taggert adjusted course towards the Imperial Palace.
“Crew’s started to evac, Cap’n. Time to tie her off an’ go.”
“I’m staying. I’ll get clear, don’t you worry, but I have a job to do.”
Sanders frowned. “Cap’n, I’m more than willin’ t’ give ya a crack on the skull an’ drag your heavy carcass to a plane.”
“You will do no such thing.” He turned to look at her. She did, indeed, have a large wrench in her hand, her face was half-covered in soot, and her blue eyes burned with intensity and worry. “You’re the best mate a broke-down Captain like me could ask for, Ashley, but right now I need you to see to the rest of the crew and get yourself clear. When all is said and done, I’ll find you again. I promise.”
She nodded, but didn’t leave the pilot house until the Albatross rattled. Due to steam or getting buzzed by airfighters, Taggert wasn’t sure. Approaching the Palace like she was, they’d open fire any second.
When he heard the first staccato noises of autogun fire, he tied off the wheel and grabbed a parachute. He felt the deck shake beneath him as he strapped himself in. Taking up the message, he ran aft through the empty airship to find a lock. He threw open the inner door, than the outer, looking down at the greenery of the palace gardens.
The Albatross shook again. Taking a deep breath, Taggert stepped out into the air. He didn’t dare look back; he knew his ship was on fire, and didn’t want the image seared into his mind. Instead, he focused on his ‘chute, pulling it open at the right moment, and guided himself to landing not ten feet from where the Empress herself was enjoying breakfast. Her guards aimed their rifles, and she held up her hand.
“I trust you are bringing us something of profound importance, Captain.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Taggert handed her the message. “This was in the hands of an enemy of the Empire.”
She took the scroll and broke the seal. Reading it, she looked up at Taggert. After a moment, she gestured to her guards.
When last we left Miriam Black, her unique ability to see the way people die had driven her not to take a life, but to save one. She defied fate, and pulled a fast one on the Reaper. Visions have taunted her to say that she’s part of something much bigger than just her freaky touch-based powers, and as Mockingbird opens, we find out that Miriam feels much the same way about destiny that she does about fate – it can go fuck itself.
Miriam tries. She tries pretty hard to settle into something resembling a normal life with Louis, the burly trucker she met during her last adventure. But normalcy and Miriam get along together about as well as a Tea Partier and an NPR host in a Hessian sack, and before long Miriam’s hit the road again. Louis chases her down, mostly because he’s devoted to her, and convinces her to talk to a teacher he knows who is willing to pay Miriam in order to confirm a suspicion. Reluctantly, Miriam agrees, and is drawn into a murder plot involving some of the girls at the school, knowing that the only way to cheat death is to offer it a life.
There’s something poetic about Miriam Black between the swearing and the cigarette butts. Despite her human form and function, she operates more like a force of nature, forever altering the lives of those she comes into contact with. Yet Chuck writes her with such a raw and real voice that we can’t help but relate to her, even if a good deal of her antics seem deplorable or reprehensible to us. Her world view may be skewed several degrees to the side of what most folks consider “normal”, and she may lie just as often as she deals in blunt, raw honesty, but at her core, she wants to avoid the suffering of others and never seeks to be the cause of it, if she can help it.
This is why the school environment and mystery plot are perfect for her. She’s put in a position where she is compelled to act, not out of monetary motivation but due to a sense of justice, of wanting to do right by girls who haven’t had their chances yet. It’s an opportunity for Miriam to both show her true colors and demonstrate that as much as she might rail against her destiny, she does herself no favors by denying her nature and avoiding what her gift can do for others. You can’t really call her a ‘heroine’ but Mockingbird brings her damn close.
I will admit to a touch of cognitive dissonance between this and Blackbirds, only because this work is much more focused on an overarching plot and objective than the previous one. This doesn’t make either work superior to the other one; it simply makes them different. Blackbirds was a tight, focused, and unflinching examination of Miriam Black as a character. Mockingbird takes this character and puts her on the rails of a more straightforward narrative. This is worth mentioning for lovers of the first book, but it’s most certainly not a problem: if you like Miriam Black, Mockingbird will not disappoint. It’s just worth it to be aware of the differences.
Chuck Wendig remains on top of his game, especially when it comes to his leads. Some of the supporting cast may feel a bit arch, ciphers for various aspects of Miriam and her life and past, but I think that’s inevitable when your protagonist is such a powerhouse. Fans of both mystery and Miriam Black will find plenty to love about Mockingbird. I know I did.
I’m willing to admit that I look up to Chuck Wendig to what may be considered a less-than-healthy degree. And recently, he made a proclamation over on his blog. This is a spectacular idea: writers who take the time to establish structure for themselves seem to be more successful. The ‘plotter’ versus ‘pantser’ argument could possibly happen in the wake of me saying that, but let’s deal with that another time.
Blue Ink Alchemy has only dabbled with structure before. IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! used to run every Friday, and if Chuck puts a Flash Fiction Challenge up on Friday, I get my entry up on the following Monday. I think this is an idea worth sticking with, so I’m going to give it a crack.
If I’m off somewhere away from home or am otherwise indisposed for whatever reason, I may interrupt the schedule, but barring such things, here’s what we’re looking at.
Mondays – Flash Fiction
On the weeks when Chuck doesn’t get a challenge up for whatever reason, I’ll use the Brainstormer to determine what will be written. I need to add a genre reel to it, but I have to thank my boss to showing me this thing regardless.
Tuesdays – Writing/Creative Advice
Since I’m a writer and I put this thing together to communicate with and support other writers, it seems appropriate to relate some of my thoughts and experiences on the craft. Mostly I just want to make sure I don’t lose too much momentum between the hustle and bustle of the day job and enjoying the steady pay of said day job.
Wednesdays – Reviews
I’m a bit behind on my review schedule, and I don’t want to get too rusty in writing critically about the media I consume, so every week I’ll review a book, or a video game, or a movie, or some other form of entertainment. Who knows, I might occasionally do an ICFN if I find the time, motivation, and shell out for a decent enough microphone.
Thursdays – Gaming Discussion & Theorycrafting
Most weeks this will be Magic theorycrafting, but occasionally there will be an Art of Thor post, something related to tabletop gaming, or a post on gaming etiquette or writing in video games or an after-action report of some kind.
Fridays – Writer Reports
Just a general state of affairs when it comes to my actual writing, if just to remind myself to write more (or art harder, as Chuck would say) in order to actually finish a manuscript in a somewhat timely manner.
So tomorrow I’ll be reviewing something! Stay tuned.
To meet the latest Terribleminds Flash Fiction Challenge, the dice of destiny have chosen: Post-Apocalyptic Horror, A Nevada brothel and Talking animals.
They’ve been gone a long time.
I’ve got my back to the wall as I sit facing the door. The beaded curtain on the inside of the doorframe catches some of the light from the lamps we moved in here. The subtle mood lighting of the room hadn’t been enough, and since it was the easiest room to secure, it had kind of become our base of operations. The lack of a back way out still bothered me, but a look at my leg was a good reminder that a back way wouldn’t do me much good right now.
It wasn’t a bite, thank God. I’d fallen during our last food run a week ago. Something was probably broken. Lori, a nursing school student before this all happened, had done what she could for the swelling and set the leg so I wouldn’t make things worse. I felt terrible, like a burden, but both Lori and Amber assured me that I was doing fine, and considering how hard I’d been going just to get us here, maybe some time off of my feet would be good for me.
I get a little more worried every day, though. No sign of other survivors, no National Guard, no radio updates, nothing. My watch is one of those self-winding models, and I give my wrist a shake and check it now and again. It’s been hours. They wanted to scope out a store a bit further out, see if they could find fresh medical supplies along with the usual food and water. I’d shown them both how to use handguns a couple weeks ago. They’ll be fine. Probably. Maybe.
Pearl’s cat opens one eye. This had been Pearl’s place, according to the sign out front. Lori hadn’t been terribly keen on holing up here, maybe because she thought I had something not related to survival on my mind. She’s pretty and all, but she has a kid out there somewhere, and I promised her I’d help her find the child and her dad, if they’re still out here somewhere. I wasn’t sure how Lori would get along with Amber when we found the call girl huddled under one of the beds, but so far they seem okay together. And I haven’t made any moves on either of them. Not yet, anyway. There’s a time and a place, and this isn’t the time, really.
The cat gets up and dismounts from the pile of clothes she’d been dozing on. I’m sitting with my back to the wall, rifle across my lap. For about the thousandth time I take a mental inventory: Four rounds in the rifle, eight more in my pocket, a full clip in the 9 mil and another in my pocket. I take my hand from the rifle’s lever and pick up the bottle of water. It’s almost empty. I may have to limp out and get another one soon. I haven’t heard the outside door or any glass breaking, so it’s likely safe in the rest of the cathouse. Probably. Maybe.
“You’re all going to die, you know.”
I look down at the cat. Long, black, and lean, she’s got large yellow eyes and a swishing tail. She’s pleasant enough, but I’ve never heard her speak before. Her voice is low, scratchy, like Kathleen Turner with a sore throat.
“You heard me.” She sits herself down and start bathing herself. “You can only keep scavenging for so long. You’re either going to have to move on or start rationing more. And you’re hungry as it is.”
My stomach growls. I briefly entertain the notion of making kitty stew, then lean my head back against the wall. I’m just tired. My mind’s playing tricks. I check my forehead with the back of my hand. Do I have a fever? Hard to tell. Pearl kept the place well insulated to make her guests more comfortable. It can get pretty warm in here when we get our little propane stove going. I find myself remembering the last time I was making dinner, and Amber got so warm she took off her sweatshirt.
“Males are all alike.”
I smile. “That’s proof that you’re just a hallucination. Or at least the talking is.”
“For all you know, cats are psychic.”
“Fair point, but you could have told us we’re doomed at any time. Why wait until I’m alone?”
“Maybe I can only speak to certain humans. Or maybe I just like making your life difficult.”
She does have a tendency to bat at my face at night for my attention, when she’s hungry or something. “Could also be that you’re jealous of the attention I give to the two non-cat females in here.”
“Oh, yes. I can resist it no longer. You’ve uncovered my shameful desire. Take me, take me now.” She yawns to punctuate her sarcasm.
“Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not into beastiali-”
The sound of Pearl’s front door coming open jolts me upright. The cat turns towards the door to the back room and then darts behind the pile of clothes. I pick up the rifle from my lap. Four rounds in the rifle, eight more in my pocket, a full clip in the 9 mil and another in my pocket. The handgun, formerly a cop’s sidearm, is within easy reach of my right hand if I have no time to reload, or worse, the rifle jams. I think of Amber, again, this time standing behind her to shoot at cans in the back alley.
Keep your eye on your target, aim carefully, take a deep breath, and hold it when you squeeze the trigger.
She’s a decent shot, and the memory of her leaning into me is a nice one. I put it from my mind, though, as I hear shuffling in the hall. I put the rifle’s butt against my shoulder, and line up the sights.
The door handle rattles. My leg aches. I take a deep breath, and hold it.
Art by ~boudicca
Chuck wanted a war on Christmas. Be careful what you wish for.
They come, on both sides, from tales of old. From the frozen wastes yet untouched by man, from crevasses and shadows and hidden places too fearsome for even the most brave and the most crazed, from realms and holes and lairs unseen even by devices in the sky, the enemy issues forth. It is almost always Jötnar, either one or a cadre, who lead, mustering up old hatreds and stoking the fires of bloodlust within the foe. Manticores and chimera and goblins and trolls, they all pour onto the glaciers and frozen seas and march on the stronghold.
The defenders come when the horns sound, on or about the Solstice. From kingdoms deep in the earth and forgotten by man come the dwarves that provide the raw materials for the workshops. Elves large and small rouse from their berths and leave their toy-making behind, taking up sword and bow and shield and spear. Spirits of the fae and what few treefolk remain find their way there too, and the skies fill with pegasi and griffons and great birds of previous ages. It is a host meant to match that sent by the enemy, and most years, the numbers are evenly matched.
This year is not one of those years.
The Jötuun who leads is a fearsome creature, towering over even the tallest and fairest of the elves. Such is his ambition and ability that twice the host of previous years has been summoned. Despite being denied what he truly seeks – the All-Father and his kin have long since left for Valhalla to await the final days – he will sate his hunger for despair and dismemberment upon those arrayed against him on the frozen plains he’d claim for his own. The first blow he lands cracks like thunder preceding a mighty storm, and with that one strike, the battle is joined.
Even when outnumbered, the host of defenders make the enemy pay dearly for every inch of ground. The fearsome fervor of dwarf warriors bites into goblins numerous beyond counting. Ancient spirits of the forests that pass for many years as trees wrestle with giants of frost. Pegasus and manticore swoop, dive, and strike, claws leaving ribbons of blood while hooves shatter bone. Beneath the icy plain, kraken and shark vie for supremacy in the silent, inky blackness of the crushing depths.
He emerges for two reasons.
One is that even as the battle rages, he has preparations to make. The sleigh must be filled. The sack must contain every gift. There must be sufficient coal available. The reindeer need to be fed, and all of this is done in spite of the fighting, for he will not forsake the children. Not on this night, not ever. What takes him away from his last-minute work is the other reason: if he senses a true challenge on the field, then and only then does he emerge from his workshop.
His very presence demands reverence from both sides. The defenders give him respect and even love, while the invaders react with fear. The lines of battle part to make way for him. Mail of the finest metal gleams beneath his red coat. No helm adorns his plume of snow-white hair, no gorget beneath the curls of his beard. In his right hand he carries a blade, long and shimmering in the lights of the north, forged in a forgotten age. In his left is a mace blacker than the water in the depths beneath the ice, one that nearly resembles a weapon of the enemy, for he has always been a capricious and merry old soul, loyal only to his devotion to the joy of children. He walks with purpose, without hesitation, until he faces the leader of the enemy host. He stands until the Jötuun turns to acknowledge him, then he taps the flat of his blade to the side of his nose, twice, his way of saluting his foe. When he speaks, his voice is deep, and heard by every ear on the field.
“Someone’s been particularly naughty this year. Ho, ho, ho.”
Some Jötnar banter with Kringle, others offer terms of surrender. But this year, the giant attacks immediately. Claus, for his part, seems to never be terribly surprised by the enemy’s decision, and this year his feet seem particularly nimble. The Jötuun’s axe is a fearsome thing that has cleaved limbs and heads both in this battle, yet Kringle ducks and dodges, giving it only the shallowest of gashes in his skin and coat. It glances off of his mail and bites his rosy cheeks, but never gives the Jötuun satisfaction. When Claus finally strikes, he does so with his blade thrusting at the knees of his enemy. Like a serpent, it darts in and out, piercing darkened frost giant flesh. The Jötuun must turn to keep up with Kringle, opening his own wounds up even further, but the giant is heedless of the pain, fixed entirely on making Claus bleed.
When the moment is right, Kringle brings down his mace on the right kneecap of the giant, then makes a long slash with his blade, and finally swings the black hammer up between the Jötuun’s thighs. The giant topples, howling in agony. Claus is swift, merciful in comparison to many, and plunges his sword into the giant’s heart while swinging his mace down into his enemy’s head. So utter is this defeat and so mighty the blows that the ice cracks, threatening all who stand upon it.
Kringle looks up from his work, smiling, bloodied by the fight but unbowed.
“Now, let’s see. Ho, ho, ho. Who else is on the Naughty list?”
The enemy host quits the field promptly at that point. A mighty cheer goes up from the elves and fae, the dwarves and the spirits allied with the defenders. There will be feasting and drinking in the hall tonight, before Kringle takes his crucial ride. Thanks to him, the war is over.
Until next year.
I originally wrote this post over a year ago. However, it feels more relevant now than it did then. Maybe because I’m still struggling to carve out time to write, maybe because I know I’m not the only one writing less than I’d like, maybe because it’s close to the end of the year. Who knows, maybe me from the past wrote out this post as a reminder to my future self that writer’s block is something of a fallacy and needs to be dealt with head-on rather than worried about in a quiet, hands-wringing fashion. Anyway, here’s what I had to say about it, and I feel it’s still true:
He surveyed the damage from the Tower. It, and he, rose high above the palace, and he could see the Lightning Field, now back online, reflecting off of the shattered glass and twisted structural damage of his throne room below. Crews were already hard at work cleaning up the mess. They knew what it meant to disappoint Ming the Merciless.
His arms were behind his back, and he felt an errant twitch in his left hand. That was to be expected. The Consciousness Transmitter hidden in his signet ring always took a toll on him when it was activated. If he were a superstitious ruler, he would be thanking some amorphous, imaginary being like those worshiped by his duller subjects that the rebels had not discovered the Vats, and the cloned bodies Klytus had hidden within. But no god had intervened to restore Ming to life. Like all things within Mongo, life and death were the purview of Ming himself.
Even if Gordon was too stupid to realize that.
Gordon. Ming’s fists tightened. The Earthling’s defiance was a problem. When he and his companions had first appeared, their crude flying machine caught in one of the storms Ming had transmitted from Tropica to the insignificant planet Earth, Ming had welcomed the distraction. Mongo’s princes were dull, predictable guttersnipes, all too easy to manipulate. The Earthlings were quite similar to most of his subjects in form and function, and even as Ming continued to rain destruction on Earth, he had wondered what the princes would make of the newcomers.
Now he knew. Gordon’s fragile but effective alliance with the Hawkmen and the insufferable Prince Barin proved that the Earthling was both a warrior to be respected and a leader to be watched. In the wake of his raid on the palace, Klytus was dead, Baylin missing, and Ming’s prize, Dale Arden, stolen. Apparently, Dale was ‘married’ to the Earthling Zarkov, whatever that meant, and Gordon’s selfless act of throwing himself into the teeth of both Ming’s guard and the Lightning Field to rescue a female not his own was capturing hearts and minds throughout Mongo.
Ming toyed with the idea of summoning some concubines. Two? No, three at the very least. His rage at Gordon coupled with the thrill of facing so worthy an opponent and brushing against the sweet, ever-present and waiting embrace of oblivion would make his passion powerful. He’d likely kill one. But he was willing to wait. He had plans to make, first.
“What commands for your loyal subjects, O Emperor of Mongo, O ruler of my heart?”
He smiled, turning to face his daughter. Aura knelt before him, demure and obedient, eyes shining in the semi-darkness of the Mongo evening, the Lightning Field catching in the gold filigree worked into her hair. His seething anger gave way to pride. His daughter was fearful of reprisal for her failure. Her attempt to play Gordon and Barin against one another had failed, unfortunately, and being spurred by both of them could not be easy for her. She, like Ming, was used to getting what she wanted. Gordon was to be her plaything, and Barin the means to ensure tighter control over Mongo. Ming knew she toyed with the idea of usurping him, and it amused him to watch her try. He reached down and touched her hair.
“Do you mean to rule in my stead, dear daughter?”
“Only until you are well enough to return in full, my lord.”
“And you will step aside willingly on that day? It may come too soon for your liking.”
She took his hand in both of hers, kissing his palm and wrist. “Now more than ever, we need your power and brilliance. Mongo will fall into chaos without your fist clutching its lands and people.”
His lips slowly curled into a smile. “Did you say something similar to Barin?”
Her eyes looked up, seeking his. “It doesn’t matter what I said to him, Father. Or to Flash Gordon. Seeing your body dead by their swords… I did not expect to be so upset by it.”
“Especially if you mean to take my throne by force one day,” Ming said. “I did not come to my place of power by being Ming the Merciful. You must harden yourself against death, my daughter. You will see it just as often as you cause it.”
“Yes, Father. I do not expect you to forgive my indiscretions. I await your punishment.”
He stroked his beard, and fought down the errant twitch in the hand doing it. It would take time for those things to subside. And he did not want Gordon or Barin or Vultan to know he was alive while any potential weakness existed.
“Your punishment is to deal with these sniveling upstarts. Double the guard patrols, step up the execution schedule, and cancel all state holidays until further notice. Mongo is ours to rule, and as long as we rule it, it shall do well to remember what it means to cross Ming and Aura.”
The Princess rose, her stunning smile a mask for the malice in her eyes. “They will never forget me. They may think they’ve won, that I will be weeping in my chambers for their lost hearts, but when I show them their hearts, still beating, they will regret choosing ‘freedom’ and ‘friendship’ over Aura.”
“Now those are the words worth of Ming’s blood.” He took her hand and kissed it. “Go, and show no mercy.”
She sauntered away, and Ming turned back to the window. Somewhere out there, in Arboria or perhaps the Sky City, Flash Gordon was likely celebrating a victory. Ming hoped the Earthling enjoyed it. Soon, pain and misery would be all he knew, and the so-called ‘Saviour of the Universe’ would beg Ming for mercy before the end, mercy that would never come, and honestly, Gordon should know better than to ask.
Ming activated the intercom to the wing of his palace containing his concubines.
“Send up three… no, four to the Tower immediately. The night is young, and it shall not be wasted.”