Monday, August 4, 2014

My Precious Prose

This was supposed to be the opening entry in an episodic story. I wanted to attempt a tale that unfolds according to the "pantser" style: one unplanned piece at a time.

Unfortunately, it seems the story I had intended to tell was just a bit too precious for episodic blog entries. I use the word "precious" with a bit of an eye roll. What I really mean is that the world of the story grew so important to me that perfectionism and fear of failure (those two killjoys) showed up and insisted I agonize over every aspect of my writing. I knew they'd crashed the party when it took me four days to prep a thousand words.

If your work ever grounds to a halt like this, consider some quick exercises to keep yourself writing (it beats staring at the screen or crawling forward a few letters at a time). I've found some success with WriterKata, a great site intended to foster pure practice. When my output dwindles to zero, WriterKata's "jump right in" prompts can help get me moving. At first they set the bar nice and low by challenging me to complete single sentences. Once I've found my footing, the challenges move on to paragraphs and then ramp up from there. Nice.

My apologies for not getting any prose up this week. I'll try to start my episodic story next week--only this time I'll make sure it doesn't take place in a world I've previously spent a lot of time brooding over.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Storyline Sampler

I’m still having a lot of fun over at Storyline, so I decided to post a few of my favorite entries. Each segment was written in six minutes and is basically an example of my rough draft writing.

From “Siberia” (Crime): 

Robert did not like surprises. Robert liked plans and tables and numbers all tabulated and adding up correctly. But now he had no choice. He was going to have to wing it. He took a breath, and turned to face the Russian. It discomfited him that he had to crane his neck so far back.

"My name," he said in an even tone, "is Robert."

The Russian looked at him for a moment, and then cracked a smile—half of it rendered in poor gold dental work.

"Still just as cold as ever, Siberia. Eh?"

"Robert."

Ignoring his response, the Russian crouched down. He was so massive that this brought him to Robert's eye level. It somehow made him more intimidating.

"My friend, Yuri would like to talk to you." He pitched it low, and it sounded like a subwoofer had kicked on somewhere in his massive frame.


Click here to go to the full story page.


From “The Plane Crash” (Adventure):

I told my concerns to Phil and he stopped again. I didn't like the look he was giving me.

"Why would you say that?"

The words came from behind me and I almost jumped. The woman. Jennifer. I had forgotten she was there. I turned to look at her, standing a little lower on the slope. The distance was out of her eyes. I saw something new in her narrowed expression. Determination. Wariness.

"Why would you say that?" She repeated.

"What?"

"About the valley. Why would you say it's a desert?"

I opened my mouth, but realized an answer wasn't forthcoming. Why did I say it? Why would I think a valley in the middle of a tropical island would be a wasteland?

"I'm ... not sure," I finally answered. "Maybe it's just shock." But I couldn't shake the image. The certainty that the valley was a terrible place.


Click here to go to the full story page.


From “Spite” (Fantasy):

The Other was not like a looking glass. Some of it was reflected in the terrain of the First World, but other pieces manifested their own strange laws. He had once tried to explain it to an initiate of the Pact by pointing to a plain table.

"Pretend the surface of the table is the First World," he had said. Then, with a flourish, he had swept a rough quilt over the top of it. He made no effort to allow it to lay smooth. Instead, he gestured to the wrinkles and folds, the confusing areas where the fabric doubled back on itself.

"That," he had continued in a grave tone, "is the landscape of the Other."

Thus, it was no surprise to Dyra when he emerged at the edge of a dank wood on top of a broad hill. He could barely make out the village as a smudge to the south. Despite the fact that he had travelled only the length of a field in the Other, he exited it some miles away.


Click here to go to the full story page.


As of right now, none of these stories have been completed. Feel free to head over to Storyline and add an entry of your own!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Short Fiction: Cops Don't Wear Capes

Another story inspired by Terribleminds. The challenge was to craft a 1000 word superhero tale crossed with another genre. Here is my take on a superhero/police procedural. It runs just under 2100 words. Oops. In my defense, world building tends to eat up a lot of prose!

COPS DON'T WEAR CAPES

The call went out towards the end of my shift. I was on foot patrol thanks to a recent community outreach initiative.
 
“Dispatch to all in vicinity.” The voice from the radio was laced with static. “Officer needs assistance. One-seven-four reports drunk and disorderly at corner of Lynn and Gage. Be advised, extraordinary individual present. I say again, extro present.”

Her tone was professionally bored, but I broke into a cold sweat at the words.

Extro present.

The address was only five blocks away. I responded that I was on en route. I took off in the standard “running cop” pose: stabilizing my heavy equipment belt with one hand. My feet were killing me, but the adrenalin hit of an extro incident made it easy to ignore.

I didn’t know of a single cop who liked the Special Deputies and their silly costumes, but at least they were trying to be part of the solution—especially right after E-day, when it seemed like every corner had an asshole who enjoyed tossing cars or encasing grandma in ice. The SDs were obnoxious, but on our side. In a similar vein, the straight-up bad ones were handled by specialists. The real danger to law enforcement was the gray area in between: morons with super powers and poor impulse control. 

I always smacked him around before, officer. How’s I supposed to know his head was gonna come off?

I was halfway there after a few minutes. Decrepit pawn shops and corner stores became long rows of track housing and playgrounds with broken swings. I barely noticed. My world was reduced to blurred sidewalk lines, the stitch in my side, and the rhythmic noise my equipment belt made as its eclectic assortment shifted to and fro.

One block out I slowed to a walk. No other chatter had come over the radio and I needed to be alert—and not gasping so much. The late afternoon sun was just shading over into early evening. Made it easy to spot the faint red/blue shift of police cruiser lights on the faded paint of surrounding homes. One-seven-four’s car was just up ahead, hidden by the high wall of a community basketball court. I rested my palm lightly on the handle of my firearm and peered around the corner.

It was just another neighborhood street, but I’d walked the beat long enough to spot the warning signs. A couple of kids’ bikes were lying a little too far into the road. Means they’d been dropped and the owners had scattered. Then I saw the thin column of black smoke rising up from behind a hedge.

The cruiser was close, parked along my side of the street next to the sidewalk. I was relieved to see Officer Perry Marsh taking cover behind the open driver-side door. Perry was black, trim, and in his early twenties. He was a bit inexperienced, but professional as they came. A good cop. I called his name to warn him as I approached and dropped into a crouch.

“Orville! Glad to finally have some backup.” He was playing it cool, but his body practically hummed with tension.

“Just wish I had a cruiser.” I glanced around. “Can’t believe no one else is here.”

He shook his head. “Believe it. Some extro gangbangers decided tonight was the night they weren’t taking shit from some other extro gangbangers. Everyone’s hauling ass to a fight downtown. Including SWAT and SRT.”

I muttered the most vulgar epitaph I could think of. The Special Response Team was our answer to the Special Deputies. An in-house extro squad for situations just like this. Usually worked great—unless they were on another call.

“Okay.” I nodded. “Then we’ll just handle this.” I nodded again. My head probably looked a little wobbly. “We’ll just deal with it. Right?”

He gave me a dubious stare.

 “What do we have?” I asked, my tone perfectly neutral. Had to be careful. Nerves were contagious, and nervous cops make bad choices.

He licked his lips and nodded. “Okay. Responded to a neighbor’s complaint twenty minutes ago. Noise disturbance from the sky blue house across the way. I knocked and a man answered.”

“Description?”

“Caucasian. Fifties. Wife beater and boxers. Unshaven.” He paused. “Ugly as sin, drunk as hell.”

I nodded.

“Told the man to turn his music down,” Perry continued, “because maybe not everyone in the neighborhood wants to listen to Pink Floyd. He says ‘no problem,’ but his eyes tell me different. Still, he goes in and turns it off. I say ‘have a nice day.’ Go to leave, but I back down the steps because the vibe feels off.”

“Sounds like you made the right call,” I said.

Perry nodded. “Yeah, ‘cause then he’s at the door again—all calm like—and asks who made the complaint. I don’t say. He goes ‘I know who it was,’ and then—Jesus—then he points at a moped parked in the neighbor’s yard, and it just ... boom!” He mimed a starburst with one hand.

My breath seemed short all of a sudden. Heat beams? That was at least a Class 3. I risked a quick peek over the door. Street was still empty. I ducked back down.

“First time you ever see something like that in person?” I said.

“First time.”

“Yeah.” I swallowed. “It’s always freaky right in front of your face.” I jerked a thumb across the street. “That smoke the moped?”

He nodded.

“Damn. Do we have a name?”

“Dispatch says Lucas Hurrin.” He gave me a pointed look. “No EI jacket.”

An unregistered extro. Delightful.

We both jumped as a subdued crackling sound started up across the way. I gave Perry a reassuring clap on the shoulder and decided we shouldn’t be clustered together. I duck walked around the cruiser and stopped next to the right front wheel. After a moment, I eased up to peer over the hood.

The suspect—Hurrin— was standing on the stoop of his house. A mostly empty bottle of vodka was in his left hand, but no other weapons were evident.

Apart from the man himself.

Hurrin’s right arm was raised up with his hand limply extended. Reminded me of Adam reaching out to God in that Michelangelo painting. Instead of communing with the Almighty, he had set the neighbor’s hedge on fire. I could see a wall of sickly flames flickering across the top. It was healthy greenery, so apparently he was having to keep feeding the blaze. Visible waves of heat were radiating away from his fingers.

It was bad, but there was cause for hope. For one thing, Hurrin was sweating. He also seemed to be leaning forward a bit when he renewed the flames at the far end of the hedge. That meant his ability wasn’t effortless, and the range of the power looked to be about ten meters max.

“Perry, you seeing this?” I kept my voice low.

“Oh yeah,” came the reply from the other side of the car.

 “Okay, look ... I’m going to try and talk him down.”

Great, Orville. Real winner of a plan. 

“Seems like a bad move.”

“Yeah, maybe. But I have a little experience with extros.” I took a breath. “I’m going to have to get close. So keep your weapon holstered, okay? Even if he tries to flash-fry me. Worst case, close the distance and use your tranq. I don’t think he’s got much reach with that heat beam.”

I moved before Perry could protest, sliding my shoulder along the hood of the car until I ran out of vehicle. Then I straightened and moved toward the perp at a brisk walk. I unsnapped the carrier of my tranq, but didn’t draw it. Figured there was a chance I might actually be able to talk him down.

Hurrin spotted me almost immediately, but that was the idea. He dropped his arm. The hedge continued to smolder, snapping softly. He watched as I reached the middle of the street.

“Sir,” I raised my voice to just below a shout, “I’d like to speak with you, okay?”

He took a swig of vodka, but said nothing. 

I stepped onto the curb next to his little slice of yard. The potential danger amplified every detail of my surroundings. Heat roiling off the hedge. Behind it, the greasy, burning smell marking the moped’s final resting place. The way the cruiser lights glinted off the bottle.

“I have not drawn a weapon.” I was past the sidewalk now. “So this situation should remain calm.”

Twenty feet away. Fifteen. Ten. I stopped.

“Could you answer me, sir?” I said in my best soothing tone.

He smiled, and that’s when my instincts belatedly made the leap: Lucas Hurrin hadn’t actually swallowed the vodka.

The man leaned back like a circus performer and then heaved his upper body forward, spitting out the alcohol in a spray. Vodka’s not normally flammable—it has to be superheated. So of course it ignited into an expanding fireball almost instantly.

I could see it unfold in slow motion, feel the heat before the flames themselves began to wash over me. I twisted my body as it ballooned outward, and my exposed left arm and shoulder were completely engulfed. It wasn’t ordinary fire. It’s like Hurrin had transmuted the alcohol into a kind of plasma. I actually felt my uniform shirt disintegrate, the synthetic fibers melting against my skin and spiking the pain.

Training is a hell of a thing. My arm—burned or not—started grabbing for the tranq. As the wall of flame began to break apart, I cracked my eyes against the dissipating heat and took a look at Hurrin. The surprise on his face brought grim satisfaction. I pulled the small metal cylinder free from my belt and thumbed off the safety cap.

These days pretty much every police department had something like the tranq. It was a necessary countermeasure. If we had to detain an extro suspect, it’s not like handcuffs would always fit the bill—not like the tranq would either, but a slim hope is better than none. These things were designed to be fired up to ten feet away. Screw that. I went for what the manual termed “direct administration.”

Growling like a madman, I brandished the tranq above my shoulder like a horror movie psycho. By the time Hurrin realized I wasn’t going down he was only two feet away.

“Wait—” Hurrin said.

I slammed the tranq into his right thigh. Might have scraped a bone, but the industrial needle met no resistance I could detect. The mechanism inside whirred as it injected a vicious cocktail of chemical sleep. 

Hurrin bent down, grabbing at my bare shoulder. He tried to pour on the heat, but the drugs were already taking hold. I gasped as all his weight came crashing down on top of me. By the time I awkwardly dropped him into the uncut grass, he was out. Thank God. I knew those tranq chemicals would cause him all sorts of pain upon awakening.

I considered it karma. 

My shoulder was the next priority. It took a moment to work up the courage to look. I let out a breath, opened my eyes, and saw skin. Pale, seemingly unharmed skin. It felt irritated—like I’d forgotten to wear sunscreen while mowing the lawn—but that was it. I staggered under the feeling of relief that washed over me.

Perry closed the distance seconds later, dashing across the street with his weapon drawn. Couldn’t blame him for that, the fireball must have looked fatal from his vantage point. I slumped down onto the porch and held up a hand.

“You can holster it. He’s out.”

Perry slowed to a halt, mouth falling open. He wasn’t even looking at Hurrin. His eyes were latched onto the white flesh of my shoulder, its starkness amplified by the singed bits of surrounding shirt. I could see him put it together in less than a second. Perry was quick. Probably make detective some day.

He holstered his weapon and stood there. I waited for his gaze to make its way up to my eyes.

“You’re an extro,” he murmured. 

I looked at his face. Saw the bemusement and surprise, and the touch of fear. I decided to tell him the truth.

“I’m a cop,” I said.

THE END

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Storyline: Writing's Version of Speed Chess

I was recently introduced to a great way to practice: Storyline.io. This collaborative writing site is a blast for those times you just want to put down some prose. Here’s a few reasons why it rocks:


  • Collaboration. Relay storytelling is the site's goal, and the way it's implemented is surprisingly enjoyable. It’s fun to try and continue a plot based on someone else’s writing. You have to stay within the established tone of previous entries while simultaneously bringing your own ideas to the mix. Then you get to watch other authors do the same thing with your prose. It’s neato.
  • Time Limits. A built-in timer only permits six minutes to craft an entry (five to compose, one to revise). This brilliant set-up doesn’t allow you to agonize over your word choices: one way or another, your prose will go live in six minutes. Some might consider that terrifying, but it puts me in a “rough draft” mode that short-circuits my perfectionism and lets me enjoy myself.
  • Quick Feedback. Writing is often a lonely business, and sometimes it’s nice to type some words and know that others will read and (hopefully) appreciate them. It’s a great confidence booster to get upvoted (hearted?), and that confidence can provide an impetus to keep plugging away on your private work. Likewise, it feels good to upvote heart the hard work of others.



Of course, there are a few limitations to the current set-up. While I love the core idea and growing community, a few additional features would be handy. As it exists now, Storyline is great for beginning a story, but without additional tools I suspect those tales will eventually trail off without a satisfying conclusion.

Here’s what I hope to see as the site expands:



1. Story Discussion Threads. 

I would love to press a button at the top of a story and have a second column appear that contains a single discussion thread about that story. Basically this would be for collaborative notes, world-building, and discussion about directions the story could take. For clarity, each comment could be pegged to the fiction entry that was current when the comment was submitted.

2. Story Moderators. 

It would be grand if the creator of a story gained the option (not the requirement) to be designated the moderator for that story. The level of moderation could vary from minimal to full editor.

At the lowest setting, the moderator would gain a special symbol next to their name in the story discussion thread. They would also be able to edit a permanent entry next to the story titled “The Story So Far” (or something similar). This would be used to summarize story progress for interested parties who aren’t sure if they want to join in on some of the longer entries. It could also be used to guide the flow (i.e. “Let’s try to finish up the current scene in the next five entries!”). Finally, the moderator would be able to “end” the story after any entry (with the option of a final post), or pass on the “moderator” title to another user. 

At the highest level, the moderator effectively becomes an editor, with the ability to delete posts, insert linking material, etc. This shouldn't be the recommended setting, of course, as it would tend to overshadow the collaborative nature of the site—but some story groups may want this option. 

3. Single Author Stories


I know collaborative storytelling is the point of Storyline (that’s why I love it), but as the community grows it would be nice to occasionally write an individual story that you could share with your fellow authors. I would even prefer it to be in the same format: one entry at a time in six-minute installments. Readers could heart their favorite entries and use the story discussion thread to offer encouragement or suggestions (solo stories would also be a good candidate for the “sparks” virtual currency the creator recently introduced).


Whew! This was a lengthy (non-fiction) post, but I guess that just shows how much I’ve been enjoying Storyline. If this sounds like something you’d like, go have a look (I’m there under the user name FlynnFlam). You might just find it as addictive as I have!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Flash Fiction: Flounder Pwnd

A cyberpunky piece about 1k in length. Written in response to a surreal picture prompt contained in Wonderbook. Note: this one has a few naughty words.

FLOUNDER PWND

Knightsoil tried not to let his concentration waver when the quill in his hand began flashing pale red. The battery in his hapglove was about to die, but he knew from experience he had at least ten more minutes before its spatial performance would degrade. He stayed focused on the piece of massive parchment suspended in front of him. Its mottled yellow surface was covered in line after line of near-perfect calligraphic writing, and he was on the final sentence.

His latest screed was a masterful assault on the piece of trash masquerading as “Game Patch 9.1126.3.” It was well-written—even better than his takedown of the prior update. If it wasn’t for these review opportunities, Knightsoil would have no reason to keep his game subscription current (this was, in fact, a point he brought up in his writing). Savage Swords had been the legit flow in vanilla. Then the devs decided hardcores were the enemy. This latest patch just proved it by nerfing the Hound Riders yet again. If they were gonna stick it to hardcores like himself, he was going to stick it to them.

His argument was well-reasoned and researched, but Knightsoil knew it was the presentation that would rack up sitetraf. Vrilth wannabes would mangle the execution and then fix it with an image program, but any de-diapered netive could detect that garbage with a simple analysis algorithm. His calligraphy was the real deal. He could probably even do it with an actual quill and ink.

“Done!”

He said it in meatspace, but his painstakingly created avatar—a comically obese nineteenth century British barrister—repeated it to his private homesite in an artificially modulated English accent. The post was complete (and in ultra-high-res to boot). Knightsoil waggled his hand and the quill shimmered out of existence. Another swooping hand gesture caused the massive parchment to fold once, then again and again until it had winked out of existence; his latest dispatch was now safe in his vrog queue.

Knightsoil flopped into a partially broken office chair in meatspace. In the vreal world, his avatar perched atop a stack of massive tomes and ledgers. His homesite was made up to look like a Victorian accountant’s office. It was tiny and narrow, lit by grimy windows letting in shafts of tepid light. He loved being able to see the beams of light in the air—volumetric lighting was a mark of distinction. In addition, the extremely narrow floor plan enabled him to cram in a bunch of high-resolution models of crumpled-up papers and ink-stained writing desks. The decor was rounded out by the unorganized stacks of books covering the floor; it pleased Knightsoil that the average posermeat’s machine would lock-up just trying to render the sheer number of polygons in his lair.

He started to gesture for the exit menu—unlike some, he thought it uncouth to remain online during a biobreak—when his world flickered. Knightsoil froze as his office twisted with nausea-inducing distortion. Several of the textures on nearby objects vanished to reveal crude test patterns as his machine struggled to adjust settings. He was being hacked!

To Knightsoil’s utter horror, an avatar began forcing its way into his triple-secured homesite. It rose up from the floor, a grotesque flat fish-thing with doubled-up eyes. A flounder, he realized, still dumbfounded by what was happening. It was a beautiful sculpt with triple-A texture work. Every scale shimmered with an individual highlight as if wet; something so perfectly crafted and random would either be owned by a bright twelve-year-old in a “wacky humor” phase ... or a nihilistic hacker from one of those sites like 4x4chan.

“Sup, bro?” The flounder said. Its voice synthesizer made the words gurgle. “You look shocked, son. Check it.” It flopped its head to indicate the ground.

Knightsoil followed the motion on instinct.  The base of the avatar was distorted into a tiny tube emerging from a greasy splotch of red on an artist’s palette laying on the floor. It was the access icon for Knightsoil’s preferred image editing software. He RL gaped and his avatar did the same (the hanging jaw was probably a perfect fit for his Dickensian model). The flounder-thing laughed. It was a hideous noise that sounded like drowning.

“Piggybacked the cloud-update settings for your dynamic color schemes. Rode that wave right into your sanc, bro! Security patch’s been out for, like, weeks. Posermeat move, son.”

“What-” Knightsoil swallowed, struggling to regain a sense of composure. Dignity was all he had left after this embarrassment. “Who are you?”

“Just a fan, man.” The mirth filtered through despite the gurgling.

“No fan would invade my personal domain!”

“Aw, sorry, dudebro. Wasn’t spesif. I’m a fan of Savage Swords. Not your bitch-ass trolling. Say hi to RL, posermeat!” The flounder began to spin. Slowly at first, then picking up speed.

The volumetric lighting was the first thing to go. Then all the color was wrenched out of the room followed by the walls. The windows dissolved to reveal a 2D image of a London street scene with cobble-stone streets and hansom cabs that juddered into nothing an instant later.

“Wait, you-!” Knightsoil screamed before the world in front of his eyes went black. His site had just been crashed. Hard.

He pulled off his goggles and looked around his tiny office and spartan furniture. The only illumination came from the scattered power lights of his equipment and hapgear. He found himself zeroing-in on the blinking red light of his computer tower. So that was fried too.

“-fucking fish,” he said to no one.

THE END

Monday, June 30, 2014

Short Fiction: Monsieur Mercy

This quick thriller runs around 1800 words. It's about a ruthless man's attempt to escape a city racked by civil unrest. The writing's a bit overwrought, but hopefully good enough for a blog post!

MONSIEUR MERCY

The warm water sloshed around Arnaud’s thin black sock and into his designer shoe. A minor wave of nausea passed over him as he stepped into the ankle-deep slurry with his other foot. Even breathing through his mouth the foulness was palpable, almost visible. He released his grip on the ladder and started down the barely lit tunnel.

Above him the staccato sounds of gunfire continued unabated. All the masonry between Arnaud and the battle above muffled things; it gave the impression of dueling jackhammers working on a particularly busy construction site. A small part of him was proud that his private security were still putting up a fight. Self preservation was a fine motivator; they could expect no mercy if they surrendered. Still, they were real professionals.

How the attackers had obtained automatic weapons was a mystery. Just one more reason Arnaud was happy he was leaving the country. First the government had allowed the riots to go on for weeks—practically at the front door of his compound—and now this new spasm of violence. No doubt the looters would soon be referring to it as a revolution.

As he walked, the boxy case in his left hand exerted a surprising weight, feeling heavier than its twenty-five pounds. He was glad he had used a rope to lower it down. What he hadn’t taken into account was how sweaty his palm would get. That made it necessary to grip the handle tighter. His fingers were already starting to ache.

After thirty meters the sound of gunfire had faded to nothing. Now all Arnaud heard was his own feet slopping through the sewage. This was a perfect metaphor for his time in this country. He stopped to catch his breath.

That’s when he heard the unmistakable sound of another foot splashing down. Whoever it was had stopped almost as soon as he had, but not quick enough. Arnaud peered down the nearest side branch, wishing there was more than a single light every fifteen meters. He couldn’t see anything.

He patted his ruined suit jacket with his unencumbered hand; the reassuring shape of the revolver in the outer pocket gave him courage to continue.

Arnaud made satisfying progress for another minute before he heard the snatch of laughter from behind. Something about its high pitch brought a wave of familiarity. Down here it was an ominous new development either way. He stumbled to a halt on the uneven stones and listened intently. Trickling water. Endless dripping. His own heavy breaths. Nothing else.

Arnaud gripped the handle of the cumbersome case so tightly his palm began throbbing. He fished for the snub-nosed weapon with his right hand. Missed getting into the pocket a few times because the flap covering it was very stiff—probably not really intended to be used. Finally he pulled the gun out and clutched it awkwardly. Had he always had such sweaty palms?

He started moving as quickly as he dared, but this section was in poor repair. Each step was preceded by a probing shoe to ensure steady footing.

Se montrer clément, monsieur?”

Arnaud stumbled and almost fell. Now he heard both his own breathing and the pronounced thud of his heart against his ribs.

It couldn’t be one of them.

They had a habit of vanishing whenever he turned the dogs loose through the side gate, but surely not into the sewers! Not even those parasitic dregs would be able to stand the foulness down here.

The laughter came again, echoing off the curved walls like gentle waves.

What if it was just one? More desperate than the rest. Crazy. Arnaud swallowed, and the accumulated filth at the back of his throat seemed to go down like a trapped morsel of food. He gagged even as his mind raced.

How many ladders had he passed? Three—no, four. Two to go and he would be underneath the house. A fresh change of clothes and the perfect escape beckoned him onward. The gun would keep him safe from any starving wretch with an ember of courage.

Arnaud had quietly purchased the home months ago. Just after the beginning of the unrest. The early summer sun had seemed to fuel the protests, just like it excited the stink rising from the garbage-strewn streets. It was a wise move, and he congratulated himself for making it. The building was only a few blocks from his real residence; of course it had seemed closer above ground.

Arnaud pictured it in his mind as he walked: a mid-sized residence filled with generic furniture. The trappings were mere camouflage, but Arnaud prided himself on details. The home’s real purpose was what it concealed. In the attached garage, an SUV with a rebuilt engine and a full tank of gas. The tinted windows spoiled the disguise a bit, but Arnaud supposed his narrow visage and perfectly coifed mop of black hair were well-known around the neighborhood.

He stopped again by the next ladder. There was only one to go, but the fast pace over uneven ground was exhausting and he was struggling to catch his breath.

Se montrer clément, monsieur?” The thickly accented French seemed to come from no direction.

Arnaud had never heard one of them pronounce a single word correctly. They always butchered his language. It made the rote plea for mercy seem almost sarcastic. In other circumstances he would have been enraged. Perhaps asked one of his security team to cane the ever-present knuckles gripping the gates.

Down here his response was to raise the revolver and pull back the hammer with a trembling thumb. The distinct click was a warning to anyone nearby.

Se montrer clément?”

He fired a shot down the tunnel. A mistake. The noise was like a physical blow, boxing his ears. He gasped in surprise and slumped against an encrusted wall. For the next several seconds, Arnaud’s world was reduced to nothing but ringing. That was his undoing.

He finally heard the splashing behind him and started to turn, but it was too late. His every fiber seemed to explode in agony as the boy—no more than fourteen—swung a rebar rod into his forearm.

Arnaud staggered back and the boy followed. The rebar came down again. Arnaud raised his arm to block it. The blow landed almost exactly on the original contact spot. Even through the excruciating pain a tiny corner of his mind dispassionately noted the slipping revolver. He watched, helpless, as it spun around his index finger once, and then slipped off and tumbled into the muck.

The boy raised his ersatz weapon for a final strike.

With all the energy he had left, Arnaud kicked out. His foot impacted the boy’s emaciated midsection with enough force that he felt the shock at the base of his spine. The beggar child collapsed with a barely audible grunt and rolled into the sewage, motionless.

To his own surprise, it was only a few seconds before Arnaud was up and moving. The flood of adrenalin kept the pain in his arm from incapacitating him, but every heartbeat sent a new wave of torture along the right half of his body. The final ladder was just ahead, it’s placement and unblemished metal testament to its custom creation. He staggered towards it, a part of him noting with satisfaction that his grip on the case had never wavered.

It was difficult climbing with only one free hand. The task seemed to stretch on endlessly. He measured progress one laborious rung at a time until, after an eternity, he left the main tunnel and found himself in a tube of new cement. One more rung, then another, and he was underneath the custom metal plate with it’s tiny security lock consisting of five plain buttons. He leaned back against the cement and keyed in the code.

Nothing.

Arnaud’s gasp of surprise could have been the sound of a man being kicked. His heart briefly attempted to escape through his ribcage. He coughed in the unbearable air and concentrated on breathing.

“It’s dim. I’m hurt,” he muttered, “that’s all. That’s all.” He continued the impromptu mantra under his breath as he slowly retyped the code. “That’s all.”

He pressed the last button. There was a loud click. The panel above him popped up ever so slightly. Even with all that had transpired, the sight brought a smile to Arnaud’s face. He heaved open the square trap door and pulled himself waist high into his fake home’s fake living room.

It was full of children. Boys and girls in rags. Toddlers to adolescents. An orphan host arrayed to meet him.

Here, Arnaud thought, his emotions suddenly drained, here was the place. This is where they vanished to when he let the dogs loose. His own property. His escape. Arnaud’s top-level security measures had been matched against the ingenuity of the desperate and been overwhelmed.

He gazed at the silent faces. Outside he could hear the roaring fires rampaging throughout the neighborhood. Reddish light seeped in from the windows and flickered across their eyes and expressions. It was always the same. A kind of weary fatalism. Whether the wearer was tapping on the windows of his limousine or standing outside the gates with outstretched hands or following him through the sewers or staring at him in his violated property it never changed.

“I have money,” he said. His tongue had trouble forming the syllables in the best of circumstances—he only used the native language when there was no alternative.
“Much money. American money. Million American money. Understand?” Arnaud coughed. The stench wafting up from below seemed to grow worse. “I hire you. You help me.”

His spent muscles protested in agony as he raised the case up out of the hole. He set it down on the wooden floor with a trembling arm.

“Much money. You help me. Now.”

They just kept staring. All with that same expression.

“You useless little bastards!” He reverted back to French in his anger. “I will see every one of you beaten dead.” They were trash. Always taking, never giving. Filth with no respect for decent people.

Then Arnaud felt a hand. It tugged at the thin black sock around his left ankle before clamping down. Despite the heat, its fingers were cold. 

Se montrer clément, Monsieur,” said the beggar boy below. Then he pulled with all his might.

THE END

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Flash Fiction: The Valley Ahead

This short sci-fi piece runs about 500 words. Space exploration isn't always as epic as we might wish.

THE VALLEY AHEAD 

Grant’s feet marked the proper beginning of the slope. Beyond the insulated toes of his rig the ground sloped away on an exponential curve and plunged out of sight. He supposed this valley would be the same as the two before it. Dusty. Crumbly rocks. Maybe some evidence of water millions of years ago.

Precious seconds ticked by, but he remained frozen at the proper beginning. Staring out the little picture frame created by his visor. A bleak pink world with a pink sky and endless rolling valleys.

“Commander.” Loop’s voice came through Grant’s relay with only a hint of static.

She was a good second, Grant reflected. Dependable if not ambitious. Ambition could be overrated. Fools rush ahead, as they say. Wise words.

“Commander,” Loop repeated.

Grant heard her quiet voice in his ear, but he knew that Loop was standing about ten feet away--off the left side of the picture frame.

“What is it?” His own voice sounded odd. Strained.

“Nineteen minutes from bingo oxygen, sir,” Loop replied. “We still need to cross two ravines to get back.”

Interesting. Loop thought of them as ravines. It fit better than valleys. Grant turned his head to the left to talk over his shoulder; the body language wouldn’t be visible in the rig.

“I suppose it would be a death sentence to head down,” he said. “Just for a few minutes?”

“It’d be more than a few minutes. I think this side turns into a cliff.”

“Right.” Grant licked his dry lips. “I’m sure you’re right.”

Looking down at the toes of his feet required a hunched motion to press his face against the visor. This accomplished, Grant rotated his protesting neck to look right.

Toby had left quite a mess in the dust. Right there at the beginning of the slope. His precise boot prints disappeared into a series of wide swipes that upset the crumbly inch of topsoil. Four distinct grooves cut by fingers were the only identifiable imprints. They began three feet from Grant’s right boot.

“We should get the body,” he said.

“Survey Corps regulations won’t allow it, sir.”

“We can return here--”

“No, Commander, we can’t.”

The sound of heavy soles crunching into the dirt came through the receiver on Grant’s left side. The Lieutenant had already started back.

Grant stayed a moment more. His eyes remained locked on the ground, but all they could see was Toby’s terrified face. His mouth open in the start of a scream. Arms flailing for purchase. Seeking a grip. Or a hand. Then it was too late and he was tumbling. Over and over down the slope where he vanished for two seconds before a distant thud let them know he had hit bottom.

Tranquility base here, Grant suddenly thought, Toby has landed. He shuddered.

It had happened too fast to react.

Grant finally turned away, a wind-up toy on a wound-down spring. He started walking on legs that felt stiff. Back towards the two previous valleys and the survey ship.

It had happened too fast. There was nothing he could have done.

Grant was almost sure of it.

THE END