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

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Short Fiction: Party of One

The following story was inspired by this flash fiction challenge over at Terribleminds.com. I rolled up "Dystopia Comic Fantasy." A bit out of my wheelhouse, but I had a lot of fun writing it! It's a little heavy for the challenge, coming in a bit over 2100 words. I hope you enjoy it! 

PARTY OF ONE

“Next.” The goblin’s voice was coarse and cruel, perfectly matched to the seeping walls on either side of the service counter.

Fwet walked forward, his large boots echoing off the bare stone floors. He reached back over his shoulder, his fingers instinctively going for the hilt of the great sword secured there. At the last moment his hand swerved, plucking a stiff card from beneath the scabbard. He eyed the block letters, briefly ran his fingers along the deep imprints left by the crude press that made them, and then gently laid it on the moisture-warped surface of the desk.

The goblin eyed it but didn’t take it. Instead the creature sighed and scratched at the locks of scraggly hair slicked back behind one long, pointed ear (the other had been torn off). Then it adjusted its sweater vest and gave Fwet a look of impatience.

“Where’s the rest of your party? Rustwallow Deeps Dungeon has a strict policy. The whole party must be present when you submit your reservation ticket.”

“Um,” said Fwet. He swallowed and ran a hand through his own--far more luxurious, far blonder, and far longer--hair. “It’s a, um, single. Ticket.”

To its credit, the goblin’s expression changed only enough to allow for a modicum of skepticism. Real professional here. It hooked its glasses chain with one scaly thumb and followed it to the arm of its bifocals. The goblin fitted them in place and gave Fwet the once-over.

“A solo, hm?” 

“That’s right.”

The goblin just kept staring. Fwet found himself looking over its head at the neat rows of filing cabinets next to the square portal scoured with sword marks and dried blood. This close to the entrance of a real dungeon, he felt his heart speed up.

“I’m sorry,” he said, realizing the goblin had spoken. “What?”

“Where is your shirt?”

“Oh. I’m from the hill tribes of Delowse.”

“So?”

“We don’t wear shirts.”

“What about winter?” The goblin asked. Fwet couldn’t tell whether it was being sarcastic or politely interested. “Do you wear shirts in winter?”

“We wear cloaks.” 

“Cloaks. Hm. Is your reservation a day-trip?”

The goblin’s gaze was somehow withering and sympathetic at the same time. It finally scooped up the card from the front of the desk and glanced at it.

“It’s two days, three nights--”

The goblin cut him off with an irritated growl. He waggled the card towards Fwet. “Ridiculous. A three night solo in Rustwallow Deeps without so much as a shirt?!”

“I have ample camping and food supplies.”

“Have you a potion to cure the racking cough you’ll be battling in twelve hours?” Its gravelly voice rose to a high pitch.

“Fighting will keep me warm,” Fwet said, and immediately knew it was the wrong thing to say. The goblin tugged its glasses off, steepled it’s long bony fingers together and glared at Fwet with barely concealed disgust. So much for the professional demeanor. 

“Sir,” the goblin said in such a way that it was clear the honorarium was being used strictly for courtesy, “a significant portion of Rustwallow’s passages are natural caves. That means the temperature will be similar to early winter regardless of the season outside. Have you ever been in a real dungeon?”

Fwet felt the blood rising in his cheeks. Deep down, the famed Delowse battle lust, that gift from the strangely wrought gods of the hills, began to stir.“I carried out an excursion into the blackest depths of Rat’s Tooth Warren!” Fwet said. Despite the--admittedly chilly--air in the waiting room, sweat broke out across his forehead.

The goblin pursed its lips for a moment and then cast its yellow eyes back at the card. “It says here you are accustomed to ‘great dangers and fearsome beasts.’” That interrogative gaze flicked back on Fwet like an archer popping up from behind a battlement to loose an arrow. “Tell me about the fearsome beasts of Rat’s Tooth Warren.”

“Well, there are the giant rats of course.”

“Naturally. What else?”

“There was an animated skeleton near the back.”

“What kind of weapon did it wield?”

Fwet frowned. “It was unarmed.”

“It had no weapons at all?”

Fwet stared at the goblin. “It had ... no arms. Just a torso, head and legs. However,” he added, jabbing a finger for emphasis, “it was very quick!”

“I bet,” the goblin replied in a neutral (possibly neutral evil) tone. “Was the skeleton the worst?”

Fwet shook his head and smiled. “Oh no. The giant spiders were the worst. I fought three of them. At once.”

“Oh my,” the goblin said, picking up a nearby coffee mug and checking to see if it was empty. It was.

“I think they may have even been plague-ridden--”

“Let me just stop you there.”

Fwet could now hear the rhythmic thud of his heart pound in his ears, drums calling him to war. The battle lust would soon be beyond his ability to control. He clenched his teeth and stared at the goblin in front of him. He felt sorry for any beast that still stood in his way once the rage overtook him.

“Johan, it’s Scabgnash,” the goblin was speaking into a small scrying crystal. “Could you come up here please?” The crystal pulsed blue and the creature nodded, returning it to a worn leather cradle. “It’s going to be a few minutes,” the goblin said to Fwet before gesturing to the waiting area: a row of wooden chairs placed beneath manacles too rusty to be practical, but clearly retained for decorative appeal.

Fwet clenched and unclenched his hands as he walked over to the chairs. All of them displayed gouges and nicks from various weapons banging into them. No doubt his great sword took a chunk from the backrest as Fwet fell into it with a sullen hostility.

Scabgnash busied himself with filing a few stacks of paper that had been clipped together and covered with an assortment of different hued stamps. He took the opportunity to refill his coffee from a brass tureen with scorch marks on the bottom.

A moment later Fwet heard the unmistakable sounds of approaching adventurers: metal tapping on metal, creaking leather and the muted thump of full canteens bouncing off armor. Fwet turned towards the entrance of the dungeon. He saw long shadows cast by the setting sun stretching from around the bend.

They were a small group, two men and a woman. One man was clearly a Draldish knight, his blue-hued plate armor a dead giveaway. The woman was draped in robes so black they seemed to blend with the very shadows. Magic? Most likely a wizard. The third skulked behind them with a well-oiled crossbow. He was bald, with deep-set eyes that never stopped roaming. A city-born ne’er-do-well--Fwet would have bet silver on it.

“Well now,” Scabgnash said. His voice was not made for pleasantries, but he was giving it his all for these three, “the Comrades of Everbright. Back for more ... punishment?”

“Still working the counter, Scabgnash?” the woman said with a smile. “Haven’t they made you clan chieftain yet?”

“The moon has not yet risen on my prospects, wizardress. What brings you to Rustwallow?”

“A foul lich has come to dwell in your deepest corridors,” the woman replied. Beside her, the knight was pulling forth a thick sheaf of paperwork. Fwet noted there were stamps of at least five different colors.

“You’ll need an underdark permit to go that deep,” the goblin said.

The Knight slapped the sheaf down on the counter. “This isn’t our first expedition, dear fellow.” He grinned beneath his drooping mustache.

“It might be your last,” Scabgnash pointed out and they all chuckled.

A few minutes passed while the goblin checked and rechecked the paperwork. Fwet found himself appraised by the members of the trio more than once. Each time he couldn’t quite meet their respective gazes. Not even the ruffian’s. A series of thumps brought his attention back up. He watched as the goblin stamped each page with yet another mark, this one in scarlet.

“Everything’s in order, adventurers. Proceed.” It activated some control beneath the counter and a barely perceptible rainbow pattern, like lamp oil swirling on the surface of water, winked out of existence over the gateway leading into the depths.

“Thanks for moving things along so quickly,” the woman said, and slapped a silver coin on the counter. No, not silver. Fwet peered at the large size. Platinum.

“It was my pleasure,” Scabgnash said, sliding the coin into one elongated palm. “May you meet your doom in the darkness below.” 

“Nay, foul denizen, the light shall triumph this day.” She waved as they entered the dark maw. Scabgnash reactivated the magic field. In that moment, Fwet decided he would take no more council of his growing doubts. 

The young man pushed himself to his feet and strode over to the service desk. The goblin looked up at him with a faint hint of exasperation.

“I have submitted a proper, correctly filled-out form,” Fwet announced, giving his shoulder-length hair a haughty toss, “and I demand admittance!”

At this outburst, Scabgnash slowly turned to squint at the small card Fwet had turned in. It had nearly been swept off the counter in the flurry of paperwork. The goblin rubbed the bridge of its nose between two sharp claws. 

“Except,” it said slowly, as if explaining things to a child, “this is not correctly filled out. There is no stamp from the local equipment inspector’s office, nor seal affirming that the dungeon depredation tax has been paid. You have not included your Adventurer’s Guild membership number, and--” It shook the card with an annoyed snarl, drawing attention to its relative thinness by rubbing it between two fingers “--the form has not been submitted in triplicate!”

Why Fwet suddenly felt the urge to flee from a lowly goblin was beyond him. “That was,” he began, then swallowed noisily. “That was all I needed for Rat’s Tooth Warren.” He distantly wondered why his words were coming out as a barely audible murmur.

“Rat’s Tooth Warren is a latrine scooped from the side of a dirt clod. This is Rustwallow Deeps. We have a saying, boy: ‘if you can’t handle the paperwork, you can’t handle the dungeon.’”

“I am a proud warrior of--” Fwet’s angry retort suddenly froze in his throat as an icy fist seemed to close around his chest. He was far colder in an instant than he had ever been in his life. It was more than a mere physical chill. Rather, he felt a frigid presence that made his very soul quail.

You asked for me? something said. It was not a voice so much as the absence of a voice. Words carved out of the background noise of the underground. It was horrible.

“Thank you, Johan.” The goblin turned his attention to the young Delowsean warrior. “Fwet, was it? Please look behind you.”

Still struggling to breath and aware of an abruptly erratic heartbeat, Fwet swiveled around to stare into twin blue flames--eyes--recessed into the sockets of a grinning skull. The flames seemed far away, like he was looking at balls of chilled fire ten feet across that were nestled impossibly deep in the death’s head before him. There was a faint suggestion of a translucent robe and ghostly scythe, but Fwet couldn’t focus on anything but the eyes.

“Fwet, this is Johan. He is a Tomb Horror. He and his ilk like to dwell on level three. They won’t go down to level four. Will you tell him why, Johan?”

Terrible things lie below, said the unvoice. It was all Fwet could do not to void his bowels.

“Thank you, Johan. That will be all.”

Yes, Mr. Scabgnash. And just like that the sepulchral monstrosity was gone.

Fwet jumped as the goblin laid a gentle hand on his shoulder, its claws inadvertently raising a few welts on his exposed skin.

“Go home, lad. Take on some local quests. Make some friends. Rustwallow will be here when you’re ready. Here, take this as an enticement.”

Fwet looked down. The goblin was pressing a souvenir Rustwallow Deeps sweatshirt into his hands. He took it without thinking, and let himself be nudged towards the exit.

The setting sun felt good on his face. There was a modicum of shame at having been turned away, but--if Fwet was being honest with himself--there was ample relief as well. He began the long journey home at a pace just a bit too fast for leisure. Shortly after the sun sank behind the far hills, he found his mind turning once more to his brief encounter with the Tomb Horror. Fwet found that he could not stop shivering. Even after he had put the sweatshirt on.

THE END

Movies of the Mind

I've never been far from writing, but I always viewed it as a tiresome chore on the way to a finished product. Just get through the script/treatment/story notes, I would tell myself, and then you can move on to the fun part.

It was only a matter of time before I examined writing as a standalone medium. After all, can’t prose encompass the most epic vistas for the cheapest price? Yes—but only if one is talking about the physical cost of materials! As anyone who has tried to write knows, this is an art form that extracts a unique toll all its own. If one can overcome the struggle of writing, the end result can be stunning imagery and profound emotional resonance. If.

I don’t yet know how I feel about writing as a final product, but hopefully this blog will help me to find out!  One pleasant side effect has been a return to fiction reading as a pastime—I didn’t realize how much I missed reading for pleasure until I started up again. I’ve probably read five times as many books this year than I have for each of the ten prior years—a change I fervently hope is permanent.