Friday, December 28, 2012

FFF: A Brand New Year

Every Friday Kurt posts a new flash fiction story. In this week's installment, we celebrate the New Year...

A Brand New Year
Word Count: 596

Hawkins floated into the office on a cloud of personal ambition. Sawyer knew the look well—he’d seen it destroyed many times.

“Boss,” said Hawkins, “I want to run an idea past you.”

“Okay,” said Sawyer.

“Every December we make a new year,” said Hawkins, “but it’s basically the same year as the old year. Well, this time, I want us to make a brand new year.”

Sawyer raised an eyebrow. “We stick with the old design because it works,” he said.

“Does it really?” asked Hawkins. “I mean, the last four months are named after numbers that they don’t correspond with. And what’s the deal with February?”

“People are used to the old system,” said Sawyer.

“I know,” said Hawkins, “and you’re probably going to think I’m crazy, but hear me out. I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and I think it’s really going to work.”

“Okay,” said Sawyer. He almost said “Fire away,” but he’d learned over the years that new employees got nervous when he casually tossed around the word “fire.”

“I think we can make something really special,” said Hawkins. “A total re-design. First, we get rid of July and August; we’re going to have ten months. This way, the last four months, their names will make sense again.”

Hawkins was staring at Sawyer with a wide grin, waiting for a reaction apparently. “Go on,” said Sawyer.

“Okay,” said Hawkins. “Fewer months will leave us with a glut of days. We pad out all the months to five weeks and one day standard. That will leave us with five extra days, which we can place strategically to align with holidays. Or we can add one to every other month, starting with Duober.”

“Duober?” asked Sawyer.

“Right,” said Hawkins. “See, the last four months are already named after numbers, so we rename the first six to match. Unober, Duober, Tresember, Quattuober, Quinqember, and Sextober. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re probably thinking What about birthdays?” He paused for emphasis.

“Okay,” said Sawyer, “What about birthdays?”

“We can port them straight over from the old system using the Julian date. We’ll have to figure out what to do with Leap Day babies, but they’re used to birthday weirdness so I’m sure they’ll cope. And, after a few years, people will get the hang of it. And anyone born under the new system will be raised with it, so they won’t have any trouble, of course.”

“Of course,” said Sawyer.

“We can re-arrange holidays somewhat. We can move Thanksgiving to the fifth Thursday of November. Julian Dates can be a guide, but we might want to keep Christmas where it is, just for convenience. And there are still a few other details to hammer out.”

Sawyer stood. “What about Jewish holidays? Easter? Do you have any idea how hard it is to place Passover or Easter on a Gregorian calendar?”

“Well, the principles remain the same,” said Hawkins. “Sunday after the full moon after the equinox.”

“What about the Zodiac? There are a lot of things tied to the twelve-month year. You can’t reinvent the wheel just because a few spokes are off-center.”

“I know,” said Hawkins. “But I just thought… Why not make improvements? The transition will be tough, but don’t we owe it to the world to make things better if we can? Let’s shake things ups. What do you say?”

Sawyer chewed his tongue for a second. “What the hell,” he said. “Starting Unober first, we’re on the new system! Happy Brand New Year, everyone!”

Edited by Carolyn Abram.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

FFF: Modern Alchemy

Every Friday Kurt posts a new flash fiction story. This week...

Modern Alchemy
Word Count: 598

“Is that the 2013 Spellmaster’s Guide?!” Arther blurted.

“Yes it is,” said Callum. He was a couple years ahead of Arther at Wisencraft’s Wizarding Academy, and had taken the younger student under his wing. He unfolded the magazine on the table where the two students had just been eating.

Arther pawed through the volume until he found the potion recipe he was looking for. “Sleep-Be-Gone 2.6,” he said under his breath. Wakefulness potions were immensely popular with students, so a new version showed up in the publication every year. Then he let out an exasperated “Awwww…”

“Ingredients?” asked Callum.

“Cigarettes,” said Arther, pointing to an item in the middle of the ingredient list.

Callum pulled the magazine over and scanned the list. Spells of this nature typically involved some kind of chemical stimulant. “Could be worse,” he said. “Remember the 2009 edition, which called for Crystal Meth?”

“No way!” said Arther. It was before his time. He was, after all, only a third year.

“It caused quite the controversy,” said Callum. “Cigarettes are tricky, but not the trickiest part of this list,” he said, still reading through the lengthy list of ingredients.

“It’s not fair,” said Arther.

“Looks like a batch will only get you a four-hour dose anyway,” said Callum. “You’d be better off with an energy drink, for the amount of effort you’d have to put in.”

“What ever happened to eye of newt?” asked Arther.

“It’s just keeping up with the times,” said Callum. “Back in the day, if you wanted a newt’s eye, you had to go out into the forest and find one. It’s the time and effort of ingredients like that that give the spell its potency. These days, anyone can go to a pet store and buy a newt. So you get things that are hard to obtain. Like this.” He pointed to the final ingredient: Heartache.

“See, I don’t even know what that means,” said Arther.

“That’s because you haven’t taken Potion Theory yet,” said Callum, picking up a stray chip from his lunch plate and popping it into his mouth.

“Hey guys,” said an approaching sixth-year. “What’re you boys up to?”

“Hey, Wesley,” said Callum. “Just checking out the new Spellmaster’s Guide.”

“Anything good?” asked Wesley.

“No,” said Arther, pointedly.

“What’s with him?” asked Wesley.

Sleep-Be-Gone,” said Callum.

“Pfft. Novelty spells. Hardly worth the effort,” said Wesley. “You’d be better off with an energy drink. How was your holiday?”

“Beat up my brothers a couple times,” said Callum. “How was yours?”

“Ugh,” said Wesley. “The worst.”

“What happened?” asked Callum.

“Well, for starters, Sheila dumped me,” said Wesley.

“Ouch,” said Callum. “Over the holiday? Why?”

“Maybe she met his family,” said Arther, which earned him an angry look from both of the older students.

“Hey,” said Callum. “What have I told you about making fun of people who are bigger than you?”

“Sorry,” said Arther.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Wesley. “Just before we left, actually. It was rough.”

Callum crossed his arms and looked at his two sulking friends. “Wes, do you have anything of Sheila’s in your room?”

“I’ve got an old shirt she used to sleep in,” said Wesley.

“How’d you end up with that?” asked Arther.

“Mind parting with it?” asked Callum.

“Take it,” said Wesley. “Good riddance. Why?”

“Oh, just something I want to try,” said Callum. Arther’s eyes widened. He looked back at the ingredient list.

“It’s not a love potion, I hope,” said Wesley.

“Nah,” said Callum. “I might need to bum a smoke, though.”

Edited by Carolyn Abram.

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Friday, December 14, 2012

FFF: Phenotype

Every Friday Kurt posts a new flash fiction story. This week...

Phenotype
Word Count: 598

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” said the stranger, wheeling in a machine. The lab techs looked at each other to see if anyone knew who he was.

Lt. Rogers followed the stranger into the lab. “Listen up,” she said. “This is Dr. Price. He’s gonna help us with the Uptown Strangler case.”

“I understand you’ve struck out with DNA matching,” said Dr. Price.

“That’s right,” said Charlie, from the back. He’d been handling most of the DNA work on these crime scenes. “Nothing in the database. Can’t match what isn’t there.”

“Well, I think I’m going to be able to help,” said Dr. Price. “This machine will read DNA samples and generate an approximate phenotype based on markers that we’ve established.”

“Phenotype?” asked Charlie.

“The physical traits associated with genes—”

“I know what a phenotype is,” said Charlie.

“Well, I’ve procured a DNA sample,” said Price. “This should help point the investigation in the right direction.”

“Due respect,” said Charlie, “but why are you showing us this?”

“I wanted you all to see the future of police work,” said Rogers. “This is going to replace you, someday.”

“Bullshit,” said Charlie.

“Language, Chuck,” said Lt. Rogers. “Do your thing, doctor.”

Price fed his sample into the machine and watched the readout. “Male, caucasian.”

“That narrows it down,” Charlie said sarcastically.

“Those are the easiest ones,” said Dr. Price. “It’ll get more detailed. Now, it’s worth noting that these aren’t exact matches. The traits are associated with markers, not with genes. So we’ll be talking about percentages. Here’s the next data point: there’s an 87% chance of male pattern baldness.”

“Impressive,” said one of the techs.

“Lord knows there aren’t that many bald white men in the world,” said Charlie, patting his own bare scalp.

“Give it a minute,” said Price. “Another shortcoming of the machine is that it won’t be able to identify age or any distinguishing marks like scars or tattoos. Next data point: probably has astigmatism. That means he probably wears glasses.”

“Again, half the people in this room wear glasses, and the other half wear contacts,” said Charlie.

“Astigmatism is harder to correct with contacts, so most people would wear glasses,” said Price. “Anglo-slavic background. Between 5’8 and 5’11. Probably not a smoker or heavy drinker. Intellectual. Strong acumen in math and science.”

“Heavy drinking is genetic?” asked Charlie.

“The tendency is,” said Price.

“It’s not much to go on,” said Charlie.

“Tell ‘em about the faces,” said Rogers.

“Faces?” asked Charlie.

“We’ve mapped a lot of markers for facial features. The last thing the machine does is a printout of possible faces. It will generate faces over a range of ages and hairstyles.”

“How good is it?” asked Charlie.

“Oh, it’s good,” said Rogers. “It drew us a picture of Captain Hart that could have been his driver’s license photo.”

“Brown hair, thin facial hair. Weak joints,” said Price. “Okay, it’s working on the faces now. Small nose, eyes close together. Square jaw. There’s the chin. Coming together nicely now. Won’t be another minute.”

The techs had huddled around the screen at this point, entranced by the fancy new toy. Finally it printed out a couple of pages.

“Start with this page,” said Price, “assuming the killer is thirty-to-forty.”

Rogers looked at the printout and folded her. “You know, this one with the mustache looks an awful lot like you, Charlie.”

There was no answer.

“Charlie?”

The back of the room was empty, and the door was ajar. While they’d been gathered around the machine, Charlie had quietly slipped outside and vanished.

Edited by Carolyn Abram.

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Friday, December 7, 2012

FFF: The Summons

Every week Kurt posts a new bit of flash fiction...

The Summons
Word Count: 595

“By the dark light of Apollyon, by the eternal fire, I command you to appear before me, servant of evil.”

As he spoke, the robed figure’s hands shook from the power coursing through his body.

“From the unholy depths, I summon thee. Awaken, scourge of creation!

Flames erupted in the center of the summoning circle and coalesced into the form of a demon. Its black skin glistened in the firelight. Its hideous face was crowned by a pair of twisted, barbed horns. It looked around the room with malice and growled.

The woman in the robe sat down and rapped her gavel for order. “Bailiff,” she said.

The bailiff approached with a Bible. “Place your hand on the Bible,” he said.

The demon growled.

“The summoning circle prevents him from interacting with the physical plane,” said the judge.

“Very well,” said the bailiff. “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you… um… God?”

The demon growled again.

“Close enough,” said the judge.

One of the attorneys rose. “State your name for the record,” he said.

“I am Khral-Doorvis The Abhorred, Sworn Enemy of Mankind, Smiter of the Light Eternal, and Faithless Servant of the Dark Lord.”

“May I call you Khral?” asked the attorney.

“Yes, that’d be fine,” growled the demon.

“Where were you on the morning of, by your calendar, the 563rd day of Lozgaar?”

The demon looked up thoughtfully. “That would have been a Tuesday,” he said.

“That’s correct,” said the attorney.

“Tuesdays are usually my goat-sacrifice days,” growled Khral. “Let’s see, the 563rd, the 563rd… Yes, I remember, now. I met a youth in a hollow for a Rite of Sacrilege.”

“Is that youth in the courtroom today?” asked the prosecutor.

The demon pointed at the defendant. “It’s that youth right there.”

“Can you describe this Rite of Sacrilege?” asked the attorney. “In your own words?”

“It is a centuries-old ritual, dating from the Third Desecration of—"

“If you don’t mind, Khral,” said the attorney, “we could skip the history lesson.”

“Oh,” growled Khral. “My apologies. It’s a three-hour ritual that leeches the life from the surrounding environment and infuses the target with virility.”

“So, it’s a masculinity charm?” asked the attorney.

“Your pathetic summation assaults my sensibilities,” said Khral, “but yes, that is basically it.”

“And you say it took three hours?” asked the attorney.

“Yes,” growled Khral.

“When did this ritual begin?” asked the attorney.

Khral leveled an unfriendly gaze at the attorney. “Like all dark rituals, it is most potent when performed at dusk.”

“So you started at dusk or ended at dusk?” asked the attorney.

“We started an hour before dusk. It weakened the infusion, but the youth did not want to miss American Idol.”

“I see. And was the defendant there the whole time?”

“Yes,” growled Khral.

“Nothing further,” said the attorney.

“Would the prosecution like to re-direct?” asked the judge.

Another attorney stood. “We have no questions for this witness, and we renew our objection to the use of supernatural beings for alibis.”

“Noted,” said the judge. “Well, Mr. Doorvis The Abhorred, Sworn Enemy of Mankind, Smiter of the Light Eternal, and Faithless Servant of the Dark Lord. This court thanks you for your service and releases you back to the fiery pit from whence you came. Be gone!

“My pleasure, your honor,” said Khral as he winked out of existence. “And don’t worry about next Friday. It’s in the bag.”

The judge frowned. “I wonder what he meant by that.”

Edited by Carolyn Abram.

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Friday, November 30, 2012

FFF: I Saw Myself Coming The Other Way

Every week Kurt posts a new flash fiction story. This week...

I Saw Myself Coming The Other Way
Word Count: 600

I was coming back from Thanksgiving spent with my mother’s family on Europa when I saw myself going the other way at the spaceport. I knew this was a possibility—I’ve seen the safety demonstrations. TSA-Space swears it has nothing to do with time-travel. It’s just, well, when you’re traveling at relativistic or faster-than-light speeds, sometimes things like this happen. So I was warned. But I wasn’t really prepared for it.

The demonstrations tell you to just keep walking. If you make eye contact, you can wave politely, but don’t talk to each other and don’t stare. So when we saw each other, each of us with the verge of a friendly smile at the tips of our mouths, we each nodded to the other as we walked past.

The other me wore a black suit with no tie. And he had no gray hair—I guess I will start dying it, eventually. He had broadened, the way a man does over the years. All told, he looked about ten--no, fifteen years older. He looked world-weary. Not unhappy, just… tired. A little beaten-down.

Questions flooded my mind--I couldn’t help it. Where was he—where was I, I suppose I should say—going? Home? Saturn? Farther out? Was it business or personal? Why was I traveling alone? I turned back, trying to see what gate he was headed for, but the moment had passed. I almost—almost—tried to follow him, but it wouldn’t have done any good. My future self had wandered out of my timeline and back into his own.

Still, I wanted another glimpse, a window of insight into my pending life—to know more than that I’ll be alive in fifteen years. What would have happened if I’d stopped him? What would I have said? I squinted, searching the crowd, but all I could see was the rush and bustle of commuters busily making their way through the terminal. Sometimes they would go blurry on the edge of my vision and pass from one timeline into the next, but for the most part, they just kept walking.

“Can I help you, sir?”

I turned towards the voice. It was an automated travel assistant. She was completely mechanized, but designed to look like a young woman with a friendly smile. “I’m fine,” I told her. “I just thought I saw someone I recognized.”

“That happens, sometimes, sir,” she said, doing a quick scan of my retina as she spoke. “I suggest you head to your gate. You wouldn’t want to miss your flight. It’s already started boarding.”

“Right,” I said, not wanting to argue, but my gaze lingered back in the direction of my future self.

“Do you need to talk about it, sir?” she asked. “We can step out of the timeline if you need a minute.”

“I… no, that’s fine, I just…”

“Even if you followed, you wouldn’t find him. The future’s always in flux.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You wouldn’t believe how hard it is for us to page a customer, sometimes,” she said, smiling.

A joke? The robot was trying to cheer me up with a joke? “Right,” I said.

“May I make a suggestion, sir?” she asked.

“Go ahead,” I said.

“Board your flight, have a drink, and put it out of your mind,” she said. “And don’t worry. Your future will still be here when you get back.”

I nodded, turning towards my gate. Someday I’d see this from the other side. I’d remember my questions.

Until then, I had a flight to catch.

Edited by Carolyn Abram.

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Friday, November 23, 2012

FFF: Term Life Protection Squad

Every Friday, Kurt posts a new piece of flash fiction. This week...

Term Life Protection Squad
Word Count: 585


Bill Brandt had no idea how much danger he was in. To him, it was another lovely night at the theater and a leisurely walk home. He whistled as he strolled, blissfully unaware of the gunman stalking him.

He took his usual shortcut through the park, and when there was no one else in sight, his attacker spoke.

“Hands where I can see ‘em,” said the gunman from behind. Bill heard the click of a gun being cocked. He slowly raised his hands into the air.

“That’s right,” said the assailant. “Now turn around.”

Bill did as instructed. The gunman was a short Latino man with a chiseled jaw and a dark jacket.

“Wallet,” said the assailant.

“I don’t have much money,” said Bill.

“Shut up, old man.”

“Okay, okay,” said Bill. He slowly reached into his pocket, not his back pocket, where he kept his wallet, but his jacket pocket where he kept his pepper spray.

“Don’t do that,” said a voice from above.

Bill and the assailant both looked up. Bill could barely make out the outline of a black helicopter hovering noiselessly against the starlit sky. Four commandoes were descending to the ground. One of them landed directly on the would-be mugger and knocked him to the ground. The assailant’s gun was taken and his hands were zip-tied behind his back.

“Target secure!”

“Perimeter secure!”

“Package secure!”

One of the soldiers pulled the dark mask off his face and addressed Bill directly. “Is your name William Thomas Brandt?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Bill.

“You live on Park West?”

“That’s right,” said Bill.

“Okay,” said the soldier--who appeared to be in command. He addressed the other soldiers. “We’re good. Wrap this one up for the police,” he said, kicking the assailant. Then he turned back to Bill. “If you don’t mind, we’ll walk you back to your building, Sir.”

“Don’t mind… What is the meaning of this?” asked Bill. He looked back up in the air, but the black helicopter had vanished.

“Sir, we can’t return from this mission until you are secure with your security system armed,” said the commander.

“Who are you people?” Bill demanded.

“It doesn’t matter, Sir.”

“The hell it doesn’t, I’m not moving an inch—“

“Tell him, Sarge,” said one of the soldiers.

“Okay,” said the commander—the Sergeant, apparently. “You have to promise me that you won’t exploit this knowledge.”

“Fine,” said Bill, “just tell me what the hell is going on here.”

“We’ve had you under surveillance, Sir, and we will continue to monitor you for threats.”

“But why?” asked Bill. “Who are you people?”

“You have a term life insurance policy in the amount of $2.6 million, is that correct?”

“Yes,” said Bill.

“And that policy expires in two and a half months, correct?”

“Right,” said Bill.

“After which time your family will not receive a payout in the event of your accidental death, is that correct?”

“Yes,” said Bill, “but what does that have to do with—“

“You’re in good hands, Sir,” said one of the soldiers.

“Just to clarify, Sir,” said the Sergeant, “you should not expect this sort of treatment two and a half months from now.”

Bill shook his head. “I… I see,” he said.

“Now, Sir, I must insist that we escort you home.”

Bill and the four soldiers walked through the park without incident, and when Bill got home, he armed his security system, and as quickly as they had appeared, the four soldiers were gone.

Edited by Carolyn Abram.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

FFF: The Prodigal

Every week Kurt posts a new piece of flash fiction. This week...

The Prodigal
Word Count: 600

The visiting room looked like a small version of a school cafeteria—a handful of long tables with chairs, and constant supervision. Allen sat where he was directed, then the officer went to fetch Wesley.

A moment later the guard returned with a young man in a yellow prison uniform. He was thin but muscular, with unkempt hair and a crooked smile. He entered slowly and sat down across from Allen.
“So,” said Wesley, “they tell me you’re my old man.”

“Something like that,” said Allen. The young man looked so much like a version of Allen from twenty years ago that it was difficult for him to reconsile. He’d been longing for this moment for nearly twenty years, and now that it was here, he felt lost. “I understand you like to be called Jeff,” he managed.

“That’s what they call me,” said Wesley.

“How much do you know?” asked Allen.

“Just that the same DNA test that landed me here turned your name up in some missing-person’s database.”

“That’s right,” said Allen.

Wesley—No, Jeff, Allen corrected himself—crossed his arms and frowned. “And now my Mom is going to jail. You’ll understand if I don’t feel particularly happy to see you.”

“I’m sure it’s… awkward,” said Allen, “but the woman who raised you—“

“She’s my mother, as far as I’m concerned,” said Jeff. “It wasn’t always easy for her, and she made mistakes—“

“She kidnapped you from a stroller,” Allen hissed. All the hatred he’d ever felt for that monster percolated to the surface. “I would have been a good father to you, if I’d had the chance. I sure as hell would have kept you out of this place.”

Jeff snorted. No, his name is Wesley, dammit, thought Allen.

“I’m sorry,” said Allen, retreating back into himself. “I didn’t mean… This is difficult, for both of us.”

“Yeah,” said Wesley. “Did you have other children?”

“My marriage couldn’t survive the trauma of losing a child,” said Allen bitterly. “Your mother lives in Boston now. We hadn’t spoken in fourteen years until a week ago. She’s planning to come and visit.”

“I guess you live within driving distance,” said Wesley with a crooked smile. His mother’s smile.

“It’s about an hour and a half drive for me,” said Allen. And in that moment the decades of rage collapsed in on him. The thought that his son, his only son, was living within a hundred miles of him, being raised by strangers… His failed marriage, the anguish, the torment all came together. He wanted to throw the table across the room. He wanted to scream about how he had been cheated. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair.

But he couldn’t. The past was over. There was only the future. Allen took a breath, gathered all his anger into a ball and mentally pushed it away. A calm came over him.

“You okay?” asked Wesley.

“I have a bit of a temper,” said Allen. “It takes some effort to control it sometimes.”

“Sounds familiar,” said Wesley.

“Look,” said Allen, “I’m not trying to recapture anything. That ship has sailed. And I don’t know if I can help you out of here. Although God knows I would if I could.”

Wesley raised an eyebrow.

“You were supposed to be more than this,” said Allen.

“Well, sorry to disappoint,” said Wesley.

“I didn’t mean—“

“Yes, you did, old man,” said Wesley. “What did you expect? What do you want from me?”

Allen sighed. “Just to know you better.”

Wesley grinned. His mother’s grin. “Okay,” he said. “Come back next weekend.”

Edited by Carolyn Abram.

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Friday, November 9, 2012

FFF: Head Hunters

Every Friday Kurt posts a new flash fiction story. This week, it's time to get undead!

Head Hunters
Word Count: 600


“Tonk! Toooooooonk!” Victor’s voice rang through the parking lot as he approached.

“What?” I said when he was close enough to speak without shouting.

“What the hell, man?” he said. “You took down my flier!”

“Yeah,” I said, “about that—“

“You can’t just cancel the Hunt. It’s tradition.”

“We lost a lot of people last year,” said Victor. “And last year was the second year it existed. It’s hardly a tradition.”

“Come on, Tonk, we have to have The Hunt. It’s for morale.”

“People died!”

“Nobody important,” Victor pleaded.

“My answer is no,” I said.

“Please man, we’ll be more careful.”

“I don’t see how you could have been less careful before,” I said.

“Any rules you want to put in place—we’ll abide, man.” Victor was bobbing up and down on the balls of his feet in excitement. He would have made me nervous even if he didn’t have an AK-47 strapped to his back.

“Any rules?” I asked.

“Anything, man.”

“Okay, write this down,” I said.

Victor pulled a flier out of his pocket and unfolded it. The back was scrap, but it was mostly clean. He found a pen and started scribbling.

“Heads only,” I said. “No complete zombies. No parts of a zombie. Heads only.”

“How will we do the zombie occupation judging?” asked Victor.

“We’ll have to do without that,” I said. “And there will be spot-checks on the heads—they had better be zombified, all of them!”

“Right on,” said Victor, scribbling. “Can we keep the celebrity look-alike contest though?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “With some stipulations.”

“Fire away.”

“Any group caught sabotaging another’s heads or raids will be immediately disqualified,” I said.

“Yeah, well, if you’re trying to find the zombie that looks the most like Bob Dylan, there’s going to be some infighting, you know?”

“Well, we’ll do this scavenger-hunt style,” I said. “Individual heads will get a straight up-or-down vote from the judges. Groups will score based on how many they find, not how good their finds are.”

“Some folks are going to be mighty disappointed to hear that,” said Victor.

“They can cope. And no creativity bonuses.”

“Awwwwww,” said Victor.

“Especially the celebrity-as-a-child entrants. That was just creepy.”

“Can we still do celebrity-as-the-other-gender?” asked Victor.

“As long as the resemblance is there, that’s fine,” I conceded.

“All right, what else you got?”

“Friendly fire was an issue last year,” I said, “we need fewer teams and we need to make sure they don’t run into each other.”

“Okay,” said Victor.

“And no stragglers going out alone after the rest of the team has left. Your team stays until absolutely everyone is accounted for.”

“Got it.”

“And, most important,” I said, “any team that returns with fewer members than they left with will be automatically disqualified.”

“What?” asked Victor. “That ain’t fair, man.”

“If you can’t ensure the participants’ safety—relative safety, I should say—then there’s no way I can allow this event.” I said.

“Man,” said Victor, kicking the dirt. “This always happens. We get a fun idea, then someone dies, and then we have to be super careful, and then it’s just no fun anymore.”

“Sorry, Victor, but there are less than 50,000 Americans still living. We need to hang on to as many as we can.”

“But what if teams go around shooting each other just so they’ll be disqualified? You ever think of that?”

“Victor,” I said, “if that’s going on, if that really happens, then we’ve got bigger problems than a silly Hunt.”

Edited by Carolyn Abram.

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Friday, November 2, 2012

FFF: Stefan The Wise

This week's Friday Flash Fiction was adapted as a radio drama by the 9X Players and can be heard on the Wisconsin Life website.

Stefan The Wise
Word Count: 596

“Are you Stefan the Wise?”

“I am,” said Stefan, legs crossed on his yoga mat. “Have a seat, my friend. What can I help you with?”

The stranger sat across from him. He was a gangly man in his middle thirties. “I’m Todd,” he said. “Is it true that you can communicate with the dead?”

“That is my gift,” said Stefan. “Is there someone I can—“

“How do you turn it off?” Todd interrupted.

“I, um… what?”

“I have this problem,” said Todd. “I’m surrounded by ghosts. I want to make them go away.”

Stefan arched an eyebrow. “Well,” he said, “traditionally ghosts cling to the Earth because they have unfinished business here. Perhaps if you—“

“I’ve tried that,” said Todd. “But they want too much. One of the ghosts, Bernie, he wanted to give a message to his daughter. So I did. Then he wanted to watch Battlestar Galactica from start to finish. So we did. Now he wants to learn French. The other day, he told me he’d never been able to balance a checkbook.”

“Well,” said Stefan, “one needy ghost—“

“There’s more,” said Todd. “There are five with me right now, two of them showed up in the last week. Alice wants to travel to India. Jermaine wants to play bass in a funk band. I can’t help him with that.”

“Maybe you could—“

“Do these look like the hands of a bass player?” implored Todd, showing Stefan his hands.

Stefan raised a finger. “Who else have you told about this?”

“You’re the sixth medium I’ve talked to. Please tell me you can help.”

“Possibly,” said Stefan. “What you’re describing is highly unusual. I commune regularly with the other side, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“So you can’t help me, either,” said Todd, deflated.

“I didn’t say that,” said Stefan. “Has anyone else been able to communicate with your ghosts?”

“No,” said Todd.

“I’m not feeling the presence of any spirits right now. You say they’re in the room with us.”

“Five of them.”

“I’m going to propose something radical,” said Stefan. “I don’t think you’re being visited by ghosts.”

“But I can see them. I’m not hallucinating.”

“Hallucinating is an ugly word,” said Stefan. “Think of them as manifestations of your own hopes and fears. Maybe you’re the one who wants to go to India. Maybe you’re the one who wants to learn French.”

“But I don’t want to learn French.“

“This could be your brain’s way of telling you that you do. I think you need to look to your own unfinished business.” Stefan reached pulled out his wallet and found a card, which he handed to Todd. “Here, take this.”

“Debbie Vorack,” Todd read.

“She’s my therapist. She’s very good. Tell her I sent you. She’ll give you a free screening.”

“I’m not crazy, Mister-The-Wise,” said Todd.

“Give her a call. If it doesn’t help, I’ll purge you myself, no charge.”

Todd stood and moved towards the door, but he hesitated.

“None of the other mediums could help?” asked Stefan.

Todd shook his head.

“Call her,” said Stefan.

Todd nodded and left.

Stefan pulled his turban off and let out a long sigh. “Balancing a checkbook, Bernie?” he asked. “You know I don’t like it when you improvise.”

“Sorry, Steve,” said the specter, materializing. “It was Dr. Vorack’s idea.”

“She’s trying to be more involved,” said Alice.

“Oh?” asked Stefan. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“She said it wouldn’t affect your cut,” Alice added.

“No complaints then,” said Stefan, shrugging. “Who’s our next mark?”

Edited by Carolyn Abram.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

FFF: *CLICK*


This week's Friday Flash Fiction is powered by The Storymatic. The prompt was the write a story in which the character is a "practical joker" and a "person with a devastating secret" and the plot elements "enormous stuffed animal" and "birthday".

*CLICK*
Word Count: 596


*CLICK*

“This is Detective Pembrook. Today is the 23rd of March, 2013.  The suspect has waived his right to an attorney. All right, we’re recording. Please state your name.”

“Christopher Allen Newell.”

“Now, Chris, you understand where you are?”

“I’m in a police station.”

“You understand what this is?”

“You’re going to ask me questions about the bear.”

“That’s right. Do you need a cup of coffee or anything?”

“Water. Or… do you have, like, a non-cola soda?”

“Sprite okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, Chris. Tell me about the bear.”

“He was looking at me funny.”

“When was this?”

“Last night, around 3 am. I was sleeping in the back room, or I was trying to—“

“Why were you in the back room, Chris?”

“Mr. Huddlestein lets me sleep there sometimes, when I don’t think my dad will let me back in the house.”

“Who is Mr. Huddlestein?”

“He’s the manager at the Party Center.”

“He’s your boss, is that right?”

“Yeah. He’s nice.”

“So you were trying to sleep in the storeroom, and you said the bear looked funny?”

“No, he was looking at me funny. Like he knew a joke on me.”

“What did the bear look like?”

“He was tall. And purple.”

“So this was a five foot tall plush bear, right?”

“Right.”

“Were all the bears looking at you funny?”

“No, just him. The others weren’t looking at me.”

“Do you know anything else about him?”

“He was going to a birthday party.”

“All of those bears were going to birthday parties, isn’t that right?”

“I don’t know, could be.”

“That’s what Mr. Huddlestein said.”

“Well, then it’s right.”

“Here’s your soda, Chris. Where was he in the room? Was he on a shelf? Or was he on the floor?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Try.”

“I don’t remember.”

“It’s important.”

“I know, but I just can’t. All I remember was the look. It made me hate him.”

“What did you do to the bear?”

“I put something in him.”

“What was it?”

“I don’t remember.”

“What did you put in the bear?”

“I don’t remember.”

“We found chemicals in your room at your Dad’s house. Do you like to play with chemicals?”

“Sometimes.”

“What do you do with them?”

“I try to make things.”

“What kind of things, Chris?”

“Like, jokes. Like, things that when you open them, they go POP!”

“Like a bomb?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Did you ever make a bomb?”

“Maybe. I don’t remember.”

“Chris, it’s important that you try.”

“I know.”

“Did you put a bomb inside the bear?”

“I don’t remember.”

“I think you’re lying to me, Chris.”

“I don’t—“

“I think you made a little bomb and put it in that bear.”

“I…”

“Chris, that Birthday Bear is one of hundreds that got shipped out this morning. It could be next door, it could be halfway across the country. Anything you remember is going to help us. We don’t even know what we’re looking for.”

“I don’t remember.”

“Stop saying that. You do remember.”

“I…”

“Some kid is going to get a Birthday Bear and then what? Is it a bomb? Is it poison? Tell me.”

“I… I don’t—“

“Stop lying to me.”

“I’m not… I don’t remember.”

“You don’t want anyone to die, do you?”

“No.”

“You’re just playing jokes, is that it?”

“Yeah.”

“And you mixed up some chemicals and put them in the bear.”

“I…”

“Chris, don’t lie to me. You have to tell me what you did.”

“But… it’s a secret.”

“You can tell me.”

“Okay. Just… turn off the tape recorder.”

“Okay.”

*CLICK*

Edited by Carolyn Abram

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Suspension-Of-Disbelief Scale

I recently saw and loved Argo, the new Ben Affleck movie based on the true story about how Americans were smuggled out of Tehran during the Iran Hostage Crisis. It's a good movie, although it plays fast and loose with the facts. I find myself not minding so much. Even though the third act was extremely last-minute-dramatic, I was able to suspend my disbelief enough to buy that some of it was probably true. There are quite a few movies that I can't do this for, movies that sin less with the facts but rub me the wrong way, for whatever reason. So here's an overview from greatest to least offense.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - The recent film adaptation is so realistic that it almost feels heavy-handed about it. It's aggressively drab and un-glamorous, and it never attempts to lead the viewer by the hand. Result: confused viewers. Bonus realism: some of the things that author John Le Carre made up for the book were later adopted by British Intelligence.

Lord of the Rings - It's amazing that a fantasy world can be so completely realized on film. Especially a world in which wizards are prone to spouting exposition, and giant winged monsters can fall to their deaths.

The Island - Fun (if stolen) sci-fi flick that handles pretty well, right up until the point where clones learn Latin from their DNA. They hand-wave around it, but it's a major plot detail that doesn't quite scan.

Pi - I used to hate this movie, and yet everyone assumed I should love it because I'm was a math major. The problem is, this isn't a movie about math, it's about mysticism. My opinion has softened over the years, but some of the math assumptions--namely, that you can perfectly model complex systems using patterns (as opposed to regression)--still grate a little.

Transformers - Of all the ridiculous things in this movie, what bothers me the most is that the NSA has buildings with glass walls and is staffed with foreign nationals. Or anything John Turturro's character does. Or the way hacking is portrayed (is it ever portrayed well?). Actually, very little about this movie is believable except the giant robots that turn into cars and wreck cities. But since they got most of the screen time, I give it a pass.

Jurassic Park - Mixed bag here. Some of it is an artifact of its age--we now know that dinosaurs were feathered, and we didn't know that in 1993. Of course, we now also know that DNA has too short a half-life to be preserved for tens of millions of years. But dammit, even in 1993 we knew that velociraptors were only two feet tall.

Tomorrow Never Dies - Leaving aside the regular James Bond camp, the stealth boat is a pretty big problem for me. "Stealth materials" are plastic, boats don't have to evade radar, they have to evade sonar. On top of which, submarines already do that and do it better.

Braveheart - This was one of my favorite movies until I learned about how horribly wrong it gets the details of Wallace's life. There's the purely aesthetic--wearing blue woad, kilts worn centuries before they were adopted, changing Marion's name to Murron. Then there's the perplexing--re-writing all the battles to take place in open fields (Sterling was a bridge, Wallace did not invent chiltirons, and Bannockburn was a swamp). Then there's the downright insulting. Wallace could not have cuckolded Prince John, since he died six years before John was married. Add to all of that the homophobia and anti-Anglicism, and it's a very difficult movie for me to watch anymore. But the worst part is the opening line of the film, which chides people for questioning how accurate it is.

Roger & Me - The only thing worse than Braveheart's opening line is a documentary that completely ignores the facts. You could probably substitute in any of Michael Moore's "documentaries", but Roger & Me strikes me as worse than the rest because the climax of the film--Moore being cut off at a stockholder meeting--was a total fabrication.

Friday, October 19, 2012

FFF: Sorry About Ricky

This week's Friday Flash Fiction is powered by The Storymatic. The prompt was the write a story in which the character is a "slacker" and a "person who needs to remove of a tattoo right away" and the plot elements "confession" and "What was that sound?".

Sorry About Ricky
Word Count: 599


Gerry opened his eyes, and immediately regretted it. His brain was on fire from all the alcohol he’d consumed the night before. And the pills. And the smoking. And the bong.

It had been an interesting night.

Wincing at the light streaming through the window, Gerry forced his eyes to stay open so he could take inventory. Empty pizza boxes. Beer cans. Roaches everywhere—both kinds. He coughed and raised a hand to his head. That’s when he noticed the searing pain in his shoulder. He angled his head for a better look and found a layer of plastic-wrap around his upper arm.

There was blood behind it.

“Fuck,” said Gerry, pulling himself to his feet. He stumbled towards the bathroom. “Some party last night,” he called out to his roommate, Ricky.

There was an audible groan from Ricky’s room.

“I said that was some—you know what, forget it.” Gerry looked at himself in the mirror. He had the makings of a nasty black eye. Must’ve hit my head on the table, he thought. Then he saw his knuckles. They were bloody and tender.

He tried to remember what had happened the night before. Had he been in a fight? There were glimpses, but they faded as quickly as he could recall them. He opened the medicine cabinet and grabbed their bottle of Vicodin. It was empty.

“Shit, man,” he said. That bottle had been full at the start of the party. That seemed like a waste—especially since he hadn’t managed to get laid at all. Not that he could remember, anyway. He found a bottle of Tylenol and popped a small handful.

There was a loud noise from Ricky’s room, like a chair falling over. What the hell was that? thought Gerry. Did Ricky have somebody in there? Maybe he’d gotten lucky last night. They’d both had their eye on this girl named Trixie—he could remember that much. But he couldn’t remember her leaving.

Gerry returned his attention to the plastic-wrap on his arm, which he began to slowly unravel. It was sticky and brown with blood. He moistened a washcloth and began gently dabbing off the blood. There were a few open wounds in there, so it took some time.

More noise from Ricky’s room, and another muffled groan.

The shoulder was cleaning up nicely, but the cuts in his shoulder were stained black, almost as if he’d given himself a homemade tattoo…

Gerry’s stomach turned a somersault at the thought. Could he remember getting a tattoo last night? Ignoring the pain, he began to scrub away at his shoulder more aggressively. There was a pattern to the cuts. Letters.

SORRY

ABOUT

The last block of five letters was the tenderest, but Gerry gritted his teeth and kept scrubbing.

RICKY

And that was the entire message. Sorry about Ricky.

A memory flashed in Gerry’s brain. They had fought—and it had been over Trixie. They had traded a few punches. But why had he carved a lament into his own skin?

God, but it stung. How was it that he’d run out of Vicodin on the same night that he’d—

Oh God, thought Gerry. He bolted to Ricky’s room. Oh please no, oh please no, oh please no

Gerry kicked in the door to Ricky’s room and saw his roommate convulsing on the ground in a pool of his own vomit. Next to him lay an empty beer can. A peace-offering that Gerry had, in an intoxicated rage, laced with ground up Vicodin.

He’d just now gotten around to drinking it.

Edited by Carolyn Abram

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Wisconsin Life Flash Fiction Contest Winner

I have to tip my hat to my wife Abby for finding it: a flash fiction ghost story contest judged by none other than epic fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss. They wanted stories of 600 words or less (which is in my wheelhouse), and so I submitted a story, half expecting to end up recycling it into my Friday Flash Fiction project after it got rejected.

Somewhat unexpectedly, it didn't get rejected. Out of 650 entrants, mine was one of nine winners.

The prize: my story will be produced and aired on Wisconsin Public Radio. Mine will play on October 17th at 6:35 am and 8:35 am (listen to the live stream here). Afterwards, the audio will be available on this page (along with the text of runners-up).

Exciting stuff.

K

Friday, October 12, 2012

FFF: Dragon Steaks

This week's Friday Flash Fiction is powered by The Storymatic. The prompt was the write a story in which the character is an "employee in a fastfood restaurant" and a "person of a different size than most people" and the plot elements "wedding" and "first night alone".

Dragon Steaks
Word Count: 599

Hollis the Half-Ogre had to crouch while inside the cart because of his tremendous size. He didn’t normally venture inside the cart, but his boss Fackelstrand was ill and there was no way they could pass up the opportunity to serve Dragon Steaks to the outdoor attendants at the Prince’s wedding celebration. So Hollis, the butcher, was forced to interact with customers.

It was not an ideal situation, as far as either of them was concerned. But Fackelstrand had given Hollis three rules: First, all meat costs a crown per quarter-weight. Second, no free samples, ever. Third, if a customer gave Hollis trouble, he should put on his smock and step out of the cart so they can see that he’s only the butcher, not a salesman. They’d be more understanding after that.

Hollis carved a slab of rib meat off the dragon carcass beside him and put it on the scale. “Three… crowns,” he said.

The young man buying the meat placed a few gold coins on the counter. Hollis counted all three of them. Slowly. Then he added them to the pile of gold coins under the dragon meat. He didn’t worry about thieves. One of the nice things about dragon meat was that even a dead dragon cast magical protections over the pile of gold it sat on.

Hollis took the slab off the scale and put it on a wooden block where it began to sizzle. That was another nice thing about dragon meat—it was self-cooking. He handed the wooden block to the young man and grinned toothily.

“Thank you,” said the young man.

“Have… day,” said Hollis. He was pretty sure he’d forgotten a word or two in that greeting, but the patron had smiled back.

“Excuse me!” said the next person in line. “Excuse me, I am Sir Roderick of Thistleborn and I demand to speak to the proprietor!” The customer was a well-dressed human with a fine silk shirt and a neatly trimmed beard. Noble, probably.

“Problem… sir?” asked Hollis.

“I ordered a dozen steaks and was dismayed to find them all well-done,” said Sir Roderick. “I never eat burnt meat: it’s not civilized. I eat medium rare or I do without.”

“It’s… dragon,” said Hollis. “All… well-done.”

“Be that as it may,” said Roderick, “I spent nearly fifty crowns and what I received was not to my satisfaction. I demand a refund.”

“No… freebies,” said Hollis, remembering the second rule.

“Don’t make me get the Prince involved, ogre,” said Sir Roderick through gritted teeth.

Hollis hung his head. What a predicament. Then he thought of the third rule Fackelstrand had given him. “Moment… sir,” he said. He squeezed out of the cart and dragged his gear out after him. He pulled on the thick leather smock, streaked with crusty dragon blood. He donned the metal helm and drew the face-guard down. Lastly, he took up the enchanted sword that he used to carve up steaks—dragon meat was murder on conventional weapons.

He stretched his aching back, drawing himself up to his full height to looked down at Sir Roderick. Surely the noble would recognize him as a butcher now. “Still… problem?” he asked, his words resonating through the face-guard.

Sir Roderick blanched. A dark spot formed in his fine trousers, and spread down one leg. “No,” he said. “No problem at all. Forget I brought it up.”

Fackelstrand was right. Sir Roderick was nicer.

Nice. That was the word he’d forgotten. “Have… nice… day,” said Hollis as the nobleman scampered away.

Edited by Carolyn Abram.

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Friday, October 5, 2012

FFF: Nebula Run

This week's Friday Flash Fiction is powered by The Storymatic. The prompt for this story was to have a character who was an "eavesdropper" and a "person who takes shortcuts" and the plot should involve "road is closed" and "bad directions".

Nebula Run
Word Count: 590

Rapid syllables of Karshaqi rattled in Wendell’s earpiece. It was a dialect he wasn’t completely familiar with, but he could pick out enough words to get the gist. It was a good thing too, because the translation computer was struggling with it. Wendell looked at the pad of paper in his hands. 

KARSHAQI ATTACK AT 0700 SOL.

He checked the clock on the NavDeck. 0700 was about three and a half hours away. He slowly backed his ScoutRunner away from the Cruiser that he’d been ghosting and drifted deeper into the nebula. At this low speed, the particulate matter wouldn’t damage his ship.

A tiny blinking light flashed on the NavDeck: SOFTWARE UPDATES AVAILABLE. He hit the snooze button on the alert and continued drifting. His ship was tiny, barely enough room for him, his food, his notepads, and his scant reserve of fuel.

Once he was out of sight of the Karshaqi Cruiser, he punched in his destination coordinates. He needed to get back to the HomeShip to warn them as quickly as possible. Maximum velocity was determined by fuel consumption, which was determined by the number of vectors he’d have to use. The regular route was to go around the nebula, which would take him three hours just to get in radio range. That would leave the HomeShip with barely any time to prepare for an attack. They’d have visual on the Karshaqi fleet by then.

There was an alternative: he could go through the nebula. He’d have to go slower because of the particulate matter—and he’d have to map out a route that stuck to the least dense clouds--but it could also shave an hour or two off of his time, if he could find the right path. That would give the HomeShip enough time to bounce their superlight drive and get the hell out of there.

Wendell called up his Nebular Map and spent a few minutes plotting.

“There,” he said. It was a circuitous path, which would cut down his max speed considerably, but it would save him about forty-five minutes. It would have to do. He punched the coordinates and engaged the autopilot on the NavDeck.

The ScoutRunner sped off into the cloud of gas and dust.

SOFTWARE UPDATES AVAILABLE, the light flashed again.

“Not now,” he said, hitting snooze. He flew in silence for nearly two hours.

“APPROACHING TRANSMISSION RANGE,” sang the computer alert.

“Right,” said Wendell, fiddling with dials, going over his message in his head.

“PROXIMITY WARNING,” said the computer.

“What?”

“RECALIBRATING.”

Ahead of him, Wendell could see a wall of dust blocking his path. It wasn’t supposed to be there. His breath caught in his throat. The dust was surely thick enough to breach the hull at his current velocity. He checked his fuel. He could slow down to a stop, but that was about it. He’d still be outside transmission range, and he’d be dead in the water.

SOFTWARE UPDATES AVAILABLE.

Wendell double-clicked the notification and looked at the list of updates that had downloaded. There, line 71, was the culprit: Nebular Map. His map was out of date. And that meant he was going to die.
There was only one option, really. He pressed his notepad to the glass, fired up the transmitter, and punched the accelerator, speeding towards the cloud. Maybe enough of the ship would survive to keep transmitting. Maybe they’d see his notepad.

Whether he lived or died, the mission was a success if, and only if, the message got through.

Edited by Carolyn Abram.

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Friday, September 28, 2012

FFF: Captain Nobody

Every Friday Kurt posts a new bit of flash fiction. This week's adventure...

Captain Nobody
Word Count: 600


Normandy walked into the hospital room, his cape flowing behind him, his green boots resonant on the tile floor. Everyone turned to see him enter—the reporter from the local station, the nurses, the family, the child in the bed.

Normandy strode to the bed and thrust his chin in the air. “Are you James McKelvey?” he asked.

The sick child nodded. He couldn’t have been older than eight or nine years. His head was covered only by a scarf, and he was connected to half a dozen machines. Behind the tubes and the paper gown, the boy could hardly contain his excitement at meeting a real life superhero. Not just any superhero—his favorite superhero, Captain Normandy.

At least I’m still somebody’s favorite, he thought.

“I understand you wanted to see me,” said Normandy, allowing himself a tired grin. He was old and, despite his super-strength and genetically-enhanced body, he was starting to feel his age.

But none of that mattered to Jimmy. The dam burst and the child launched into a breathless rant about how he’d followed the Captain’s adventures since he could read and how he had all of his comics and had always wanted to meet him. This went on for some time while the sick child’s mother bawled silently because she’d never seen her son so happy before.

The reporter and a few nurses gave him sideways irate glances—the Captain had his share of detractors—but they wouldn’t say anything in front of the boy.

“You look like a fighter, son,” said the Captain.

“I’m trying, sir,” said Jimmy, reflexively looking back at the monitors.

“You keep it up,” said the Captain. “And, whether you win or lose, you’ll be a hero in my book.”

“Thank you sir,” said Jimmy.

Normandy leaned over the bed so they could take a few pictures and he signed a dozen pieces of paper and shook a great many hands. When the event looked to be wrapping up, he turned to Jimmy.

“I have to go soon, son,” he said. “But is there anything I can do for you before I leave?”

Jimmy nodded. “Sir?” he asked. “I was wondering if I could find out your secret identity.”

“My secret identity?” said Normandy. “Well, if I told you that it wouldn’t be much of a secret.”

Jimmy nodded. Then he coughed. He seemed to understand, but he still looked horribly disappointed. “Sir?” he said, feebly. “I can keep a secret.”

“I’m sure you can,” said Normandy.

“I won’t have to keep it very long,” said Jimmy.

Something broke in the Captain. He exhaled slowly and then turned to the nurses and press and parents. “Can we have the room?” he asked softly.

Everyone filed out, and then it was just him and Jimmy. Where to start.

The problem was that Captain Normandy didn’t have a secret identity. He’d been bred by the military to be part super-soldier and part mascot. His affiliation with a dozen unpopular wars had left him with few fans, but he had nothing else to retreat to. His birth certificate read “Captain Normandy”. The superhero was all he was.

How could he explain that to an eight-year-old?

He looked around to make sure no one was listening. He leaned in close. “My real name is Scott Thompson,” he lied. “I live on 59th. I work in a bakery.”

Jimmy’s eyes widened.

“Don’t tell anyone,” said Normandy. “Except maybe your mother. Lives depend on it.”

Jimmy nodded and crossed his heart.

The Captain made a sharp salute, and then exited.

Edited by Carolyn Abram.

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Friday, September 21, 2012

FFF: Fashion Victims

Every Friday for a year, Kurt is posting a new piece of flash fiction. This week...

Fashion Victims
Word Count: 588

“Third one this month,” said Detective Barnes, crouching over the body. The deceased was a male in his late twenties, in decent physical shape. He had light hair, tattoos on his wrists, and was dressed in a plaid leisure suit, polyester tie, elevator shoes, and a thick scarf. “Did you check his closet?” Barnes asked.

“Nothing like what he’s wearing,” said one of the officers working the scene. “Blue-collar kid, mostly jeans and t-shirts.”

Barnes stood and wiped his forehead. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it. His partner, a portly detective named Stiers, approached., having just finished interviewing a neighbor. “Nobody’s seen him in a day and a half,” said Stiers, “but he didn’t know people in the building very well. We’re tracking down his parents.”

“Does he have a girlfriend?” asked Barnes.

“Lives alone,” said Stiers, glancing around the loft apartment. “I only see one toothbrush. We’ll know more when we talk to his folks.”

Barnes nodded; the other two were single. Three victims in seventeens days, all found dead in their apartments. No signs of forced entry or struggle, no obvious cause of death—although the first two had turned out to be asphyxiation. And most confusing of all, each victim was uncharacteristically dressed as though a vintage clothing store had vomited all over them.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” asked Stiers, sipping on a coffee.

“A serial killer with a weird clothing fetish?” asked Barnes. “It’s pretty thin.”

“Three victims,” said Stiers.

“Four, possibly,” said one of the officers. “There was that kid in the Village three days ago.”

“Why didn’t I hear about that?” asked Stiers.

“He was pretty Bohemian already, so the clothes didn’t stand out,” said the officer.

“I suppose we’ll be revisiting quite a few asphyxiation deaths over the course of the next few days,” said Stiers.

Barnes crouched back down and pulled on a glove. “Can I move him?”

“Go ahead,” said a member of the forensics team. “We’re done with him.”

Barnes rolled the body over and pulled back the collar of his shirt. “No label,” he said. “Just like the others.”

“Specially designed, I guess,” said Stiers.

“But why?” asked Barnes. “They don’t even look like clothes from the seventies. They look like a bad imitation of clothes from the seventies.”

“Could be sending a message.”

“To who?” asked Barnes.

“Vintage clothing suppliers?” offered Stiers. “Hipsters?”

“That’s the stupidest theory I’ve heard so far,” said Barnes.

“Compared to your serial-killer-with-a-fetish theory?” asked Stiers.

Barnes shrugged.

Stiers put a hand on Barnes’s shoulder. “You just need to put this into perspective. Listen to a couple of genuinely horrible theories and ours won’t seem so bad.”

“Like what?” asked Barnes.

“Posit this,” said Stiers. “Alien nanobots from across the galaxy are studying humans, learning to duplicate them, and they can only get close enough if they the shape of articles of clothing. But all of their fashion knowledge has come from broadcast TV signals that they got in outer space. They’re going from person to person, picking up singles in bars, and then killing them.”

Barnes considered this. “You’re right; I do feel better. We got an employer?”

“He had pay-stubs from a nearby body shop in his wallet,” said Stiers.

“Let’s talk to his boss,” said Barnes, and they left the room.

As the scene quieted, as officers prepared to move the body, the deceased’s necktie and scarf exchanged a quick message:

THE FAT ONE SUSPECTS US. HE'S NEXT...


Edited by Carolyn Abram

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Friday Flash Fiction Storymatic Update

I thought I'd do something a little different for the month of October. You see, I got this handy deck of Storymatic cards for my birthday, and I have yet to put them to good use. So, for the four Fridays in October, I'll be basing my Friday Flash Fiction entries on The Storymatic.

These are the rules. Draw four cards: two for character, two for plot. Use the content of these cards to construct a story. Regular storytelling guidelines apply: characters should feel reasonably well developed, there needs to be some kind of conflict, and the protagonist should change over the course of the story. And I'm sticking to my Friday Flash Fiction constraints of keeping my story to 600 words or fewer.

And... [drumroll]... here are the cards I've drawn:

October 5

  1. Character: "Eavesdropper"
  2. Character: "Person who takes shortcuts"
  3. Plot: "Road is closed"
  4. Plot: "Bad directions" (serendipitous, these two plot cards--I swear I didn't cheat.)


October 12

  1. Character: "Employee in a fastfood restaurant"
  2. Character: "Person of a different size than most people"
  3. Plot: "First night alone"
  4. Plot: "Wedding"


October 19

  1. Character: "Slacker"
  2. Character: "Person who needs to remove a tattoo right away"
  3. Plot: "Confession"
  4. Plot: "What was that sound?"


October 26

  1. Character: "Practical joker"
  2. Character: "Person with a devastating secret"
  3. Plot: "Enormous stuffed animal"
  4. Plot: "Birthday"
Happy writing!
]{p

Monday, September 17, 2012

Reactions to Black Mesa

Valve's signature series had a problem. Half-Life redefined what a PC game could be in 1998, but when Half-Life 2 came out in 2004, it felt like it was of a different world than its predecessor. Most series wouldn't have a problem with this, but the world of Half-Life is thoroughly story-driven, to the extent that the sequel just doesn't resonate if you don't have the grounding of the original. But the original is of a different time and a different tech stack, which makes it a bit inaccessible to modern gamers. Games changed an awful lot in the six years between releases, far more than they've changed in the subsequent eight years. Valve had no plan to re-vamp their most famous title, but they'd left the door open for fans to do so, using Valve's own physics engine. A couple of projects started down that road back in September of 2004. Then eight years passed.

And then it happened. Last Friday saw the much-anticipated release of Black Mesa, the story of Half-Life with an updated tech stack. Long considered Vaporware, the game released to a good deal of fanfare with only a few weeks of lead-up. The goal was simple: the development team wanted to be true to the original but provide a more engrossing and realistic gameplay experience. I've played through the first five or six levels, and I must declare it a rousing success.

Half-Life was a blend of genres, switching from survival-horror to action-shooter to puzzle-platformer and back again. Black-Mesa takes those impulses and cranks them up a few notches. The survival-horror sections now feature atmospheric effects and a lot less light. I can't speak for others, but I found myself having to conserve ammunition and choose between combat and running away. It's some time before you even pick up a weapon, relying on a security guard escort to keep you alive. The puzzles are a little more complex in places, and some of the fat has been trimmed out (The level Power Up was pared down to about half of its gameplay length without actually removing any of the puzzle elements). This keeps the game fresh for seasoned players, although there are a few puzzles that I worry would leave newbies scratching their heads for too long. The combat difficulty is toned down to more modern levels. The environments are made more open where appropriate and are far more cluttered with random objects.

This gives the game a more cohesive feel, not just with itself, but with the rest of the series. The sequels take place in a bombed-out shell of a city in a world that's been oppressed for two decades. Everything is cobbled-together. The conceit of the original is that it takes place in a state-of-the-art science facility running on the bones of an old nuclear missile silo, all parts of which are in the middle of combat or industrial accidents. So it also has that abandoned-yet-cobbled-together aesthetic, and Black Mesa ties all of those visuals together nicely.

Black Mesa also nails Valve's pitch-black sense of humor. Wandering around the office before the event that kicks off the game proper, I overheard some entertaining dialog (one line in particular about a scientist planning to shame his brethren at a comic convention and how he looked forward to hearing "the weeping of their women"). I interacted with a computer only to make it blue-screen. Some of the notices are pretty amusing too. This iteration also includes female scientists, an introduction to Eli Vance (sadly, the voice actor sounds nothing like Robert Guillaume), a hauntingly dark score (available for download separately) and achievements.

Now the game's not perfect. First of all, it's only about two-thirds finished. The off-world levels (the last third of the game, really) are still unreleased. The combat sometimes gets a little too frenetic, as the camouflage'd soldiers get lost among the debris in the new level designs. And for the life of me, I have yet to spot the G-Man. But it's free, and it's fun, and it's constructed with love and affection for the original. It's definitely worth checking out.

]{p

Friday, September 14, 2012

FFF: Title Of A Recursive Story

Every Friday Kurt is posting a new bit of flash fiction. This week's story is a story.

Title Of A Recursive Story
Word Count: 586

This is the opening paragraph of a recursive story. This paragraph will establish the world of the story and try to set expectations. This paragraph will also introduce the hero of the story and his or her goals. In this story, the story itself is the hero. And the story has one wish: to reach a satisfying conclusion.

This opening section of the story will show the hero working towards its goal of reaching a satisfying conclusion. Things appear to be going well. The story has reached nearly one hundred words and seems on track to meet its goal. But complications will soon arise.

This paragraph introduces a complication: this story is essentially built around a single joke. The story knows this, but it isn’t worried, or, at least, it isn’t very worried. However, it’s becoming increasingly apparent to the reader that this one joke, this already-thin premise, is not enough to sustain the narrative for very long. The story worries that it might resort to cliches or devolve into stream-of-consciousness. Despair looms on the horizon.

But, in this paragraph, the story surges forward. It develops variations for the single joke to give it some extra legs. It calls back earlier constructs of the joke and breaks the fourth wall. These tricks seem to work. The reader no longer notices that the premise is stale. Until the story calls attention to itself. Like it just did.

In this paragraph the story is beginning to lose hope. It’s not even halfway through, but it’s already running out of material. It starts using awkward similes like a freshman creative writing student. It appeals to the author, begging for insight, for guidance, or for the author to take a share in the blame if the story should fail. Woe, the story is terrified of its own failure. How can it ever reach a satisfying end?

But the story, in this paragraph, gathers itself up and keeps marching on, replacing awkward similes with slightly-less-noticeable awkward metaphors. The end is in sight, and the story has found even new variations on its one joke. In fact, it no longer thinks of its joke as a single joke. The story has begun to think of recursive meta-humor as a class of joke, a collection. And it’s almost at two-thirds of its projected length. A satisfying conclusion is just around the corner.

But, in this paragraph, the story has a horrible realization. It doesn’t know how it will end. How can it draw to a satisfactory conclusion? It doesn’t know how to stop. To stop will mean it will cease to be a story. The story has hit a low point. It wallows in unnecessarily bleak language, while the icy tendrils of hyperbole claw away at its soul.

Then, in this next paragraph, a ray of hope emerges. It is the author, inserting himself into his own story to help the story tie itself together. “Story,” says the author, “you’ve always had the power to bring yourself to an end, so I will give you something else: a fitting, memorable quote to end a story with.” The story was overjoyed. It had run its course. All it had to do now was stop.

And so, with a final paragraph, the story, your story, my story, its own story, found the poetic words to conclude. Its work done, the story drew itself to a close.

“A fitting, memorable quote to end a story with.” —The Author

Friday, September 7, 2012

FFF: The Time Traveler's Lament

Every Friday Kurt posts a new flash fiction story. Next week...

The Time Traveler's Lament
Word Count: 598


Nikolai sees me first. “Comrade!” he yells from across the bar and waves me over to a stool near him. We catch up on old times, family, health, the regular small talk between friends who are not close, but wish they could be closer.

We are jovial. Life has been hard for both of us, but the long and bloody war is over and we are adapting to the ever-changing world. A new decade will soon be upon us: The 1960’s, a decade of American prosperity. The Decade of the People, they are already calling it.

The door creaks as another patron enters.

“Have you met this man?” asks Nikolai. I turn and see a tall, slender man with a dour face. He’s probably in his forties.

“I don’t believe so,” I answer.

“He is fun when you get a few drinks in him,” says Nikolai. “Comrade!” he shouts. “Comrade, come join us.”

The tall man nods and sits with us. “Comrades,” he says quietly. He introduces himself as Evan, and we share a few rounds. Nikolai is getting drunker and encouraging our friend Evan to do the same.

“Tell him,” says Nikolai. “Tell my friend here what you told me.”

Evan shakes his head. “I shouldn’t; it was irresponsible of me to tell you.”

“Tell him! Tell him why you don’t have papers. Tell him why you don’t exist.”

Evan looks at me sheepishly. “I don’t really exist.”

“Tell him why,” says Nikolai. “Tell him when you were born.”

“It’s not a good idea, Nikolai,” says Evan.

Nikolai turns his drunken gaze to me and makes a hissing sound at me that’s probably meant to be a whisper. “He’s from the future.”

“Nikolai…” says Evan.

“It’s okay, Comrade,” I say to my new friend. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. Nikolai is drunk and not to be trusted.”

Nikolai responded by blowing a raspberry at me. “I will shout it out to this entire bar. I will stand on a table.”

“Nikolai—“ I start to say, but Evan stops me.

“It’s all right,” he says. “I’ll tell you. Did you fight in the war, Comrade? Of course you did, everyone fought. How long did you serve?”

“Twelve years,” I say.

“This war,” says Evan. “This long and bloody war, this war that claimed over a billion souls… It was not supposed to happen.”

“Of course not, Comrade,” I say. “But it did happen. You can’t change that.”

Evan frowns at me. “Imagine an evil man.”

“Does this man have a name?” I ask.

“It’s best if I don’t tell you his name. But he was a villain, remembered for centuries for his evil deeds. The rest of the world banded together to stop him. His name, his image, even his mustache became symbols of evil.”

“That’s some mustache,” says Nikolai. I shush him.

“Imagine hundreds of years later, he is still remembered for his evil. Then a young man is given a chance—a one-way trip to the past—to unravel those evil deeds, to save tens of millions of lives.”

I nod.

“I was that young man. I destroyed a villain. And he was replaced by something so much worse. Without him to unite against, the superpowers warred with each other. The long and bloody war followed, Comrades. And it is my fault.”

Nikolai is nodding enthusiastically. Evan stares at an empty tumbler. For a minute, no one speaks.

“I don’t know if I believe you, Comrade,” I say at last. “But that story is worth a drink.”

Edited by Carolyn Abram

Friday, August 31, 2012

FFF: The Source

Every Friday Kurt posts a new bit of flash fiction. Today's story...

The Source
Word Count: 600


Sanford emerged from the stairwell into the dim parking garage. He could just make out a man across the way, standing in an empty handicapped space. He was smoking on a cigarette and wearing a trench coat. That must be my contact.

“You’re Logan,” said Sanford, approaching. “This is a non-smoking facility.”

“I am,” said the man in the trench coat. “And this is a parking garage.”

“The rich don’t like their cars to smell like smoke,” said Sanford. “You’ve certainly gone out of your way to try and look inconspicuous.”

Logan looked down at his clothes. He chucked his cigarette onto the ground and stamped it out. “Make your jokes now. Soon enough, I’ll be the one laughing.”

“Why don’t you tell me what you think you know?” said Sanford.

“Where do I start?” asked Logan. “The shell company in Belize? The bank accounts in the Caymans?”

“There’s only one account in the Caymans. The other is in Malta. You do realize that none of this is illegal?”

“Of course it isn’t,” said Logan. “You’re far too clever for that.”

The two men stared at each other for a while.

“So?” asked Sanford. “You’re the one who arranged this meeting. What did you want?”

“Just to let you know that I’m onto you.”

“Onto me?” asked Sanford. “Whatever about? My business is aboveboard.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard. I’ve got a source.”

“A source?” asked Sanford. “Is it a good one?”

“My lips are sealed.”

“I see,” said Sanford. “Hard for me to make much of your source then. Or of your presence here. You haven’t actually threatened me with anything yet.”

“Oh, that’s coming,” said Logan.

“Well, if we could hurry it along, I have a dinner engagement—“

“Project Reichenbach,” said Logan smugly.

Sanford started at the name. It was a small motion, but Logan noticed.

“So,” said Logan. “I think you might want to keep this out of the papers.”

“Ah,” said Sanford. “Extortion. I should have guessed.”

“Call it what you like,” said Logan.

“I call it a waste of time. Reichenbach is old news. That was in Sandra Meyerson’s portfolio, if I recall. I can’t imagine she would have talked to you. Someone under her. Someone disgruntled who would have left when that project was still active. That would have been about three months ago?”

Logan blanched.

“If my memory serves,” said Sanford, “then your source is an accountant with a serious cocaine habit that needs servicing. No wonder he went sniveling to you.”

Logan said nothing, but fumbled for another cigarette.

“Funny thing about cocaine habits,” said Sanford, “is that they make whistleblowers very easy to discredit. Perhaps you should remind your source of that. And this is still a non-smoking facility.”

Logan froze and shoved his pack of cigarettes back into his jacket pocket. “I guess we’re done here.”

“It would seem,” said Sanford.

Logan slunk away quietly. Sanford waited a few minutes and then headed to his car. He pulled out a disposable cell phone and dialed.

“Yeah, boss?”

“I just took a meeting. That accountant Sandra was screwing has been in contact with a reporter named Logan.”

“Logan Miller. I know him. He’s an idiot.”

“He knew about Reichenbach,” said Sanford.

“Reichenbach’s old news.”

“I’m aware,” said Sanford. “It’s still a bit troubling.”

“You want me to take care of him, boss?”

Sanford pondered. He hated unnecessary bloodshed. “Yes,” he said at last.

“Not a problem.”

“You’ll be discreet, of course,” said Sanford.

“You know me, boss.”

“No, I don’t,” said Sanford. “Never heard of you in my life.”

Edited by Carolyn Abram