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:


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!

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.


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