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Feb 8, 2014



Feb 8, 2014

The Truth Will Out (1195 words)

India obvs

Kip slammed the bottle on the table. Anwar looked slowly up from the screen of his powered-down tablet and yawned. “What you get there, pal?”
“A proposal,” said Kip. “A drinking contest. Very simple. You take a shot, I take a shot. We keep going until one of us is under the table. Literally or figuratively.”
“Sounds like fun,” agreed Anwar, “But why would I sit drinking with you when I've got the whole of Kolkata as my playground?” He gestured to the city outside the ship's porthole, the image of the harbour rippling with the city's heat.
“Good point. But I ask: if that's so, why have you yet to even step foot across the Hooghly? We've been moored almost a fortnight.”

Anwar rolled his tablet up and put it in the front pocket of his overalls. “Right. Well. This is how we're gonna decide who gets to be captain, I take it? Sure you've got it in you, Tony?”
The half-man, half-tiger reached a paw up to steady his shaking ear. The twitch relocated to his tail. “I admit, it's not a competition with which I have experience. Neither is this beverage something I have partaken in. I am assured both are a vital part of adolescence in my culture.”

“Your culture also involves mauling men to death,” smirked Anwar. “And you took a solemn oath never to do that on this ship. In fact, wasn't it one of the pre-requisites of you being allowed on the Ivory in the first place?”
Kip steadied himself with one paw on the purple bottle; collected himself; stood up straight, smoothed down the front of his jumpsuit. “You remain perceptive, Anwar. Yes, the winner of the contest will be the new captain of our fine merchant vessel. Do you agree to these terms?”
Anwar was already pouring his first measure from a shot glass he took from the table's hard-light holographic cupboard. “I'm not the one who's still standing, looking all aloof.” He said the last word with a theatrical flourish and his nose in the air.

Kip was happy for the drink. His fur was matted and dry from sweat, the West Bengal sun turning the jagged stripes he was so proud of into a mess of tangled, scribbled lines. He produced his own glass, poured, and mouthed “salut” to his fellow crew member.
“Urgh, this tastes like crap,” Anwar stuck his tongue out. “You really drink this on your planet?”

The tiger-man poured another shot, Anwar holding his glass out like he was trying to get away from it. They downed the second round simultaneously, Kip's tongue smacking, Anwar wincing again. “Seriously, what is this?” He bit his lip. “See, I know why you wanted to settle things this way. If it came down to a vote, the rest of the crew would go for me, hands down. I'm so much more popular than you. Better pilot, better leader, more people skills...and you think you can be captain by winning this but, well, I'm grrreat at boozing too.”

Outside the sun was barely visible behind the reconstructed Vidyasagar Bridge. “I'm not great at drinking,” said Anwar, concealing his words with the back of his hand after the third shot. “Better than Ryall ever was, though. Be a better captain than he ever was, I bet.” His words started to slur. “I know, I know, gotta be respectful and everything, but he's been in the ground, what, a week? Best thing that ever happened to the Ivory.” Kip started pouring the next measure. “Hey, what would you do if you were captain?” Anwar asked. “Hypothetically, obviously.”
“More drinking contests,” said Kip.
“Good man,” Anwar winked as he lifted his glass. “Good...good tiger...”
Kip sighed as he brought the glass down from his mouth a fourth time. He could apparently handle his drink, but still he wondered when this would end.

“That guy...had it...had it coming...” Anwar mumbled to himself, looking down, his head lolling like a puppet left hanging on a shelf after the fifth drink. “Ryall,” he sneered.
“What was that?” Kip felt his small eyes brighten.
“Ryall!” Anwar bellowed, slamming his fist down on his leg. “He's dead! He's dead and I'm glad and I'm glad that I...did it...” He became much smaller, unclenching his hand and leaning back in his chair. “I...killed him? Why am I telling you this?” He gulped, looked back up at Kip: “The Ivory was going nowhere fast with him in charge, and neither was I! I deserve to captain a merchant ship more than him, more than you, more than anyone on this hunk of junk! Mine! It should be mine!”

The tiger smirked, allowed his glass to dissipate with a small shower of pink polygons. “Thank you for speaking up, comrade,” he said. “I believe the ship's recording devices will have captured it all, and are backing it up as we speak.”
“What did you do?” asked Anwar, peering up at Kip from his chair like a scared boy called into the headteacher's office. Kip tapped the bottle.
“This isn't strictly alcohol. Well, I should say it is, but it's main quality is that it gets whoever drinks it – as you might say – to cut the bullshit.”
“Truth serum?” Anwar scowled. “A drinking contest...with truth serum?”
“The truth does always out,” Kip stood up, rocking back on his heels, steadied by his tail.
“So how come you're not spilling your guts?”
“A fair question,” said Kip, pondering the answer. “It appears I have nothing to hide. I believe we are done here?” He asked, turning to leave.

“No, we're not,” Anwar called after him. He shook the half-empty bottle of truth booze.
“Oh, very well,” said Kip, walking back over to the table, unable to resist the temptation of a victory lap. He chugged the remaining half-litre. The room started to feel woozy. He wasn't quite sure what angle he was standing at, what words he had said to Anwar after letting go of the bottle and which he had simply considered. Then he threw up.

Hunched over, on his hands and knees, tail coiled between his legs. This was not the moment of victory he expected.
“Looks like I won,” said Anwar from behind him. Before he could continue, the tiger man jerked his head towards him, mouth foaming.

Anwar stood up, dropping his glass, which dissolved before it hit the ground. “How about we don't tell anybody about this,” he said, “And just let it go to a vote in the morning?”
Kip nodded silently, sat still clenching, as Anwar left the room.

With considerable effort, Kip stood up and headed out onto the observation deck to clear his head. Perhaps amongst all those swimming thoughts and uncomfortable truths, he could remember the name of that Bankuran assassin in Anwar had once mentioned.

Feb 8, 2014

Thank you for the crits! I am humbled once again by the Thunderdome.

Feb 8, 2014

I am in with Revealing Cthulhu.

Feb 8, 2014

Revealing Cthulhu

Word count: 982

“I'm here about the ad?”

“Anders,” the bartender nodded. “Been a while.”

The young man took a seat. “Odd being here during the week,” he glanced around at the room. “Not so busy?”

“It'll pick up, once the acts start,” the bartender turned to face him. “Which ad?”

“For the band,” Anders placed the newspaper clipping on the bar. Its corner started to soak up a puddle of warm booze. “For tonight?”

“Oh, that ad,” the bartender rolled his eyes, saw that Anders had brought a guitar case along with him. “Well, they're not on until last, and they usually don't get here until, er, after the rest of the performers.”

“That's fine,” said Anders, peeling the clipping up, shaking it, and returning it to the pocket of his leather jacket. “You mind if I watch the rest of the show?”

“I'm not sure it'll be your sort of thing,” the bartender said. “But...why not? If you don't mind waiting. I'm sure it will be worth it.”

Anders spent an hour or so on his stool, alone, as the bartender dealt with the soundcheck, and indeed the room did start to fill up. Helvete was a dive bar, and that's why he liked it. Every surface was painted black, including the wooden boards of the small stage at the back wall, with black curtains drawn across it. Your feet stuck to the ground if you spent too long in one spot. There was no natural light. It was like a bunker, or a tomb.

Anders flipped through his empty pocket diary, nibbled at the flaking black paint on his nails, and drank two vodka gimlets. He had been prepared to defend his drink of choice but found the week day clientèle far less combative than his usual crowd. He was disappointed, but also intrigued.

They didn't act like the usual, and didn't look the same, either. The long black hair and gaunt, pale expressions were familiar, but mostly they wore fairly simple hooded cloaks, free of stitched-on pentagrams and splotches of face paint. Most seemed to be a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Yet they were surprisingly affable: he spent the first hour alone but, as the show was gearing up, people began talking to him, catching up like they were old friends.

“I'm going to be playing in the band after,” he told one of them, patting his guitar case.

“Oh really?” she replied, cocking her head to the side. “I didn't know that was on the schedule.”

He necked another vodka gimlet, anxious he'd read the clipping wrong. He took it back out of his coat pocket, the words smudged by the spilt beer, but the epic image of the squid monster in chains which had caught his eye still visible. It was a style of illustration unlike any he'd seen before – modern, but far from modern in atmosphere and suggestion, with that cryptic regularity which lurks in prehistoric drawings.

The woman returned and he shoved the crumpled clipping back into his pocket. Now this group had assimilated him, he didn't want to be caught acting like an outsider. She squeezed his arm.

“It's starting!” she beamed.

What few pieces of strip lighting were still buzzing along the bar's low ceiling cut out. A hush settled down amongst the crowd at the same time. A single chord rung out over the sea of heads, and Anders's first thought was that he'd come too late and the band had filled their position.

The curtains came up and a single spotlight shone on the band, positioned in the back corner of the stage. None of them looked familiar to Anders, but all of them seemed to be around the same age as him, and from their make up and the music they were playing, they definitely should have crossed paths at some point. Whilst he remained perched on his stool the young woman ran off to join in with the braying, bellowing, and writhing of the crowd.

He enjoyed the music, for what it was worth. Loud, discordant, the singer shredding his vocal chords with each new song. The sound befitted a much larger space, a cave, a canyon, a mountaintop, than the tiny room it was being confined to. It seemed like it could burst out at any second, the roof unable to contain the pressure.

Part of the way through their third song, the second spotlight fired up, placed in an empty space on the other side of the stage. What happened next Anders would have trouble describing to anyone who asked: the cab driver who found him huddled, shivering, in a doorway four miles from the bar; the police officer who took him in for questioning; the psychiatrists who tried to make sense of what happened to him.

Anders had seen burlesque shows before. But not like this. Whatever it was that came on stage in the fishnet stockings and the black leather bustier was not a woman. It wasn't even human. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings, which it revealed as it slowly peeled off its meagre clothing. But it was the general outline of the whole, the curves, the wet squelch as it undid each tie on the bustier, which made it most shockingly frightful.

The feeling had crept along Anders's spine throughout the performance, a fear that felt more primal than any horror film, any late night church burning, any book, had ever placed in him. It was primordial. It was worse than even the anxiety at the prospect of an audition before the evning was out. It was bigger than that, bigger than anything Anders Vikernes had ever before comprehended.

In that bar, that night, his mind was cleaved in two by a stripping elder god. Durbgûl's rigorous audition process had claimed yet another.

Feb 8, 2014

Hello yes I am in.

Feb 8, 2014

The Last Man In Space
(1907 words)

The cat carrier felt heavy in Tessa's hand. The laser in the other felt heavier. Looking at the ship now, it seemed so different from the paper planes that had littered Ronald's bedroom years ago. It was real, not just the subject of party chatter, or a dimly recalled memory. She ran her fingers along the airlock, feeling the cold even through her spacesuit. Pamela's mewling came through loud and clear over the radio. She tethered the carrier to the side of the ship and started cutting.

The ship was bigger than she remembered. Perhaps it was just by virtue of how technology shrunk exponentially over time, making things from a forgotten age seem inconceivably large and almost pitiably clumsy. The outside was worn, with burns along the broad wingspan and tubular hull, the chipped paint of the protruding snout glinting in the twin suns on the other side of the system. Like the chill of the door, the musty smell from inside permeated even Tessa's helmet. From the sneezes in her headset, Pamela was getting it too. Re-sealing the airlock behind her, Tessa had a minute to put the carrier back down and take a breath before she was enveloped in darkness.

Her grandfather had told her ghost stories as a child. Tessa's parents didn't see any harm in it. There was zero scientific basis for the belief in life after death, and mankind's journeys to the furthest reaches of the universe uncovered far greater gibbering horrors than headless horsemen and murdered, vengeful noblewomen. The stories followed the rhythm of her grandfather's wrist watch, which he often employed as a prop. The grandfather clock a skeleton fell out of, the inexorable counting down to a character's ghastly fate.

The blood pulsed in her ears. Being aware of it didn't help slow the tempo. She thought of the stories – of course she would think of them then – as her torch illuminated a fraction of the ship's main hallway with each sweep, otherwise stretching off into a murky abyss which her imagination helpfully populated with any number of lurking spectres. She counted to ten, as the classes she downloaded had taught her, felt for the wall at the side of the passageway. Slowly she advanced, shining her torch into every nook and cranny whenever she sensed movement. Her breathing, the low purr from Pamela, and the squeak of her boots against the metal floor conspired against her. She could've sworn she heard somebody whisper her name.

Something large, something black, slammed into the glass dome of her helmet as she turned the corner. She panicked, scrabbling to remove the winged beast from her face, trying to find the breath to scream. Pamela howled down her ear. The attacker floated away as her back hit the wall, and Tessa realised it was nothing more than a discarded candy wrapper. Something else she remembered from Ronald's room: those plastic wrappers amongst the paper planes.

Ronald had been the first. Now, decades later, interstellar space flight was the norm. To Tessa, it still seemed somewhat romantic and uncanny, as the internet had to her grandfather, and as the “television” had to his. She had traded on the story of being the First Man In Hyperspace's Ex-Girlfriend at any number of social and quasi-social gatherings. It was a level of celebrity she was comfortable with. She had retired, at the age of 52 (in Venusian years), and set sail across the event horizon of the closest supermassive blackhole, catapulting herself across the far cosmos in a borrowed ship. Nothing fancy, just a standard FTL-enabled one-person craft that would get her where she needed to go. Which took her another year to find.

Flashing the light around the room at the end of the hallway, it was clear she'd found it. The cockpit was almost identical to the room she'd last been in over thirty years ago, only the paper planes had been replaced by scrawled notes of calculations and star maps, and both them and the candy wrappers were floating in mid-air. She had tried to get Ronald to eat better during his journey. He swatted such concerns away, claiming his preferred snack would keep for longer. He didn't know how long he'd be away. The bastard.

The room was about half the size of Ronald's Martian bedsit, however, with a bunk at the fall wall instead of the futon dropped haphazardly in the middle of the floor. Somebody was lying in it. Even past the clutter and the dark, she could see a shape swaddled in blankets on the bunk, solid and still whilst everything around it was in aimless, weightless motion.

Tessa forced herself to take another deep breath. She started counting again. Instead of feeling for the wall, she made a bee-line straight for the bed, waving her hand to cut through the rubbish like a machete through jungle foliage. She jerked the body over onto its back. Tessa hadn't been expecting to recognise Ronald after all these years, but she did, even with his skin shrunk so it clung, mottled and grey, to his skull. His eyes were shrivelled up in their sockets, his jaw hanging loosely down on his chest, and his jumpsuit stained and torn.

“I want my watch back, you son of a bitch,” she spat, the words dripping down the inside of her glass helmet.

“It's nice to see you too...” Tessa leapt back again as the words croaked out of the corpse's mouth without it moving, almost seeping from the empty skull. “Sorry, who are you?”

She brought a leg up and gave the body a good, firm kick, which loosened the left arm and sent it floating up to join the rest of the detritus.

“Ouch!” This time Tessa noticed that the voice wasn't even coming from the mouth. It was in her head, muting out all the other ambient sound. She hoped Pamela was okay.

“It's Tessa, Ronald, you rear end,” she said. “We dated for like, three weeks before you went off on this stupid suicide mission.”

“Oh!” The voice followed her even as she walked off and started to rifle through the bedside drawers, the desk in the other corner, the floating rubbish.

“Remember?” Tessa snapped.

“No,” said the voice. She whipped around to face the body, which still lay prone, strapped to the bunk. The severed, rotten arm was orbiting an assembled mass of candy wrappers and screwed-up balls of paper. “Wait, but if you found me, does that...does that mean I did it? I cracked it?”

She sighed, the breath condensing on the glass. “Yes, you did it,” said Tessa. “Your warp drive worked. People are now skipping across the cosmos all the time. It's revolutionised space travel. The human race has never been the same. Yadda yadda yadda.”

“Wow,” the voice seemed impressed. “So I'm, like, a hero?”

“Look, are you going to tell me where my watch is?” Tessa turned around and glared at the corpse, still unsure if she was being haunted or had simply fallen prey to space madness.

“A few more questions.”

Tessa's hands fell to her sides in surrender. “Fine. You have five minutes. Then I want my watch.”

“How will you know the time without...?”

“Four minutes.”

“You don't mess around,” said the voice. “Think I'd remember that.”

“Three minutes.”

“Did the Tranquillitatis Raiders win the series?”

“I don't know. That was years ago.”

“Are hover boards finally a thing?”

She shrugged. Then, unsure if whatever she was talking to could see, answered “I don't know!”

She had known it would be difficult. The discovery of each new ship, and the confirmation that it wasn't Ronald's, had come with a sort of relief. Now, looking over her shoulder at what was left of him, she felt the urge to get this over and done with as soon as possible.

“Did my mum and dad ever get back together?” The voice asked.

“Jesus, Ron, I don't know,” she sighed. “Probably not? That was never going to happen, though, was it?”

“People used to say that about hyperdrive.” Even bereft of eyebrows, she knew the smug look Ronald would be making.

“Nothing like that,” she said. “Your hyperdrive works.”

The voice was quiet again then, for a moment, and she continued to search through all the crap her ex had seen fit to take on an endless mission across the galaxy. There had been others since Ronald. Soldiers, accountants, even a holodeck star (well, he'd been in a couple of low-budget entertainments). No more pilots. She was perfectly happy with Pamela.

“Of all the people to come find me after so long...” the voice came again before it trailing off, and returned again, much quieter. “Do people remember me?” It asked.

Tessa paused, rocking back and forth on her heels before answering. “Well, I am the only person who's come looking.”

The words hung in the air amongst the detritus. Ronald had figured out how to make his warp drive work. Even with her amateur eye, shuffling through the papers floating about her, Tessa realised that it was getting back he had struggled with.

Back on Mars, Tessa and Ronald had gone on just four dates. He had been late to every one: two dinners, a movie, and a holographic art exhibition she dragged him to with the promise of free booze. It was on the fourth, cheeks warm from drink, that she had lent him her grandfather's watch. Glass face, leather strap, gold rim. They hadn't made watches like that in centuries. The only modern addition had been the nuclear timer that kept its hands turning. It was the watch Ronald had been wearing when he blasted off on his unauthorised, unannounced test flight.

The voice again broke the silence, just as Tessa thought she'd finally gotten over what she had decided was an auditory hallucination brought on by the low gravity. “It's on my left wrist.”

She walked over to the severed limb that was still pirouetting slowly in mid-air, grabbed it, pulled down the torn sleeve and revealed the watch. It too looked smaller than she remembered. Ronald's arm was much smaller, too. The watch came off without much hassle.

Before she left, she pulled the arm back down from its orbit, and nestled it alongside the body in the bed.

“For what it's worth,” she said, as she stood up and prepared to collect Pamela at the airlock, “I'm sorry.”

This time Tessa didn't have to feel along the wall to find her way, instead following the sound of her cat's slow, even breathing, the blood in her ears now pulsing pleasingly along with the ticking of her watch, which she held in her palm. She burned through the airlock once more, stepped out of the ship, and sealed the darkness away behind her. Pamela was curled up in her carrier, asleep, dreaming of chasing three-eyed Venusian mice. Tessa clambered back into her borrowed ship and made the preparations to return home at last.

“I'm sorry too, Tessa,” the voice said, sudden and clear as it had been in Ronald's room. She smiled. She was sure that if she returned to it, the body would be gone, as so many of her grandfather's stories had ended. But the rubbish would still be there.

In the quiet of her ship, all she could hear was the watch ticking.


Feb 8, 2014

Hello yes I am in.

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