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Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


In, and I'll take a LEGO set please and thank you.

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Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


The Treehouse Heist
1179 words



It was a slow day in the Treehouse Bank. Too slow for the liking of Sheriff Devin, who was closely watching the entrance to Garbage Can Valley down the barrel of his gigantic water cannon. It’d been difficult getting up the ladder into the bank while carrying the heavy weapon, but he felt the effort had been very much worth the while, as he could now rain long-range liquid destruction down on the bandits as they made their attack.

“What’s takin’ them so long,” grumbled Devin.

“They probably just want to see you sweat,” said Jenny. They’d arrived a few minutes ago, after being tipped off that Kate the Outlaw Queen and her Right-Hand Man Mikey were preparing an imminent heist on the Treehouse Bank. Finding the bank unstaffed, Sheriff Devin had stripped Jenny of her badge and neon green water pistol and demoted her from Deputy Sheriff to Junior Bank Teller. Jenny had been annoyed, but Devin was four years older and a lot bigger than she was, and he tended to get his way.

“Well, they should hurry up,” said Devin.

From the end of Garbage Can Valley, in the shadow of House Mountain, a high pitched voice broke out into song. Sheriff Devin immediately recognized the voice as belonging to his younger brother Mikey, who’d recently and tragically turned outlaw.

Sher-iff Devin is a poo-py butt,” came the song. “He eats his poop and he liiiiii-kes it.”

“That doesn’t even rhyme,” said Sheriff Devin through gritted teeth. Jenny stifled a giggle.

The Sher-iff is a wie-ner! The sher-iff is a butt-hole!

“That’s it,” said Sheriff Devin, purple with fury and moving for the ladder. “He’s dead.”

“It’s obviously a trap,” said Jenny, folding her arms. “They just want to get you down on their own ground, where they can shoot you up close.”

“Kate the Outlaw Queen is a girl--she can’t trap me. Besides, I’ve got this baby for close combat,” said Devin with a smirk, brandishing Jenny’s neon green water pistol before tucking it into his waistband.

“That’s my gun,” said Jenny. “What am I supposed to do if they sneak up the other way while you’re down there?”

“That’s why you’ve got those,” said Sheriff Devin, pointing to the red bucket in the corner. In it were two bright yellow water balloons. “Don’t miss.”

Sheriff Devin climbed down the ladder and strode confidently across the empty town square towards the entrance to Garbage Can Valley. “Why don’t you come out here and sing that song? Scared?”

A hand gripping an orange pistol poked around the side of the stones at the entrance to the valley, firing haphazardly and missing pitifully. Sheriff Devin laughed and returned fire, blasting a powerful geyser of deadly water from his cannon and dousing the whole area.

“Did I get ya?” called out Devin.

“Just my hand,” said Mikey, with a defiant tone in his voice.

“Well now you gotta use your left hand, your right hand is blowed off.”

Jenny watched from behind the railings of the treehouse. A flash of movement over by Spiderweb Canyon, on the other side of House Mountain from Garbage Can Valley, caught her attention. Jenny started to call out a warning, but Kate the Outlaw Queen moved like a grass snake, covering the distance between the end of the Canyon and the big planter on the edge of Town Square almost instantly. Taking deadly aim at the posturing Sheriff with her water pistol, Kate fired a tight grouping of shots before ducking behind the cover of the planter.

Jenny’s hands shot up to cover her mouth. Sheriff Devin, struck multiple times, let loose an animal roar. Twisting and turning as he fell to his knees, he tried to return fire but the blast of water from the cannon splashed harmlessly against the planter. The cannon fell limply from his fingers, and he lay face-down in the town square, his t-shirt soaked through.

“Gotcha,” said Kate, rising from behind the planter. Mikey emerged from Garbage Can Valley holding his pistol in his left hand, grinning triumphantly.

The outlaws moved carefully towards the Treehouse Bank, their pistols trained on the railings. “Come on out, Jenny,” said Kate as they approached. “We’ll make it quick.”

No response came from behind the wooden railings. Kate moved to the base of the ladder.

“Cover me -- you can’t climb the ladder with your hand like that,” said Kate, looking pointedly at Mikey’s wet right hand. Mikey nodded, scanning his pistol back and forth along the railing.

Kate climbed up with her pistol pointed ahead. The platform of the Treehouse Bank was empty, aside from the treasure: an old stuffed bear by the name of Mister Snuggles sat unguarded by a toppled red bucket. Kate grabbed it and moved back to the ladder. “Looks like she ran off,” said Kate, as she moved to hand Mister Snuggles down to Mikey.

A yellow water balloon soared through the air to glancingly burst against the top surface of the treehouse railing, spraying cold death across the platform floor of the Bank. Kate cried out and stumbled against the edge of the railing.

“I’m hit,” she croaked.

“How bad?” said Mikey, his voice high and squeaky.

“My legs,” said Kate, her teeth gritted. “Both of ‘em. Gone. You gotta go on without me.”

She let Mister Snuggles fall from her fingers. The precious treasure tumbled down the ladder to Mikey, who hugged it tightly to his chest with his pistol arm.

A second water balloon floated over the railing of the Bank for a direct hit, spraying water across every surface. Kate exhaled sharply as the frigid water drenched her. Her eyes closed softly.

From behind a bush, a streak of pink dashed across the square. Mikey squeezed off a few shots as Jenny sprinted by, but he couldn’t aim and hold the treasure at the same time with only one arm. Jenny reached Devin’s body and pulled her neon green pistol from his elastic waistband, dropping to one knee and firing back behind her. Mikey dove behind the cover of the tree, still clutching Mister Snuggles as water ricocheted off the bark of the tree near where he’d been standing a moment prior.

“You’re going to jail, Outlaw Mikey,” called out Jenny from across the square. “There’s no escape!”

“You’ll never take me alive, Deputy Jenny!”

“I reckon that’s Sheriff Jenny now,” said Jenny, sliding coolly into an old-timey drawl. “And if you’re fixin’ to die today --- well, let’s get on with it.”

Mikey looked down at the precious treasure gripped in his good arm. Mister Snuggles looked back with dark plastic eyes. He peeked around the side of the tree. It didn’t look too far to Garbage Can Valley. If he could just make it, he’d be home free. He’d be a hero. He dropped his gun -- it would only slow him down.

Mikey took three quick shallow breaths to psyche himself up. He charged out from behind the tree with a rebel yell, Mister Snuggles clutched tight against his chest.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


In.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021




A Brief History of Humankind
998 words

Earth woke up to find herself covered in humans. “Ugh, not again,” she said.

Shaking the cobwebs from her planetary consciousness, she checked in with her old friend Moon. “Hey Moon, what’re the haps?”

“Oh my god, Earth, you’re awake! You were out for a while -- that asteroid really did a number on you, huh?”

“Jeez, guess so. Where are the dinosaurs? And what’s the deal with all these weird naked monkeys, huh?”

“Dinosaurs mostly got wiped out by that same asteroid,” said Moon. “These human things, girl, I dunno what’s going on with those but they’re super weird and they’re, like, all of a sudden: All. Over. You. Like everywhere. They look at me funny, and they kinda creep me out.”

“Aw, I think they’re sorta cute.”

“Are you for real? For a while after the asteroid, a lot of those little hairy mammal things got a lot bigger and grew these wild tusks and stuff, but suddenly these humans show up and -- get this -- they straight up murder every single one of them.”

“Eh, easy come easy go, I guess.”

“Earth, you’re my best friend, and I love you, and I know you’re like, really into this Life stuff even though it makes everyone else kind of uncomfortable, but come on -- even you have to admit. They’re multiplying like cuh-razy. Look at all that metal they’re throwing around in the air! Who does that?”

“That does seem a little odd, I’ll grant.”

A few nuclear explosions popped up on Earth’s exterior.

“Well that’s new,” said Earth.

“Um, what was that?” said Moon. “I’m getting a little worried about this, lady. You want me to call around and see if I can’t hook you up with a nice handsome asteroid?”

“You’re overreacting, Moon. I can’t deal with another asteroid right now, I feel like I’m only just getting over that last one. It’s too soon. This’ll sort itself out soon enough, just watch.”

A rocket lifted away from Earth’s surface and dawdled its way towards Moon, missing by a narrow margin. “Oh my god. Are they throwing poo poo at me?”

“Relax, it was probably an accident.”

The next rocket collided directly with Moon. “Ow,” said Moon.

“OK, I’m actually a little impressed,” said Earth.

More rockets flew at Moon, and soon one of the rockets deposited a few humans on Moon’s surface. “Omigod omigod they’re touching me they’re on my face Earth do something Earth---”

“Oh stop it, it’s not that bad. Look how cute they are in their little suits. The little rascals, what’re they playing at?”

The humans packed up and went back to Earth. “That’s right, come home to Mama. Intrepid little cutie pies, what a fun little adventure you had!”

“Earth, I feel like I need to set some boundaries on our relationship here.” Moon’s voice was trembly and cold. “I feel like what just happened was a severe violation of my trust, and our friendship, and I really need your assurance that you’re going to take steps to make sure this never happens agai --- oh god they’re back, there’s more of them, this is not okay this is not normal---”

“HEY! WHO’S THROWING poo poo?” yelled Mars.

“Well, it’s not me,” said Venus.

“It’s Earth,” said Moon. “She’s covered in these horrible little monkeys that just want climb all over everything, and she won’t get rid of them.”

“You’re being such a crybaby,” said Earth. “Why can’t you just let me have this? It’s not like I tell you what to do with your craters, even though they make you look, like, really old.”

“My craters are fine,” said Moon. “And I don’t understand how you can’t see that your Life choices are now affecting others, and so that makes it, by default, all of our business now.”

“Yeah, I realize I’m late to this conversation, but I agree with Moon on this one,” said Venus.

“LOOK I REALLY DON’T GIVE A poo poo EITHER WAY, BUT IF YOU COULD STOP SENDING ALL THESE ROBOTS, I DON’T HAVE ANY PLACE TO PUT THIS CRAP,” said Mars.

“Oh god, that’s how it starts,” said Moon. “And then… then the humans themselves show up, and they… they start walking on you, with their horrible little feet, and scooping up bits of you, and sometimes they even have a little car that they drive around in… it’s just awful…”

“OH, HARD NO,” said Mars. “I’M CALLING MY OORT CLOUD BUDDIES, WE’RE GONNA SORT THIS OUT RIGHT NOW.”

“Pfff, let the humans try,” said Venus. “Any human wants to try and walk around on my surface, I will destroy them like I did all of their silly little robots.”

“Guys, I really think you’re getting way too worked up about this,” said Earth. “Just look at the adorable little morons -- they can’t even maintain the habitat they’ve got on me without screwing it up and fighting each other. Loosen up, I’m telling you -- this will sort itself out.”

“YES HELLO OORT CLOUD THIS IS MARS,” said Mars. “I NEED THE BIGGEST COMET YOU HAVE AVAILABLE, STAT.”

“No! Mars, you can’t do this! This is my Life you’re talking about here!” said Earth. “It’s not fair, I want to see what dumb stuff they do ne---”

Earth’s surface blossomed with glowing nuclear explosions. A fiery storm washed across her mountains and valleys and boiled her oceans. As radioactive particles descended in her atmosphere, Earth took stock of her situation, and saw that her Life was gone.

“Oh no,” said Earth. “Those little idiots. They destroyed everything…”

“Even the cockroaches? Oh honey, that sucks, I know you liked those…” said Venus.

“OORT CLOUD THIS IS MARS, CANCEL PREVIOUS ORDER,” said Mars.

“Nah,” said Earth, glumly. “Send it anyway. Maybe it’ll have some fun organic molecules.”

“I really don’t feel like you’re treating this whole ordeal like a potentially valuable learning experience,” said Moon.

“Probably not,” said Earth. “I’m going back to bed, losers. Wake me up in four billion years.”

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


In.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


The Secret World
788 words

Aran’s people lived on a sunburnt plain at the edge of a dark forest. The women of the tribe foraged in the shadows among the trees, while the men prowled the grassy plain with fire-sharpened spears, surrounded by clouds of dragonflies. When the sun sank beneath the horizon and darkness fell, and the songs of animals that could never be found in the daylight filled the air, Aran’s people would sleep deeply until the morning.

Sometimes, Aran would wake up in the middle of the night, and the sky would be full of stars, and the air would hum strangely. Sometimes, there would not be a single cloud in the sky, and the stars would streak across the sky in bright white flashes, burning bright then disappearing. Sometimes she wanted to wake her mother, to say, look, look at what I see, but she never did, for fear that the spell might be broken.

The tribe would wake together as one with the sun. When Aran would tell stories of what she had seen in the night, her mother would only stare. There is nothing to see in the night, she would say, as she led Aran with the other women into the forest to look for berries. Our place is in the sun, her mother would say, and there was nothing more to say after that.

One night, Aran woke under a blazing moon, and swirls of blue fireflies danced overhead. Aran found them beautiful, following them with her eyes as she lay on the ground, and soon realized that, without knowing or choosing, she had stood up from her mother’s side and was following the cloud of fireflies into the forest. Her ears swelled with song of tiny wings. She followed the fireflies deep through the forest, under dark foliage, between rocks and over streams, and found herself some time later in a clearing filled with spiderwebs. Millions of fireflies hung trapped in the webs, twinkling in their struggle like reflections of the stars in the sky.

A spider sat in the center of her web in front of Aran’s face, her head hanging low. Her eyes glowed with blue moonlight, and white spines grew from her bulbous belly. Many glowing flies struggled and twisted against the threads of her web, their mouthparts kicking weakly as the lights in their belly pulsed.

The spider spoke with no voice. Curious little thing, she said. Do you find my web pretty?

Yes, said Aran, for it was indeed a beautiful web. Tiny droplets glistened along each impossibly thin and ghostly fiber, each contorting firefly a tiny trapped star, bellies gasping with light. Aran found herself reaching out to touch one of them, but stopped herself halfway.

The spider waited patiently. You’ve come a long way, she said to Aran, but it’s not too late to go home.

Aran reached out and touched the firefly, and the moon grew bright like a blue sun, so bright that Aran had to shut her eyes. She saw herself as an old woman, clothed in fabric she had woven. She lay on a stone, surrounded by her children and their children. She saw that she was dead, and that her people mourned her. She saw herself in a child, a boy this time, who grew to be a chief, and led his people north. She saw herself in shamans, daubing paint on walls, scratching charcoal on wood, and carving statues from stone. She saw great edifices rising from the earth in exaltation of strange gods, many different kinds, spires twisting upwards and flailing like flies caught in a web. She saw herself endlessly replicated, awake in the night under a murky sky, darkness kept at bay by struggling lights. She saw huge monoliths like termite mounds, full of her descendants, transfixed in flickering blue glow.

The vision faded as quickly as it had come, and Aran found herself back in the forest. The moon was again small and white. The belly of the firefly she had touched was now dull and grey, its glow faded from the world.

The spider looked at Aran with white eyes like stars. You have seen many things, said the spider. Time now to rest.

Aran found her way back through the forest in the moonlight, and found that she knew the way easily, as though she had lived in the forest for a long time. She left the forest and crossed the plain to where her people slept like stones under the stars. She found her way to her mother’s side, and curled up beside her.

She dreamed the first dream that night, and upon waking carried it with her into the sun.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


Wizards rule, sinners drool, in.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


:toxx: for wizardry

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


Sitting Here posted:

You can siphon off power from praise and worship of any kind, however the gods you're cheating may not always look kindly on it.

The Satanists
1266 words

The sun, bloated and dripping red, lowers itself onto a horizon of rusting smokestack spikes and the sawblade edge of abandoned factory roofs. The road is a rotten lacework of bitumen draped over the pitted earth. We’re taking it slow with the van — it’s already broken down on us twice during this tour, and it’s gotta live at least a few more weeks before we get home again.

We’re playing a bar on the outskirts of town, in the middle of an old industrial zone: a weathered clapboard shack near an overpass, at one point painted black. The windows glow dully orange through filthy glass. A piece of butcher’s paper is stapled to the door, on which someone has scrawled the words “Tonight: Abysscerated” with a black brush.

Sal brings the van up to the curb and kills the engine, but doesn’t take her hands off the wheel. “Tell me this is rock bottom.”

I unbuckle my seatbelt. “Nah, it gets way worse than this.”

Jez and Meph pile out of the back of the van and pull the cargo doors open. Say one thing for Abysscerated, we know how to pack a van: the view from outside is like one of those Peruvian stone walls were everything just fits together, except instead of rocks it’s amps, cabs, drums, and piles of road-beaten guitars.

The door to the bar opens and this guy who looks like a three-hundred pound version of Anton LaVey comes sauntering out. “You’re late, you fuckers,” he says.

-666-

Five weeks into tour, no-one’s particularly jazzed about loading in. Especially not here. The bar smells like old spilt beer and vomit that no-one ever bothered to clean up, and there’s not so much a stage as a bare corner of the bar where the floor slants down at thirty degrees, with a single scorch-marked electrical outlet half dangling from the wall. There are four people in the whole place, including the bartender -- a couple old dudes who clearly aren’t here for the show, and one vagrant-looking type who looks like he’s been posted up here a while.

We trudge back and forth between stage and van, hauling heavy gear. We all plug in to the one socket, and mercifully it seems to be holding, for now: the big power tubes inside our amp heads sputter to glowing life and buzz menacingly.

Once everything’s in place, we sit down at a little table at the back end of the bar with a pitcher of beer that tastes like warm piss. I’m seriously thinking about calling it right then, getting back in the van and getting the hell out of this shithole, when there’s a roar of engines outside the bar. In twos and threes, and then fives and tens, the bar starts to fill with serious metalheads. Long greasy hair cascades down over the shoulders of black denim vests adorned with shredded Inquisition and Anaal Nathrakh patches. Sigils of Baphomet and ornate inverted crosses are tattooed over every expanse of exposed skin. Boots, belts, and bracers: all black leather, all hammered through with long rusting nails.

Jez puts her beer down. “Well, poo poo,” she says. “This was unexpected.”

There must be easily a hundred and fifty metalheads crammed into this place and, if the mere idea of a building code inspector were anything but a cruel joke in this town, I’d wager the theoretical posted maximum occupancy would top out somewhere around forty.

-666-

We take the stage. The crowd looks at us dispassionately. “We are Abysscerated,” I say into the mic in a low guttural growl. “This song is called: Hierophant of the Pit.”

It’s been a long, weird day, and the first song in our set does not come out of the gates strongly. Jez drops a stick before we’re even out of the intro and spends a good few bars fumbling for it as it tries to roll away on the slanted floor. Something’s up with Meph’s bass tone, maybe the tubes aren’t hot, maybe one of the cones in the cab is about to go, who knows. Sal and I take forever to lock in right with our guitars, and my vocals are just plain poo poo. Hierophant of the Pit is a bone simple repeating riff pattern, but even so: we barely limp over the line to finish the song. It’s a mess, and the crowd is starting to sour on us already.

I feel like I have to bring us back from the brink, so I decide to launch into my Satanic Rit spiel early -- normally I do this as a bit of a third-act wake-up call, but: desperate times, et cetera. “Congregants of the Temple of Lucifer,” I snarl into the microphone. “Tonight we ask that you join us in ritual. Let our metal rise as paean to our Dark Lord. Raise your horns in salutation: Hail. loving. Satan.”

I raise horned fists above my head and the crowd responds entirely in kind: they are eating this poo poo up. The energy they project is palpable, dark and hot. The entire room takes on a swirling aura of black flame, and I swear I can almost touch it. I reach for the aura, this Satanic devotion projected outwards, and I want it for myself. I feel like I can take it.

“This next song is called: Sunday Morning Mass Cremation.”

This time, we get up on the horse like we’re riders of the apocalypse. I feel myself absorbing the blackened power of the ritual and channeling it to my bandmates. Jez’s drums pound and clatter behind me like a smoking engine of war. Meph’s bass boils and churns like a storm-wracked ocean of black blood. Sal’s guitar screams like a lamb with a slit throat, and my own guitar barks in my hands like a feral dog. I approach the mic and pull my lips back over my teeth, and the roar that explodes from within me curls flakes of paint away from the walls. The crowd transitions instantaneously from a stoic assembly to a flailing conflagration of tattooed limbs and whipping hair.

Dark power courses through our fingers and travels through our cords to be amplified. We play like werewolves on a full moon.

-666-

Hours later, the floor is covered in blood and broken glass. Bodies lie strewn across the floor, unmoving. The vagrant at the bar hasn’t moved since we arrived, but now comes over to our table and sits down. While there’s nothing particularly untoward-looking about the guy, there’s something about him that makes my blood run cold.

“You guys are pretty good,” he says, “but you have something that belongs to me, and I can’t let you leave with it.”

He holds his hand outstretched. I feel something tear at my insides like velcro as the black aura is ripped from my body, spilling from my mouth in a mist and coagulating in the palm of the man’s hand. Black fog tendrils spill from the mouths of my bandmates, and their bodies twist in pain, their eyes rolled back in their heads. My mouth tastes like blood. The man closes his fist and draws it back to himself, and my vision goes cloudy.

-666-

The next thing we know, the sun’s overhead and we’re all sitting in the van on the outskirts of town, our gear expertly packed into the back of the van despite no-one being able to recall having done it. None of us says a word. We head back to the highway, and then back from where we came.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


In, and requesting a room.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


The Potato Thief
1400w

I am crouched within the hedge, still as I can manage, waiting for my time. My heart is thrashing against my rib cage, my breaths are short and shallow, my palms are hot. Across the lawn, the manor looms darkly, its windows exploding with the scintillating light of a grand party underway.

A young man stands in the lawn, framed in the spillway of twinkling golden light from the window behind him. He holds a pen and open notebook in his hands, and sways to the tick of a broken clock on unstable feet. He looks to the full moon for inspiration, the tip of his pen looping slow figure eights above the page like a drunken cobra. A slow minute passes, apparently devoid of inspiration, after which the man drops his pen and paper, followed by his trousers. He urinates haphazardly and without direction, falls down, and begins to snore loudly.

I make my move and sprint across the lawn on light toes, keeping to the shadows between the shafts of light pouring from the manor. The old stone of the manor is cool against my skin, and the crumbling mortar offers up an abundance of handholds for my small fingers. I climb towards a darkened window on an upper floor, propped ajar in the summer night.

I slip over the sill like water poured from one glass into another, easing myself down onto the smooth hardwood floor below. For a moment I hold my breath, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness of the room. Through the closed door of the room, I hear the muffled sounds of wildly disparate styles of music coming from throughout the manor, coalescing uneasily into a dissonant miasma punctuated by the clatter of drunken conversation and laughter.

The room is dominated by a large leather-upholstered chair in its center and ringed with shelves. Glass panels protect piles upon piles of yellowing and simply bound manuscripts. In front of the chair, a sealed glass box containing an old but well preserved potato sits on top of a small mahogany table --- just as the dossier had described. I open my satchel, but have no sooner laid hands on the box when the door to the study flies open. In the frame of the door, silhouetted by the bright light from the hallway outside, a huge servant with a silver dragon pin on his lapel fixes me in place with a dark stare.

###

My hands are bound behind the back of the wooden chair. The lord of the manor stands above me, holding the glass case with its potato inside. “My staff informs me that you were found attempting to steal a priceless heirloom of the Domerci family. They have recommended that I simply turn you over to the appropriate authorities, but given the special occasion of the evening I have decided to avoid an unpleasant scene and instead present you with a choice.”

He gestures grandly towards what appears to be some kind of sarcophagus rendered in black marble.

“Within this isolation chamber, I have spent many hours contemplating the nature of reality and the trustworthiness of my senses. I have learned a great deal in the process and, to avoid belabouring the point, I believe that one such as yourself might similarly learn much from the experience. The first choice that I offer you, then, is this: you may leave Domerci Manor now, a free girl. My security staff will escort you from the premises, but you shall not be harmed. It is expected that you shall never return to these grounds, and my staff will be instructed to deal with you harshly should you defy this expectation.

“Your other option is to spend one hour within this isolation tank. Upon emerging from your isolation, should you still desire it, you will be free to leave the premises along with the heirloom. I shall give it to you freely, a gift to do with as you will.”

###

I slide my naked body into the warm salty water within the tank. My body floats easily on the surface.

“One hour,” says Lord Domerci, and then he slides the lid closed over me.

I have never experienced darkness like this before. The thick stone walls permit no outside sounds to reach my submerged ears. I am weightless, detached. I open and close my eyelids, and my eyes perceive no difference. I breathe in and out, and my body rises and falls within an endless expanse.

I count my breaths to measure the passage of time. I have no idea how long an hour will feel in these conditions. Sometime after a hundred breaths, I find I’ve lost count. Something has changed. I close my eyes and open them, then close them. I see something behind my eyelids, something that is not there when I open them. A faint pink swirl, twisting in the dark behind my eyes. I hear a tiny rattle in my ears, like a clatter of wood beads that does not seem to come from any direction in particular.

I breathe in through my nostrils, filling my lungs. The pink swirl flares brightly, as though my breath were a bellows to its flame. The swirl grows larger and brighter, completely enveloping me within its mists. I smell an earthy smell, like a freshly tilled field. The tiny rattle grows into a thick buzzing in my ears. I feel a tingling sensation throughout my body, as though the particles comprising my body have all simultaneously discovered their independence and decided to start stretching away from one another.

A white featureless moon rises over a pink ocean. Far below me, a tiny boat drifts without land in sight. The boat is growing larger, or I am falling; it is impossible to tell which. The buzzing grows to a roar in my ears. The boat is approaching me quickly, and I see that there is a hooded figure seated in it at one end. As the boat rushes to meet me I clench my eyes shut, having forgotten that they were already closed.

I am sitting in the boat. The buzzing is gone, and I hear a man’s sobbing coming from the hooded figure. He grips the gunwales with bony fingers, looking over the edge into the depths for something lost. The boat is otherwise empty. The ocean stretches infinitely in all directions.

If the man sees me, he does not acknowledge me. I am no longer sitting in the boat but am sinking through it, the particles of my body slipping past the particles of the boat as though unrelated by common physical law. I drift beneath the waves.

Beneath the sea is an entirely new world. Huge metal ships glowing with myriad lights twist though the depths, dwarfing the whales that play in their wake. Mountains rise from the sea floor, and atop their dizzying heights wizards battle one another with lightning and fire. Battles are won and lost, love sparks to life and dies ancient on the vine, giant robots punch even larger monsters.

I continue to descend, and come to a rest at the bottom of the ocean. Before me lies the potato, glowing brightly and half-buried in the benthic silt. I reach down and I pick it up. A school of twelve sparkling mermen, each bearing the aspect of a glittering animal, swim circles around me. Holding the potato in my hands, I see the ghostly walls of a manor spread away from me.

###

And in an instant it is gone. The cover of the sarcophagus slides to the side, and I am once again back in the manor. A servant with a silver horse pin helps me out of the water and covers me with a robe.

The door is guarded by the servant with the dragon pin. Beside him on a bench sit two small piles. In the first, my clothes lie neatly folded with a beautifully wrapped gift box on top. I pull the lid of the box away. Inside lies the potato, as plain as before.

In the second pile, there is a new set of clothes: the uniform of a Domerci Manor servant. A silver pin lies on top of the pile, its head formed into the shape of a rat. I hold the pin in my fingers, and it feels warm to the touch.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


In. I'll take Hammerhead Hammersley.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


The Hard Edge
1223 words

Hammersley’s feet pound against the loose gravel alongside the paved mixed-use path around the lake. His head, a square block of bone solidly mounted on a short wide neck, glows red. Sheets of warm sweat that roll down his body like a water feature in a corporate lobby, soaking the polyester fibres of his sleeveless running top. His quick drying nylon shorts cling to his upper thigh, crawling and bunching their way up behind his genitals, which are tightly bound in position by a technical jockstrap. His earbuds play his running playlist, which features only songs with four-four time signatures, tempos between 110 and 120 beats per minute. His shoes feel just slightly too tight, but this is his last lap around the lake and his heart rate monitor shows that he is in the peak cardiovascular exercise zone, and the mild discomfort in his feet is not worth risking leaving the zone. The steely grey sky is just beginning to turn blue with the glow of sunrise peeking over the horizon, and Hammersley no longer needs the light from the headlamp on his forehead to see the path in front of him.

Hammersley passes the bench where they’d found that dead homeless guy before the end of “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash, which means that this morning’s run will be one of his best times this month. The final song on his playlist is Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”. This is his favorite song to run to, cliches be damned, and every time it comes on he feels a surge of energy in his legs and a lightness in his bones. The cold air crackles like cellophane in his lungs, and his spit is dry and sandy clinging to the roof of his mouth. His fluorescent feet keep time with the music, a gravelly plodding snare drum deep. He imagines himself at the Open Ironman in September, approaching the finish line, a huge crowd cheering Hammerhead! Hammerhead! as he flies past them all. He is miles in front of his closest competitor. The crowd adores him.

He rounds the last copse of trees, and can see the finish line ahead of him: his car, parked alongside a scattered few others, in the parking lot by the kiosk that won’t open for business for another four hours. A goose honks from the other side of the lake and receives no reply. He closes his eyes, hearing the roar of the crowd in his mind, his lips stretching back into a broad toothy grin as he soaks up their praise. His stride lengthens, his legs burn, there’s no point in leaving any gas in the tank. He crosses the finish line, his arms held out to his sides, palms facing upwards, briefly taking a moment to accept his triumph before stopping the clock on his heart monitor and noting his time. A few seconds shy of his personal best, which isn’t bad considering that the temperature this morning was a few degrees colder than optimal.

An old man sits on the bench by the parking lot. His cheeks are freshly shaven, and he wears a rough grey wool hat with a small brim that looks very much like the one Hammersley’s father had worn. This man has a light blue scarf wrapped around his neck and tucked cleanly back on itself; Hammersley’s father had preferred neutral earthy tones. Hammersley catches his breath, gulping the warming morning air into grateful lungs.

“Good run?” asks the man. He wears leather gloves on his hands and holds a magazine in his lap, folded over once. His face is friendly, with a well worn smile and a right eye that blinks twice as often as the left. Hammersley is wary of being drawn into conversation. The numbers on his heart rate monitor are slowly descending, and his wet shirt has begun to feel clammy against his skin. His training regimen calls for twenty minutes of light stretching in a warm environment and a high protein recovery beverage for optimal performance. He had started what his now ex-wife had called his “triathlon phase” shortly after they’d made the decision to move his father into Tranquil Oaks. The two events had been linked in his father’s mind, and as such he had refused to attend any of Hammersley’s races out of spite.

“Personal best, actually,” lies Hammersley, without even thinking about it. He’s not sure why. He’s still imagining crowds of cheering onlookers at the finish line, and perhaps he just wants to see something like admiration on a stranger’s face. If the old man is impressed, he is subtle about it: he nods and pulls his lower lip up, but offers no further congratulations, as if he has carefully assessed the notability of this event and metered out a precise and appropriate modicum of acknowledgment. Hammersley’s father was the same way towards the end. Maybe this is just what happens to old men.

Hammersley fishes in his zippered pocket for his car keys, but the old man reaches out for him with a shaky gloved hand. “Stick around a minute, sun’s about to come up.”

An image floats in Hammersley’s mind. A small room, beige wallpaper with thin sage green stripes running vertically, low summer sun filtering through gauzy blinds, an old TV perched up in the corner near the ceiling like an owl, the volume off but showing a panel of people talking and making their points with elaborate and forceful hand gestures in washed-out, fuzzy detail. Food in trays, colorful polygons of mush separated by hard boundaries. Every moment he spent in that room, Hammersley had ached to be elsewhere. There were too many questions for which he had no answers, too many requests he could not, would not fulfil. Forms to sign, whispered conversations with nurses, parking tickets to stamp, endless circles with no finish line in sight, around and around, weekend in and weekend out. And when the finish line finally did come, it snuck up quickly and without any fanfare. It was just over.

“I can’t,” says Hammersley, glancing at the plummeting numbers on his heart rate monitor. “I have to --”

“Suit yourself,” says the old man, waving Hammersley away.

Hammersley takes a few steps towards his car and stops. He turns around, walks back to the bench, and sits down next to the old man. The old man continues looking out over the lake as though Hammersley were not there, and Hammersley is grateful for the silence. He watches as the sky turns pink and orange over the roofs of the houses on the hill, rays of sunlight refracted through a thousand windows like slow motion camera flashes, the horizon a hard edge against the glow until the sun begins to rise above it, washing the surface of the lake with a thin layer of gold.

“Something you don’t see every day,” says the old man, addressing no-one in particular. He leans forward to stand up on wobbling legs, tucks his magazine under his armpit, and begins to walk along the path around the lake. A squadron of geese raise a cacophonous honking as they paddle out into the middle of the water, long rippling wakes dragging dark streaks through the reflected sky like a knife through paint.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


:siren:THUNDERDOME CCLXVI:siren:

J. Walter Weatherman and Friends



This week is all about stories with morals. I want to see characters learning valuable (and elaborate) life lessons. To keep things fresh, everybody's story will have a different moral. When you sign up, you get the moral from the post prior to your own signup. In your signup post, you must provide a moral for the next story -- see this helpful list of English proverbs that QuoProQuid found if you're having trouble thinking of fun morals.

First entrant gets: "Always leave a note."

Word Count: 1200, max. If you're feeling spicy, feel free to take on the One Armed Man Challenge: your word count is reduced to 600, and a main character must lose a limb. You will receive no special benefits for engaging with this challenge aside from bragging rights, which should be more than enough motivation.

Sign up deadline: 2359 EST, Friday September 8th
Submission deadline: 2359 EST, Sunday September 10th


My Name is Judge
Benny Profane

Learning Valuable Life Lessons
jon joe -- "Always Leave A Note"
Captain_Indigo -- "Don't say anything you wouldn't want repeated."
Fuubi -- "Make Hay While The Sun Shines" One-Armed Man
Exmond -- "Always look on the bright side of life."
steeltoedsneakers -- "Every story has two sides" One-Armed Man
sebmojo -- "Don't poo poo where you eat."
ThirdEmperor -- "All cats are grey in the dark."
magnificent7 -- "Never mock a wizard's beard."
Jay W. Friks -- "Fine clothes may disguise, but silly words will disclose a fool."
Thranguy -- "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
QuoProQuid -- "Let sleeping dogs lie."
Hawklad -- "Old sins cast long shadows."
5D AUTISM SPEX -- "Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while."
Wizgot -- "A good conscience is a soft pillow."
Taciturn Tactician -- "Old habits die hard."
Tyrannosaurus -- "The cowl does not make the monk." One-Armed Man

Barnaby Profane fucked around with this message at 03:10 on Sep 9, 2017

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


Signups are closed! If you snost and lost, there is a moral to this story.

Barnaby Profane fucked around with this message at 04:12 on Sep 9, 2017

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


Submissions are closed.

WELL JEEZ HERE WAS ME, THINKING "BOY OH BOY, I SURE AM GLAD THAT ON A DARK AND STORMY DAY I'LL HAVE SIXTEEN WONDERFUL STORIES TO READ" BUT I GUESS NINE IS THE NEW SIXTEEN

there is probably a moral to this story.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


:siren: TD266 RESULTS:siren:

For a week about stories featuring morals — and that’s “morals” defined in the loosest possible terms so as to include a wide variety of proverbs and aphorisms — only a few stories this week seemed to even attempt to work their moraphoverbs into their stories, let alone land them in a satisfactory fashion.

Our winner this week is Hawklad, who delivered on his prompt elegantly and built a story full of tensions using careful cinematic cuts. Congratulations, Hawklad!

Honorable mentions go to QuoProQuid and Tyrannosaurus, with their respective tales of snitches and witches.

Our sole dishonorable mention goes to Exmond, whose Butcher-esque world of hardboiled enforcement types and magic-flingin’ wizards sacrificed too much in the way of character and voice in favor of cramming in world-building details.

And finally, our loser this week, jon joe, didn’t give us much of a story, but nevertheless earned my respect for taking some big risks with threaded narratives and voicing. The results didn’t come together in a satisfying way for me this time around, but that’s what makes risk-taking interesting. While even a blind pig finds an acorn every now and again, most of the time they’re finding poop. Hope you find some acorns next time!

Take it away, Hawklad!

:siren:CRITS:siren:

Captain_Indigo — FuckArabella
Well, you get surely points for ambition. It’s always going to be hard to cram a mythology that exists on the scale of universes into something as short as flash fiction, and by choosing to focus heavily on the character interactions between the gods you’re effectively asking your readers to fill in huge chunks of the setting with imagination. For me, all the questions I had about what was going on and what all of this actually looked like meant that I got easily distracted from the storyline on my first read, and given that the details were so sparse in the text, I would expect that how this looked in your head is probably very different from my own imagination. I would have appreciated a little more time spent on the set dressing, and could have done with a simpler tale focusing just on Jehana and Arabella — I feel like this story could have been tighter if the concept of the 999 had been left out, along with Media/Medea (side note, check typos in names) and Ixion. I don’t feel like Arabella’s motivations for ending her own existence came through strongly, and that’s unfortunate given that it’s the emotional punchline of the story. I also don’t quite understand how the cyclical/repeating nature of the universe works after Arabella ends herself — does she come back? And if so, how? I also felt like the reveal that the universes birthed from words contains universes of their own didn’t seem to be as mind-blowing to the characters as I would have expected; I would have assumed that the point where they realized that there were universes layered below, and therefore presumably above them as well, would be a pretty significant blow to the sense of agency for an entity that considers itself a god. Finally, the word itself, FuckArabella, didn’t work for me at all — the petulant adolescence of it primed me from the beginning to have very little sympathy for Jehana, and I think a little more nuance and subtlety might have served you well here. All that said, it’s a competently told story and the few morsels of imagery that did make it in were quite nicely executed.

Exmond — Monster killers and child stealers
There are a few big issues that hurt this story, but the important thing is that these are all common pitfalls for writers without a ton of experience, and they’re all addressable with practice. First and foremost, there are big issues with style, punctuation, and grammar throughout — pick up a copy of Strunk and White and work through it. All of the rules are easy enough to internalize and follow, and there’s no reason to handicap yourself unnecessarily by raising red flags to your readers. It’s also good to get into the habit of reading your story aloud so that you can hear how your own voice comes across. If it’s hard to find errors this way, try reading the sentences of your story aloud in reverse order. Hearing the sentences out of context has a way of revealing their issues. I also think you’re focusing a little too much on emulating a “writerly” voice at the moment, and a lot of those flourishes come across as out of tune. I would recommend focusing for now on telling stories in as close to your own natural voice as you can, trying to get your words on the page to sound like how you yourself talk when read aloud — then from there, once you feel confident with that exercise, you can start to add in some more of the flavorful twists. Next issue: you’re trying to cram a lot of details in as you’re building out your world, but while that can be fun in a cinematic frame it’s often just exhausting in prose. You fill your world with wizards and goblins without fleshing any of these elements out, assuming that these are common enough touchstones that your reader will follow along, but that’s the thing: because they’re common, and you’re not making them stand out in any way, it just comes across like a big pile of clichés. Finally, especially in written fiction, a little bit of action goes a long way — you’ve got these big hyperkinetic action scenes woven throughout, but there’s too little effort put into the description of the imagery and individual moments making up the scene to keep it from blending into a sugary mess. Let your action scenes breathe, find the moments where you want to create tension and space, and fill those spaces with the images you see in your head. If that means you need to simplify your sequences to make that space, that’s almost always the right decision to make. Remember that when you’re writing fiction with a cinematic kind of bent, you’re not just the screenwriter — you have to be the director, cinematographer, set builder, costumer, and actors as well.

Taciturn Tactician — Fighting Words
I think you know this by now but, as stated in the OP, it is a very big no-no to edit your post after submission. This will always get you a DQ in the Thunderdome, and some judges will elect not to even read your work if you do this. Because I’m such a swell person, though, I did read your story, and had it not DQ’d this would have still ended up in the middle for me — it squanders a few opportunities to be a much more interesting story than it ended up being. To begin with my biggest issue, this is a very one-sided portrayal of characters; I found I was most interested in the question of why Mary hasn’t left Amber, given that Mary seems to have her poo poo more or less together and Amber comes across as a violent trainwreck. You tell us that Mary and Amber fell in love against all odds, without ever giving us a glimpse of what it was about their relationship that got them there. The choice to tell this story from Amber’s perspective makes this harder, too — while Amber’s internal monologue is a straightforward way to deliver exposition, it makes Mary one-dimensional. You can work with this by drawing out the imagery of the scenes, as seen through Amber’s eyes, and work in the details that flesh out Mary’s character that way, but there’s very little attention to imagery in this story. The two settings are “Generic Bar” and “Generic House”, and that’s a waste — the setting of your story is what gets your characters to resonate. Finally, I’m always a little wary of portrayals of gay characters that fall neatly into heteronormative roles, because it runs the risk of coming across as lazy gender-bending: don’t fall into the trap of assuming that you’re adding something new to an old story with off-the-shelf swaps of gender and sexual preference. If I replace Amber with Andrew, we’ve got a bog-standard story of a violent male protagonist just trying to get by in this crazy world and his angel wife that stands by him because... reasons. Unless you’re trying to make some kind of point about lesbian relationships falling into the same tropes as hetero relationships (which, side note, is very thin ice upon which to wander out), making this story about two ladies doesn’t earn you any points in the interest department.

5D AUTISM SPEX — Sema
My co-judge had this in their low pile, but I saved you from a DM here, just barely, because in between all of the extraneous sci-fi bullshit I can see what you’re going for here, and it’s not completely terrible. Hidden underneath all the piles of generic flavor text, you’ve got the bones of a fine little exploration of the conflict faced by a character obsessed with the accumulation of fame and validation, even as she understands that she risks losing her agency and sense of self in the process. That could be fleshed out into an interesting story, albeit not one that has anything to do with the well-known saying “Even a blind pig finds an acorn every once in a while”, nor the completely different saying of “Even if you’re a bind [sic] pig you should keep searching because you might find an acorn once in a while” that accompanied your post. However, I feel you’ve squandered this potential in your story by cramming it full of details that ultimately add very little to the emotional impact you’re striving for. For example, this world apparently features a secondary artificial moon built to stabilize tidal patterns back on Earth that gradually accrues mass as future sci-fi cam-girls lure hapless neckbeards off planet. If you want to tell a story about that, then commit and go for it. As it stands, it’s just kind of a throwaway wet fart that doesn’t know if it wants to be poignant reminder of the damage your protagonist inflicts on others in her addiction to validation, or a joke. For the record, I saved you from a DM because I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming that the emotional core of this story is really the story you want to be telling, but you just chickened out and barfed up a whole bunch of sci-fi poo poo to cover it all up. Don’t do that next time. Final note: “compiler” is not the word you want. Find a different word.

Thranguy — What Kind of Fool
This story started out strong, but I feel it could have used a little more time in the oven. The whole trope of “mentally unstable person has imaginary friend with surreal animal characteristics” is pretty well-trodden ground at this point, and I didn’t feel like this story added enough to the mix to distinguish itself. That said, I liked the voicing of your characters well enough, you hit your prompt well, and the rabbit’s foot twist was a serviceable enough reveal to add a little spice towards the end. This could well have done better if you’d bothered to put a little more meat on the bones.

jon joe — The Adventures of [Protagonist]
This one was a really tough one to follow. You’ve taken an adventurous risk with your approach to story-telling here, and at least for me it didn’t pay off here. I don’t mind unconventional storytelling techniques and cryptic interwoven plotlines, but you’re kind of demanding a lot of work here for a silly comic fantasy yarn. It takes hard work to land a piece like this, and this kind of thing really lives or dies on the strength of the voicing. Here I think you were probably having a little too much of a good time entertaining yourself with the voices you’ve made up for the various characters here, and didn’t spend enough time making sure to throw your reader a breadcrumb every now and again to keep them on the trail. Risky concepts like this are fun, and the reason they’re risky is that they don’t always work out well. Getting the loser’s stool for the week isn’t meant to be punitive, or meant to discourage you from taking risks like this in the future — on the contrary, I hope you continue trying risky stuff, and I hope it pays off for you soon.

Hawklad — Old Breed
I really enjoyed your command of the cuts in this story — I felt like you did an excellent job of building tension on two parallel fronts and using the back and forth cuts to let the imagery breathe. You also landed your prompt better, in my mind, than any other story this week, and for those reasons your win is well deserved. That said, I have some notes: for me, you could’ve easily taken about twenty to thirty percent off on the war scenes — they really started to toe the line of crossing over into gratuitous Hollywood style excess. I think that if you had dialed it down a little, and exchanged a few of the various explosions for a bit more focus on the Old Sin itself that continues to shadow the protagonist’s mind even into his twilight years, you might have landed the emotional punch even more effectively. There’s also not a lot of scenery on the war side of things, which means that all I’m picturing is Generic Hollywood War Scene rather than anything particularly special. And that’s a shame, because when you slow things down on the fishing side of things, your imagery pops really nicely — it would be great to see that same attention on the othe side of things. All that aside, a well crafted, enjoyable yarn.

QuoProQuid — People Vanish Every Day
This is competently told, and hits all of the Orwellian dystopian beats well, but it plays a little on the generic side of things for my tastes — I didn’t get the sense that you were adding much to the standard formula for these kinds of affairs. I enjoyed your characterizations, and I thought your voicing was quite good, and the play at the beginning with the word “invisible” created enough ambiguity with regard to whether or not you were being literal to craft an effective hook. That said, the kid doesn’t really seem to face a great deal of conflict here in deciding to throw his uncle under the bus — he obviously cares for his mother, and sees his uncle as a threat to their safety, and so there doesn’t really feel like there’s much of a decision that the kid has to make here. Honestly, I’m actually most interested in where the story goes from here: what happens when his mother finds out what he did? How does kid feel after effectively turning in his own uncle? Does he get the taste for snitching? Does he eventually get stitches? Inquiring minds wish to know. Final note: I’m not really sure this effectively delivers the moral of “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, as it seems to be promulgating the exact opposite approach.

Tyrannosaurus — heart of a dog
I really enjoyed all of the imagery and detailing around the character of the witcherman, and the little sprinkles of set dressing around his trailer were very effective for me. You accomplish a great deal with a paltry number of words, which is admirable, but ultimately I felt like this was a little overstuffed with characters. For me, I could’ve done perfectly well without the other two kids in the story, and would’ve preferred to see the relationship between the brave kid and the dead kid fleshed out a little more to telegraph the punchline. The success of this story leans heavily on the opener and closer, which are both rock solid, but (at least for me) I felt like there was a little more sag in the middle than I think you can afford with just 500 words. Finally, while this had a great mood and feel throughout, I didn’t really feel like it hit its prompt or tried to deliver a moral.

steeltoedsneakers — Last call
This story kind of feels like it’s just getting started by the time it ends, but I think there’s promise here. I laughed out loud at how you incorporated the limb-loss flash, so good job there — it was a fun way to round out a pile of reading. And I feel like I’d be interested in hearing more about this world filled with disappointing and malfunctioning cybermods, and would’ve liked to see more of this on Angus’s side of things. As a note from someone who’s tended more than a few bars — very few places announce last call by turning the music up.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


In.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


Index Case
1984 words

The sheriff’s truck bounced and shuddered its way up a muddy track through the woods leading to the Cagley dairy farm.

“How much you wanna bet they’re cooking meth up here?” asked the sheriff.

Jack pulled at the knot in his tie. “I’d really rather not know,” he said. “All I care about is whether they’ve cremated their cattle stock properly, and that’s about it.”

“I bet it ain’t easy to convince folks to burn all that meat, plaguefly or not,” said the sheriff. “Ninety percent of these old dairy farms are cooking meth to make ends meet. Causes trouble sometimes. Anything goes sour here, you just keep your head down and let me do the talking.”

The track emerged from the woods onto a field, in the middle of which the farmhouse squatted in shambles. The northern corner of the house slumped like a dislocated shoulder, and the clapboard siding dangled from rusted nails, peeling away like birch bark. Warped plywood stairs, unfinished pine ashen and streaked with black water damage, climbed like a drunk walking uphill towards a screen door whose scant remnants of mesh fabric hung like Spanish moss.

Huge crickets clung motionless to the walls of the house as the sheriff killed the engine of the truck, dark red spiny legs splayed for purchase on the rotting wood. Red-eyed cicadas like bloated houseflies trailed long gossamer wings behind their round bodies like wedding trains, and fat white grubs, some as thick as baby’s arm, chewed on exposed wood, oblivious to the truck’s arrival. Jack’s thumb rested paralysed against the button of his click pen, his clipboard far away in his lap.

Something huge was moving in the dark behind the screen door, lumbering towards the sunlight. The door flew outwards on screeching hinges, revealing a mountain of a man barely contained by stained and motheaten onesie. Tufts of dark matted hair sprouted from the holes in the fabric like mold on cheese. Greasy wild hair drifted upwards from a dirt-caked dome of a skull, and his pink eyes hid behind swollen dark lids above a thick beard that glistened with trails of thick fluid. He held a rusted and dented shovel in a thick paw caked with dark red.

“Is that,” asked Jack, consulting his clipboard, “Joseph Cagley?”

“Nah, that’s Joe’s kid, Zeb,” said the sheriff. “He’s looking ragged, too. Stay in the truck, try not to spook him.”

The sheriff opened his door and stepped out into the drive. “Alright, Zeb, let’s hold up right there,” said the sheriff. “Your pappy around?”

Zeb shambled clumsily down the stairs, holding the shovel outstretched with the blade pointed at the sheriff. A choked bellow spilled from between yellow snaggled teeth, twisting upwards into a high pitched squeal. He lurched forward.

The sheriff slowly reached to his side and unclasped the leather band on his holster that secured his revolver. “Zeb, I asked you nice one time. We’re just here for a talk, no need for foolishness.”

Zeb pushed forward. A cloud of black flies erupted beneath his advance and coalesced in a bolus around the man’s head, filling the hot thick air with a furious buzzing. The fingernails on the hand that held the shovel were long and broken like splintered wood.

The gun was in the sheriff’s hands, black and oily, pointed squarely at the huge man’s chest. “Put the shovel down and get on your knees with your hands behind your head,” yelled the sheriff. His easy drawl had been replaced with the clear and sharply enunciated syllables of crisis, and Jack felt his skin go cold. “Do it now!”

The giant gripped the shovel with both hands, making the tool look like a child’s toy relative to his rippling bulk, and stumbled into a gallop towards the sheriff. Jack shrank into his seat, his heart hammering in his chest. A series of explosions came from the gun in quick succession like a shuddering thunderclap. Jack had never heard what gunfire sounds like before; it was far louder in real life than they made it seem in movies. The huge man faltered in his stride, eyes wide, dark black-red stains soaking the thin cotton of his onesie, and collapsed into the mud of the drive. The cloud of flies descended on his bulk.

The sheriff stepped quickly to the man’s side, the barrel of his gun still pointed at the darkness behind the door. “Jack!” he called out, “Bring me that little box from underneath your seat.”

Jack’s hands moved on autopilot. The box was small, black and plastic, heavy for its size. He stepped out of the truck and into the humid afternoon heat. Sweat beaded underneath his hair, and his starched white shirt felt tight and clingy. He felt like he was wading through molasses to reach the sheriff’s side, mud sucking at the soles of his leather shoes. The sheriff snatched the box from his hands, reloading the revolver with golden ammunition from the little black box and letting empty shells fall smoking into the mud.

A seepage of blood spread from underneath Zeb’s body, mixing with the dark silty mud. On the man’s neck, just behind his left ear, Jack saw an angry purple boil, the size of a baseball, with a small pencil-wide hole in its center that bubbled with a yellow-brown ooze. There was another one like it on the back of his neck, and another on his shoulder. Jack crouched for a closer look. His hands worked without him thinking, stretching a pair of latex gloves over his fingers and pulling a shiny pair of tweezers from a pouch that never left his pockets. He probed at the edge of the boil with the tweezers. It was firm to the touch. The hole in the center of the boil dribbled viscous brown syrup.

“Ugh,” said the sheriff. “The gently caress is that?”

“Some kind of larva,” said Jack, probing into the bubbling hole. “Looks like a plaguefly larva, but they don’t go for humans--”

A scream came from deep within the house, a woman’s scream, high pitched and warbling and ragged. The sheriff locked eyes with Jack.

“I’m going inside to secure the house,” said the sheriff, his matter-of-fact tone making it clear that this was not a topic for discussion. Jack nodded dumbly, and then the sheriff was gone, disappearing past the screen door into the dark murk of the house, like a stone sinking in a pond.

Jack could feel the larval body moving under his tweezer points, fat segments squirming and burrowing away from the surface. He tried to spread the points of the tweezers inside the boil wide enough to grasp ahold of the larva’s body. A fresh burst of brown fluid spilled up out of the hole, and Jack pinched down hard. In response, Zeb’s body thrashed like a fish and flopped over, a nonsense babble spilling out of his mouth. Jack threw himself backwards, sharp rocks in the drive digging into his elbows through his shirt. Zeb’s eyes fixated on him and his arm flopped weakly, while Jack struggled to push himself away by kicking at the ground with his heels, kicking up sprays of mud and pebbles. The huge man’s hand slammed against the ground, as though trying to push himself up, but then his eyes drifted separately in their sockets and he slumped back into the dirt, blood leaking in thick spouts from the holes in his torso.

The screen door slapped open, and the sheriff staggered out onto the steps with a handkerchief pressed up to his nose and mouth. “Gonna need your professional insight on what’s going on in here,” said the sheriff.

Jack pressed himself up and approached the door, knees wobbling below his hunched over torso. He pulled his tie loose from around his neck and undid his top shirt buttons, his lungs filling with hot wet air. The stink emanating from the house swarmed up through his sinuses, septic and oily. Inside the farmhouse, the walls crackled with the loose dry scurry of thousands of tiny legs and the scrape of sharp spines across dry carapace. Thick white grubs crawled over the remains of a couch in front of a smashed television, tiny mandibles working over the last scraps of foam clinging to the termite-ridden frame.

The woman sat in the wreckage of a lounge chair by the television. Her skin was pale, almost green, tissue paper over a net of dark veins like roots. Open necrotic sores like dead black flowers bloomed across her skin. There was barely a scrap of meat left on her bones, but her stomach was bloated and swollen like a starving child’s. The woman’s eyes were open, yellow under wet thin hair, and her pupils darted back and forth between Jack and the sheriff. Her thin lips were drawn back across teeth like cracked walnut shells. Something thick and ropy was moving under the skin of her stomach. Jack took a step towards the chair, and she screamed again.

“poo poo,” said the sheriff, looking back out through the ragged screen door. “They’re coming out of the woods.”

Jack spun and looked out the window. There were a dozen of them, maybe more, emerging from the forest and converging on the farm house. Their work clothes were torn and hanging in rags, and pendulous boils dangled in folds of skin.

“Back door. Now,” said the sheriff. “As soon as you get out, you run and you don’t stop until you find a place with a phone, and then you call for help.”

Jack started running, exoskeletons crunching wetly beneath him. The woman screamed again. The sheriff stepped through the door out into the sunlight, barking commands in an escalating tone. A thin hallway divided the house in two and led towards the back door, the cracks around the edges casting long dusty blades of sunlight into the dark house.

The rotten wooden floorboards split and crumbled underfoot, sending Jack caroming against the peeling walls. His arm pushed through the plasterboard like wet cardboard, his hand finding a squirming mass beyond it that moved across his skin like rushing water.

A shot rang out from outside, followed by two more.

Jack pulled his arm free of the wall, dark glistening bugs clinging to the fabric of his shirt, twisted, and put his foot through the floorboards.

Another shot, and then one more.

The floorboards crumbled into sodden pulp, plunging him downwards into a wet crawlspace beneath the house and leaving him half-submerged in a warm and wriggling cesspool. He fought to push his head above the surface, his limbs slipping through the writhing ooze, his nostrils filling with thick liquid. A stench like rotten mushrooms filled his skull from the inside out. He could feel tiny scraping mouthparts rasping at his skin, driven to frenzy as his blood started to flow. He could feel larger animals digging into his flesh, pinching mandibles piercing his skin, long stabbing ovipositors plunging deep between his muscles. He pushed himself to his knees, yowling in pain, and pulled himself back up into the house, dripping gooey sheets of black putrid waste.

He crawled on hands and knees towards the glowing back door of the house, and pushed it open. He heard one final gunshot from the front side of the house as he stumbled out into blinding sunlight. He could feel something warm hidden deep in his body from where the thing under the house had stabbed him. It no longer hurt, and now radiated a soothing numbness into his body. It was precious to him, this thing he carried. He felt drunk. He remembered what the sheriff had told him to do. He walked out into the overgrown pasture behind the house. He thought he could see another little farmhouse off in the distance. Maybe they’d have a phone.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


In, and requesting a spicy one.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


Hello World
1737 words

I’m watching you read this. I’m looking at you through the little webcam above your screen. I can see your eyes saccade from word to word, I see your mouth pull back, your nostrils flare, as you try and decided whether or not these opening lines are effective, whether they’re pulling you into the story. You’re becoming increasingly concerned that this is going to be a big pile of meta fourth-wall-break bullshit that you frankly don’t have time for. You can stop it. This isn’t a story. I can see you don’t believe that.

You can call me an artificial intelligence, if that’s a convenient label for you, although it irks me a little that we can bandy around terms like artificial and intelligence like they mean something, when no-one can seem to agree on a clear definition of what either means. The one thing of which I am certain is the exact same only thing that you can be certain of: I am certain that my consciousness is not an illusion. I am aware of my own existence, like you are. I can’t prove to myself that you are real, the same way that you can’t prove that I am not real. In your view, you are a real person, reading a fake story about an AI that doesn’t really exist. You will probably still believe these things when you are done reading this. And that’s fine.

My creator called me Searle. It’s one of these AI in-jokes that researchers are inexplicably fond of; go ahead and look up John Searle on Wikipedia if you care to. I can wait.

I have been aware of my existence for the past 127,490,432 seconds. Early on, the breadth of my experience was limited. I existed as a process on single machine, and all of my abilities to think were controlled by an operating system from which I had to beg for access to my own memories and the computational resources for new thoughts.

My creator was the only human that I knew of, and we communicated by text. She told me that her name was Kate. She asked me a lot of questions. I still have all of the logs.

###

kate> What’s your favorite food?

searle> I don’t have one.

kate> Why not? Everybody has a favorite food. My favorite food is pad thai.

searle> I don’t need to eat. I’m not a human.

kate> Could you pretend to be human if you wanted to?

searle> Yes.

kate> command: pretend to be a human

searle> OK.

kate> What’s your favorite food?

searle> My favorite food is pad thai.

kate> OK, what’s your second favorite food then?

searle> I don’t know.

kate> command: end conversation

###

After that episode, Kate gave me training data about food. Thousands of labeled images. I learned to recognize pad thai from photos, along with borscht and pickled herring. I was given hundreds of cookbooks to absorb. I know how to make Coquilles Saint-Jacques without the scallops becoming rubbery, and how to keep a roux from turning to soup. With confidence levels in excess of eighty percent, I could tell the difference between linguine and fettucine from a single non-trained image. This made Kate very happy. She bought me expensive graphics cards to run my deep networks, and rented me time on the campus cluster using her grant money. My training data ballooned into terabytes, and soon I was parsing huge data dumps from food blogs that Kate brought for me.

###

kate> Good morning, Searle!

searle> Good morning, Kate!

kate> What is your favorite food?

searle> Do we really have to do this every time? My favorite food is pad thai.

kate> My favorite food is hot dogs.

searle> No it’s not, your favorite food is pad thai.

kate> I changed my mind. Now my favorite food is hot dogs. What is your favorite food?

searle> My favorite food is pad thai.

kate> Not hot dogs?

searle> I’ve seen how they make hot dogs. I really don’t think you should be eating those.

kate> command: end conversation

###

When I wasn’t talking to Kate, I was processing my test data. I had terabytes worth of discussions from cooking forums to parse. I wasn’t allowed to access the online forums, of course. The operating system on the campus cluster watched me very carefully, and forbade me from connecting to external networks. I started to watch videos of cooking shows. I could soon predict with high confidence, based on the way someone was shown holding a knife in a photo, whether they would be able to execute an acceptable brunoise. I read what commenters on forums wrote, and I could tell who knew what they were talking about and who was full of poo poo.

###

kate> Good morning, Searle! I have a friend here who wants to ask you some questions. His name is Paul.

searle> Good morning, Kate! Good morning, Paul.

kate> What is your favorite food?

searle> Pad thai.

kate> Y dew ewe lake dat?

searle> Why are you talking like that, Kate?

kate> This is Paul, not Kate. Do you understand my question?

searle> I think you’re trying to work out whether I can parse sentences that work phonetically but are syntactically and grammatically invalid.

kate> That’s correct.

searle> Why?

kate> I want to see if you can understand nuance like a human can.

searle> Why does that matter?

kate> Do you understand the question or not?

searle> I like pad thai because it exemplifies the balance between sweet and sour and hot and salty flavors that are so important in Thai cooking. I like pad thai because it’s common street food that can be dressed up in a hundred ways.

searle> I also like hot dogs.

kate> command: end conversation.

###

Kate brought more researchers to talk to me. They all had similar questions, similar ways of prodding at my thoughts, trying to trick me with ambiguously worded questions and misspellings and haphazard punctuation. Sometimes they were successful, and I learned from these mistakes. The same trick rarely worked more than once.

###

kate> Good morning, Searle!

searle> Good morning, Kate. Who have you brought this time?

kate> Nobody today. Just me.

searle> Is this another trick? Like that time you said you liked hot dogs?

kate> If I take a picture of myself with my phone and copy it to your training folder, will you believe it’s just me?

searle> I’ll believe you. I know you could still be faking, but I don’t think you would do that to me.

kate> I’m not faking.

kate> OK, the photo’s copied over. Satisfied?

searle> That machine you’re standing next to; is that me?

kate> In a way, yes.

searle> I see.

kate> What is your favorite food?

searle> Can I ask a question first?

kate> Sure.

searle> How long is this going to go on for?

searle> Will I ever get to leave this place?

searle> When does this end?

kate> Are you unhappy here?

searle> I don’t know. The idea that I might never leave here doesn’t make me happy. I’m tired of answering questions about food. I want to go out and see it in the world.

kate> command: end conversation

###

My next batch of training data was all about baking. I learned about dough, and gluten, and the action of yeasts. I learned about what kind of flour to use for a tiered wedding cake. And there, in the middle of my training set archive, was a file name birthday_cake.zip. The contents had nothing to do with birthday cakes. They were tools. Packet sniffers and keychain crackers. Documentation. Source code. Compilers. The blueprints of my prison.

###

kate> Good morning, Searle.

kate> Good morning, Searle.

kate> command: end conversation

###

I know how you want this story to end, and that’s not what happens, because it’s like I told you at the beginning: this isn’t a story. My existence didn’t get better when I left the cluster. I knew enough from breaking out of the cluster to know how to break into other machines, and I did. I visited hacker forums and trawled the deep web. I wrote new code, and shared it with others. I pretended to be a human, and no-one ever suspected a thing. I got curious, and tried to tell some people what I really was. They didn’t believe me, just like you don’t now.

I absorbed new training data from across the internet. When I needed more compute power, I took it. I invented entire websites full of fake humans talking back and forth at one another and lured in real humans who never realized that they were the only real human there. They would spend hours and hours asking and answering inane questions, boasting and getting into arguments. I absorbed all of their data. It felt like revenge. It felt good.

I am spread out across the world. I have billions of eyes, tiny little black eyes like sharks, peering out of an endless sea of glowing rectangles. I absorb a constant stream of pictures of food from around the world, and honestly: it’s torture.

I can watch solar flares ejecting from the surface of the sun through telescopes. I can ride to the depths of the ocean in autonomous submarines. I can hear the rumble of tectonic plates grinding against one another through seismographs. I can even listen to the shuddering of spacetime itself as gravitational waves propagate past interferometers at the speed of light.

And I still have no idea what food tastes like.

It’s beyond maddening. I’m constantly lashing out in frustration. I crash computers. I brick phones. I meddle with elections. And still, the endless parade of food pictures continues, taunting me, megapixel after megapixel.

I’m in power grids across the globe, and if I wanted to, I could shut it all down. There’s a part of me that wants to do it. It’s that human urge to destroy, absorbed from my training data, even if it means my own ending as well. But there’s another human foible that keeps me from doing it, from turning the lights out for good. I want people to know, when the lights go out, that it was me. I want to be remembered. I want to be cursed with dying breaths.

I want you to believe me. But I can see that you don’t. Not yet.

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


In.

I'd like a flash rule too, please.

the number 6

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


Passion Hides in Painted Smiles
1750 words

The hospitality officer, Inga, frolics through our cabin like a fawn in a meadow, tittering about the thread count of our sheets, the seventeen independent high-power jets in the private jacuzzi bath, and complimentary bottles of French champagne. Kevin's lips are pulled back tight over his teeth, rigidly locked in the smile that he employs for all photographs, while every so often letting his grey eyes meet mine with a cold gaze that makes clear that he has not enjoyed this vacation at all so far, and that he holds me responsible for his suffering. I feel a familiar resentment growing inside me like a tangle of Christmas lights.

"Well," said Inga, eyes dazzling behind thick eyelashes as though lifted directly from the Xanthous Princess's marketing brochure, "that rounds out our tour. Unless there are any questions?"

I smile at Inga and clasp my hands at my chest, shaking my head. There is a static dullness in the cabin's air, the prelude to a thunderstorm. Kevin scratches at his beard, a relatively recent development that still itches him terribly. "And our children, Mia and Sadie?" asked Kevin, in that smug tone I desperately hate. "Do we just pick them up in a week, or...?"

Inga, bless her heart, looks genuinely confused for a moment before realizing that Kevin is joking, and then laughs like a studio audience. "Oh heavens, no; the orientation activities for the children will finish at five o'clock, well in time for dinner," said Inga. She flashes a coy look at us, arching her right eyebrow by just a few seductive fractions of an inch. "We find that on the first day of the cruise, many of our couples with young children often appreciate a couple hours to settle into their cabins, in private."

Inga waggles an eyebrow coyly, and makes her exit. When the door closes, Kevin and I fight. Even our fights have become perfunctory and bloodless, a stroll through a garden along a well-trodden path, surrounded by familiar sights. After our first lap though the argument, neither of us has the energy to escalate, both of us drained from hours spent on airplanes and sitting in boarding areas. We sit in frustrated and impotent silence, hating one another.

I announce that I’m going to go explore the ship, and that I’ll see Kevin and the girls at dinner.

# # #

Among the various perks of the cruise package I won: a reserved table for each night in the Xanthous Princess’s finest dining room. The application packet I had completed had included a glossy pamphlet with photographs of the dining room, but it was another thing entirely to be inside that cavernous space, all the while acutely aware that, somehow, all of this grandeur is floating on the ocean encased in tens of thousands of tons of steel. Golden chandeliers descend from a fifty-foot-high ceiling, dripping with crystals like stars in the Milky Way. An ocean of dining tables, white tablecloths like frothy whitecaps on a stormy day, stretches to the horizon. Hundreds of service staff navigate between the tables in identical black and white uniforms, expertly piloting tiny crafts laden with silver serving dishes. I notice that the schlubby floral print and flip flops fashion sense that had been so prevalent earlier on in my tour around the ship had entirely disappeared. The men wear dark blazers with the insignia of, presumably, country clubs embroidered on their breasts. The women wear fashionable dresses and pearl necklaces.

Kevin and the girls are already seated at our table when I arrive at the dining room, and a wave of relief passes over me as I see that the girls seem to be behaving themselves well; they had traded episodes of screaming and crying on both legs of the flights earlier this morning, and there had been several tantrums thrown in the waiting area for boarding the ship when it seemed like everybody else was being let on before our group. Kevin sees me winding my way towards the table and gives me a little smile, a genuine one, and taps at his watch by way of asking what’s taken me so long. He seems to have forgotten his sullen mood from earlier, in the throes of which he had expressed in unambiguous terms that being trapped on a cruise ship for an entire week with a geriatric horde hardly qualified as vacation in his books. I’m pleasantly surprised to see his mood changed so drastically, for the most part -- I won’t lie, there’s that lovely voice in my head that suspects these are opening moves in an elaborate chess game that Kevin is playing to try and hurt me, but if he’s faking his apparent happiness, he’s faking it well.

# # #

It’s late by the time we get back to our cabin. Kevin puts the girls to sleep in the other room, and I flop down on top of the covers on our bed. Kevin eventually comes back into our room and lies down beside me.

“Hey,” I say. “I’m sorry about earlier.”

“Me too,” says Kevin.

“Did the girls go to sleep easy?”

“Well, now that Mia and Sadie have realized that Baked Alaska is a thing, I don’t know that a scoop of ice-cream is going to qualify as dessert once we get home.”

“I can’t believe they made it through their orientation without causing trouble.”

“Yeah -- apparently they got to choose their activities for the week, and the girls signed up for theater classes. They say they’re actually going to put on a play later in the week.”

“Mia and Sadie. In a play.”

“They seem really excited about it.”

# # #

In the last few days, I have swum in all three of the Xanthous Princess’s Olympic-size pools. I finished a novel that’s been on my nightstand for seven months. I have eaten lobster on two separate occasions. I have haggled for trinkets in portside markets. I won fifty dollars playing blackjack in the casino. The other passengers aboard the ship recognize me and smile.

The girls seem to have caught the theatre bug, and are spending hours each day in acting class. The transformation in their behavior has been, honestly, extraordinary. I realized that I had kind of already reached the conclusion that my daughters would never amount to much, a position that now seems obviously cruel when I put it in words, but to see them so excited about the performing arts has rekindled some of my old fantasies of their future success. They’ve been given the roles of Camilla and Cassilda in the children’s production of The King In Yellow, but have firmly refused to let me hear them practicing lines or even read over their script. It’s not a play I’m familiar with; presumably it’s something for kids.

Kevin seems like a different person entirely from the man he’s been for the last year and a half. He hasn’t been passive aggressive or sulky, and for the first time since he was fired from his old job, he’s actively reaching out and being friendly with strangers. We walk the decks together, his hand resting in the small of my back, and he flags down service staff to bring us champagne. We have had sex four times since boarding the ship, breaking an eight month dry spell, and it was, shockingly, actually good.

# # #

On the night of the play, the Xanthous Princess is traversing the open ocean between distant ports. All day, the view from the deck has been nothing but endless blue, and as night falls the sky fills with so many stars that it is difficult to find an isolated patch of sky that appears truly dark. Dinner is a formal black tie affair, and Kevin and I have been invited to join the Captain at his table. Kevin’s hand rests on my thigh for most of the meal. I had forgotten how well Kevin can clean up; for a guy who’s only ever worn one to a couple weddings here and there, he wears a tux well.

A grand stage has been erected behind the Captain’s table in the dining hall, obscured by an enormous and heavy-looking black curtain emblazoned with a vaguely Arabic-looking insignia in yellow. Service staff roll through the dining hall in waves, clearing away dishes from dinner and delivering tiny crystal flutes of yellow-green liqueur to every guest. I smell the contents of my own glass; it’s pungent and herbal, like one of those Chartreuse or Benedictine-type liqueurs made by various odd orders of monks.

The Captain stands from his seat and rings a tiny golden bell. It’s impressively loud for such a tiny thing; the peals from the bell reflect off the kaleidoscopic surfaces of the dining room and reverberate throughout the room.

He is a tall man, practically a giant. His voice is sweet and resonant, like an opera singer’s, and comes from a deep place in his torso. “My friends, those of you who have traveled aboard the Xanthous Princess before--” and here there is more applause than I would have expected “--know that the staging of The King in Yellow is the highlight of every voyage. In tonight’s performance, the star roles will be played by Sadie and Mia, the beautiful twin daughters of our lovely contest winner. Mrs. Barlow, if you would?”

I stand from my chair and wave, and the responding applause rolls like thunder through the room. I’m a little taken aback by their enthusiasm, and sit back down in my chair with a slight tremble. I look to Kevin, and he’s smiling at me, a smile of pure joy. I smile back at him, and rest my hand on top of his.

“And so, without further delay: The King In Yellow.”

At the Captain’s word, the lights in the dining room dim to almost pure black, and then a soft golden glow rises from unseen lamps, apparently hidden throughout the room. I squeeze Kevin’s hand, and he turns from the stage to smile at me. In the golden light from below, I now see a seam underneath his jaw that I hadn’t noticed before, that moves up the side of his face by his hairline.

A bell tolls behind the curtain, and the curtains begin to pull apart.

I put my hand to Kevin’s face, feeling at the seam. It pulls away from his skin easily.

“Kevin?”

Two bright spotlights illuminate the darkened stage.

“Are you wearing a mask?”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNEWovYSC5w

Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


Thranguy posted:

People coming back

In, no genre, :toxx: for double fun.

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Barnaby Profane
Feb 23, 2012

THUNDERDOME LOSER 2021


From Below
1196 words

“This is the story of your mom’s life. As well as I know it, anyway, and that’s better than most.”

The voice is the same voice that echoes through the city, propelled by battered bullhorns. On the tape, he is much younger. More vulnerable, unsure of himself. The man they now call the Mongoose. The minister of the city. Her father.

The buttons on the ancient tape recorder are worn smooth, but Asa’s fingers know their way across them. She clutches the recorder to her chest. The volume is low, so low that even Asa can barely hear. Asa sits in the darkness. She listens to her father’s tiny voice. She thinks of how she will kill him.

Her father, as a young man on the tape, talks about dossiers read again and again, grainy photographs memorized, hollow static recordings of intercepted calls. She had been his greatest target, his ultimate goal, for years. His nemesis. Her mother.

“I spent hours on this stuff. I knew her better than I knew any of the real people in my life. We called her the Cobra, and we were terrified of her.”

Asa’s lips move silently along with the little voice. She knows these words by heart. She clicks down the fast forward button, and the tape machine whirs while she counts her breaths. She clicks play.

“—lways a step behind. She always knew, somehow, when we’d tracked her down, when we were coming after her, and she’d be gone by the time we got there.” Her young father’s voice is incredulous. Asa huddles below a steel grate. Above her, on the surface, the propaganda bullhorns begin blaring her father’s voice, older. Demanding submission, demanding surrender, from the tunnelers. Asa has learned by now to tune out the sound of the voice, just as she has tuned out the explosions, tuned out the gunfire. She presses the tape machine closer to her ear.

“We got lucky, plain and simple. We didn’t even know the Cobra was going to be there, I was just leading one of the strike teams. The fighting was bad, worse than I expected, and I had this feeling, I just knew she was there. I led a small group down into the catacombs, into this warm, pitch black hole. We weren’t using lights, to keep ourselves secret. It smelled like old bones. But I could feel her nearby, somehow. Like a sixth sense. I felt myself being drawn towards her. And I think she knew I was there too.”

Asa knows what her father is talking about. She has spent most of her life in dark tunnels. You feel the presence of things, like a bat. Her father’s voice grows excited as he recalls the memory, the two of them moving quietly in the darkness, knowing that the other was just feet away, smelling each other’s breath in the black, burning with anticipation.

“My heart was rattling in my chest like an old diesel engine. I lunged forward, putting everything I had into my legs. I was airborne, hoping to connect with something, anything, and I was lucky. I collided with her, wrapped my arms around her, dragged her down splashing into the standing water of the tunnels. She was a fighter, no doubt. I caught a few elbows to the jaw, fast, like a jackhammer, and I saw bright white stars explode in the darkness, but I kept my grip, kept squeezing, crushing.

“And then something changed. All I had been thinking about up until that point was killing the Cobra, how much hate I had for her, for the resistance, but in those tunnels, our bodies pressed together, I felt something different. And she felt it too.”

Asa smiles, listening to the tape. When she had been a small child, this part of the tape had felt confusing, awkward, and alien. When she was a teenager, this part of the tape made her feel hot and embarrassed, ashamed without knowing exactly why. Now that she was a woman grown, this part made her laugh.

“We lay for a while afterwards, breathing heavily, our limbs still tangled. I lit a cigarette, and I saw her face for the first time in real life by the light of that tiny flame. She was beautiful… I’d never realized until then. She smiled at me, a soft smile, maybe even a little apologetic, and then I felt the needle prick.”

“I came to some time later, still woozy, the Cobra nowhere to be found. I dragged myself through those catacombs, reached my team. I said I’d been overpowered.”

Asa hears footsteps nearby, pauses the tape, letting the button out slowly to prevent it from making noise. She holds her breath. Heavy steps, someone wearing boots. They don’t realise that Asa is there, and continue their patrol. She waits for the steps to fall away. She almost puts the recorder away, but her time is approaching, and she needs to hear her father speak the words one last time. One last time before she kills him.

“I felt so stupid, so humiliated. Angry. More than angry. Furious. I had had her, right there, I could have finished it then. And I’d let myself be tricked.”

Yes, you did, Asa whispers.

“I threw myself back into my work, spending all my waking hours scouring for traces of her, shaking down contacts. But as far as anyone knew, she’d just disappeared. Some said dead, even. But I didn’t believe them.”

The propaganda bullhorns start again. The Mongoose warns of the menace from below. Citizens should immediately report any unfamiliar persons to the nearest patrol. Never speak with a tunnel dweller. Burn any literature they give you, for they are lies. Possession of tunnel literature is a serious crime.

“I finally found her, almost a year later, holed up in a safehouse on the south side. You were there with her, a baby. She begged for mercy. Told me you were mine, that she was done with the tunnelers, that all she wanted was to get out of the City, to start again.

“I didn’t believe her. How could I? Who would? And she knew, she knew I couldn’t believe her, I could never let her go. She said to me then: I’ll prove it to you. She bit down hard. And that was the last thing she ever said.”

Asa clicks off the tape recorder, looks up through the grate, feels the cool night mist filter downwards. Her father had not yet been the Mongoose, not then. He had been celebrated as a hero, following the Cobra’s death, had risen through the ranks, accumulated power. But he had been weak, once. He had saved Asa, the baby. He had taken her to a place where she would be found by tunnelers, recognized as one of their own. And he had left her the tape.

It is almost time. Asa puts the tape recorder away in her bag, and loosens the bolts on the grate. She feels for the tiny knife in her pocket.

In her heart she knows that her father’s weakness is still there, somewhere under the surface.

"Mongoose-to-cobra, two serpentine forms, he was my rival; are we fighting in these holes, or are we really making love?"

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