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Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.


Thranguy fucked around with this message at 03:24 on Jan 5, 2019


Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.


802 words

It was a beauty, gleaming bones a shade of metallic blue like a clear July evening sky, or like Colin's irises back when he still smiled. And Jess could even see the rest of it: the angle was just right, the morning light and the wireless network traffic caught it perfectly and the translucent flesh surrounding those shining bones tinted just pink enough to be visible.


Jess held her finger above the button. A thought rose up unbidden. If I don't record it, I won't have to share it with anyone. It will be mine and mine alone. She pushed them down, first the thought and then the button, and captured the image in high-resolution stills and video until the Xenopescium Ostracaer floated through the second story wall of the anonymous office building and out of sight.

Jess and Colin fought that night, sharp words over flavorless ramen noodles and steamed green beans. If you asked the next day neither could tell you what the fight had been about, what trivial disagreement set things off. They went to separate bedrooms and she lay still, waiting for sleep to take away the dulls pain from her scars, wondering if he was doing the same.

The next morning she was back in the field, walking city streets with camera, on the front lines of science. It was frustrating. She'd trained as a geneticist, but you can't take samples from things you can't even touch. Can't do any of what she used to consider real science. Three years on and nobody was even sure if they were made of some kind of mostly dark matter or were dimensionally out of phase or some other explanation.

It was another good day. She found a large red-bones, the most common types, slowly floating near ground level in a hollowed-out strip mall, where only the check-cashing store and the cell tower were still going concerns. There was something about the way it moved that caught her attention. She stayed with it, watching, not yet recording.

An hour later her patience paid off. It was the shadow she saw first, faint and skeletal on the empty parking lot asphalt, clear and sharp only when it crossed the painted lines. She turned up, switching on full video recording, and caught its approach.

Its bones we're gunmetal black and it moved like a bullet, like a missile, like a rapier thrust, falling on the red-bones with a jaw full of teeth that glowed like they were nearly molten, ready to be worked at the forge. They snapped, ripping the cooler red bones of its prey apart, snapping them silently, and she caught it all. Predators were rare, predation events even more so, and she was certain this was a new species. She started streaming, staking her claim, thinking about what to name it.

The day went long. The predator took its time with the meal, enough for other fishwatchers to arrive and train cameras at it. She knew most of the good ones, shy Marcy and clumsy Fry, and Rogan, of course, who flirted with her every time, despite the rings they both wore. She didn't mind, enjoyed the game, wondered which one would chicken out first if she let things go any further. They watched, after the predator darted up and away, watched what it left behind slowly float downward. It filled the air with near-invisible chum, and eventually, the scavengers arrived.

They were numerous, with bones like the frames of racing bicycles in yellow and white and green and violet, floating and darting, nipping at the slowly sinking remains with teeth like snub-nosed pliers. One passed through her. Always a strange sensation, or a strange absence of a sensation where your eyes expect, even demand one. Some people were superstitious about it, feared having one phase through, though it might damage their soul or something. She knew better. They were harmless. Even the predators.

Now. When they first came, when people panicked, though...

Her left hand released the binoculars and reached for her abdomen. For the scar. For the surfacing memory, the alien fish, Colin swerving wildly, the other car veering just the wrong way. Twisted metal, pain, the long time in the hospital. What they lost. Colin's right hand, replaced with plastic and metal. They don't make plastic and metal uteruses.

Would I have ever? Would there have been time enough, or money?

Jess and Colin didn't talk about work that night. They rarely did. They made pleasant and instantly forgotten conversation over roasted chicken and instant macaroni and cheese, then shared her bed and a night of adequate sex and welcome human contact, and she barely noticed the pain from her scar at all.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
in and bonus fact me.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
The presence of a duck is said to prevent night terrors.

Sea Monsters

1000 words

I used to get bad dreams, every kind. Nightmares, one in particular. Terrifying bouts of sleep paralysis, my eyelids sealed tight and refusing to open while I knew something lurked right above me. Ones I couldn't even remember that woke me up minutes after falling asleep. I had that going for a week, lived on coffee and energy drinks for a week. Got home, collapsed on the couch and next thing I was running from the headless giant, into a dead-end hallway. I started pounding on the walls, and at the second hit the walls of my nightmare gave way to the ocean beyond. The water sucked me in, pulled me through the wall and I was flailing and drowning and trying to scream for what felt like hours until Maxwell pulled me out.

So, Maxwell. He was a duck. Feathers brown and oily green, walked on two feet. Wore a top hat. Carried a sword-cane. Talked. “So who is zis little drowned rat?” Talked with a French accent.

I coughed water out of my lungs, then answered. “Jason,” I said.

He pointed a wing behind me, at a black and churning maelstrom. Lightning danced across it and thunder drowned out his next words.


“I said, you came from zere? Best come with me then. No going back. I could use a spotter besides. I'm Maxwell.”

I nodded assent, looking around for the first time. We were in a boat, something somewhat like a gondola and also like bookcase on its back. “Where is this?”

“Sea of dreams, Jason. Sea of dreams.”

We sailed. He hunted. I kept watch, and guarded the boat when he fought. The first on was that night, a great sea serpent breaching the surface like a buried sine wave. Maxwell popped the blade from his cane and ran across the water's surface, straight at it.

It wasn't much of a fight. Maxwell sliced it to pieces, then brought them back to the boat. He opened a book and it burst into green fire, and he cooked and ate the thing. I reached for a bit. He batted me away. “Not for you,” he said. “For you, poison.” He stabbed his cane into the sea and drew it out, a good-sized fish struck through. “This, better for you.”

I woke up refreshed, and almost forgot everything. But the next night I was back on that sea, spotting monsters for Maxwell. “Your island isn't safe. Better on the sea, here. The sea terrors I can kill. But only you can face your nightmare.”

Most nights were like the first, slaying sea monsters. One time he fought a kraken, and in a second they were both the same size, and the next he was the larger one. So far away and on the featureless sea I can't say which grew or which shrunk, but he popped the thing in his bill like a cuttlefish snack and that was that.

One night he taught me the trick of walking on the dream-sea water.

Sometimes we'd land on an island, the home of some other dreamer, and take bit roles in someone else's dream. Usually strangers, but once it was Ben from the office, and when he told me about the dream he'd had over lunch, I made sure not to let on that I knew the plot already.

I was getting more sleep, doing better, but it couldn't go on forever, could it? The storms returned. The current kept us heading in the same direction. Back to my island. Back to the headless giant's lair.

So about him. My father, of course. A violent man. Used to hit Mom, and my big brother too. I was ten, too young to target by his twisted rules. But he made sure I saw. Memory's strange. Most of my life his death went one way. He'd been fired and got bad news from the doctor in the same week. One day,  a bang, and Mom holding me back, and Marty dealing with the people in the cars with sirens best he could.

That's not the way it went in my dreams. Sometimes in therapy I remember it the other way, too. His voice. “Come down here, Jacob.” The edge in it that allowed no argument. Me, opening the door, the sawed-off shotgun in his mouth. The bang, and the vivid shower of blood, bone, and brain.

The boat drifted toward the hole in the sea that had been my island, like a whirlpool, but solid. Like a spiral staircase made of water. We had no choice but to walk down.

The fight was a blur, mostly of terror. I saw the headless giant clearly. It wasn't completely headless. It had the bottom jaw, full of teeth, each sharp and broken, some with gleaming eyes embedded in the enamel. It swung a heavy club that broke the ground we stood on, forcing us to leap for safety. We tried to fight. It wrenched Maxwell's sword-cane from his feathered fingers. It fell at my feet, and I picked it up. It grabbed Maxwell and pulled him across those deadly teeth, over the dry bottom palate and into its neck-hole. The top hat flew off as I saw my friend vanish, and then it turned to me.

I didn't run. I raised the sword, and waited. And then the headless giant fell over, dead. At first I didn't understand, but then it melted from the inside out. All the poison terrors Maxwell had consumed burned its guts to ash and slime.

So I don't have trouble sleeping, not anymore. Sometimes I'm back on Maxwell's boat, alone. Not always. I even have a few completely dreamless nights, now and again.

And I might dismiss the whole thing. Just a dream, right? The business with Ben just a coincidence, sure. But there's the hat. Maxwell's hat. Woke up wearing it that last night, and I've sure never bought any such thing in my life.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
in, I'll take a sentence.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

746 words

“Murder is the most terrible crime of them all,” the police commissioner thought to himself as he loitered purpousfully near the deli counter. At least he's thinking in words. It puts him a couple steps above most of the customers. The next two guys behind him just have cartoons and emoji in their heads, turkeys and sausage links and drooling mouths and empty stomachs. There's a creep further back with nothing but images of everyone else here naked, the women with gravity-defying breasts, the men with sagging guts censoring over their crotches. A typical crowd.

“Your usual, Commissioner?” I said. He nodded. I got to work,slicing bread and stacking pastrami, tomato, and aged Swiss cheese, applying a thin layer of mustard directly to the meat, and wrapping it all in wax paper, trying to make my mind as empty as everyone else around me. It worked, for a while. I made sandwiches for the commissioner, for the non-verbal thinkers behind him, for a woman letting the summer's mindless pop anthem wash directly from phone to speakers to mind, unfiltered and uncommented and leaving barely enough attention to mutter a menu number.

“I'm going to kill you,” thought the woman in thick glasses and long black hair. I reacted, just for a second. She adjusted those coke-bottle lenses down her small sharp nose, focused on my name tag. “Yes, you, Terrence.” Aloud: “Number 6, no mayo.” I made the sandwich, trying to give no further sign.

She nibbled at the sandwich until closing time, nursing a single cup of clove tea along with it. I wasn't on cleanup that night. When my shift ended I walked over to the table. She swallowed the remnants of her meal in quick bites and smiled. “Most people would try to run. Sneak out the back and leave town.”

“Would that have done any good?”

“Do you want to die?” she asked back. “Not one bit,” crossed her mind unsaid.

“No,” I said. It's more complicated than that. I have a very healthy will to live. Natural selection. You don't survive high school as a telepathic without one. But I understand why she'd want to kill me. I agree. I'm an intolerable intrusion, just by existing. Anyone with any secret, personal or business or government, anyone who thinks people should be able to have secrets can't abide a world where I'm alive.

“Why work there?” she asked. We were walking to the parking lot, a sea of people trying to remember where they parked closely enough that the beep from their key fob won't be embarrassingly distant.

“Nobody thinks too hard,” I said. “When-”

“Eventually. Could be years down the line if you-” A thought, distant but intense, interrupted. The back of my head, seen through a rifle scope. I dropped, falling forward and rolling under a car. I heard the shot and the bullet striking pavement. I saw her on her knees, bracing her arm and returning fire with a revolver that seemed ludicrously huge in her small hand.

“We need to go, now,” she said. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a key. She pressed the unlock button and every headlight for a dozen yards around flashed. I got to my feet.

We got into the stolen car and she drove, fast and reckless and precise, daring the traffic police to give chase. As she drove she talked. She gave a name, “Stella.” Her real name was Victoria. She was some kind of spy, and I was going to be one too, or else die sooner than later. Not for our country or any other, though. “We're the good guys,” she said. She believed it.

She outlined my future as she drifted across lanes of traffic into the freeway, losing our pursuers. A bomb in the back of my neck that needs a periodic signal from a device linked to her heartbeat. I tried to stay worried, or scared, or angry, tried to regret not just having cleaned up at professional poker or hacking banker's debit cards and hiding on a beach alone with my conscience. I couldn't.

Adrenaline turned all those worries to joy, and a life, maybe short, in contrast to the transparent gauzey grey I'd trapped myself in was irresistible, even with the cost, even with the sure knowledge I'd be victim and perpetrator of crimes more terrible than murder, beyond the police commissioner's limited imagination. I was in, all in.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
in and flash me.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
Bear Witness

Prompt:The Megaliths of Weris-Belgium

780 words

The stones are, as all their kind, as old as the Earth, hewn from their quarry in time before memory, three giants lined up east to west. The infant is, as all their kind, brand new, freezing and crying and unknowing. She does not understand the cold calculations that mother and father had to make, of food versus frigid hungry time.

A dark fur-lined hand reaches down to the base of the middle stone and scoops her up, carries her off. Witnesses, far away and with the blurred vision of age and drink, will tell the town that he was a bear and not a man in bearskin. The story will spread, and when she returns to the stones a young woman and tells of being raised by the hunter and his barren wife, they will disbelieve, and mutter 'bear-girl’, and that will suit her just fine.

Move north by northeast now, as the clock turns wildly, to a hill. Underneath it is a tomb of rocks. They are forgotten, with no monument other than the hill itself. Half a dozen children at play on the summit, and the dead below pay them no heed, at least until one names himself King here and shoves his friends down in rough play.

There is a moment: a low blow against the King, a harder shove than the unwritten rules allow. The would-be usurper tumbles awkwardly, and when he tries to stand he shouts in pain and falls. Noise and dust gather in the distance, and a wagon bears down fast. The children scatter.

The King runs forward, pulls the other boy, a near stranger the day before, off the furrows that mark a road. They will go to war together, save each other's lives so many times they will pretend to lose count.

Go onward, past the village, and veer slightly more eastward and press on to a smooth rock bed with a rough headrest. A woman, alone, struggling to stand. A man, lurking in shadow, holding a knife. When? There is only one time, and that time is now. The sky is dark and moonless.

He aims to rob, and has done worse in his criminal life. He steps forward, snapping a stick. The noise cuts through the soft animal sounds of the countryside. Then the sound of her shouts drown out all the world. He sees her better, closer. She is not alarmed, but with child, about to deliver.

He sheaths his knife, steps forward arms open, offers help. “I'm no midwife,” he says, “But I've seen my share of calvings, back when I had kin.” He helps her down, onto the stone, lights a campfire, and stands vigil as she gives birth on the stone her people name the devil's bed. His knife, heated, cuts the umbilical. The baby cries out. She will, in her time, live up to the legend of her birth, but like any true devil will catch little blame and charm each sheriff and judge out of their convictions.

Fly west by northeast now, to a village, roads paved with stones that once stood as one. Listen to the rumble of hungry bellies, unheard, uncommented on, as every man and woman pays their taxes and rents and Sunday tithes and thinks their obligations met. Do not linger here. Turn west by southwest instead, and do not look back.

Reach another stone tomb, uncovered and open on both ends, at another now, another dark night, where three gather. Two lovers, defying fate. She was meant to marry a stranger. He is called to war with deadly urgency. The third is her brother, her chaperone, her co-conspirator. The priest has already left, his job done and his shaky signature on the paperwork. The brother stands guard, facing away, as they consummate the union on and under the stones, until the sunrise appears framed in the dolmen arch.

Their union will bear fruit. There will be loud shouts and louder silences and threats that will empty out before landing. He will survive the short and futile defense, return, and slowly win over his new extended family as they all resist as best they can until the armistice is signed. When the drums of war beat again they will flee west, across the sea, with their children.

Fly up now and see the pattern of your journey, the stars of Ursa Major in conglomerate stone, cut and measured and lifted into place before the flood of Gilgamesh, and know their purpose, feel what you felt at each one.

This is the only place. Now is the only time. Bear witness.

And be kind.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
Bonus Crits I owe from my last week

Flesnolk: Every Night in San Rafael

This one threw me first time around, because, I've been to the actual San Rafael, a tiny North Bay town absorbed into the Bay Area megaplex rather than an invented huge city somewhere westward of Fresno. But now I'll put that exercise of poetic license aside and look again.

The opening paragraph sets a broad mission statement, maybe too broad, since the second one narrows the subject down to 'regret’, where it stays tightly focused. Taking out t or adjusting the examples that don't fit that theme, the ones that affirm a dreamer's decisions from that first paragraph might strengthen the piece. Other than that, I think it works, is at or very close to the right length, could possibly use a punchier ending, but is an overall good story.

Yoruichi, the alchemist

This is a really effective little piece of writing, a strong character sketch through indirection, exactly what the prompt called for. Had I been judging it might have been an HM contender but for the fact that your other entry took the win. If I have any questions, they would be with the title, with calling this person an alchemist. There doesn't quite seem enough to support that particular title over, say, scientist, genius, philosopher, savant, or inventor. Alchemist carries a certain mysticism and questing nature that isn't quite here.

Also, the Oxford comma. It's not always mandatory, but “on, in, and under the bench” just has a better flow.

Thranguy fucked around with this message at 07:31 on Jan 29, 2019

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
Jolly mode.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
Prompt:Southeast Asian Magical Coming-of-Age Sci-Fi About Best Friends With a Strong Female Lead!

Unfiltered Singapore
1049 words

Ryan saw the tentacle, too.

There it was, rising almost as tall as me out of the two centimeters of ocean that covered the old streets. It was swaying, back and forth, left and right, slowly.

“Got to be some kind of advertisement,” Ryan said.

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“The resolution,” he said. Ryan had low data limits on his rig. This late in the month, he'd be seeing jaggies and big block pixels on everybody's glamour. Unless someone is paying to make sure it gets seen. “That thing has as much fidelity as the Christmas lights.”

“Check it out tonight?” I said.

“Sure thing, Sarah.”

.* * *.

Parents are weird. Like I have to say that. But most of them grew up when their parents had to watch over them full time to keep them safe. Before we had a system for that. And before glamour, too. Their generation built it all, but it's not like they got it. They keep doing dumb things like thinking a little light urbex is dangerous. Better not to mention it.

I met up with Ryan back at New Orchard Road, emptied out well after midnight. The city is beautiful late at night this time of year. I could look up and see the twinkling lights on the buildings, keep looking upwards and see the stars of the Milky Way. Five years back they still did most of the decorations the old-fashioned way and they drowned out the sky, but virtual light doesn't pollute.

We hopped the short metal fence and clambered down the fire stairs down to the old road, down to the part of the City given back to the rising sea. Where the tentacle lay waiting.

Up close, it looked even more real, except that near the top of it was an eye, a deep violet eye that looked bored until it noticed us, then startled. The tentacle lashed, moved with impossible leverage, the tip whipping an arc at the level of our heads. The natural reaction took over, and we flinched away from the imaginary limb. We didn't flinch enough. It hit, hard, feeling cool and smooth, like dolphin skin or wet rolled-up velvet. My cheeks stung and my rig made sparking noises and went offline.

In darkness I backed away, scrabbling in the shallow seawater. The tentacle flailed above, glowing faintly.

“The stairs,” said Ryan. I'd never seen his underface, nor him mine. We were just friends, not lovers, so it never came up. I had always thought he was probably like me, mostly the same as out glamour except when trying out a new hairstyle or something. Wouldn't have mattered if he wasn't born like he presented, of course. Unless he was thirty years old or something, and the system took care of that kind of thing anyhow. But there was something, something about his face, too little light to make out and too much hurry to focus on, something I noticed even in that frenzy.

The staircase had a dim amber safety light. I turned and ran toward it, and the tentacle rose out of the water before us. Or maybe another tentacle. It had the same violet eyeball, and lashed it at the metal stairs, wrenching their bolts from the mounting. We turned. I reached out my hand, and Ryan took hold of it, and I ran, pulling him along, down the old streets in darkness.

We ran until we were out of breath before I even thought about my keyring. I brought it out, turned on the flashlight function. We'd left the tentacle or tentacles behind, no sign of them, just water-covered pavement and disused first stories coated in waterproof lacquer.

There were no street signs. Why bother keeping them outside of the augment level, outside of the glamour. They probably decorated college dorms or theme restaurants today. We were lost, really lost.

I stole a look at Ryan's face, now that panic had faded, while dread was still not yet crushing. He had a tattoo, a swan in flight on his left cheek. I never asked him about it. No way to ask that isn't unspeakably rude unless he stopped covering it when he presented, and he never did. We kept moving, looking for another stairway.

“There's probably a drone trying to find us,” said Ryan.

“Police?” I said. “Did you-”

“No, didn't hit the panic button. Did you?” I shook my head. “No, I was thinking of the replacement rigs. But those ones won't dip below the new streets.

We kept moving. We started seeing faded graffiti, painted or embossed onto the coatings of the buildings. A few meters up and it would be washed off or painted over before it dried, but here the system let the ocean do the job without urgency. We saw murals of smiling communities, and crude pornography over names in crude typography, slogans of anarchists and scandalous libels against past Presidents and Prime Ministers. And then we saw the door.

It was cut into the thick coating, ten centimeters up. Light leaked out of the crack, irregular, strobing. I walked up to it, not knowing whether to knock or pull it open.

“What's the password?” came a voice from the other side, male and weedy.

“For God's sake, open the door, Drie,” said someone else, a low-pitched woman. He did, and the sound of loud music burst through as the two strangers herded us in.

“Couple of kids, huh,” said Drie, the man. He was skinny and wore old-style glasses, no rig attached. He turned to us. “All right, you can come in, but nobody's going to sell you anything, so don't even try. And stay out of the sex room, too.”

“We don't have a sex room,” said the woman.

“We could,” said Drie. “We should, El.”

“We don't,” said El. “And we won't.”

So we danced, in a room full of flashing lights and ancient club music, smiling and forgetting to be lost, and wound up trailing a group of people not too much older than us out and to an amber-lit stairway to where our rigs and the glamourful world awaited.

We saw the tentacle a few more times, from safe distance above. It did not make eye contact.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.


965 Words

Nicolas sits, face to the wall, and waits. He has been waiting for a very long time.

He is cold. The thin air is just below freezing. The stove lies dormant. There is nothing left he can burn in it, nor air rich enough for anything to burn. The stocking hung over it bulges as to burst, but he pays it no mind. When the sun rises it will be unpleasantly hot, with just a few seconds of comfort between. The thin air changes quickly. It dries his throat. It hurts to breathe.

He is thirsty, beyond thirsty. Fresh water is a distant memory. The oceans are a distant memory. When the icecaps melted and his old home sank into the Arctic waters, he rafted south and found this shack, preserved by luck and isolation. The previous owner was well behind objecting. Now his old home must rest on the dry seabed. He wonders what state it is in, but not enough to start a long walk. His muscles ache at the thought, but everything hurts, thought of motion or not.

He is hungry, and this he knows will last forever. There is some food here, hoarded on his long journey south. Nicolas knows how much he would regret trying to eat any of it. His mouth cannot water, and even if he forced dry crumbs of bread down his throat, the flora of his gut have long since starved away. Eating would just exchange some hunger for the sharper pain of passage. Not a bargain he wants to take.

Most of all, he is bored. He had long since given up counting years of being the last man alive. He counts by epochs now, by ice ages and hot times. Since the Earth lost most of its water even that count is difficult. There are no books in his house, not since the early cold times. It does not matter. He has an excellent memory, and has read them all. He can make the words appear in his head, in sequence. It passes the time.

More often, he remembers his past. The tiny fraction of it, before. The heated debates over substance and similarity at the Council of Nicaea, and how good it felt to strike that pompous misbeliever's face, sin though it surely was. The bags of coin thrown in through an open window that started the legend, and all of those years of living it. He has re-lived it all, hour by hour and day by day, more times than he could count.

The end of it he remembers most often. The last Christmas, the last child, the last disappointing gift. Nothing could console him: his parents dead, himself sick and starving, with none left doing any better. Nicolas could not fault that bitterness, but neither could he grant a wish for a speedy death. He tried distraction, and failed, and watched the boy curse his birth and eat poison. Nicolas remembers the smell of sulfur.

He can still sleep, still dream. That mercy remains. Most often, he dreams of snow. He slips, from memory to dream, and then back again.

There is a knock at the door.

He tries to say ‘Come in,’ but his throat is too dry for sound. He stands up and walks across the shack. He knows who it must be. Doors and locks are no impediment to that one, but their politesse will delay their entry for a long time. Better to avoid the wait. Nicolas opens the door, and the Devil comes in, bearing a bottle of brandy and two glasses.

He takes the offered drink and swallows slowly, letting it smooth and fortify, and remembers the first time he met the Devil face to face.

“I could spare him, you know,” said the Devil, already behind Nicolas. “From the whip, during his time below.”

“Forever?” said Nicolas, turning around.

“Nothing is forever save Paradise,” said the Devil. “Not since the Nazarene made my Hell mere Purgatory.”

They dickered. Not for Nicolas’ soul, that was not his to give. In the end the Devil agreed to spare them all, for every soul to be in comfort as their terms passed, all in exchange for him tarrying alone on this dead world.

Nicolas clears his throat. He has question, and the spirits have given him a croaking voice to ask it. “Why?”

“Maybe I wanted a subject, here. I am King of this world, now that it is done. Or maybe I wanted to see what a mere human could endure.”

“Or maybe,” says Nicolas, “You were done with it. Needed some excuse to end the cruelty, at last.” He holds up his empty glass and the Devil pours more brandy into it.

“I have not been kind to you,” says the Devil.

“I could let go at any moment,” says Nicolas. “My discomfort is not on you.”

“No,” says the Devil. “Just you, and the one who set the sentences.” He waits for Nicolas to finish the second glass. “ There are only a hundred souls left, below. The worst of the worst. Tyrants. Genocides. Men and women whose evil lived on to harm Innocents centuries beyond their deaths. Souls that won't move on until millions of years after the planet below you has crumbled and been swallowed by the expanding sun. Nobody would blame you for ending your vigil now.”

Nicolas stands up and walks across the room, to the stove. He reaches into the stocking and pulls out something black and hard. “I will tarry that bit more,” he says. He puts the coal in the Devil's hand. “From the beginning, I have always found even the meanest, the most unruly of His children deserving of the gift of a few hours’ warmth.”

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
Thunderdome CCCXLI: AD 2019, Neo-Thunderdome

It is 2019, everyone. The most cyberpunk of all years: the year Akira was set in. The year Blade Runner was set in. The year the Running Man was set in. So it's time for some cyberpunk.

This week, you have a choice to make. You can tell a straight-up cyberpunk story, or you can tell a story with no speculative elements whatsoever set in the present that emphasizes the cyberpunk nature of this moment in time.

Either way, I expect to see cyberpunk themes this week. Alienation. Rebellion. Technology, viewed pessimistically. Capitalism run amok. Cynicism about social institutions. Anxiety about the end of American superpower status. Noir, with chrome bits. That kind of thing.

Flash rules will be given on request. They will come from tvtropes, so ask at your own risk.

Usual rules against erotica, fanfic, poetry, nonfiction, screeds, etc apply. (Political commentary is obviously not unwelcome, but there should be a story in there, and the commentary should probably be a lot deeper than 'lol Trump' or 'lol capitalism')

2019 words maximum. (No minimum, don't feel like you have to stretch an idea that long or need a big story idea to enter.)

Signups close Friday 11:59 PM Pacific time. Submissions close Sunday 11:59 PM Pacific time.


1. Sebmojo (Unusual User Interface)
2. Saucy_Rodent (Hacker's Cave)
3. Fuschia Tude (Good Prosthetic, Bad Prosthetic)
4. Sitting Here (Voice with an Internet Connection)
5. steeltoedsneaker (Industrial Ghetto)
6. onsetOutsider
7. AllNewJonasSalk
8. QM Haversham
9. Bad Seafood (Layered Metropolis)
10. Yoruichi (Human Popsicle)
11. selaphiel (Black Market Produce)
12. Baneling Butts (Solarpunk)
13. iTrust(Machine Worship)
14. Applewhite(The Singularity)
15. The Saddest Rhino(Upgraded Animal)
16. M. Propagandalf(NGO Superpower)
17. Staggy(Post-Cyberpunk)
18. cptn_dr(Information Wants to Be Free) toxxed
19. arbitraryfairy
20. Easy Diff
21. crimea
22. kurona_bright, toxxed
23. Lipincott
24. Mercedes
25. Simply Simon
26. Uranium Phoenix (Tron Lines, Wretched Hive)
27 Viscardius (Cyberpunk With a Chance of Rain)
28. The Sean
29. Tyrannosaurus
30. anatomi

Thranguy fucked around with this message at 03:58 on Feb 18, 2019

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

Fuschia tude posted:

gimme a flash rule, rulepunk

Good Prosthetic, Evil Prosthetic

Hacker Cave

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

steeltoedsneakers posted:

In. Hit me in the retina-gel with that flash.

Industrial Ghetto

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

Bad Seafood posted:

Jacking in.

Hit me up, flashman.

Layered Metropolis

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

Yoruichi posted:

In, flash

Human Popsicle

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

sebmojo posted:

Yeah flash me up thrangles

Unusual User Interface

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

selaphiel posted:

In. Flash.

Black Market Produce

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

Sitting Here posted:

Can i get a flash rule when one of our extremely cyber judges has a cyberminute

Voice With An Internet Connection

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

Uranium Phoenix posted:

I'll take flash rules from up to two judges and sebmojo can throw me a picture if he wants

Tron Lines

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
A little more than one hour left to sign up.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
Signups are closed

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
Entries are closed

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
Cyberjudgment 2019

This was a good, if divisive, week. Many of the stories unmentioned below found at least one receptive judge/audience.

But some did not.

Dishonorable Mentions go to selephiel's The Man From Martian Road and iTrust's True Futures, and the loss goes to Saucy Rodent for The God Code (A Sermon), each in no small part due to being some combination of barely cyberpunk, poorly proofed, and/or barely a story.

But there was more that was good: Honorable Mentions for Uranium Phoenix's The Anarchist and the Associate, crimea's Rosa & Tom, and anatomi's Cryptomnesia.

And the winner goes to what is legit one of my favorite stories in all my time in the dome, The Saddest Rhino's The Devil Lives in Razak Towers.

Welcome back to the blood throne!

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
Cybercrits 2019

Let's talk about bad cyberpunk a little here. Let's talk about Ready Player One.

One of the many annoying things in that book happens near the middle, where we learn that EvilCorp has set up a system of debt peonage to fill its call centers. They spend vast quantites of money on extra security to maintain it, housing, specialized media. Far more than it would cost them to just hire people looking for work-this is a world with massive unemployment-but they're spending money, forgoing profit just to be a touch more evil. So please, make your corporate villains indifferent to suffering in the course of profiteering, but don't do that. Even the classic mustache-twirlers were all about getting that rent money.

Onward to the stories.

The Man from Martian Road

Not a great start. A lot of proofing issues: incomplete sentences, breath for breathe. And too much time spent before introducing a character, much less a conflict.

Don't see the flash, story is only just vaguely in the genre. Low.

Second Opinion

The opening section is okay. A bit wordier and dry than the subject matter would seem to call for, and a bit too predictable as well.

The second half is at least unexpected. Possibly because the idea is a little daft; which you lampshade a bit. But the end descends into talking heads and the very end falls a little bit flat: it's just a bit too easy for this guy to 'win’ here. Middleish?

The Game of Life

Milton-Bradley or the cellular automata?

Okay, this is very well done. For a story whose bulk is two or three conversations between two people, it avoids letting any be just a pair of talking heads.

It's interesting that several stories have taken tropes that are usually dystopian and went with a maybe this isn't so bad a thing approach.

Good, high group.


It's/Its error early, for shame. Decent version of a string of cliches though. And an okay action set piece, a bit devoid of character, skipping over the most interesting bit, but with an interesting and well-executed ending. Middle?

The Anarchist and the Associate

Nice, strong opening, a little awkward at the very end. My eyes are rolling at the buzzword bingo line, and not in a good way.

Are you taking minutes at a criminal conspiracy? I don't buy the ending, really. I mean, if this is possible, the next Corp in line will recreate it in a few months. Releasing it into the wild, giving everyone the tools to make perfect frames and thus destroying confidence in the system seems the more Anarchist approach here. And it's only a little bit accellerationist, as soon as two factions will this tech go to war that's going to happen anyhow. High,though.

True Futures

A lot of repetition in the opening paragraph. The body, again and again. Okay noir opener though.

Occurs. Somewhat off word choice.

Very bad dialog. Not how humans talk. Odd formatting. And no ending. I mean, it just cuts off, not even a chapter break works. Maybe a commercial break. Lowish.

Planned Obsolescence

Interesting use of brands here, but slow start otherwise. And it's a sort of slow, low-stakes story in general. Nicely written, but not much there there. I think the explicit calling out of the brands bit hurts. Are there near future sci fi games with healer roles? Middle.

Hot Pursuit

Second sentence is probably too long, should be broken up. Good start, though. 'infrared’ twice in a row is awkward, I'd rewrite or use IR or heat lamp for the second.

This is a reasonably well-written scene, but the ending is completely unearned. The narrator's decision here comes out of nowhere and seems at odds with, well, being the kind of person who could be even survivable good at that job. Also, putting security on commission is such a bad idea that the corps would have to be committed to evil over profit to try it... (You want the security to deter shoplifters, let them know they're being watched. Commissioning them means they're incentivized to hide and ambush instead.)

Middle, maybe middle-high.

The God Code(a Sermon)

Wasps are hateable, but I hope there's a story here. Oh. There isn't. Not sure where the flash fits either.

I mean, this might make an okay high school essay, and there might be a story involving a church whose reaction to the problem of evil is <shrug emoji>, but it falls far short of what we want here. Low, possible loss candidate.

Rosa & Tom

'great scores’, not making sense from word two. These aren't musical compositions, every score is the same 20 items, none can be greater than another.

Okay, this one sets up some interesting ideas, does some nice, subtle world building, but doesn't do enough with it. We get the setup for multiple mysteries, but no resolution, down to the title itself, and to the narrator doesn't have enough internal life going on to get us past that, doesn't experience enough conflict or exercise enough agency to make for a story.

Middle, maybe low-middle.


Okay opening. Full name sentence openers three times in a row probably a bad choice.

This one is just basic, I think. Nothing exciting or new, just standard corporate dystopia and a garden path to successful revolt for the protagonist. And I have to wonder why the goons were too lazy to do an even slightly thorough search of their victim's apartment.



Is this worth the gimmick? There's only one real branch to the story. The call-and-response aspect,the forced participation to break up and drive the story is does something, I suppose.

The words are good, and the narratives interesting. I may take another look in script form, to more critically examine the prose. High.

Pieces and Parts

A tense shift in the first two sentences, not a good sign. It may even be technically correct here, but it's still more confusing than it has to be. Use a direct quote instead.

So, does a tired urban legend get any more interesting when you search and replace 'penis’ for 'kidney’? Possibly, but I think to make it work you'd need to not dance around the subject. The way you went I was sort of hoping you'd end up with it being something else, somehow. Middle, maybe low middle.

Cheating on the Turing Test

Semicolon should be a comma. The second part isn't a complete sentence. Missing word 'after’ in sentence two. 'to teased’.

Proofing issues aside, this is an okayish scene that does some interesting things. I'm not 100% sure it's intentional, but there's an interesting tension between two interpretations here, whether he's making a healthy decision or being cruel, whether the ai is sentient enough to be a victim of society or just, well, a masturbation aid. The title makes me lean toward intentional here. High.

The Walls of London

Opening is a bit slow. A lot of infodumping before we get to the fireworks factory. And we don't even get that. Hell,we don't even get any physical description of the nearly failing wall section.

Also more corporate stupidity here. Taking possession before due diligence is just daft.


Into the Night

Another opening infodump. Everyone, establish some character and conflict first, then fill in the background when you need to break up the pace. Get the story started.

And this one doesn't really know where the story is. There's interesting parts before it starts. There is something very interesting after it ends. But what we get,apart from utopian woolgathering, is a short conversation the point of which is that nothing is going to happen soon. Middle.

Off Sight

This one is good, but unsatisfying. Incomplete. It doesn't help that the last section is a long talking heads conversation with a bland new character, or that the protagonist doesn't have much going on himself other than being the guy something strange is happening to. Middle-high.

Never Stops

Wait, wasn't it Mariposa that hacked packer?

This is a functional story here. A bit lacking in character development, but it has a working plot that reaches a solid ending, which is an accomplishment this week. Middle-high.

Flying High

Producing should be produced or the stop before should be a comma.

I really liked this one, another win candidate for me. I was a bit confused by what happened with the guard, though. Were they human, and killed by torso removal, or something else? Why is an apparently lethal weapon called a stunner?

To see a sparrow fall

Title capitalization rules, please.

This is a nice and harmless little character piece. The most interesting bit is the two characters, their work relationship intruding on their off-time/other job interactions. The detailed tech nonsense is amusing but probably a bit too long. The outside misery is better-drawn. Middle.

The Devil Lives in Razak Towers

Second person. Cool. This is a very strong opening, too. Cheating the hell out of the word count with all those neologism compounds. I approve.

Near certain win, far above the previous candidates.

Social Climbers

Interesting voice here. Short sentences. Hemingway as cyberpunk. But only for the first few paragraphs, then a more normal style. The rich/poor vertical segregation seems inconsistent, reversing itself.

Amusing, with fairly well fleshed out characters, but not enough going on to compete this week.

Wake up

This story feels, well, rushed. The speech in the middle is heavy-handed, the central relationship could use a bit more screen time, and I sort of think what happens next is more interesting than what happens in the story.


Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

Saucy_Rodent posted:

If God can be said to make mistakes, his first mistake is certainly the existence of wasps.

In for the brawl, :toxx:.

Also for the week with a flash.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
The Tasting Menu

1031 words

Word is, the Widow was buried in white. Only the undertaker knows for sure, and he's enough one of our guys that he'll never say a word, not even to his wife or his mistress.

Closed casket, bolted down tight, because we know what kind of people call themselves press these days. Whoever made the bomb didn't mess around. Some crews, half their guys wouldn't show up at the wake, not with an enemy out there. Might be wiser, but we show strength instead. Everyone's here, down from the Captains: old Franco stumbling half-blind and selectivity addled when one of the Fed watchers comes too close, Gabe in his damned shiny tux, Constantine with his slicked hair and his latest arm candy, deep tan skin, implausible breasts and stoplight red long hair. At least this one's quiet.

The Widow was wearing white, they said. She wore black to her wedding. Well, dark violet. Like a blackberry. Like her eyes. Alonzo, the old boss, got a kick out of it. His mother was not so amused. She tried to warn the old bastard, but he never did think with the big head. She was a month after the wedding. Alonzo didn't last the year. It's like she told me, when she brought me on board. She was a college girl, got half an MBA and half a law degree on top of her Sociology Batch, and she said the most important thing she learned those six and a half years was that you should dress for the job you want, not the one you have.

The soldiers come marching in, leaving something in front of the blown-up photograph. Some of them leave flowers, daisies or roses or an iris. Others lay down a bullet, .22s or .44s or .30-07 APDS. Their wives stay in the back of the room, shaking their heads, not understanding.

The organization took a long time to get used to a woman at the top. What helped was that nobody else wanted the job too much. Alonzo's sons, from his first wife, they were all kept out of the business. The good ones were good for running the legitimate businesses. The rest had no skill in anything but spending money. Alonzo had lots of bastards, too. Me and my mother can tell you from experience. We mostly ended up in the crew, and some eyes went our way.  Mine in particular. But I didn't want it. And she did.

I decide to pay my respects with the soldiers. It's a kind of a statement. I'm one of those boxes to the side you'd find on an org chart. If we did org charts. The FBI try to keep on, of course, but I saw it once and it's a joke. Anyhow, I report to the Widow. Reported. And I can- could speak for her, commandeering anyone short of a Captain, at need. Like I said, paying respect will the muscle rather than the Captains is a statement. “I'm still not interested”, I hope it says loud and clear.

Most days the Widow ate in, private chefs or one of the men from the Continent who got their Nanas to hand over a recipe or two. But every now and then she went out. When she did, she ate like a food critic from out of town on a short deadline. She went to a dozen restaurants in a night, ordering a meal and taking a single bite before hustling off to the next place. Of course, the food critic would have left the rest to the garbage. I had guys get it into to-go bags, took it back to the warehouse. Once she was back home we'd eat well, the soldiers and me, Michelin Star cuisine warmed in a cheap 600 watt microwave on paper plates with plastic forks and knives. She insisted.

The Captains come around, making their cases without making their cases, while the family has their time up front. I pretend to listen. Fact is, the organization was better run under the Widow than it had been under Alonzo, or his father before. She knew management techniques from this century, to start. She never settled in, never stopped wanting to find better ways of working. She wanted it more. She wanted money like Alonzo wanted a brand new mistress, and she came home to more money every day.

She had other appetites, of course. The way it worked was this: you might, if you were lucky or handsome or had the kind of tool that garnered its own reputation, get one night. She made to the move. And if you even hinted at trying to get more, you'd be dead in a day. It didn't take long for the lesson to get learned. I had my night, early on, when she was still consolidating power. At the end, she said “Can you imagine me old?” She was gloriously naked and I could not. “Don't answer,” she said before I did.

Constantine has ideas, all bad, that he won't stop telling me about. “Soon as we get back from the Riviera we can get into the details.” The woman on his arm giggles. Our eyes meet. Her left contact lens slips, swims a small circle, and I see violet eyes behind the artificial brown.

It's a very good disguise. I could have been fooled forever, but for that errant lens. And she must have been playing the part, the dual role, for months. I know what will happen next. They will go to France. Constantine will come back in a box, and she will disappear forever, with however much of the organization's money she thinks fair. I should feel betrayed, but I only feel relief.

I have an idea who to back, now. Alonzo had two daughters along with his brace of sons. One is at least as worthless as her brothers, but the other is smart. Sophia hated the Widow, wasn't at the ceremony or here at the wake. Was my top suspect for the bomb until a minute ago. Probably not a big fan of me either, but I can work with that.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
Brawl with Saucy Rodent

Eirene’s Insect

248 words

The men who built atomic rockets first
To break the bounds of sullen gravity
And threaten horror beyond reason's grasp
All must have seen and recognized at once
The startling beauty of the wasp in flight.

The scorpion will claim to understand
And check his tretch'rous nature for a while:
All lies, of course, he will doom self and frog.
The wasp makes no such pretense of a deal.
Instead its very colors scream a threat:
Cross me and I will die to cause you pain.

Society is often just the art
Of making virtue of each corrupt vice.
How greed is harnessed into industry
How lust drives deep ambitions to impress
How sloth fathers invention to spare work.
When we discard Athena and red Mars
And strive to find a path from war to peace
That isn't desolation by that name
We emulate the action of the wasp:
Spite, pure spite announced with voices clear
Will stop the war before it can begin.

That ancient goddess of peace must agree:
Imagine if one were her tool at Troy
And raised a welt on Helen's perfect cheek,
And stopped a thousand ships from taking sail,
Or stung violent Achilles’ tender flesh,
Or taught the Trojans hate enough, in time
To burn the offered gift outside their gates.

Remember well the yellow and black bars
Remember well the threat that they imply
And follow through when follow through you must
And wasp-like, teach deterrence to the world.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

Wake Up!

1299 words

A few hours ago I was sitting on a flight to Atlanta, coach, next to a middle-aged man in a faded seersucker suit who talked my ear off the whole way. Couldn't shut it down for a second, and when I went silent he just went melancholy. By the time we were getting ready to land he was just saying the same thing, over and over again. “When did it all go wrong?”

I could have given him the answer, and the where, too, but I wasn't in an explaining mood. When did it all go wrong? April 14, 1971, an hour and a half after midnight. Where? Clyburn Farm, three miles out of Vauxhall, Georgia. I should know. I was there.


We were fools, all of us but maybe Simon. A bunch of kids dropped out of college after we found a couple of Grimoires, learned how to do a few flashy spells. To be honest, I was in the group mainly out of trying to get into Lexie's pants. A lot of that kind of thing going on. Me and Scott were chasing Lexie, Jesse and Lexie were mad for Simon, and Simon was just plain mad. In our crap apartment with the crap air conditioning in the Atlanta summer the air got thick with hormones like a high school dance and the only one outside it all was Cheryl, bite-your-tongue off if you look at her wrong Cheryl, more magic in her than any of us and smarter than Simon thought he was Cheryl. My little sister, and maybe the biggest fool of us all.

First thing is, not one of use knew the first thing about sheep. But the spell called for one, for a sacrifice. So we got us some rope and loaded into Jesse's panel can with the Grateful Dead mural on one side and his own painting of Pompeii on the other, lava breaking up a Roman orgy just barely tasteful enough to be street legal. We all got in and went out to Vauxhall, because it was where the closest sheep farm was according to the yellow pages, and thought we were going to steal us a sheep.

You ever try to steal a sheep? No, of course not. You're not some kind of nineteenth century border reaver or something like that. Let me tell you that the sheep is nature's own stubborn fool. Goats, donkeys, they don't match the sheep. At least they have a survival instinct to work with. You put a rope around a sheep's neck and pull, if it doesn't want to move it'll hang itself rather than shift an inch. Now, we weren't sheep-stubborn ourselves. We saw it wasn't going to move, we let up before the thing killed itself. But there we were, rope in hand, no rent money in the other, counting on the spell to fix everything, and the sheep wouldn't shift an inch. I don't remember who came to the dumb idea first, if it was me or Scott or Lexie, but whoever said it, the rest of us agreed except maybe Cheryl. She just sighed, an angry tired sigh that could have been 'you idiots, this is a horrible idea’ or 'you idiots, what took you so long to think of it?’ Either way, we had a majority, and Simon was part of it, so that was it. We would do the spell right there.

So they sent me and Scott and Lexie back to the van to collect the gear, all our daft candles and rock salt and preserved organ meats, the usual stuff for people who learned magic out of books written down in the seventeen hundreds written by people trying to pretend they're just copying spells that are already a thousand years old. Even the ones with real talent had to write their spells that way to fit in, just like the modern types have to use words like 'chaos’ and ‘fractal’ whether they know what they mean or not, and work their spells into that damned 'cheat codes of the universe’ metaphor that seems like the only way anyone younger than twenty-five can think about magic. Listen to the old man ramble. It's almost like I don't want to think about what happened next.

It was supposed to be a wishing spell. Simon found the cypher on the margins of the Liber Thoth, and Cheryl did most of the work cracking the codes. Powerful magic, hidden magic, hidden even from the other practitioners. We drew the circles and inscribed stars, traced symbols, chanted, got high on stuff that should have left us dead or at least blind. And I slit that sheep's throat open and watched it bleed out over the inner salt lines. And nothing happened.

I stood there, surprised by my own disappointment. Magic worked. I knew it. It had to work. I swore, and didn't notice Simon take the dagger out of my hand, didn't notice Lexie and Jesse stepping back and behind Cheryl.

“Yeah, a sheep was never going to do it,’ said Simon. I tried to charge at him. My feet didn't move. Holding spell, never would have hit me without the drugs. I still don't know which one cast it. I don't guess it matters.

“When we're all gods, you'll thank me,” said Simon.

“I'll kill you,” I said. Simon's right hand and the dagger were already in motion. Cheryl tried a spell, a lethal one,impressive with her hands bound behind her, but Simon swatted it away with his left and struck home with his right.

“You had better kill me,” I said. “Because I am wishing you dead stronger than you can wish anything right now.”

“You make a convincing point,” he said. He gestured to Lexie. She drew a gun, a monster gun that looked almost cartoonish in her tiny hand. She held it steady, and raised it at me. And that's when everything went wrong.

It wasn't a wishing spell. Not for our wishes, at least. It was a wake-up call, for something ancient and powerful. It has lots of names, none of them real. It comes from before names, from before everything we can put our little monkey brains around. From before time. And we woke it up.

It appeared. It was beyond human comprehension. In its presences a mind will try to approximate what's going on, switching metaphors every microsecond, leaving a series of after images, all violent. I watched it kill the others in a million different ways, all at once, and then it left.

It took a good while to figure out why I survived. For a while I thought it wanted to use me, for some kind of herald or something. Nope. It didn't kill me because it can't. Blood sympathy. Cheryl was the sacrifice, and I'm too close to her, magically speaking, for it to hurt.

Funny thing is, it runs the world, maybe more, now. So the whole world can't hurt me. It was Lexie who wanted immortality, eternal youth out of the spell. I never really gave it that much thought, probably would have gone for knowledge. Beggars, choosers, you know what they say.


I don't know why I came here. It's not like I have some kind of plan, know a way to put the Oldest Thing back to sleep. I just realized that I hadn't been in more than forty years and had to see.

I walk right up to the fence at Cherry Farm, formerly Clyburn, and remember. I almost fall asleep, starting at the sound of a bleat.

I look up and see the sheep, gathered together at the fence, staring at me.

And every one of them has Cheryl's eyes.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
In and flash

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
The Sounds of Hammers on Glass, Played in a Minor Key

582 words

“Remember when all these houses had windows?” asked Father Char. I didn't answer. It was hard to forget, here, where the walls had wooden boards covering the holes left, not like in the upper city where new walls had already been built. But you don't last long as Father Char's assistant if you don't recognize a rhetorical question when you hear it. The priest completed a stroke of his pointy beard and continued. “Before we understood the trouble about.”

I nodded. He was on a roll, as usual. This was the third round-up in as many days. With the right incentives everyone could be relied on to help their neighbors free themselves from the sins of glass. “But now we know the truth and how mortal sin goes right through anything that's clear.”

“Oh, no doubt,” I said.

“So let's collect every little scrap of it, toss it in the pile.”

“Smash it,” I said. Char grabbed my cheeks and pulled them up.

“With a smile.” He said.

“No need for a trial for every lout.”

The pile was growing, in our wheelbarrow. Most surrendered their suspect items.

“After all,” continued Father Char, “We know what's best for them. Gospel testifies. Only guilt denies. So let the hammer cast the devil out.”

I went to it, and as the glass shattered I heard the voices inside, a twisted echo. “Listen, begin, and let the devil in.”

We worked through the more obdurate part of town, where people protested as we took their dangerous glassware away from them. Father Char had answers to each objection.

“Come on, sir, this mug here is harmless.”

“The cause of a drunken night's brawl.”

“A little mirror can't be too bad.”

“Ah, but vanity is Woman's fall.”

A man clung to his eyeglasses. “Without these I can't see to read.”

“Books, save one, have a dangerous call.”

He dismissed the next claims summarily. A telescope: “Lust,” a jeweler's lens: “Greed”, a row of part full glasses of water the owner tried to play as a musical instrument, badly: “An awful noise,” a sack of marbles: “Gambling tools, the devil's toys,”

“Please, sir,” came a voice. I almost didn't see where it came from, until I looked down. It was a small girl, with long red hair and a blue flowing scarf, clutching a snow globe. I stopped my swinging, and the music of breaking glass stopped. “It's all I have to remember my mother.” There seemed to be some kind of small lizard inside the globe. It wasn't moving, was probably plastic, but there was something insolent about it's stillness.

“And,” said Father Char, “Was she a particularly virtuous woman?” He wore a smile like a bear trap. She looked away. Father Char grabbed it and put it on the pile. I started swinging again. “And so we see the gospel truth of it, here we have to shout: Smash the glass and cast the devil out.”

The glass grinding echoed again, a large chunk catching Father Char's reflection, distorted. “When we win and let the devil in.”

I almost missed it. The snow globe wasn't in the pile. It rolled off, almost on its own power, and I just caught the girl running after it. I started to give chase, knowing that it would like as not end with her escaped and me falling face-first into a ding wagon. But Father Char put his hand on my shoulder. “Not now. We'll be watching her.”

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
4:51 AM

1250 words

The Union Pacific overnight freight from Kansas City to El Paso rolled down the tracks behind Kevin's house every morning at 4:51 AM, thirty-nine minutes before his alarm went off. Most mornings it woke him up, and by the time he had gone to the bathroom to empty his bladder of the work of two kidney-nights and settled back into bed it was time to get ready for work.

This had been going on since he moved in, three years ago. He explored possible solutions, but they all failed. The only earplugs strong enough to block the sound also rendered him unable to hear his fire alarms, he learned through extensive testing, and so he sadly consigned the poor things to the trash. Three different contractors quoted figures on soundproofing the house that he could not even pretend to afford, and the fourth was obviously a crook, a fraud without the equipment for the job. Kevin reported the man to the police, but nothing came of it. He resigned himself to the lost hour of sleep.

Then one Sunday a tree fell in the woods, and Kevin was awake to hear it. He collected his notebook from the middle left kitchen drawer, a blue dry-erase pen, and an umbrella and went out into the rain. His umbrella was a good one, capable of taking a strong breeze without inverting. Kevin had owned and discarded fifteen inferior umbrellas before he found this model.

He reached the woods, umbrella struggling mightily to free itself from his grip, and saw the tree, fallen across the railroad tracks. He consulted his notebook, turning laminated pages one-handed, finding the hand-drawn map he was looking for. The tree was on his lot, or had been. Now it was on his, on Union Pacific land, and on whatever person was living in the house behind his. The rain and wind were slacking, so he briefly transferred the umbrella handle his armpit, crouched, and  pulled out the pen. He marked through the circle representing the tree on his map with a blue 'X’, and drew a line crossing the tracks. The he returned pen to pocket, closed the notebook, properly took hold of the umbrella again, and walked briskly back to his house.

He spent the rest of the day on the phone, calling the city to report the fallen tree. They politely listened to him and told him that an emergency removal crew would be out by noon Monday. Kevin expressed his concerns regarding the 4:51 train that morning. The city official told him that that line had been out of service for a year and a half, and would not believe Kevin when he said that he had been woken up by that train just the previous Friday. He repeated nearly the exact same conversation with as much of the City government's chain of command as could be reached on a stormy Sunday afternoon. He called and emailed as many Union Pacific representatives as he could find contact information for, which was very few, and who ultimately told him the same story.

Kevin's neighborhood was not particularly close or open. He did not carpool or go to barbeques or yard sales. His interactions with the people living next to him were strictly limited to the subject of misdelivered mail, and Kevin liked it fine that way. Nonetheless, he found himself ringing the door of the light peach painted house to his left without so much as a flier addressed to 'resident’ with the street number four less than his own. He waited. The door opened. His neighbor, with a head of curly black hair and a salt-and-pepper beard answered. Kevin went straight to the point.

“Been a while since it woke me up, got to say,” he said. “These days I can sleep through near anything. But a year and a half? I think I remember it more recently than that.”

His neighbor wasn't concerned about it, though. “The people running things aren't fools.” Kevin just stared at him. “Not that kind of fool. They know the tree is there, and they'll do something if something needs doing.”

Kevin did not sleep that night. At three AM he gave up, got dressed and went outside. He wondered what a safe distance might be. He took out his phone, and let his finger hover over the emergency call button. As the time grew nearer he wondered what he would do if nothing happened, if it was a vivid dream that had been waking him up each weekday for more than a year. He had never been able to stick to therapy for more than a few weeks, and that sounded like a years-of-work sort of problem. Then he started to hear the noise of the engine driving down the rails. He checked the time on his phone. 4:49. 4:50.

He saw the train, just slow enough to see clearly. It passed right through the tree: the engine, five boxcars, three tanker cars, two car carriers, three more boxcars, four open container cars full of coal, three flat cars loaded with timber, and finally, the bright red caboose. The tree was still there, lying across the tracks. He walked to it. In the center, where the train had passed through, the tree looked different. Younger. Live wood rather than dead.

Kevin called in for a personal day, to deal with the tree removal people. He watched them work. They did not take any notice of the changed midsection of trunk, and Kevin did not raise the point either.

Kevin adjusted his schedule, setting his alarm for four AM, getting to bed earlier to compensate. He watched the train go by each morning. Sometimes he would put things on the track, to see how they were changed. Autumn leaves turned green. Old coins did not flatten but lost their tarnish. He learned that he could recharge old dead batteries. The obvious next experiment occurred to him, placing a recently dead animal on the rails, but between conception and implementation he had a vivid, horror-movie nightmare and he tried to abandon the idea, but it kept returning to his mind unbidden. Finally, the only way he could stop himself from trying it was to give up experimenting at all. He returned to his 5:30 alarm habit, to being awakened early most mornings.

It worked. He did not think about the ghost train running behind his house each morning.

Until he saw an alarmed expression on his doctor's face during a checkup. Medicine was not his field, but he understood the critical words. Terminal. Inoperable. He could look up what Stage IV meant online.

It took longer than he suspected, but one Monday morning he lay down on those tracks, pain from a dozen points of failure seeping through the medication haze. The sound of the engine filled his ears and he resisted the instinct to stand.

He wondered what would happen next, and the fact that nobody would miss him much, disappeared or dead or whatever struck him hard. He always knew that was objectively sad, but the sadness never landed on him until that moment.

Then the train.

He was a child, ten years old with no memories more recent than the early eighties, in a stranger's oversized clothes and a science fiction future, and he knew what he wanted more than anything was someone to share this adventure with.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
Dust and Blood

1000 words

Silas Hope walked, dust beneath his boots, caking his clothes, invading his lungs. Dust was his world, dust ahead, behind, beside, below. Above was the throbbing sun, and turkey buzzards casting shadows as they slowly wheeled lazy circles, waiting for him to die. Silas walked forward, step by dusty step. He took a pull of hot water from his flask, careful to not let a single drop fall on the ground. He walked, and he remembered.

Parts are a merciful blur. Antietam, standing in the midst of the cannon, launching balls of green fire that fell among the grapeshot and canister. In nightmares he hears the blasts and shouts, but it was silent as a church at midnight, the spells protecting his ears forming a perfect seal, leaving just a dull throb in his bones. Other battles, after the war had turned: walking through the overrun positions of the Rebs, seeing his work on the ground.

He took pride in seeing no wounded survivors where the green fire hit, no boys in grey moaning over the ruin of an arm or leg or a slowly leaking gut. He still did take a kind of pride in that, for better reasons.

The sun was in his eyes and about to fade. A fool might think it better to travel by night and sleep under shade by day. A fool might not know what hunts these dead lands by starlight. He stopped walking, drew runes in dust and lit them in cold green fire and slept in the circle's center. The ward kept out much, but was useless against dreams.

After the war, most wizards went west. All the places of power east of the Mississippi had fences and guards posted, and an Army pension wasn't enough to buy a part-stake in those concerns. Some stayed with the Army, charging on parkland loci and killing Indians. Silas had lost the taste for taking orders. He went west, tried to settle down. Violence followed him like an abandoned lover’s kin.

His own fault. He could have stood aside when the impatient mob came out, unwilling to wait for a circuit-rider. He could have let the railroad men run his wife's family off their land or buy it for pennies on the dollar. He could have turned down any of the badges he was offered.

Thing was, it always went to hell anyhow. The man was just as dead when it was a judge and jury pretending to believe him guilty as just the mob. The railroad couldn't be stopped any more than the engine on its track, and as dead as the men who killed his family wound up, the ones back east just got richer. Only so much one spellslinger could do.

In the night he dreamed each little tragedy through, again. He was there, again. And he knew how each one was going to play out. He tried different strategies, sent his wife east with the kids, say, or set better traps for the ones he knew were coming. Nothing changed. He never tried the big change, though. He knew it was just a dream, knew it couldn't matter, but he could never turn away at the start.

He woke up with the sun and the crackle of sparking runes. He took out his pot and did his necessaries into it, careful of spillage, then worked a spell. The water in the pot went to- well, Silas was never much for theory. To the other side of the faerie veil, to Hell, to the world of pure ideals. To wherever. Pure cold water from the same place filled his flask, ten times as much. He checked to be sure: the pot's contents were dry as desert bones, baked dung and piss-ash too dessicated to raise a stench. He emptied it and kept walking. He felt like he was being followed.

There's a place where the rails from Iowa to California take a wide turn even though  every map marks them straight, where the people who make the timetables know something has to be wrong but every surveyor they send can't tell them Jack. This is a secret place, a place that confounds maps and memory, one not many people knew about, white or otherwise. Silas stumbled into it drunk in his early widowerhood and barely survived, barely got out. He just called it the place, usually. When a bit too drunk or feeling like a poet he called it the center, the secret heart of the continent.

Lately, Silas had been trying to stay out of trouble, but magic was getting scarce even out west. Lots of wizards were getting the fool idea they could be the one to take him, get power that way. He was fast with a spell or a shooting iron, but it was tiring. A week before it was a kid, voice barely dropped. Talked trash to his face, slinked away, then tried to sneak up behind him. Silas threw the killing spell casually, by instinct. When he saw the kid's poor dead face after he almost puked. Maybe fifteen. But he had a spellcatcher and a pistol in hand.

Silas took a drink, the water still cold.

“Put your hands in the air.” The voice behind him was unfamiliar, but he knew it came with a trained gun and someone dumb enough not to just shoot. He raised his hands, letting the flask tilt and spill out a trickle of water.

When the water hit the dust they both turned to blood, an ocean of blood. There was a wild shot behind him, and then nothing but the rush of that ruby tide. Silas swam, and the other man drowned, and that was all there was of that. After a minute or an hour of a week, the blood turned back to dust. Silas mumbled a prayer over the bones, took the dead man's hat and boots, and turned around, heading back to Reno.

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
In and flash.


Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.


1067 words

Amanda poured a glass of wine and looked at the calendar, big boxes gridded-off in a whiteboard. Tomorrow was a green circle and a green time in small neat letters. Green, just the color she had at hand, at the time. She looks away. She wasn't there for tomorrow. She looked at today, peeled off the lavender post-it note, and checked the address again. Devin and Marta's fifth anniversary party. Their house was where she thought it was, right on the 22 line. Six stops down. She had plenty of time to get ready. She got up and looked for the appropriate handbag. The glass of wine was still resting on the counter in front of the calendar, still full, when she left the apartment.

Devin and Marta weren't exactly her people, really. But close. Junior Associates and paralegals. Some of the people in Amanda's department had been there forever, the partners knew them by name. And a few of the ones on their side of the divide came up through hers. Devin was one, a night school go-getter.  Still, it was always awkward, socializing across the salary gap. She would have rather been off on whatever urbex adventure Jackie and the others were out doing than here, dodging boring shop talk and Bryce, who had made an aggressive study of the harassment training manuals and made expert use of what he thought of as loopholes.

But she wasn't completely helpless. She did have a story, one she had already told a few people at work. It had been a great vacation, Italy in the spring, and with her so far beyond her last relationship that it didn't even sting, a great vacation romance. Vincenzo, who spoke even worse English than she did Italian. They both studied the other tongue in college, more for the literature than for conversation, and hadn't used it since. Still, they managed to communicate just fine. She told the story, repeatedly to different audiences, between the hosts’ equally redundant answerings of the same questions, the how-do-you-do it and the question of children, answering with shrugs and smiles for the first and “maybe once we've both made partner, but given the stare of the world...” to the second. She felt like a ping-pong ball, rallying between those conversations, mainly, occasionally interrupted by Bryce's increasingly maudlin comments about climate change and politics. She thought about a brief retreat to the bar, but the wine glass she got there on arrival was still full. She went anyway.

Bryce was there, on a few too many, arguing with the bartender. “If you don't pour me another,” he said, “I'll kill myself. Swear.”

The bartender backed away, holding up his hands. “Hey, man,” he said, “I don't want any trouble, but I got rules I gotta follow, you know.”

Bryce turned around. “Hey, Amanda. Didn't see you there. Sleep with me or else I'll kill myself.” He got up, unsteadily, from the barstool. “Nah, just kidding. Sorry. But how about a hug?”

Bryce lurched forward, faster than Amanda could back away. She held her hands up as Bryce glomped forward. The wine glass broke at the stem, emptying the red wine largely onto her green top.

The hosts arrived almost instantly, Devin pulling Bryce aside to deliver a litany of 'not cool’ bullet points while Marta came to Amanda's side. She stared at the broken-off glass stem and realized she was extremely thirsty. She set it down on the bar and picked up a bottled water, opened it, and took a deep drink.

“Can I get you anything-” asked Marta.

“I just want to go home,” she answered, surprised at how calm she sounded. Marta nodded and pulled out her phone to call an Uber. She handed Amanda a wad of bills,”To cover the dry-cleaning. We'll get it back from Bryce when he sobers up. And get him, I don't know. Training. Therapy. An intervention and a program, I don't know. Maybe all three.” The money was more than twice what it cost when she bought it, but Amanda didn't say anything.

In the car, she thought about tomorrow. She hadn't considered using a taxi or rideshare. It might be easier, but she didn't want to ride with a stranger. She'd call Jackie. Jackie owed her. Bryce had brought back those memories, too. Amanda talked Jackie down off of a ledge, a literal ledge, four stories up over concrete, and she'd had a lot more to be upset about at the time, a lot better reason to be up there. “If you do, they win,” she had said. “And it will be your fault.” She took a psych class a year later and gradually became horrified at herself, but it had worked, that time and the next few times when it didn't get as far to start. “Despair is complicity.”

When she got home, Amanda headed straight for the bathroom. As she sat she saw the tests in the bathroom trash. Three of them, the first bought when she noticed she was late, the other two on a separate trip immediately after. The third was meant to be the tiebreaker, but when there was no tie she didn't see any reason not to confirm it even more. Three sets of two parallel lines, hexagram one of the I Ching. She looked it up. 'The Creative’, because of course it was.

She walked out, back to the calendar, wondering whether to call Jackie now or in the morning. She didn't make the call. She stared at the circle. Then she looked down, noticed the full glass of wine on the table and realized she'd made her decision before she got up this morning.

She called the clinic, expecting a machine but getting a human instead. “I need to cancel my appointment for tomorrow. Yes. I am. Thank you.” Her lips curled up, involuntary politeness. She felt a little dumb, knowing the woman on the line, downtown or in a call center in Bangalore or whatever couldn't possibly see her.

She erased the green circle, and thought how wrong it was for the only person to know to be that stranger. Everyone else could wait the ten more weeks. She had already tapped Jackie's contact. The phone rang.

“Hello?” said Jackie, warehouse echoes and raucous activity in the background.

“So, I'm going to have a baby.”

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