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Idle Amalgam
Mar 7, 2008

said I'm never lackin'
always pistol packin'
with them automatics
we gon' send 'em to Heaven
Oh boy, in :toxx:


Oct 6, 2021

Obliteratin' everything,
incineratin' and renegade 'em
I'm here to make anybody who
want it with the pen afraid
But don't nobody want it but
they're gonna get it anyway!

In, whispered spookily

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.

Aug 8, 2013


Oct 23, 2010

Legit Cyberpunk


Bad Seafood
Dec 10, 2010

If you must blink, do it now.

Aug 22, 2022

Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.

Chernobyl Princess
Jul 31, 2009

It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.

:siren:thunderdome winner:siren:

Week 533 Crits

My Dear Abigail
The one where a guy summons a ghost for Sex Reasons.

This one was a little all over the place, just too much going on and none of it felt like it had enough emotional backing from the characters. The confusion of the Abigail was the best part, the parts where she was questioning, not understanding, feeling adrift. As soon as she twigged to Richard not being Richard it started to fail, partially because in all of Devin’s ranting we didn’t get WHY he summoned her ghost in the first place. Like, why her? Why summon a ghost when you could do any number of less complicated things to get laid? And then what I guess was a meet-cute between Abigail and Ben at the end felt very tacked on, very separate from anything else that happened in the story. You have a potentially solid foundation, but the structure needs re-working.

The Dancing Winds
The one where airy spirits dance and I guess kind of prevent a war by yelling about it?

So I mentioned the problem of going meta before, and I’ll expand: without the skill to back it up, it makes you look snide. It makes you look like you’re making a big joke of the whole thing, and therefore you don’t have to take any criticism seriously. Which is the problem a lot of folks are having with giving you crits. The fact that you took my response of “you can’t solve the problem with violence” and decided to have the problem just vanish instead is indicative to me that you are struggling with the basics of interaction. Your story gave me the impression that you were more interested in showing that you didn’t care what the judgement would be rather than showing your abilities at crafting a narrative.

You did have a moment where you described what the sylphs dancing might look like to outsiders that was pretty neat. You added a few neat worldbuilding details (“manned” instead of “damned” was cute). But ultimately, it was a story that tried to do very little and only barely managed that. Thus, the loss.

What I Want is a Day
The one where a guy hangs out under a bridge with his troll lover.

This is sweet, and in some ways it’s the most romantic of the stories this week. It’s a small moment in which nothing happens, but it feels profound to the main character. The problem is that this story is doing a lot with subtext, and it doesn’t have enough text to back it up. The prose is lovely, it just needed more of it.

Real Vampires, Fake Relationship
The one where a couple of Ventrue go to dinner

Another cute one. It’s a very sit-com setup, but it was a neatly done sit-com setup with characters who could very easily have been unpleasant but turned out to be just Weird. I liked the little jokes, “We must learn to be more awoken about unusual arrangements” and so forth. The only thing that hurt it is that I am already very familiar with the Vampire gaming system, so it is marred a bit by my own expectations of that specific system.

The one with the Minotaur

This starts off incredibly strong. The powerful, constant drive of the minotaur to kill everyone around him. The way he considers his actions, the way he thinks about the rules of his family and twists them to his own ends… it’s unpleasant and haunting and feral and all the good things that I like in this style of fiction.

But then it’s like you suddenly remember “oh gently caress it’s supposed to be a romance” and you tack this kiss on at the end. It’s unearned, there’s no romance, not even bloodlust, developed between Minotaur and Hunter. I wanted to feel that desire for death-or-victory, for sex-or-oblivion, as powerfully as I could feel the Minotaur’s drive to ruin all those lives around him. And that’s why you got a Judicial Side-Eye, it was so good, and then abruptly Not.

Oh, You Pretty Little Thing
The one where a dragon tries to make her girlfriend feel better

Deft touches of worldbuilding (the convocation, the molt, dragons liquidating their hordes) support a sweet and relatable romance between a girl and her dragon. You made both characters likeable, I understand why they like one another, and you did it in a way that made their problems seem both real and resolveable. Very nice.

Miriam’s Adam
The one where a girl has to fix her crush’s terrible mistake

I appreciate that this wasn’t focused specifically on the supernatural creature. I liked the vivid imagery here, but ultimately it needed more romance. I didn’t see what Kai sees in Miriam. I didn’t see what Miriam sees in the Golem. But the prose was great, the concept was solid, and I’d love to see what the next draft of this story looks like.

Waiting in the Margins
The one where the only thing a guy can count on is his shadow

This was way sweeter than I thought a story between a shadow-person and a human was going to be. I thought I was handing you perfect psychological horror, and instead I got a picture of ennui and loneliness. You said it yourself, this was more flash than fiction, but this is absolutely a piece worth expanding on. I want to read more!

Comin’ Round the Mountain
The one where a mountain nymph keeps trying to seduce a human girl, and her husband thinks it’s funny.

It’s too bad this DQ’ed because I really liked it. It needs an editing pass, some of the phrasing is clunky, especially around introductions, but once the story gets going it’s quite nice. I really appreciated the contrast between the new, exciting romance of Evie and Britta and the old, comfortable romance of Britta and Magnus. I wanted to see more of that, honestly, and I think this particular structure works well to get you there.

Aug 8, 2013

Could I please get a link to the discord?

Jan 23, 2004

college kids ain't shit

Fun Shoe

Sep 5, 2011

to ride eternal, shiny and chrome


What the hell, in.

hard counter
Jan 2, 2015

prepare for hair raisINg spooks

Sitting Here
Dec 31, 2007
For anyone who is interested in NaNoWriMo: there's a new 2022 thread!

Sep 5, 2011

to ride eternal, shiny and chrome


Man I hate posting first but I hate waking early too so there :

The wolf-men (874 words)

It was a moonless night and Gaw was still in the old forest, unafraid. Although no elder had taken him for a son yet, although the spiritman had not anointed his scars with ochre, he was almost a man already, no longer a boy; and he walked briskly, attentive and fearless, until it grew so dark he could not even see the ground beneath his feet. Then he looked up; naked, twisted branches swayed black between him and the stars. He hoisted himself up a big chestnut tree and sat astride a wide bough. Let wolf or bear come now! He would laugh and throw stones at them. He stuck two other branches under his armpits, so that, even asleep, he would not fall; but for now, he did not feel like sleeping at all.

Once again he looked up at the scattered stars, sharp as thorns in the cold, cloudless, moonless sky. On a whim he tried to count them, and stopped after thirty or so. Then he dreamt of pleasures and confused glories, of the lucky hunts he would lead once he was acknowledged as a man. He could see himself already, smiting wolf and aurochs with a sure hand and a strong arm. At the fateful moment any hesitation could mean death; and so he prepared himself already by hardening his resolve, like a spear over the fire.

The bark was rough under his thigh, and he shifted his position, and now looked down. To his surprise, he saw the warm, trembling light of a fire under the trees, at some distance. Those could not be men of his own clan: nobody but him had gone to that part of the forest today, and the hunting parties would not come back this way. Strangers, then. But it is the law of the forest that you do not turn a stranger away from a campfire after nightfall, unless there is a feud between your clans. And Gaw’s clan only feuded with the Mountain Men and the Eaters-of-Storks, who lived way to the south. Already he was climbing down the tree.

He walked in the direction of the fire, thinking of sleeping comfortable by its warmth, of explaining to the strangers that he had found an oxbow further in the woods where fish and frogs were plentiful. He put his hand in his bag, to caress the three big catfish he was bringing back, and decided he would share the biggest with his hosts, roasting it over the fire right away, earning respect for himself and the clan. As he finally glimpsed the light again between the trees, he heard a wolf howl, not far, and hastened his step.

He entered the clearing a bit more hurriedly than he would have wanted. The fire was burning strong, casting shadows, and in its warm light he saw a naked man and woman, strange-haired and beautiful. He did not recognize their clan, but when he raised his hand, the woman raised hers and stood. Unwittingly he stared at her, a little too long, then looked at the man who had remained seated.

Behind the man stood an enormous wolf, and somehow the man did not notice it. Gaw froze in fear and struggled to open his mouth.

“Wolf! Wolf!” he cried out.

The wolf opened his mouth on man-killer’s fangs, and the man put his hand on its head, and the wolf did not attack him. The woman spoke hurriedly in a strange tongue, and an other wolf rubbed against her long, nude leg, as a child might. A second man, whom he had not noticed before, stirred on the ground. He was lying there on a mat of leaves, and a wolf lay on top of him, as a woman would.

Other wolves crept out of the dark, none of them afraid of the fire that reflected in their fearsome eyes. And Gaw watched them with horror walking among the strangers, human and wolf mingled, as if in an abject alliance, neither of them attacking the other.

That made him a boy again, and he flew wildly, in simple terror, pursued by the calls of wolves and the strange memories of what he had seen, too horrified even to think of climbing a tree again. They found him on the morning, teary-eyed and shaking, in a bush at the edge of the forest. In his panic he had lost his bag, and the fish which had made him so proud.

“Wolves and men cannot live together,” his uncle told him, with some annoyance. “The wolves would hunt the men, or the men the wolves.”
“Maybe he saw spirits,” another hunter said. “Spirits are not bound by the laws of the living and in our sleep, we can see them.”

Indeed, Gaw started doubting his memories. Already they faded from his mind, like the track of a beast after a storm. He could no longer tell them apart very clearly from a dream, or a fancy. But the elder Kananu, who missed a hand, questioned him thoroughly and afterward decided that hunters and gatherers would now avoid that part of the forest, and seek safer territory. In those days the world was vast.

Idle Amalgam
Mar 7, 2008

said I'm never lackin'
always pistol packin'
with them automatics
we gon' send 'em to Heaven
1,915 Words

I live in a closed cul-de-sac in an older, but not old, part of town. The houses were built sometime in the mid-seventies/early eighties, and the neighborhoods themselves were the remnants of various housing projects abandoned to pursue the more lucrative commercial gentrification of the surrounding suburb. However, by the time I showed up some twenty years later, knowing the quality of my credit and balance in my account, my wife and I, settled down.

Two dogs, two children, and five years later, Nina and I had figured it out. The future, uncertain as it was, became a bit clearer. We knew where we were headed and generally what to expect. In time, routine once thought stagnant, became something to look forward to. The kids were both in school. Nina had resumed her career doing network security consults, and I quit my job to take a figurative sabbatical. Work had dictated the five years prior and I was done living that way. I decided I’d take a year off to focus on myself.

Distraught with the growing insecurity that my wife thought less of me for my prolonged mental health break, despite her claims that she didn’t, things between us became strained. I still did my best to be fully committed to the kids, but even looking Nina in the eye became difficult. Without being aware of it, my year off became two, and then three, and so on. Nina and I had become strangers to one another. Our conversations were nothing more than efficient exchanges of information.

“How was work?”, “Good.”

“How was dinner?”, “Not bad. Thanks.”

“I love you.”, “Love you too.”

Physical intimacy was awkward and stilted. Every time felt as anxious. Hands that didn’t know what to do grasped clumsily. Lips pressed too tight mashed against one another until teeth clashed. We both faked our share of climaxes when things started to go on too long. It was awful, but we stuck with it as if going through the motions of how we thought a couple should be would be enough to lift the intangible wedge that had built between us over time. It didn’t. Eventually, we stopped trying altogether.

I began looking for jobs again around that time because even with Nina making more than enough money to take care of us, I saw her less and less. I was long accustomed to being a stay-at-home dad and dreaded a return to the workforce. I didn’t even know if my skillset would still be practical in the modern market, but if it meant having some normalcy with Nina, if it meant regaining her respect, I would try. The kids were old enough now that they could take care of themselves mostly and only wanted to deal with their mom or me when they needed money or approval for a night out, so when I did get a job, if I could, it wouldn’t be that big a change in our current arrangement. But things didn’t work out that way.

Interview after interview with no follow-ups, I had reached a new low point in my life. I felt useless. I felt shame and disapproval from my family whose support had, after years, turned to contempt. It doesn’t make me proud to admit it, but I thought about killing myself. It seemed a quick solution to a problem that had spiraled out of my control. No more would I make these embarrassing half-efforts at being a better man. I had lost sight of myself and was adrift in a sea of my own making. I took up walking around the cul-de-sac at night to try and drain the negativity that had begun to well up in me. One night was different though.

As I had been saying, it’s an older neighborhood, but it isn’t old, so there’s no historical information about the houses or anything like that. We each had a ½ acre plot of land. Two houses on either side of the cul-de-sac with a small wooded area acting as a divider between the four houses. But suddenly, as if by magic or some other means, the wooded area had been replaced with a fifth house. I had been drinking heavily at that time, but even through alcohol-infused lenses, it was clear something was very wrong.

I couldn’t help it. I approached the house. Every neuron in my brain was firing, warning me against further investigation, but I was compelled. I walked up the driveway that should have been a pecan tree-dotted clearing and examined the house. It was a single-story wood home that termites had long since taken up residence in. I reached out to touch the wall and it felt mealy beneath my fingers, but solid. I looked back at the rest of the neighborhood which seemed suddenly further. The warnings in my brain kept sounding, but I made my way towards the front door stopping in front of an ink-black window that should have peered into the house's living room. There was no discernible curtain, but beyond the reflection of the moon on the glass to indicate it was there, it seemed impenetrable. As if the glass itself was black.

I stepped onto the covered porch and pressed my finger into a doorbell that didn’t ring. Nevertheless, the door creaked open. If my brain had been warning me before, it was practically screaming now. I felt nauseous and disoriented from the release of adrenaline as I panicked in place. I knew I should have gone then. Should have never even approached the house. Instead, my hand, as if against my own will, pressed the door open further. I moved to turn back, to sprint towards home but stepped into the house instead. First one step, then two, then the door was closing behind me. I turned back instinctively, but it was too late, the jaws of whatever trap I had stumbled into had already closed.

No matter which way I turned, I was always facing the living room and the hallway that branched off from it. Reluctantly, I began to make my way through the house. As I did so, impressions of life filled the darkness like the blooms of a fresh bruise. Scenes of lived lives looped in front of me. The first scene was that of a man walking backward through the hall in a crouch. When he was close enough for me to see, his face was smeared and unrecognizable beyond the basic human shape. The sharp tang of gasoline weighed heavy on the air. I pressed forward. The second vision was that of a woman banging against the open air of a doorway. Her face, like the man’s, was an indistinguishable amalgam of features. It looked like she was screaming, but no sound escaped from its mouth. She collapsed backward onto the floor and lay there. The acrid scents of burned hair and flesh filled the air, then no sooner than the smell overwhelmed me, she was back beating at the open space of the doorway. I turned to flee but was met with the hall again.

I ran past the blurred man and woman and burst into the first room I could in search of an exit. The door closed behind me, but it at least did not disappear. Unable to exit the room, I watched two smaller apparitions cut through the darkness, running through me, chasing after one another. Muted shouting could be heard from beyond the door. One of the apparitions looked towards the door and crouched on the floor holding its hands over its ears. The other, only slightly larger, went over and hugged the first. I tried my luck with the door again, but the handle was hot to the touch and seared my hand. I could clearly hear screaming now, coming from both inside and outside the room. I looked back at the smaller apparitions, the children, and watched as they tried and failed to climb through the window. When they began to thrash about the floor, I had seen enough. More than I had wanted to see.

Still, I was stuck. Whatever flames had claimed the house left their impression as well. The room was sweltering and the air was so thin that every breath felt labored. I struggled through the overwhelming heat to the window the children were unable to use. There was a single gunshot from somewhere in the house. Then the apparitions reset. Children chasing each other. Muted shouting. Desperation and fear. I climbed through the window into the cool night air and was relieved to be free of the house. I turned back and had to stagger away as flames roared directly in front of me. I tripped over a tree’s root and fell backwards, hitting my head in the process. I blacked out.

It was my neighbor who found me the next morning. He lectured me about needing to get my life together, how he almost called the cops, about how my wife and kids deserve better from me. I shrunk from the berating that everyone on the block surely heard. I slunk back home and let the previous night’s events play back in my mind. Nina could tell that something was bothering me, and despite the distance between us, she still cared about me.

“What happened last night?” she asked, genuine sympathy in the question.

“I-, I’m not even sure,” I said. Then I did my best to relay my experience to her.

Nina looked mortified.
“I know… I know I must sound crazy or drunk, but I’m not. I promise.”

Nina just stared, but it was the, “I believe you,” that left me surprised.

“What do you mean you believe me?” I asked.

“I asked the realtor about that area shortly after we moved in. She said there had been a fifth house there, but that it had been burned to the ground in an accident nearly two decades before we bought the house. She said that there were no developers interested in reworking the property, so the land was cleared and trees were planted where the house once stood.”

“That was no accident,” I said.

Nina nodded and then came to sit beside me on the bed. She rested her hand on top of mine. “I miss you,” she said. “I miss you too,” I replied. Our conversations were no more elaborate than they had been in the preceding months, but I was ready for change. We had both become complacent with the distance between us. It was time to put an end to that.

“We don’t have to miss each other,” I said.

“It’s not that easy,” she replied.

“It can be. It doesn’t have to be complicated,” I answered back.

She scoffed. “Why do you always oversimplify everything? You’re drinking yourself to the point of blacking out in the street and you’re saying we can just- just go back to the way things were?”

“That’s not fair and you know it. I know things won’t go back to the way they were. Nothing ever does. We can only go forward, but I can change. I will change. I’m willing to put in the work if you are… if you want to.”

We searched each other’s faces trying to understand where we stood with one another. Despite the uncertainty of our circumstances and the challenges still to come, as long as we were together, we could face them.

Aug 8, 2013

The Nexus Core
Words: 1992

The hum of machinery and crackling of circuitry was interspersed with the metallic thuds of footsteps on a spiral staircase. Nathan, six feet and two inches tall, rippling with muscle and beer-belly in equal measure, kept as healthy of a distance as he could from the lanky, pale skinned man that was his new employer.

“This is quite an important job,” said Nathan’s boss, who’d failed to disclose his name when the two met at the upper lobby.

“I bet,” replied Nathan.

Pinpricks of multi-colored light peaked through the darkness surrounding the staircase. Some twinkled, some shifted hue, and some remained unwavering, like the curious eyes of a cat.

“This is the nexus,” the pale man said as he descended the final step, “and it’s the culmination of my life’s work.”

The skinnier man turned to face his husky employee, teeth bared in an attempt at a smile. Nathan scurried down the last few steps, taking his first real look at the “nexus.” Frost glazed piping glinted from behind grated sections of floor. Glimpses of motley colored wiring raced into darkened crevices, corners, and crannies. Overhead, tens of thousands of those multihued lights, diodes perhaps, created an artificial starscape.

“Wow,” Nathan muttered. He stood, trying to take in his surroundings. After a moment of quiet contemplation, he turned to his boss.

“Mr., uh, bossman… sorry, I don’t have your name.”

The pale man stared at Nathan with that same toothy grin, his deep-set eyes narrowed.


Nathan just stood and stared.

“Nonya business!”

The pale man let out a hoarse chuckle that echoed through the complex. Nathan failed to join in.

“It’s Walter,” he said, “now follow me.”

Walter stepped forward, deeper into the dark, and Nathan, with a slight hesitation in his step, followed.

“Ten-thousand dollars,” Nathan whispered to himself, “ten-thousand dollars for eight hours of work.”

He pictured a clip, no, a suitcase full of bills, and himself presenting his gains to his sister. People said she’d always liked using ten dollar words, and with that kind of cash she could literally buy a thousand of them. However, he wouldn’t give the whole pot to her, no, she could settle for a few hundred ten dollar words.

They walked for ages, the seemingly endless void of the nexus filled only with distant, artificial starlight and the white noise of unseen machinery. Nathan mulled over the situation in his head.

“This Walter guy is a pretty big weirdo. But, maybe he’s one of those, uh…”

What did his sister call them?

“A neurodivergent person. She called me that once, said it was a good thing. Maybe he is, too.”

“We’re here,” Walter said.

Looking past his boss’s shoulder, Nathan scrunched up his face in confusion.

Lit by an orange lamp directly overhead, it was like someone had cast a human heart out of iron. A massive bundle of wiring entered into an enlarged lobe on its top-right side, and on the left side a vent pillowed thick, dark steam or smoke. Spikes, rivets, valves, and other miscellaneous bits studded its surface. Piping from all desperate corners of the nexus converged beneath the floor at the machine’s base, audibly feeding it a fluid that must’ve been deathly cold, as it left the bottom half of the device coated in a thick frost. The floor surrounding it glistened with water and slush. A large circular door, not unlike the gas cover on a car, was placed roughly in the center of the thing. The entire device produced a rhythmic expanding and contracting noise.

“This,” Walter started, “is the Core of the Nexus, and it is your job to tend to it for the next eight hours.”

He paused for a moment, his shoulders drooping.

“One of my greatest regrets is that I can't be here when it becomes fully operational.”

Walter seemed to twirl on his tiptoes as he faced Nathan. His sclera were fully visible in his wild, staring eyes. He heaved as he spoke.

“Only eight more hours, and it’s ready. All you need to do is follow a few simple instructions…”

Walter reached into his jacket, and pulled out a wad of cash.

“...and this is yours, my friend!”

Nathan could almost feel the drool trying to dribble out of his mouth as Walter waved the money in front of him. He clapped his hands together, a broad smile on his face.

“Alright! How do I take care of it?”

Walter motioned for Nathan to follow him. They circled around the back of the Core, where a dilapidated control panel sat, just a few feet away from the machine. It reminded Nathan of the controls in a nuclear power plant.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Walter said, “since you’re just doing basic upkeep. This alarm near the center of the console will chime whenever any chores need doing.”

Nathan held his hands behind his back as he was instructed on which buttons to press at what times. It was, like Walter said, not particularly complicated.

“I hope you got all of that. Don’t bother trying to call me, there’s no way to get a signal down here. The Faraday Cages will ensure that.”

“Faraday cages?” Nathan thought to himself, thinking about where he’d heard that term before. His sister had talked about them once. Weren’t they for something like containing radiation?

Walter motioned for Nathan to follow him back to the front of the machine.

“On the seventh hour, you’ll need to refill the coolant.”

Walter pointed towards a barrel sitting not too far from the Core. He then tapped the machine’s large circle door.

“Just pour it all in here.”

Walter rolled his shoulders, sighing. For a moment he stood. He didn’t quite face Nathan as he spoke.

“You’ve been a promising employee so far, Nathan. You listen, and you don’t ask too many damned questions.”

He paused, his front teeth digging into his bottom lip.

“Don’t mind anything you see or hear in the darkness. Nothing down here can touch you as long as the Core is operational.”

Nathan was too dumbstruck by that last remark to say anything as Walter disappeared into the darkness, the clanging echo of his footsteps on the grated floor fading away with surprising speed.


The first hour was boring. Nathan had to push a blue button on the top-right of the control panel once every fifthteen or so minutes, and each time he did so a groan emanated from the core like a dying washing machine. It startled him the first time, but it had grown routine. Nathan placed his hands behind his head and reclined in his seat at the control panel. As he stared into the galaxy of artificial light above him, he saw a pair of lights, soft yellow and larger than the surrounding pinpricks.

They blinked.

Nathan jerked from his seat. The yellow eyes darted away, streaking across the ceiling like meteorites. Behind him, Nathan could discern the distant sounds of something banging on piping, and of rusted grating being slid open. The flickering overhead lamp illuminated the dark by only a few feet, and Nathan strained his eyes trying to discern anything beyond it. Then, the banging stopped, leaving only the mechanical ambience of the nexus.

Nathan trembled, and sweat beaded on his brow. Walter said that nothing could hurt him if he was near the core. Swiveling around, he walked towards the strange machine and brushed his hand against it. Even though Nathan had touched a spot not covered in frost, the surface was frigid.




Stomping. Or at least what sounded like stomping. With each strike the floor reverberated a brassy note.

Nathan braced himself by death gripping a spike jutting from the Core. Adrenaline rendered him oblivious as his skin adhered to the icy metal. He squeezed his eyes shut and wished for his sister Carrie. She’d come up with some clever way to get out of the situation, or say something reassuring that’d calm him down, or at least give him a hug.

An earthquake of a stomp knocked Nathan off balance, his grip on the spike being the only thing keeping him on his feet. The sounds of something skittering across metal filled the air. Nathan stole a peak towards the black ocean that surrounded his island of jaundiced light. From the murky depths, hundreds of yellow eyes stared back.

A tiny chime echoed. Nathan unclenched the spike and grimaced as a small bit of skin ripped from his palm. He hadn’t noticed it before, but the Core was silent, its rhythmic sounds of contraction and expansion absent.

Nathan raced for the panel, and wasted no time in pressing that damned blue button.

The Core let out a sharp, lawnmower-like noise before returning to its normal, breath-like expansion and contraction. The thudding ceased, the eyes retreated, and Nathan was once more surrounded by only the humming of machinery.

For the next five hours, Nathan was glued to the control panel. Bathed in the almost hellish glow of the overhead lamp, he tapped the blue button every fifthteen minutes, and a red button near the bottom-right hourly. Each button press prompted the Nexus Core to reply with some grinding, mechanical noise, but each groan brought a thin smile to Nathan’s lips. The Core was singing sweet lullabies for him, just one of the ways it thanked him for keeping it healthy. The two were, what did Carrie call it again? Symbiotic?

Eventually, however, the fear dulled, and Nathan found himself resting his eyes, just for a moment. He wasn’t sure how long the little alarm had been ringing when he awoke. A small screen on the terminal read out “Replace Coolant.”

Nathan stood, his legs wobbling from disuse. He trudged towards the front of the Nexus Core, taking note of the intense, almost choking, noise it produced, and the massive amount of steam shooting from its top-left vent.

Gripping the barrel, Nathan dragged it towards the Core, ready to feed his protector the coolant it thirsted for. He ignored the distant but growing banging noises as he swung the hatch open. As he began pouring the coolant, a massive thud knocked Nathan off-balance, and the barrel tipped over with him..

Nathan braced on his knee, keeping him from completely falling. Dark fluid leaked from the now toppled barrel, trickling away through gnarled and corroded grating. Nathan grit his teeth.




A spear of steam shot from the Core’s vent, its cry a piercing train whistle.

In his mind’s eye, Nathan pictured Carrie, his schnauzer Gloria, and a six pack of Busch. Slowly, deliberately, he pulled himself and the barrel up. His muscles strained as he scraped the canister across the floor. Steadily as he could manage, Nathan tilted the lip of the barrel into the Core’s gullet. Rivulets of the syrupy substance sploshed up onto his work shirt. Tears welled in Nathan’s eyes as the sickly sweet gasoline smell of the coolant invaded his nostrils. The river of coolant pouring from the barrel thinned into a ribbon, before reducing further into droplets. Casting the barrel aside, Nathan slammed the machine shut. The jet of steam calmed, and the Core roared like a revving engine.

Nathan staggered back and watched as the device began to glow. It was subtle at first, but soon Nathan recoiled like a vampire from the Core’s unnatural sunlight. The entire nexus, maybe the entire world, filled with white.


When Nathan awoke, Walter was standing over him, a soft and genuine smile on his face. Nathan swiveled his head, and saw that he was no longer in the nexus. He was sitting in the lobby he’d entered eight long hours ago.

“You did a drat good job, my friend!”

“I, uh, what happened?”

Walter laughed.

“You just earned ten grand, that’s what happened!”

Nathan said nothing else, instead taking his pay without looking back.

hard counter
Jan 2, 2015

Ghosts of Europa
(1989 words)

“...just as finding life beyond our planet’s earthbound domain was incontrovertibly the millennium’s most captivating scientific discovery, finding life beyond death on extraterrestrial shores will surely be its most ominous. We must remember the dire cost of this revelation. Today, all peoples of Earth are untied in common grief for its lost sons and daughters. We will remember these courageous explorers as true heirs of Prometheus, as those who dared to steal fire from the gods. For the betterment of all humankind, they have incurred supernatural wrath, and we must mourn their most noble of sacrifices. We will honour their audacity by never relenting from our own quest for truth and understanding. Europa will someday be tamed. Humankind can never be denied. For now, we must keep the lost in our hearts and pray that, despite the odds, their souls will find rest.” - TIME Magazine, November 14th, 2092.

October 31st, 2092.
With only a shallow cone of light to guide her step, Alice Reade fumbled down the corridors of the research complex. Even the emergency lights had failed. The passageways had become blacker and more confusing than any catacomb system, and she knew they’d just as readily accept her remains if didn’t keep pace. Alice ran, and she wasn’t controlling her strength as she’d been trained. Her panicked sprint threw her down the halls, slamming her into every junction wall. Despite months of Lunar training, Europa’s low gravity seemed alien to her now. This time her flashlight fizzled out when she struck a wall. She lit her backup, cursed herself and hurried onward.

This isn’t working. I’m not going to make it to the elevator like this.

Alice tried to settle into a practised stride, but anxiety bested her. She knew she couldn’t move any slower.

The Safe Range EMF Finder suddenly felt heavy in her hands, but her eyes refused its beckon. Its readout wouldn’t tell her anything she didn’t already know. Those Creatures were probably right behind her anyway. She shivered, and prepared herself. She had to attack the next bend with the grace of a low-G gymnast or her collision with the ersatz heater would cripple her. She knew where it was because she’d patched it together herself days ago. She slid through the turn, ran along the wall, and leapt over the heater. It leaked fluid, and she winced at it.

They’ve gotten to it too.

She hated being in this mess. If only she’d known the true cause of these system failures. She never would’ve brought down her repair team, and they wouldn’t have gotten cornered by those Creatures. She didn’t see what happened to others after the ambush but their wails made grim suggestion.

She couldn’t maintain her pace. The stale atmosphere made her weak. The oxygen scrubbers they’d cobbled together must’ve also failed. Prunoise moisture also rimed the floors and walls ahead, making them especially hazardous to traverse. Her muscles ached. Her chest felt heavy. Despite everything, she had to power through.

Patrick will be at the terminal. Think of Patrick.

Alice knew memories of loved ones could release endorphins. A timely burst would help her through these obstacles. She knew she could get sentimental, but now it served a purpose. Glimpses of Patrick flashed in her head. Her heart quickened to reinforce her aching step.

Alice remembered the first time they went camping together. It was a treasured memory. Patrick had forgotten to bring a pillow, so he folded a handtowel to sleep on. It had zero thickness. He said it didn’t matter as long as his head rested on some kind of square, he could fool himself into getting a good night’s rest. Alice giggled at him, she-

-A tremor coursed through the research complex, shaking Alice to her knees. Kathryn Sullivan Station was once considered an engineering miracle. A skyscraper-sized facility spiked deep onto Europa’s crust. It burrowed a 15 mile tunnel, leaving behind station segments at intervals. Now it rattled helplessly against the colossal tidal bores swelling through its crevasse system.

No, it wasn’t just tidal bores. Alice knew a whole ecosystem of abyssal spectres also hammered the station.

The station whined and groaned with every impact. Alice got to her feet and moved. These Creatures were unlike anything ever seen. Some had breached the facility, and they disrupted its vital systems by siphoning off energy somehow. They were astonishing. They seemed like completely electromagnetic lifeforms.

Alice approached the elevator. The last hallway was slick with condensation. She slid towards the control booth.

Patrick wasn’t there.

Of course he wasn’t. Alice felt foolish. Above, they probably had no knowledge of the chaos below. He wouldn’t have known to come rushing in. She felt foolish for thinking he’d be here, in her time of need, like he always was.

Patrick would surely be topside, and the elevator would take her there. It didn’t matter that it was unpowered, its backup thrusters could easily generate the lift. She had to wrench open the manual release to prep the thrusters. The air had become so sour now. Her arms wobbled while shifting the lever. She crossed the catwalk to the elevator car and poised herself over the secondary release.

She hated the next thing she knew she had to do. She tapped a code into her makeshift short-range transmitter. If any of her team was left, and could respond, then she’d wait for them. No matter how much she resented staying, she knew she owed it to them.

She waited for a return code. She hoped they could remember it. Her team had been forced into using these ramshackle things when the regular equipment failed. These transmitters only sent short data pulses, like the Morse codes of ancient telegrams. She tapped again and switched to receive.

No response.

She moved towards the release.

help me

The voice came from the transmitter! But that’s impossible! Was she delirious? She held the device to her ear.


She flinched and shut off the transmitter. She’d made these things herself. She knew their capabilities. This had to be a hallucination.

Alice felt lightheaded. Maybe the carbon dioxide was getting to her. Or did she misremember? Maybe her transmitters worked better than she thought. She peered into the darkness with her flashlight but saw nobody.

Every stalled second was dangerous.

She switched to the EMF Finder, fearing that the Creatures were closing in. Its display visualized electromagnetic distortions. It synthesized pictures of invisible fluctuations. It was also a diagnostic tool that could image the Creatures.

She flicked on the screen.

A silhouette of a human stood on the other catwalk. It moved sluggishly along the walls, apparently travelling by touch. The spot, however, was empty when she shone her flashlight there.

She yelled into the void. The silhouette jerked its head in her direction. Did someone from her team escape?

She switched her transmitter to receive-

-Dr. Reade? Thank God you made it! I saw the others get cornered. I thought you were with them!

It was the voice of John Barton. The silhouette, on second glance, was his too. Alice turned off the device and yelled again.

“For heaven’s sake, we’re close enough to shout! Shut off the transmitter! For all we know, radiowaves attract those things!”

No response.

“John! Yell harder, I can’t hear you!”

No response.

“Repeat! I can’t hear you!”

She switched to receive again-


Alice flushed. John’s silhouette lingered on the EMF but no one actually stood there. She blinked in confusion.


Alice steadied herself.

“... John, I’m shining a light on you right now...”


“...I can see you on the EMF.”


Alice passed her hand in front of the EMF. No register. She backed away.

“...John, wave your arms,” she managed, trembling.

The silhouette waved. It was undeniably John.

Nothing made sense. Maybe this was a digital artifact of a strange reflection? She surveyed the area with the EMF...

...And saw a swarm of Creatures floating near John. They were man-sized blurs of tentacles attached to central torus that shifted like an ever-warping Klein bottle. They surrounded John, studying him.

They must be using him as bait! Alice jammed the release. The elevator shrieked upward.


Alice shut off the transmitter. She closed her eyes and drifted into memory. To someplace that made sense. Her wedding day. She remembered when Patrick took a big bite of their cake. Somehow, a chunk of frosting got onto his eyebrows. She tried to tell him he had something on his face, but he only wiped at his mouth. She told him it was still there, but that only made him wipe his jaw more intensely. She giggled at him, she-

-The elevator halted at its destination. The doors opened. Alice expected fresh air but the atmosphere seemed worse. This section’s scrubbers must also be offline.

Had they come here too? The thought agonized Alice.

Alice stumbled down the corridors of the habitation floor. The emergency lights were active, but she glued her eyes to the EMF.

She could see a feminine silhouette dancing in Thaïs’ quarters. Faint music played inside. Édith Piaf. It must be Thaïs inside. Alice entered, but no one was inside. But wait…

… Thaïs was slumped over her bed, motionless. Yet her silhouette danced on the EMF. Nothing made sense!

She travelled down the long corridor. It was filled with silhouettes attached to no one in particular.

Alice hurried to her quarters. The air felt incredibly stuffy. Her head swam. Patrick would be there. Patrick would know what’s going on. He studied those creatures. He believed they were simply a poorly understood stage of an alien lifecycle. Europa teemed with natural, physical life. The young had physical bodies that majestically swam across its oceans. The old, however, became phantoms once their physical bodies perished. Patrick hypothesized this effect arose from some unstudied local phenomenon. The spectres served some purpose in their ecosystem. They were clearly intelligent, communal creatures. The young zealously followed the old, shadowing their movements, for however long as they lingered. Patrick didn’t know why.

Alice found Patrick slumped over his chair, but his silhouette paced the room. He raged. Alice tried to get his attention but failed. Nothing made sense! She wanted to be held by him. She lunged at his silhouette, trying to embrace it. For a moment they were one.

That’s when she saw his memories. She felt them as if they were her own. She instantly understood how much Patrick treasured her laughter. It was music to his ears. He’d do foolish things just to hear it. All the good times they’d shared flashed within her for an instant.

But there were other memories.

Patrick had written a missive to HQ. They’d been attacked while she was gone. Patrick had thought the phantoms only lingered a short time after death. Apparently they could extend their afterlives by feeding on energy. They’d ignored the station up to now, probably unaware of its windfall. Now they knew. The radiation screens blocked their entry, but it wouldn’t hold forever. He’d detailed everything in the missive, only he couldn’t send it! The power failures caused massive technical issues he couldn’t fix!

But Alice could. She could fix nearly anything. Her head swam from the sour air but she ferociously attacked the problem. It didn’t take long. Patrick’s message was ready to send.

She attached her own addendum: Extreme hazard. All hands lost. Mount no recovery. Unacceptable risk to recovery party.

She also uploaded every other bit of data from the station onto the info beam. Research notes, diagnostics, sensor readings, personal logs, unsent letters. Everything that explained their fate.

She mashed send.

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.
Flowers in the Dustbin
885 words

You thought it was a bit strange that the television weatherman was wearing a plague doctor's mask, crow-black and beaked with sickly white pupil-less eyes. A Halloween thing, you figured. If you changed the channel to the other networks you assumed the woman on channel 7 might be in a witch's hat, or that the humorless old man on 11 would be unchanged, in the same suit and tie as ever. You reached for the remote and flipped through the channels.

Both of the other meteorologists wore the same mask, as well as the one on the Spanish language channel you never watched but never got around to removing from the scanned channels list.

But you didn't think much more about it. Jocasta was out of town for the rest of the week, so you were alone for the night. You watched Captain Picard repel boarders with cannon and Greek fire while Geordi re-rigged the sails until you fell asleep.

You dreamed fitfully, images strung together without a narrative. Rats skittering along the edge of a black metal railing. Lava bubbling in a molten pool. Somebody's fist connecting with someone else's jaw.

They were still wearing the masks the next day, the first of November. Carrying it over into the Day of the Dead? You took a break from your doomscroll of disease and war death to do a few searches, but no real results. Just a few lunatics ranting on some Mandela effect forums about thinking it used to be the Berenstein Bears, or that they stopped making Gatorade for most of the nineties, or that it was John F. Kennedy who was president instead of his brother. One of them, typing up some long rant about Groundhog Day and not remembering the scene with Bill Murray's character and Punxsutawney Phil driving off the cliff, looking at each other, their masks beaks getting briefly entangled. 

You watched it again on Netflix. Sad, sad film, even where it was funny. Murray could make you feel even with the mask on, with that mask even, while the rest of the cast sometimes struggled to show what they were feeling through their N-95s. 

Jocasta didn't text you at all that day, and you didn't want to call, didn't want to make a fuss. And then you dreamed that night about cotton candy, and then a trip in a hot-air balloon with one of your old College girlfriends. Well, not quite that. Occasional hookup. Kassie something. In the dream you were making love, but you couldn't actually feel anything you were doing, couldn't really feel anything but your face. You woke up, strangely guilty and frustrated. There were no new messages.

The next day was an office day, 'strongly recommended' over work from home. A day for the managers to do in person meetings and feel useful. You dread and look forward to them. It had been a while since you talked to anyone in person without a cash register between you.

You asked the question, phrasing it carefully, not wanting to sound like the internet people. Asked if anyone knew when weather forecasters started wearing those masks. They thought it was a weird question anyway. "Probably since the beginning?" said Reynold. "When they first put them on the TV news?"

"Or earlier," said Kim. "Lots of things carried over from radio days."

You got less done than you usually do at home. Jocasta sent a short message that evening. Your phone buzzed with it just as you started to eat your dinner, reheated pizza from the day before. You tapped it, opened it, read it five times trying to parse each word somehow differently.

She was staying in Wisconsin for another two weeks, she said. Maybe longer. And she still wasn't ready to talk.

You had to reheat the pizza again, ate it with scalding cheese and too-hard crust. Then you found a box and filled it with the clothes she asked for, printed a label and taped it to the top.

You dreamed of the post office, what had been on your mind, obviously. A long, interminable line stretching out the office and down along the post office boxes, like the ones nearer to Christmas, at least back in the days before. You panicked, knowing that the clothes in your box hadn't been gift-wrapped and thought that somehow everyone else knew.

In reality you were the only one there at that hour. You guessed at a value for the insurance that was probably too high, got a receipt and tracking number, and left the building.

You fired off a quick text with the tracking number. You got a terse thank you back almost immediately. You typed what you were thinking into the field.

'You're never coming back, are you?' But you didn't press send. You backspaced down to an empty field, and put your phone away.

The news was the same as it had been your whole life, death in wars far away and hospitals much closer, sports and crime and political scandals, two representatives caught crossing party lines in the House supply closet, someone taking the head off a statue of Richard Nixon. And the weather forecast, delivered with the sad white eyes of the mask, called for rain.

Aug 22, 2022

Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.
The Darkness Within
1476 words

"Last, but certainly not least, is the upright Three of Cups," crooned the fortune teller to her captivated customer. She traced her finger delicately around the edge of the tarot card, waggling her eyebrows for added effect. The candlelight bounced off her sharply defined features, casting an air of intrigue about her. "Perhaps you've been seeking resolution to a persistent problem, or hoping that an old wound will heal."

The boy nodded, enraptured, and the woman continued. "This is the chance you've been waiting for," she declared soundly, and her client gasped in delight. "Now, beware not to let your fears and doubts overtake your drive to seek a solution, and all will be well." She smiled brightly, and held up a hand in a wave. "The pleasure is all mine. I wish you a fortunate day!"

Dashing out of the tent with a huge grin on his face, the boy skipped away in glee, nearly crashing into a group holding ice cream cones. "Watch your step!" one of them shouted, shaking his head in disdain.

"Well done, as usual, Madame Leyla," smirked the gentleman in the back of the tent as he came forward to watch.
Leyla grimaced, the unpleasant expression in stark contrast to the heavy makeup she wore. "Three more hours of this, Roderick, and then I'm finally free of this poo poo," she pouted, her wine-red lips exaggerating her disappointment. "If I didn't need to make easy money, you and I both know I wouldn't be here."
"Oh, come on," Roderick chuckled, "it's not that bad. It's just a carnival routine, and you happen to be half decent at it."
Shuffling the tarot cards back into the deck, the fortune teller let out a dramatic sigh. "But it's so stupid. I mean, even I don't believe in this stuff. Hell, I'd never pay to get my fortune told! Sucks for the gullible little shits who pay my wages," she added with a sniggering jest.
Roderick shrugged, straightening his bowtie. "Well, as long as you can keep it up until closing time." He moved toward the exit. "I'm going to take a dinner break, you want anything?"
"I'm fine, thanks. Enjoy yourself!" Leyla dismissed her assistant with a short wave, and resumed arranging the table for the next guest.

As the sky began to glow a gentle peach hue, Leyla gazed listlessly into the crystal ball in front of her. She had no gift for fortune telling; that much she knew. In fact, she hadn't a single spiritual bone in her body. What she did have a knack for, however, was telling convincing lies — even to herself.

A vision began to form in the crystal ball: a tiny, upside-down figure wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a trenchcoat, and it grew larger and larger. Startled, Leyla looked up through the tent flap to see the very same silhouette approaching. Passersby paused to stare, and many made a pointed effort to move out of the way. The crowd parted to make a path to the tent.

Arriving at the entrance to the fortune telling tent, the figure paused. "May I sit?"
His voice was like the rustle of coffee grounds, quiet and dark, and Leyla could only nod wordlessly in reply.

The man took a seat at the table, and in the dim light Leyla could make out a deep scar stretching from his jawline to his left brow, crossing his eye. And where there should have been an eye, there was a glass prosthetic, painted imperfectly such that the color of the iris was an unrealistic blue, while his other eye seemed a dark, bottomless black. Something about this man's presence was unsettling, and Leyla was fairly sure it wasn't just his outward appearance. But business was business, and she wouldn't dare squirm in front of a customer.

"You haven't had your fortune told," the man stated matter-of-factly, and Leyla shifted uncomfortably.
He spoke the truth; despite her job, she'd never sought a reading. She didn't need to; she never felt the need to pay for someone to tell her something she didn't believe in.
Leyla cleared her throat, looking the stranger in his good eye. "I'm a fortune teller," she explained. "It's my job to do so, not to have someone do it for me."
"Then allow me," he said, and the candle to Leyla's right blew out.

Glancing at the candle in puzzlement, Leyla could sense her own thoughts running wild. He hadn't done anything to the candle, had he?
Only one candle remained, and the asymmetrical light afforded her only to see half of the man's face. The scarred side was obscured in darkness beneath the brim of his hat, perhaps for the better. It was now that she noticed the tent flap had been closed, too — the man must have pulled it shut when he entered.

The stranger lifted the crystal ball and set it to the side. "Give me your hands," he instructed her, and she obliged, turning her palms upward as if receiving a gift. His fingers brushed softly over Leyla's, as gentle as the peach-pink sunset somewhere beyond the tent flap. And yet, there was a certain contradiction in his movements — an intrusive, probing tendency.

His hands were covered in strange, intricate tattoos — runes in a language she'd never seen. She had the urge to ask about them, but her curiosity was interrupted by a guttural humming sound.
For a moment, she took her eyes off the table to glance up at the man, who seemed to be the source of the sound. His lips began to move as the humming was replaced by muttering, then chanting. The air felt hostile, ominous. And then, the stranger reached for the remaining candle and placed it across the table, on the side where the unlit candle stood. Now his glass eye glinted in the light, and the other side of his face was barely visible. He halted his chanting, and it seemed as if his eye stared straight into the darkest corners of Leyla's mind.

This was nothing more than an elaborate performance, Leyla reminded herself uneasily. The man was simply putting on a show, and then he would undoubtedly charge her a small fortune for it. But she couldn't break her gaze away from his eye.
Without warning, the palm reader lifted his face toward the ceiling and laughed. It was not a maniacal cackle, but rather more measured — a slow, booming laugh, yet just as hollow as his stare. "You are like me," he whispered, the glass eye rolling in its socket to judge Leyla.
She wanted to interject, but a nagging feeling curbed her impulsivity, and she waited begrudgingly.
"There is a rising darkness within you." His words fell like the quiet patter of rainfall, and yet, they twisted like knives into their audience. "It seeks to choke you... restrain you... devour you."
"Join me," he offered, with what might have been the least enticing offer Leyla had ever heard. "Join me, and you will not suffer alone."
"Join you in what?" she demanded, disgusted by the turn this had taken. "If you think I'm gonna pay you for your services, you're sorely mistaken."
Leyla withdrew — or at least, she attempted to retract her hands. But the stranger latched on, pinning her in place with an unexpectedly strong grip. "Join me," he repeated, his glass-eyed stare boring straight through to her deepest insecurities. "You have nothing to lose. Join me."
"Let go of me!" Leyla barked, her attention snapping toward their hands.
The man's tattoos glowed in the candlelight, and the shadows cast by the flame seemed to climb from his hands to his arms in an unnatural pattern. In fact, the shadows crept at an ever-increasing pace, shooting up to his shoulders, then to his neck, then to his face. Observing an identical phenomenon on herself, Leyla shrieked as tenebrous tendrils snaked like vines across her body. "What have you done?!"
The palm reader merely grinned, his teeth and the absurd blue of his glass eye the only visible details as the shadows engulfed them. "I have embraced my innermost darkness, Leyla... And so should you."

The last candle flame extinguished with finality, submerging them in a world devoid of light.


"Hey, Leyla!" Roderick shouted as he pulled open the tent flap. "I brought you a corn dog, since I figured you'd be hu—"

There was nobody in sight. The tarot cards were stacked neatly on the table, and the crystal ball was nestled in the center. A flickering candle stood on either side, and the shifting light played tricks on Roderick's eyes.

Frowning at Leyla's unannounced absence, he turned to exit the tent again. "Two more hours, Leyla," he sighed as he left. "All you had to do was stay put for two more hours..."

Bad Seafood
Dec 10, 2010

If you must blink, do it now.
The Price (339 words)

From the yawning door creeps a furtive thing, a golden ring on a withered hand. How small it is, gleaming in the dark. How much smaller its wearer, hunched and alone.

The king exhales, his breath long and low, his naked soul bared before the early morning cold. The ring grips his finger, his fingers the blanket. The sound of his bare feet echo in the halls.

With a free hand he reaches to inspect his own teeth. He feels one loosen. He winces in pain. With eyes unseeing, he navigates the gloom. He knows the way. He requires no sight. The infinite corridor swallows him whole, his passage marked by tapestries alone.

These walls had comforted him once. He’d been young then, and invincible. He’d stood by the shore and challenged the sea. The ring gripped his finger, his fingers the sword. He smote the Earth and drank deep of its bounty. Men were born to die at this command. Women loved him, as he loved himself. But it was the ring they served, not him. They covetted his walls; they tolerated his company. Now these walls were all that remained, enshrining the ring, his bones entombed. Time enough would turn him to dust, and the ring would pass to his wretched son.

Through a window at the end of the hall shines the moon. The ring approaches, his own hands tremble. It bids him to clear the frost from the glass. With dull, tired eyes he looks up to the sky, regarding that cold and distant jewel. Far, far below, the tide rolls in, as it ever has; as it ever will.

The king looks down from the moon to the ring. He slips it from his finger. He holds it aloft. He glances at the window, the shimmering glass. He grips the ring tightly, as if to cast it down. He hesitates, trembling, and cradles it to his breast.

The ring finds warmth in his cold, cold heart. The castle walls enclose them both.

Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving And something has got to give

Submissions are closed.

Oct 23, 2010

Legit Cyberpunk

:siren: Birthday Week Judging, Tranche 4, Omega 3 :siren:

Short fiction is like normal fiction, but a lot shorter. These were all extremely short and byyyyy and larrrrrge (size joke) they were ok. Some themes were 'a sad/happy thing happened' and 'isn't being someone/somehwere great/terrible', but the best ones took that somewhere more interesting.

The loser of this week is Kaom with Lurking in the Depths, not because it was that bad but someone got to be at the end of the line when you all liine up in height order, you know what i'm saying?

Honourable mentions may be received, retained, and treasured for a delicious eternity by Bad Seafood, for Roi Soleil, Quoproquid for Repair Job and Uranium Phoenix for Monument.

And the winner is Saddest Rhinowith Pencherita Malam (Night Storyteller).

One judgment to go!

Oct 23, 2010

Legit Cyberpunk

Big 5
pleasant enough vignette

Monument 8
oof this lands extremely nicely, my only tiny quibble is the word rubbish in the third para, seems out of place - would a set of people like this have the same idea of rubbish as us? nice piece though, fits its length perfectly.

Let us choke on ash 7.5
an excellent companion piece for the former story.

Sledding 6.5
some good chilly vibes, a little by the numbers but good

The Wizard 6.5
aww this made me feel cosy thoughts about my dads workshop ty for that

Art 7
i thought this was a bit overblown but the way it ascends into mythic gullivers travels style oddity kind of pays it off.

The Brass Key 6.5
cosmic visions seem to be the thing this week, this is highflown but slightly clunky, phrases like 'mere humans'

Proscenium Lights 5
tldr: theatre good

Repair Job 4.5
hm, this is a good idea poorly executed, and the 'ayy youse folks must be noo to da big apple' diction is a little tooth grinding

On the Way to Fuzzy... 7.5
aww i liked this, a realist sort of family emotional journey in a nutshell

The Dancing Colonel's... 6
a neat idea that doesn't quite land - there's very little room for error at this length, what does the salute mean? how does it bear on the rest of the story?

Magnitude 6.2: Strong... 5
tldr: earthquakes suck

Clash of Blues 5
i am solidly on the side of the deceased driver in this, those pompous rear end capitalised abstractions can suck it imho

Pencherita Malam 8
delightful nimble little word picture, just touching the magic realist juice

Roi Soleil 5.5
hrmmm i think this is a neat setup that doesn't really pay it off, like the infinite blackness of space isn't a terrible secret, it's right there. people know about it already, emperor guy.

A Treasure's Worth 7
this is one of the more successful 'hey isn't stuff cool stories' and it hits the largeish target of kids sense of wonder nicely dead on

Wondering and Wishing 6
a pleasant little musing

Lurking in the Depths 5.5
tldr: ocean bottom cool (phwoar)

Sitting Here
Dec 31, 2007
This is an excellent time to remind folks of our FLASH-FRONTIER SUBMISSION RUSH MEGABRAWL

The brawl itself will run from 11/16 to 11/23, but I'm giving people a heads up now so that they can start thinking about it. More details will be shared in an upcoming post. However, unlike most brawls, you're welcome to start thinking about your entry now.

Sitting Here posted:

On November 16th, we will be hosting a special submission rush brawl! You will be invited to either resubmit your story from this week (with edits, hopefully!), or write an entirely new story. The brawl will be judged as normal, but all entrants will be encouraged to submit their entry to Flash Frontier! Note: The November brawl will be open to everyone. You don't need to do the ladder prompt to qualify, but we do encourage all ladder participants to come back for the brawl.

More details on that will be forthcoming. For now, just write the best story about WONDER as is possible in 250 words. Here is a previous Flash Frontier submission rush week, to give you some inspiration.

Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving And something has got to give

TD Week 534 Results: Halloween Hangover

This was a decent week overall, to the point that I deputized my partner as pseudo-judge to give me some opinions. (sorry, hex. love you) Here's what we came up with at last:

Winner: Thranguy, "Flowers in the Dustbin"
HM: hard counter, "Ghosts of Europa"
DM: WindwardAway, "The Darkness Inside"
Loss: Bad Seafood, "The Price"

All yours, Thrangles. Crits to follow shortly.

Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving And something has got to give

Crits for TD Week 534

Kuiperdolin, "The wolf-men"

I see where this piece is trying to go, but I'm not quite sure it gets there. The problem with telling stories about ancient people in this form, or other stories where the audience knows much more about the scenario than the viewpoint character does, is that you have to work harder to sell the reader on feeling the same fear the character does, and this doesn't quite manage it. The general concept of "boy, it would be freaky as poo poo to have first contact with a wolf-domesticating tribe when you still only think of wolves as fierce predators" is solid, but I feel like we could use some more detail, really -- don't just have naked strangers with tame wolves, but maybe have some really unnerving wolf-stuff happening that the strangers are blase about (because they know and trust their animals and the protagonist doesn't)? Have more of an extended exchange, maybe with tension and fear of trying to parley with these people despite mounting terror of their pets? I feel like this needs expansion.

Idle Amalgam, "Ashes"

The pacing in this one is a huge problem; I feel like I say that a lot, but it's a big issue here. We spend a lot of time establishing the narrator's fairly mundane personal problems, which are not interesting or unique enough to take up this much page space, and not nearly enough on the supernatural event. I feel like this piece would benefit a lot from immediacy: a start in medias res with our character, drunk and bleary and briefly sketched as unhappy, stumbling on this weird house, and then the visions he receives inside. What we see of the visions is all right, but there could still be more punch; maybe some psychic impressions of the ghosts inside, stuff that echoes back to the protagonist's own experiences in a way that can be worked into the active narrative? I just think the pacing of the huge wad of fairly standard personal problems at the beginning kind of disrupts the flow.

I recommend reading some of sebmojo's body of work, because he's very good at describing this sort of relationship problem via implication and in-story description. Also it's good anyway.

ZeBourgeoisie, "The Nexus Core"

I was very nervous starting this story, but I feel like the structure actually works pretty well. It's a breath of fresh air to read a horror story about a character getting offered a suspiciously lucrative job opportunity by someone shady, then actually managing to perform the job and -- shock! terror! -- getting paid for it. I was reading it fully expecting Nathan to get lunched, and frankly I'm relieved it didn't happen, especially since it'd be a DQ.

That said, there are a lot of polish issues. This could definitely have used a proofreading pass ("fifthteen" shows up twice!), and I'm not sure what's going on with the narrative voice. I get that it's not supposed to be purely Nathan's limited perspective, but it's not omniscient enough for that to really work; in practice, it feels like we're tight-limited to Nathan, and that makes the more flowery figurative language sound weird coming from a guy who talks about "ten-dollar words." Is a guy like that possibly going to use "sclera" instead of "whites of someone's eyes?" Nah. I'm also not a big fan of throwing in the idea that Nathan might be neurodivergent when, in practice, it seems like this amounts to his just being kind of dull? That's not an idea to drop in casually and not commit to thoughtful use, even in the short form where you don't have the luxury of space. Sometimes a character can just be dull for no clear reason and that's fine, you know?

hard counter, "Ghosts of Europa"

I like our epigraph from Slightly Space-Fashy Future Time Magazine, and I like that we hit the ground running with the actual action of the story, but I think this is a little too much going on for the word count. I'm mostly not a huge fan of the exposition about the energy-ghosts towards the end; I think you could honestly get away here with "Europa's haunted" and not explain why everything's going wrong, because that's pretty basic ghost stuff, and I'm not sure the explanations really add to the story. This could be smoothed and refined into a slightly longer piece, and I think there are good bones here.

Thranguy, "Flowers In the Dustbin"

Choosing "Jocasta" as the name for your character's estranged partner is... interesting. I know it's likely to just be TD-oid "poo poo, I need a name," but it kind of suggests things, you know?

Overall, this is a pretty good piece and manages to be coherent and eerie. There's a good sense of a real anxiety dream here (the non-gift-wrapped clothes are a pitch-perfect detail), and I appreciate that the warping reality doesn't actually change the facts of the protagonist's relationship, just subtle details of the world around them, which is a good call. In general, this gets points for not being excessively on the nose (on the mask beak?).

WindwardAway, "The Darkness Within"

This was very close to the loss, and I think it might be the piece that I personally like the least for this week. It has what I think of as the Twilight Zone problem: a very pat story about a character who is, in some way, "bad" and receives karmic punishment for it. Leyla herself is pretty cardboard, and it's never clear what the darkness inside her could be; weirdly, I think this is the story this week where I would have appreciated more character exposition, because she just seems like a regular bored/jaded carnival performer, so it's not really clear what's going on with the darkness later? Anyway, this basically just reads as "unbeliever gets whammied by wizard," and it's not really scary and kind of trite. Didn't enjoy it.

Bad Seafood, "The Price"

It's agonizing to me to give this a loss, because your prose is gorgeous as always, but... it's kind of a sketch more than a story, and it's hard to call it a robust horror story, you know? The elements are there, and this probably would have been a NM if it just had more meat on its bones or went directions that were slightly more interesting. As it is, I feel like there are no surprises with this sad old king, and in a 350-word piece I think you really need a good surprise.

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 Week DXXXV: Remember, Remember

...the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot.
I know of no reason
That gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Did you'll know that 'guy', as a word for a generic person, comes from Guy Fawkes?

So in celebration of the week of November 5, this week's prompt is simple: I want stories that include a betrayal and an explosion.

1605 words. Any genre. The usual restrictions re: fanfic and erotic apply. And I'll give fair warning that I don't much want to see contemporary politics-centric power fantasies.

Sign up deadline 11:59 PM Friday California time
Submission deadline 7:00 AM Monday California time to avoid DST shenanigans.



Idle Amalgam
Mar 7, 2008

said I'm never lackin'
always pistol packin'
with them automatics
we gon' send 'em to Heaven
An explosive betrayal you say? In.

Oct 6, 2021

Obliteratin' everything,
incineratin' and renegade 'em
I'm here to make anybody who
want it with the pen afraid
But don't nobody want it but
they're gonna get it anyway!

In. A flash please, if I may.

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.

Albatrossy_Rodent posted:

In. A flash please, if I may.

Nov 14, 2006

to ride eternal, shiny and chrome



The man called M
Dec 25, 2009



My Shark Waifuu
Dec 9, 2012

I'm in!

Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving And something has got to give


"They're All Alike, Yeah?"

I'm not sure this one's totally clicking with me and I'm struggling to explain why. The pacing feels off, for one thing; even at 2000 words, you have to keep things a little tight, and the soup scene feels like sort of unnecessary and gives us an extra character whose only purpose is to be hit on by Lagochi, who doesn't need this. (I know Tueni gives us the information about the Bode implants, but it might work better if she were actually on the scene for the confrontation?) The confrontation itself ends up feeling rushed and a little too slick, not really a situation where Lagochi is in danger. I'd build this up to emphasize stakes, maybe make it more dangerous, and also make Cilphas feel less like an idiot foil for valuing human life.

Also, were all the homophobic insults towards an enemy faction specifically necessary? Felt a little weird.

Depth of Feeling

There's some imprecision in the early figurative language here. "A bird plucking at seeds" is a weird way to describe unwrapping gauze with precision (I initially assumed it referred to removing stitches, which would make more sense), and the healing flesh "breaking the surface" of Gisna's skin makes it sound like it's erupting, not just marking.

This is sweet but ends up feeling kind of facile. I think this is another one that's very limited by its length; we don't spend enough time seeing Sunken Hope and Sheni to get any kind of feeling about what Jarom is searching for, and that makes the events ring kind of hollow, especially since ultimately the choice is out of the character's hands anyway. "MC loses his dream but decides to settle for what he has, which is really what he wanted all along, somehow" is hard to make into a satisfying ending unless there's some sense of the protagonist making an active choice instead of just... settling.

"Crab and Spouse"

This is leaning much harder on the transhuman than the post-apoc, but that's absolutely not a problem. It's a charming piece made more interesting by the faint hint of the sinister (thousands of people having 8% of their brainpower siphoned away so their AI ruler can try to figure out its relationship problems!); it's weird as hell but also convincingly human. I liked this one and think it could stand on its own pretty readily.

Je'fray and the Green Bear

"They called him Jeff back in the olden days, but he would become known as…Je’fray" is putting up a hefty initial cutesiness burden on this story, not gonna lie.

Yeah, okay, this is cutesy and faux-folksy and not particularly interesting. It's taking much more of a broad overview of a concept that could be compelling -- "person from Lost Civilization wakes up in post-apoc and has to adapt" is good stuff, if well-trodden -- and takes it at such a remove that it doesn't have any power, and it also takes it in a jokey way that robs it of more punch. I would rewrite this to be about actual bear fight directly, with more of Jeff's feelings about his new culture reflected in the moment, and then maybe the aftermath; "post-apoc crapworld still has tech that is an unknown marvel to unfrozen Lost Civ person" is a good punchline! But it needs to have punch, and this doesn't.

No Master

oh no it's about online modding if there were guns involved, oh no, time for flashbacks

I'm still thinking about the pacing on this one. I think it's well-paced for what it is, and I can't think of obvious bits to cut, but I think this may just be a victim of insufficient wordcount; it's hard to get around "there was a big battle and everyone but two named characters died, THE END" feeling a bit truncated. It's hitting a lot of basic Western beats, but it's doing them reasonably well, and the reveal that this is ultimately about cheating in online games (and that it matters, because the online game currency in question is a major exchange currency in this setting) is surprisingly satisfying. The big issue is just this story feeling a little big for its proverbial britches. Its... word britches. I dunno.

The Fool Says in his Heart what Cannot be Thought

There are some really weird tone issues in this. I suspect the simplistic tone of the dialogue is intended as compared to the descriptive text, but it still feels very weird -- I guess it's supposed to represent the sort of stunted mental life of Anselm as a Bodie, and his inability to express his own desires, but it just ends up feeling clumsy to me.

This is one of the better setups for "it was a VR sim all along" that I've ever seen, and I think the ending works (the revelation that the Abode would never just let someone out, although I dunno how that plays with the setting?), but I'm also not sure "it was a VR sim all along" is ever going to be a satisfying ending for an SF story.

Pollen on the Breeze

I'm struggling to evaluate this one because it feels like it's got so, so many moving parts for a flash piece, but I know that's the product of the prompt; the first crit that comes to mind is to prune down some of this, but that would miss the point! It's not even used badly, but it's definitely a capital-l Lot.

I hate to keep coming back to pacing, but... pacing. I get why we end where we did, which is basically just the Bad End, but I wish we had more time with Mickey and the AI. Things feel rather abrupt as they stand, and there's more to dig into here in terms of the emotional beats, as well as the aftermath. Not quite satisfying.

Only Human

This is a sweet story that suffers from some occasionally clumsy prose choices. I like the early description of the rainy season, but I'm not sure we need Amir to see himself in the mirror; you can get away with less description of people than you think you need, especially people who are familiar to the protagonist, and I think in this case you could focus it all on Fresca and be fine. Otherwise, I think this is pretty decent.

What's Fair Is Fair

This one just feels clumsy all the way through. The big problem with it is that Kozu is a dope, and not really a sympathetic dope; while you can kind of see what she's about in the initial (cartoonish) conflict with the merchant, her intercession in the trial seems pointless and comes from nowhere, as does the revelation that she loves Declan. This is one of those stories where everyone's expositing at each other and being straightforward, but it's not really clear why anything happens, and the tone is weirdly droll for a story with fairly serious stakes at play. I get that part of the point is that this is Kozu realizing stakes for once, after a life that hasn't really had that, but... that feels kind of weird for a Scalv? I'm just not sure Kozu makes much sense as a character besides just being terminally dumb, and it doesn't help.

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.
12 hours left to get in.

Both cojudge slots are also still open.

Idle Amalgam
Mar 7, 2008

said I'm never lackin'
always pistol packin'
with them automatics
we gon' send 'em to Heaven
I know they weren't offered, but could I get a flash rule?

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.

Idle Amalgam posted:

I know they weren't offered, but could I get a flash rule?

A dangerous animal (perhaps metaphorical) gets loose.

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.
Sign-ups closed

Idle Amalgam
Mar 7, 2008

said I'm never lackin'
always pistol packin'
with them automatics
we gon' send 'em to Heaven
Building Blocks
1,604 Words


Illuminated by the moonlight, the haunting features of Karen’s face were the first things the pizza delivery man noticed as he pulled up to the dilapidated, half-demolished remnants of an old apartment complex. He had been reluctant to take the delivery, but the fifty-dollar tip Karen left was too good to pass up. Still, he just stared at her as she waited in the open mouth of an apartment.

Karen did her best to look innocuous and smiled at the delivery driver, who had incorrectly judged the situation as safe. He exited the car and approached awkwardly. “Order for Lisa Carmichael?” he asked nervously.

“That’s me!” Karen responded in a chipper tone. The man seemed a little more at ease and came forward with the bag. When he began to pull the pizza from it Karen, moving with the sudden speed of a pit viper, plunged a solution of propofol into his neck. The man staggered backward and reached for his neck out of instinct, but by the time adrenaline had begun to stoke the fires of rage, he was falling forward into Karen’s arms.


Through no small effort, Karen managed to get the overweight man on her makeshift operating table. She craned the work light into the man’s face after hooking him up to an intravenous propofol drip to keep him sedated through the process. She peeled back his eyelids carefully and studied the man’s jaundiced eyes and sighed. ’Not ideal,’ thought Karen, but this close to the completion of the vessel, she would have to make do. The spell that tethered her master’s soul to the world had weakened. There could be no further delays.

She checked the IV drip, then set to the task of enucleating the unconscious man’s eyes from their sockets. It was a procedure she was only vaguely familiar with, and had only ever seen performed once during her year of residency in the emergency medicine ward of a children’s hospital. She might have seen it performed a few other times if she didn’t end the residency prematurely to deal with her divorce, but that was all in the past now. The master appreciated her for who she was and had promised his love to her. She just needed this delivery driver’s eyes. Experience be damned.

Trembling hands steadied as her master whispered into her ear from some unseen distance. “Soon, my love. Oh, so very soon. I shall take you into the arms you’ve made for me, I shall hold you close against the body you’ve fashioned and I will be yours forever. You just need to get me my eyes. Now steady your hands, my sweet. Do what needs to be done.”

She lowered the wired of the speculums and locked them to his eyelids. She readied her forceps and carefully extricated the eye from its socket with a sucking pop as it and its nerves fell free into its snare. She then carefully suspended the eye in solution, and then started in on the other when the delivery driver’s cellphone rang and she gouged his cheek open just beneath the eye with her scissors. The man grunted but remained otherwise incapacitated by the effects of the propofol coursing through his blood. Karen looked at the phone screen and saw ‘Boss’ displayed. The phone continued to ring as blood gushed from the man’s face and Karen suddenly felt overwhelmed.

It didn’t help that the master, normally sweet and supportive, was berating her for her mistake and near ruining of the plan. “You idiot. You nearly gouged out his eye. I hope I didn’t invest my affection poorly.”

Karen’s hands trembled as she raced to dress the wound, blood had gotten everywhere though. She had to finish the job, and she needed to do so quickly. The phone rang again just as she finished suturing the man’s face. She did her best to ignore it.

She started in on the other eye and did her best to ignore the time, but being hurried was not something she had planned for. The eye was bruised as she removed it from its socket, but it was still intact. The master’s spirit that lingered about her at all times was not pleased about this, but soon it wouldn’t matter. They’d be together.


When he had packed away the makeshift operating theater, she called 911 from her victim’s phone and left him with gauzed-over eye sockets. She was certain that wasn’t the proper aftercare for the procedure she’d performed, but she figured that it was better than nothing. The ride back to her own home, nearly an hour and a half away, was electric. On one hand, she was on pins and needles waiting to be pulled over and sent away forever for a multitude of strange, and increasingly brutal, crimes. On the other, she had finally retrieved the last organs necessary to make her otherworldly consort complete.

Her master had promised to love her, and only her, for all her days. To cherish and care for her the way no other man had. He manifested as an apparition in the backseat of her Prius. The sulfurous scent of hell was what she noticed first. Her eyes focused on the shifting shadows in the rearview mirror, second. Two beady points of smoldering light were all that Karen could make of the being from the shadowed mass, but its honeyed assurances continued to cast their spell on her.

"Excellent work, my love. Soon, oh, so very soon, I'll be able to hold you in real arms. To touch you with real flesh," the entity said to her. It billowed into the front seat as she continued to drive. A smile spread across her face as the creature doted on her with its infernal presence. The rest of the drive passed by without worry, and she was back at her house in the early hours of the next morning. She unloaded her equipment and was eager to fit the vessel with its final pieces.

The vessel stood at the rear of her walk-in closet which had been made into a grotesque altar. Varied remains and appendages fused together to form a twisted, half-formed body. The collection of flesh shuddered in Karen’s presence. The spirit of the master was all around her, eager and waiting for its new body to be complete. She carefully removed the eyes from their solution and hovered them near the empty sockets of the vessel’s skull. A twisted gaggle of nerve fibers extended from the sockets and attached themselves to the eyes. The eyes retracted into the skull and lids that had not been there previously, formed from strands of flesh that began to knit themselves into striations of muscle across the previously barren face. Cartilaginous tissue filled out the nose and soft deposits of fat seemed to wriggle into place as the skin began to seal over the crown of the skull and down past the bridge of the eyes.

“You have done well, my sweet.” the master said. Karen pressed her lips against his still-forming lips and kissed him deeply. Blood and saliva trailed from their lips when she pulled back. No sooner than she had done this, had strong tan arms pushed her back.

“My god,” Karen exclaimed as she fell on her knees and watched in awe as the vessel’s flesh, with the addition of the eyes, was complete. Skin finished covering the various muscles and tendons that had grown, and the body continued to flesh out until a man, tan in complexion, and rippling with muscle was standing in front of her. Snow white hair sprouted from his scalp and grew in neat curls that rested on his neck and shoulder. The once jaundiced, inadvertently bruised, brown eyes of the delivery man turned completely black, iris and sclera, then after a moment, faded to white with crimson irises. He stood in front of Karen, manhood dangling in front of her, and demanded clothes.

“I need your finest silks and all the wine you have in this house, woman. Get to it.” the creature snapped.

Karen was confused. She smiled and took this as somewhat of a joke. The master had sworn to treat her well. To cherish her. She approached and pressed her open palm against her master’s chest. He slapped her to the ground.

“You are an imperfect thing. You have served me well, but you are nothing to me. You have always been nothing but a means to an end, and that end has been achieved. Now, I command you to execute my order.”

Karen was astonished. How could she have misunderstood the situation so deeply she wondered, but then she realized that she didn’t misunderstand anything. That the sweet sounds of this otherworldly being had served to ensorcell her and nothing more. She saw that he was no different than her ex-husband who left her during her residency, or the slew of lovely boyfriends that followed him. She had permanently ruined a plethora of lives just to conjure up yet another abusive rear end in a top hat. This wouldn’t stand.


The master had begun assembling a cult of followers using his powers of mind control. Her house had become a base of operation for all manner of depraved cultists, and Karen had become an afterthought to the master. She used this to her advantage, and one day, during the daily worship of the master, with a vest of improvised explosives, she and the others who had been corrupted by the presence she brought into the world, were blown clean from it.


My Shark Waifuu
Dec 9, 2012

The Spellcaster's Dilemma
1577 words

After Professor Folkston’s announcement of the final project– a group spell to create a powerstone– Gemma surprised everyone by sauntering over to Esme. Their classmates looked envious, but Esme just glared. She’d been especially sour ever since Gemma outscored her on the last exam.

“Let’s work together.” Gemma got straight to the point. “We’re the top two students, if we team up no one else can overtake us.”

At the Academy, the top student in each cohort earned the title of Elite and paid tuition for the next year. The lowest-scoring half of the cohort were expelled. The cull repeated each year until only one remained: the Exalted. Gemma’s mother, now one of the richest witches in the kingdom, had achieved it, and Gemma, the Elite for the past two years, was following in her mother’s footsteps. In addition, she knew Esme desperately wanted the tuition to avoid having to work as a part-time apothecary. The choice to team up was obvious, yet Esme hesitated to accept. Gemma resisted rolling her eyes at this recalcitrance. The other students hovered, waiting to pounce should the offer fall through.

Esme noticed them too. “Fine,” she said, cramming her spellbooks into her giant, ubiquitous rucksack. “Meet me in the library tomorrow after Hex Theory.” She pushed past the other students on her way out the door.

Gemma counted that as a win. She flipped her hair, gathered her things, and exited without a backwards glance at the rest of the class. Time to do some studying.


Esme sensed Gemma walking over to her library nook before she saw her. That girl exuded smugness and expensive perfume. Well, she assumed the perfume was expensive as everything else, from her clothes to her uptown apartment, certainly was. Gemma slid into the chair opposite and made eye contact. Esme didn’t like that either.

“So, the powerstone. The higher the power, the higher the marks,” Gemma said. “What’s your idea?”

Esme pushed some complicated diagrams across the table. Academic confidence had never been her weakness. “A summoning circle approach is best to maximize power for effort. This design should do it.”

Gemma looked at it thoughtfully. “I thought the same thing. It’ll be tough with just two people, but hey, it’s us.”

She grinned invitingly. Esme didn’t reciprocate: none of her classmates had taken an interest in her before this year, when she’d worked her rear end off to get close to the Elite. She couldn’t let Gemma interfere with this opportunity.

“What materials are you using at the vertices?” Esme asked to test her.

Gemma pulled out a neat list, mapped to corresponding points on her own identical diagram. “Let’s see, oak burl for power, quartz for focus …” Esme admitted, begrudgingly, that it was better than her own. Gemma made being the Elite look so easy that Esme forgot that she was actually, unfairly talented.

As Esme scribbled revisions to the diagram, Gemma talked. Ten percent was useful input to their project and the rest was gossip about their classmates, who was dating who, did she want to come to a party this weekend? At that, Esme looked up.

“I can’t,” she said, “I need to study. We need to ace this project, and then I need to start practicing spells for the practical exam. They need to be perfect to beat yours, as my job is going away next year…” She flushed. She hadn’t meant to say that last part.

Gemma looked surprised that such a thing was possible, then said, “You’re smart, you could get another job if you need to.” Esme didn’t deign to respond. How could a rich girl like her understand her anxiety, her uncertainty? If she fell, there was no net of family or friends to catch her.

Esme wanted to drop the subject there, but Gemma grabbed her hand. Her grip was warm and surprisingly tight. “Look, you’ve got this. We’ve got this. Everyone knows we’re going to be top two in the cohort, and then,” she smiled, “the real fight begins.”

Maybe it was just the expensive perfume, but Esme did feel better after that.


Gemma arrived at the laboratory an hour before midnight and set to work. Their calculations showed that the spell would have the greatest chance of succeeding at that time, and Gemma needed it to succeed. Her mother had been Elite five times at this point, a record that Gemma was still chasing. She knew she could outscore Esme on the practical exam, no matter what Esme thought, and this spell would keep them easily ahead of the rest of the class.

Esme finally appeared and set down her rucksack with a clunk. Already, she oozed anxiety. “You bring the kitchen sink too?” Gemma said teasingly.

“Funny,” Esme replied. “What’ve you done?”

Gemma pointed to the floor. A perfect circle was chalked on the tile, bisected by lines at precise angles to each other. The inert powerstone sat at the exact center. Esme grumbled and placed the candles, crystals, and rocks from her bag at each of the vertices, muttering a spell to fix them in place. Gemma, her job done, touched up her nail polish in preparation for the party tomorrow night. She found her magic worked best if she didn’t overthink things.

After a quadruple-check of the placements, Esme was done. “Ready?” she said.

“Yep.” Gemma took her position on one of the two remaining free vertices. Esme stood at the other one. They could feel the magic potential click into place, like a key in an unlocked but as yet unopened door.

Together, they began to chant the spell-words. Instantly, power flooded into the circle, heavy and hungry as the tide. Gemma loved this part: calling the power and wrangling it into submission. Across the circle, Esme’s brows were pinched in concentration, but Gemma just laughed. The magic responded to her confidence, bent to her and Esme’s combined will. They let more magic flow into the circle, riding the wave of power.

However, they were stronger together than either realized. The wave became a tsunami, bursting free of their control. Gemma frowned. This wasn’t supposed to happen. She redoubled her efforts, wrestling the wild magic. If Esme did the same, surely both of them together would get the spell under control.


Esme’s exhilaration turned to terror as she realized the spell was out of control. Power kept building, faster and faster. Esme strained to hold it within the circle, knowing from her studies the destructiveness of unconstrained magic. Across from her, Gemma wore a determined expression and a bloody nose. Between them, they managed to slow the influx of magic, but could not stop it.

Esme’s instincts of self-preservation, honed from years of living on the outskirts of society and then the Academy, flared. It was simple: if they continued hanging onto this spell, eventually the power would consume them both. If they both let go, the unrestrained magic would shatter the building, probably before they could react. But if one person held onto the magic, the other could let go and have time to summon a shield before the inevitable happened.

Her lizard brain screamed the answer at her, but Esme looked desperately at Gemma, hoping that she had a way out. Despite the blood on her beautiful face, she still exuded confidence, as if everything would work out in her favor because of course it always did for rich girls like her. Esme’s heart broke for her. Gemma finally saw Esme and her eyes widened in fear. “No-” she mouthed.

With an anguished cry, Esme broke away from the spell, stumbling back from the circle. Gemma held on, a spirit of willpower, for a full second before the magic engulfed her. The roar of raw power drowned out her scream. Then, the room exploded.


Esme sat in her bed at the Academy’s ward, staring out the window. In the pale reflection she could see the jagged scars on her face, constant reminders of her choice. The healers had worked miracles just keeping her alive, though most days she wished they hadn’t. Physically, she’d recovered but she couldn’t bear returning to the world, not with her grief so raw.

The awaited knock came at the door, then Professor Folkston came in quietly. Esme braced herself for his judgment. “How are you doing?” he said.

“Fine.” Not true, but there was nothing to be done.

“Good. Then you’ll be ready for your practical exams next week?”

Esme gaped at him. “But Gemma … The third floor was destroyed. I thought I was expelled!”

Professor Folkston cocked his head. “Do you want to leave?”

She paused. “No.” That was the truth.

“Then I expect to see you at the exams next week.” He saw that Esme still didn’t understand, and sighed. “Look, the powerstone assignment is a bit of a trap. At this point students have enough power and knowledge to get themselves in real trouble; they need to exercise good judgment in order to avoid it. Incidents like this happen every few years.”

Her broken heart couldn’t take this revelation. “I let Gemma die, and for nothing! I failed the assignment in every way. I won’t be Elite. How do I go on?” she wailed.

Professor Folkston shrugged. “You have a rare amount of power, you have a place at the Academy. The only person standing in your way is you.”

He left her to make her choice.

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