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Apr 21, 2010

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

Over seven hundred authors have written ten thousand stories totaling nearly eleven million words! There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!



T H U N D E R D O M E!


I’m sorry, what’s a “Thunderdome” exactly?
Thunderdome is Something Awful’s first, only, and best weekly flash fiction writing contest.

Oh this like a writing group? I’ve done writing groups before!
Not like this. Let's face it, most online writing groups devolve into hugbox circlejerk bullshit even if they weren't designed that way to start. Here, we do brutally honest critique through the magic of goonery and kayfabe. All of your authorial flaws will be laid bare, and with luck, burned away. They say everyone has, what, a hundred thousand awful words in them. Here's where you spew them out your word orifices and git gud.

Neat! How do I join?
Click the link above. Say “In.”

Should I know anything important before I join?

First and foremost, read the prompt post. Then read it again. Then read it a third time. Don’t gently caress this up. It’s just "reading." And the prompt post is going to give you a lot of important information. Such as:
  • The word count. This is a maximum. Don't write a story with more words than the word count. You'll be disqualified.
  • The deadlines. There will be two deadlines. One is for signing up for the week. The other is for submitting. If you sign up after the first deadline, you'll be disqualified. If you submit after the second, you'll be disqualified.
  • The prompt itself. This varies from week to week. You might be writing in a specific genre. You might be dueling another writer. You might be submitting for publication. Who knows? You will if you read the prompt post. Sometimes additional flash rules will be assigned after sign-up or are available upon request. Again, this varies.
There are, of course, additional things to keep in mind.
  • Do not edit your story after you've posted. Once a story is submitted, that's it, you're done. If you edit your post, you’ll be disqualified.
  • Do not post your story in a stupid-rear end way. Just put in the thread. Spoiler tags, quotes, or off-site links are no good here. You’ll be disqualified.
  • Do not respond to crits in thread. You can say thanks if you absolutely have to say something but that's it. Take your judgement on the chin and move on. You won’t be disqualified (because judgement will have already been posted) but you will be yelled at.
  • If you fail to submit, :toxx: the next time you enter. The only thing worse than failing is failing twice. And, honestly, you're only failing yourself. Put your account on the line.
  • No erotica.
  • No fanfiction.
  • No shitposting.
  • If you are disqualified, you can't win but you can still lose.

What happens if I win?
You decide the next prompt. You judge the entries. You give critiques. You continue to the cycle of blood. Click here for help.

What happens if I lose?
You get some harsh words on how to improve. You also get a fancy new avatar for dying historic in the dome.

See? That’s not so bad, is it little baby?

Okay, I'm sold. How can I enter this wonderfully horrible arena of blood again?



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.


PM me or post in the thread for a link.

Fiction Writing Advice and Discussion

If you want to talk writing in general, this is SA's home for it.

Placeholder for companion thread link
Placeholder for companion thread description.

Previous threads:

Thunderdome 2012:  FYI, I do take big dumps, holla.
Thunderdome 2013:  If this were any other thread we'd all be banned by now
Thunderdome 2014teen:  Stories from the Abonend Bunker
Thunderdome 2015teen:  Weekly Stories with Positive People
Thunderdome 2016teen:  Fast Writing, Bad Writing
Thunderdome 2017teen:  Prose and Cons
Thunderdome 2018teen:  Abonen Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here
Thunderdome 2019teen: Writing Our Wrongs
Thunderdome 2020ty: This Dumb Joke Will Continue Until the Words Improve.
Thunderdome 2021ne: Out of the Dumpster and Into the Fire
Thunderdome 2022wo: The Stakes Have Never Been Lower

On Judging

The number of judges should be three. Since a normal week will only have one winner, that means other people have to step up. On any week where you don't have writing a story in you for one reason or another, consider signing up as a cojudge.


This is up to the head judge, but typically this means someone who has done a few rounds of the dome and doesn't have a backlog of missing crits. You don't need to have won, or HMed, or even no mentioned to judge. You can learn a lot from judging, especially as a newer member of the 'dome.


Read all the stories. Communicate your opinions with the head judge. Usually this happens in discord but other methods happen, especially if there's a big timezone difference. Post crits to the thread.


The soul of thunderdome. Crits can be anything from two or three quick notes to a detailed line-by-line analysis. What's most important is that they get posted and that they be honest to the point of brutality or beyond. If you do like the words that you had to read, of course say so. But don't feel obligated to wrap up your opinions in half-hearted compliments.


by Sitting Here
    Failure - Neglecting to submit a story at all. More shameful than losing. See also: Toxx
    HM - Honorable mention; a story that was in consideration for the win, or had some notable positive quality.
    DM - Dishonorable mention; a story that was in consideration for the loss, or had some notable negative quality.
    DQ - Disqualification; a disqualified story. Stories that were submitted before judgment, but after submissions close. Also includes stories that went over word count and stories that were edited after posting, as well as cases where the judge feels a prompt was ignored in a particularly egregious manner, or when, due to some shenanigans or other, the author was also a judge. Disqualified stories can’t win, but they can lose, which is better than failure. See also: Redemption.
    Flashrule - A sub-prompt given by the judges as part of the main weekly prompt, often serving as an additional challenge or piece of inspiration.
    Hellrule - A particularly unfair flashrule, requested at one’s own risk. Not every judge will issue hellrules.
    Redemption - A disqualified story submitted after judgment has been posted. Better than failure.
    :toxx: - Adding  to your signup post indicates that you will forfeit your forums account if you fail to submit. Banned accounts may be unbanned at the owner’s expense.
    FJGJ - Fast Judging, Good Judging. A thing impatient morons begin shouting the moment submissions close.
    Brawl - A duel between two or more writers. Brawls are separate from the weekly prompt. See On Brawling by Sebmojo for a detailed explanation.
    The Archive - A repository of all Thunderdome stories, faithfully maintained by crabrock and Kaishai for several years.
    - Another name for the free avatar given to losers of the weekly contest
    Kayfabe - It is the showmanship that makes Thunderdome different from other, similar contests. Kayfabe gives participants the opportunity to show a little swagger, or act out grudges and rivalries within the arena of words. Kayfabe is optional, and it’s meant to be fun, not abusive. Come find out what you’re made of, you unblooded weenies.

sebmojo posted:

there's a Thunderdome gangtag!

there's a Thunderdome gangtag?


what does it look like?  


can I have it?


why not

first you need to write ten stories (this week counts) OR get three honourable mentions OR win once

oh sweet I’ve already got 5 hms and a win to go with my 23 dms can I just --

everyone starts from zero


writing a few more won’t hurt you stop whining

ok. ok. so once I’ve done that I will get given a gangtag, and if I don't I should send a pm or discord or whatever to CC mods sebmojo or sitting here?


and if i get a gangtag then lose a round does it...

go away?  get replaced by the losertar? yes.  you have to start again to get a free one, or pay the $5 to add it back yourself

ah, thunderdome

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 Archive

by crabrock

We've done a lot of weeks of Thunderdome, which can be a little overwhelming to keep track of. Enter the archive, which makes a robot keep track of everything so you don't have to. His name is TdBot, he is a creep, and we hate him. The archive is a repository of the thread's weekly entries, brawls, and even interprompts. In addition we track judges and has done their obligatory and extra story crits.

There are statistics for all sorts of interesting things like author wordcounts, entries and more! If you're thinking "I wonder how many..." then it's probably already there somewhere. Even I forget how to find things.

The Archive is by INVITE ONLY, and the only way to earn an invitation is by spilling blood in the dome. Do not ask for an account if you have not participated in at least one week. 

Overall Records: 

Your Profile

Each Thunderdome contestant gets their own author summary page (e.g. here's mine). On your own profile you can change the privacy of your stories (set them to hidden) and mark your favorites. You can also use the archive exporter to build a fancy PDF to send to your mom. 


TdBot not only looks after the archive, but he can pull information from it at will, which he uses to serve as the oracle of Thunderdome in his discord channel. Pop in and have a conversation with him, where he'll use your own bad words to make you regret speaking to him!

Team Archive

None of this would be possible without the help of Team Archive.

Kaishai: Archivist Emeritus
And an ever rotating cast of trusted volunteers.

+ others who have given their time to trawling the thread and checking for accuracy, of which there are dozens.

In addition, several people give REAL LIFE DOLLARS to keep the archive up and running and enable us to do things like the weekly recap podcast, so a huge shoutout and thanks to these fine domers! All the levels have the same rewards because of space socialism. Any donation gives you this cool wizard hat on the archives:

Errors & Feature Request

PM me on discord or SA and we'll get it fixed or see if it's possible to do. No we will not archive crits. Do it yourself.

Thranguy fucked around with this message at 19:53 on Jan 3, 2023

Apr 21, 2010

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

Apr 21, 2010

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

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.
Better than Fire

889 words

I am an invisible man. I am an invincible man, a wise man warrior cunning man thief. I am older than your country, older than the idea of countries. You can grow old indeed when Papa Death cannot find you, can claw back your youth when he has forgotten even to look. Call me Aaron, though that is not my true name, my first name. I will not tell you that. But I will tell the story of how I earned my name.

I am not older than names. There were names before me, likely before anything you would call human. But they were earned names, strings of words commemorating someone's most famous deed or most distinguished trait. Names like Slew-two-bears or Fathers-pride or Breaks-wind-silently. Names of infamy like Steals-wives or Consorts-with-demons. These were not true names, not names of power, but I wanted one more than I wanted Dances-under-waterfalls' kiss, more than I wanted a huntleader's share of a kill. But I was just a boy, with no great deeds or talents, and when I was addressed at all it was as 'child' or 'boy', and how I came to hate those not-names.

Like most of the boys of my age, from time to time I would go to high rocks that overlook the washing waters, hoping to catch a glimpse of the forbidden. This time I was alone, and so doubly at risk. And I was spotted, and one of the watching men raced up the rocks toward me, and I ran. When there were three of us, we could split up, and only one could possibly be caught, and it would usually be deemed unfair to punish that one for nothing but being slower than the rest. But with just one, punishment could be great. So I ran, faster than I ever had, down the rocks and into a dark cave. Such places are the home of dangerous beasts, and I did not think the man following would think I went inside, or be brave enough to investigate.

I was much less wise then.

But there was not a den of wild beasts in that cave. There was only darkness, blacker than the night sky on a clouded night, and as soon as I had moved beyond where light from without shone within, I was blind. I stepped into loose rock, slipped, and found myself sliding down into the black.

When I stopped moving, I saw a tiny light, distant and uncanny. I followed it, using the pink glow to see more and more of my surroundings.

And so I found myself as I had begun, in a high and hidden place, watching the forbidden. The gods were there, and their forge-master. They were dressed in godly clothes, of rock and fire and ivy and horn rather than hide and fur, and they were speaking, and I understood their words, even when they spoke of things I had no concept for.

"We will need names," said the Sun. "Proper names, to distinguish us from our domains."

"And I must have the strongest," said the Lightning. The Wind and the Sea both argued with him.

"And I must have the sweetest," said the Maiden. The Garden glared at her but did not raise her voice.

"I need no other name," said Papa Death.

"Silence," said their forge-master. "I can make names for you, but you must take the ones I give you and no other."

And the gods continued their arguments in some other room, leaving the forge-master to his work. And I watched, and listened, for he chanted as he hammered and I memorized what I could, five and five and five potent spellchants that have been the basis of my magics. If I had remembered five more I would be master of the Earth, if I wanted it.

He finished his work and took a drink from his horn, then used a chant to fill it again. 

"One more," he said, "And then I'll face the gods."

This chant was one I had recalled, and when he had nearly emptied it again I whispered the strange syllables and the horn silently refilled. Again, and again, and again, and the forge-master fell into a drunken sleep.

I ran down, and I stole a name, and ran back up, and used a few more chants to escape the cave and climb back into the world.

I did not see what happened after, but it was well known that the angriest god of all is the nameless god..

And one day that nameless nearly found me, but another god, Amu, whose domain was never clear to me, offered me a trade, my semblance in exchange for fooling the nameless god into believing I was dead. Which is why I am an invisible man.

It has been lonely. I can wear clothes and be partly visible, if I want to. There were times when I could wear full armor and nobody would know I was any different, or bandages and pass as a burn victim. Only recently has makeup gotten good enough to mostly work, and even then I need to cover my eyes.

I've been told that I must be blind, that I cannot possibly see with invisible eyes. But I can see you perfectly clear right now.

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.
Crits for Week #544

Crits from notes done in judgemode

Today, I'm going to talk about each story's title. They're your first impression and last thoughts, so in general make them count.

The Legend of Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah:

The title makes me think of, well, foursomes, not necessarily in the Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice sense, but in the 4 job festival sense too. But it's a waste when none of those characters appear in the story.
Sheep are pretty heavy. Competent prose but utterly empty and shallow.

Is John in Over His Head?:

This title works well, a solid play on the association between JTB and heads.
Okay opener
 You don't need both a section break and a bolded establishing line. One is sufficient. Cute punchline, if a bit unrelated.

A Christmas Adventure:

A very generic title. A little weird by the end, since it really isn't so much.
A complicated mess of an opening sentence. But this is a pretty fun story, up in the high group.

Escape from Follansbee:

Another generic title, one that didn't add much at all.
Okay opening.  Don't like the second paragraph, the numerals or the exposition. Do I need to resume my crusade against semicolons in narrative prose? Also, 'also' usually has a comma after. I read the archive version, which may have had some omissions that the edit fixed. Takes a weird turn, but sure. Tough prompt. But an okay job ay it.


An okay title, does a little cyberpunkish evocation.
Strong opening. But the followup disappoints, a lot of procedurals without doing much more for stakes or character.

For the Trees:

Just a bit above generic for this title. If anything, it's evoking the front half of the saw, can't see the forest, and that doesn't pay off strongly.
Solid prose. I think it pulls back a bit from horror at the end, when horror is the best way to make that story's ending work. High.

A Fishy Solution:

The title is interesting enough. 
Competent, but still mostly predictable even without knowing anything about the source story.

Goodbye, Hello:

Another one where the title didn't do much for the story.
Okay opening. Edit notes, lol. But I like this one. It really delivered the youth councilor energy.

Faith and Family:

A fitting if a bit generic title.
Good opening. Loud signal of source. Everything is on the nose this week, dropping the word technicolor was a bit too cute.

Balam Noson and his Donkey:

Like the story, the title is accurate to the source but doesn't add much.
Cute. Again, on the nose and predictable, but nothing else wrong with it.

The Temptation of Josh:

This is one of the stories that made me want to do titles in these crits. Because it would probably work better with a different title. It fits, but it completely gives away the game. With some other title this could be almost subtle. 

The Parable of the Fox and the Lions:

This is another source-accurate but not adding much title, and the story is similar but at least has an interesting voice.
Okay opening. Not a fan of the dear reader bit. But I seriously liked this one.

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.
Also, in with double flash.

Apr 21, 2010

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

590 words
Gift: A coil of sturdy rope
Tax: Sanity. Something in the wilderness is pushing your characters toward the edge of madness.

"Hold on," I said. Shouted, really. The wind was loud and angry, and I wasn't sure if Connor could hear me at all. "Just hold on."

"Come on, Jake. Who do you think you're talking to?"

I relaxed, just a little, for the first time in eons. For the first time since a few minutes earlier, when I felt the jerk on the line and heard the noises, the crumbling rock beneath me and that sickening crack. A leg? An arm? A bone, that was for sure. I thought about asking, but changed my mind. Better to distract, to deflect.

"Hey, remember Alfie?" I said. "Alfie with the ears, and the, watchyacall. The VW Beetle, the remake version that wasn't much like a real one at all." Connor didn't answer. "I ran into him a few weeks back, outside the Walmart."

"Really? What's old Alfie with the ears up to now?"

"Got a Tesla now," I said. "And a wife too, if you can believe it."

"No kidding?"

"No kidding. He showed me some pictures. Cute girl. Dana Silver. Keri's little sister, I don't know if you ever met her." I glanced down, then steeled myself. "Listen," I said. "I'm going to have to start moving again. Can't hold on here forever, but it's not that far to the next camp. I'm going to have to carry you."

"That'll be a switch. Sure you can handle the weight?"

"I used to climb with kit heavier than you," I said, and started to climb. It was true, but left out two big things. First, that was five years and twenty pounds ago, and second, there's a big difference between seventy five kilos evenly distributed in a backpack and the same weight dangling beneath twenty feet of rope. Every foot was a grunting effort, but what else was I going to do? Fall?

"I bet you're thinking about cutting that rope right now."

"Never," I said.

"Look, if I don't make it, I want you to make sure Magnus gets a good home." Magnus was his dog, a great big friendly mostly Newfoundland mutt. "I know, you can't take him yourself, but find someone. And..."

"What?" I asked, catching my breath between upward moves.

"And you still don't have permission to go sniffing around any of my exes."

I laughed, which turned into a cough.

"Didn't ever stop you," I said. "Remember Pat?"

"Not the same. Pat was a current, not an ex."

"That's worse, though," I said. I remembered that night, Connor wearing his rose courage in his hair and pulling it off. And Pat ditching me for it. "Was it worth it?"

"Every bit."

Then I got to climbing, half-foot by half-foot up the face. The sounds were the wind, my grunts, breath, heartbeat, blood in the head. Up. Up. Up.

The ledge was tricky. Harder to keep balanced and anchored once there's no wall in front. But I managed, rolled onto it and over the rope, then started slowly pulling up. "Just about there," I said. I pulled him up, got a close look for the first time since we started this leg. He had that rose corsage in his hair and a fixed toothy grin, his pants and jackets peppered with tears. I pulled him across the ledge and propped him against the face.

"Don't worry," I said. "I've still got the radio. We'll call it in and won't have to worry about anything but the hospital and helicopter bills."

"Jake. Who do you think you're talking to?"

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
In with -“I am death. It took me like 20 days” and the words of the prophet.

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.
Messing with Folklore

1020 words

Prompts:“I am death. It took me like 20 days” and the words of the prophet." and "I want him to write about the Russian death bears."

You know about Koschei the Deathless, right? Big bad wizard guy who hid his heart inside a needle in an egg in a turducken in a chest at the top of the tallest mountain in Russia so that nobody could kill him, then went around being a massive pain to everyone just because he could. Now, as these things work out eventually there comes around a peasant boy who's got googly eyes for a princess and ends up getting the idea that killing that guy will get him closer to sealing that deal, which is probably right, since as I said, massive pain who everyone would be really grateful to have stop being around. So the kid climbs the mountain, probably outwits a riddle-troll or steals a magic sword from a dragon or something along the way, finds the box, cheats a way to open it's unpickable lock, eats through the turducken (which also has a rabbit in there), cracks open the egg, and gets the needle to go and stab Koschei in the eye with it. Which is good, but that guy got to run around for a couple hundred years before anyone could do anything about it. So a bunch of us got together to make sure nothing like that ever happened again.

"Death," said Ivan the Green, "Is one lazy so-and-so."

"Comes for all of us," said Sofia the Blue.

"Inevitable, sure," said Ivan. "But in his own good time."

Now, we wizard types don't really have a leg to stand on, talking about being lazy. This Council was theoretically about Koschei but it didn't actually happen until centuries later. When we were all roused up about the other guy.

"Good on us," I said. There wasn't but one of us under two hundred in that room.

"Josif, that's different," said Sofia. "We keep to ourselves. We don't go around getting famous and then daring someone to find the secret way to kill us. We don't," she said, taping her foot, "Go messing with folklore."

All eyes turned to Peter the Grey. Even mine. Poor kid. "For the thousandth time," he said, "I. Didn't. Know."

"What," said Ivan, "The chicken legs on the hut weren't a giveaway?"

This was an old conversation but I'll probably never get tired of it. Peter, the youngest of us at fifty-five, spent a night with Baba Yaga, who had transformed herself into herself but young, or possibly just possessed her latest daughter, and he didn't notice the house lifting itself up and running into the taiga. Not until she kicked him out onto the ice and it ran off, leaving him out in the wilderness bare rear end naked without even a staff or wand. He's lucky I was nearby enough to notice.

Most of us have a Baba Yaga story, come to think of it. Most of them end better than his though.

After we hashed it out again, Sofia brought us back to the point. "Death," she said, "has abandoned his duties."

"He does that sometimes," I said.

"Too often," said Ivan. "We need to do something."

Why is it that whenever someone says 'We need to do something' or 'Something should be done' what they really mean is 'Josif the Gold needs to do it's? That's the way this was turning out. I owed more than a few favors, was willing to be owed a few from the others, and this is in my personal skill-set. So I set out to do it. To usurp the title. To become death. I had three months to do it, before the Rasputin problem went critical. I did it in one.

I don't suppose you've ever supplanted the role and corporeality of a top-tier anthropomorphic personification. Well, let me tell you one thing: it hurts. When you're not used to being a skeleton you get phantom pain from every muscle and organ you now don't have anymore. Also, every time you move it makes this awful scratching sound. It's cold, you don't have a proper tongue for talking or doing spells with, you move really slowly on foot and the horse knows it's not you and so won't move even if you manage to get on. I barely made it in time, just managed to get the seventh lethal attack to take, which is why he didn't manage to become Grigori the White and isn't running Russia right now. You may think that would be an improvement over the status quo, but believe me it wouldn't have been.

That took a lot out of me. I sort of staggered away, wandering blindly until I made it to a cave, a little shelter for the night. And in that cave there was a bear. Huge. Coal-black. And angry.

I let go. I stopped being Death in a second. What I thought would happen is that the original guy would get it back, maybe show up and challenge me to a game of chess or something.

That's not what happened. Instead, the bear became death.

The good news was that I had my own body back, capable of moving to the astral plane in a second. The other good news was that becoming death still hurt a lot, even if you’re a giant bear.

Death did come back, eventually. Showed up in his vacation hat and sandals and took it all back. Thing is, that was a mama bear. And Death is lazy. So in the meantime she bore a litter of bear cubs who were also Death. And they bred true. By now there's got to be hundreds of them.

Which solved our problem, long term. Now when a wizard starts getting too loud, starts messing around with folklore, well, it's not hard to get a few Russian Death Bears on their scent, and there's nothing out there this side of Baba Yaga herself that they can't and won't rip the face right off.

Pity about Ivan, but he was a bit of a jerk. I shudder to think what would have happened if he had tamed the Firebird back in 1949.

Apr 21, 2010

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

Apr 21, 2010

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

880 words

It was a magic kind of summer, Todd and Cheryl and Ryan and me on tour in Southern Indiana and Ohio, playing bars and clubs in towns that hadn't heard anything better, not live. We were the Monkeyshines, playing fifties songs in a nineties style, sleeping in the van most nights, at least those of us who weren't getting laid any given night. And it was a hell of a van, too, with a sweet mural on the sides of a great big red devil goblin wizard guy shooting lightning out of his middle fingers. Magic. Right up until the day the van broke down.

Now, this happened in a postage-stamp town in Indiana called Clement, and I didn't notice that the Van wasn't going to go until after the gig, around ten past midnight. Clement is a place that rolls up the sidewalks around ten, with that club and a few trucker bars being the only exception. If it had just been the battery I might have managed a jump, but twenty-four hour tow service was a Jeffrrsonville thing.

Todd and Cheryl had picked out one of the fans, chatted her up between sets, and left with her right after. They were big into threescore, which makes sense because they were each just a bit more than half a decent lay. And Ryan ran into one of his exes during that same break, and Ryan's exes are all on good terms forever. Well, apart from Connie from Cincinnati, who tried to stab him with a knitting needle and got herself thrown in jail. But the one there was good with it, in the "stay up all night with him talking, if the current boyfriend doesn't understand then he wasn't worth keeping anyway" kind of way. So that left me with the van.

Now, I've slept in the van before, but not alone. Stayed up all night in the van too, when nobody else could take a shift watching our gear. But that was with the others just a thin wall away, not completely alone in the dark club parking lot. But it wasn't like I could get a taxi to the Motel 6, since first, that would wipe out my share of the night's pay, money we'd need on repairs anyhow, and there was the matter of the gear. Instruments and amps.

So, there I was, alone, in the dark, trying to wait out the night.

"Hello, Joanna."

I jumped, and the only reason I didn't hit my head on the roof of the van is because I'm only five foot two. Then I turned, and jumped, and did hit that ceiling.

He was glowing. That's the first thing. Red skin, glowing. Short knobby horns. He didn't look quite the same as the goblin on our mural, but he could have been a cousin. He was wearing a 3XL Monkeyshines t-shirt, which thankfully went down almost to his knees because that was it, he was Donald Ducking it. And he was smiling. Shiny black teeth.

"Hey," he said. Voice like, well, a goblin. High pitched, a little rumble, a bit of laughing like he's the only one in on a joke. "I'm not going to hurt you. Do I look like I'm going to hurt you?"

"Kind of, yes," I said.

"What, this?" He sort of shrugged. He got a little less glowy. 

"What do you want?" I said. "And how do you know my name?"

"I've been watching. Well, listening mostly," he said. "Through that portal." He thumbed at the side of the van. "I'm Cauldron, by the way."

"Portal?" I said. "Fantastic, I'm living in a van with a portal to hell on the side."

"Hell?", said Cauldron. "You'd better not let Queen Yrsa hear you call it that."

"Who?" I said. "Listen, what do you want?"

"I want to be in the band," he said.

"Do you play any instruments?" I said. The weird thing is that I wasn't scared of him anymore. I've dealt with wannabes before.

"I can play bass," he said.

"Todd already covers that," I said. "Are you better than him?"

"No," said Cauldron. "I do play a mean tuba though."

"Do we sound like a Ska band to you?"

He shrugged sadly. "Well, I bet I could probably play the drums. How hard could it be, just hitting things with sticks." I was glaring at him so hard I was seeing spots. Not just because he was glowing neither. "Kidding, kidding."

"Well, what else can you offer?"

It took until the sun came up, but we finally made a deal. Pyrotechnics was what he could do, fire and lightning effects that are only as real as he wants. Light without heat, faerie fire lightshows that can't burn down the house. And in return, I got protection. Not just for the night, but forever. He's a bit over-zealous: one time a guy wound up completely hairless for standing me up. I mean, eyelashes to ankles, like a competitive swimmer. But he means well. And some nights, for the last encore, we'll drag out some eighties power ballad that has a horn part in it and he'll come out and play that mean horn before shooting fire and lightning out his middle fingers.

Apr 21, 2010

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

Apr 21, 2010

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

Speed Run

841 words

She brushed by me, wearing a smile and a tight red dress and a wide hat with a lilac on it, and dipped my pocket. Didn't take anything out. Put something in. I continued my sweep of the casino floor. No new faces, no schedule changes. All good. Except for her. It was a keycard. Not for this hotel, for the Ambassador across the street. Room number 423 and the word 'midnight' in tight lines in red sharpie marks on the concrete-gray plastic.

It wasn't the kind of invitation I'd turn down. At midnight, give or take a tenth of a second, I swiped the card, and the door unlocked. She was sitting on the fully-made bed, in the same outfit minus the hat and the smile. Business, then.

"We have a mutual interest, it seems." She said. "The question is, how mutual it is."

Just as I had thought. I do fine, romantically speaking, but it's mostly hustle. I'm not often the pursued. So this was business. Two professionals working the same site. Either we had the same target and were rivals, or we had different goals, which could be more interesting.

"I'm not after the house, if that's your game."

"It's not," she said. "Too little cash, and the security is still set up for when there wasn't. You'd have better luck hitting the bank itself."

"The armored car," I said. "That would be the weakest point. If it was the casino money I was after, which I'm not." She nodded 

"A guest, then?" she said. My turn to nod. "Who?"

"I don't trust you that much." I said. "Yours is the same, right? A guest, usually on the floor this time of year?"

"He practically lives there," she said. I grinned.


"Your target is a woman, I presume?"

"So we can work together," I said. And should. Much better to work with each other's distractions and exploits than to let whoever goes second deal with the kind of security upgrades a successful heist brings. Or evena failed one. We talked shop until the wee hours of the night, agreeing to strike the next night.

It was a good plan, an excellent plan. It felt more like a dance-off than a usual job. We both had access to the hotel facilities, and had different ways to exploit it. The light system usually has a slow cyclical dim and bright cycle, creating the illusion of perpetual evening, subtly drawing foot traffic from attraction to attraction. When my program was loaded, subtle went out the fake windows with a desert oasis in the distance. Too much emergency lighting and game lights to go for darkness, so I went the other way. Dazzling brightness, with a little stroking. The slots already made the room no-go for photosensitive, but this would give anyone a splitting headache. I gave her a pair of sunglasses like mine, heavy duty.

She took care of the cameras. I wasn't that concerned there: if I got out clean nobody would be going to the cops. But someone might bribe the casino to get the tapes, so better not to have any recognizable faces, and after her filter distorted the images nobody could tell us from Bugs Bunny and Valkyrie Bugs Bunny.

Sound, next. The speakers were easy to override, replacing the calculated easy listening and droning subsonic with some loud and lively Electronica. Just the thing for constant motion.

The guards are well trained. Under normal circumstances they have less than a minute response time. With the sensory overload we had going, I put that at a bit more than two. And they prioritize the money over identifying and intercepting troublemakers. So when the lights and music started, we had to go fast, to careen across the room fast enough that we seemed like a dozen people under the strobes. Indirect routes, colliding with the tables and ending up right where we wanted to be. She bounced right into Victor Tierce, taking off his bracelet full of blood emeralds and gold while they stood up, skittering off towards the exit before he noticed the weight off his arm. And I ran up behind Diane Shaw, formerly Diane Peck, whispering a name in her ear right during a soft section of the music. She took my arm and we practically glided away. Mike Shaw did notice. He chased after us, loud and lumbering. I counted it down.

Three. Two. One. Zero. A tiny fumph of an explosion in Mr. Mike's coat pocket, and the deck full of face cards I dropped in there spewed out its contents, kings and jacks and aces all with the house backs all spilling to the floor. The guards prioritize the money, and Shaw was the kind of guy they just love to get to stop sucking up to. He was running. We were just moving fast. And in twelve hours we'd all be out of the state, free, clear, and in some of our cases a lot richer. A fine day's work.

Apr 21, 2010

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

Apr 21, 2010

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

A Candleman's Funeral

884 words

"What are we," said the prophet, "But water and wax?" and the soul mongers had no answer to give.

--The Book of Javril, 3:18

No Candleman wishes to attend a funeral, even for their worst enemy. When a life is lived properly it stretches from when they are trepanned and receive the wick as a near infant to the final sublimation of the soles of their feet, leaving nothing behind to bury or mourn.

"It is a fact, regrettable but undeniable, that there have been nearly a dozen Candleman's funerals in the city over the past twenty years," reports Chief Censor Deneb. "While the Chanlderate attributes this to a growing Qlippothic or diabolic presence adjacent to the city we of the Ministrata can point to more mundane causes for the extinguishings." The report goes on to enumerate five suspected murders, three likely enough for the rope by intimate partners and two by violent criminals unaffiliated with the Crabeaters; two suicides, one highly disputed by family despite ample evidence; and one ruled misadventure that was either a wager or a scientific experiment involving a negative pressure pump.

This leaves three which happened spontaneously and inexplicably enough that a supernatural explanation is plausible, although in private conversation some both within and and without the Chandlerate take a more nihilistic attitude. "Sometimes, the spark simply fails."

The funerary rite is one of the few entirely public events in their subculture, and can become a spectacle, especially when the extinguishing was public and the whisperer networks of the city know such an event is coming. Still, outsiders observe the funeral only from the bridges above, never from the docks or on the water among the Candlemen. Even as notable a guest as the young Septarch Vinces must maintain his distance.

At the most recent such funeral the young ruler asked, in the manner of youths and monarchs, a question of incisive ignorance. "Why," he asked, "Don't they, you know, relight him?"

The long and full answer, we are informed, occupied the next month of the Septarch's theological education. The shorter answer, provided on the spot by Syriana of the Ministrate Divine, was as follows: "The flame is all that is, all that matters. It is indistinguishable from our own godsparked spirit or soul. To relight an extinguished Candleman would be to animate a corpse, either as a copy of another flame, as a puppet or slave, or in a manner that invites a spirit from outside. Both are abominations, and this rite has the purpose of preventing any such thing from happening."

The remains are submerged, to begin with, the wick a foot below the water. Then the wick is extracted. This is work for the younger Candlemen, needing to be done by arms and hands rather than the burning memory of them. When there is none old enough to understand and young enough not to have burned down past their elbows a well-trained outsider, usually from the Stellar priesthood that shares scripture with the Chandlerate.

The wick is extracted, entirely underwater as the process is violent and can give off sparks. The person doing the extraction is careful to insert a beehive plug immediately after the wick is removed to prevent excessive mixing of water within and without. The area around the hole will be sufficiently hot to briefly melt the beeswax and form a tight seal.

The wick is sealed into a black bonewood box, to be unraveled and untwined later, in a more private ceremony. The rest of the funeral concerns only the other parts of the remains.

The plug is prized loose with a curve-bladed knife and tossed aside, to float out with the tide. The remains are then inverted over an open keg and squeezed carefully. This part of the rite is performed exclusively by older Candlemen, done never with hands but only with their memory. This leaves the wax, now dry and flaky, to be crumbled and launched into the air during the next strong wind.

The length of time the mourners spend awaiting that wind is held as profoundly meaningful, an indication of how inevitable or how unexpected the extinguishing was to the Thousand Eyes.

The liquid is then decanted into glass and wooden cups and shared out among all participants and witnesses. It tastes, according to those of the Ministrata, of nothing other than weak salt. In many taverns in the city one can order a draught of Candle Ichor and be served strong flavorless spirits with a touch of salt. The drink does not, unless a crime has been committed that risks riot, contain any of the actual liquid from the ritual. Most of these establishments add a yellow dye to their drink. The actual fluid is colorless, or, when the extinguished was very young, light pink.

Some witnesses do occasionally refuse the drink, out of folk superstition or organized beliefs that hold the prophet Jarvil in error or even irrelevant. Their portion is poured onto the ground.

After the last of the fluid is gone, the keg is dismantled, the wooden parts set to float out to the sea and the metal sunk to the bottom of the canals. Finally, each attending Candleman pushes their gondola against the tide and back into the City's heart.

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 DLI: Roaring

Here we are, nearly midway through the latest roaring twenties, so it's time to look back at the last few twenties. 

There's the 1920s, characterized by a global influenza pandemic, a stock market bubble, and all the markers of gangster media.

Then there are the 1820s, with a global cholera pandemic, a stock market bubble, and the markers of steampunk media.

And finally the 1720s, with...a global bubonic plague pandemic, and, uh, the first stock market bubble, and the golden age of piracy.

Your assignment this week is to write a story set in any of these decades. You don't have to write a gangster/steampunk/pirate story, but your story should feel at home in the decade you set it in. Fantastic or science fictional elements are okay.

Historical fiction is, inevitably, as much about the time it was written than the one it is set in, and I want to see you leaning into that. I've pointed out some areas where history's rhyme scheme is particularly strong, but there are others to use.

I'm not going to be doing too much Historical fact-checking, so feel free to research as little or as much as you want. As long as you don't have someone checking their digital watch or suchlike you should be fine.

All the usual restrictions apply.

Word limit:2020

Sign-ups close 11:59 PM Friday Pacific time

Entries close 11:59 PM Sunday Pacific time




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 are closed.

Apr 21, 2010

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

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
Week 551 Judgement

The panel was split fairly widely this week; nearly every story had its fans and detractors. But we managed to wrangle a consensus in the end.

The week's loss goes to FlippinPageman's Baudry's Bandits, which had some serious technical issues and a story that doesn't really get going until the epilogue.

No DMs, but HMs go to Strange Cares' Seance and Bad Seafood's Jewels in the Dark

And the win goes to Rohan for Knowing Your Place! Welcome back to the blood throne!

Apr 21, 2010

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

Apr 21, 2010

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

595 words

"It's not a bloodsport, mom," I said, pressing the envelope to my chest.

She frowned. "It's not one of those other kinds, is it? Where one of you comes home with a husband and the other nineteen just get knocked up?"

I sighed. "No, it's not one of those."

Mom counted on her fingers. "You can't sing. You can't dance. You can barely boil an egg. That leaves bloodsport." She wrenched the letter out of my hands. "'The ultimate test of human fitness'. Hmph."

I grabbed it back. "It's not," I said.

"Do you have to sign a death waiver?" she said.

"That doesn't mean anything. Nellie had to sign a waiver for the Trivia Drill."

"Fine, fine," she said. "But when you get killed don't go crying back to me."

That was seventeen days ago, seventeen days on the island, eating what we could gather or kill, kept up most nights by the buzzing of the mosquitos and camera drones. Nobody's died yet, as far as I know. But it's just a matter of time. Last time Barker and I had it out we both drew sticks, sharpened to nasty points, and Lemony had to keep us apart.

The stakes are high. These days anyone can get a college degree and be overqualified to run a deep fryer or cash register. You want a real shot at a career, you need med school, law school, or a reality win. Maybe you can skate by with fan favorite. Maybe. That wasn't me, I wasn't a clown like Brian or an exhibitionist like Mitzi. I needed the win.

I dream about death, here on the island. It's technically not an island, legally speaking. It only goes a few hundred feet down, then the foundation craft, and then the ocean. So it's legally a ship in international waters, flying the flag of a nation now completely submerged. There aren't many laws here that matter. The worst they can do is send you back home. So I dream about death. Not dying. Dealing. About the people I wish I had here with me. About a dozen names cross my mind, people I wouldn't mind cutting down if they were here. Nobody here is on my list. I didn't come here to make enemies.

"It's that drive," said the CEO in his interview, when he announced that he'd be hiring from the reality green rooms rather than the campuses. "The willingness to do anything to secure that W. We can train everything else. We can't train that." The first, but not the last.

Down to the wire, the final three, and it comes as a pure shock to Brian when Barker and I go from another standoff to pouncing on him without a word. We leave him bleeding as the drones summon a helicopter for medevac or corpse removal. I don't know which, won't find out until it hits the air. I wonder if the editors will tip their hand early, show Barker and I making our alliance on the first day, or leave it as a shock to the audience as much as it was to Brian. The terms hold still. Anything to make final two. Then a clean final challenge. The producers like that better anyhow. Bloody murder is fine for ratings in the mid-season, but finale time they want the course.

I smile at Barker. He looks fine, something I've had to ignore all this time pretending to despise him. In another show we might have wound up together. The whistle blows, and I start running.

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.
Crits for Week #551

Crits done in judgemode

Jewels in the Dark:

Does the opener really do anything? This looks like a classic 'cut your first paragraph' situation. The second isn't great either, disembodied dialog that can't belong to Nico or Gabriella. Lots of characters piling on quickly. The idea that Gabriella is pretending to be Nico comes out eventually, but awkwardly. Making that clear right off would be a better use of that first paragraph; it's not a big twist, no need to be coy about it. Sort of serviceable revenge yarn, but does it really hit the decade that well?

Baudry's Bandits:

Here the opener sets a scene well enough, and establishes a character if not any conflict or action. Repeating a long phrase like 'deep in conversation with a woman in a good dress covered in rose prints' feels like an editing error. 2:00 o'clock is redundant. Prose is generally awkward throughout, and I'm not sure I can get behind the ending. Does solidly hit the decade though.


Strong opener, maybe a little to heavy on the voice and period. Paragraph 3 sentence 2 is a bit of a monster. But the paragraph on the whole is nice. The whole thing is, really. It's mostly carried by the voice but the voice is strong enough to carry it.

A Tale of Two Guineas:

Is that the song from the ride? The opening sets the stage well enough. Present tense can be tricky, and you slip at least once. I don't buy the ending conceit, that a single pirate affected the economy so directly and predictably. But it's generally an okay story.

Chinook Run:

The opener isn't bad, but doesn't really grab the reader. There's a disconnect between the parts of this, the idyllic slice of life and the cannibal horror ends. They don't really compliment each other at all. And the narrator is a bit too passive to carry either end.


Fairly good opener. But this story doesn't really work. Not enough buildup to the ending, not enough agency for the protagonist. There's the core of a noir tale here, but just that, only a core. What I think would help is to heighten the irony earlier on, either letting the reader in on things earlier or by having the narrative present p.o.v. drop a few hints, something like that.

Knowing Your Place:

The opening doesn't seem to do much, looking at it in isolation, but it does draw the reader in. This is another good one, a stronger revenge yarn than the steampunk one.

Apr 21, 2010

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

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.

Chernobyl Princess posted:

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

The First Bite

755 words

"If there's one thing that won't change," Grandma told me, "It's that if you spin past the Jukes' woods you'll find a lad in a hat of straw ready to trade apples for kisses." She said it like it was a bad thing.

So for years I avoided those woods, walked around the old fences with the wire cut off so a person could climb over easy, jumped across the creek when it wasn't bone dry, which was a lot of the time. It became habit, and I forgot why I was even doing it. Until the big storm, when I was fifteen. You know the one. Rain like I was Noah sliding down my slicks, so as I could barely see a thing, and the creek looked like a river. I was going to go the whole way around, back to the old road and follow that, which I hadn't done in forever. But that took me right by those fences.

I stuck my hand over the top, the left hand with the tracker on it, and it didn't send danger flashes to my lens like it would for a shotgun kind of property. And I thought to myself, Caleb Jukes isn't far from fine, really. He was in my schoolpod. Saw him in virt most days, in person when we had field trips. And I was on the other side of the fence before I knew it.

Caleb wasn't out by the apple tree, since he had sense enough not to be standing out in the rain. But there were apples, even a few fresh on the ground, blown off by the storm, and I stole one on my way across their land towards home, hid it in my slick's inside pocket and didn't eat it until late that night.

It tasted like the last day of summer.

Now that I knew the tracker wouldn't grass me for it I took the shortcut every now and then, when it was raining or I was in a hurry, so I was bound to run into Caleb eventually.

Grandma wasn't wrong. 

Caleb wasn't my first kiss, mind, nor even my first proper kiss. But his hands were the first ones that touched an awful lot of bits of me. That wasn't part of the deal. That was just what I wanted, rolls and frolics in the honeysuckle. The deal was just kisses and apples. Apples that tasted like a sunrise across the Mississippi, or like meeting a cousin for the first time in person, or like lying down after a full day's standing work. The Jukes, the older Jukes, they kept playing with the genes of the apple, of the ground cover, of all the plants and insects in the guild.

"What we want," Caleb told me, "Is to make apples that taste just like falling in love. If we can get that working we'll be rich men, all."

They never got it right. Not even today. But that went on for a year and a half.

Then came Deacon.

Deacon was the next oldest Jukes boy, about a year on me and Caleb, and while Caleb was fine, Deacon was full-on fit. He made the offer and I nodded. He lifted my chin and leaned in.

I lost control. We both did, and we locked eyes with fear as we both got the notification that our trackers were squealing away to our parents. We knew we were going to catch hell, but it was worth it, or seemed like it.

The apple tasted like the seconds between lightning and thunder, and it was the last one that I had from there for a long long while, since Deacon went off to A&M right after and Caleb would barely talk to me anymore. Everyone seemed to know. But he was the only one who kept caring after a week.

It was twenty-four years on I next saw Caleb. This was after I'd buried a husband and a son, after he'd buried his parents, after Deacon left the orchard for the city, doing genework for rooftop gardens. We ran into each other in town, caught up, shared odd glances. "Nowadays it's my nephews doing the trading," he said. "During the day. Popular boys. Got so I can't get any work but in the dead of night."

I don't know if he meant it as an invitation or not, but I took it for one either way.

The apple tasted like our baby's first crying breath.

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.
Crits for Week #554

Crits done in judgemode

Loose Wires:

Not sure if I buy the premise(of nondiverse colony ships), but I'll accept it for now. Also not sure everything in that first paragraph is necessary up front. This is a fairly functional YA sci-fi yarn, not much there in characters or prose but the story mostly makes sense.

I Don't Know Which One To Shoot: An Abdiwahab Warsame Mystery:

Fair opening. I am not a fan of the rightsless clone trope. Twins exist already today. It's overdone facile moralizing, enough to push this into the low middle.


Amusing conceit, and you successfully tell a story without breaking it. But there's not much there there.

The Even Chance:

Nice opening. Moody, but we're still all voice and no character a long say in. I mean, the end of paragraph five is where this starts, and that's a bit late. But this is a solid piece, high group.

Only A Week Away:

Opening is generic dialog, but it does set something up. A lot of charactersplaining early. The story takes a big swerve midway through, and doesn't really pull it off.


Interesting opening, a sort of star trekky premise. But it ultimately feels a bit nihilistic. Some good bits though. Middle, maybe a bit higher.

they in the burnt ship:

Digging this so far. Yes, this is solid, high group. Could be even better with more words, maybe aim longer if you do anything with this.

Making Friends at Rekonnekt:

Another solid opener, establishes setting, character, and a start of a plot. I like the idea behind this one, very Phillip K. Dick, but the actual story around it isn't hitting strongly enough.


The opening sentence is a lot, and doesn't even establish a character. This looks like a day at work story but at least it's an interesting job, and solid if overwrought prose building a setting. Then we get some major action bit the prose doesn't change a bit. Technically fine but I don't like this much.

The Virtual Partner Experience:

Okay opener, but let's see if this goes anywhere. The narrator gets old fast with the self-pity, and the most interesting bit of the premise only comes up at the very end. The more interesting story might condense what we have here into a few paragraphs and then start digging into why the narrator can't have a real/noncommercial relationship within the virtual world.

Going out with a bang:

Weak opening I think, nothing really to grab the reader. At least Earth wasn't the punchline. Although the actual punchline isn't much better. There's probably an interesting story set after this, how the world changes after a week-long half-population orgy, but not many people are going to be able to do that right even among published or award-winning authors.

The Bone Sword:

Okay opening. That accelerated quickly. Overall, a bit too dry, too much stuffed into a small story. A Conan (or I guess Red Sonja) story from the point of view of the demon-king is a solid concept, but maybe for more wordcount.

Canopic Jars:

Middling opening. Some interesting imagery. Another undeath story, huh. Pretty far in for routine day at work. And we never get anything but.

Tomorrow's News:

Lampo seems to change gender in one sentence. This is colorful if a bit cliché so far. (I'm not immune to the Twain/Thompson journalist hero trope, but it is well-worn) The ending is a bit flat, though. Both the resolution and the final punchline.

Apr 21, 2010

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

Apr 21, 2010

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

687 words

It is, it turns out, remarkably easy to become unstuck in time. The trauma of strategic bombing, it turns out, is massive overkill. As it were. All you really need is a bright light, the smell of sulfur, and the right attitude. And a bit of luck, I can't be sure if it's the good or bad kind required. At 1:46 PM on March 5th in the year of our lord 2016, these all came together for me.

One minute I'm standing at a bus stop and the next I'm experiencing every instant of my life out of order. Work. School. Mealtime. Sleep, which takes some getting used to, sorting out moments that never happened but did in forgotten dreams. Time just before sleep, too. Watching television. And so much time in the bathroom. One after the other after the other. Then things smooth out. I find myself drawn to certain instants, minor mortification and regrets. The minutes after accidentally blurting a secret, or missing a joke. A person could get trapped like this forever, I think. It's very hard to remember that you have free will, too easy to do exactly what you remember doing in every instant. To hold off from shouting "Free will" until it's too late, the moment passed. I escaped the trap. That one, at least. I gathered myself, waited for the moment, and acted.

It was February 15th, the year of our lord 1988, and when Su Hei handed me a late Valentine card (impersonal as can be, and just out of context) instead of politely thanking her I asked her out on a date. Out of character, I was hopelessly shy in those days. But I was riding myself, taking control of my awkward socially paralyzed brain.

Nothing but a few pleasant outings came of it. Nothing much could have; it was our Senior years and we were both well committed to our colleges. But it was a change, and butterflies are real. Even a small change like this and in thirteen years you have President Gore taking the oath of office, you're working a completely different job in another part of the country with a different trail of failed and semi-successful relationships. 2016 came and went and I wondered if the other lifetime was just a weird extended dream. But five years past that was the accident, the hospital, and the smell of sulfur and I was back, now bouncing up and down two branches of a tree.

It's limited, how much I can carry into a new life. An immediate decision, sure. But not so much more complicated memories. On the bright side, I get to experience books and movies for the first time, each time. But I can't memorize other people's unwritten books and steal credit for them, haven't yet found a million dollar idea I can get to early from where I start.

The butterfly effect means I can't win a fair lottery with future knowledge. Maybe there's a fixed one that I could leech off of, but I haven't found it yet.

Early on, I tried a lot of geopolitics stuff. Warning off disasters before they happen, tipping journalists about scandals early or warning the politicians. Trying to get to a better place. Thing is, it's surprisingly easy to make things worse. How does the meme go? If I had a nickel for each time there was a nuclear exchange in a timeline I've lived out, I'd have thirty-five cents. So far. And about half were when I wasn't even trying to make big changes. And another fifteen cents of nasty civil wars.

So it's mostly just been living my best lives, as best I can. Following the thread of each missed connection or passed-up opportunity. Spending precious days with people I have lost and will lose again.

I'm not sure how it all ever ends, if I can resist the call when the sulfur-smell hits, or stay in the unstuck state forever, or if I need to achieve enlightenment and break the wheel. For now, I'm taking it one life at a time.

Apr 21, 2010

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

Apr 21, 2010

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

805 words

Flash: Poor Poor Miserable Me

Ohio was a battleground state and there we were, behind enemy lines in a black minivan with a mural full of fire and snakes and a bronze-skinned man throwing a javelin, doing fifty nine on a sixty mile an hour road.

'Course, don't do much good to follow the rules. Piggie want to play they can always find themselves a reason.

We had Cyrus on the horn, up on the speaker so we all could hear, and Gianni was flying Artemis on his laptop from the back seat, so we were sitting pretty all things considered when we hit the roadblock. Three unmarked cars and a tall piece of bacon in a suit, long neck full of nicks from poor shaving jobs and a white ball cap over a crew cut.

"You or me, X?" said David, from behind the wheel.

"I'll take care of it this time," I said. "My turn, I reckon."

"Three times past your turn," he said, stopping the van ahead of the roadblock. I waited for the command, then opened the door and stepped outside, hands over head.

"Howdy," I said. "Who exactly am I dealing with today?"

"What you mean?" said the tall man.

"Are you Seneca County officers today?" I said. "Or the Northern Free Militia? Or is this a private shakedown?"

We were prepared for each, more or less. If it came to a firefight, well, we had them outgunned. Could be bad for me, though. I had a vest and if they were well trained they'd be aiming for center of mass, but there was a good chance this was a headshot cowboy, and an outside chance they packed armor-piercing bullets. If they were going legal, well, we had Cyrus on the horn, ready to send legal hotshots to here and the courthouse on quick notice and tie down a warranted search for at least most of the day.

Luckily, his eyes lit up at the last. He holstered his pistol, and his men did the same.

"Send the bird away," he said, "And we can talk."

And talk we did. The final number was a serious one, a good chunk of our operating budget, enough to keep Sheriff Talbot and his men in donuts and oxy for a month.

"That was close, X," said Gianni.

"Thank you," said Helen. "I...I can't go back."

Helen Scaggs, daughter of State Senate Leader Clay Scaggs. Refugee once we make it across the border, kidnap victim in the eyes of the locals until then. In a hell of a lot of trouble. She has a great big old shiner and a ripped near to shreds jeans and t-shirt when we picked her up. Gianni's kit was close to her size and shade, he helped her clean up a lot, but still. She had the kind of story you don't ask about, the kind you probably don't want to know.

"Just the job," I said. I almost said it should be smooth there on, but I had enough experience not to jinx it. But maybe just thinking it was enough. We caught a pair of caltrop mines that tore up the rear tires, and with only one spare we had to wait out a drone with another. At least it was a lousy ambush spot, at least with our air cover, but that was an hour and a half of three-sixty intense watch duty, then another ten minutes with two of the crew changing the tires.

I don't know if he planned to double dip all along or if word about Scaggs had reached him and he put two and two together, but there he was, with about a dozen cars, maybe twice that many men just outside sight range of the Indiana border. Defiance County, so out of his jurisdiction as Sheriff. Not outside Militia territory though.

The line to Cyrus cut out. Jamming. Artemis too, switching from Gianni's eyes and gun to autonomous mode. I could signal attack three different ways and call her off two more. We had a dozen mortar-drones ready to launch. They had their cars in a V-formation, hard to ram through, and our weapons tended to the incendiary rather than high explosive.

I've seen a lot of fights in the SCW. I was at First and Third Baltimore, held the Vegas redoubt. Lost more than a few friends each time. This is the one I don't talk about, not the details, not until we get to the part that doesn't happen most nights when I manage a bit of sleep, where Cyrus's other company hit them from behind and picked up what was left of us, Helen and me and maybe half of Gianni. "The good half," he always tells me when we get together, and I think he even believes it.

Apr 21, 2010

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

Apr 21, 2010

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

1097 words

I'm three hundred sixty-three years old and on days like this I feel every day, hour, minute of coldsleep in my bones. I don't look a day over forty, except for the shock-white hair I woke up with on Lysander. But something knows, in my bones. Especially on days my time matches up with Beth.

Beth used to be my favorite. The only sister of seven brothers. We lived as a family, together, on Earth, for the first twelve years of our life, in each other's heads any time we were in the same building. I wasn't the lastborn but I was still the runt among us, a little bit smaller and weaker, and she was kind, even more than Al. Al liked us all, but for him that was all tied up with wanting us to be better. Firstborns, right? They put a lot of credit in those thirteen to ninety-two minutes.

I miss hamburgers. No cows on Lysander, and the fake beef fell out of fashion decades before I arrived.

It was Al on shift when I came in to work. They handed me my script, then opened up the Faraday cage for me and I stepped inside, and felt his mind again, twenty-eight light years away.

=Quentin, my man,= he sent. =How's it been? You still with Lydia these days?=

I'm not, haven't been for months. He pretends to forget, probably will until we get back together, which isn't happening, or I start dating someone else, which might.

They don't give us much time for small talk. I'm in for four hours today, probably. Two hours worth of outgoing traffic at least, then however much Earth wants to send today. After a few minutes I got down to business. I read the paper in front of me, sending the words. Then Al sends words back to me and I type them out as they go. We're pretty fast. We've been doing this a long time.

About half of any given day is just normal news, words we both understand. The rest is coded, nonsense strings of words or letters. Secret communication between Earth and the colonies.

People say part of it is a hostage code, a changing key that needs to be entered into the Lysander networks every...what, week? Month, maybe. Can't be shorter, I've gone most of a week without going in, when I've been down with a flu. And if Lysander breaks the compact Earth won't send it and the colony will be back to the stone age. Well, early industrial age. And when I die, at least if it comes as a surprise, at least twenty-nine years of dark ages while a laser message goes back and forth. I don't know if that's right, but I do have bodyguards.

Al's shift ends halfway through mine. The elder three are up all day, put together. They have to do eight hour shifts but they get to live on Earth. Sometimes I think they get the better deal. I mean, sure, pioneer spirit and all, we all wanted to be to ones who got to go to another planet, but it's mostly like living in a backwater town but you can't take a road trip to the city.

Nobody knows how telepathy works. In fact, we still don't have a physics where it makes any sense to say that me, on Lysander, and Al, on Earth, are in our boxes at the same time. It should come out different depending on whose frame of reference you pick. But it works. Turns out, there's a privileged frame of reference out there, and it's really weird and doesn't seem to match any place we can observe in the universe. But I'm meandering. Avoiding what comes next.

It's a few minutes break and Beth is in the chamber, in my mind. She goes right into the code from Earth, and I type along.

=Strange David Myrrh Pony Decadent Glove.= I hear her voice, but that's mostly, well, in my head.

Two years ago, Beth had a major stroke. In the cage, on her shift. Otto and Sexton were both on shift, with the traffic from Romeo and Caliban. I got the news second hand from Trip a day later.

These days they don't let us triple up; if a third one of us shows up they're immediately sent away. Like I said, nobody knows how telepathy worms, but someone suggested that might have something to do with it and the bosses figured they'd rather be safe than sorry. Didn't hurt that they already didn't want the colonies talking without going through Earth.

They put something in Beth. Something mechanical, something hooking her language centers straight to a computer. She sends the words, receives them, reads them and types them. But there's nothing there.

Sometimes I have nightmares. That that's the endgame now, for all of us. That they won't let us die, that they'll keep just enough of our brains alive forever.

There hasn't been another telepathic tuplet born since us. Nobody knows how telepathy works but it looks like we get one set at a time. When we go the colonies will be out of quick contact for another two hundred years or more.

I soldiered through the rest of my shift. There's a brief contact from Sexton before they pull him out, a quick image of how his oldest is growing up. I almost smile.

We have a secret,  the eight of us. A zeroed out magnetic field inside a Faraday cage isn't the only way to contact each other over infinite distance. We can also do it in the hazy few moments just before falling asleep. It doesn't happen every night. It doesn't even happen often. Only when two or more of us are sleeping at the exact same moment according to that mysterious privileged frame of reference.

We don't usually think in words, then. Images, memories. A twenty light year hug. That kind of thing.

That night I touched Beth, for the first time since, well. The first time since. I thought it was a dream, or the beginning of a nightmare, but it was real, was her. She was distant, quiet, everything coming in like echoes from a deep cavern. I reached out, grabbed her hand, mentally speaking. She clasped it tightly. And then came the image, the memory, of that night, the nurse massaging her cheek to help her move her jaw and chew, and I could taste that hospital-cafeteria-grade hamburger and cried ugly happy tears until sleep came.

Apr 21, 2010

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

Apr 21, 2010

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

1801 words


"There," I said, pointing at a deep black part of the sky. I made sure Surai was looking at the right place before continuing. "There used to be a galaxy there." I paused, an instant that stretched into forever. The instant before. "Imagine it, the peak of intelligent theory and praxis. The forgeworlds balanced within the burning core spinning neutronium and strange quark matter into hulls for planetary shells. Fractal clouds of dense computational matter around countless black holes, each host to dazzling intellects and impossible virtual worlds. And the stars, where on planets and spinning shells lived four sextillion souls."

Surai looked at me, sadness and fear already in her eyes. I had known her for about a year. I had never talked about home, but sometimes something would slip. "What," she said. "What happened?"

I turned away, fixed my gaze on that empty patch of sky. I didn't answer. "Almost all of us were literally incapable of violence. The Tzin, we called it. A microscope node in our brains, in constant empathic contact with every other soul. Only one in a billion of us was like me, born without a functioning Tzin."

"What?" she said. "You're the most-"

"Not that way. Without a Tzin I had to learn the kind of empathy your kind practices. With my eyes." She has her mother's eyes. Kind. Honest. It hurts to think I will need to train that last away. "With all my senses and my mind. I would have been a soldier, had I not been so young."

"You need to tell me what happened." Her eyes are hard and determined, showing a touch of fear. An open book.

"I need?" I say, voice rising. I look mostly like her, mostly like a human. I had trillions of choices where to flee, of course I chose one as closely compatible as I could. But as I rose, straightening out my spine, the differences stood out. I'm taller than most here, my joints just a bit more angular, my hair rougher, my skin has violet tones.

"Yes," she said, holding her ground. It's never been me she's afraid of, after all. "I need to know, and you need to tell me."

I never knew love, at home. My training, my lessons on Tzinless life were all about not hating, not seeing others as tools to manipulate, controlling rage and fear and animal passion. Incomplete. And misguided. I had to learn to hate before I could love. And I did love Surai's mother, my first and best friend here. I even loved Surai's first father, a good man but the wrong man. I could love him for being part of what made Surai. I love her as any true father must. And she's right. I sat down.

"There was a mind among us. General Fyxx. The best of our soldiers. He earned every glory we could give in fights against rebels and slavers and pirates, but it was not enough for him. He formed a cadre among his officers and plotted a couple, sought to put himself in a position to absolute command.

"He failed. He was betrayed, ambushed, captured, and tried. And the fractal minds that sat in judgment knew no prison they had could hold him. He dared them to execute him, to prove themselves hypocrites forever. But they did not. Instead, they built a new prison, in an unspace space beneath the universe, and sentenced him to timeless eternity there.

"They did not know their new cage was not empty.

"This was before my time, generations before. In my day, the day that I should have started service as a soldier, the day my bulletship flung me back home across the galaxy a failure, Fyxx came back, changed, and at the head of an army of things older than time.

"While his armies slaughtered ours he launched his deadly strike, a piece of twisted self-replicating cosmic string that attacked the Tzin, that created a nanospeck of antimatter as it reproduced.

"The wave of death spread, from Tzin to Tzin, far faster than the speed of light. But just slightly slower than the speed of empathy. So each person who died suffered more and more instants of multiplied pain as they felt the ones before agonizing death from a brain melting and boiling from within. Fyxx explained that to me, his sword pressed to my temple. But that was later.

"Then, I saw my world die in agony, moments after I stepped off the bulletship. I wandered, buried or burned what bodies I could before the futility of it all set in. I did not eat. I only took water when survival frenzy forced me to. I might have gone mad a little. But then my wanderings brought me back to the port, where the bulletship remained, a single light flashing on the main console.

"I pressed the launch button and hurled across the dead galaxy, to the black hole cluster, to the fractal minds, dying in protracted dilated time to negative matter poison darts. I interfaced my mind with them, and as their dense computational matter dissolved they dedicated it to a fast simulation, where they trained my mind in every art of war they knew. It took a lifetime. It was a lifetime, with a wife and children, simulated but no less real than you. It took seventeen seconds.

"Then the bulletship flew on, to the forge at the center of the galaxy. There was one survivor, ancient and wounded and left for dead, half-blind, in despair. 'Only reason I didn't finish the job myself is they told me you'd be coming,' he said, and it made me ashamed of every doubt I'd had up to then. 'Let's get that bastard back.'

"We worked the forges, me being his eyes and third and fourth hands. We added layers of superhard hull to the bulletship, and we made weapons, a dozen blades of quarkalloy steel swords, folded over a billion times to an edge sharper than quantum intervals. We worked beyond endurance, pausing only briefly for meals, until our bodies forced us into rest.

"I woke up a few minutes after he did. 'Job's done,' he said, eyes weary and fading. 'I've sent the signals.'

"'Signals?' I said. There was only supposed to be one, to the dying fractal minds.

"He was starting to bleed from his eyes, the living and the dead one. An involuntary response, a sign of near death in our kind. 'Sorry, kid,' he said. 'Can't say you did anything wrong, but my loyalty has always belonged to my General.' I shook him, yelled at him, but he was beyond words, beyond pain. I wrenched my thoughts back to the mission. My own sword was gone, in the armory I supposed, with the rest. I had a decision to make: go straight to the ship, and possibly face the enemy barehanded, or go out of my way to arm myself first. I chose the latter. The prototype weapon, every bit as good as the others if heavier by a few percent, was still in the engineering bay, closer than the dock by half.

"I pulled the blade out of its storage sheath. Even in the dark of this abandoned factory, surrounded by dead and dying stars, the point gleamed brighter than a close planet. I turned, heading toward the dock, and he was there.

"I had never seen General Fyxx before, only images, but there was no mistaking him, even without the two writhing masses of tendril behind him. I attacked. He lazily drew and parried. Our blades met with a loud clang, and a sliver of superhard metal went flying, careening off the facility walls. His move had incredible force behind it, and my stance was less than perfect. I went flying backwards, making a hard impact with a far wall. I launched myself off it and at him again. Another careless parry that sent me flying. This time I was prepared, and able to vault against the wall. A swing at one of his underworldly lieutenants severed ichorous tendrils and both of them retreated several feet back. The fight was one on one, and I was outmatched.

"With each clash it was only his blade that lost material; mine was harder and sharper and that was my only advantage. I tried to press it, went into a flurry of attacks, whittling away at his weapon. I had one consolation as he toyed with me, that if enough time went by we both would lose and that would be enough.

"Another series of attacks, and then, after blocking each one, he made a single strong strike. I drew my sword up to block, but the force behind the blow was amazing, and sent my weapon out of my hand, breaking two fingers on its way.

"With me at his mercy he taunted me, told me every cruel step of his plan. I leapt back, toward but not to my sword before he caught me again, this time pointing at my chest, slicing a slash through my armor and drawing a light trickle of blood.

"'And now,' he said, 'I will seize this ship you so kindly built me, and find new worlds to conquer.' He did not notice the forms creeping up behind him."

"'That was not our deal,' said the two unthings in unison, just as they pierced him dozens of times with needlesharp tendrils.

"They robbed me of my revenge, and his death was far too painless. But I will forever savor the surprise in his bleeding eyes.

"I grabbed my sword, both handed through the pain, and charged them. The first one's core was ripped apart by the supersharp edge. The other ran, and I let it. I knew what was happening next.

"The fractal minds, in their dying act, gave the dead galaxy a warrior's funeral, collapsing it and all the escapees into nothingness, reaching out through spacetime and pulling in every photon it had emitted that was still on its original path, erasing the galaxy such that it vanished at the same time from every night sky everywhere in the universe. All that light, all that energy went to fuel the drive of my upgraded ship, launching me into intergalactic space and towards my destination. To here. To you.

"Fyxx is gone, daughter-of-my-choosing. But the prison beneath space remains, and it does not take a hyperadvanced civilization to learn how to open it. We fought one such summoned yesterday. We, and those we train, must root out the summoner and what they have loosed, and must stand wary forever against it. I will not live forever, but your line, in blood or training, must carry these swords for all time."

Apr 21, 2010

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

Apr 21, 2010

Deceitful and black-hearted, perhaps we are. But we would never go against the Code. Well, perhaps for good reasons. But mostly never.
Crits for Week #559

Mrenda - Slither On the Cross:
I have a lot to say about this one, but first off: I liked it. It was my second favorite of the week, in fact. I can see why the other judges found it inscrutable or offputting, but this kind of ambitious, deep POV business is my jam.
To unpack this, in my reading at least, this is either the internal monolog or an in-world account (and I'll get back to that question later) of a very disturbed individual, suffering from schizophrenia along with severe gender dysmorphia who has recently had a psychotic break during which they castrated themself. It's a bit surprising that they have held it together, almost certainly without therapy or medication, for so long, since the issues seem to have started in childhood and they are now married with at least three children, but I'd wager such things do happen sometimes.
I do wish, though, that we had a clearer sign on the question earlier, whether this is something that is being said aloud to someone else, to a doctor, or if it's all internal, because the entire flavor of the ending line shifts on that question: if it is internal, then the speaker's use of a male honorific is innocent, a product of overformalism. But if this is something the speaker has been listening to, especially as a psychiatric professional, well, it comes off as deliberately cruel. I mean, sure, you would want the patient to be a lot more mentally stable before you would start talking specifically about gender identity issues, but there are plenty of big obvious hints in the narrative and it would have been so easy to just leave off the 'Mr' entirely and avoid the issue.

Copernic - Old Pavlova:

Interesting opening, establishes some character right off. I don't know I'd we're staying with them though. Okay, this was another strong contender, we get a bunch of neat little storied about this sweet little guy, on one level incomplete but serving a solid throughline. There are a lot of stories that are deliberately ambiguous this week, but this one pulls it off: we don't need to solve Lauren's murder or be told why the Altas becomes a cyberpunk Macguffin, it just works.

archduke.iago - 7 Seconds:

The opening is functional but without much there there. What we have here is a series of vignettes, each viewing the fish through a different but always anthropomorphic lens, but there's no throughline to speak of, only a lazy punchline.

derp - a beautiful host:

Well, that's certainly an ambitious opening. I'm not sure it works entirely; the word 'fervid' sticks out as vaguely wrong or off, and I doubt this voice can be maintained, but we will see.
It doesn't quite reach that level, but stays close enough. Interesting prose, but at the heart you have two characters, one unlikable and the other inscrutable, and little else.

Slightly Lions - Jack and the Boxes:
Another ambitious pov story, which is setting up early with real confusion or ambiguity over whether Brother is also a dog or not, could clue that up earlier and more clearly, and I'm not sure what Uncle Bob is. Overall, predictable but cute.

Beezus - He's Just Spicy:
Okay, functional opener that sets up everything we need for a story, good. I like this one, but it doesn't do much more than the sum of its parts, isn't ambitious in a week where the other stories are.

Chernobyl Princess - Cheeto:
As a structural thing, I generally think that stories should introduce their fantastic element in the first paragraph rather than the second. The excessively mundane first doesn't help the story, being able to describe the packing vividly in terms of syblid anatomy would.
Overall this is sort of cute and all, but unlike the turtle story here the incompleteness works against the story. (The cause of the fire, Gleam never showing up again, even the presence of aliens not mattering past the setup, all seem important in a way that the loose ends in Old Pavlova did not.)

Antivehicular - Responsibility:

Interesting opening. And overall a nice little slice of life kind of story. One that actually pulls off ending just before the thing actually happens. The biggest issue here is the lack of stakes, there being explicitly no reason for the long separation.

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.
Ollie, Ollie

1003 words

Flash:Goodnight, Moon

Matilda Herrera was the best at hide and seek, in her whole school and neighborhood. The best seeker, at least. There was one other kid she knew who could do better at the hiding part, Xavier whose last name she didn't know, who lived on the other side of the woods. When Xavier was in the game he was always the last one found, except when he was seeking. And usually not even found but came in running when the kids gave up and shouted 'Ollie Ollie Oxen Free' and he would show up on the other side of the base.

Xavier lived in the other side of the woods, which was a different neighborhood entirely that you couldn't get to on bicycles on streets without using the busy roads that no sensible parent would let a kid ride a bike on. And he didn't go to the same school either, even though other kids in that neighborhood did. Connie Falcone said most that he was probably homeschooled, but couldn't rule out the Catholic school named after some Saint nobody could pronounce. Connie was a know-it-all who kept saying it wasn't Ollie but some French word with a 'z' in it, and the last bit was 'outs in free'.

"That doesn't make any kind of sense," Matilda said at the time. "There's no zz sound in it, and that would just be a waste of a good 'z' if there's no zz sound. And why would it be half in French and half in English?" She knew how the game was played.

Hide and seek, outdoors at least, was not a winter game, so when the snows started to fall people did other stuff. Sledding. Snowball fights, which had to get to an all-out war before Matilda took notice of them, but when she did she was general and commando at once, leading the cause from the front. The sides were drawn, the two sides of the forest. Evenly matched, each with well-defended and stocked forts. Xavier led a daring commando raid, dodging snowballs from Matilda's soldiers. She got him with a big puffy one that exploded into a huge white disk on Xavier's coat, but he just smiled and continued on, tagging kid after kid with stolen snowballs until his hands were empty.

Matilda loaded her own arms and gave chase, across the woods. She saw a moment and took aim with a hard-packed ball. She threw.

Xavier disappeared and the projectile struck a tree, knocking the snow from high branches, enough of it onto her head to soak through her hat, and Xavier and his comrades were behind her with snowballs to hurl. Wet and sore, she was captured.

Which is to say, invited to Xavier's home for hot cocoa and to set fireside a while. Same difference, really.

"How do you do it?" Matilda asked. "I saw you, you know. Vanishing."

"I could tell you," he said. "Or show you, even. But you'll have to make it worth my while."

So the next day Matilda came to Xavier's back yard with a Matchbox formula one car, four old comic books including one where Spider-Man was shrunk down to the size of a real spider and had to wrestle a scorpion and run from a cat, and a bag full of thirteen marbles and one glass eye, which was just a little bit bigger than the others. Xavier looked over the offered treasure and nodded.

"So?" asked Matilda. "Where do you go?"

"To the moon," he said. He held out his hand. She grabbed it, and a second later they were there.

It certainly looked like the moon.

"This can't be the moon, though," she said, "Because there's air. We're breathing it."

"Oh, I brought my own air," said Xavier, and she had no answer for that.

They played, one on one, on the moon. They used a stopwatch to keep score, measuring who took more time to find the other.  Xavier won the first five rounds, which was natural since he knew the area already and was more used to running around with so much less gravity, but after that they were close to even, and Matilda won a few rounds running by the end.

"Can you teach me to get here?" she asked, before the went back to Earth. "And bring a bunch of air along? And get back?" She felt clever remembering to ask for those last two. She knew how stories worked and had a growing suspicion that she was in one, was in one of those kinds of stories even.

"I could, " he said. "But I doubt you could pay the price."

"I bet I could," she said. "Name it."

Xavier moved mouth close to her ear, but didn't say anything. Matilda imaged what it would be. A million dollars? Her first-born child, which would be easy because she didn't want kids anyway?

Xavier whispered. Matilda gasped, then started to shake her head, but nodded instead.

Xavier's parents moved west in the middle of next year, gone without warning overnight. Matilda went to their place on the Moon every now and again, but he was never there, even when she left messages, suggested times to meet by tracing in the still moondust, even left a whiteboard and pens, but Xavier was never there, and the moon was boring on her own, and she found she could nor teach others or even go when anyone else was looking. Weeks went by.

Then there was a message, when she went to the moon again.

"Not today. Not soon. But one day I will hold you to your word."

She remembered his breath in the stale lunar air on her ear, remembered the words. "One day, when I am old and cannot dance or sing or even laugh, kill me. Pierce my heart with a stake of holly so that only peace can claim my soul."

Matilda did not go to the moon again for a very long time.

Apr 21, 2010

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


Apr 21, 2010

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

1348 words

There's a briefcase loaded with cash, another loaded with cut up newspaper, and a third full of C4 rigged to blow. Identical except for the little scuff, and everyone in this story knows how Three Card Monte works, knows the scuff isn't where they saw it first. The way it's supposed to work is that I walk away with the ransom, the undercover detective winds up with the worthless paper, and the kidnapper gets the bomb. But nothing ever works quite according to plan.

Do you know what separates man from beast? What we can do that nothing else can? Most of the obvious answers are wrong. Ants build cities. Corvids and dolphins gossip. Chimps do war crimes. Rats cast spells. What we do, what only we do, is throw things with decent distance and accuracy. I may be old, but I can still chuck, and the time is coming soon when I might well need to launch my briefcase somewhere. As high in the air as I can manage, if it comes to that. If I don't find a bitter target.

So, what good is this projectile prodigy, to early man? We're not talking about major league pitchers. Nobody could do much more than make an animal mad if you hit them. And this was about a thousand years before anyone came up with spears balanced enough to throw. But what we could do, is we could throw a rock into the brush and make the vegetation wiggle and make noise, and when the animal goes to check if that's a particularly clumsy rabbit or squirrel, we come up behind and bash its skull open.

Misdirection. The oldest trick in the book. Older than books by a lot. Still works like a charm. Guy bends over to pick up a five dollar bill on the ground and another one walks away with his wallet.

All the best scams are two person jobs. The front and the follow, the hawker and the shill. Same thing here. It's not the oldest one in the book, but it's pretty darn ancient. Rich man's kid falls for someone unsuitable, disowning level unsuitable. Daddy won't pay a dowry or give walking away money, but he would pay a ransom. So you fake a kidnapping. If you're really hard core, which Gina Lovett here absolutely was, you send dad a pinky just to let them know you're serious. Old days you could sometimes use someone else's finger, but these days they have DNA and prints. You make the demand, get the cash, and either fake her death or have her run off and meet him later.

Now, if you can see any of the dozen places where one of these cats can betray the other, congratulations. You've been paying attention. People like Gina and Dez, they're people who've been near money enough to sniff it. Once it's in their hands the difference between a small fortune and half a small fortune starts to feel bigger than a mountain.

The oldest spell in the book is the one that starts a fire, and it wasn't ten years later that some fool figures out how to do it with a stick and some twine. And that's the way it's gone with magic, again and again. The last to go was healing. A good surgeon does it better, but if there isn't one around, magic will do. Beyond that, there's really only two spells in the book worth using. One of them makes it so you barely age, can get to a hundred and still look and feel fifty.

The other one, you could say, is the oldest trick in my book. A simple exchange. A body for a body. Someone young gets into way more trouble than they can get out of. Wounded and near death, maybe. Or facing the hangman in the morning. They get to live out a good ten years or so as a free old man, and I get to start over young, after getting out of their trouble. I'm very good at getting out of trouble.

Dez was in a great deal of trouble when he managed to get in touch with me. A whole lot of trouble. A falling out with Gina that left a kitchen knife buried in her gut, and a corrupt cop turned private investigator sniffing around the ransom exchange, which was looking dodgy, apt to fall completely apart if daddy demanded one more proof of life conversation before dropping off the cash.

"Get out of here," I said. "Go to the drop. I'll handle the phone."

"I thought you were going to, you know," said Dez.

"Not yet," I said. I told him where to meet.

Three briefcases, identical. I specified the brand and model and combination in the last ransom call. It's always best to make strange demands at the last minute. Throw off the opposition's plans. Dez had an annoying voice, but one that was easy to do after hearing it for a few minutes. Gina was tougher. She was making noise, but pained gut wounded moans and curses wasn't much to go on. But she stopped before the call, and I was able to manage.

Three briefcases. Daddy's, with the money, and the other two I brought. After the drop, I opened and switched the combination on number one before Dez came by, picked up number two, with the newspaper, took two steps, and got held up by Jared the investigator.

If Jared had been honest things would have gone another way. But people like that rarely are. Jared popped Dez in the face, grabbed the case and left him with a broken nose on the floor. He wasn't going to be able to open it up without tools and time.

So Dez picked himself up and went back to the drop, for the actual case, number one, except I had swapped that out for number three. Which was the one that goes boom. Just in case Dez changed his mind and thought he could make it on the run on a murder rap with that much money.

But Dez wasn't quite that kind of dumb. He made our meeting. He gave his full consent, because this kind of magic takes complete consent on both ends, and just like that I was a gangly teenager with bad habits in the blood.

He grabbed for the case with my old hands. I shook my head. "Part of the price, kid," I said. "There's enough to get by in my bank accounts." I gave him the PINs to the cards in my wallet.

He growled, but wasn't up for a second rear end-whupping of the day.

So I walked away. Toward the river, and used my new throwing arms to huck it right in, where nobody would try and open it. In about an hour the timer would trigger it.

So then I went back to where I stashed the briefcase one, with the cash. I opened it up and looked at my prize.

A thin layer of twenties and a heavy load of newsprint.

I put it all together, eventually. It starts with Gina coming after Dez with a prop knife, knowing just how he would react, take it from her go right for one of the blood packs. The real stuff, too, collected in advance. Pigs blood might have fooled Dez, but wouldn't have done it for me. The middle is her trailing me and swapping out cases. And the end is her fishing a case full of money out of the river.

Distraction. The oldest trick in the book.

I may have to find her, have a little talk. I don't need the money. I have stashes and numbered accounts. But I have to admire her game, and I can offer what she saw in Dez, and a much better personality. I might have a shot. After all, anyone with her sense of self-preservation could tell I'm much more dangerous than Jared, and she could have left me with the bomb instead. 

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