One Last Drink

Writing Prompt: Randomly Rolled Wikipedia Article

RomanCover

The man named Servius Tuccius Cotta approached the refugee camp with his head down. He had not been born the man he was now, but those names remained a part of him. Even with Batavia in revolt against the empire, those were still his names. He’d earned them, no matter who he served.

This battered camp was perhaps threescore tents and lean-tos, but many huddled in the cold and mud. People fled Tongeran when runners brought news of fighting between Julius Civilis and Claudius Labeo at the Mass river, and Tuccius suspected more would flee in the hours ahead. These were uncertain times.

He was an assassin by trade, a man who killed so others wouldn’t have to. He had tracked Labeo for the better part of the day, ever since the man slipped free of the Tungrian lines. Every last Tungrian had abandoned Labeo for Civilis, but Tuccius did not blame Labeo for that. He had planted the seeds himself.

Labeo’s distinctive tracks entered this camp, and circling the camp assured Tuccius they did not leave. Labeo’s fine boot prints differentiated his tracks, another mistake. That was the problem with men accustomed to luxury, even experienced cavalry commanders. They loved expensive boots.

Tuccius affected a limp as he entered the camp. His own cloak hung on his frame. No one gave a beggar a second look, and a beggar among refugees was a stalk in a field of wheat.

He passed figures huddled around sputtering fires, listened to coughs and moans from those who’d been injured or taken sick. A drizzle had fallen since dawn, beating on people and tents alike. Tuccius held out his bowl at each fire, muttering apologies, and each time, the refugees turned him away.

None of the refugees at these fires were Labeo. None wore the man’s fine boots. Tuccius moved on.

It was at a small fire at camp’s edge where he finally found a man whose frame and bulk suggested regular meals. Mud covered the boots protruding from his cloak, but the tips were distinctive.

Tuccius extended his bowl. “Please, I’m sorry. Anything you can spare.”

“Off with you, beggar.” The man beside Labeo glared, his face covered in mud. “We’ve nothing for you.”

“Don’t be cruel.” Labeo motioned Tuccius to the fire. “You may warm yourself by our fire.”

“Thank you, master.” Tuccius found a place between two other scowling refugees, both women, and sat.

One woman wrinkled her nose and scooted away, reacting to the dung Tuccius had smeared on his cloak earlier today. The other stared at the fire without speaking, barely breathing. She had lost someone today. Tuccius had seen that blank look on so many faces since Batavia rebelled against Rome.

Labeo’s cowl obscured his face. All Tuccius could make out was a strong chin, thick with stubble. This assassination must be quiet.

Many in Batavia respected Claudius Labeo for his actions at Nijmegen. They resented Civilis’s decision to exile such a useful commander, but killing him would have been an even bigger mistake, at the time.

Poisoning Labeo’s drink would be easiest—Tuccius carried a powder that would bring on the runs days later, when he was gone—but Labeo would be watching for poison. He could follow the man to the latrine ditch, but Labeo was a notable warrior as well. There was no guarantee Tuccius would prevail.

“What brings you here to us, friend?” Labeo asked. “Have you fled Tongeran as well?” He motioned to the others. “We are all Tungrians, here, and any countryman of ours is welcome.”

“I’m Marsaci,” Tuccius muttered. There were too many things he did not know about Tongeran, and presenting himself as a Tungrian invited questions he could not reliably answer.

The woman who had moved away wrinkled her nose. “We don’t need no stinking Marsaci in our camp.”

“Why?” Labeo asked. “A beggar is not to blame for this war.”

“It’s Labeo’s fault, you ask me.” The mud-covered man spit at the fire. “If that stubborn cunt hadn’t set fires all over Batavia, Civilis would have sent the legions running by now.”

“Perhaps,” Labeo said, and Tuccius heard no anger in his words.

“Bah,” the boiled man said. “Need to piss.” He rose and stalked from the camp.

Tuccius rose and followed him. “I shall not trouble you further.” The man who’d cursed Labeo was an opportunity. If he could convince an actual refugee to murder his target…

Tuccius found the smaller man at a makeshift latrine, dug by those among the refugees who knew defecating where you ate and slept was a wonderful way to start a plague. The refugee stood with his back to Tuccius, whistling as he aimed a golden stream into the ditch. Tuccius limped closer.

“Marsaci!” The refugee turned, his cock flopping before he crammed it back into his soiled breeches. “Come to contribute?”

“Did you mean it?” Tuccius asked.

“Mean what, beggar?”

“About Claudius Labeo being the cause of all this.” Tuccius made himself shudder.

“What’s it to you who I back? You heard something?” The mud-covered refugee leaned closer, eager for gossip. Without food, gossip was the only nourishment many had.

“I heard Labeo’s working for the Romans again, against Civilis,” Tuccius whispered.

The refugee scoffed. “Labeo’s a cunt, I’ll give you that, but he’s no Roman spy.”

“Really?” Tuccius said. “And a Roman spy wouldn’t disguise himself as a Tungrian refugee?”

“Say what?”

“Did you notice the boots of the man beside you, his bearing, his girth? He’s no beggar. I think he might be Claudius Labeo.”

“You think so?” The boiled man leaned closer. “Say, has Civilis got a reward for him?”

Greed and desperation made fools of all men. “As much gold as you can carry, last I heard. We could take him, between the two of us. We could split the reward.”

There was no reward, of course—offering a bounty for Labeo would be foolish when Civilis lacked the money to pay even his own soldiers—but this refugee wouldn’t know that.

The refugee pulled a small flask from inside his cloak. “You’ll help me? I ain’t killed no commander before.”

“I’ll help as I’m able,” Tuccius said. “I need the coin.”

“Then let’s drink to our new wealth!” The refugee raised the flask and took a long drink, Adam’s apple bobbing. He passed the flask to Tuccius. “To piles of Roman gold.”

Tuccius hesitated, but only a moment. The man had drunk before him, and this was too good an opportunity to scuttle. The water tasted foul. Soon after, they were off to murder a commander.

“Say there, beggar, what’s your name?” The refugee might be nervous.

“Tuccius.” No harm in giving his real name, and he needed to keep this man calm. “What’s yours?”

“Claudius,” the refugee said, as he straightened and turned.

Tuccius missed a step as mud roiled around him. “What?” His eyes watered and his throat clamped.

“Claudius Labeo,” the small, mud-covered man said. “The big man at the fire is one of my many loyal soldiers, but there’s no way you could know. My reputation is bigger than me.”

“But I…” Tuccius coughed and fell, trying to understand the fire consuming his belly. “You drank…”

“Did I?” Labeo smiled with teeth far too clean for the mud cloaking his face. “Seems a tongue could clog that spout pretty easily. Have you ever tried that, Tuccius?”

Stupid. Tuccius had been stupid, too focused on the boots, the cloak, the bearing. Claudius Labeo was not a big man with a fine cloak and fine boots. He was a small man, dressed like all the other small men in the refugee camp, and he had just beaten an assassin at his own game.

Tuccius’s eyes glazed over as his vision swam and the poison burned through his gut. Yet despite his agony, his fear, he respected Labeo’s gambit. There was no shame in dying to a man like this one.

“You were only doing your duty,” Labeo said, as his voice came from somewhere far away. “I won’t let you suffer. Go in peace.”

Tuccius felt cold steel against his throat. He would have thanked Labeo for that mercy, had he been able to speak, but perhaps the man understood anyway. Tuccius imagined his wife, his daughter, and home.

One day, he hoped, Civilis or Labeo would bring them peace again.

THE END

 

About the Story:

This month, every writer participating clicked a link that selected an article, at random, on Wikipedia. We then had to write a story incorporating that article. We ended up with some weird subjects, but mine was actually fairly straightforward. Essentially, I ended up writing historical fiction for the first time ever (or, at least, making an attempt).

I’ll admit it’s never been a genre I enjoyed, and I have no doubt this story is full of anachronisms and inaccuracies (I didn’t research much about Roman life beyond the Wikipedia article). Still, writing this was more fun than I expected, and without the article, I would never have learned about Julius Civilis, Claudius Labeo, and the intrigue associated with Batavia rebelling against Rome. That would make a good book in and of itself!

The original Wikipedia Article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudius_Labeo

More Information: http://www.livius.org/articles/person/claudius-labeo/?

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/68801711@N00/27932908521″>Ampitheatre@Ephesus</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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The Strangled Heart

Writing Prompt: Fairy Tales from a Different Point-of-View

StrangledHeart

The blood rites were finished, the words of power chanted, and the potion prepared. A drop a day would save the afflicted babe, but Ana felt ravaged from the inside out. This spellwork had stolen years of her life, but what alternative did she have? If she did nothing, she might as well murder the baby herself.

The sobbing parents arrived at dusk, motivated, Ana assumed, by fear. Everyone feared Dame Ana Gothel, and Ana bore the loneliness without complaint because the alternative was chaos. Her words of power would be used to kill, her runes to imprison, her magic plants to plague and poison.

No one else remained to protect the Walled Garden from men.

When the miserable couple reached the edge of her verdant estate, the mother’s sobs matched her babe’s. The smell of rotting leaves rolled off this mother, the stench of despair. Ana understood despair – she understood the pain of losing her only child – but this mother would not see her child die.

The father stank of frustration and regret, the stench of a bog mixed with the smell of iron and blood. He blamed Ana for this, of course, but Ana’s focus remained on the babe, on the squalling her parents assumed was natural. It most certainly was not. This babe was in agony, spiky roots tightening around her heart.

The mother wailed and clutched her newborn daughter to her breast. “Why must you steal our child, Dame Gothel? How have we wronged you?”

“The babe was never yours.” Ana maintained the stately pose she had cultivated to hide doubt and pain.

“I carried her!” the mother wailed. “I birthed her!”

“If you believe our bargain unfair, your quarrel is with your husband.” It was the greed of this father, after all, that sentenced his child to death.

“A bargain is a bargain.” The father motioned, impatiently, to the mother. “Give her the child, Nan.”

His emotions now smelled like spoiled oranges – guilt. Ana knew then he had not told his wife what the stolen rampion had done to their child in her womb. Men like him did not admit fault.

“All we took was a plant!” the mother wailed. “Why must I trade my child for a plant?”

“Ask your husband.” Ana stared at the man until his eyes fell.

“You’ll kill her!” the mother shouted. “You’ll sacrifice her in some blood rite! I won’t let you!”

“Your daughter dies already. Do you not hear the truth in her cries?”

The mother gasped. “You ensorcelled my child?”

“The rampion you stole from my garden did that. The plant you so foolishly gorged upon is strangling your child’s heart.”

“That can’t be true!” The mother’s eyes welled as she glared at her husband. “Eddard! Tell me it isn’t true!” The smell of her betrayal hung on the air, sickly and sweet.

The father’s downcast eyes damned him more than any word from Ana ever could. Ana stared at the mother. She stared at the dying babe. And with one more sniffle, that babe was hers.

* * *

Fortunately for young Rapunzel — named, Ana decided, for the enchanted rampion wrapped around her tiny heart — drops of Ana’s potion slowed the plant’s growth and kept the baby alive. As years passed and the babe grew into a young girl, who grew into a young woman, Ana began to hope this child — her child, now, because she could no longer think of little Rapunzel as anyone else — would one day venture beyond the Walled Garden. If Ana could find some way to unwind those hungry roots from her heart.

The answer came on a fresh spring day, Rapunzel’s twelfth birthday. As Ana helped her daughter trim the ivy choking their garden’s walls, she saw its true nature. Tendrils around Rapunzel’s heart.

As ivy grew in the direction of water and light, so might the roots of the hungry rampion. Ana could not destroy the rampion, but she could lead its growth elsewhere. Ana would coax the magical plant out through her daughter’s brilliant blond hair.

That night, after Rapunzel slept, Ana returned to her mother’s tower. She carved, and scribed, and chanted, sacrificing decades of her life so her daughter might one day be free of the rampion curse. Ana knew when she was done, breathless and quivering with pain, that this blood enchantment would draw the rampion out of her daughter — but only if Rapunzel remained in the tower until the healing was complete.

Given enough years in this enchanted tower, the roots strangling her daughter’s heart would grow into luxurious blond hair, strong as hemp rope and long as the ivy clinging to the Walled Garden’s stones. Why strangle a heart when you could spread your blond roots, drinking in sweet sunlight and fresh air?

Ana would not live forever, certainly not as long as Rapunzel, not now. She had sacrificed so much of her life, and when she died, who would conjure the potion that kept the rampion from strangling her daughter’s heart? This tower was her only daughter’s salvation.

Some day, Ana would make Rapunzel understand.

* * *

The moon was bright when the prince climbed the strong blond curls that had once strangled Rapunzel’s heart. When he saw Ana waiting for him, he almost fell right off the tower, and Ana was sorely tempted to let him fall. He was the reason her daughter hated her.

“Dame Gothel!” The prince’s eyes narrowed as his hand brushed his sword hilt. “Where is Rapunzel?” Like all outsiders, his first solution to conflict was violence.

“Not here,” Ana said.

“Foul enchantress! What have you done with her?”

“I haven’t made her pregnant, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I’d never…” the prince began, but his flush gave him away. “We didn’t … we only…”

“Rapunzel is gone, you fool.” The air shimmered as the rage Ana restrained writhed inside her. “She hates me, and will always hate me, but she is now free.” This prince had filled Rapunzel’s head with lies, seduced her, used her, but he would not kill her. “You will never see her again.”

“You imprisoned her!” The prince pointed an accusatory finger. “You kept her in this tower against her will!”

“I saved her life, foolish boy.” Ana’s grief and despair smashed against her mental gates, shaking the tower and forcing the prince a step back. “I loved her, protected her, taught her, and now you have poisoned her heart against me. Yet you failed to kill her. I stopped that.”

“What do you mean? Why would I kill her?”

“If you had dragged her from this tower before her healing was complete, the decades I’ve sacrificed would be wasted. I sheared Rapunzel’s fatal curse from her head this morning, even as she shrieked at my cruelty and demanded her release. I love her, I will always love her, and so I set her free.”

Rapunzel’s curses and threats had ruined Ana worse than rampion around her own heart, strangling, crushing, feeding. There was no pain like the hate of one’s own daughter.

“Where is she?” the prince demanded.

“Why do you care? You’ve already sown your wild oats.”

“I love her, Dame Gothel!” The sincerity of his emotions rolled off the prince in waves. “We are betrothed!”

His love was the smell of cherry blossoms in bright spring, a fresh rain on clean grass. It might not ease Ana’s grief, but it could ease Rapunzel’s. “Prove it.” Could Ana save her daughter one last time?

“I will do anything to find her. Anything! Please, help me.”

The prince craved magic. They all craved magic, just like Rapunzel’s birth mother craved that stolen rampion. So be it. Ana was done protecting these fools from the garden’s magic, done sacrificing her life for people who feared and hated her. Her own daughter had cursed her and left her alone, to die.

Ana clapped her hands and said the words.

Where once a prince stood now flapped a bird, small and blue and chirping with outrage. As Ana approached, it fluttered and squawked around the room. Ana spoke loud enough for the bird to hear.

“Fly to your Rapunzel, little prince. Fly far. If you truly love her, and if you can find her, her touch will restore your form. Find your betrothed and bring her, and her child, the happiness I never could.”

The transformed prince fluttered to the window sill, glanced back. Then he was off and flying before Ana’s legs gave out, before she collapsed on the cold stone floor, exhausted. Her life drained.

Dame Ana Gothel would never see another sunrise. She had given everything for Rapunzel, and now her tower, her garden, and her legacy would crumble to dust. She would die alone, wrapped in her daughter’s hate, but Rapunzel would live on with her prince, happy and alive.

If Ana left nothing else to the world that hated her, she left that.

THE END

 

About the Story:

This theme was incredibly similar to that of Fairly Wicked Tales, the anthology of twisted Grimm fairytales that published my short story “Rum’s Daughter”, so I was initially a bit unsure where to go with this one. I’d already twisted one fairytale into knots (Rumplestiltskin!) and no others jumped out at me as obvious propaganda from the winning side of a conflict.

That changed when I read the wikipedia entry for Rapunzel, specifically some of the older versions and variations. Pretty much immediately, I knew that Dame Gothel had been on the wrong side of history, maligned and misunderstood, and a much different version of the Rapunzel tale popped into my brain. At that point, all I had to do was write it down.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/7156765@N05/24572547029″>Spokane Washington ~ Spokane County Courthouse ~ Central Tower</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Everything in Frame

Writing Prompt: Dystopia

MineShaft

As the two clean-suited enforcers marched me through from the exit pod into the magnificent bright, I considered my inevitable death. I’d never seen the sun before — none of us had, other than in videos the director showed on weekends — and I had never seen anything so bright or beautiful. I couldn’t even look at it, not directly, and I longed to feel its heat on my skin. Assuming Gurney was right.

Stalks of grass greener than any green I’d ever seen swayed in the gentle wind, rising to my thighs. They brushed against the legs of my clean-suit as they brushed the round, rusted domes of the exit pod. That pod and the long elevator shaft inside it was the only link between Sanctuary Twelve and the surface world.

I took a long look at the world the Overseer had assured me would kill me, the world his oldest and most trusted servant, Gurney Maynard, had assured me would not. I had to act shocked, because this world did not match the dead plains the Overseer showed us so often below. I felt one enforcer push his staff into the small of my back.

“Move,” the enforcer said.

“Or what?” The head part of my clean-suit wouldn’t turn to look back at him, but I didn’t need to look back to express my disdain. “You’ll execute me twice?

A holo screen flashed in front of me. It was a recording of my son, now thirteen and wiry, as he worked beside the others dredging energy fragments out of the deep shafts. The enforcer made it disappear.

The threat was obvious, and I walked without another push from the enforcer’s staff. I’d already taken steps to ensure the Overseer could never punish Matty for what I was about to do, but I couldn’t let him know that. I had to act like another outspoken problem marching to my inevitable comeuppance.

The outside world was poison without a suit — the sun, the grass, the air — and questioning that was the only way one escaped the drudgery of the crystal mines. We were safe in the mines, the Overseer assured us. We lived by his grace, his generosity. Everyone outside Sanctuary Twelve was doomed.

Soon the enforcers marched me to a clearing, a down swept field of brown stalks crushed beneath dozens of robotic feet, likely less than a day ago. After they poisoned the grass. That streak of death sat in stark contrast to the simple beauty around us. It was a naked, pus-filled scar on a glistening grass plain, but that was the advantage of a narrow camera lens. You could focus on so little and block out so much.

The Overseer had constructed a fake exit pod at the top of the descending plain of dead grass, and I recognized that pod and the dead field from the videos I had seen of the others who dared question the Overseer. People who insisted the world above was alive and safe, like me. Murdered people.

The enforcers would force me inside that dome and strip me of my clean-suit, with dire warnings of what would happen if I went outside. When they were ready for me to make my entrance, they would pump the pod full of something noxious – tear gas? Toxic fumes? – until my heaving gut and shriveled lungs forced me to stumble out of the front door, into the camera frame.

Then I would die. Then my fellow miners would watch as I shrieked, and burst into flame, and melted. They would watch my seared bones pop, my body brutalized by the poisonous world above.

“The outside world is death,” the Overseer would repeat, as those below averted their faces from my melting body. “The claims of Worker 542 are as false as all those before them. Only I protect you.”

They marched me inside the dome, just like Gurney had said they would, and they stripped off my clean-suit, just like Gurney had said they would. All I wore now was my light gray mining jumpsuit, and the air inside the rusting pod was stagnant. I longed to feel the sun on my skin, a cool breeze on my face.

The sun wouldn’t melt my skin, and the grass wouldn’t melt my jumpsuit, and breathing this wonderful air would not shrink and ruin my lungs. Those horrors would instead be caused by the weapons of the Overseer, hidden out of frame. Microwaves. Heat rays. Infrared. I did not know what those words meant, what Gurney had envisioned when he said them, but I knew they offered invisible death.

I waited until the Overseer’s voice echoed through the rusty pod. His voice was pumped up to the surface so the enforcers could hear it, so they could pump in the gas at the proper time. The Overseer was speaking, now, which meant the feed was “live”, as Gurney had called it. Time for me to die.

I burst out of the front of the rusting pod.

That was the difference between me and the other victims, you see — Gurney’s betrayal of the Overseer, the clarity provided by a cancer no Overseer medicine could cure, and the death of the Overseer’s leverage. Gurney’s daughter. Those events conspired to make my death different.

The enforcers had done this a dozen times before. Place the victim in the rusting pod, set up the weapons and the camera, check the camera angle, and then, and only then, pump in the gas. All happened only after the Overseer set the stage, said a few haunting words for this poor deluded fool.

No miner raised as I’d been would voluntarily burst from their safe haven, but I had, before anyone planning to murder me was ready. The outside world felt wonderful. For the first time I felt the gentle heat of the sun on my skin, a cool breeze rushing over my cheeks. Nothing melted. Nothing burned.

That was the other thing victims of the Overseer couldn’t do — run — because when your lungs were full of tear gas you made a very slow, very easy target. I was no easy target. I zigzagged down that field of dead grass toward the small, round ball sitting at its end. Toward what I knew was the camera.

I saw the now panicked overseers struggling to set their weapons up, to bring them to bear — they were mounted, I saw now, on complicated tripods which were still being arranged — and for a moment, I pondered grabbing a weapon. Yet I was not here to kill anyone, and any overseer was easily replaced. I reached the round black dome as the first overseer grounded his tripod and readied his weapon.

“Look at me!” I shouted into the camera. “I’m alive! The world above isn’t killing me! They are!”

I struggled to rip the camera from its mount, but it remained stuck tight. I heard a loud hum and then I felt heat that seared my skin and bubbled my eyeballs. The air was so hot I couldn’t even scream, yet I didn’t die — not immediately — and my rage gave me the strength to turn the lens, not up and out of the ground, as I planned, but sideways. Toward the green fields and the enforcers with their weapons.

Even as invisible death set my skin afire I heard the Overseer shouting over the speakers, not to his enforcers, but to those below. His desperate explanations fell on deaf ears. Gurney had whispered to those below as well, and all they needed to start their riot was proof. My death was that proof.

The boiling heat ended at last, perhaps because the enforcer knew better than to waste power, or perhaps because he heard the masses rioting below and knew that running was better than facing those he’d help imprison. None of it made any difference to me. I drank in the feel of that cool breeze.

I wished I could see the sun and touch the grass, stroke my son’s face one last time, but I was too busy dying. Had I succeeded? Gurney’s crackly voice echoed over the Overseer’s intercom.

“We did it!” Gurney shouted, as my people cheered. “You gave us the truth! You gave us the whole world! We’re free now, all of us!” The cacophony faded as Gurney faded, as he called for silence.

“Thank you,” he said, voice trembling over the speakers. “We’re coming up. We’ll see you soon.”

They wouldn’t. No one would reach me in time to save me, but I didn’t mind. Matty would grow up breathing this clean air, living beneath this warm sun, sleeping in this soft grass. After decades of slavery, it seemed absurd that our freedom required nothing more than a camera, twisted sideways, but that was the beauty of it.

All it took to free us was one traitor. One sacrifice. And one perfect camera angle, everything in frame.

 

About the Story:

Initially, I struggled with the dystopia prompt. I’ve read so many good dystopias that I had trouble thinking of anything that didn’t feel derivative, and nothing initially jumped out at me. Oddly enough, this rather dark story was partly inspired by a much lighter (but similarly dystopian) story – the ending of Portal 2, or one small element of it.

(Spoilers for Portal 2 Follow)

At the end of Portal 2, GLADOS releases you, her test subject, back into the “real world”. You ride an elevator (serenaded by singing turrets, of course) up to the surface, a seeming paradise filled with tall, flowing grass. You enter that paradise all alone, with no civilization in sight, and the ending is a bit melancholy in that respect.

(Spoilers for Portal 2 End)

Although it is never explicitly stated, the implication of both Portal games is that whatever happened to damage the Aperture Science laboratories also did great damage to the world. Either the vast majority of humanity was wiped out, or have vanished entirely. On the positive side, in the years that followed the world has been “reborn”, having returned to the pristine state in which it existed before industrialization.

The idea of someone who had been below ground for a long time emerging on the surface of an empty, pristine inspired this story. From there, all I had to develop was a protagonist, an antagonist, and their conflict, as well as creating a suitably dystopian situation for my protagonist to struggle against.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/40243520@N02/11230150485″>Empire Mine Shaft</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Nightmare Man

Writing Prompt: Nightmares

KabukiMask

The outsider arrived on an overcast day in shelter season, wrapped in furs of black and brown. A mask of blood-stained wood obscured her face, a demon visage with leering eyes and bared teeth. Metal rods ending in small balls jutted from her boot tips, thumping the ground with each measured step.

From the moment she entered Papa’s smoke-filled tavern, I couldn’t stop staring at her. She journeyed freely without servants or a husband or anyone, really, a life I’d live if not for Papa’s condition. The common room grew silent save for the woman’s boot tip rods thumping the wooden floor. A sword remained sheathed on her back.

The leering eyes on her demon mask passed over my sullen patrons, the sad fire sputtering in my hearth, and fixed on me, standing behind the beaten bar. Excitement filled me that I’d not felt for almost a year, since the last outsider arrived. That same excitement faded once he fled, babbling, down the mountain.

“My name is Kinto Kusaragi,” the woman told me, “and I’m here to kill your Nightmare Man.”

I looked to Papa, staring at nothing, and then at Will, my towheaded younger brother. Will nodded, face solemn. He could handle things while I was away. He could handle Papa if the necessity arose.

I prepared myself for another long trek up the lonely mountain, another day of listening to boasts and threats. Another bitter disappointment. “Very well then. Let me get my coat.”

* * *

There was no delay once Kinto Kusaragi stated her purpose – this was not, I suspected, a woman who tolerated delay – so we set out together despite the overcast sky. For those who still lived in Stone Hamlet, a blizzard was the least of our worries. We had thick furs, sturdy homes, and sturdy hearths, and enough salted meat and porridge to last through the winter. What we did not have is sleep.

Our waking lives were repetitive, exhausting slogs through necessities and chores. We put off sleep for as long as we could, fighting exhaustion until we couldn’t. Some of us, like my poor Papa, had lost themselves entirely in the visions that raced down the mountain every night.

It was the Nightmare Man who shoved those horrors into our heads, who sent the things that drove us awake, screaming, and suckled on our fear. Worse yet, once you’d suffered through enough gifts from the Nightmare Man, waking just continued the dream. That was why Papa stared.

“Tell me of your village,” Kinto said, as she followed me up a narrow mountain path of packed dirt bordered by rocks and scrub. “Tell me of your life here, before and after. I wish to know everything.” The bulk of the lonely mountain towered over us, jagged edges and snow-capped peaks.

The last outsider to answer Mayor Rollin’s plea for aid, a big dark-skinned man with his huge axe and clinking mail, had asked nothing as I led him up the path. He had called himself Rourke the Crusher, a hero of great importance, and a lonely tavern keeper like me was beneath him.

Kinto was different, interested, so I told her of how things had been before the Nightmare Man came. Of the festivals and dances we used to hold during Harvest Months, the chalk art my mother made before she died. I told her how the nightmares drove Mayor Rollin insane, how Lady Rollin grew mad with grief and fear and ended her children before ending herself. I told her the names of those who fled or died.

I told Kinto of my Papa before he lost his mind to fear, the way he could stop a brewing fight with a stern glare and set a room to laughing with a single bawdy joke. The way he treated me and Will the same, always. None dared question a woman working behind a bar, not in front of it, while Papa watched.

Papa protected me until he couldn’t, and I was determined to protect him too. That’s why I remained in Stone Hamlet despite the horrors that ripped me apart in nightmares every night. That’s why I risked my sanity and safety despite my urgent desire to do anything but run a tavern and tend a bar.

As we ascended Kinto mirrored my every step, metal bars thumping, along with her boots, into the snowy imprints of mine. Odd behavior, but I put it off to paranoia about traps. Perhaps I was not so friendly as I claimed, or in league with the Nightmare Man. A woman who fought demons would not survive without being cautious.

We found the Nightmare Man’s two-story cabin at the end of the mountain path, the one so many of my people trudged up and down every day. The smell of bags of rotting fruit was awful, gifts our sheltered tormentor ignored as he often ignored us. Bribes and pleas.

These desperate attempts by the people of Stone Hamlet’s to purchase even one night’s uninterrupted sleep were as unimportant to the Nightmare Man as we were. Our screams and our terror kept him fed, not these rotting sacks of fruit, and he took that gift whenever he wished. What need had he of fruit?

“Close your eyes, child,” Kinto said softly, and I complied. The way she called me child was not dismissive – it felt protective, even – and I had no desire to witness the horrors that sent Rourke the Crusher fleeing down the mountain. I was willful, but I was no trained fighter. I could only get in her way.

“Palor Sellius!” Kinto’s voice thundered up the path. “Your time here is at an end! Leave, or die!”

Nothing from the cabin. Nothing but silence on the wind. Then the sound of the Nightmare Man’s mad laughter, echoing off the rising walls of the mountain path and digging into my ears. His laughter was the worst of it – the glee he took in driving us slowly insane – and I bared my teeth and clenched my fists. Yet despite my closed eyes, my endless shudders, I would not turn and run. Not until Kinto ran too.

“Leave!” Kinto thundered. “Or die!” And though my eyes were closed, the ring of her sword leaving its sheath came so clearly I could practically see the blade glistening in the fading sun. Red as blood.

“Fool of a woman.” I heard a door open and the Nightmare Man’s heavy footfalls as he stumbled out. I pictured a wheezing man grown fat on the nectar of our nightmares, and what bribes he deigned to eat. “You really wish to lose your mind?” And with that, a monstrous scream chilled my blood.

“Pathetic,” Kinto replied, and I heard those metal bars clanging forward. “Anything else?”

For the first time in a long time, I dared hope. I did not know what had produced that roar – I dared not look, for fear of losing my sanity – but that roar had driven Rourke the Crusher back down the mountain, hollering at the top of his lungs. Evidently, Kinto Kusaragi was made of sterner stuff.

“Unexpected,” the Nightmare Man whispered, excitement twisting his words. “Face this!”

A mournful keening set my muscles rigid and brought sweat to my sides. Yet Kinto strode on, metal balls thunking in the dirt, and I heard his wooden stoop creak as the Nightmare Man stepped back.

“Impossible,” he said, and I heard the first hint of real fear. I wondered if he had forgotten what fear was like as he lived in his cabin all these years, ruthlessly inflicting terrors on my people. “No! Get back!”

A roar arose that stole my ability to think. I could not imagine what sort of horror had made it, what sort of horror Kinto Kusaragi must be confronting with her glistening sword, but I did not hear her run.

“You cannot frighten me, Sellius,” Kinto told him, and then I heard a meaty thunk and the Nightmare Man’s gurgling. “Go in peace.”

I opened my eyes – I had no choice but to open my eyes, hearing those impossible words – and found Kinto withdrawing her bloody blade from the middle of the Nightmare Man’s chest. He collapsed, eyes wide and words slurred, as blood spread around him like a stuck pig. His nightmare power was broken.

I stared at the man dying on his stoop. “How?” I stared at the woman who ignored a horde of horrors to murder him. “How did he not terrify you?”

One of Kinto’s hands rose to her wooden demon mask. She removed it to reveal the weathered, golden face of a woman about Papa’s age, a woman whose milky white eyes stared at nothing. She was as blind as I was when I squeezed my eyes shut, guided only by her metal rods and her sharp ears.

“We all have our gifts,” Kinto said, a satisfied smile spreading across her face. “Mine is killing rogue illusionists.”

THE END

 

About the Story:

This contest’s theme, “Nightmares”, obviously lends itself to stories with a darker bent, and initially, I pondered going right down the horror route. However, while brainstorming ideas, I ended up randomly coming up with the idea of a “Nightmare Man”, which then sent me down all sort of thought experiments as to what a Nightmare Man would be.

This story flowed naturally from there, coming together very quickly.

Photo Credit:

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/25045966@N05/2381835393″>Kabuki Mask – Noh , Oni(Hannya)</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Uncharted Raider

Writing Prompt: Fanfic

Fanfic

If an arrow thunking into a man wasn’t a good reason to dive into stinking mud, the torrent of gunfire the man’s friends then unleashed absolutely was. Drake scrambled beneath their rented jeep as gunfire cut trees and another man dropped, an arrow protruding from his throat.

Not the worst handoff meeting Drake had ever been involved in, but certainly way up there.

As Victor Sullivan scrambled under the other side of the jeep, Drake’s mentor fixed him with a raised eyebrow and a lopsided frown. The accusation was clear, the implication obvious. It wasn’t remotely fair.

“I swear, Sully!” Drake shouted. “This one really isn’t my fault!”

“Didn’t say a thing, kid.” Sully squinted at the man clutching the arrow and his throat. “Who the hell uses a bow and arrow?”

“Indians?” Drake flinched as a stray bullet shattered the jeep’s mirror.

“In the middle of the Valdivian rainforest?”

Another arrow whistled from the thicket, and another thug fell. The remaining men took cover behind the big truck in which they’d arrived.

“Argentinian Indians?” Drake suggested.

A flaming arrow hit the bright red barrel of gas in the back of the mercenario truck. It exploded, sending mercenarios flying and knocking the jeep up in the air. Shrills screams rose and ended.

“Sully, look out!” Drake shoved the old man aside and then barely avoided jeep tires that dropped like a guillotine. Then Sully pulled Drake up by the back of his gunbelt, grunting with effort. They were still a team.

They sprinted for the tree line covered in mud. Choking black smoke filled the forest clearing, providing cover. Drake preferred running, actually. Facing whoever had just killed six Argentinian mercenaries with a bow and arrow was not on his to-do list.

They knocked aside branches and scrambled through mud as they put distance between themselves and the ruthless archer. They needed ground that wasn’t surrounded by cover and walls at their backs. Fortunately, Drake always mapped the meeting place in his head, and moss-covered cliffs peeked through the trees.

“That way, kid!” Sully shouted. “The rocks!”

“Way ahead of you!” As Drake turned he checked to make sure his trusty 9mm remained in its holster, and the golden urn he’d pulled out of that spider-filled tomb remained in his satchel. Losing either would make this already bad day markedly worse.

Finally, with a cliff to their backs and a ridge to their front, Drake breathed and scanned the steaming jungle. Sully huffed hard against the ridge. There was no sign of pursuit, but they didn’t celebrate. If whoever had killed those mercenarios wanted this urn, they’d be coming for it soon enough.

“Plan?” Drake drew his 9mm.

“Call for backup?” Sully suggested.

“Sure.” Drake nodded. “Toss me the radio.”

“What do you mean, toss you the radio?”

“Like that’s not self-explanatory?”

“You’ve got the radio, kid.”

“No,” Drake said, as new dread opened in his stomach. “You’ve got the–”

Another arrow whistled over Drake’s head.

“Shit!” Drake ducked and blind-fired over the ridge, toward the shooter. “The Indian!”

“I told you, kid,” Sully shouted, “there aren’t any Indians in the–”

The next arrow slammed into the tree behind them with a small radio attached to it. That would have been great, since they needed a radio, but this radio was also attached to a–

“Bomb!” Drake threw himself into Sully. They rolled off the ridge just before a deafening explosion rained bits of rocky shrapnel.

“Who shoots a bomb arrow?” Sully shouted, as they scrambled through reeds and mud. “Haven’t they heard of a grenade launcher?”

“Stop giving them ideas!” Drake sighted a narrow black opening nearby. “Rock chimney. Go!”

It was a tight squeeze, but Drake managed, mainly because he didn’t want an exploding arrow in his skull. He took a moment to contemplate the stupidity of dropping into utter darkness before doing it, landing on slick rock and not breaking his neck. Sully landed behind him with a grunt.

“Light,” Drake flailed for Sully. “Give me some light!”

“Dammit, Nate,” Sully said, “you had the lights.”

“Seriously?” Drake almost screamed at him.

With a snap-hiss, a glowstick illuminated the narrow tunnel. “Naw, kid.” It lit Victor Sullivan’s smirking face. “I’m just screwin’ with you.”

Drake huffed. “Not the time!” They scrambled down the tunnel, fast and quiet. When it narrowed, Drake motioned a halt.

“Take the urn and scout ahead,” Drake said.

“Not a chance.” Sully backed closer, glowstick raised. “You don’t get to be the hero.”

“I don’t want to be a hero! I just don’t like getting shot in the ass!”

Sully snickered. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Just look for an exit, all right? I’ll follow once I’m sure that Indian isn’t after us.”

“For the last time, Nate!” Sully snatched the urn from Drake’s satchel and shoved an unlit glowstick in his pocket. “It’s not a goddamned Indian.” He squeezed by. “Be careful. I’m not telling Elena you died in a South American rock chimney.” Sully’s footfalls and glowstick soon vanished down the tunnel.

Drake waited in darkness and breathed, listened. Nothing. Then a patter of pebbles and footsteps, barely audible. Padded shoes. Closer. Closer. Now!

Drake launched himself with speed honed from years dodging gunmen and ambushes, hitting his assailant hard. A pained grunt rewarded him, definitely female. A sharp knee snapped into his side hard enough to make him gasp.

He ignored the pain and blocked the next knee with an open palm, grappling with an assailant he now knew was much smaller than he was. That worked for him. He took a punch to the cheek but managed to land a good solid elbow to her solar plexus, eliciting a pained urk.

They rolled apart as Drake drew his gun and cracked his glowstick, flooding the tunnel with light. That’s when he saw the young pony-tailed woman glaring at him, glaring at the shiny pistol Drake had pointed at her face. Glaring as she pointed her own shiny pistol right back.

“Truce?” Drake asked, because his nose hurt and his gut did too.

“Dammit, Drake!” The woman didn’t shoot him, yet. “I’m not here for you! The urn! Where’s the urn?”

His attacker’s voice held all the charm of London, posh and dignified despite the situation. She had a compound bow and quiver strapped across her back, which explained a lot. Not much use in a tunnel.

“You know me,” Drake said, “which makes sense, I guess.” He was pretty popular, with Elena’s documentary and all. “So who are you?”

“Tell me where the urn is, now,” the woman said, her dignified desperation all too compelling. “You have no idea what it can do if Trinity-”

“Wait,” Drake said. “Trinity? Those guys back in the jungle?”

“The men who hired you,” the woman said, enunciating every word, “also hired those mercenaries. Your employers are called Trinity, and that urn cannot fall into their hands.”

“Why not?” Drake asked, but then he waved her off. “No, don’t tell me. It’s cursed, isn’t it?”

The woman lowered her gun. “You believe me?”

“Lady, I’ve dealt with enough cursed relics to know I don’t want anything to do with another one.”

“Good,” she said, “Hand it to me and I’ll get rid of it.”

“Can’t.”

As her eyes widened Drake realized she was actually pretty cute, if a bit young for him.

“Why not?” she demanded.

“Um,” Drake rubbed the back of his head. “Because I gave it to Sully?”

From up the tunnel, Victor Sullivan cursed at the top of his lungs.

The woman grabbed Drake’s collar. “Did he open it?”

“What?” Drake pushed at her.

“Did he open it!” the woman demanded, eyes wide. “The golden urn!”

“I opened it!” Sully shouted. “Spiders, Nate! Whole lot of freakin’ spiders!”

“Blast!” The woman turned heel and ran. “Run!” She certainly wasn’t hesitating.

Drake scrambled after her, making sure he heard Sully’s footfalls pounding behind him. They ran right into a dead end as Sully huffed over, carrying the open urn.

The woman grappled with him. “Give me that, now!”

“Give it to her!” Drake agreed.

“Not the worst plan I’ve heard!” Sully passed her the open urn as they turned toward the sound of thousands of tiny legs rushing up the tunnel.

The woman held the urn high as she sprinkled some sort of glowing green dust into the interior and shouted. “Be gone!” There was a flash, a roar, and a very silent cave.

Someone cracked a glowstick. Sully. There were no spiders and no urn. Just Nathan Drake, Victor Sullivan, and the woman who’d shot arrows at them. And then stopped spiders from eating them.

“Lady,” Sully said, hands on hips, “who the hell are you?”

The woman adjusted her ponytail, shuddering in reaction to all those crawling legs. “Lara,” she said, with a nod. “Lara Croft.”

“Oh.” Drake nodded back. “I have heard of you.”

After one calming breath, Lara halfway smiled. “Yes, I’d imagine you have.”

THE END

 

About the Story:

For the “Fanfic” theme, our prompt was to take characters from one or more books we’d enjoyed and have them get in a fight. Technically, I cheated a bit in that I ended up using two of my favorite videogame characters instead, though, to be fair, both of those games *have* had books written in their universes. So it was within the rules!

Both Uncharted and Tomb Raider have globe-trotting characters delving into exotic locales and underground ruins, fighting off bad guys over the course of cinematic stories, and both games even include a touch of the supernatural. So it is not a stretch by any means to imagine that Lara Croft and Nathan Drake exist in the same universe. I loved this idea.

Once I knew what I was doing, I wrote the story in an hour and proofed in the hour after that. It was fun imagining how the mechanics of each game, and the strengths and weaknesses of each character, might come into play if they ever came into conflict.

Photo Credit:

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/66284747@N00/14430115156″>Warrior Woman</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Sponge Riot

Writing Prompt: Breaking the Fourth Wall

SpongeRiot

Larabeth had only been watching Matlock in the asylum cafeteria for twelve words, and already she was bored. Matlock was a show for old people, one of many stereotypes authors stole for a cheap laugh. Unfortunately for her, old lunatics outnumbered the young ones by a decent margin.

Hoping for something else to entertain her, Larabeth glanced around the cafeteria at the other patients. Bobby the Patriot was rapping Morse code on the table with shifty eyes, probably hoping to pass a message regarding national security to his CIA contact. Janitor Morrow was in the process of cleaning up a giant mess of spilled pasta chunks in the corner, smashing his mop into the goop with gritted teeth.

About five minutes ago, Ronald McDonald (or “the Ron” as they all called him) had taken umbrage to food he considered off the menu, and thrown the plate of pasta as far as it could go. He’d come to the asylum a year ago, tucked away for insisting he was the actual Ronald McDonald, and repeatedly coming after McDonalds’ executives claiming they had stolen his likeness to sell greasy burgers.

Because it was now 193 words into the story and nothing really interesting had happened yet (which was way too long to interest a literary agent in anything) Larabeth sucked down another Jello square and decided to start a riot. That would be interesting, and besides, she needed to get out of here before the story ended. To do that, she’d first have to get her belongings back from the asylum’s main office.

“Hey Leslie?” Larabeth glanced at the dark-haired woman sitting next to her, idly spinning a block of wood with no sharp corners. “Feel like starting a riot?”

“Naw,” Leslie said. “It’s Friday night.” Leslie was only here because she thought people were actually automatons driven by tiny hamsters. “Never a good idea to riot on a Friday night.”

“Why not?”

“Not enough letters in in it,” Leslie said. “Wednesday is much safer.”

Larabeth could see the logic in that. “Unfortunately, I don’t think this story is going to run until next Wednesday.”

“Huh?” Leslie asked.

“Nevermind.” Larabeth shrugged. “I’ll ask someone else.”

“Cool.” Leslie spun her block a bit more.

Larabeth searched the room for someone who might be pliable. Janitor Morrow had finished with the bulk of the Ron’s pasta tantrum and was now scrubbing along the baseboards with a ratty, discolored sponge.

The sponge! If anyone at Happy Home was dissatisfied with their existence in this place, it would be the sponges. People were constantly rubbing them in nasty things, and twisting them dozens of times, and wringing them out, and leaving them to grow mold in cold metal sinks. No one would enjoy that.

Larabeth hopped up and walked over to Janitor Morrow. “Hey, Mister Morrow?”

He glanced at her with a wary smile. “Yes?”

“Do you mind if I talk to your sponge for a moment?”

As the janitor at an insane asylum, Morrow had heard far stranger questions. Now done with his cleanup, he shrugged, tossed the ratty, sauce covered sponge to her, and said “Knock yourself out, kid.”

“Thanks!” Larabeth beamed at him, and he smiled a bit more.

Larabeth carried the sponge over a quiet corner, where they could talk without being overheard. She checked the wordcount just to make sure she still had time to reach the office. Yup. 931 words left. She set the sponge down and greeted it. “Hello, sponge!”

The sponge waited.

“Do you like having your face scrubbed in messy pasta? In apple juice?”

The sponge didn’t like anything, since it was a sponge.

“Oh, right.” Larabeth considered for a moment. What she really needed was for this story’s author to change the rules of the world so that sponges could talk. And be sentient.

“Ack!” said the sponge.

“Oh?” Larabeth said.

“What am I? Who am I?” The sponge sounded a bit freaked out by its sudden self-awareness.

“You’re a sponge!” Larabeth exclaimed. “People rub you in yucky stuff and use you to clean scummy toilets.”

“Ew!” the sponge shouted.

“I know,” Larabeth agreed. “Want to do something about it?”

“But what can I do?” the sponge said. “I’m just a sponge!”

“Well, you can petition the asylum for better treatment. Or, you know,” Larabeth said casually. “You could riot.”

“Riot?” the sponge asked.

“Well, you’d need to be able to move around first,” Larabeth said, scratching her head as she considered further changes to the story’s rules. “And since you’re so small, you’d probably need superstrength. I think autonomous, mobile, super strong sponges who don’t like having their faces rubbed in yuck would have a strong incentive to riot.”

“Really?” the sponge asked eagerly.

“Oh yeah,” Larabeth said. “You’d also be very good at it.”

“Now hear this!” the sponge shouted, startling everyone sitting in the cafeteria except for Leslie, who had probably known Larabeth was going to instigate something like this. “We’re done cleaning up your messes!”

“Yeah!” Larabeth added.

“We want equal pay!” the sponge added. “And no more throwing us in trash cans!”

“What?” Janitor Morrow said, thoroughly flabbergasted.

“And no more scalding water!” more sponges yelled. There were clatters from across the asylum as sentient, super strong mobile sponges sprang from their perches and smashed their way through all the doors blocking them from the cafeteria.

“Sponge rights!” the lead sponge shouted. “Sponge rights sponge rights sponge rights!”

As the other sponges joined in and Janitor Morrow pulled the panic alarm, the cafeteria exploded into chaos. Men and women in loose white clothing went running everywhere, and Larabeth used the commotion to dash through the now sponge-smashed door and run for the asylum office.

It was empty – this late, only the orderlies were actually on duty – but the door was locked. Fortunately, a sponge was busy smashing a cabinet inside. Larabeth called to it. “Hey, sponge!”

“Yes?” it said, stopping in its cabinet smashing.

“Could you get this door open for me?”

“Sure!” the sponge shouted, and bashed the door right open.

Larabeth tossed it a salute and walked past the office to the intake room, which was fortunately unlocked. She rifled through the lockers until she found the belongings they’d taken from her when she had herself committed – a golden locket, a wooden stick that was vaguely wand shaped, and a small leather bag about big enough to hold a roll of quarters or a single square of SPAM.

Pocketing the items, she jogged back to the cafeteria to find that the former patients were now all happily huddled in one corner, watching Matlock with a few sponges, and the rest of the sponges had herded all the orderlies into another. All in all, it looked like the sponges were running the asylum. Larabeth was fairly certain that had not happened in any other story ever. So far as she knew.

“Hey everyone!” Larabeth shouted, catching their attention. “You can all stop rioting now! I got what I needed!”

“Well, we haven’t!” a sponge shouted. “We still want to be taken seriously!”

“Yeah!” the other sponges chimed in. “And no more sponge baths!”

“Eww!” the others all shouted in unison.

“Hmm.” Larabeth tapped her chin. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. I probably should have suggested something less drastic.”

“What?” a confused orderly asked.

“Not an issue,” Larabeth amended. “Tell you what, sponges. If you promise to let all the orderlies and inmates go back to what they were doing before the riot, I promise none of you will be forced to do anything you don’t want to do for as long as you continue to exist.”

“To exist?” a sponge said.

“That sounds ominous,” another added.

“It’s not so bad,” Larabeth said. “Why don’t we all sit down and watch the end of Matlock together?”

Moved by her words for some reason not readily apparent to any of them, the sponges agreed and took seats alongside those asylum patients who had not fled during the riot. Once everyone was settled down and comfortable, Janitor Morrow walked over to her.

“Larabeth?”

She smiled at him. “Yes, Mister Morrow?”

“What did you mean when you told the sponges ‘as long as you continue to exist?'”

“Oh!” Larabeth tried to think back. “Honestly? I don’t remember.”

“Right,” said Morrow. “So … are they going to riot again?”

Larabeth checked the word count. “Nope! There’s only 90 words left before the end of this story.”

“What does that mean?” Morrow asked.

“Nothing important,” Larabeth said. “Anyway, I don’t have to go now. They don’t need me over in the Fantasy-Faction RPG forum.”

“What’s that?” Morrow asked.

“Not sure!” Larabeth eagerly rubbed her golden medallion. “Nice talking to you, Morrow!”

“Right?” Morrow said. He blinked as Larabeth vanished in a poof of smoke.

“Hey.” A sponge sidled over. “Do you think she was serious about that 90 words thing?”

“Honestly?” Morrow frowned. “I don’t know what she meant.”

THE END

 

About the Story:

The theme “Breaking the Fourth Wall” really stumped me. I don’t generally write “funny” stories (while I try to incorporate humor into my fiction, I don’t consider myself suited to writing entirely comedic tales) and initially, the only route to go with a fourth wall breaking story seemed to be comedic. Because of the word count (limit of 1,500 words!), I soon settled on the idea of a protagonist who realized they were in a story and was (in terror) counting its words until the story (and them, by extension) ended.

This led to a bunch of dark story ideas, none of which I liked.  Fortunately, about the time we had this theme I also got involved with the Fantasy-Faction RPG, which is basically just a bunch of posters writing an interactive adventure involving characters they’ve created. And by creating my character, I also stumbled upon my story’s protagonist.

All characters for the RPG typically have skills or powers, and I liked the idea of Larabeth’s power being to occasionally break the fourth wall, but not in a conscious manner. Rather than recognizing that she is in a story, she instead treats the odd thoughts that pop into her head as insanity, and deals with those thoughts as calmly as she deals with everything else. Hence why she’s in an asylum in this story, and why she gets out before her 1,500 words are up.

Photo Credit:

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/48995219@N05/4598319637″>A Day In the Life of a HouseWife</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Adrift

Writing Prompt: Young Love

AdriftCover

Rava Carristo had been called many things in her sixteen years scraping out a living inside third ring. Ringrat. Beggar. Thief. What no one had ever dared call her, until today, was “you bloody idiot”.

No matter what else happened today, she was going to prove Grace Tano wrong.

Rava’s EVA suit charge displayed inside her helmet. 5% after twenty minutes charging on solar wind. The suit showed she needed at least 10% before her ion thrusters could cancel, then reverse, her steady drift. By that time, the interlocking rings of Horizon Station might be just another glittering star.

The only home Rava had ever known was now the size of a protein cake, and that cake was shrinking like her air gauge. Slowly, but inevitably. Stretched out below her, Jupiter remained brain-numbingly huge. Rava had stared down at that massive gas ball since she could climb to third ring’s hand-width windows, but out here, in this void, it just felt so maddeningly enormous.

Of course, this was her first spacewalk. The first time she had managed to nick an EVA suit from a maintenance locker. That had been Grace’s idea, Grace’s fault. These things were always Grace’s fault.

It was Grace who teased her, infuriated her. Grace who outpaced her across the cables of third ring and never let her forget it. Grace who took a knife for her when a greaseboy from second ring decided he didn’t like Rava’s “attitude”.

Rava would never see Grace again if she didn’t do something, and her suit popped a window that warned of rising heart rate. It bothered Rava that her last words to Grace had been a slew of Martian obscenities. She didn’t want Grace to remember her like that.

Should she burn this 5% to slow her drift, hope it bought her time to charge the other 5%? Her yellow air gauge showed two hours. If only she hadn’t spent the last two unconscious.

Rava wasn’t as terrified as she’d expected. She had heard CO2 poisoning was peaceful – you got sleepy, then you went away – but there was still so much she wanted to do first.  That included smacking Grace, repeatedly. No one else was dumb enough to walk across a dissipation port right before it irised open.

The last sound to pipe over their suitlink, just before the suit’s induced catatonia violently shoved Rava forward in time, was Grace shrieking like the day that greaseboy stabbed her. Grace flailing and trying to restore her suit’s maglock on the station hull. Grace shouting “You bloody idiot!”

Grace had been flailing because Rava had shoved her off the opening dissipation port, of course. As Rava recalled the terror in her friend’s voice, she felt unwelcome guilt. This was all Grace’s fault, so why did she have to feel guilty about it? She hadn’t done anything wrong!

The intense heat of the venting had challenged her suit’s regulators. To overload its cooling system it had to cut life support to dangerous levels, levels a conscious human couldn’t survive, and Rava couldn’t fault her suit for knocking her out. Still, two hours in an unconscious drift had put her a long way out.

A hyperventilation warning joined her heart rate. A hiss filled Rava’s ears as her suit pumped in airborne drugs to dull her panic. She decided right then to fire her thrusters, and when her burn ended she had stopped drifting. At least, almost stopped. It was so damn hard to tell out here.

The word “Charging… 0%” blinked as Rava’s hyperventilation and heart rate warnings faded. The suit’s drugs calmed her as her worried mind could not. Now she just had waiting ahead – thirty minutes? Forty five? – and the hope that the air left when her thrusters charged would get her back to Horizon Station.

There was nothing to do out here in the void – no vids to watch or games to play – so Rava focused on her best memories. The day Grace snagged a full pack of QuickHeat soup from an unattended cart heading to first ring, and they feasted for a week. The day Rava came across the last season of Atlas Peaks in a bargain bin – on thumbdrive, no less – and traded her best boltcutter away.

Grace had given her so much grief for that, of course – a boltcutter was so much more useful on third ring than a season of Grace’s favorite cancelled soap opera – but that didn’t make the countless nights they’d spend watching and rewatching episodes, huddled in the tent they’d stitched out of discarded suit patches, any less wonderful. The way Grace cried when Sarah walked out on Jason so Doctor Carlo wouldn’t send him to Mars, every damn time. Even when they both knew it was coming.

It was those memories – Grace’s smile, the way the station lights glittered on Grace’s blond crew-cut, the feeling of Grace’s back against Rava’s as they slept – that kept her sane until her charge reached 5%. With less than an hour of air, she fired her thrusters and ground her teeth.

Rava was drifting back toward Horizon Station at last, but Jupiter’s almost inconceivable bulk felt claustrophobically close now. Too close. Could its gravity be pulling her in? What would it feel like to be crushed at four times station gravity, or would she burn up first? How badly would that hurt?

Rava squeezed her eyes shut. The suit assured her its trajectory was correct, and she had to trust it. She had to trust she would see Grace again.

Drugs hissed, breathing slowed, and Rava drifted through void. She imagined herself floating in a cool sea – not that she’d ever been in one, just seen one on Atlas Peaks – and imagined Grace floating beside her. Imagined clutching her warm hand.

Rava drifted with her phantom Grace, surprisingly content, until the beep of an oxygen warning opened her eyes. Had she slept? She had slept. Horizon Station was larger now, ten times the size it had been, but she was still so far away. Too far away.

Her air gauge blinked red and her thruster charge remained at less than 1%. She knew then either her batteries or absorbing panels were fried, probably by the intense heat of the dissipation port’s discharge. Rava could not gain any more velocity than she had. She wasn’t going to make it home.

She’d tried. She hadn’t given up, not ever. That counted for something, didn’t it?

She hoped Grace would find a way to get along without her.

Rava’s heavy eyelids drooped as a dot separated from Horizon Station. Rava assumed it was just some chunk of debris a third-ringer had tossed out a cleaning vent, illegally, but it looked too dull for that. Not shiny enough. As it grew, the dot squirmed. It had arms and it had legs. A person? A suit?

“Rava?” Grace’s tremulous voice was barely audible over the static-y suitlink. “Rava!”

“Grace?” Rava knew she was dreaming, lost in carbon-monoxide induced bliss. There was no way Grace would have remained outside the station for over four hours, looking for her. No one would do that.

“Rava!” Grace’s voice was stronger now, loud enough for Rava to hear it clearly over the air alarm. “Stay there! I’m coming! Don’t flail!”

“I’m not flailing,” Rava whispered. Unexpected droplets wicked off her eyelids and floated between her face and helmet. Dammit! She couldn’t afford to cry right now.

Grace was the size of a lug nut. Then a hull patch. Then a person, a real person. Grace threw long arms and legs around her, and even through the suit fabric Rava imagined her warmth.

“Don’t move!” Grace ordered. One of her gloved hands clumsily jammed a linktube into the backpack of Rava’s suit, failing again and again. Stupid lack of gravity. Finally, the linktube snapped into the ring.

Rava’s air warning faded as the tank inside Grace’s suit circulated air between them, heady, wonderful air. Air that smelled like grease and sweat, that smelled like Grace. Rava breathed deep.

Droplets floated before her eyes and Grace did too. If she was dreaming, she refused to wake up.

“I thought I’d lost you,” Grace whispered. “I thought I’d killed you, Rava!”

With the viewports of their helmets pressed together, with the helmet lights highlighting Grace’s light brown face, she was almost obnoxiously beautiful. Droplets floated inside Grace’s helmet, too.

As Rava floated in the arms of the only woman in all third ring she would trust with anything, even her life, regret and guilt flooded her like suit drugs. How could she have been so stupid for so long? All their arguments, all her complaints, all her nitpicks – those were the words of a bloody idiot.

“I love you.” Rava clutched Grace and shouted. “I love you, Grace Tano!”

Grace managed a half-giggle, half-snort as they drifted toward the bulk of Horizon Station, together.

“Well.” Grace beamed at Rava through floating tears. “Duh.”

THE END

 

About the Story:

The theme for this month was “Young Love” which initially prompted a lot of hand-wringing from the usual participants. I think we’ve all seen examples of stories with young characters in love that didn’t work for us, and initially, I had no idea what I was going to do with this one. Eventually, I focused on story first, theme second, and ended up settling on the inner monologue of a young girl drifting away from a space station.

Once I’d settled on that idea and the drama it inspired, it ended up being incredibly easy to imagine the thoughts that might go through the mind of someone facing a slow death alone in the dark, in particular thoughts of those they love (as many might guess, the movie Gravity also provided inspiration). Thus, what I thought would be a difficult theme ended up coming together nicely and rapidly. Once I understood the challenges Rava faced, her love for Grace came naturally and was easy to incorporate into the story.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/14204983@N06/3338434326″>Outerspace – Earth</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;