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;

The Next Great Adventure

Writing Prompt: Mighty Beasts

NextGreatAdventureCover

There were many ways to die inside an undersea research facility. Crushed beneath a poorly stacked food crate. Asphyxiated due to a faulty CO2 converter. No one had ever told Commander Mark Sullivan what to do if a mile-long leviathan crushed his station.

Somehow, those topside left that out of the emergency manual.

Claxons blared as Mark led his survivors through the increasingly deformed plastic corridor connecting Central Command with Hydroponics. Again the monster outside Echo squeezed, compressing his undersea facility with tentacles thicker than corridors. Metal buckled and plastic popped.

“Could we get someone to shut off those goddamn alarms?” Chief Engineer Jean Rosseau shouted over the racket. “They’re making my headache worse!”

Undersea Research Station Echo was a cluster of domed habitats that would very soon be a cluster of metal and bodies. Mark didn’t know how the tentacled monstrosity crushing his station had come to be. He just knew he had to get his surviving crew to Hydroponics before they all drowned.

Plastic buckled and the frothing ocean burst from a rip between bulkheads. Mark’s husband, Desalination Officer Ron Sullivan, slogged through rising water lugging a metal backpack. Ron squirted superheated quickseal above and below the water. He stopped the cold ocean at their waists.

“Won’t hold long,” Ron said, gasping as he recovered from wielding the bulky sealer. He glanced into the dark behind them. “Where’s Rosseau? Angeloro?”

“Not drowning,” Science Officer Angeloro said as she hopped around the corner clutching Rosseau’s shoulders. “The water helps. It’s easier for me to move when I can float.” Despite her mangled leg and bloodied face, Angeloro remained as calm as any of them.

“We’re going to make it out of here,” Mark reminded the survivors. He forced himself to focus of those still alive and not the twelve others, now floating in briny seawater behind the sealed hatches at Central Command. “If we keep our heads, we survive.” He couldn’t save people who were already dead.

Ron grimaced at the sealed round hatch ahead of them, at the baleful light casting shimmering red across the seawater flooding the corridor. “Rosseau,” Ron said, “might need you to override this hatch.”

“Keep your pants on, Sully!” Rosseau handed Angeloro off to Mark and sloshed through the waist high water, broad shoulders squared. “It’s not as simple as changing a filter, you know.” She grunted and pulled at a deformed plastic panel beside the doorframe. “Dammit, man, help me get this off!”

“You know,” Angeloro said quietly, “the thing crushing our station might be one of those unknowns topside warned us about.”

“You think?” Mark didn’t have any idea what was squeezing his station to death – a giant squid? A giant octopus? – but he did know it was cracking Echo open like an oyster shell. Nothing was strong enough to do that. Nothing from Earth, anyway.

“Either way,” Angeloro said, “it’s vital we get logs of this attack topside. In case you didn’t notice, this leviathan went after our communications tower first.”

Mark fought a chill as he helped Angeloro toward the sealed hatch. “Which implies intelligence.” That made it even less likely the thing strangling his station had originated on Earth. “You think it’s alien?”

“If you mean extraterrestrial,”Angeloro said, correcting him with the calm indifference of a woman who remained as precise as her undersea experiments, “I’d say there’s a very strong possibility.”

“Well,” Mark said, as Ron and Rosseau snapped off the stubborn panel. “That’s terrifying.”

Rosseau swapped out wires as bits of panel sparked. The corridor groaned and shifted as the monster outside squeezed again, like a boa constrictor wrapping itself tighter around prey. Another bulkhead popped, seawater frothed, and Ron sprayed quickseal while shouting curses at the sea.

The light above the hatch chimed green as seawater sloshed up to Mark’s armpits. Ron grimaced and shrugged off his metal pack. “That’s it.” He took a shuddering breath. “I’m out of quickseal.”

For one blissful moment, Mark was alone with Ron as they climbed Mount Everest together. It was adventure that had driven them together, adventure that led them to accept a year-long tour on an undersea research facility. Echo had been one more mountain for them to climb.

Strained machinery groaned as the hatch leading into hydroponics rattled open. Mark felt a tug that quickly became a riptide. He locked his arm around the guardrail at the elbow and wrapped his other arm around Angeloro’s slim waist.  “Hold on!”

Water pulled. Mark’s fingers and arm and elbow hurt as hissing seawater struggled to rip them away from the bulkhead. Finally the current slacked enough for Mark to unclench his pulsing, pain-filled arm. He and Angeloro sloshed through the ankle deep water that had equalized between Hydroponics and this corridor. It seemed Hydroponics was, as Mark had hoped, intact.

This dome made up Echo’s center, protected by six other slightly smaller domes in a hexagon formed of metal and plastic corridors. Mark had known this would be the last dome to crack. What he didn’t know is how much time they had left. Small windows topped Hydroponics and Mark could just make out the mottled purple body of the leviathan strangling his station from above, bathed in emergency lights.

“Pods.” Mark pointed to the two closed hatches on the far side of the Hydroponics dome, metal circles surrounded by green emergency lights. “Each has enough oxygen for four people.”

There were pods across the facility, of course – every dome had at least two – but Mark suspected the other pods were already lost, crushed just like Central Command. Ron took Angeloro’s other arm and together, the three of them sloshed through ankle deep water behind Rosseau. They hurried beneath heavy gantry after heavy gantry festooned with hanging vegetation. Humid air choked everything.

Something groaned outside the station, a chilling sound like a great whale. It was loud enough that when it finally stopped, Mark couldn’t hear anything over the ringing in his ears. The whole room buckled. Rosseau turned, shouted something, and then a falling gantry crushed her like a grape.

Ron screamed beside Mark as they stared at where Rosseau stood one moment ago. Mark willed Rosseau to rise from that gantry with a smirk, howling like a madwoman and grateful to be alive. Rosseau didn’t rise. She wasn’t going to, and now that gantry was between then and the pods.

Mark pushed forward, pulling Angeloro and Ron with him. Seawater continued to rise, lapping at their thighs, and that told Mark Hydroponics had new leaks they couldn’t seal. Mark left Angeloro with Ron and dived, two minds working as one, and wriggled beneath the gantry. He popped up on the far side.

Ron and Mark locked eyes, and Angeloro didn’t argue or question them. She closed her eyes and dived. Ron dived and Mark did too, and a moment later Angeloro surfaced, gasping in Mark’s strong arms.

“Move!” Mark shouted at his husband.

Ron dived, but as soon as he went under the room buckled again. The gantry shifted and Mark’s world stopped. Then Ron burst from the water, facing the metal gantry and clutching it like a drowning man.

“Okay!” Mark shouted. “Time to claim our medals!”

Ron grunted as he wrapped his upper body around the gantry, but he didn’t push off. “Gantry shifted as I came up.” He looked almost embarrassed as water swirled. “Trapped my leg.”

“Well,” Mark shouted, “we’ll untrap it!”

“No time.” Ron grimaced at seawater sloshing about at Mark’s waist. “Get to the escape pod.”

Mark glowered at him. “You don’t give the orders down here.”

“We’ll get him out together.” Angeloro dropped off him into water high enough to let her float. “On three-“

“No.” Mark pointed at the green circles. “You get to those pods.”

“Respectfully, sir-“

“You said it yourself,” Mark interrupted. “Something extraterrestrial snapped off our communications tower. Someone has to let topside know what happened down here.”

Angeloro looked between the two of them. “Is that an order, sir?”

“It is.”

Angeloro pushed off him and splashed away, jaw clenched and eyes narrowed. She dove into a strong breaststroke, fighting swirling seawater to reach the half-submerged escape hatch. Not looking back.

Mark clutched Ron’s hand as Angeloro struggled with the panel. It opened, water rushed inside, and Angeloro did too. As the hatch closed, she watched them both and sketched a shaky salute.

A thump echoed as Hydroponics groaned and Angeloro’s escape pod whooshed away. Safe, Mark hoped, from the thing that struggled to drown them. Above them, plastic windows crackled and split.

“What’s next, commander?” Ron asked, as seawater rose to their necks. “Where do we go from here?”

“Where else?” Mark closed his eyes as bulkheads shifted and popped, squeezing his husband’s hand and sagging against the metal gantry. “Our next great adventure.”

Ron squeezed his hand back. They had done all they could, together. Topside would learn the truth.

The frothing sea crashed down.

THE END

 

About the Story:

With the theme “Mighty Beasts”, my mind initially defaulted to dragons (which I’ve seen more than often enough) or classics such as Godzilla or King Kong. The one thing I did know (from seeing similar movies) is that any drama to be found in a story about some sort of massive creature would come from how those tiny humans it attacked reacted.

Once I’d decided I was going to do the typical “ground level” kaiju story (seen in the newer versions of Gozilla, Cloverfield, and similar films), I tossed around ideas until eventually settling on something closer to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in this case, a monstrous aquatic creature that could believably be hiding in the ocean depths.

Finally, I’d had the last lines exchanged by Mark and Ron in my head for several months (I’d initially concepted a far different story) but the closing dialogue ended up fitting very well in this one. People who would volunteer to man an undersea research station strike me as both risk takers and adventurers, and I tried to write characters who fit that mold.

Cover Photo Credit:

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/27677464@N06/2805510789″>under the ocean.</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

 

The Translator

Writing Prompt: Politics, Scheming, and Betrayal

TheTranslatorCover

Hana Varstow steeled herself as the doors to Prelate Garil’s council hall rolled open and a stench poured out: recent slaughter mixed with too much disinfectant. Hana’s gorge hopped but she dared not show weakness, not to the Confederate Elites who flanked her, not to the exhausted Kavil militiaman barely keeping his feet, and not, above all else, to Prelate Garil herself.

The unarmed soldier accompanying Garil was a concession to the Prelate’s station. Hana had suggested it. Their war was over – for now – but a treaty had yet to be signed. This meeting would finalize that surrender or the Confederacy would resume its orbital bombardment. Many more would die.

*Please, Prelate, be seated at the head of the negotiating table,* Hana said. *It befits your station.*

The Confederacy had already taken Garil’s husband, her son, and her army, and then slaughtered her council in this very room. Executed for refusing to surrender. Hana wouldn’t take Garil’s dignity, too.

Prelate Garil sat, soldier at her side. The Elites flanking Hana shouldered their rifles and took up position by the door, sending a clear message. No one left this room without the Confederacy’s permission.

*Where is your High General?* Garil stared at the silent Elites. *Or was this simply a pretense to reunite me with my council?* There might still be blood on her chair.

*The High General has been delayed,* Hana responded in perfect kavish, skating along a lie. *He appreciates your cooperation in avoiding further bloodshed, and will arrive soon.*

*You speak our language well.* Prelate Garil’s own kavish had a lyrical lilt to it, despite the fact she’d been up for over a day, and it was obvious she was a talented speaker. *Did they enslave you, too?*

*I am a loyal citizen of the Confederacy,* Hana said, because she wouldn’t put it pass the Confederacy’s infamous ISec squads to have installed archiving devices. *We better mankind.*

*Of course you do. You were courteous enough to shoot my husband in the head.*

Hana said nothing else. The Confederacy wanted loyal city states, not bombed worlds, and both Prelate Garil and High General Tourmaline would agree to that. So long as she reminded them, often.

The militia soldier standing by Garil, a towheaded man young enough to be Hana’s son, looked dead on his feet, but pride and rage kept him standing. Last night, the Confederacy had killed all his friends.

Finally, the room rumbled as Tourmaline’s shuttle landed – twenty minutes late. Shortly afterward the High General strode into the conference room, flanked by Golden Elites, and wrinkled his nose.

“What,” Tourmaline asked, in confederese, “is that godawful smell?”

*Took your time, didn’t you?* Garil said. *Massacres to conclude?*

“High General,” Hana said in confederese, “Prelate Garil of Kavil bids you welcome. She looks forward to negotiating Kavil’s surrender and incorporation into the Confederacy.”

“Tired of getting her ass kicked, is she?”

*Prelate Garil,* Hana said, *the High General apologizes for the delay. He wanted to personally assure our ceasefire agreement carried across our fleet.*

Garil scowled. *What are a few more bombs between friends? I think we still have a few hospitals.*

“The prelate only wishes to avoid further bloodshed,” Hana translated.

“Fine,” Tourmaline said. “Tell her to get out of my seat.”

“High General,” Hana said, “I should first clarify kavish customs. In kavish society, it is the supplicant who sits, to show humility. The victor stands in judgment.”

Tourmaline glowered. “You should have mentioned that earlier.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “Fine. The bitch can sit.”

*Wants me to move, does he?* Garil asked.

*In respect for the brave kavish who fell defending your planet,* Hana said, *our High General refuses to sit in judgment upon you. He will stand for these negotiations.*

Garil raised one elegant eyebrow. *A … surprising concession.*

“What did she say?” Tourmaline demanded.

“She looks forward to your terms.”

“Good.” Tourmaline crossed his arms and leaned forward. “Concession one. She disarms her people.”

*In the interest of avoiding any further bloodshed on both sides,* Hana said, “the High General asks that all private citizens turn over their guns.*

*So you can slaughter us face to face?* Garil scowled. *This is a rough planet. My people need guns to defend themselves.*

“High General,” Hana said, “the prelate does not refuse, but she does ask that Confederacy soldiers take over the defense of the kavish wheat farms. There are hundreds outside the walls.”

“Why do I give a shit about their wheat farms?”

“Local predators may otherwise devour their wheat, leading to famine,” Hana said. “The kavish shoot those that come near, but cannot protect their farms without their weapons.”

“I’m not tasking my Elites to guard a bunch of dirt-mucking farmers!”

“Then perhaps,” Hana said, “we could allow some kavish to keep their rifles? Outside the walls only, for protection from predators?”

“Fine.” Tourmaline waved her off. “Our new taxpayers can’t pay anything if they starve to death.”

*Prelate Garil, the High General understands your concern,* Hana said. *As a compromise, the Confederacy will allow your citizens to keep their rifles, so long as they carry them for defense and only outside city walls. You must not brandish them within the city.*

*He really agreed to that?* Garil narrowed her eyes.

*He understands your citizens must protect themselves.*

Garil considered, lips pursed. *Agreed.*

Hana nodded to Tourmaline. “The prelate appreciates your understanding of her people’s need to protect their farms, and offers thanks.”

“Concession two,” Tourmaline said. “She appoints an ambassador of my choosing as Protector of Kavil.”

*The High General asks you coordinate with our ambassador to ease your government’s transition into a partnership with ours,* Hana said. *So we can both benefit from your Confederacy membership.*

*So long as I pay my taxes?* Garil asked.

*Your taxes ensure the Confederacy protects your planet from pirates and skitterships, Prelate,* Hana reminded her, *and also grants you access to medical advances and gene therapy.*

Garil rolled her eyes. *I don’t think that’s what your High General said.*

“She’s refusing?” Tourmaline asked. “Remind her I have an orbital cannon pointed at her capital.”

“High General, she only worries for the ambassador. The kavish have a complex system of government, with ancient relationships and customs that can be difficult for outsiders to grasp.”

“I don’t care what the locals get up to,” Tourmaline said. “She can handle city law. Just make sure she recognizes my ambassador runs Kavil in all global matters, including Confederacy law.”

*Our new ambassador will facilitate communication within the Confederacy*, Hana told Garil, *while you continue to handle local matters of state. Is this acceptable?*

*Another concession I hadn’t expected,* Garil almost smiled. *Very well.*

“The prelate agrees to defer to the ambassador in all matters of Confederacy law, High General, and looks forward to educating him on the more delicate matters of kavish internal affairs.”

“Poor bastard.” Tourmaline chuckled. “That’s all I have, other than the boilerplate. You have the treaties?”

“Two copies,” Hana produced them, “in confederese and kavish.”

These treaties were nearly identical to those Hana had brokered – on High General Tourmaline’s orders, of course – with the last three planets the Confederacy had conquered. The people on those planets, unlike Hana’s now dead world, remained alive and fed, if not entirely happy.

“You verified she understands it?” Tourmaline demanded.

“Yes, High General.” Hana bowed. “The Prelate understands perfectly.”

“Then tell the bitch to sign away her planet.”

*Prelate Garil,* Hana said, *the High General appreciates your cooperation. Again, he honors the sacrifice of your soldiers. If you have no further concerns, he asks that you sign the treaties now.*

*So he does.* Garil stood, eyes hard, and for a moment Hana was terrified that she had failed. Garil would die rather than surrender and, with her death, doom Kavil’s people.

*Tell your general he is a skilled negotiator.* Garil walked over and signed one treaty, then the other.

“High General,” Hana said, “the prelate thanks you for your gracious invitation to the Confederacy.”

“Whatever.” Tourmaline signed both treaties. “Get these ratified, Hana. I’m heading back up.”

Hana bowed deep. “I will see it done.”

Tourmaline left and his Elites did too. The room emptied. Hana rolled and pocketed the treaties and then bowed to Garil. *The High General wishes you long life, and hopes you will soon come to understand the benefit of living under the Confederacy’s protective wing. You are free to leave.*

“it seems I’m having dinner after all,” Garil agreed, in perfect confederese. “Care to join me?”

Hana barely hid her shock. “I’m … not sure that would be wise, Prelate. Appearances-”

“Are important,” Garil agreed. “In fact, they’re everything.” She offered a slight nod, a gesture of sincere respect from one of her station, and headed out. *Thank you. For saving my people from my rage.*

Hana looked after her and swallowed, picturing her own dead world. *It was the least I could do.*

THE END

 

About the Story

The theme for this month was “Scheming, Politics, and Betrayal”, which didn’t immediately conjure an idea to mind. After a day or so of mulling it over, I fixed upon the theme of translators and how they must do convert words in one language to another – especially words and concepts that may not have an equivalent in the other language. Then, of course, the idea came about to explore how a translator could influence post-war negotiations without obviously appearing to favor either side, and this story emerged.

This also gave me the chance to experiment with alternate dialogue tags (using * * for Kavish, and ” ” for Confederese) and from there, I simply had to decide how my character, Hana, would translate the statements from two people bent on further war in an attempt to broker peace and save innocent lives. This, to me, incorporates all the themes of the prompt – politics, scheming, and betrayal, though in this case, Hana’s “betrayal” of General Tourmaline could arguably also be considered working in everyone’s interest.

Cover Photo Credit:

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/20679178@N00/376908263″>On The Shores of Darkness.jpg</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Hitting the Arch

Writing Prompt: Space Opera

HittingTheArchCover

When the enemy bombardment finally stopped, it left Captain Diego Harker’s scout ship drifting in the void. He ran his hands through his black hair and waited. They had evaded the enemy fleet. Now, they had to warn their own.

“Give me our energy reserves.” Together, their shields and engines had burned unprecedented mass. His ears still rang from the impacts, but they were alive.

“We’re empty, cap,” Carter said. Diego’s XO was all bare skull, bent frame and hard eyes. “It’s all burned.”

Without the shielding from their universal reactor, any further impact would turn their ship to scrap. That had been a big enemy fleet. “Suggestions?”

Laster spoke first. “We can burn anything for fuel, right? Let’s burn our rations.” He was nineteen, fresh out of gunnery school. He shaved his head to look like Carter and that pissed Carter off.

“That much mass would get us two burns.” Carter steepled his meaty fingers. “Three, if we’re lucky.”

“Not enough.” Woo rubbed at his eyes. The math to elude the enemy fleet had almost finished him. “To hit the archway we need at least thirty, and what would we eat?”

“Each other,” Laster quipped. No one laughed.

“What about our bulkheads?” Woo asked. “Can’t we pull off some scrap?”

“You pull anything off the inside of this ship, you’ll kill us all!” Mainard was a good engineer, but he had a temper. “We’re built lean. Nothing here can burn.”

“If we don’t close the archway,” Diego reminded them, “the Imps will bombard Ariadne and God knows who else. Woo, how’s our path on the arch?”

“What path? We can’t path without mass.” Sweat glistened on Woo’s forehead. “With the frequency this particular archway jumps around, we’ll never hit it.”

“So we guess,” Carter said. “Burn once a day, split the difference between the archway’s position today and tomorrow.”

“That’s a sixteen percent chance!” Woo snapped.

“Do it,” Diego ordered anyway.

It didn’t work. The archway skipped five times in twenty hours. Diego and Carter split a ration inside Diego’s tiny cabin.

“We need more mass.” Carter chewed. They both knew what that meant.

Diego saw no other options. “I’ll tell the crew.”

“They’ll mutiny, cap.”

“They won’t. We owe them the truth.”

“At the cost of Ariadne?”

“I’m not feeding anyone to this ship without explaining why. I’ll lead by example.”

“Don’t be an idiot. You go last if you go at all.”

“I’m not killing my crew in their sleep!”

“They’ll understand when it’s over.”

“We’ll draw straws.” They broke the news on the bridge when they rationed out that day’s water.

Woo had already figured it out. Mainard looked like he was going to blow chunks, but he didn’t. Laster was oddly introspective about the whole thing.

“But, a human … a body, I mean. How many burns do we even get?”

“Eight to ten,” Woo said.

“You said we needed thirty.”

“Learn to multiply.”

“Enough.” Diego held out the straws. They were actually strips of Crack-Seal. “If the Imps were gunning for your families, would you give your lives to stop them?”

Woo nodded. Laster did too. Mainard didn’t. “There has to be another way.”

“Name it.” Diego waited a bit.

Carter drew the short straw. If mutiny was on the crew’s mind, Diego trusted no one else to watch him while he slept. They all went to the reactor room together.

“I’ve got a daughter,” Carter said before he stepped inside. “On Ariadne’s moon.”

Diego’s throat went dry. “You never said one word.”

“Didn’t matter then. Her info’s in my file. Tell her I died saving the universe.”

Laster sketched a salute. Mainard and Woo did too. Diego just squeezed Carter’s shoulder. “She’ll know.”

Carter’s body bought them nine burns. Diego didn’t sleep that night. No one tried to kill him.

Now two days from the archway, Diego conferred with Woo. They had hit forty-two percent. The archway moved that night and Mainard drew the short straw. There was a scuffle.

“You can’t do this!” Mainard shrieked. It took Laster and Woo to muscle him to the reactor room. “It’s murder!”

“I’m sorry.” Diego snapped his holster open and made his face a mask.

“My wife’s on Ariadne! Our son!”

Diego opened the reactor door. “They’ll know.”

Woo lost his grip and Mainard got an elbow free. He almost took Laster’s head off before Diego shot him in the face. Mainard’s body bought them nine burns.

With one day left, they got lucky – seventy-four percent on the archway. Laster pushed away the straws.

“You don’t need me.” He was too calm for nineteen, too ready to die. “You need command and navigation.”

Diego shoved them at him. “Draw a straw.”

“I’m married too, sir. The Imps will bomb her back to the dark ages.”

“Captain.” Woo grabbed his hand. “We’re close, the math is simple. You do the burns. I’ll draw for you.”

Laster moved. Diego blocked him. “I said draw.”

“Put in it my report.” Laster held Diego’s eyes.

Laster bought them nine burns, close enough to warn the archway ahead of the enemy fleet. Diego sent his report with a Commendation of Valor for all his crew, even Mainard. Then he sent a message to Carter’s daughter.

As drones towed them in he and Woo sat on the empty bridge. The garrison captain guarding the archway had known Imps were in the system, but no one had known just how enormous the enemy fleet actually was. Retreating through the archway and collapsing it was their only option. That would keep Ariadne safe for decades.

“Captain,” Woo said then. “You’re from Helio Two.”

“Yeah.”

“Family there?”

“Two sons. My wife is dead.”

“If this archway leaves the network, it’ll take two-hundred years to get back there at sublight.”

“I know.”

Woo sat back and interlaced his fingers behind his head. “I’m never getting married. Too much to lose.”

“They’re worth it. They’re the reason I can do this.”

“Then I’m having five.” Woo forced a false smile. “If two got you through this, I’m hedging my bets.”

A rescue ship soon docked. They boarded. Together, they went through the archway one last time.

Diego never saw his sons again, but they knew.

THE END

 

About the Story:

The theme for this month was “space opera” and my starting point was actually the Mass Effect series, which is some of my favorite space opera to date. This story spawned from a rather simple language question – “mass effect” is the way “jumping to hyperspace” is described in that game’s universe, but it got me thinking about engines and, from there, engines that use mass. From there, of course, we go to “what if it could burn *any* mass?”

That idea, combined with the knowledge that war of any sort costs lives on both sides led me to take the (extremely literal) approach of soldiers sacrificing themselves in warfare, but not by bravely charging into enemy fire. By literally giving their lives to ensure their ship got home. When the circumstances are desperate enough, I wanted to explore how people asked to literally feeding themselves to a reactor might react, and how the survivors would deal with the guilt.

Cover Photo Credit:

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/34943347@N04/4413240787″>eric_claeys_-_02</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;