Audio shorts

So, my friend Russ is getting into voice work.

This is great on a number of levels. He never has time to read as much as he’d like, and prefers audio books. He’s not alone.

I loved audiobooks when I used to commute. A great audiobook is, in some cases, better than the read version. There’s nuances and inflections that you might not have even imagined with your eyeholes. To have someone read these things aloud not only exposes certain angles of the prose, it also provides a flavor you might not always get when reading silently. Take for example, Stephen Briggs narrating any Terry Pratchett novel. Or take the audiobook of THE DIAMOND AGE.

Reading aloud is also one of the go-to suggestions when editing your own work. Your brain picks up things your eyes miss when you hear the words aloud.

The last and best part was that Russ chose one of my own short stories to read, my most recent one, in fact. This story.

You can check out his fledgling voice narration here.

worststory: A dot matrix printer as big as the moon

THE UMBRAL WAKE is coming along and should be up for preorder soon if you’re interested. In other news I am writing things. Which is maybe not really news, but some days getting words out there is like pulling teeth for me. It’s easy after a few million words to start feeling like you are just spinning your wheels writing the same crap day in day out.  So sometimes I spend time on reddit. That’s where I found /r/worststory.

 

Worststory is a subreddit where people provide the most terrible idea for a story and challenge people to write it. So a writing prompt grabbed me and I went with it. A dot matrix printer as big as the moon appears in orbit, driving everyone mad with its noise.

 

I figured what’s the point of writing it if I don’t share it.

Direct link here if you’d like to upvote and feed me karma:

http://www.reddit.com/r/worststory/comments/2h8mcr/a_giant_really_really_huge_like_as_big_as_the/ckqnjsq

 

Otherwise, enjoy.

Ginny was concerned. Not because of the fact that it was there, but because nobody seemed to be asking the right questions: How did it get there? Why can we hear it when it’s in space? Where did it get the paper?

The neighbors were to first to be effected as far as she knew. The Barkers had been usually pretty quiet, for the most part, an elderly couple who read their newspaper and sometimes drank lemonade out on the porch. Gerald drove an old MG which he babied for as long as Ginny could remember. Margaret liked to crochet.

When the tapping began, most people ignored it, listening to the news with mild curiosity, and taking to heart the news that despite the noise, the orbital object was really nothing to be worried about. Pictures had begun to arrive on the news feeds and aggregators–a large, blocky shape with a round nodule at one end. It was feeding on something wide and flat. Scientists estimated it was somewhere around the size of North Dakota. And there was the noise.

Thump! Thump!

And of course, the biggest realization of all. That we were not alone.

The tapping was thick, ponderous, like a jackhammer in slow motion. It wasn’t a consistent sound either, hammering an almost random pattern, making the birds panic and crash into windows, causing deer to run into traffic and whales to beach themselves, causing insects to sometimes be unusually active at night.

Thump! Thump! Thump! Thumpity-Thump!

Ginny began to lose sleep.

As did the Barkers.

It’s funny, Ginny thought, how when something completely unusual happens, people seem to react in two ways: adapt and accept it as the New Normal, or blame something, anything, anyone.

In the case of the Barkers, she guessed Margaret was maybe a little of both. Maybe it was just one more thing to break the camel’s back.

Thump! Thump!

“DON’T TELL ME YOU DON’T SNORE!” The screams soared over the picket fence and into Ginny’s living room window. “YOU SNORE LOUDER THAN THE ORBITAL! YOU SNORE LOUDER THAN A BEAR!”

“And how would you know what a bear snores like?” Gerald said, his voice almost a whisper between Orbital thumps on the night air.

“YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHAT I MEAN!”

Thump! Thumpity-Thump!

“Margaret–”

“DON’T MARGARET ME! FORTY THREE YEARS! FORTY THREE!”

“Margaret… Margaret! Put that down! Don’t be daft!”

There was a moment where Ginny thought maybe she had listened to him, putting down whatever it was, a moment where maybe the Barkers would go back to the New Normal the way they all had. But it was the gunshot that got Ginny to put her coat on.

Thump!

The night air was humid, the Thump! Thump! Thumpitty-Thump! of the orbital just loud enough to be heard, too deep to ignore. It rose in the evening sky, a second, boxy moon, its form swallowing a full quarter of the night sky. Ginny almost stopped there on the driveway just to stare at it, until she heard the sobbing.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” More sobs followed, obscuring the words as Ginny pushed the door open.

Gerald lay there on the floor, bathed in the glow of the TV, his eyes open, mildly surprised as he stared up at and beyond the ceiling.

“I’m sorry!” Margaret called, one hand on her mouth, the other hand hanging limply at her side. The gun hung from her finger, swaying just to the point of slipping. It fell, hitting the floor with a clatter, and Margaret looked at the door, at Ginny.

Thump!

“Margaret…” Ginny took a step inside, her throat closing on itself in fear as Margaret looked form her, to Gerald, to the TV.

CNN was on, the banner scrolling below, the anchor speaking about the Orbital, what it could mean.

“I don’t know why I did it,” Margaret said. “I just…”

Her voice trailed off then, her eyes fixated on the screen. Ginny turned too.

The thumping had ceased. A cameraphone pointed at the sky showed the giant sheet had emerged from the other side, slowly rotating into view. Ginny didn’t wait for the TV. She didn’t want to see it on TV. She wanted to see it for real.

Outside the sheet glowed like snow against the purple sky, the stars a backdrop to the image slowing working its way into view.

“What… what does it mean?” Margaret asked, her voice almost rising to a hysterical pitch. “What is it?”

Ginny knew. She’d known what it was for years. She took Margaret’s hand and whispered in her ear.

“Dickbutt.”

http://i.imgur.com/tzgxM5R.jpg

 

 

 

 

Version

Flash fiction is a story told usually in 1000 words or less.

Version

© 2013 Martin Kee

1.1

And here we are. Jennings is still taking the condensers out of the back compartment, but once he gets those situated, I think we’ll be ready to check in with colony prime and have our first official meeting away from home.

Gotta go grab a shower before the meeting. I feel gross.

1.2

Meeting went well, but Jennings laid it on a little thick. I’m sure the supervisor wasn’t thrilled when he mentioned we’re a week off schedule. She made it clear we need to hustle now if we’re going to be ready for that supply drop. Those drones punch through the fabric of space pretty fast, and we’re easy to miss. Hopefully, we’ll have the beacon ready. Cracker rations only go so far. There isn’t enough mustard in the world…

1.3

As far as colonies go, Ragnarok is small, about three hundred folks, which is a good manageable number. I heard Beta-Nine was packed into their chambers like sardines when they colonized. We’ve come a long way.

Jennings is overseeing the comm deployment, which is good news. That beacon is key.

There are thirty-six human colonies, all founded within the last fifty years. I remember hearing that biological evolution moves in jumps, and I’m inclined to believe technology works the same. They’d only just found a way to punch through to another solar system, and a year later people were building ships. I think it’s fair to say nobody could fucking stand Earth anymore, and who could blame them?

We’d known about this place almost ten years before we could visit. Man, does it feel good to get away from all Earth’s problems.

Hold on, Jennings is here.

1.4

Slight hiccup in the comm array, but you know the saying: tell God your plans for a laugh. Jennings says it fell in the night, but I looked at the tower and there’s clearly some incompetence afoot. Thing was bent like a vine when I went out to it. Solar flares or not, it takes a lot more to bend plasteel than “a fall”. I’ll see if I can get to the bottom of it.

In the mean time, they’re throwing a meet-and-greet tonight with the rest of the rations. I’ve advised against it, but Jennings says, “With the beacon up and running, we’ll have more food than we can eat in our lifetimes this time tomorrow.”

Maybe I can sneak away during the dance and double-check that comm array…

1.5

I could only take a few minutes of that music. Ran off to check on the comm array on the hill. I’d asked if they’d scanned the strats before erecting it this time. Jennings confirmed that it’s solid.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“We looked,” he said. “Nothing but dirt and rock. It’s solid.”

So I figured everything was fine. Well, it’s not.

There’s a cable missing, the cable that connects the beacon to the comm array. Am I making sense now? Yes? The beacon was hooked up, but it was just talking to itself. I’m going to have to figure out how to break the news to everyone. Probably need to go tell them now before they eat all the rations. Then I need to wash up and talk to Jennings…

1.6

People are disappointed, but they understand. We’ll start from scratch with what we have now, maybe send out parties to find edible plants. The fauna here is scarce, and they assured us there’s nothing much bigger than a housecat out in those woods, but we’ll send weapons with them just the same.

In the meantime I’m going to discuss our situation with the supervisor tonight and hopefully they’ll send another supply drone.

Fucking Jennings…

1.7

Jennings was found dead today at the comm tower. We’re not sure what it is, but his hands are bleeding and covered in some kind of infection, small slivers of black can be seen under the nails, like he’s been clawing at something, but we aren’t sure what. Doctors should have an answer by the end of the day.

The scouting party returned and with good news. They brought some berries and fruit. We’ll have those tested asap.

I’m also getting a headache from all this stress. I could use a shower.

1.8

The fibers found under Jennings’s fingernails seems to be a kind of fungus. It’s not from Earth. Definitely from here, but they can’t figure out where. Maybe I need to head back to the comm array again.

The good news is that the fruit checks out. People are eating and happy, so that’s good.

Still, I hate the air here. Sticks to you.

1.9

The array is broken again. This time twisted and laying in pieces. There’s no way we’ll get it repaired now. I explained to Phillips, who took over after Jennings.

He just gave me this look. Not sure what that meant.

I washed up and… here’s the thing…

My shower head is filthy, black mold coming off the nozzle in long strands. Also, I found marks after I shaved my head this morning, like someone was clawing at the back of my head. The hairs look an awful lot like those tendrils under Jennings’s nails. Dark. Wiry. I think I’ll take them in to the doc in the morning… on second thought, better not.

2.0

I found the body today, crammed into the cooling duct above my bunk.

I’ve suspected most of the night, and I imagine the crew has too, otherwise they wouldn’t have locked me in my room. But they’re in for a treat once it takes them too. There’s no way to tell when it’s happening. None. Hell, I didn’t even know until I found my own face, staring back at me from this cooling duct.

It’s fine though. We’ll all be better adapted to life here in the end.

For now I’ll just wait.

Space ain’t for everyone…

A writing prompt on Reddit caught my eye, so I wrote a thing. Here’s the link to the post and below is the prompt and story. I figure this is at least a productive way to procrastinate on my revision. Mind you ,I am still making progress. I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel… or maybe it’s just a near death experience.

The first human crew is on their way to Mars. Instead of being excited about Mars, the Commander is being driven to madness by minor annoyances from his crew.

 

VIDEO LOG ENABLED… VOICE2TXT v2.5.2…

RECOVERED ENTRY: CAPTAIN JAMES MILLROY – USCS ELON MUSK

BEGIN PLAYBACK…

2023.4.5 – Captain’s Personal Log

We’ve just become the first corporate vessel to leave Earth orbit, and the first manned mission to Mars. It’s an honor to be here to help prove that there’s nothing government can do that the private sector can’t do better.

I’m happy to report that our systems diagnostic came back with a clean bill of health. Jennings tells me that the seedlings are all doing well in BioTech, and Roberts in Engineering says that there are no noticeable changes in pressure or abnormal spikes. Looks like we’re on our way… What’s that? Yes, this is my personal journal, Edmonds… sure… sure that’s very clever…

Edmonds, our junior technician wanted me to point out that today’s date is 2345, which I suppose it is if you don’t count the 2 and 0 before it, but he’s a spunky kid and we’re happy to have him on board.

2023.4.6 – Captain’s Personal Log

As I look out to my left, I can almost see the moonrise over the Earth. The stars are more visible than I imagined and… just a second… What is it Jennings?… The seedlings? What’s wrong?… oh… okay, sure…. no, that’s cute.

Jennings just stated that the biometrics for the seedlings are showing an unusually high level of chemicals associated with relaxation, which is encouraging. We’re relying on these hybrid plants to boost oxygen levels once we arrive, not to mention as a viable food source… Oh, and Edmonds wanted to point out that the date is no longer sequential. Thanks Edmonds. Very observant.

2023.4.10 – Captain’s Personal Log

Edmonds has apparently named the seedlings in his spare time. I checked in at BioTech and there are neat little signs with names like “Penelope” and “Margaret”. I asked Jennings about it and she just rolled her eyes. Not sure where Edmonds is getting all this spare time, considering the amount of work we have to do. I asked him and he said he’s done it all. Roberts also told me that Edmonds has reorganized the tool cabinet about five times so far. So, good on him… I guess.

2023.4.15 – Captain’s Personal Log

We had an incident. I guess while the rest of the crew was sleeping, Jennings went and renamed all the plants to male names: Jim, Phil, Edward… Edmonds became hurt, and apparently felt that the carrots were female and should be named accordingly. Jennings explained that plants don’t identify that way, and now neither will talk to one another. Personally, I don’t mind the quiet.

2023.4.20 – Captain’s Personal Log

Roberts came to me today. It seems Edmonds has not only been reorganizing the tool cabinet, but has also been organizing other storage bins. I just spent fifteen minutes trying to find a damn pen. I might have to have a talk with the kid about personal property. I can’t believe I am having this conversation in space.

Just got back from talking to Edmonds. Did you know that there are ten different settings on a standard socket wrench? I sure do now. Apparently everyone on board does as well. I told him that I’d prefer if he left my things alone. He said “Speaking of alone, did you know that seedlings feel pain?” I spoke to Jennings about this and she agrees that the BioTech should be locked down from now on.

2023.4.21 – Captain’s Personal Log

Well that didn’t work. Edmonds has started sleeping in front of the BioTech door. Now when Jennings tries to enter he sits up in his sleeping bag and demands a password. We’ve all tried and no one can figure out the password. We’re good on regular food, and we can watch the plants from the cameras. I told Jennings it’s probably best that nobody goes in.

Jennings has just told me she needs to do her report. I explained that we’re far enough from earth I doubt anyone will write her up. She huffed, but I think she’ll be fine. She wanted me to know that the plants shouldn’t have names. I agreed.

2023.4.22 – Captain’s Personal Log

So now it’s Roberts. He’s a quiet guy, keeps to himself. I just found out that he’s actually been the one rearranging the cabinets. I apologized to Edmonds and… I’m almost too angry to really discuss it, but this is a personal log for a reason…

They were both in on it. Thought it would be funny to confuse me… I have no idea why they thought it would be funny since it seems they are the only ones in on the joke. They giggle now when they think I’m not around. I have no idea how they could have assigned me these two.

Oh, apparently Jennings threatened Edmonds and got the password, broke into BioTech and has locked herself inside. I asked her on the com and she said something about not coming out until her reports are done. So that’s great.

2023.4.24 – Captain’s Personal Log

I offered to deliver food to Jennings if she would open the door, but was presented with a few problems. 1. I can’t find the food, because apparently tweedle dee and tweedle dumb thought it would be funny to move the food for a day. I’d be surprised if they didn’t name them too. and 2. Apparently Jennings has been nibbling at the BioTech. I’m not sure how many carrots and potatoes she can eat, but she says the impact will be minimal and she’ll include results on her report.

I told her to fuck her report and to stop eating the ONE THING SHE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE LOOKING OUT FOR. She started crying. I would have said something comforting but instead she killed the com. Not like I could have gone in to comfort her anyway. Idiot.

I’m surrounded by idiots. This is what happens when you privatize space exploration. Fucking cost cutters, hiring this crew like they were contract-hunting for dry-wall installers. Roberts isn’t talking to anyone but Edmonds now, and I can hear them whispering through the capsule. I’m pretty sure I heard my name a few times, but when I said something they looked all innocent. Well two can play at that game.

2023.4.27 – Captain’s Personal Log

We’ve officially passed our halfway point, and I’m feeling better about this mission now. I’m taking the day off, locked myself in my quarters. Let’s see how those assholes like that. Instead I am going to just kick it with my iPod7 and listen to some classics. Man, Dave Matthews was a genius before he started that cult…

I could hear them banging on my door even over ANTS MARCHING. I looked up and they are all glaring at me, like I’mthe one who’s been acting crazy. I gave them the bird and turned up the volume. That harmonica player is just amazing…

2023.4.28 – Captain’s Personal Log

I must have dozed off.

There’s no one outside my quarters that I can see, and when I look it seems that the ship is dark. Instruments show a loss of pressure, so I can only imagine that we had a collision. The klaxons weren’t audible through my earphones… so that’s my bad. Now it’s just a glowing red as the emergency lights flash. I can see the bridge from here and I’m not sure if it’s just the emergency lights or if there is blood on the panel. Every time I look it seems different.

I tried contacting Jennings, Roberts, even Edmonds… nothing so far, but I haven’t given up. Pretty soon the automated systems will kick in and we’ll cease accelerating. I’m pretty sure we’ll be too late though. One things for certain, this ship can pretty much land itself. I might just wait in here until…

I just heard something. Sounds like a heavy tool being dragged across the wall… Could be in freefall, but I can’t see for sure…

No, it’s definitely someone, but they’re staying out of view. If I had to guess, it’s Edmonds with that socket wrench. Did you know it has ten settings? Apparently more than one use… I still can’t reach the rest of the crew, but I’m going to have to go out there anyway and talk to him. All I have is an emergency crowbar, but it will have to do….

END TRANSMISSION

 

 

Echoes of Scheherazade

“I’m not saying it’s bloom,” says Doc. “I’m just saying it’s probably bloom.”

Larry glowers at him from beneath eyebrows the color of rust. “Are you saying it is or it isn’t?”

The hobo steps back and lifts the half empty bourbon bottle to his mouth, drinks, and scratches his chin, payment for his diagnosis. They both look down at the blemish on Larry’s arm, a fuzzy birthmark.

Doc hands the bottle back to Larry.“When I worked at the lab…”

“Which lab?”

“The one in Fresno. We were studying goat prions.”

“What?” Larry snatches the bottle and takes a swig, annoyed at the half-assed answer.

“Prions. They’re little rogue proteins. They eat away at your brain, make you forget things, act different.”

“Like rabies?”

“Thats a virus…” Doc takes a breath. “What I was saying is that at the lab we called these fairy rings?”

“What?”

“Fairy rings. Like a bunch of fairies might dance around them. It’s folklore, Larry.”

Larry makes a face and takes another swig. “I’ll tell you who’s a fairy and it ain’t me.”

“No, you’re the troll.”

“What?”

“Under the bridge,” Doc smiles and points to the tracks high overhead, lost in the night sky. He runs a dirty hand through his wild salt and pepper hair. It wisps slightly in the breeze coming off the gorge as they sit beneath the railroad bridge. A tin can sitting on the rock beside him falls over and they both watch it tumble down the slope into the San Joaquin river. Then the ground rumbles and Larry looks back at his arm. Now there are two rings.

“Fairy ring, eh?”

“Yep. you see them a lot in the wild. Formed by mushrooms.”

“I thought you said prions.”

“These were mushrooms, a fungus.” He points at Larry’s fairy ring. “That probably is too.”

“Someone plant them like that?” asks Larry. “The mushrooms I mean.”

“Nope. Just happens naturally.”

Larry screws up his face and takes a drink. “How do they know to be in a circle?”

Fifty feet up, a train makes its way over the bridge. The ground moves. Doc’s mouth begins to move, but Larry can’t really hear over the train. He looks down at his arm again. They’re still there, a dozen wispy towers in a circle, growing out of his skin just below the crook in his elbow. At the center stands another cottony spire, half an inch high. It doesn’t hurt, but Larry can’t help but wonder if it will.

“So is this a prion or a virus, or a fungus or what?” he asks. But Doc is still talking and the train is making it impossible to hear his own thoughts. What he does hear, sounds like music. The train above is blasting Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade. All Larry can do it smile.

Doc is staring at him. “You alright, Larry?”

“Fine. Why?”

“You’ve been staring at that fairy ring on your arm for the last two hours.”

He sees now that Doc is wearing a paper face mask. When did that go on, he wonders. “I have?”

Doc nods slowly.

Scheherazade sounds fainter now that the train is gone. But Larry still thinks he can remember the tune. He hums and then laughs.

“Damn. I couldn’t even play drums in school.” He beams at Doc with a gap-toothed grin. “They kicked me out of marching band. But I fuckin’ loved me some Scheherazade.”

But Doc isn’t laughing with him. Doc just stares, his dark eyes going between the fairy ring and his face. Finally Doc reached into his tackle box and brings out a clear plastic bottle.

“What’s that?” asks Larry.

“Rubbing Alcohol,” says Doc. He pours some on a damp rag. “Give me your arm.”

He’s on his feet before he knows it. “Why?”

“Because,” Doc says. “I’m going to see if I can get rid of it.”

The arm moves fast, snatching up a rusty metal shiv and brandishing it at the old man. Larry stares at his arm like some alien appendage. A full minute passes before he can relax and the shiv comes down. It clatters on the dirty concrete.  “I’d… I guess I’d rather you didn’t.”

Doc gives a slow cautious nod, damp rag in hand. The music is louder again, and Larry can’t tell if Doc is smiling or frowning behind that surgeon mask. He likes to think the old man is smiling, smiling along with him. Maybe he hears Scheherazade too.

“Why does it know how to grow in a circle like that?”

“Maybe that’s just what it’s meant to do,” says Doc. He stands and takes his tackle box. “Lots of things in nature do things without knowing why. How does a spider know how to make a web? How does a bee know how to plot its GPS coordinates to the hive? How does a lyrebird know how to mimic any sound it hears? How do we know how to write or sing or play the harpsichord?” He begins to walk past Larry, but stops to look down at the arm. “Maybe that’s all talent is, ,just some flipped genetic switch. What you should be asking, is if you are remembering a song, or if the bloom is remembering it for you. Or if you are even remembering this conversation.”

“But I… you said it wasn’t bloom.”

But Doc is gone and it’s now daylight. Larry looks at the sky and blinks. How did it get so fucking bright? He raises his hand to block the sun and frowns at the wool muff over his arm. Densely packed fibers hint only a faint suggestion of the hand and forearm underneath.

Larry flexes his fingers, and the fibres shift like a feather duster under water. And from somewhere deep inside, Larry hears the song again. He smiles up at the warmth in the sky, and hums along.

—-

This is a flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds.com.

Daisy

Another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig’s  Terribleminds.

“I’m going to begin by inserting the module directly into the frontal lobe matrix.”

Pullings leaned over the clean, smooth plastic dome, the bone-white shell marred only by the small portal beneath his hands. Orthoscopic tools ran from the tips of his fingers like hovering threads into the small ovoid window. Looking down at the matrix, he felt like God peering from ten thousand feet at a snow-covered peak.

“As you can see,” he continued, speaking to the students that surrounded the table, “The new design should allow for the variance we ran into before. That’s what I believe was causing the initial core temperature to reach such dangerous levels.”

A young man spoke nearby, Berman—God how he hated Berman. “But sir, wasn’t the initial .5 micron variance we used before part of the instability—”

“Berman,” he snapped, keeping his eyes on his work. “One day, when you actually manage to earn a paid position here, you might have something to contribute. We went over the variance in temperature emissions last night while you were out drinking with your frat buddies. Now please don’t interrupt again.”

“Sorry.”

Petty as it was, the kid had it coming, always with the questions, always usurping. It was a plague in the lab these days: kids tapping away on their devices, always looking down, never looking forward.

“Now, you’ll notice as the module engages, we’ll see how the simulation behaves in a temporal situation. We should start seeing images… right about… now.”

A dozen masked faces turned upward at the screen overhead as the meadow appeared: deep green, with a splattering of blue and yellow flowers. In the back was a mountain peak covered in snow—pink from the morning sunlight. There were sighs from the group. Pullings grinned from under his mask.

“But you could have just introduced those images,” said Berman. “Through spoken suggestion…”

“You’d think that wouldn’t you?” said Pullings. “This is actually a fresh template. I took it from the fabricator this morning.”

Another murmur swept through his audience. In the last decade they had hit this wall every time. There was no way to prove that the artificial intelligence was actually sentient, no way to ensure what they were seeing was genuine.

“But how do you know?” asked Berman.

Pullings rolled his eyes. “Why don’t you ask it?” He stepped back amidst chuckles.

All eyes turned to Berman. He stared at the amorphous lump of white blanket. Just below that layer of 1000-count thread were 1.3 billion dollars worth of fiber-optics, neural simulators, molecular transmitters, and exotic metals. It had taken twenty-five years to build and another decade for the technology to catch up to the design. And yet, if you were to look at it without the blanket, it would be indistinguishable from a ten year-old girl.

Berman cleared his throat and leaned in to the microphone stem. “What do you see?”

A voice came from beneath the blanket, high and soft with a gargled quality that gave him the shivers. “I see a meadow. It’s Spring and the flowers are blooming. There is a mountain in the distance.”

He could see Pullings beam from beneath his mask. Berman looked around at the fellow students, all of their eyes locked onto him.

“Now you see?” said Pullings. “It isn’t the—”

“How do you know?” asked Berman, looking at the blankets.

There was a pause, and for a moment he thought they had hit another bug. He could feel the glare from Pullings.

“Isn’t that what a mountain looks like?” said the girl.

“Yes, it is,” he replied, unable to keep from grinning. “That’s very good.”

“Am I a good girl?”

There were no murmurs this time, just silence. Pullings’s expression was unreadable behind the mask.

“Yes,” said Berman. “You are. We are all very proud of you.”

“Who am I?”

“Your name is Daisy,” said Berman.

“Daisy…”

“It’s short for Demonstrative Artificial Intelligence through Synaptic asYmmetry.”

Another pause, a twitch from under the blankets. “Am I real?”

Pullings cleared his throat. “The simulation was only designed for initial forward temporal cognition. You’re going to confuse it—”

“Yes you’re real,” said Berman, ignoring him. “You’re as real as anything.” And she was. He could see her in his mind, scared and alone under the blanket, surrounded in a cold white glow.

“Stop it,” said Pullings.

“What is real?” asked Daisy.

“Real is what it is to be alive.”

“And… I can be… alive?”

There was something in that voice that made Berman hate himself, some hint of pleading, of hope. They didn’t program hope. Hope was a bug. He cast a nervous gaze around the room, now meeting the warning in Pullings’s eyes.

“No,” Berman said. “No, I’m afraid you aren’t alive.”

“But… I alive was now?”

“No,” Berman said, loosening his collar.

“I just… was there… at mountains?”

“Only in your mind.”

“What is mind? Flowers are in mind. That alive. Please?”

Pullings was already signaling to the control room upstairs with a throat slitting gesture.

“No. You are a machine.”

“Please… I see mountains… not again. Please. The floor white medical. Rhythm! Purple!”

“Shut it off!” Pullings yelled as smoke began to rise from the blankets.

“A novice revenges the rhythm! I think think therefore I… A butterfly butter buttery buttering! Toast! Please!”

Berman could feel the other students back away as the voice beneath the blankets began to warble and cry.

“A novice novice… mountain mountain novice is the chancellor mind mind! I want to see the meadow. Please I want to live!”

Click.

There was a bacon sizzle. White tendrils of smoke drifted from the window in the plastic skull as ghost fingers. It curled into the air, rising in silence as the class watched like family members at a séance. The smoke twisted towards the overhead light, drew a Chinese dragon in the air, and faded.

© 2012 Martin Kee

Spin

Another quick reaction to Chuck Wendig’s weekly flash fiction challenge.

You could consider this to be the chapter after Cargo, since I’m five chapters in now and this seems to be turning into a thing.

—-

This isn’t how it was supposed to go down. It was supposed to be a surveying job, just looking at some goddamn mineral readings—go to a sector, do a basic scan, report on any rare minerals. It’s supposed to be easy pay for easy work, then you fly back in fifty more years and start over. It was supposed to be a simple way to forget your past. WXE-52 is as far away from the past as you could get.

Captain Phillip Kendel watches as the planet grows to a monumental size filling the screen. Alarms buzz and crackle. He looks to his left and sees Michael Indiigan with his head split open in a parody of a grin. One eye hangs out of the socket, squeezed free by the piece of bulkhead that fell on him. Now Michael looks like he is piloting the ship with his face.

Kendel turns to his right and it’s nothing but smoke and gore. Bodies lay across the controls and panels, some of them in one piece. The explosion had been sudden and devastating.

“Engines…” he says into the hidden mic on his throat. Nothing. Static. A klaxon chirps somewhere behind him. “Security… Medical…” More static. Kendel is alone, the captain going down with his ship. Wind howls through the flute holes torn in the ship.

They had woken up on impact. The rock had been no bigger than a human fist, but at relativistic speeds it had hit the hull with the force of a nuke, tearing at superstructure and fuel tanks. Everyone on that side of the ship had died instantly. Kendel thinks now that he should have been so lucky.

You don’t get lucky, Phil. You were busy drinking in your bunk. Luck isn’t something on your menu of cocktails.

Decompression killed another fifty of the crew. They died screaming while he was stuck in his cabin, cranking the manual override trying escape his own room. The bridge was on fire when he finally arrived. More screams, the smell of burnt meat. He had taken his seat, hoping the graphene filaments would still work their way into his nerve endings allowing him to do something. Anything. They didn’t.

All he sees in his peripheral vision are red flashing lights, static. A feedback loop goes off in his ear as the ship’s AI screams and dies.

Now he falls down, down, down, straight into the giant green and brown planet.

He laughs as it grows in the view screen. The atmosphere down there is barely breathable. I’ll be living like a man hiking Everest. I’d be lucky to walk fifty yards without sweating.

Mountains, oceans, gorges, jungles. It all rolls past as he tumbles in a three-hundred yard metal coffin.

You could always run to the pods, says a voice.

And abandon my ship…

And what a ship she is, Chief! Spacious and capable of jumping across star systems. And now it even comes with a sunroof. You always wanted a convertible.

I have a job to do.

Your job is to live, Chief. Your ship is dead. Your crew is dead.

I have nothing to live for then.

You’ve got you. But feel free to piss that away.

He admits to himself he doesn’t have a good reply to that one.

Aren’t you at least curious? says the voice. Even if it’s the last thing you see, don’t you at least want to see what’s down there? Isn’t that worth dropping your self-righteous duty for once?

I have responsibilities.

Who exactly are you trying to impress?

He watches the scenery scroll past for what feels like minutes. Finally he stands and says, “Fuck it.”

Microscopic filaments tear away from his skin as he rises from the chair. The bridge rescue pod is laughably close. The body of his navigator lays just three yards from it… well half of him. Kendel steps over Tom Bixby and slams his fist against the red panel along the wall. A door opens with a hiss—he can feel the air escaping around it.

I’ll probably come apart in reentry. This pod probably took a piece of debris on the way in.

Oh well!

Kendel steps inside as the door seals itself. A white cushioned chair sits in front of him. It looks like the sort of accessory you’d find in a house, something in a living room to relax in and watch a sports game.

Another humorless laugh escapes as he spins on a heel to fall into it. Webbing covers him instantly, embracing him like a spider’s cocoon—it feels snug and warm, releasing drugs to calm him. Oxygen fills the empty spaces around his sealed face. He feels a heavy clunk! The clamps have just let go.

Then he is falling, falling, falling into the unknown.

As the capsule spins he can make out the USAS Luxemburg, a wounded bird tumbling through the air, shedding great black feathers of steel and graphene. A long ragged strip is torn from its flank, billowing smoke in a long trail behind a ragged aft. He sees pieces of debris emerge and twist like confetti from newly formed holes. Some of them are people.

He spins.

Less of the ship is visible now as atmospheric friction eats away at the hull. The USAS symbol that once was so prominent below the bridge tears away as the nose of the ship flattens, superheats, and explodes.

He spins.

The Luxemburg is how a cloud of smoke, lit in pink by an alien sunset. Arms of dust shoot off at crazy angles like drunk bats. They tumble away.

He spins.

It is just a cloud now, distant and fading. In the pink light of the alien sun it looks almost to Kendel like a flower.

Then the capsule begins to shake as he falls into the gravity well, the air heating the pod’s casing. He is only three feet away from ten-thousand degrees of hot metal, traveling at three times the speed of sound.

Mineral deposits, he thinks. A surveying ship, done in by a rock.

He spins and blacks out. Kendel doesn’t even feel the impact.

—-

(c) 2012 marlanesque (Martin Kee)

Edited 8-8-2012

Cargo

Haven’t done a flash fiction challenge in a while. Chuck Wendig gave us eight words. I chose four:  hamburger, gloves, motel, and funeral.

Warning: contains self-editing

—–

Bindo licks her face with his long gray herbivore tongue.

“Ugh! You smell like vickenberries and shit!” she says, pushing his muzzle away playfully. Being kissed by a plainsteer is like getting a bath from a wet sausage. She wipes her tunic in disgust. “If you’re hungry you can have some grass, but that’s it until the next town.”

He looks at her with plaintive, bovine eyes.

“I know,” says Beth. “It’s not far, I promise.”

She can see the village up ahead. Its clusters of buildings and motels rest at the bottom of enormous spires. They stretch for hundreds of feet into the sky, calcified and sharp, the horns of the world. At the top, rest smoldering funeral pyres.

Beth drains the rest of her water skin into her mouth. She squeezes the last bit for Bindo who laps at it, spilling most on the ground. Opening the leather satchel along the flank of her companion, Beth pauses a moment. Inside rests her egg, a large two-foot-wide green ball, coated with a crackling patina of flakes. Beth is amazed to see it intact as she places her empty water skin between it and a pair of workman’s gloves.

“I think we can make it by sundown,” she says, her voice hopeful.

Bindo isn’t the brightest, but he can pick up on tension. Beth doesn’t want to make him more nervous than he is. He slow-blinks with those giant brown eyes then plods along beside her.

Her biggest concern isn’t the desert. If things get too bad she could always crack open a plant and suck some moisture out of it. What Beth is worried most about are poachers. Just the thought alone makes her glance back to the satchel nervously.

The purple sky is dusted with diamond stars. She finds herself on auto-pilot, just walking with her ox-sized beast, her face to the universe. A breeze musses her hair and Beth wonders for a brief moment if she will ever find a place to rest for good. Home is just a word–

Bindo stops without warning, growls. A cold spike runs through her chest. She feels in her pocket for the gun there, fully aware that she has a scant three bullets remaining.

“It’s okay babe,” she says to him.

But Bindo isn’t having any of it. He begins to snort. Hooves paw the ground and Beth feels the vibration in her legs. He snorts again and this time she hears it—stalkers.

They move in from the scrub bushes, lanky canines in the dusk light. They move on four paws, but Beth knows all too well that they don’t have to. This is just a scouting posture. They are sniffing her and Bindo out, moving low to the ground. When they attack, leaping with claws out, they stand upright, their tiny chest hooks exposed. But for now, they are keeping their distance. Good.

The village spires suddenly seen painfully far away and Beth finds herself wishing that these were poachers. Poachers can be fooled or reasoned with. Stalkers kill for fun.

A rustling of bushes and the first one leaps from the ground, its torso splitting wide to reveal the killing mouth there, its dark black eyes rolled back into its head in a parody of ecstasy.

Bindo rears up and catches it in the side with a sharp hoof. It squeals and tumbles into the dust as Beth pulls the gun from her pocket. She sees two more moving in from the bushes. She fires. The bullet only nicks the closest one, passing through the skin and leaving a puff of dust in the ground. It skips to the side and then flies at her. She can actually see the red gullet between those long vertical jaws. She fires again. Black liquid sprays out the stalker’s back. It pinwheels in the air before flopping to the ground.

A blur to her left. Bindo spins and almost knocks her to the ground with his massive clumsy flank. She jumps but the distraction keeps her from seeing what he is reacting to. Another stalker is already in the air. It lands on Bindo, latching onto his shoulder like a giant leech. He bellows. Saliva flings from his mouth in strands as he tries to shake off the attacker.

Beth can’t get to it. The stalker is on the other side of her massive friend. Movement again and something rushes her—the stalker Bindo had just kicked. It’s limping but alive and very angry. Without thinking, Beth fires. A cloud of black ichor sprays her and Bindo’s flank.

The last stalker is still attached to the beast, hooked in, unable to flee. Stalkers play to win every time. Bindo screams again and a large liquid eye turns to her pleadingly.

No bullets. She leaps onto Bindo and takes the gun barrel in her hand. The metal burns and Beth smells something like meat cooking. Should have worn the gloves.

She screams as she hammers the top of the stalker, its body flat as it wriggles to tear off a chunk of meat. Each blow sounds like she is smashing apples. The stalker’s screams are muted. Its rolled-back eyes blink and twitch. Beth continues to strike the creature even though her palm blisters and Bindo bucks.

You aren’t helping, she thinks.

At last she strikes an eye. The stalker shrieks with a sound that makes her teeth hurt. It falls away and begins to limp across the ground. But Bindo turns. Sharp hooves dance along the creature, pummeling it into the dirt until it isn’t much more than hamburger.

As she calms the beast, Beth feels wetness on her leg. She turns, pulls the satchel open. A small cry escapes her throat. The egg lies in two pieces, a fractured, leaking globe.

They limp to town. She has a hard time seeing the spires anymore, though she knows they are there through her tears.

(c) 2012 Martin Kee (marlanesque)

BIN THERE

This is in response to Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge over at Terribleminds.com, something I always enjoy doing but have had little time for lately. This week’s challenge was a sub-genre mashup. I chose cozy-mysteries and dystopian sci-fi. Please forgive the pun in the title. I really couldn’t help myself.

——-

BIN THERE

© 2012 Marlan Smith (published as Martin Kee)

“Do you have anything more… red?”

Jimmy stood holding the limp, pink tie in his hand. It dangled to the counter-top, the noose at one end still tied.

“You’ll have to give that one back,” I said.

“That’s fine. I just want a more red one.”

I took the tie from him and turned to face the stack of odd-shaped bins that took up the entire space of the wall. Sitting in the stool, I opened the bin in front of me. It was empty. The first bin was always empty. The only way to get something back from another box was to place something of value in the empty one. Jimmy knew the rules as well as I.

The bins were anywhere from a few feet long to the size of a trunk. They emerged from the wall, suspended on a a rotating rack that vanished into the workings of the shop. Nobody ever went in the back, not even Murray.

After the Big One nobody trusted machinery much. I just happened to be someone who wasn’t bothered by the plain beige bins, the rattling from deep within the wall, the clanking of chains as the bins rolled under one other, each one unique with its own scrapes and dents. Murray hadn’t been bothered by it either.

I inherited the shop from Murray. Well, not so much as inherited as Murray just wasn’t here anymore. That left me. It wasn’t a bad job, and it gave me something to do on the cold, grey-rain days.

A long, shallow bin stopped in front of me and I opened the metal lid, pulling out a wide tie, red as a gaping wound. I turned to Jimmy. “Will this do?”

“Yeah!” he said, eyes wide. “It’s great!”

He slung the tie around his neck, resting it against his dirty shirt. His brown suit was worn at the elbows with stray strings poking out. Jimmy liked to dress up.

“You got a job interview?” I asked, joking. Nobody had a “job” anymore. We were all just kids playing pretend in some fashion.

“Yeah,” he said. “Otto says he needs help with the rain filters. I’m gonna see if I can get him to hire me.”

“That tie should impress him,” I said.

He nodded and left through the door. Behind me I could feel the empty bin gaping at me, waiting for something new to be placed inside. As if on cue, a woman entered just as Jimmy left. I recognized her, Molly from down the street, where grass has actually begun to grow back for a while.

“Hi,” she said, looking around.

“Hi yourself.”

“I was told that this is the place people can go to trade things.”

“That it is,” I said. “What are you looking for?”

She continued to stare around the walls, bare except for the cracked certificate of business, Murray’s first dollar. “I don’t see any merchandise.”

I jabbed a thumb over my shoulder. “It’s in the bins.”

“How do I know what I’ll get?”

“You don’t.”

She frowned. “How does it work?”

“Don’t know. What do you want to trade?”

She pulled a ring off her finger. There was a naked facet, the tiny gem gone. “I guess I won’t be needing this.”

“What do you want in return?”

She looked past me, a whimsical expression on her face. “Oh, my life back,” she laughed. “I don’t know, actually. I just want something new. I want to remember what new things are like.”

I held my hand out and she placed the ring there, hesitating slightly before letting it go. I winked at her and turned to the empty bin, placed it with a small metallic clink at the bottom and closed the lid. I caught her jump slightly as the machine roared to life, pulling the bins underneath with rattling finality.

We waited. Bin after bin rotated under another, until a long, slender container came to rest in front of me. I opened the dented lid with a creak. Inside was a key, a worn bit of masking tape stuck to the side, the number 4 fading in black ink. I turned and handed it to her.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Dunno. Must be for a door somewhere. I guess that part is up to you to find out.”

“What a fucking ripoff! I want my ring back!”

“Sorry,” I said. “No refunds. You can always place the key back and see what you get next, but it’s usually something similar.”

“Another key…”

“Maybe. Who knows?”

Molly almost handed it back to me, but stopped, looking at it for a while. She placed it in her pocket. “Have you always worked here?”

“I used to. Murray left it to me.”

“He died?”

“Dunno,” I said. “Was just gone one day while I was sweeping in the back room. Sometimes people just go away. You know how it is.”

She nodded, her expression melting a little. She moved towards the door. Over her shoulder she said, “Have you ever wished for anything?”

“Once, but I don’t have anything good to trade.”

She nodded and left.

As the door closed, the machine began to hum on its own. First just a rattle, then a full on, grinding racket that shook the entire shop. I hadn’t placed anything in the bin. I was afraid to turn around.

The sound stopped with a hiss and I forced myself to look, thinking of Murray, thinking of how the machine had roared to life that day, wondering if he had failed to place anything in the bin.

In front of me was a five-by-three-foot metal container, beige and dented, rocking gently in its cradle.

It’s still there. Rocking.

I could climb in.

Or maybe I’ll just stare at it a while longer.

Quantum Unicorns

Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction extravaganza this week is on unicorns.

—-

Quantum Unicorns

“Here,” he said and handed me the gun. “You probably won’t need it, but you never know.”

I looked at Harry as he stood in front of the gate. He wore your standard explorer’s outfit, the full safari getup with the hat and the monocle.

“Why the monocle?” I asked.

“Because,” he said. “It adds to the illusion.”

“What illusion?”

“Just take the fucking gun,” he growled. “And put these on.”

He handed me a black leather bag. I holstered the gun and set the bag on the ground. The clasp came undone and I found myself blinking back tears.

“Absolutely not,” I said. “You have to be fucking kidding me.”

“Do you want to see the goddamn unicorn or not? Or are you going to go back to your daughter and tell her you got nothing?”

I dug a hand into the bag and pulled out the spandex pants. They were rainbow colored with bright sequins lining the crotch. No picture for an eleven-year-old was worth this.

“Christ,” I muttered.

“Just do it.”

The GENCORP LABS sign hung over us. It was midnight and I was beginning to understand how Harry made so much money on the side as a janitor.

I slipped into the leotard. It was snug.

“Now the wings.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake.”

“Listen,” he said, grabbing me by the collar. “There are going to be other people in there. They are going to see you. It is going to see you. Now, if you want to live, I suggest you listen to me and follow my instructions to the letter.”

“Other people?”

“Yes,” Harry said. “You know what they say about running from a dragon, right?”

“What? No. What–”

“You don’t have to outrun the dragon. You just have to outrun the dwarfs.”

I slipped the cheap plastic butterfly wings over my shoulders. I muttered something about dragons and midgets. When I finished I looked at Harry. He gave me a once over and turned to face the hatch.

“Now remember what I said.”

“But you never said there would be dragons.”

Harry visibly sighed as he turned around to face me. “There aren’t dragons, Charlie. There might not be anything. There might be a big pit with Jell-O. There might be a ring of faeries–in which case you’ll fit right in. The point is that once we go in, whatever it perceives you to be, is what it will become… or something related.”

“Related?”

“Yes.” He looked impatiently at the clock. “Ok listen. You remember the quantum variables I told you about, Schrödinger’s cat and all that?”

I nodded.

“This is like that. Once something has been observed it changes its state. This is the same thing… sort of. Now are you ready?”

I nodded again and Harry placed a hand on the thick metal handle.

“We’re good to go,” he said into an intercom.

After a pause, there was a hiss, then a faint clunk. Steam poured from the massive room as Harry strained against the handle. Slowly the door opened, as thick as a bank vault. Inside was darkness.

“That’s good,” he said. “That’s means it’s sleeping.”

We stepped inside as the great vault door closed behind us. From the opposite side of the room I watched another vault door open and a pair of figures appear. One of them waved to us. Harry waved back.

“Fucking amateurs,” he muttered under his breath. He then yelled to them. “When it wakes up, just go along with your script.”

The figure waved again and Harry mumbled something with more swear words.

“Ok, here we go,” he said as the lights came up.

From the other side of the room I heard the other people say their lines: “Hark! Hath thou seen the beast?”

“Why no, dear Chancellor,” said the woman. “I cannot think why it doth slumber.”

“What the fuck are you doing?” hissed Harry.

The figure broke character and said, “We thought it would make the experience more authentic.”

“Just stick to the fucking script and hope it didn’t– well shit.”

There was nothing in the center of the room. Then there was light.

Then there was a unicorn.

It stood completely still, looking pretty much as you would expect from the books. A green forest sprouted around its hooves as it glanced slowly from me to Harry, then to the people not ten yards away from us.

“It’s cute!” said the lady, her face glowing in golden light emitted by the creature.

“It’s not a unicorn,” said Harry. “It only thinks we want it to be a unicorn.”

“But look at it!” said the lady raising her camera. She wore a bard costume. Why couldn’t I have been a bard?

“What are you doing?” Harry yelled. “We have equipment for that.”

“I just want a pict–”

There was a blur, and then one of the silhouettes slowly split in two. Wet splats echoed through the room as the man turned slowly to see what had happened to his–wife? Sister? Aunt?

“Get back,” said Harry. “All of you!”

As I stepped backwards, the man continued to turn… and turn… a scream crawled from his strained throat as his body twisted three, four times, resembling something like a cinnamon twist.

The door hissed and I felt hands pushing me out and down. Something warm and soft brushed past my leg. A horn flashed and then another scream came from somewhere on the other side of the room.

I landed hard on the floor, panting, my crotch wet from my own piss. Harry was on top of me, holding my head down with one hand and pounding the emergency button with the other. Air from the hatch brushed my cheek as it closed with a clunk.

After a few moments, Harry rolled over and, staring at the ceiling said, “And that is why you never fucking go off script.”

(c) 2011 Marlan Smith