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:


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.


Thump! Thumpity-Thump!



“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.


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.


“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.







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


© 2013 Martin Kee


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.


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…


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.


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…


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…


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…


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.


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.


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.


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.

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?”


“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.”


“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

Christmas in July

Now that I have finished a draft on the novel, I decided to stretch my brain a little and contribute to another of Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction challenges at Terrible Minds.  The picture below was to be used as our prompt.


Christmas in July

It had to have been the mask, Murielle was fairly certain at this point. The way it snapped over her eyes, like a peacock had sat on her face, feathers everywhere, tickling her nose and lip. She hated it.

“Just wear it until we’re inside, then you can take it off. If you wanted the fencing mask you should have said something,” said Jane. “It isn’t like I didn’t give you a choice.”

“I know,” said Murielle. “It’s just… Does it have to be so itchy?”

“Once we’re inside you’ll never even notice.”

Murielle sighed as her sister led her by the hand, through the curtain in the back of the store.

THE TIME TUNNEL was a run-of-the-mill costume warehouse, full of clown suits and rubber masks, some stupid hipster hangout Jane had been going on and on about. Murielle had come here simply to humor her.

It was oppressively dark in back. Murielle froze for a second. She could feel Jane turn.

“You ok?”

“No,” said Murielle. “How much further?”

“Just a while longer,” said Jane. “I’m telling you, there’s nothing like this.”

“And you do this for fun?”

Jane only laughed, a high willowy laugh that normally would have made Murielle feel right at home; this time it set her teeth on edge. It explained why she hadn’t heard from Jane in five years. Amazing she hadn’t been abducted. Idiot.

“Almost there,” said Jane.

“And what then?”

“Then, you just relax. And watch.”

“Are there chairs?”

“We’ll stand,” she felt Jane tugging urgently on her hand. “Once the lights come on we won’t have a choice.”

Old mannequins popped out of the shadows, white as ghosts, startling her as they rushed past. Feather boas brushed her face and fluttered like escaped birds. No, Murielle did not care for this at all.

Of course Jane was always the black sheep, the one coloring outside the lines. When Murielle went to college, Jane ran away from home and lived for a week on a train. When Murielle got her job at the law firm, Jane was finger-painting in a studio “Like a goddamn five-year-old,” Murielle had complained to their parents once.

“You and your sister are two sides of the same coin,” her mother had said. “You just can’t see it yet.”

And she still didn’t. All this running and tripping. It was a good way to twist an ankle or scrape a knee. She bumped into something small and soft and realized it was Jane.

“We’re here,” she said.

“Now what?”

“Pick a pose,” said Jane.

“A pose?”


“I don’t want to pose. I want to sit down and have a goddamn drink.”

“Look,” said Jane. “Remember that time we went on the Gee-Force?”

“At the fair?”


“Yeah, I hated it.”

Her sister only laughed. “Well it’s a lot like that.”

“Great,” said Murielle, panic rising in her voice. “Don’t they provide seat-belts? A safety bar. This place is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

“Shh,” said Jane. “It’s starting.”

“What is–”

A light, much brighter than she expected, came on and lit the room like a sun. Murielle felt her body stiffen, her heart sank. Her feet seemed to stick to the floor. She tried to open her mouth to scream, run, anything, but nothing worked anymore.

I’m dying, she thought. My brat sister has gotten us killed!

But after the sensation faded–or maybe she had just gotten used to it–Murielle noticed other people, a dozen or so, all frozen, mannequins.

Oh God, she thought. Is that me? Am I stuck in that awful 80’s movie? I am going to fucking kill my sister when this is over.

In front of her was a huge window looking out onto the corner of 5th and Market. People walked along the sidewalk, parents holding their children’s gloved hands as the first flakes of snow fell.

Snow, she thought. In July?

A man sat there on the corner, a cup in one hand and a sign: ANY HELP GOD BLESS. People ignored him as they walked past, the snow piling on his shoulders. He stayed there, cup held out, not a dime falling into it.

An hour went by, then another. Murielle felt no discomfort despite the prison her body had become. It forced her to notice little details in the man’s beard, his tattered clothes, the way he nodded and said “Merry Christmas” behind the muting glass.

More hours passed and the man sat, collecting nothing, shivering in the cold. Wasn’t anyone going to help him? Jesus. A fucking quarter. Get that man a cup of coffee. Something.

And still he waited. He waited until the sun came up and the snow had turned to dense slush on his back. They watched as his shivering ended and he turned to a frozen statue on the pavement.

Then the curtain came down, the lights went off and Jane led her through the darkness again. “What did you think?”

“Isn’t someone going to help him?” she said as they stumbled back to the entrance. “Isn’t someone going to call an ambulance?”

“Using what?”

“A cellphone, for fuck’s sake!”

“Did you see anyone on a cell phone, Sis?”

Murielle froze momentarily in her frustration and confusion. They stepped out into the warehouse where other people removed their costumes in silence. She blinked away tears at her sister.

“You sure didn’t pay very close attention, did you?” said Jane.

“What?” said Murielle. “What did I miss?”

“You didn’t see the newspaper?”

“What newspaper?”

“Or look at the cars?”


Then Murielle remembered what she didn’t see. Not a single Prius, or Civic, just huge, old metal things with massive chrome bumpers and ornaments. The coats the children wore, like something from an old 1960’s cop show. The concept of cellphones suddenly seemed ludicrous.

She looked at Jane, who smiled back at her from under the letters of the store sign.

“Do you see it now?”

(c) 2011 Marlan Smith

Suffer The Little Foxes

This flash fiction challenge comes from The Heavy Dark universe, inspired by a random word from the Bibliomania website. It is brought to you by the letter “S” and the words “Scarlet Coat” which was what I ended up settling on. You can see the entire Flash Fiction Friday prompt here if you wish.

Suffer The Little Foxes

He wore a scarlet coat, a gold chain attached at the belt. From the chain dangled a shiny brass whistle. Edgar stepped out in front of the full length mirror and gave a half turn, studying the cut of the material.

“You look splendid, Daddy,” said Victoria from the other room.

She was smiling for a change, her capped tooth covering the hole left by a schoolyard fight. Her long blond hair flowed down along her shoulders and along the lace of her dress. Her eyes studied him with a look that Edgar had at once thought was admiration. Now, he thought it seemed  cooler, more calculating somehow.

“Thank you my love,” he said to his daughter. “I think this will go nicely on the hunt next weekend, don’t you?”

“Oh, yes,” said Victoria. “I think it should suit you quite well. Will you be taking the horses? I do so love them.”

Edgar turned the other way, looking his reflection up and down. “Yes. Yes I think we will. Cars being such noisy things as they are.” He paused, then looked back at Victoria. “Speaking of which, have you seen my repair pliers? I seem to have misplaced them.”

Victoria blinked. “Why no, I haven’t Father. What would I possibly do with something like those?”

No,” he said, dismissing the thought. “I guess you’re right.”

But he did see her in the repair shop that one night. Or at least, he had thought it was Victoria. Edgar had been sleeping and there was a noise, like a hammer hitting the floor. A door closed and small footsteps slipped up the soft carpet steps right into Victoria’s room.

It might have been that Barkley girl, Dona. She had been staying over a lot lately, or maybe Harold and Francine’s girl, Melissa. He couldn’t keep all of his daughter’s friends’ names straight anyway: Melissa, Dona, Beth… His house felt more like a sorority than a mansion until just a few days ago when Melissa had stopped coming around.

Frankly, he had felt terrible at hearing of Melissa’s disappearance. He felt almost guilty at being able to relax for a change. Was it so bad that he could finally read in peace without a bunch of squealing, chattering girls?

Whoever it had been, they had gone back quickly into Victoria’s bedroom and closed the door very carefully. Then there was the unmistakable sound of giggling. Of course it had been Victoria. She was the only one who knew where the tools were, but why would she lie?

“Your smile looks lovely, Sweetheart,” he said, waltzing over to give her a hug and a kiss. “You can’t even tell it isn’t your tooth, can you? Does it hurt?”

“Only when I chew ice,” said Victoria. “And sometimes it twinges when I drink tea.”

Yes, he thought. Tea would do that. Only Victoria didn’t like tea. She had told him before. In fact, ever since she had lost that tooth to the little wench’s fist at school, Victoria had been acting strangely secretive.

And then, all at once, she seemed fine. Apparently she had been doing some important errands for the archbishop, a notable boost to Edgar’s family status. He had seen her in a flurry of activity one week, in and out of the house, delivering notes. She seemed… happy?

No.  “Happy” wasn’t the word. Focused. And content, as though she had finally made up her mind about something.

He had been planning to use carved ivory to replace her tooth. He had all the tools he needed to carve out a replacement for his daughter. The discoloration would be hardly noticeable. He fumed every time he thought about his poor daughter being hit—hit! By another girl! What was the world coming to?

But one day Victoria simply showed up with a tooth. Strange, that was, thought Edgar. Where did his daughter get a tooth?

When he asked, Vicky said that it was a replacement. It was special, blessed even by the archbishop himself. “It would be so much nicer than a fake tooth don’t you think?”

He looked at it, small and white in his palm, then at her. She had smiled back, not displaying her teeth or that terrible gap.

“A gift,” he said. “From the archbishop…”

She had nodded. “He said that it was special and because I helped the Church so much lately, it was mine. He said that he was sorry to hear about the fight and that I won’t have to worry about being assaulted anymore at school.”

And she hadn’t. In fact, the girl who had assaulted her had all but vanished, her home burned, her mother gone. Her friend, Melissa, also gone. He had to admit that it certainly seemed suspicious.

Small as her teeth were, Vicky did have a complete smile again finally. You couldn’t even see the metal brace that held the tooth in place. It was his finest work, for sure.

“When can I go hunting with you, Daddy?” she asked, bouncing slightly. She twirled a lock of flaxen hair on one finger.

“Oh,” he said, suddenly remembering where he was, how he was dressed. “It’s not really a girls place to be hunting animals. You might miss, after all. Or even worse, you could hit the fox all wrong. You wouldn’t want it to suffer would you?”

Something darker than disappointment passed over his daughter’s face and Edgar felt a small tickle in the back of his neck.

“No, Daddy,” she said turning away. “We certainly wouldn’t want them to suffer.”

© 2011 Marlan Smith

The Mad Cow Special

Another week, another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig. This time word count was set below 500 and had to revolve around a cocktail.


The Mad Cow Special

Rob ran into the bar and slammed the black leather bag down on the counter.

“Done! Gimme!” His eyes were wide with fear.

Hal looked at him, then down to the bag. He casually emptied his drink between thin lips and then smiled. “You know the arrangement. Not until I count the money.”

“Come on, Hal. This isn’t funny anymore,” Rob was trembling, a silent countdown running through his head. “I did everything you asked.”

“Oh, I agree,” said Hal. “Next time though, maybe you’ll think twice before claiming such an extravagant loan, eh?”

He looked at Rob from down his long, thin nose. He thought for a moment then presented the liquid-filled, synthetic diamond glass, which Rob snatched away from him.

It was a yellow mixture, on the rocks, and slightly cloudy from the millions of nanomachines that swarmed inside the liquid. Each tiny device, no larger than a single cell was a hunter-killer drone designed to track down and destroy the same number of microscopic robots currently swimming through Rob’s bloodstream. Only Hal knew the exact number.

Rob lifted the glass, but Hal gripped his arm abruptly. A shrill little whine escaped Rob’s lips as he thought he might spill the drink. Even one drop lost could mean thousands of artificial prions roaming unchecked through his brain. He estimated roughly a half hour before they began burrowing like tiny drills through his soft gray matter.

“It had better all be here,” said Hal, his cold eyes level on Rob’s. “Maybe next time you’ll toast a business deal a little more carefully, eh?”

He laughed and  released Rob’s arm. The glass trembled. Rob gripped it in both hands, carefully lifting it to his lips. The cocktail slid frictionless over the nano-tempered glass, specially engineered to allow every molecule to pass over its surface unscathed. Not a single drop was wasted.

Rob swallowed greedily, slammed the glass down and ran a hand through his spiky hair, crunching the ice in his teeth. He swallowed and let out a long, lip-pursed breath, a silent “whooooo!”

Hal opened the bag, blinked. “I think we have a problem here, Rob. You’re short.”

“I think you have bigger problems than that,” said Rob, now smiling. “About how much Mad Cow Special would you say someone could purchase with all that money?”

Hal scowled back at him, knuckles white on the handles. Then suddenly his expression softened. His eyes went wide, then glassy. Hal blinked. Looked up at the bartender. The tall man winked back. As Hal’s hand began to tremble, Rob stretched lithely along the bar.

“It can buy quite a bit,” Rob said. “And with money left over to bribe the barkeep.”

A tick formed along one side of Hal’s face as Rob stood up, adjusted his collar and took a second bag, handed to him by the bartender. He then bounced out the door as Hal slumped in his stool, staring at nothing.

The Dead Do Not Close Their Eyes

Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Extravaganza gave us an assortment of 60 photographs to choose from as a prompt this time. The catch? Almost every one of them was practically unusable. I went with number 40. I’ll let you decide whether you want to view the photo first or read the story instead.

The Dead Do Not Close Their Eyes

We need to be reminded of this fact now and then.

I had been running hard and not the good kind of running. My running for pleasure days were over about two weeks ago. This was the scared-out-of-your-mind, not-stopping-even-though-your-side-hurts kind of running. It was the sort of running you do where you can’t feel your feet or your tongue because your mouth is so dry; the adrenaline makes everything seem distant, dreamlike.

My Uncle Chaz worked in a funeral home. He called me Charlie because even though I was named after him, he never felt comfortable calling me by his nickname.

“You see Charlie,” he’d say to me. “Most of the time when people die they’re looking at something. Nobody knows quite what it is they see. But they die that way and their eyes stay open. Even if you try and close them afterwards, the gasses that build up inside the body force them open.”

I saw my first dead body when I was ten. My parents had decided it was safe for me to go visit Uncle Chaz down at the funeral home. The body was pale and Chaz had to put makeup on her just to make her look like something other than a statue before he brought out the needle and thread.

“We go in from underneath the eyelid,” he’d say. “Some of the parlors like to use glue. That’s fine I say, but I’d hate to be at the funeral on the day the glue doesn’t set well, or chemicals in the tear ducts make it come undone. Don’t want Aunt Mabel winkin’ at ya.”

And then he’d wink at me. And I would laugh. It was funny at the time, hilarious in fact.

I spent a lot of summers at Uncle Chaz’s funeral home. When I joined the track team I even made it my daily route to swing by and see what body he was preparing, what new insights he might have on the world of the dead.

These days I’m sure he knows plenty.

Running gives you quite the endorphin rush. It’s actually a defense mechanism, something our bodies do for us when we are fleeing a predator, making the fear and strain on the body feel almost euphoric.

I had been running that night, but not for fun. Did I already mentioned that?

You see, I live down the left side of Eldridge street. It sits just north of the hospital. Now, you would think that the best part of living near a hospital would be the easy access to medical attention when epidemics break out. Not so much.

Contagions can spread rapidly in hospitals. They can mutate. Sometimes unexpected medical outcomes can occur. Sometimes people can become hungry, very hungry. Sometimes that hunger can spread rapidly through an entire ward, a hospital, out into the streets.

The hungry were chasing me that night. I had been an idiot and locked myself out of the house. We had one of those push button locks on the handle and I had accidentally pressed it when I closed the door to go out scavenging. It never takes the hungry long to find you, especially at night when the sun isn’t out to hurt their sensitive glassy eyes.

Maddie lived just one house down. After the outbreak we had communicated back and forth on the phone, then on the internet. After the power went out it was all flashlights and morse code. Sometimes she would hold up a note on the second floor window written in thick black marker, easy to read over the dangers in the yard below. I had invited her to stay with me at one point, but she always seemed to prefer her own home.

“BRB GETTING LAUNDRY. WORST BIRTHDAY EVER. LOL,” had been the last thing she wrote. Laundry was code for “checking the basement for hungry strangers.”

Now her house was dark. I ran to it anyway.

Something rushed at me from the bushes, and I nearly tripped. Fortunately, the hungry aren’t all that coordinated. They can’t climb or handle complex mechanisms. I heard something on the final news broadcasts about an advanced metabolism, the body sacrificing intelligence for sheer stamina.

The door was, of course, boarded from the inside. Anyone living still knew to do this. I climbed the trellis outside her window and crawled onto the floor in a heap, heaving, and panting.

“Maddie?” I called. No answer.

I carried a pistol with me, the last thing my dad ever left me worth anything in this brave new world. I hefted it. Cocked it.

“Maddie.” Still no answer.

Now, the hungry are pretty sensitive to sound, so I figured that if they had eaten her and if they were in the house I would have already met them. Instead, the only sounds were my feet on carpet.

Something like 30% of all accidental deaths occur in the home. A lot of those are due to things like electrocution or fire. Loose water kills more people than you can imagine. All it takes is a slip on tile, hit your head the wrong way and you’re done.

It was a long night before the sun came up. The walk downstairs to the basement filled me with a strange sort of longing. I guess human contact was more appealing to me than I cared to admit to myself.

I had gotten used to the sounds of the hungry outside, the scratching and groaning. Silence and stillness felt strange. That’s probably why I cried when I saw her there on the floor. The pink birthday balloon was what really got me. I had completely forgotten how the dead never close their eyes.

(c)   2011 Martin Kee

The Tragic and Untimely Demise of Uncle Ilbert

Chuck Wendig at TerribleMinds gave us another challenge. This time with the picture below as our prompt. The picture is Chuck’s not mine.



The Tragic and Untimely Demise of Uncle Ilbert

Uncle Ilbert Notwithstanding was always my favorite of twelve uncles. An explorer, con-man, literary agent and hunter, Uncle Ilbert was somewhat of a black sheep in the Notwithstanding household, a title which took a considerable amount of effort on his part.

The majority of my uncles were scallywags to some degree, each of them doing his best to try and one-up the next. Uncle Ilbert was the oldest, and thus, the most ambitious to try and make a name for himself. He wanted to leave a mark on the world. I would say he succeeded.

When he announced that he would set out to discover the largest library ever known, none of us were surprised. Hyperbole was practically a genetic trait in in the Notwithstanding family. Being somewhat short of stature even by most standards, exaggerated stories were what we used to draw attention away from our shortcomings–a pun that often resulted in some form of disciplinary action when used by the youngest of my brothers and sisters.

The library was a great distance away and not exactly a place we normally even think about going. No one in their right mind would have made even a claim to visit such a dungeon, much less risk being caught by the monsters who dwell there.

Perhaps the whisperings of Uncle Ilbert’s insanity were more than just hearsay. I would like to think that they were only rumors and nothing more. To think that he would have risked (and lost) his life over a mental illness is just too much for me to bear. I rather like to believe that it was pure chutzpah that made him do what he did.

He had convinced his youngest brother Jacob to go with him on the expedition, something that my father never lets me forget. I understand that he and Jacob were close. The library was only accessible through a small opening on the rear wall, a tight squeeze for most, but the Notwithstandings are a resourceful folk.

“There ain’t never been a space too tight fer me to fit in, lad,” he told me once, pulling off my hat and mussing my hair. “The world’s a big scary place. Ye gotta use ever’thing in yer arsenal.”

The story I always tell my children about their Great Uncle Ilbert is one of heroism. If it is ever brought into question, a quick trip to view his hunting trophies is usually enough to silence them.

Once inside the library, he was confronted by a dog so large it nearly towered over him. It was like staring at the middle head of Cerberus, all snarling teeth and slobbering drool. The beast’s breath was foul and in the middle of the night, its howl echoed through the vast halls.

Uncle Ilbert had come prepared of course. Something as mundane as a watchdog was not going to deter a man who kept the heads of far worse creatures mounted on the walls of his study. His harpoon gun was made from found objects and fired with enough power to punish the beast, blinding it in one eye and sending it screaming across the floor to lick its wounds.

“And ya better stay outta ma sight,” he yelled after the animal.

Only once the danger had passed, were they able to completely appreciate the immense hall laid out before them. The pale moon shed dim light on the spines of a million books, all looming over them like sea cliffs  etched with bright words.

“We’ve got ta bring one back,” Ilbert said, panting in his elation. “Jus’ one ta prove this place exists.”

“I don’t think its existence has ever been in question,” said Jacob. “The fact we’ve been here should be–”

“What in the world is that?” Ilbert was always more of a doer than a talker.

He stepped away from the conversation, drawn by something on a table. A book, the huge spine visible over the ledge. A YOUNG PERSON’S GUIDE TO HORROR was written in gold.

The table itself was something used by giants. It towered above them, requiring Ilbert to outfit a rappelling line to his next harpoon. It speared the table with a heavy clunk. The climb took them longer than they had expected. It was the second to last mistake Uncle Ilbert would ever make.

The thing about gnomes, a little known fact to the Massives, is that we have a somewhat adverse reaction to sunlight. It paralyses us, causing our limbs to freeze and our lungs to halt. Direct sunlight is the worst, causing the joints to calcify and the heart to stop.

The giant clerk entered the library unexpectedly, alarmed by the shrieking terrier.

“Hide!” shouted Ilbert

“Where?” cried Jacob. Already the sky outside the window was beginning to lighten.

“Grab the book!”

“The book? There’s no time!”

“There’s always time!” he yelled, their voices nothing more than a mouse squeak to the owner, who swung a beam of light around the shop like a lighthouse.

So they each grabbed a book by its spine, two little men, clad in their finest expeditionary clothes. They gripped it as the owner looked for the intruders. They held on even as the sun rose, fixing their bones and melting their skin.

Today they are something of a legend in our family. Late at night–well before the sun rises, mind you–we will sometimes take the children out to the empty street and look in the giant window. We smile as they “Oooo!” and “Ahhh!” at the diminutive skeleton clinging to his treasure.

“There lies your Great Uncle Ilbert,” I say to them. “A man so much larger than life, he belongs with the giants.”

I’m sure he would have appreciated the sentiment.

(c) Marlan Smith 2011


Tark stared at the diagram. It was a golden square, clearly valuable, more valuable than the machine it came off of. He honestly didn’t think he would ever find salvage this far outside of the galactic rim.

“What are they?” asked Pim. He was looking over Tark’s shoulder.

“I don’t know,” said Tark. “Do you think we should call HQ?”

“Are you kidding?” said Pim. “We have explicit orders not to get involved in alien civilizations. Lets just keep the salvage and go.”

“But these ones are so weird looking.”

Pim sighed and floated to the far side of the bridge. He hovered for a while at the controls, touching this and that display. A meter wide square appeared suspended in the middle of the room. A representation of the golden artifact glowed in the center.

“Okay, look,” said Pim. “We’ll make a cypher okay?”

“A cypher?” asked Tark. “Why don’t we just try to contact them?”

Pim glared at him. “Look, you’re lucky I’m willing to allow this.”

“Okay okay, fine,” said Tark. “Let me program the message then.”

“Do you even know what to say?”

“Yeah there’s an audio transmission from the planet.”

“Fine,” said Pim, tapping the controls with a slender finger. “Then afterwards can we just go?”

“Yeah, yeah, we’ll go.”

Tark held the square in his digits while the rest of the probe was crushed, cubed and reduced to its elements. In another chamber, a figure stood, ambiguous behind the glass. Pim tapped at the controls and turned to Tark.

“You’re sure they look like that?”

“Yeah,” said Tark. “Why wouldn’t they?”

“I don’t know,” said Pim. “Just seems kind of odd. You don’t see many life forms so thin. And golden? Really? Do they carry some sort of isotope in their skin?”

Tark shrugged. “I guess. They’re clearly spacefaring, so they must have holographic technology. If they looked any different than what’s on the plaque, they would have just shown us in three dimensions.”

“So they’re flat? That’s ludicrous.”

“Look,” said Tark. “Trust me. When they meet the cypher, they won’t even be able to tell it apart from their own. It will blend right in, talk to a few of them. We’ll watch the whole thing cloaked, then we leave.”

Pim sighed again. “I swear, if HQ fires us for this, I am never forgiving you.”

“Trust me.”

The cypher was a thin creature, golden skinned and asymmetrical. It walked on the flimsy balls of its feet out the door and into the delivery pod. Pim watched it go with some skepticism.

“I don’t know… are the arms supposed to be lopsided like that?”

Tark held up his three fingers in a dismissive gesture. “Would you just trust me for once?”

They watched through the cypher’s eyes. They watched as the pod landed and the door opened into a lush, green forest.

Phyllis Guntmeyer had been walking her pomeranian when Spunky began to bark. A man stepped from behind a nearby tree–no, not a man. It was a cardboard cutout of a man, frozen in a waving pose. It was golden, naked and flat as paper. And it moved!


Its mouth was an animated gash in a line-drawing face, a living paper puppet, eight feet tall and impossibly thin. Its bent raised arm waved and twisted like a shaken saw blade.

Phyllis screamed, clutched her chest and fell to the ground.

Pim turned to Tark, his three eyes glaring. “You’re a fucking idiot, you know that?”

(c) 2011 Marlan Smith