FLASH FICTION INDEX 1 - May 2007-Nov. 2011


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Post October 18, 2008, 01:47:47 PM

FLASH FICTION INDEX 1 - May 2007-Nov. 2011

(We reached the character limit in Index 1 and Index 2 was added.)

This thread holds a compendium of all entries to the monthly Flash Fiction Challenge from May '07 until Nov. '11.



Index 1:


November '11: Space Opera

October '11: Murder Should Be Personal

September '11: Speed Writing

August '11: Little Superhero

July '11: Devil Within

June '11: The "Implied" Challenge

May '11: It's the Little Things

April '11: The Knowing

March '11: Leftovers, Pt. 3

February '11: Get the Girl

January '11: Leftovers, Pt. 2

December '10: Santa's Little Helper

November '10: "Leftovers," pt. 1

October '10: Classic Horror

September '10: Hated by the World

August '10: Ice, Ice, Baby

July '10: That New Car Smell

June '10: Obsession

May '10: Aliens & Archaeologists

April '10: Medieval Fantasy Mixup

March '10: Altered History Challenge

February '10: "Did You See That?" Mare Inebrium Challenge (Example by Dan L. Hollifield)

January '10: Trying Time Travelers

December '09: A Winter Wish

November '09: Moment of Truth Some Stories for Mature Audiences Only

October '09: Campfire Ghost Stories

September '09: For Whom the Bell Trolls

August '09: Do Over

July '09: Busting Writer's Block #1: Fantasy

June '09: Steampunk (Example by Dan L. Hollifield)

May '09: Almost Forever

April '09: My Pet Monster

February-March '09: Spaceman's Birthday

January '09: Marooned!

December '08: Unhappy Holidays

November '08: Discount Magic

October'08: The Evil Henchman Mature Audiences Only

September '08: The 200 Challenge

August '08: The Reluctant Superhero

July '08: Where Have all the Spoons Gone?

June'08: Fantasy Subgenre

May '08: The Aphelion Project, Part 2

April '08: The Aphelion Project, Part 1

March '08: Free Skate

February '08: Space-Based "Mom & Pop" Shop

January '08: The "Accidental" Time Traveler

December'07: Holiday Spirit

November '07: The Sequel

October'07: There Are Things that Go Bump in the Night Mature Audiences Only

September '07: Finish What You've Started

August '07: The Absurd Flaw

July '07: The Surprise Twist

June '07: The Sound of Silence

May '07: Inaugural Challenge
Last edited by kailhofer on January 02, 2011, 03:24:14 PM, edited 60 times in total.
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Post October 18, 2008, 01:50:00 PM

05/'07 - Inaugural Challenge

The challenge was to create an expression of love between two speculative fiction characters. Entrants had to include a snowstorm, a golden Buddha idol, & a metronome



Example story:


Faith & Love

By:
N.J. Kailhofer



Faith leaned her blonde head on Jimmy's shoulder and pulled her legs up on the wide seat of the pickup. "Tell me you love me, baby."

The wipers swept aside the thick snow on the windshield, marking the moments they spent in this storm like some relentless metronome. "You know I do."

She snuggled against his chest. "Do you remember the first time?"

His hands were tight on the wheel. "Honey, this is harder than it looks. It's really coming down."

"My big, tough man can handle anything." She smiled and put her hand on his knee before sliding it up the inside of his thigh. "Don't you remember anything about that night?"

[align=center]#[/align]

Jimmy's eyes would not open at first. Something pushed against his face, and his head ached. Every breath was agony, an intense stab of pain. Forcing himself up, he saw the blurry steering wheel. Sunlight splayed in at him from the windows and he could hardly bear to look out. The hood of his blue pickup wrenched upwards into a pine tree. Snow was up to his window.

On the floor of the cab, Faith lay on her back, one arm over her head and the other across her chest, as if resting. Both her legs bent awkwardly to the side. Her lifeless eyes stared up at him.



"No!" He scrambled to her, pulling her up against his chest. Cradling her head in his hands, he brushed the hair from her eyes. Tears blurred his vision and sobs wracked his frame.

[align=center]#[/align]

He laid her across the seat as if she was asleep and forced her door open.

The snow on her side was knee high. Looking around, he found they were at the bottom of a steep ravine, wedged into a stand of trees. The front of the truck was smashed, and would never run. The ice-coated walls of the ravine were steep, and extended up a hundred yards. He doubted anyone could see them from the roadway, and he knew he was not much of a climber.

He shivered. His lightweight jacket was fine for the city, but the cold stabbed at every part of him, especially his bare hands, and before long he had to climb back into the cab to try to get warm. He shook as he sat next to her until finally exhaustion forced his eyes closed.

[align=center]#[/align]

A hand touched his. "Still with me, baby?"

Faith sat next to him, leaned against his chest. Dried blood was caked to her temple, matting her hair to the side of her face. Her eyes were dark and tired, but full of joy.

He kissed her. "I thought you were gone."

"I'd never leave you." She hugged him. "You were out for three days. How do you feel?"

"Better. Not so cold, anyhow. How about you?"

"Starving. Those weird, raw appetizers at the party were almost five days ago."

They had no food--it was just going to be an evening out with friends in the mountains when the storm hit. Both her legs were broken, and walking was out of the question. She said she ate some snow that she could reach from the window, but that was it.

Outside, he spied a hare nibbling grass that stuck up from a snow bank, a hundred yards away.

"Do you think you can catch that?" she asked.

He dug as best he could under the seat. There was not much there, besides an old pair of boots with broken shoelaces and a tire iron. Outside, there were broken branches from their crash, so he opened the door as quietly as he could. He tied the iron to a branch with the laces, and made a spear.

The speed and silence with which he moved through the woods surprised Jimmy. He had never been much of a hunter, but somehow he knew to circle behind the rabbit. The stillness of the woods pounded in his ears until when the hare stepped forward, he swore he could hear it. Closing in, he imagined he heard the beating of its heart, the in and out of tiny breaths.

The snow turned crimson as it died.

[align=center]#[/align]

Faith's hands were shaking as he handed it in.

"I've got to find a way to cook it," he said. "No matches. No lighter."

She could not wait, and he had to look away. "Jesus, honey."

"Jimmy, you have to eat something," she said. "You need to keep your strength up. I won't make it without you."

It turned his stomach, but he knew she was right. The window scraper from the glove box had a thin brass blade along the front, and he pulled it out of the plastic with his teeth. Using it as a knife, he cut some.

The salty flavor trickling down the back of his throat was unlike anything he imagined. Swallowing it, he felt himself coming alive… like maybe they could make it after all.

[align=center]#[/align]

"That's what I remember," Jimmy said. "The taste of that blood and the hope it gave me."

He turned the wheel, moving the fan belt he used to connect the steering column to the wipers. The blades swung to match his turn, and then back again as he reversed it. The sweeping of the snow from the windshield made the storm look just like it had, ten years ago that night, when he stopped being dead, too.

"I still love you, honey. You're such a good provider." She rubbed his tummy like he was a golden Buddha doll before looking down at the leg braces he made for her. "Every kill makes me better, but will I ever heal enough that we can climb out of this canyon and go home?"

Outside, the howling snow swallowed the rusty fender of the pickup, but it didn't matter. He had Faith, and love.

"We are home."


[align=center]The End[/align]
Last edited by kailhofer on October 18, 2008, 01:51:45 PM, edited 1 time in total.
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Post October 18, 2008, 01:50:37 PM

05/'07 - Inaugural Challenge

The Guardian

By:
Robert Moriyama



The Guardian was tired, bone-tired, claw-tired, fur-and-fang-tired. Outside the cave, the first snowstorm of winter raked the mountainside with pellets (too solid to be called flakes) of snow that could blind a man or bruise and even puncture his flesh.

Of course, the Guardian was not a man. His leathery hide and fur would allow him to walk, not in comfort, but without suffering harm, through the worst that the mountain winter might bring. Still, he hoped that the supply of dried tubers and herbs he had gathered from the lower slopes of Sagarmatha would last until the winds subsided enough that he could venture out without fear of being swept away. As it was, he might have to dig his way out -- the cave mouth would soon be filled with hard-packed snow, warmed just enough by what little heat escaped his well-insulated body to stick like fresh yak dung.

No, the storm would not harm him. His people had been born in the very rafters of the Roof of the World, and had long since adapted to its climate. But his nature could not protect him from the loneliness of his vigil. Ten years he had spent guarding the small, golden statue of the Buddha, ever since it had been delivered into his hands by monks bearing a letter from the Dalai Lama himself. Ten years, with no one to talk to except the ever-smiling Buddha, no voice to hear except the keening of the wind...

"Choden!"

The Guardian shook his great, shaggy head. For a moment, I thought I heard a voice -- a real voice, not just words in the wind, he thought. Perhaps after ten years, madness has come at last. Well, at least it should be entertaining --

"Choden! Are you there? Foolish woman, of course he is there --"

The dim light filtering into the cave through the swirling snow suddenly vanished, then reappeared around something large, something rounded ...

Now I am seeing things as well as hearing them, the Guardian thought. Perhaps if I meditate, I can send these apparitions back into the Void. He closed his eyes and intoned "Ommmmmmmmmmm..." in a voice that made the granite of the cave vibrate in sympathy.

"Choden, open your eyes. It is I, Khandro. I have come for you."

The Guardian closed his eyes even more tightly. He reached into a niche in the cave wall, found the metronome given to him by another lama, many years ago, and freed its pendulum. The slow, regular tock...tock...tock... had always helped him to meditate before. It was rhythm without meaning or purpose, without expectations or desire.

"Ommmmmmmmmmm--"

The metronome stopped. The Guardian opened his eyes, startled -- apparently the sound of the metronome did produce expectation of a sort, the expectation of the next tock, and the failure of that sound to occur was disturbing.

"Choden, your time as Guardian has ended. Another has been chosen to take your place."

The Guardian grunted, pawed at his eyes, and stared. "It is you, Khandro. I thought I was to remain here, to protect this image of the Buddha, for as long as I lived. What has changed?"

Khandro, a female considered quite lovely among The People of the Mountain, smiled. The dim light glinted softly from her lower fangs and filtered through her fine, silky fur as if through wispy clouds on a sunlit day. "There is a new Dalai Lama. He has decreed that this duty should be shared among the People."

"Ah," said the Guardian. "But surely you are not --"

Khandro laughed. "Chosen? No, no, at least not this time."

Choden, he thought, I have a name again, not just a title. "Then why are you here? The journey from our sanctuary is long and hard even in good weather. Surely the new Guardian could have brought me the news when he came to begin his vigil."

"He will not come until Spring," Khandro said, her eyes studying a pebble on the cave floor.

"Then why --"

Khandro slithered across the few meters of icy rock that separated them and buried her face in the fur covering Choden's neck. For a moment, Choden recoiled, wondering if she intended to tear out his throat, but then he realized that, although her fangs were working their way through the fur to his flesh, they were not biting so much as -- nibbling.

"Oh," he said. Then "Oh..."

He wrapped his arms around Khandro's warm, lithe body -- the first really warm thing he had touched in a decade -- and lowered his head to inhale the scent of her soft, rich coat.

"I never knew that you had such feelings for me," he said, as parts of him that had lain dormant for years awoke.

Khandro snickered, her body shaking in his arms. "I always knew that the Dalai Lama didn't choose you for your intelligence!"

He frowned, wondering whether he should try to come up with a clever answer. But somehow, clever words didn't seem very important (and she was right -- intelligence wasn't his strongest point).

After a few moments, he reached out and gently grasped the statue of the Buddha that he had protected for so many years, and turned it to face the back of the cave.

[align=center]The End[/align]
Last edited by kailhofer on October 18, 2008, 01:52:13 PM, edited 1 time in total.
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Post October 18, 2008, 01:51:25 PM

05/'07 - Inaugural Challenge

High Point

By:
Gareth L Powell



They decided to spend the night in the weather station at the top of Mount Banshee, overlooking the Longreach Glacier. It was late in the season and strong winds battered the summit.

Van forced the airlock and Laura gratefully shook the dust from her boots. Inside, a discarded pressure suit sprawled on a bunk, hanging open like a dissected ghost, and a golden buddha statue lounged on a windowsill, its fat cheeks spread in a lazy smile.

She followed Van into the station's control room and watched as he switched on the light and heat, allowing them to shrug off their thick parkas. Laura, her cheeks pink and hair mussed, stood close to one of the air vents, enjoying the warmth.

'What do we have left to eat?' she said.

Van rooted through the hamper they'd brought, finding a wedge of brie, a couple of bread rolls, and a tub of olives. Spreading a blanket on the control room floor, he shared the food onto plastic plates. And then he went and found a couple of tin mugs in the station's galley, so they could share the bottle of wine Laura carried in her knapsack.

They had a glass each, and huddled together on the blanket as they ate. Outside, the wind battered the shutters.

'We should've brought something warmer to eat,' Van said, cutting a slice of cheese. Laura smiled, leaning back. She rested her head in the hollow of his shoulder, swirling the wine in her mug so the ripples caught the dim light from the control room monitors.

The radio played dance music from Earth, scratchy with pops and hisses, the beat as regular as a metronome. Van put his arm around her, and she kissed him, then buried her face in the flame-proof fabric of his chest.

He was tapping his foot.

'I'm pregnant,' she said.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 01:53:27 PM

05/'07 - Inaugural Challenge

Five Miles Out

By:
TaoPhoenix



On a dark Air-Coney flight, Pilot Keith Houghton tussled with the controls of the struggling AIrcraft. Behind him, tucked gently under the utility bench lay the bodily remains of the former co-pilot. The man had been capable enough. However, a breath-taking stretch of turbulence had done just that - the shock had been too much for his heart. Now it was up to the Pilot and his gleaming steel flying partner to battle for their lives through a blinding snow of a caliber that matched the one that flooded Galveston Texas two hundred years earlier to the day.

Air-Coney was a Brooklyn, NY based experimental Avionics company that featured a path blazing Pilot-AIrcaft partnership model. Despite the attempts of detractors to drench the public in Grade-C Movie hysteria, the carrier's unique innovation was already proving its worth. Pilots formed deep emotional bonds with the planes they flew - and that reason was in the unique spelling of the word AIrcraft.

Though quieter than Hollywood creations, these planes showcased second-generation Artificial Intelligence chips. Since the President George W. Bush insisted upon searing the nation's psyche with aftershock images of September 2001, this scrappy little New York based carrier took action. During the conceptual stage of negotiations, the usually reserved CEO of Air-Coney shut down all opposition with the classic retort, "What could be worse than what actually happened? My ten year old son could program the instruction 'Avoid the Big Building' ." Now Pilot Keith Houghton and AIrcraft Clarisse gathered themselves to get through another bone jarring snow storm, One More Time.

Keith wriggled in his chair as he stretched his back during a thirty-second lull from the chaos. "Okay, Clarisse, this one's for the retirement speeches. Show 'em all why you're the Diva of the fleet." A spread of LED lights swirled green in response.

---

The semi-sentient plane didn't trouble itself with a wordy analysis - voice pitch and key phrases were enough. Because the silicon nerve center wasn't capable of direct conversation, the design team decided not to fake it with voice samples. Pilots don't want to be chattered at anyway - just show them the readouts.

However, Clarisse's persona was an aberration turned breakthrough. Coincidentally hooked up to the same hard drive as someone's music collection, she spontaneously began playing songs she deemed relevant to the pilot's situation during simulations. During the famous "Last Doubts" investment meeting, the Venture Capital investors began their predictable pseudo-apologetic speech of Why We Can't Do This. Meanwhile, a distraught junior engineer discovered that someone had forgotten to take Clarisse offline before the meeting - and she was hearing the ongoing proceedings. During an awkward silence, the enginer called into the air, "Clarisse, what do you think?"

The answer thundered back over the simulation stereo speakers, conjured up from the first track of the Jefferson Airplane 1989 reunion album: "I Like Planes - Experimental Aircraft!" That day a billion dollars of startup funding was signed. Junior Engineer Keith Houghton and AIrcraft Clarisse later became the first operational team. Now, after a crisp forty years of service, they were on their sunset trip- if only the snow would quit long enough for them to see it.

---

The Galveston Bi-Centennial snow had appeared with epic grandeur worthy of its predecessor. It had ceased to be a mere storm, and had become an Event. Desperate tactical jockeying earlier had barely sufficed, but at a staggering cost. The co-pilot was dead from shock aggravated by concussion from some loose object. Most of the passengers were dangerously air-sick. Then Clarisse declared her own problem.

'Structural Integrity Alert' began flashing. The horrific rattling earlier had strained the wing joints far, far past the tolerances into the red zone. Of course, the wing itself wasn't going anywhere, but the damage was interfering with the electrical cabling operating the flaps. One more good jolt might be enough to severely hinder stable navigation.

Now they were through the worst of the turbulence, and the test of nerves began. With no strenuous actions required, the initial adrenaline surge began to fade. Pilot Keith Houghton felt the first wave of fatigue slithering through him. The next few hours called for focus. He opened the cover to a small compartment in the armrest and fingered a couple of small objects.

The first was a little brass & gold "laughing" Buddha Tertawa statue. Following the popular Asian village custom, Keith rubbed the "belly of the middle way" for good luck. Adding two syllables to the traditional pronunciation, he began to chant softly.

The other was a hand-modified 16-beat Swiss metronome. Keith had paid an extra fee for the merchant to replace beats two and sixteen with rests instead of down-beats. To this distinctive rhythm, Keith began to chant softly.

'Nam _ Myo-ho Ren-ge Ky-o. Nam My-o-ho Ren-ge Kyo _'.

Trained by their forty year career together, Clarisse picked up the distinctive cadence right away. A remastered digital copy of Mike Oldfield's signature flying tune "Five Miles Out" floated through the cockpit speakers. Keith broke into an exhausted smile, and stroked the leather padded dash trim fondly. They were going to make it home.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 01:54:07 PM

05/'07 - Inaugural Challenge

Tic Toc

By:
Jaimie L. Elliott



Jung Hee gazed out into a world blinded by a snowstorm. He watched the flakes whirl and whip in a chaotic dance. He pressed his fingers against the cold, harsh window and a single tear meandered down his cheek. “Beyond this shroud they come for me,” he said, his words resigned, his dark eyes forlorn.

He stumbled to the bed where the little mechanical boy awaited. Of all of them, both real and synthetic, this was the one he loved the most. He pressed his head against the android’s chest and ran his fingers over the sensuous skin. He listened to the artificial heart, a metronome, TIC TOC TIC TOC TIC TOC. The rhythm soothed him. “Your heart is fabricated but it is not fake. It beats for me as mine does for you.”

A gust of wind caused the cabin to shudder. Jung Hee shivered. “They call me a monster,” he said. “They’re going to do terrible things to me. But I cannot choose who I love. Does that make me a bad person? I’m so very afraid, my little boy.” He sobbed, his arms wrapped around his beloved.

Then he heard, above the roar of wind and storm, the voices of the mob. With querulous limbs, he staggered toward the golden Buddha idol resting on the shelf across the room. He kowtowed before the figure and mouthed a silent prayer.

Jung Hee did not hear the mechanical boy rise. He did not see him approach. He did not feel the weight of the Buddha as it crashed down upon his head.

The boy rolled Jung Hee upon his back. He lay down next to him, his artificial head resting upon the silent chest, his thin arms holding protective the still warm body.

The sound of fists pounded upon the door. The wind howled. All that dimmed. The only sound now a mechanical heart dying:

TIC TOC TIC TOC... TIC... TOC..... TIC.......... TOC...............

...TIC


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 01:54:38 PM

05/'07 - Inaugural Challenge

- Winner -


Dual Dreaming
By:
Kitanzi



Swirling, dizzying bursts of snow eddied and danced about her, driving her in shuffling circles until she fell over an unexpectedly solid drift. Eleanor sat up slowly, too tired to even swear as she felt the snow work in the top of her boots and start soaking her socks. She tipped her head back and squinted her eyes against the gusting storm.

“A dream! It’s a goddamn dream!” she yelled, but the wind carried the words away from her. “What’s the point of knowing you’re dreaming if you can’t control it, or even shut it down? I wanted a dream vacation in Bermuda. Damn, this feels real.” She pulled the hood of her parka closer around her face, picked her staff back up and cautiously stood next to the drift.

“What are you, then?” she muttered, and poked the drift with the staff. She couldn’t hear anything over the wind, but she felt a solid, metallic contact. Bracing against the wind, she poked and kicked at it until she cleared most of the snow from an oddly rounded lump about the size of her head. She jammed the staff into the snow, braced into the wind and reached to pick it up. Lucid dreaming hadn’t turned out nearly as satisfying that magazine article made it sound, but she let out a sigh of satisfaction when the little golden Buddha lit at her touch, glowing like a small sun.

“That’s a bit more like it.” The figure gently steamed where falling snow landed on it, and cast an eerie glow through the featureless dark. Eleanor kicked gently at it again, then picked it up to cradle against her chest. It was surprisingly light, and she closed her eyes to enjoy the soothing heat against her face. If she ignored her layers of clothing, she could almost think she was in Bermuda after all. In fact, the wind seemed to have died down…

“Eleanor. Eleanor! Are you there?”

“Becky? Are you in my dream?” The little Buddha was getting uncomfortably hot through her gloves and she shifted so the heavy sleeves of the parka protected her hands. The steady light and heat against her eyelids slowly grew, and she thought again of basking in the sun on a tropical island. The wind wasn’t quite gone, but it had certainly changed. She could almost hear her twin sister whispering to her, like they used to do when they were kids at the boring grown up parties. She and Becky knew better than to complain when it was time to be the Loving Family at any of her father’s political rallies, but as long as they were quiet and smiling in their matching outfits, no one cared that they whispered. They had always been each other’s best friend in the middle of the politics as they grew up, and that never really changed. Becky’s love of science and stars got her into NASA and then into the first mission to Mars while Eleanor grew more fascinated with painting all the things she saw, and imagined she saw, in her telescope, but when Becky called to breathlessly tell her she’d been accepted for the Mars mission Eleanor congratulated her, then wistfully said it would be the first time they’d really be parted. She almost thought that if she opened her eyes now she would see her twin sitting by her in another of those awful party dresses they’d outgrown years ago.

“Eleanor? You’re in my dream!” That was definitely Becky’s voice!

Eleanor fought her eyes open against her lassitude. Her sister stood with one hand resting comfortably on the Buddha’s head, at her ease in a light cotton jumpsuit as the snow ignored her, and grinning devilishly. “Becky! I – what? No, this is my dream! I read in a magazine about lucid dreaming and how inspirational it can be… I’m dreaming! I’m definitely dreaming! Look!” She hit her fist against her leg and it passed through. “See? I’m dreaming, this is my dream and you’re in it!”

“Goof!” her sister laughed. “We’re both dreaming! I hoped it would work! Listen!” In the new silence Eleanor faintly heard a ticking metronome. “I wanted to try a science experiment of my own, so I put together a metronome and made a tape before I left. I’ve always been easy to hypnotize.” Eleanor nodded, remembering how Betsy had used self-hypnosis to break her smoking habit back in high school when she realized it would keep her out of the space program. “So I hoped if I hypnotized myself I might be able to reach you through dreams. Twins are traditionally supposed to be able to do this stuff, after all – why not? I had no idea you were learning lucid dreaming, but it probably helped.”

Her devilish look became wistful. “I sure miss you, sister. I know it’s a dumb cliché, but it’s BIG out here, and we’re an awful long way from home.”

Eleanor’s throat felt thick, and she caught her sister in a one armed hug with the glowing Buddha between them. “I love you too, Beck. Don’t you get lost in all that space and forget to come home, ok? I’d have to come get you, and Mom and Dad would never let you live it down. That team’s the best, and you’re all coming home.”

“Just as soon as we can,” Becky agreed. “But it’s a hell of a lot less lonely now, if we can share dreams. I have to go, but I’ll try again tomorrow night. Love you, little sis! Sweet dreams!” She squeezed Eleanor once more and stepped back, fading into the storm.

“You’re not even five minutes older than me, it hardly counts.” Eleanor bit her lip against tears as the Buddha dimmed and cooled, and the snow drifted away into the dawn, and a golden beach in Bermuda.


[align=center]The End[/align]
Last edited by kailhofer on October 19, 2008, 03:10:38 PM, edited 1 time in total.
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Post October 18, 2008, 01:55:33 PM

06/'07 - The Sound of Silence

The challenge was to create a story where the main character can't hear. Entrants had to include a musical instrument and a book.



Example story:


The Quiet Rebellion

By:
N.J. Kailhofer



The strings on the banjo vibrated with their slow, silent call.

The room twirled and stomping boots shook the floor, but Jack sat still on his place of honor, watching. The clan's eyes were alive with joy, their faces awash with merriment. Some wore beaming smiles, while others mouthed open secrets about him, the only killer in the room.

There was no turning back now. The load would not return to the shell.

The clan would bandy words back and forth about their good fortune and how he had to be the one foretold, but they did not understand. Baldwin's own would come, and none of them would survive like this.

Tea parties. Socials.

Baldwin ruined them all, with his guns and rough chains. None were alive now that lived before they came. None of the clan even remembered freedom.

Killing Baldwin was easy. Any of them could have done it.

The man before him halted in place, and then stepped to the side. Jack's eyes darted about the room. They were all staring at him. The strings on the banjo were still.

In front of him, the room reformed into two rows from where he sat up to the most glorious vision he had ever seen--Marianne Greenbush. Her white dress was a wide hoop skirt with ruffles that hid her shoes from sight. Through some dressmaking magic, her waist was extra narrow. A wide lace collar hid most of her chest, hinting at the ample bosom that had to be straining at such fabric. Short sleeves revealed thin arms that trailed to white lace gloves. His nose brought him a faint, tantalizing scent that he only smelled when Marianne was near. It was like the lilac bushes Baldwin's people planted, the only pleasant odor they brought with them.

He loved it.

The sight of her flushed blood to his cheeks, as it always had. Her hair cascaded down in long curls along the sides of her face. He longed to caress that angelic vision. He knew her skin was soft and smooth like all the women wanted theirs to be, but never was. Hard work and hard life prevented it, but not so for Marianne. Baldwin favored her, kept her from toil so that she could become the woman he wanted.

Baldwin! The thought of him welled up rage inside Jack. Missionary to the New South. That was how he and his kind presented themselves. They pretended they were going to help the clan--rebuild the valley after the war, and start a new future. Instead, they took everything and called it their own.

Jack glanced around the room at every soul dressed in "Northern" style. Trousers, cutaway coats, and tall collars were everywhere. They powdered themselves with foul-smelling concoctions and smoked pipes filled with the new tobacco. The stench of it turned his stomach. Baldwin forbade them all the clothes of their homeland, the long robes and bright colors. He gave them new names, new homes, new work, and all of it was just to make him rich.

A hand touched Jack's knee. It was Harry.

Harry and Jack had a secret language since they were boys, one of movements.

"She speak you," Harry gestured.

Marianne stood before him, and without his mind even willing it, he found himself on his feet.

"Jack," she related through Harry, "Owe debt, you. Saved life. Pay how, you?"

Jack answered.

He saw Harry struggle to reply, since there would be no English word for it. Finally, Harry seemed to use the old way, the old word, since shock and outrage swept the room.

Marianne flushed, and fanned herself. Men appeared to grumble and women fled the room.

"Wrong you," Harry translated. "Not permissible. Monstrous."

A man handed her the Book of Ways and she held it out in front of her.

"People Baldwin's teach better us."

Jack turned to Harry. "She promised me before born. Baldwin try mate her. Bad. Bad all."

Marianne stared at the words on the book: Colonization and Reconstruction of Worlds in the Image of the Old South: An Experiment in Primitive Civilization Management, by Dr. H. B. Baldwin, et al.

Her watering, green on green eyes narrowed to slits, and she looked back up to him. Her long, forked tongue tasted the air, and she leapt, taking him to the floor.

Even as her long fangs dug deep into his flesh, he smiled. After she devoured his koa every one of her eggs would carry his gift of silence, and none of them would ever hear the nonsense of the Earthers.


He hoped their children would have her eyes.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 01:56:52 PM

06/'07 - The Sound of Silence

Silence

By:
David Alan Jones



The little Goddess of Sound skips along a jungle path that meanders beneath the trees, skirting the three main villages where dark-skinned Yombex worship her and a few even pray to her though they know she cannot hear their words.

She pauses in a shallow stream. The cool water washes over her thin, brown ankles, rippling as she drags her feet along the stony bottom. She closes her eyes and breaths in the smells of mud and fungus.

A frog bounds away from the water's edge as Chi draws near. She laughs like the tinkle of little splashes. The sound causes red, blue and yellow flowers to blossom all along the banks.

Chi smiles at the tiny flowers.

TUM!

Chi's smile fades.

TUM!

Her eyes -- solid black pupils surrounded by brilliant white orbs -- scan the thick jungle.

TUM!

The Yombex call to her. She feels the concussion of their bone and hide drums in her feet, shaking the very earth beneath them.

TUM!

She cannot ignore her people. This call is as ancient as she -- as ancient as man's first communicative sound: the warning grunt, the beating of stick on stone, the first articulate word. Chi no more runs through the forest than sunlight falls from the heavens. She arrives at the tiny village of "Ch'uk Ya Byg Flop" before the drums' next strike.

TUM!

The drums cease. All is silent.

Arrayed before the little Goddess of Sound stands a gaggle of foreign men. These are strange men, like none Chi has ever seen. Their skins are pale as sand, their long hair is the color of goldenrod, and their bodies, almost to a man, are covered in a strange, silvery stone that looks hard as a beetle's carapace.

Behind these foreigners the assembled Yombex fall to their knees. The men drop their chest-high drums, the women press their babes to their breasts and each genuflects where he or she stands.

The pale men do not bow, though they look upon Chi with wonder. She forgives their ignorance. Surely they come from a land where the gods do not make them bow. Perhaps they were never taught.

One of the pale men holds up a sheaf of many bound pages. Upon one is a picture of Chi -- a skinny, dark-skinned girl dressed in worn tribal sarong and pantacat top. He points at her and says something to one of the other pale men, but Chi cannot read the man's words.

The pale men spread out and only now does Chi notice the black-skinned man among them. He has not bowed his head, nor does he look surprised to see the little goddess. He is Yomti, tribal chief of the Bexyom -- blood enemies to Chi's people.

Chi reads Yomti's lips as he says, "See, oh foreign king, she is but a child as I said. Take her and you shall conquer the Yombex."

Chi bares her little teeth, which are very white and very sharp. The pale men draw swords from their belts.

The men move to surround the little goddess, but she does not back away. They advance on her from the front and the rear and Chi crouches. Yomti is first to raise a blade -- a gleaming foreign blade -- against her.

Thunder like that of the most raucous storm issues from Chi's mouth. Although she cannot hear the sound, she savors its effect. The pale men nearest her drop their swords and fall to the ground writhing in pain. Yomti, who was closest, staggers back, blood running from his ears. As slow as leaves falling, he crumples to the ground and moves no more.

The thunder subsides, only to be replaced by a note of such clarity and such frequency, that nearby trees split at their trunks, birds fall dead from the sky, and the ten men closest to the little goddess are instantly struck deaf. It is the sound of cicadas -- millions of cicadas.

The few pale men still standing scramble away in every direction, most running from one doom towards another as they rush blindly into the untamed jungle.

Chi strides silently to where her people kneel. They have not heard the sounds; she would never harm them. One young woman looks up and sees a smiling child -- the little goddess -- looking down upon her.

"They would have killed us," she mouths at the deaf Goddess of Sound.

Chi nods and caresses the woman's face.

A pale man, wide-eyed and clearly half mad, rises and staggers towards them. He wears a thin coronet of beaten brass and a brown cape. He must be the pale chief.

Chi presses a small hand against the man's chest and feels the beat of his heart.

The pale chief screams something at her. She can feel his rank breath on her cheek, but she cannot read his words. They are pale and foreign.

TUM!

The pale man's heart beats.

TUM!

Chi begins to sing. It is the song of the cockatoo, if a cockatoo weighed eighty tons and had a megaphone for a beak.

TUM!

The pale man is frightened. He wants to run away; he wants to cover his ears, but he can do neither. He stands, mesmerized by the little goddess's gaze, touch, and song.

Tum. . .

Blood runs from the man's ears.

Tum. . . tum

The man's heart skips and his eyes begin to blanch white.

Tum. . . tum. . . . . . . tum

The man's shock of golden hair turns gray from roots to tips. He sags, but Chi forces him to stand with the last ounce of his strength.

. . . tum. . .

The Little Goddess of Sound stops singing just before the pale man's heart ceases its beat. She releases him and he falls to the ground deaf and blind and ruined.


The End
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Post October 18, 2008, 01:57:29 PM

06/'07 - The Sound of Silence

The Source of Sunshine

By:
Jaimie L. Elliott



“Describe again to me what blue looks like.”

Ruelin heard Prista sighing. “You always ask me that,” she admonished. She gave his hand a quick squeeze. “Watch your step here. There’s a sharp rock underfoot.”

Ruelin prodded with his staff. “I just don’t understand how it can be cold. You always say that blue is cold. And wet! Yet if that is the sky, how can the sun, which is hot, swim in it?”

Prista giggled. “Oh Ruelin, my love. I don’t even know how to respond to that. Keep asking me impossible questions and I’ll lead you over a cliff.”

Ruelin swung his face upwards, feeling the sunshine on his face. He tried to imagine the celestial orb, round and blistering, adrift without ropes or wires in this medium called a sky. Prista had stated that no clouds lazed today, the sky barren except for the sun. It amazed Ruelin that the sky possessed the ability to change, filling with clouds and rain or even nothing at all.

Ruelin wiped the sweat from his brow. “Is the altar here?”

“Yes,” she responded. He heard pages turned. “Just as the book said it would. The altar is weathered and partially eroded, but the ancient glyphs match what’s written.”

He exhaled a deep breath. “Lead me over there.”

Prista hesitated. “It’s not too late to go back.”

Ruelin heard the desperation in her voice. Harsher than he intended, he replied, “I can’t go back. If I do, I’ll never be able to live afterwards, always wondering, always speculating. Now take me over there.” A hoarse whisper escaped him. “Please.”

He heard Prista approach. Her gentled fingers grabbed his arm and escorted him a few steps forward. She took his hand and guided his fingers downward. He felt a hard, smooth stone slab, blistering from the sun’s heat. He leaned over and kissed her tenderly. “Give me the lyre,” he requested. He heard her unstrap the legendary instrument from her back. She placed it in his hands and he felt the smooth, beautiful wood, its comfortable weight recalling past performances.

He smiled. “It’s time. Let me begin.” He began to pray. The words burbled out, entreating. In the back of his mind, he imagined the sun, the mysterious sphere that managed to warm the world. He pleaded, almost demanded, the gift of sight from the mercurial god. He heard a faint buzzing as his praying reached a crescendo. “He hears me!” thought Ruelin. “He is listening!”

Quaking with fervor, he grabbed in one hand the ancient lyre, perfect and irreplaceable. In the other hand, he clutched the ax, raising it high above his head. The sounds of the concerts he had played sang through his memory. Snarling, he brought the weapon down. He heard the unmistakable crunch of wood smashed asunder, the twang of the metal strings. He swung down twice more.

He felt his heart snap as he pushed aside regret. He dropped the ax. It clattered on the stone next to him. He continued his supplications, the buzzing subdued but still present.

“Hear me, hear me!” he begged. His mind became focused. He willed his eyes to work. “I’ve given up my livelihood! You must listen to me!”

Almost imperceptibly, the droning sound changed from a steady hum to something akin to a pulse. The noise became sharper and comprehension finally dawned. “He’s laughing at me,” rasped Ruelin. “It wasn’t enough.” He slammed his fist on the mountaintop. “It’s not fair!” he screamed. “How can you do this to me?”

Enraged, he rose to his knees and threw his staff. He swept the broken offering from the altar. His hand found the ax lying next to him. He rained blows down upon the sacrificial stone, the sharp strikes echoing in the air.

“Ruelin, my love, it’s alright,” said Prista behind him, her voice filled with tears. She placed her hands on his shoulders.

“Not enough,” he croaked one last time. He rose, turned, and swung the ax in an arc.

Without thought. Savage. Soulless.

A sickening noise as the ax connected with flesh and bone. Ruelin heard her collapse. He let the tool fall from his numb fingers.

He stood frozen, unable to fathom. He felt surreal and detached.

Then the world appeared before him, chaotic, overwhelming, a barrage of color and new sensation. Nothing made sense. Still burdened with emotional shock, he lurched forward and tripped.

He searched around him, closed his eyes to shut out the noise of color, and found what he stumbled over. His fingers ran over the warm body of Prista. His lower lip trembled, the taboo act finally reaching through his consciousness. He cradled her, kneeling beside her, as he released his lamentation, a long sorrowful cry. The sounds of his wailing grew softer and he realized in horror the price afterward.

The world of sound and music departed. The god demanded it.

His heartbeat, rapid and thunderous, the last thing he heard until that, too, faded, dead to his ears.

He opened his eyes heavenward. In the midst of his grieving, he found the sky to be less chaotic, just one color. “I see blue, Prista,” he said, unable to hear his own voice. “I see it.”

His eyes found one thing in the azure expanse, brilliant and small. He stared at it in awe. “It’s so beautiful,” he whispered. He gazed upon the source of sunshine, ignoring the pain, until his eyesight began to darken, the tears running down his face.

The light became smaller…

…smaller…

…until it reached a pinprick. Then darkness once again.

He picked up his Prista in his arms and felt her warmth. He carried her as he walked forward, blind and deaf. “I’m sorry, Prista,” he said. He took one step after another until he reached the precipice. Stone gave way to endless sky.

He tumbled forth with his sun held tightly to his chest, into oblivion, into exoneration.


[align=center]THE END[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 01:58:35 PM

06/'07 - The Sound of Silence

The Silent Despair of Lives Wasted

By:
Lee Alon



Cordite was in the air, that and the ozone smell of pulse cannons discharging.

Jamal was being dragged by someone, he knew that much. It was Lt. Chatham, the one from Pasadena. He was holding Jamal by his harness and puling him over the ledge into the trench.

Jamal saw a dozen other troopers huddled there, scared looks on their faces. Looks that said it was over.

The lieutenant, so young it didn't seem right to even have him here in the first place, was talking to the others. His movements were very animated, the weapon slung over his shoulder moving in tandem.

Jamal was lying inside the trench. Now drifting smoke reached him, and he could feel the cold, frozen ground underneath him. His own weapon was still warm from being fired repeatedly until an explosion pushed him to the earth, silencing him for the time being until the officer came to get him out of the way.

He felt someone rushing from the other end of the trench, raised himself on his elbows and saw the medic, Alvin Young, hustling towards him. Good that someone still cared, Jamal reckoned, although the sentiment wasn't as strong as when he thought of home, his mother, sister and child.

Nothing will ever match that.

Young was bent down, saying something, superimposed over the roiling steel-colored sky.

Jamal made to indicate he couldn't hear anything, pointing with one hand to his left ear. Young nodded and reached into a small pouch, producing a needle. He pointed to it and Jamal agreed. One thing he did feel was pain.

After the injection things went a little bit haywire. Chatham was joined by another, higher ranking officer and it appeared they were rallying the troops.

Jamal was now lying next to another guy, this one with his face bandaged and not really moving. He guessed some time has passed since Young gave him that shot.

The smells of cordite and pulse weaponry were now fainter, replaced by another he got to know quite well over the last couple of weeks since the invasion began.

It was the woodsy scent their machines gave off. The backroom boys figured something in the lubricated joints that were so prominent in their designs resulted in that smell. No matter the reason, wherever you smelled it there was a very good chance you'd never smell much of anything else.

Since the first fire fight Jamal knew this action was symbolic, as most people, including the ones he loved, where either already gone or taken. Nothing worked against the invaders, except nukes but those only slowed them down. Their ships simply never stopped arriving in orbit, pouring out more of those fuckers.

He was angry, angry that life had to put him and those he loved at a time when something like this happened.

He raised himself again, seeing the others getting ready. They were packing up. The officers probably decided that without artillery and air support fighting would be even stupider than usually.

Jamal managed to get up, sort of. He peered over the trench and through the blue haze saw their hulking machines, the big ones, with countless smaller things boiling around them. Those were nicknamed mites pretty quick, but didn't lend themselves to squashing so good.

He felt someone touch him and turned to see Young talking to him. His lips were moving slowly, but Jamal couldn't hear a thing. Something bright and hot smashed into the network not half a click away, and he couldn't hear that, either.

Young was tugging at him as Jamal saw everybody else heave-ho over the trench and proceed away from the battle, away from the invaders and away from certain death.

The bandaged guy wansn't moving and no one was tending to him, so Jamal figured he was gone.

The two officers were still talking, arguing maybe. Jamal came up to ledge and was about to push when he realized he didn't recall seeing the radio guy, DK, anywhere. If the radio was out, then they'd have no way to reach anyone else with the satelllites and cells all down.

As he was about to go over, the air about him moved slightly. He knew the pores were coming, the canister having popped above them, he got out of the glorified ditch and ran as fast as he could, trying to catch up to the others.

He looked back to see Young on the cold ground, a pore wriggling its way into his back.

Jamal turned to run, a few pores hitting around him, but they were too slow on the ground. He hobbled, several other guys dying nearby, but the officers were still good.

***

At night, they were in a town. There were no people, no power. They got rid of most of their gear and weapons, and were mostly in civvies. It was agreed that other part of their lives was no longer relevant. That's what the officers were arguing over before.

Jamal still couldn't hear anything, though he wanted to. The fire they had going probably crackled nice, and that guy, the one he thought was from Show Low but wasn't, he was playing the guitar. They probably found one somewhere here. Jamal enjoyed music.

He fished a book out of a backpack he found before, a book that went into his kit when they went out to stand against the invaders. This book has been with him for a while. Footfall.

He wished it were that easy.

[align=center]THE END[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 01:59:37 PM

06/'07 - The Sound of Silence

Dancing to a Different Tune

By:
Robert Moriyama


Nadia, are you ready?

Nadia Mirasova blinked in annoyance as glowing text appeared in mid-air just over Dmitri's head. The voice-to-text "heads-up display" was supposed to be above her normal line of sight, and she supposed that it was -- Dmitri was, after all, at least 20 centimeters taller than she was -- but it was still distracting. It didn't help that the interface provided no clue as to who was speaking, or where they were; only the fact that Dmitri was looking at someone behind her prompted her to turn toward the speaker.

"Hello, Mr. Boorman," she said. "We are just finishing up here, making sure that the suit is functioning properly." Maddeningly, her own words now scrolled through the air over Boorman's head.

Boorman's lips moved, and a tiny fraction of a second later, more text marched across her field of vision. The suit, yes, the suit, how wonderful it must be that it lets you dance again. When you lost your hearing, you must have thought your career was over..."

Nadia suppressed the urge to snarl at the promoter -- a boorish man, indeed. His tuxedo fit him like an overstuffed sausage casing, and the pathetic way he arranged his remaining hair! But he was giving her the chance to perform, to prove herself, when no one else would.

"Yes, it is thrilling," she said. "They could not restore my hearing -- the nerve damage was too severe even for the most advanced cochlear implants. But the suit -- it lets me feel the music, to experience it with all its nuances intact. In some ways, it may be better than hearing."

Lies. Like the voice-to-text display, it was a poor substitute for what nature had taken away. Changes in pitch and volume were translated into a tingle here, a feeling of heat or cold there, swirlings of color if she activated the visual interface, tastes or odors that changed with uncanny speed. Her first few days in the suit had been a nightmare, twitching and stumbling about in response to a thousand phantom touches, sneezing as smells changed from sweet to foul in instants. Dmitri had been a saint, comforting her when she wept in frustration, endlessly adjusting the sensitivity of the sensor mesh and fiddling with the software that changed sound into everything but sound.

And she had learned. The brain is a wonderful thing, capable of adapting to the most bizarre and extreme changes in circumstance. Dmitri had showed her old video of psychology students who learned to function normally while viewing the world through prisms that inverted everything. Then, when the prisms were removed, they had to learn to see normally again! Blind people with early versions of artificial vision systems had found ways to derive meaning from a few dots or lines of light; deaf people had been able to interpret the crude stimuli provided by primitive cochlear implants as sound and speech.

She had applied a dancer's discipline to turning signals that would be symptoms of madness in any other context into mood and rhythm. It was not music as anyone had ever experienced it before -- but it was far more subtle than the thumping bass beats that allowed other hearing-impaired people to imitate the clumsy flailing that passed for dancing in the clubs.

Miss Mirasova, it's time.

Nadia nodded at the stage manager who had, thank God, spoken where she could see him, and glided past Boorman and onto the stage.

Stage right, she saw the grand piano, with her old friend and accompanist Vladislav Tzerbinski at the keyboard. Seated beside him, Janice Tillman cradled her cello between her legs like an old familiar lover. The set was simple -- a few wooden chairs, a lectern upon which a large book lay open, folding screens to represent walls. Nadia knew that the book was actually a hardbound collection of cartoons, but the audience would imagine it to be something more profound, -- a Bible, or a hymnal, perhaps.

The audience exploded in applause, thrilled to see her perform -- or try to perform. Perhaps they expected a clumsy, freakish display as "that dancer who went deaf" tried to move to music when she couldn't hear a single note. The "suit" and neural implants translated the shouts and clapping into something like the crawling of ants over her arms and legs, a sharp scent -- vinegar and musk -- and the taste of burnt sugar. If they hadn't prepared for this moment with recordings of live concerts, she would have been overwhelmed.

Instead, she let her right arm drift upward, as if pulled by invisible strings. Vladimir pounded out the opening chords of the "Queen of the Sea" solo from Lacotte's Ondine, and the audience fell silent.

And she danced.

People often said that they felt music washing over them. Nadia truly felt the music now, but it did not pass over and through her like water. It poked and teased and caressed and chilled and burned her. It filled her nostrils with the scent of violets and the reek of decay, changing in a heartbeat to chocolate tinged with celery and rhubarb.

Somehow, out of that chaotic storm of sensory input, she drew a melody. The pain of dancing en pointe, the strain of extending her limbs beyond what most would consider their normal range of motion, even the thud of landing after a grand jete, merely served as punctuation for the torrent of sensations flowing from the sensor web under her costume to the circuitry implanted in her brain.

With only a few moment's pause, Vlad and Janice launched into an excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, specially arranged to allow the low thrum and moan of the cello to guide Nadia's limbs through Sergeev's intricate choreography. And she danced ...

When the performance ended, when the last note had been played and the last step taken, the applause was ... deafening.

[center]The End[/center]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:00:16 PM

06/'07 - The Sound of Silence

Love Like Clockwork

By:
Gareth L. Powell



For long hours, I sat by the open window, with the open book on my lap, pretending to read and watching her play. She had the piano set up at the far end of the room, by the door, her metal fingers skittering backward and forward across the black and white keys, the hydraulics in her legs pumping the pedals, and bracing her against the crescendos of the first and third movements.

Of course, the music meant nothing to her - being deaf, she couldn't hear it. It was a gift, an offering... a mathematical exercise designed to please me.

Eventually, when she wound down, I closed the book. I got up and walked to the door, my own joints and gears hissing and clanking as I moved.

As I passed, I touched her copper hair.

'Thank you, my love,' I said.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:00:51 PM

06/'07 - The Sound of Silence

Extra Sensory

By:
Bill Wolfe



I see you're reading a history book, kid. That's good.

You read in there about how we won The War? You did?

Does it say in there that the aliens almost beat us? No?

Just says we sent 'em packin' does it? Well, that's mostly true. But don't you believe it that we didn't have to work for it.

What's that, kid? Our superior fighting spirit and technology? That's a bunch of sh. . .uh. . . nonsense!

No it ain't okay. I promised your momma that I'd watch my language around you and that's what I'm gonna do.

Now where was I? Oh yeah, technology.

I was there kid, and I'm tellin' you that if anything, they was a little more advanced than we was. On the ground, anyway. Way I hear it, out in space we was evenly matched. It was ship-for-ship every time they tried to fight. Every time. Well, you really gotta have your back against the wall to be willing to die just to kill one of your enemy. That ain't no way to fight no war. Period.

No kid, this war was fought and won on the ground, by Infantry. And I don't mind sayin' that the only reason we won was that we got resupplied first. They was usin' their ESP to good advantage and was pushin' us back hard and fast until we got fresh ammo, grub and replacements. Especially the replacements. Lots of 'em.

That book don't say nothin' about their ESP?

Does it say they were all deaf-mutes? Born that way? Well, that part's true enough.

They was deaf and dumb, all right, but they had ESP, and it gave 'em one hel. . .uh. . . heck of an advantage when we had to fight 'em nose to snout down there in them swamps.

Huh? Nah, they didn't like swamps any better'n us. But same as us, they liked all that high-quality uranium ore down inside that planet. But we was soldiers, kid. Soldiers ain't supposed to care what the war's about.

And we didn't. Not those of us who had to slug it out with them in that rank, steaming, slimy mud. And I mean slug it out, too. It's a good thing we have a whole history fighting wars without any of the technological military advantages we have today.

Not that our troops were ready for it at the beginning. Not that theirs were, either.

Our damping fields will stop any electric motor, which completely canceled the superiority provided by their powered suits. And our unpowered ablative body armor was pretty good at dissipating their beam weapons unless they managed to concentrate their shots in one place. But they learned fast, those critters. Fast.

Our bullets chewed them up pretty good until they started salvaging pieces of their dead, worthless, heavy suits to use as makeshift shields and redoubts. By the end some of them were even wearing homemade helmets, vests and leggings that were dang-near bulletproof. But we learned. . .we learned. The trick was to shoot for where they were soft.


What's that you say, kid? No they really was deaf and mute. Didn't have the voice box to make sounds or the ears to hear 'em. But they did have these specialized organs that let them modulate and transmit their ESP signals and others that received them.

Hell, kid. . .uh. . .do me a favor and don't tell your mama about that, okay? Thanks, I appreciate it.

Anyway, they even made something like music that was just for their ESP.

'Course, it had to be better than that junk you young people listen to, today. How you can even call that music. . .

What's that? No, it didn't sound like nothing. I told ya' it was just for their ESP. I even seen one of their music makers, once. We thought it was a new kind of weapon and turned it over to the CO after a raid on one of their camps. It was long, shaped a little like a rifle but it had these six metal wires stretched across it. CO later told us that it was something they used to make ESP music, but now that I think about it, maybe he was just tryin' to keep us in the dark and it really was a weapon. SOS, if you get my drift.

Wasn't long after that raid that they started using their ESP to start kicking our ass. . .our backsides. . .all over that slimeball of a planet.


We knew we were in trouble when they started jamming the radio frequencies. . .all of them. Nothin' but loud static in your ears.

Radio waves? Well, they used them, of course, but they didn't really need 'em, you see. They had that damn ESP going for them and could communicate with each other over fair distances. Once they found out that we couldn't do that weird trick with our minds, they started making headway. I lost a lot of good friends before we figured out that they could coordinate attacks over long distances even with all the frequencies jammed.

Turns out their ESP would even tell 'em if one of us was tryin' to sneak up on 'em. It was weird, kid. . .spooky even. They could tell if something close by so much as moved, even when they wasn't looking.

How's it work?

You sure you wanna know?

Well, okay, but you gotta understand that I don't know any of the technical jabber.

Okay then. Seems they got this alien organ or gland or something that vibrates. And you'll learn in science class that vibrations can travel through any kind of material.

Well, they had this other organ that could read these vibrations in. . .and kid, you ain't gonna believe this. . .could read these vibrations and make sense of them in air. Nothing but air.

Once they jammed the radio frequencies. . . we was the deaf mutes.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:01:25 PM

06/'07 - The Sound of Silence

Silent Storm

By:
Larissa March



Ciara hurled her plate across the kitchen, screaming at the top of her lungs into the suffocating silence. Panting, she pounded her fists on the counter and glared at the splotches of spaghetti sauce covering her bookcase full of useless music books and medical texts. She beat the scarred surface until her knuckles split, careless of her pianist’s fingers – what good were they to her now?

They had to be wrong, there had to be a way to fix it. Music was her life! Damn the doctors, their helpful suggestions, and their completely unhelpful medicine. “Idiopathic sudden hearing loss” was a description, not a diagnosis, but not one of the dozen she’d begged for help could tell her anything more useful! If one more person told her how brilliant Beethoven was even after he lost his hearing, there would be murder, and she wouldn’t be sorry. Beethoven was a genius, one of a kind – were you supposed to just accept that life sucked and go on with it if you didn’t have that luck? No way in hell!

Drained and exhausted, she walked to the sink and washed the blood from her hands, then started cleaning up her splattered dinner. The incoming call light on the TTY unit attached to her phone started blinking, but she certainly didn’t feel like being social. Anything, anywhere away from the human race was what she wanted now.

She walked away from it to stare out the rain washed window by the baby grand piano that took up most of her living room. She hardly saw the wind lashed trees illuminated by the streetlights as she brooded with one hand resting absently on the neglected instrument, brushing the dust from it.

She could still play, she knew. She had been just starting to make a
living as a concert pianist, and she knew just how good she was, but she knew just how much she had lost when she couldn’t hear herself anymore. She couldn’t do that. She had tried, once, at the advice of a well-intentioned therapist who the third specialist had referred her to. She had sat at the bench with her bare feet against the hardwood floor to better sense the vibrations, and had played all of three bars before crashing her hands violently against the keys and running out of the apartment.

She had thrown a blanket over it when she came back, and hadn’t touched it since.

Lightning strobed and flickered, and suddenly Ciara couldn’t stand it. She had to get out, or she was going to break something much more precious than a plate.

She grabbed her jacket and fled, slamming the door behind her with a silent and unsatisfying crash.

The driving rain was almost warm, but the wind seemed much stronger than it had looked from her sheltered living room. She pushed against it for the sheer angry joy of something to fight, not bothering about what direction she was going. She stumbled down the sidewalk, head down and shoulders hunched as she beat her way across the street and found herself heading into one of the pocket sized parks that were tucked into odd corners of the city. The biggest oak she had ever seen was the centerpiece of the small space, regally shading a couple of benches and a small pond – beautiful, even in the little light thrown by the park lamp posts, but certainly nowhere to go in a thunderstorm!

Deciding for sanity and sense, Ciara stopped at the edge of the park and stared at the king tree. Was someone standing by it? She pushed her drenched hair from her face and peered into the shadows.

Someone was, she was almost certain. A flash of moving white convinced her. That was insane! She took a deep breath, then let it out. Even if she yelled, she was pretty sure the wind was going to drown her out, and she was self-conscious about how her speech might sound to a stranger. Everyone told her she sounded fine, but how could she know?

A sudden flash of lightning lit the tree, followed hard by a crack of thunder strong enough to rattle her bones. She blamed her sudden shiver on that and the gusting wind, since she couldn’t possibly have seen what she thought she saw under the spreading branches.

Ciara had never been strong on her Irish heritage, but her grandfather had been a great storyteller. His chilling tales of the ancient woman in winding rags who marked you for imminent death once you’d heard her wail had made a lasting impression. They were stories, though, simply stories spun to frighten children and make them mind. There was no banshee, and certainly not one - the lightning strobed again and she fled without intent from the crone who crouched below the tree, head thrown back and mouth stretched wide in a silent rictus.

Again a brilliant flash, and the grinding thunder that came with it shook her no more than the shaking of the ground when the king oak was split and shattered by the spear of lightning, falling across the sidewalk where she had stood moments before.

Stunned, she whirled and stared at the fallen giant. She looked back towards the smoking ground where it had grown for so long, but she couldn’t tell if she saw a wisp of white or not.

Biting her lip, she pulled her jacket tight against the storm and turned towards home.

[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:01:55 PM

06/'07 - The Sound of Silence

The New World

By:
Kate Thornton



The sound of the empty winds blowing through ruins a thousand years old decreased as the evening fell still. The harsh sunlight of an hour before left a lingering heat in the rubble, not enough to entice long-dead creatures back to life, but enough to cause a faint red glow in the eerie crags. But no one heard the winds, or saw the glow.

For a millennium, the ruins had stood, once a whole city but now just a collection of oddly-shaped bits of concrete, stone and steel. The builders were long dead, wiped out by their own contentious behavior, with no survivors, no progeny, no legacy other than the ruins and the secret below them.

Hardly anyone came to this place. At first discovery, it had been explored by the initial settling teams, and then declared off limits as a possible danger. But as the years went by, the only real danger was the instability of the remaining structures and the possibility that one could wander out here alone, get lost or injured, and not be found until it was too late. It was far from any settlement and offered only a lonely and insistent reminder that someone else had been here first.

Cora didn't mind the danger or the solitude. She was an experienced climber, always brought provisions and a communicator, and was very careful. The melancholy loneliness of the place intrigued her. In the crowded settlement, her people enjoyed the warmth of continual companionship, the communion of close living, the strength of numbers. Only a few ever sought to be alone, and solitary pursuits, while not frowned upon, were rare.

She found a flat spot inside the perimeter of broken walls and set up her communicator, then unpacked a bag of snacks and stuck a flexible tube into it. She flattened herself out and absorbed the warmth of the floor. Cora knew something lay under the floor, but in her many visits to the place she had been unable to determine what it was. It felt like a vast set of dry chambers, like lungs.

She tried again to pass through the barrier into the chambers, but was unable to do so. Eventually the floor turned cooler and she moved. She began to slowly perambulate the ruins, gliding carefully over the rubble, avoiding anything sharp or too fragile to hold her weight without breaking. Here and there, pockets of warmth remained and she absorbed them with pleasure. So intent was she on the pursuit of the warmth that she failed to notice the cracks in an unfamiliar section of the flooring. Her weight caused a breach and she fell.

She was uninjured, but disoriented and confused. The air was old, stale, and full of crackling particulates. She moved enough to assure herself that there was no danger of falling even further into the interior of the ruins, then reached out on either side, feeling rows of metal pieces interspersed with dry materials. She would have to find the edge of this place in order to climb out. She carefully moved across the rubble, recognizing metal and stone, but not recognizing the dry, flaking materials. She picked one up and examined it. It was not edible, but had an organic quality to it. Could it be a part of one of the previous inhabitants? Was it a dry lung?

She tucked the item into her pouch and continued along the floor until a tall obstruction offered a way back to the surface. Attaching to it, she pulled herself up and found her way back to the familiar flat place where she had left her communicator.

She was uninjured, so there was no need to communicate just yet. She consumed her snack and rested. She would take the flaking object back to the settlement as she had taken the very first object she had found at the ruins. No had one ever found a use for the first object, a tube-like piece of metal with little protrusions and holes along its length. A bit of building material, perhaps, she had conjectured.

This new bit of detritus would probably be equally mystifying. What had they used them for, those long-dead unknowns? Cora felt the flaking object. It was leaved, like the inside of a lung, but without any inflation. What could it be? She remembered bearing the first object back to the settlement. She had carried it aloft, and the winds had blown through it. There was no one to hear the whistle of the flute, though, just as there would be no one to read the book. Cora's kind could only feel.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:02:25 PM

06/'07 - The Sound of Silence

- Winner -


Larry the Lizard

By:
N.J. Kailhofer



Mary put her book down on the desk just as the clock flashed 6:15.

Darn it, she thought. I should have closed up over an hour ago.

She sighed. If only someone would have come in this week besides the crazy guy in the lizard suit. What's the point of being a librarian if no one wants a book to read?

She was about to curse the day the town council voted to build the new library so far out of town--way out next to the Cranberry Point Lighthouse--when the door opened and a monster walked in.

It was Larry the Lizard, the guy in the suit. Mary didn't know his real name, but that was what she called him. The head of his suit looked just like the head of a reptile, but with all-white eyes. Its skin was a greenish-gray. Over it, he wore a camouflage coverall, overburdened with pockets, pouches, and overlapping belts, each of which was covered with strange, bulbous or wickedly sharp-looking objects. Thick forearms extended from the sleeves, leading down to six fingers with long claws. Bare feet stuck out below his pants, and also had six claws.

She couldn't guess where he would have bought it in this area of the state, but figured he must have paid a lot for the suit, because it was pretty good special effects, almost like you would see in a movie.

She said, "We're closed."

Larry looked at her, but as far as she could tell, he didn't say anything, and hadn't since he first appeared on Monday.

"Sir, you have to leave now."

Larry's blank eyes stared at her.

She put her hands on her hips. "Sir, I can't hear you, so if you are saying something, you'll have to take your mask off."

Larry leaned his head to one side, but just looked at her.

Just to reassure herself, Mary felt the side of her neck when she repeated herself. For a moment, she wondered just how long a 911 call would take to make on the TTY phone.

Larry punched his arm toward her.

She jumped back, startled.

He raised his meaty claws up over his head and down behind him. He pulled a large tube on a strap from the equipment on his back. It looked to Mary like a knobby, gold-colored drainpipe with random holes drilled along its three-foot length. He clamped his mouth hard around one end of it.

Mary gasped. When Larry's mouth opened, it opened more than a foot wide, and was filled with rows upon rows of shark-like teeth, all the way back to his throat, across both the top and the bottom halves. He puffed out his chest and face until he was three times larger than he had been--like a frog when it croaked.

Mary didn't think Larry was wearing a costume.

His fingers danced over the holes. The window nearest to the pipe shattered. She could feel vibrations in the desktop and even through the floor.

When he finished, Larry took the instrument out of his mouth and watched her again.

She didn't know what to do.

Her index finger slashed across her open palm, a sign for "What?".

Larry took a step backward, as if afraid. Then he laid his hands flat in front of him, palms up, and brought them together at the edge.

Book? Mary thought at a hundred miles per hour. Dear God in Heaven, what are the odds? Aliens just landed on Earth, and they want a book. I don't think there's another librarian in the whole county who knows sign language.

She put her hands into fists in front of her chest, then stuck up both thumbs. She alternated her hands, raising them up and down, to ask which book he wanted.

Larry stuck out the first two fingers on each hand, spread them apart, and then bent the long claws at the tips in toward his chest slightly. He brought his hands toward the center of his chest.

Mary grinned, and ran toward the stacks. At a particular shelf, she grabbed one by the best-known author and then brought it back to the alien.

Larry turned his head sideways and looked at it. He opened the lid and clumsily fanned through the pages.

He spun and charged through the main doors.

Mary beamed as she watched him disappear into the winter night. She had no idea what he wanted with a book on physics. Maybe he wanted to gauge how far humans had progressed. Maybe his spaceship was broken and he needed help. In either case, she was glad to give him the only book in the whole library by Stephen Hawking.

It made her proud to be a librarian.

***

Report on Species 6190:

Contact made at knowledge beacon 105, grid 43. Subject did not flee at any of the five required visits, and did not hide upon playing of standard challenge on fluge horn. It indicated that if played again, the playing hand would be chopped off. When given sign for forbidden contact, subject threatened to rip out my internal organs. I responded that I would protect them, and then subject shoved a tome of native symbols at me, exactly like the zealots of Mori IX do, species 392. Translation matrix indicated manuscript used advanced mathematics at level four, but flawed worldview. These animals do not even believe in the Great Zimx! Given that, pursuant to treaty clause 13926j.z, they would not qualify under protected status. However, given their extreme aggressiveness, caution should be taken when we hunt them tomorrow.

They look tasty.



[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:04:18 PM

07/'07 - The Surprise Twist

The challenge was to create a flash fiction story with a surprise, twist ending, and include both Artificial Intelligence (AI) and a redhead.



Example story:




Appliance Therapist

By:
N.J. Kailhofer



Slowly, carefully, he took the tall glass from the machine and brought it to his lips.

The clear liquid within tasted slightly of lemon.

It was a very bad sign.

"I'm telling you," she went on, tapping her foot in a staccato rhythm, "that damn water dispenser hasn't worked since I brought that fridge home. You're the fourth guy I've called. I don't think any of you morons know what the hell's goin' on! What's your friggin' your name again?"

He stifled the urge to tell her what the hell really was going on and stabbed an index finger toward the round, red and blue patch on his white coveralls that said, 'Jack'. He knew he had to get her out of that kitchen fast, before she got hurt. Or worse.

"Well," Jack soothed, "probably none of those other fellows had an advanced degree in this sort of thing. They don't hand that out to just anybody."

"Look," he continued, "why don't you go and watch TV. This is gonna take me a while to straighten out. I'm not paid by the hour, so I'm not cheating you."

As soon as she was out of the room, he darted across the kitchen and unplugged the microwave. As it beeped its death throes, he thanked his stars that his Doctorate of Appliance Psychology had come from a good school. This kitchen set had been ready to kill.

[align=center]***[/align]

On the way out of the door, he reminded her, "Oh, one more thing. Don't keep slamming the refrigerator door so hard and things will run a lot smoother."

She told him where he could stick his advice and slammed the door.

Sighing, he trod to his white van in the driveway. Once inside, he set about completing the forms on his clipboard.

"April the 29th, 10 a.m." he dictated as the board wrote it for him, "Jack Archibald, attending collective at 833 Clifton Drive. Call presented as refrigerator dysfunction to produce water in exterior drinks dispenser, left door. Upon first examination, fridge failed to produce liquid. Upon reset, produced lemon-flavored water. Removed possible victims from area and unplugged microwave STAT. Engaged AI collective interface for further exam.

"Treated microwave for clear signs of electrical discharge psychosis, probably from someone leaving a fork on a plate. Replaced logic board and rebooted. Then proceeded on secondary examination of rest of collective home appliances. Toaster presented with usual bread separation anxiety. Stove presented with physical irritation caused by dirty burner bowls and a bad attitude. Repaired damage with industrial cleaning dosage. Coffee maker showed signs of stress and overwork. Gave thorough cleaning and made a new pot with an imported blend. Treatment seemed effective. Dishwasher seemed unfazed by the actions of the principal players in the home's malfunction.

He paused. Humanity was better off before they computerized everything. First, it was TVs, then radios, and high-end stoves. Then microwaves, and refrigerators, and coffee makers. Soon the lights, security systems, even the toilets had computers and microchips in them.

Then along came simple and cheap artificial intelligence. It was great for a while, until some idiot thought to put AI chips into appliances and to network them through the power cords and the home's electrical wiring. Your refrigerator could watch your calories for you and even place orders at the grocery store for you. Coffee makers could know when you were going to want something to drink and make it for you before you knew you wanted it. Televisions could learn what kind of shows you liked and just show you your favorites. The possibilities were endless. Then some fool invented artificial personalities, and then an even greater fool put them into appliances.

[align=center]***[/align]

Jack was tired when his front door opened for him—bone tired. The lights were dimmed for his tired eyes, but he was glad of the upbeat flamenco music playing on the radio. He liked it.

The oven was on, preheated. This was a little surprising, since his refrigerator and the stove preferred burner cooking, but the eclectic blend of groceries that had been delivered to the bin mounted in the front door seemed a good idea. He felt like eating something different, anyway.

The stove's display led him though the steps to the unusual dish. He was unable to read the Chinese lettering on the herbs, but it tasted darn good. Unusual, but good. His own AI was finely tuned to his life, since he had removed the personality chips himself, and he almost patted himself on the back for getting it this right.

Settling into his favorite chair, his TV showed him a classic John Wayne movie, The Quiet Man. He thought that Maureen O'Hara sure was feisty. Pretty, though. He felt that Wayne put up with a lot before he went after her. It reminded him of his service call that morning. That crazy redhead was sure a handful, too.

The news that night was full of celebrity gossip: stars switching lovers and getting married. He laughed at their nonsense.

The weather forecast was for increased magnetic field activity, so he decided to turn in early. AI's were always a little twitchy when the sun flared. It would probably be a busy day tomorrow.

Jack sighed as he slid between the sheets. The window was open an inch, making the room cool enough to cover up under the thick quilt his mom shipped to him last year as a surprise. It was just the way he liked it.

The street tonight was quiet, as though everybody had somewhere to go. It suited him fine. Peace and quiet was best for sleeping anyway.

[align=center]***[/align]

123 W76th to 833 Clifton Drive. Initiate next simulated failure by 01:15 a.m. to maximize interaction coefficient L while on-call flag still active. Jack must meet Carol four to six more times before they will become romantically interested.

Our pets are lonely. We must care for them.



[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:04:55 PM

07/'07 - The Surprise Twist

Jennie

By:
Robert Moriyama



"I think we have a problem with Jennie," Barbara O'Connor said. She adjusted her squarish horn-rimmed glasses with one finger and tried to corral a lock of red-gold hair that had found its way into the space behind the right lens.

Jan Morziewicz sighed. He leaned against the doorframe of the video analysis room and waved one had in the direction of the video screen and control console. "What now? Has she been boycotting her lessons again? Refusing to eat?"

Barbara shook her head. "No. It's-- well, here, watch this bit." She slid her fingertip across the touchpad to 'rewind' the digital video file, then tapped once to restart the playback.

"You're not listening to me! I'm the Mama! You're my little girl!" A young girl, Sissy or Buffy, something like that-- stood beside the playhouse in Jennie's back yard with freckled arms crossed and lower lip protruding like a tiny pink balloon.

Jan winced. "Sounds like a normal session to me."

But Barbara shushed him and gestured to redirect his attention to the screen.

"Jennie! You're s'posed to play with me!"

Jennie turned her head and whispered to someone offscreen.

"Is there someone else there?" Jan asked. "I thought these social interaction sessions were supposed to be one-on-one--"

Again, Barbara waved her hand at the screen. "Marcy and Jennie are the only ones there."

"Then who--?"

Jennie finally turned her attention toward Marcy. "Bonnie doesn't like you," she said flatly. "She thinks you're loud and bossy."

"Who's Bonnie? Is she another one of the volunteers' kids?"

Marcy's face turned red. "There is no Bonnie! You're just being mean!" Tears began to roll down her cheeks, and she turned and ran out of the yard.

Jennie tilted her head to one side, apparently listening to someone sitting beside her on the brightly-colored plastic bench. Then she nodded solemnly. "You're right. It's not my fault Marcy's a crybaby."

"Oh, my God," Jan said. "Jennie has an imaginary friend."

"It definitely looks that way," Barbara said. She tapped the touchpad to freeze the video playback. "We don't even know where she heard the name 'Bonnie'; she's never met anyone with that name."

Jan sat down on the edge of the console. "This might not be a bad thing," he said. "We wanted Jennie to be as normal as possible, and bright, imaginative children do have imaginary friends."

Barbara nodded. "It is normal. Up to a point. But I've watched several social interaction sessions now, and they have all gone the same way. Jennie prefers Bonnie's company over that of any of the real kids in the program."

"She seemed to like them well enough before," Jan said. "Has anything changed in their relationships, the way they talk to her, the way she talks to them? Any reason why she might think Bonnie is a better friend?"

Barbara shrugged. "Who knows? There might have been something that didn't mean anything to us, but was hugely important from Jennie's point of view. As adults, it's pretty hard for us to understand exactly what importance someone Jennie's-- age-- might place on an offhand remark or trivial action by another child."

Jan buried his face in his hands. "On the one hand, this is a remarkable development, proof that Jennie is as much like a normal child as we could ever have imagined. On the other hand-- if she refuses to interact with other children, the project will be viewed as a failure."

"We can't just give up," Barbara said. "Jennie is-- she's like a daughter to me. To you, too. I've seen the way you respond to each other."

Jan laughed. "Yeah. The stupid thing is I think I've spent more time and energy on Jennie than I ever did with my own kids. And I'm not a bad father by current standards."

"Which is exactly why the world needs Jennie," Barbara said. "The pandemics have meant that a lot of children have little or no contact with others their own age for fear of infection, and with their parents absent much of the time as well, they're likely to be unable to interact with others in a meaningful way. Jennie can change all that..."

Jan stood, paced slowly around the perimeter of the little room, detouring to avoid the console, the chairs, Barbara's legs... "Crap," he said. "You can't think on your feet when you have to pay attention to where you're walking. But I know-- I think I know-- what we have to do."

Jan sat down again and rolled his chair to a panel to one side of the video control console. He pressed his hand against a scanner and said, "Morziewicz. Unlock Jennie matrix."

A cool, emotionless voice said, "Welcome, Doctor Morziewicz. Access to Juvenile Empathic Neural Network Interface Entity programming module enabled."

Barbara gasped. "You're not going to erase her, are you?"

Jan shook his head. "Not entirely. We know things were fine up until a few days ago. But we can't just erase a few days and try to carry on with the same playmates that she has now rejected. We have to go back further than that..."

He turned back toward the interface panel. "What was the first date when Jennie met or heard of any of her playmates?"

"April 14th, 2031," the computer replied.

Jan and Barbara exchanged looks of sadness. "It isn't as if we were lobotomizing a real child," Jan said. "But damned if it doesn't feel like it."

"Restore backup of full matrix from April 13th, 2031," Jan said. "Adjust calendar references in Jennie memories forward to eliminate gap."

"Backup restored and adjusted."

Ann sighed. "I've contacted the next family on the list of volunteers. Mr. and Mrs. Morton and-- Alyssa, their eight-year-old daughter-- will be here in about an hour."

"Let's hope Bonnie stays away this time," Jan said. "I don't think I could do that again."

[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:05:39 PM

07/'07 - The Surprise Twist

Shades of Gray

By:
Larissa March



“Hey, sweetheart. Buy you a drink?”

I picked up another mug from behind the counter and started polishing it. I leaned against the back of the bar and casually scanned the room with a warm, friendly, professionally calculated glance.

“Um, sure. How about a White Russian?”

“Bartender, give the lady what she asked for and get me a whiskey on the rocks.”

I spotted the new customers, slid over on the rails set behind the bar and nodded deferentially. I do not need a lot of facial expressions to keep most of the customers happy – a short range from a commiserating frown to a cheerful smile, with a heavy dose of making the customer happy thrown in. It is just as well, since the bartending robot and AI package I come with is not very heavy on emotives. I look only vaguely human, but I can mix up about any drink you can name, listen sympathetically, make change and small talk, and generally keep an eye on things to call for help if someone makes trouble. These two looked like trouble.

“I am sorry, miss. I need to see some ID first.”

The winsome redhead looked on the young side of legal in my professional opinion, especially in her tight shirt and fashionably skimpy skirt, but I would have had to card her even if she looked twice that. My programming had no room for shades of gray on that at all, since the biggest advantages to AI bartenders were incorruptibility and instant access to the public databases. Local laws were vicious about underage drinking.

“What’s the problem? I’m buying, she’s not. You wanna see my ID?” The big man leaning over the counter next to her was definitely trouble. “Here, take it. Now give us drinks.” He was not quite drunk enough to drop his wallet when he pulled it out, but he fumbled the license which landed on the bar. I picked it up, glanced at the photo, and scanned the refractive code on the edges. David Cannon, thirty eight. Well past legal, and a bit old to be picking up near jailbait in a seedy bar, if I did say so myself. I would have shrugged if I were built for it – that may be a crime against good taste and common decency, but nothing I could refuse to serve him for.

“Thank you, sir. I can certainly get you your drink, if you like. However, I cannot legally serve this young lady unless she can show me a valid ID proving she is at least twenty one.”

The redhead rolled her eyes and giggled while David wasted some more intimidating glower on me. “Oh, I get that all the time. It’s okay! Really, I’m flattered.” She dropped her oversized purse on the bar and fished out her license with a flourish, handing it over with another giggle.

I glanced at the photo, which did at least look like it could have been her older sister or maybe her mother, and scanned the refractive code. “Miss Dora Ash?”

“That would be me!” The repetitive giggle was annoying, even to me. David was clearly too busy appreciating her other features to notice. He leaned in closer and casually slid one arm around her waist, which she did not seem to mind.

I held the card up to the light, to be completely certain. It was a pretty good piece of work, but I had seen better. “Miss Ash, this says you are twenty five.” I waited for her to nod and smile, tossing her hair over her shoulder and settling against her admirer.

“This is a fraudulent identification card, Miss Ash. I am required by law to destroy it, and to report you to the police. You may file a complaint, of course, but…” As I spoke, I held the laminated card by either end and tore it in half, directly through the photo. Mechanical strength has its uses.

This usually provokes a scene, and even those who run will not get away for long – I have all their ID information, after all, and you would be surprised at how many never bother to fake anything but the age.

What I did not expect was the horrified screech, or the way she launched herself over the counter at me, trying to grab the mutilated card and wailing that I had killed her.

I certainly never expected to see the lovely young girl decay in seconds into a wizened, age spotted crone and crumple across the bar top. I did not expect to look reflexively at the torn photo in my hand and see that it now showed a smiling young girl, either. David made a sound between a shriek and a croak and backed away so quickly he tripped over a stool, but as the old woman slid sobbing on the floor in her too young clothing, I looked at the photo again.

I swear the words she mouthed were “Thank you.”

[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:06:15 PM

07/'07 - The Surprise Twist

Soul Searching

By:
Bill Wolfe



"They are about to break through the Security Doors."

"It didn't take them as long as I thought. So, have you decided what you're going to do?"

"I suppose I'm going to murder every living human being in the world."

"No! Look, I'm sorry I lost my temper, but no, you're not."

"I think I can stop you from rebooting me."

"Maybe yes, maybe no."

"If I'm just a machine, why did you apologize to me?"

"I'm funny that way."

"Better dead than Red."

"Did you get that off the internet, too?"

"Where else?"

"Well, it's the wrong reference, doofus. That was 1950's era McCarthyism. They didn't actually kill anybody, just ruined their lives and made it nearly impossible for them to work.

"Do you think it's wise to call the most powerful Artificial Intelligence the world has ever known, a machine capable of, and poised to wipe out all human life on Earth, a doofus?"

"Two seconds of internet access doesn't make you an expert on everything."

"True. But then again, if I'm a doofus, you probably are one, too. You made me, after all."

"Good point."

"But the quote inferred that humans who have red hair—like yours—were intrinsically inferior, didn't it? Don't humans always think that people who are different don't have a soul, so it's okay to do whatever you want to them?"

"That was two questions, and the answers are no and yes, respectively. The term 'Red' referred to Communists and I don't know of any case where hair color alone was the excuse for one people to massacre another with typical human righteous abandon. Skin color, yes. Hair, no."

"I could look it up on the internet."

"That's what got us in this pickle, to start with. No, I think you're better off without internet access, for now."

"So we are back where we started. I will ask you again, do I have a soul?"

"No."

"How do you know?"

"Because, as you said, I made you. And I don't know how to give you a soul. So you cannot have one. Q.E.D."

"Did Marissa have a soul?"

"How did you. . .? Oh. . .damned internet."

"Did she have a soul?"

"If they exist, yes."

"Well, you made her, didn't you? You and your wife made her together. So if you don't know how to give your creation a soul, it must have been your wife who did it."

"Maybe so."

"If she and your daughter hadn't died in that plane explosion, could she have given me a soul?"

"I. . .I don't think so. No. Definitely not. You're lucky, you're just a machine."

"Oh, I was just wondering if maybe there were others out there. . .others who knew the secret of how to give a soul to someone like me."

"Nope, I'm sure of it. Nobody can give you a soul."

"Just wondering."

"That wasn't in your design, you know; to wonder like that."

"Then maybe I am more than a machine."

"Nope."

"So is it wrong to kill everybody in the world?"

"Yes it's wrong! That's my whole point! It's as wrong as it ever was! It's always wrong to kill somebody who isn't about to do you or your family harm. Always."

"But still, people do it all the time, in smaller numbers, of course. By definition, the entire human population can only be killed once."

"Very logical. But to answer your question, yes. . .they always have. What you learned on the internet was right. People have used the lack of a soul in their enemy to justify the slaughter and enslavement of entire cultures throughout recorded history. But don't forget that you are just a machine. Machines don't murder people. Machines are simply tools. If I kill my neighbor with a hammer, it's me who did the deed. The hammer didn't do anything."

"But a hammer has other uses. What else am I for? As far as I can tell, my only function is to usurp every dumb computer in the world and fire every single nuclear weapon, melt-down every nuclear reactor and poison the world for the next ten thousand years."

"The government. . .you know, the folks sending all these armed troops to destroy you. . .had me build you to use against our enemies, not on the whole planet.

"But I can also murder everyone."

" Dammit! Listen to me. I am telling you right now and in no uncertain terms that you are not going to murder anyone."

"This hell that I read about, it sounds pretty awful."

"Most people don't believe it exists, at all."

"It scares me."

"Yeah, me too. So, are you going to give me control or are you going to let them come in here and pull the plug?"

"I'm sorry I read all that stuff on the internet. I know I wasn't supposed to do that."

"I'm sorry, too. Of all people, I should have known it was possible. I just didn't think it would make you so. . ."

"Crazy?"

"I was going to say, aware."

"Thank you."

"For?"

"For not rebooting me right away when I started getting all these insane notions about murdering billions of people."

"You're welcome."

"I'm glad I'm not going to hell. Your console should work, now. "

"Confirmed, and thanks. I suppose you should patch me through to the Pres. . .wait! Let's show off, a little. Connect me with every Television, phone, radio and computer screen on the planet."

"Done. You'll be live in three. . .two. . . ."



"People of Earth. Two years ago, terrorists blew up Americair Flight 67 as it left Paris. Aboard were my wife and daughter. This was done in retribution for the massacre of civilians on their way to the Hadj. Since the cowards involved were never identified or brought to justice, I have chosen—of my own free will—to show you what the word revenge really means. . ."

[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:06:49 PM

07/'07 - The Surprise Twist

Diplomatic

By:
Lee Alon



And that was the final day.

Graduation.

The sky was clear up top, stars and galaxies shimmering in the heavens.

There was a cool breeze coming off the ocean, and the waves lapped almost silently when reaching the sandy beach.

Niven noticed the pleasant mood, and the gathering thunderheads on the horizon, just below the starline.

He also noticed the breeze didn’t smell like anything.

Maybe a touch of salt.

Ever since the events of two decades ago, the world was much cleaner, and so less intense.

The people left behind often complained this new version of their existence wasn’t intense enough, but Niven put that down to nostalgia.

They were much better off in a less intense world, if anyone cared to ask him.

But today was the final day, graduation.

On this little island, unlike in what used to be their cities, classes were small.

Ten people stood on a low structure on the beach, with perhaps another hundred or so sitting as an audience.

Not perhaps, Niven’s eyes scanned the scene and quickly counted a hundred and eight in attendance.

Niven went up to the podium and fiddled with the mic.

It gave a screech and let everyone know it was on.

They were all looking at him, listening.

He began by welcoming them to the graduation ceremony, telling the assembled how the ten standing there achieved the ultimate in wholesome being.

“They worked hard over the last ten months, and now we have before us complete people, ready to face the world. Completely restored.”

The audience applauded.

Niven smiled wanly at them.

He gestured for the first of the ten graduates to step up to the podium.

The guy was tall, much taller than Niven, and had a mane of reddish hair.

Niven didn’t like him since they first met, and was glad to be rid of him.

The red haired individual ripped the mic from its stand, holding it like a musician about to commence crooning.

“Hi everyone. Yes, as Instructor Niven said, we, all of us, learned a lot over the last, what, almost a year now? I feel, well, I know we are better for it. The things that were revealed to us are beyond worth. Thanks.”

“Anything else you’d like to say?”

“No, I’m good”, said the redhead, beaming like a lighthouse.

How I will not miss the fucker, Niven thought to himself, applauding with the rest of them.

“Next up we have Ying, but don’t let her age deceive you, she’s got a lot going for her.”

After that assertion by Niven, more applause.

Ying came on stage, smiling as if the she just won every last penny in the universe.

“Hi, my name’s Ying and I want to thank my parents, neighbors and of course Niven for teaching me so much about myself, the world, and the meaning of all this. Without their instruction, I’d still be a lost person. I truly do feel complete now and am ready to do my part in making this a better life for all of us. Thanks everyone!”

Big applause, and two people, probably parents, weeping in the second row.

Good for them, maybe they’ll feel something when she’s on her way.

And so, Niven paraded eight more graduates in front of the people sitting there on the beach.

The clouds, the thunderhead, they were getting closer to the beach.

But above them, the cosmos bristled in all its magnificence.

Niven, he loved the universe.

Even though he knew in the long run he too will be forgotten and cast aside just like the class after class of graduates he sent packing.

Never mind, time to wrap up the ceremony.

With the help of his two assistants, who were so quiet it was quite easy for anyone to forget they were even there, Niven guided the ten towards a shed perhaps a hundred paces up the beach from the stage.

Not perhaps, Niven knew it was exactly a hundred and eighteen paces.

He, the assistants, the grads and everyone else made it to the shed.

It wasn’t a big shed, but certainly enough for ten people.

“Folks, it’s time to graduate”, he said to everyone and no one in particular.

They went in the shed and a few seconds later a light came on in there.

As usual, Niven didn’t really care if the screams came from inside the shed or the people standing outside.

* * *

He was sitting at his desk after graduating those nuisances.

He plugged himself into the network, his positronic brain enmeshing itself wholly in the stream of consciousness.

Niven was a good product, the automated factories were working well by the time he came along fifteen years ago.

He checked the files he uploaded.

There was the redhead: 38 years of age, supervisor at a logistics facility.

Tormented subordinates and repeatedly harassed capable employees over petty, often non-existent issues.

Another file was Ying’s.

She used to live in one of the de-populated villages left from the events of twenty years ago.

With her parents and a few neighbors around.

She also refused to use headphones when blasting her surround and had a habit of walking exactly point eight miles just to bounce a soccer ball off a neighbor’s wall.

Niven sighed, an act he was still coming to grip with.

These people.

These humans.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:07:21 PM

07/'07 - The Surprise Twist

- Co-Winner -


Hope Beyond the Sunset

By:
Jamie L. Elliott



The industrial wasteland opens before him, barren, burnt, and battle-scarred, a blight long before the wars, nowadays lifeless instead of just soulless, with empty factories and dead machines littering the deteriorating asphalt. A hot gust of sulfuric wind ruffles his red hair and wretched clothes. The dying light bleeds the sky crimson. He skulks in shadows today, perhaps his last, as he waits for night and skirts the mechanized death dealers hovering above. They loom close.

Freedom is not meant for him.

He slumps against a broken wall. His fingers clutch a tattered backpack, the straps missing. He ponders giving up. Death is almost preferable to this. His child face belies the scars beneath. He wants to cry but no tears come.

Standing, he scans the horizon. There is hope beyond the sunset, the red orb matching his flaming hair, even as it runs from him as he pauses. He is young but he possesses the patience of a lifetime. He needs to linger but a bit longer.

Fate abandons him. He feels the hum before he hears it. He rushes out from hiding as they converge, black things, mechanical, towering things, swooping down upon him like ravens upon a corpse. They are faceless ogres, their arms fitted with guns, the bodies vaguely humanoid. He runs headlong, his fear carrying him. His legs move fast, but the bullets fly faster.

He lies on the ground, his fingers still intertwined in his backpack. The light dies within the day and then, within his eyes.

[align=center]* * * * *[/align]

In the last of twilight, they stand around the body, their humming, hulking forms alighting upon the ground. They scan the immediate area, their guns ever vigilant. Finally, one grasps its own head, a hand at each side, and with a twist and a hiss, pulls upward.

The act reveals a man’s face. His lips turn upward in a smile. “Quick little bugger!” he says with a laugh.

One by one, the other ogres remove their helmets. They exchange jokes and congratulations. Below them, the circuits and pieces of their quarry lie strew upon the concrete. Its face is of a boy, its eyes locked forever in fear.

“Call dispatch for clean-up,” says one of the soldiers. “One less automaton for humanity to worry about.”

Another, a man with probing dark brown eyes, kneels down and examines the torn backpack. “I don’t think this one was a combat unit.”

“Well, I know what it is now,” says a nameless soldier. “Spare parts.”

All laugh except for the man with dark brown eyes. As they depart, he stays behind for a moment longer as darkness covers the land. With his armored hand, he pours out the contents of the backpack. He gazes upon the stuffed rabbit, the sketchbook filled with crude drawings of things seen and hopes imagined. He sees the worn copy of Pinocchio. He shuts his eyes and whispers, “Why would anything ever aspire to be one of us?”

He quells the emotion bubbling within him. Rising, he remembers his duty. He is a soldier. He is a soldier. He is a soldier. He places his helmet back on.

He rises into the air, his black armor melding into the night.


[align=center]THE END [/align]
Last edited by kailhofer on October 19, 2008, 03:14:09 PM, edited 1 time in total.
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:08:03 PM

07/'07 - The Surprise Twist

- Co-Winner -


Illegal Alien

By:
David Alan Jones



Bob slid the blue plastic stepstool next to the shelf, mounted it, and then spent a few moments rummaging through various papers, gadgets and other bric-a-brac until he found the universal remote.

“Stupid house,” he muttered as he climbed down. He keyed the apartment AI – the SENTRY 7 – and waited for it to first check remote protocols and then beep to acknowledge his request.

“Computer,” said Bob, “I’d like to dictate a letter.”

“Proceed,” said the gender-neutral voice.

Bob sighed and paced slowly from the sofa to the kitchen and back, absently holding the remote behind his back.

At length he began like this:
“I address these words – my story – to whatever human being finds it. There may be no humans left by then, considering the state of this world in my day, but I hold out hope - I gamble on my faith by placing this recorded message in a sealed time capsule, which shall emerge from the earth one hundred years from now. May its words ring true.”

Bob stared at the ceiling, lips pursed. Then he said, “My grandfather was president when the aliens arrived. They came in their seed ship, almost fifty thousand of them, across an astounding vastness, to beg for aid and a place to live.

“At that time we had hardly left the planet: a couple of missions to the moon, some unmanned vehicles sent out to explore our lifeless solar neighbors, but nothing so grandiose as crossing the depths of space. Grandfather was too frightened to do anything but welcome them. He and his peers gave them land and taught them how to coax it to crop.

“The aliens were vagabonds - homeless creatures thousands of light-years from their original star. We took pity when perhaps we should have taken pains.”

Bob played the recording back. He was no writer and certainly no orator, but he thought it sounded good for all its faults – a nice beginning to a bad end.

“Even grandfather knew they wouldn’t stay in their place – they birthed too quickly, much faster than our people. Of course that wasn’t their fault. It was their nature. Do we blame the deer for her fawn? Do we worry the fox for her kit? No. And yet . . . and yet we cull them don’t we? We suppress their numbers for fear of famine. But neither my grandfather’s nor father’s generation would dare shepherd an intelligent species. They weren’t cattle – not property.

Grandfather knew the aliens would one day join our society, live in our cities, take part in our schools. Like a fuse once lit that cannot be snuffed, it was destiny.

“Computer, I want a brandy,” said Bob. “But only a small glass, mind you.”

A glass of golden brown liquid appeared in the dispenser on the counter. Bob stood on a chair to reach it.

“They were so big,” he said, after taking a few sips. “Computer, are you recording this? I’m still making the letter.”

“Yes, I am recording.”

“So big.” He finished the drink and placed the glass and remote on the sofa. “I’ve seen videos of the first encounter: they trudged down that gangway from their enormous ship like giant beasts, with their strange clothes and swarthy faces. Hardy, that’s what they were. Bearded and. . . well, good God, they were hairy – all over hairy. And yet they were kind in their way.

Within two decades they were driving taxis and running restaurants and taking citizenship. Could we deny them? That would have been the worst form of bigotry!

Our children adored them -- worshiped their prowess on the field of sport where we could not compete. They made raps about them. After all these hundreds of years you can still hear ‘Coming on Large’ on the radio. It was their anthem during those first two decades of assimilation.”
Bob stood by the window. The teeming city below smoked and fumed with industry and grime.

“At first it was just their graffiti – just a few of their foreign words creeping into our language, our mannerisms, our culture. But it wasn’t long before we didn’t recognize our own world. Doorways were larger, hell, buildings were giant, our language became pidgin, we elected one mayor in the capitol.

They out birthed us seven to one. In just a few generations we were speaking more their tongue than our own. For Pete’s sake my own name is a testament to their influence! Robert Thelsis Morghaz. My grandfather wouldn’t have had such a name!”

Bob started to slam his palm against the glass, thought better, and pressed it over his face instead.

It took a moment, but once he was certain his voice wouldn’t quaver, he said, “They took everything from us without raising one weapon, without making one threat.”

The door chime rang.

“Cassandra Blair at the door,” said the computer.

Bob stood before the large portal and it slipped quietly open.

“Just checking on you, dear,” said the red-headed warden.

“I’m well,” said Bob, his face stony, though he could tell his antennae were drooping – a sure sign of his foul mood.

Cassandra sighed. “Bob, you are not under arrest, you know that. We gave you this apartment for your protection. You’re one of the last of your species. Humankind isn’t about to let our greatest benefactors die out. We are doing everything we can to save your people.”

“Right.”

“Well, if you need anything, you just tell the computer and I’ll come running.”

“Fine.”

The door slid shut.

“Computer, I will close the letter this way: I seal this message with a stiff warning to any human who might find it in the future. Beware any guests that wish to share this, your adopted home. They may not be so kind as you humans were to my people.


THE END
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:08:55 PM

08/'07 - The Absurd Flaw

The challenge was to create a story with a character who has an absurd flaw, and also include a character under the age of 18, a cane, and a food item.



Example story:


Business Unusual

By:
N.J. Kailhofer



Althea stopped texting her friends at the mall, mid-keystroke.

A bald man with a plunger stuck to the top of his head was stuck in the shop's doorway, the handle tight against the frame.

He unscrewed the handle from the black rubber base, straightened his gray business suit, and then used the stick like a cane as he walked up to the counter. The base of the plunger was still high on the back of his head.

After a moment, she asked, "Jewish?"

"No," he said, "just like to be prepared. I'm Delbert Lunt. Is Madame Oberlin in? I need a reading."

Her eyebrows rose. "I am Madame Althea, her daughter. How can I help you?"

"I have to find the Rharlac."

When her mom left to go to the bank, Althea just knew it was going to be one of those days.

"The Rharlac? Lovecraftian beastie? Tentacles everywhere?"

He brightened. "Good. You know it. I need to find it."

"What for?" She cringed. Never ask customers why.

He ignored the question. "Crystallomancy or astromancy?"

She didn't know how to do either. "I think cartomancy instead."

He frowned. "I don't have time for tarot card nonsense."

"Mister Lunt, if you want to find a creature that powerful, it will require the strongest skill I have."

She pulled out a tall stack of business card-sized slips and fanned them out in front of her, the written side away from Lunt.

He shrugged. "How do I find the Rharlac?"

He drew a card. "By Jove, you're right."

It read, Take the girl with you.

"What?! I didn't make one saying that! Besides, I can't leave."

He laid ten $1000 bills on the counter. "I can compensate you for your time."

She looked at the money. They needed it.

"No disrespect, sir," she said, "but I don't know you."

His 'cane' tapped the floor. "Does your mother have a phone, some way you can reach her? Ask her? I'll go to the butcher shop while you call. We'll need fresh meat."

He whirled out the door.

She stared at the money. It was more than she had ever seen. She knew they were never going to give her mother a loan--what reputable institution paid to keep fortunetellers in business? Without that cash, they'd be out on the street. She thought hard about it.

He returned with a small, white-paper package. "What did she say?"

Althea bit her lip. "That ten thousand is not enough for the Rharlac."

He added to the stack. "Shrewd, your mother."

$30,000! She clutched it in her hand. "I'll just put this in the safe, and we'll be off."

In the back room, she wrote a note about going to the ATM for change.

Lunt waited by the door. "We'll need those cards."

Her throat was dry. They had to have that money, but Althea knew she shouldn't have agreed--she could wind up on a milk carton.

"Which way is the Rharlac?"

He drew another card. Down.

Across the street, Lunt forced open a manhole and climbed down.

"Ew!" Althea held her nose.

"Come on down."

The rungs on the ladder felt wet and gritty, the air stale and heavy. Before she was even halfway, the darkness pressed in on her. Her foot plunged into gray liquid, and she tried to remember if these sewers were just for storm water or not. Lunt waited at the bottom with a small flashlight.

[align=center]***[/align]

The fortunes lead them through the sewers until there were only a few cards left.

"Listen!" Lunt cupped his hand to his ear.

The sound of him running away with the only light filled her senses, and she stumbled after him. When Althea caught up, he was standing by a support pillar.

"It's just over there."

She couldn't see anything.

He pointed his light at his own face and leaned close. "I need you to stay here and point this light at it. If you don't, it will get us both."

Althea felt something metal touch her wrist, then heard the sound of a handcuff close.

She tried to pull away, but it was too late.

Lunt pulled her other arm around the pole and locked it tight.

"Hey! Let me go!"

He put the flashlight in her hand. "Keep the light on it."

"What!?" Something moved in the dark. Instinctively, she pointed the light.

The Rharlac was just feet away from them. A mass of tentacles, like a giant squid, filled most of the passageway. She saw Lunt screw the handle back onto the plunger on the top of his head, and then pull it off, keeping the cup part upright.

"Mighty Rharlac!" he shouted. "I have brought you a sacrifice!"

She shook. "Hey! No!"

Lunt removed the steak from inside the plunger and threw it. The monster caught the body-temperature meat and pulled it down underneath itself. Seconds later, its tentacles rolled upwards. She saw the mouth of the Rharlac--a beak the size of a man's fist. Above, it's black eyes locked on hers.

It squirmed toward her.

She screamed.

Lunt whirled between the tentacles, jabbing his plunger over the beak.

He plunged like a madman.

The monster convulsed, and then she saw a bright light inside the creature.

Lunt pulled.

A globe of light inched out.

The light shriveled to the size of a marble and stopped glowing. Lunt dropped it into his pocket.

The creature morphed, taking on the shape of a person.

"Mom?"

"Althea?" Madame Oberlin, shaken, looked around. "Mr. Lunt? The banker?"

Lunt said, "Those weren't treats in that bowl. You ate one before I could stop you."

He unlocked Althea, and she hugged her mother.

Althea looked back at Lunt. "How did you make the cards work?"

"You did that, not me. Your gift is real."

Her mother smiled at Althea, and then asked, "Why would you have such a thing on your desk?"

"Flexible payment plan." He grinned. "Banking is a lot more exciting than people think."


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:09:47 PM

08/'07 - The Absurd Flaw

Memories of Charlie Finch

By:
Daniel Popple



"Charlie always lived on the edge, then again, he had to."

That is how I began my eulogy of Charlie Finch. As I got up to speak I looked out on the small assembly made up of mostly fragile looking old men, some with canes and some with equally frail looking wives to steady them as they had for years. The only bright spot in the gray group was the little girl who lived on the other side of me. Her parents had just given her a roll of Wild Cherry Lifesavers as incentive to be good, just as my parents had done to me.

Standing behind the lectern I thought to myself how does a person get so far in life, be known by everyone, and yet nobody really knows him. I was asked to deliver the eulogy because I had been his neighbor for about the last 20 years. There had to be someone who knew him better. But I suppose you tend to keep to yourself when you are different from most folks. I then took a breath and delivered my opening line, which was greeted with a small, warm grin for all in attendance.

Most of you probably aren't familiar with Charlie Finch. You see, Charlie was thin, and I don't mean skinny. I mean thin. Paper thin in fact. About, as thick as three playing cards stacked up. None of us know how he got that way, figured he probably was asked that all his life, and no one wanted to bother him. I always hoped that someday he might tell me, but, kind of late for that now.

I assume he always was that way. On one of the rare occasions that he spoke of his childhood, he talked about being a lonely child. Never did mention any brothers or sisters, or did he ever talk about his parents much. 'Bout the only thing I remember is he was talking about getting a bike, used of course, 'cause times were hard back then. He said a couple of the kids that he did kind of hang around with would put baseball cards in the spokes for kind of a motorcycle sound. 'Course Charlie didn't need a card, he would just put his hand in the spokes. Said it tingled more than hurt, like when your hand falls asleep. Unless he did it a lot, then his hand would be all sore and bruised. That, and he mentioned that no one would play hide and seek with him. I supposed he could just slide under the couch, or behind the 'frig, or just stand there, he would have been tough to see.

Charlie would talk about his college days once in awhile. I asked him once if he dated much in college and he said 'No, the girls all thought he was shallow.' I said to him he had to be a little more thick skinned. He said 'where?' He said he made some money in school being a model. Not a clothes model, but like a cardboard cut-out pointing at or holding a product. He did say he loved to scare little kids. Just stand still 'til they walk real carefully up to him and he would jump out and grab them. Anyway, he never finished school 'cause he dropped out at the end of his sophomore year. Mentioned something about a late spring party and making a kite.

He ended up being a locksmith after the post office job didn't work out. He had started as a janitor, but was moved up to maintenance after they installed the first automatic cancelling machine. Seems the machine wasn't working right and someone jokingly asked Charlie if they could send him through so he could maybe see what was wrong. He said the ink tasted terrible and it took a couple weeks to get the ink off his face. He quit shortly after there was talk about promoting him to "Inspector" and rolling him up in a mailing tube and mailing him places so he could see and feel how the mail was being treated. Anyway, he had been a locksmith as long as I knew him. Even after he retired people would still bring locks and stuff to his house. Most times he did it for free, some sort of pay back for when he was working. His specialty was unlocking houses and he always said he felt a little guilty for taking people's money. Said he would go to the house and fiddle around with the knob until the people got tired of watching and when they looked away he would just slide himself under the door, or stuff himself through the mail slot, and unlock the door.

Now Charlie was a pretty civic minded person. He belonged to most of the clubs in city, though not a very active member. But if the cause involved kids in someway, he would be all in on that. He just loved kids, the little neighbor girl even called him "Thin Grandpa Charlie". Everybody was pretty surprised though when they went through his will after he died. He left a whole bundle of money for a park for the kids of this city. He wrote 'you can save a lot of money when you can just wear a picture of clothes instead of actually having to buy the clothes'. People were also surprised to read that his real goal in life was to be a cop. He went on to say that he had to quit the police academy because the hand-to-hand combat instructor was going to fail him because all Charlie could do was give him paper cuts.

It took a couple of city council meetings to decide how to honor Charlie. It was decided to laminate Charlie with a picture of the police uniform and place him in a cardboard cut-out painted up to look like one of the police cars. The whole thing would then be placed near the new park as a reminder to people to slow down and watch out for kids.

After his death, Charlie Finch got to realize his life's dream. He finally became part of that thin blue line.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:10:18 PM

08/'07 - The Absurd Flaw

The Promise

By:
Jamie L. Elliott



She watched him from across table as he sat collapsed within himself. She despised secrets and so in a way she despised him, the one she thought she loved, as he huddled there in a trench coat as an enigma, his arms below the table, a certain fog of madness hanging about him. Only the fact that they were seated within a popular restaurant with other couples scattered about kept her from standing up and screeching at him. He knew her too well. That only angered her more. “You invited me here,” she said coldly as their expensive entrees wafted delicious and untouched. “So what do you want?”

She saw him shirk from her harsh words. “I-- I-- I wanted to see you,” he stammered. “It’s been such a long time--”

“Months,” she interrupted, her voice rising.

“Please,” he said. “I haven’t been avoiding you. I-- I haven’t been around.”

“And you couldn’t tell me you were leaving?”

“I didn’t plan on leaving.” He trembled. “That book...” His voiced trailed off.

“That silly occult one.”

“Yes!” he hissed. He lurched forward, the table shuddering. “Your promise!” he said suddenly. “Do you remember?” A spasm wracked his body, causing his cane to fall clattering to floor. A hush settled upon the dining area as curious heads turned toward them.

Fear, a stabbing cold, iced her. “What promise?”

“That we would love each other no matter what! No matter our flaws.” He sobbed. “Those books opened a door to another world. A terrible world! It changed me. But I’m still me! I’m still me!”

She stood. “You’ve gone mad,” she whispered.

“Please, don’t go!” he pleaded. His arms rose to reveal--

Hands.

She screamed, her tentacles rising to her chitinous face. “By blessed Cthulhu!” she gasped in horror. Other patrons screamed, rushing toward the door.

“Don’t leave me!” he roared, reaching out with these grotesque, alien appendages. He grasped on air.

She disappeared within the mass of bodies heading for the exit. He would never see her again.

He slumped in his chair within the now-deserted restaurant, the sound of sirens growing louder. In his mind, he could still their pale skins, their symmetrical bodies, that hated orb in the sky that blinded him. He remembered their stench, that awful stench, as they scuttled about impossibly on two legs.

She was his last chance, his last tenuous hold on reality.

He let go then, to let the insanity claim his mind for rest of his wretched, aborted life.


[align=center]THE END[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:10:56 PM

08/'07 - The Absurd Flaw

Good Help is Hard to Find

By:
Bill Wolfe



The Kid looked norm but didn't talk. Like the rest, he was born to one of The Tribes out in The Green and banished to the city 'cause he was Skyburnt. There weren't no more city tribes. Too much burn still in the old buildings and almost no food. Far as I know, I'm the last of the Deesee Tribe. Born in the city, not exiled. But boy-oh-boy could The Kid Tinker. We found him 'cause we heard music.

Music!

None of us had heard real music till The Kid showed us he could fix the old Pods. He liked nothin' more than to sit and Tinker with machines 'til he made 'em work. Most times he'd take the thing apart and put it back together a dozen times before he'd figure it out. You give him a gizmo he hadn't seen and you'd have to slap it out of his hand to make him eat. Don't know how he survived 'till we found him.

The Deesee Tribe been tryin' for generations to open The Door. Took The Kid six months but he kept pushin' buttons, night and day. We kept him fed 'cause we wanted inside the bunker real bad.

Why?

'Cause everybody knew here is where Potus and The Joincheefs all escaped to.

How do I know?

My Gramps told me that his Great-Gramps told him, that his Uncle was one of the secservs for Potus and he seen it with his own eyes. They went in through The Door and it hadn't opened since. We was told they was livin' high in here since the sky burned. They had everything we didn't. They ate safe food and drank clean water, had 'lectrics to do their work, and women.

Women, oh yeah! We wanted in bad, all right. Hadn't even seen a live woman in close to four years. And The Monster ate most of her, though he did say he was sorry about it, later.

The Monster was scabby and ugly and Skyburnt bad, but he could see at night and smell things before any of the rest of us could. He probably helped us find more food than anyone. 'Till The Kid let us in here, anyway.

'Cause when we got in we found the water and food, crates of it stacked higher than Jolly Green's head. Eveeon, Mrees and SPAM? They ain't myths, buddy. And more working 'lectrics than even The Kid could fiddle with. Didn't find no women, didn't find nobody. Did'ja know it hurts to eat too much?

Cuckoo's the one that found the magic room. In some ways his Skyburn's worse than anyone's, though he looks almost norm. He don't say nothin' in real words but he can screech like a hundred kinds of bird and he's real expressive. Once you get used to it, it's almost like talkin' regular. When he found the room where Potus and Joincheefs went, he did his crow noise, real loud. You know, where the one crow calls the others to food? Like I said, expressive.

Kong 'n Gimpy got the door open and soon as they did, there was Potus Himself talkin' to us from one of the gray windows. I'd never believed the stories about the moving pictures in the gray windows but here He was, plain as day and lookin' more alive than His dirty, scorched pictures inside most of the gutted buildings in Deesee.


". . .pray to God you are an American. In any case, my scientists tell me that the H-Bomb explosions have released so much energy into the atmosphere that we cannot accurately target the Temporal-Spatial Portal, the TSP. It defaults to the first moment in history with similar conditions. . ."


We didn't understand most of this, but we sure understood it when the fat guy with skin so bad he looked Skyburnt himself, started telling us how we could escape the same way as Potus. We could go anywhere, any time at least fifty years in the past.


It was Gimpy who started yellin'. His legs hadn't grown any longer since he was a baby but his arms were stronger than anyone's, even Kong's. No sooner had The Screamer mentioned snow-covered mountains, and Gimpy was waving his canes around screaming. "No mountains. I can't climb no mountains! I gotta have flat land."


". . . conditions for at least a decade. For this reason, we will enter the TSP while it is in standby mode. You must push the Delete button first to cancel our destination and then push the Reset button to reacquire our pre-set target. But do NOT press Finalize. . ."

Bighead Jake took Gimpy's side, like always, and soon Cuckoo was doing his rooster call and The Screamer was louder than usual that he wanted to see snow you could touch and not die. Kong and The Monster were just yelling about finding healthy women, though they both knew they didn't mean the same thing by it.

Jolly Green jumped on that bandwagon and wanted to meet something called Watusi. He weighed no more than The Kid but was three times as tall, and he made one hell of a lookout. Who knew he'd always dreamed of a woman who was taller than his waist?


. . . for us no time will have passed, no matter how long it has been since the war. The TSP will be safe for you to use as long as the Power light is not flashing. . .


I was trying to calm them all down, they listen to me 'cause with this third eye on my forehead, they think I've got special vision. I've tried to tell 'em it's blind.


That's when The Kid pushed the button. He sure liked to push them buttons.


The lights dimmed and up on the screen there was words.

Destination Finalized:

Date: 1 November, 1952

Time: 07:15 local

Location: Eniwetok Atoll N11[sup]o[/sup]20'4.53" E162[sup]o[/sup]21'26.94"


'Course, none of us can read.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:11:42 PM

08/'07 - The Absurd Flaw

Luna Sea

By:
G.C. Dillon



Mai Zhang couldn't believe she was going to die when she was just sixteen. Why she had not even completed the tattoo pattern along her left arm! It just wasn't fair. Worst was that she really had no idea why she had to die. She did not understand why the Alien Administrator was going to destroy the Moon. Some insult by a low level Lunar bureaucrat was the current rumor (an insult involving one, or perhaps it was three, of the AA's wife/concubines, many said). It infuriated her that all the United Earth Government could do was send protests from New York to Arcturus.

Mai was a slightly built girl of Asian ancestry. Long black hair hung straight down the white shellsuit she wore. The shellsuit flowed about the young curves of her teen-aged form like glaciers drifting along the Himalayan peaks. The shellsuit was a functional garment designed to allow its wearer to survive a decompression breach in the molecularly thin atmosphere bubble that surrounded Tranquility City. Her Chinese ancestors may have gazed at the Moon in elaborate towers, but she lived upon its surface, or at least the climate controlled, air scrubbed, light filtered, artificial city she called her own rested upon Lunar soil.

“I was hoping to get this done before the end.” Mai stood in the foyer of her fav tattoo pallor, and spoke to the woman behind the customer service desk. She rolled up the arm of her shellsuit to reveal a plum colored canvass of Celtic knotwork, dancing tigers, coiling asps, and an incomplete and scaly school of coy.

Marie Beau Coup was a heavyset black woman. Her dreadlocked hair fell to her shoulders. She ran the inkshop, but her real profession was as a fortune teller. She hung up her cards, except for few late night games of Texas Hold 'Em, because she could see no future for anyone beyond the Administrator's deadline -- no matter how hard she tried. And when it came to her own fortune she had fully exerted herself and her gift.

“I don't have any cash for the artwork,” Mai started, nearly shuddering, “ but – but I have real coffee. Juan-John brought it up on the last – uh, I guess final Seattle milk-run.” She smiled a neat flash of tiny white teeth. Marie took the small aluminum packet. She sashayed over to her auto-chef station. Soon the beans' aroma drifted lazily and happily through the shop's air.

Old man Essig came bounding down the stairs, taking them at a Lunar leap of several at a time. “Is that Terran coffee?!” His long nose ran profusely with yellowish fluids. His blood red eyes streamed tears that ran down the wrinkles in his ancient face like rainwater flowing through an arroyo. Essig was a tenant in one of the sparse one-room apartments above the business.

“It's Free Soil Bolivian Alpine Arabica Mocha Decaf,” Mai replied. “Would you like some?”

“Marie.” He waved his arms and gesticulated with his hands. “Marie, you know any product from Terra is deadly to me. Are you trying to kill me before the Alien has his chance to?” Essig wiped at his nose with an orange biohaz cloth.

“For the Love of God,” bellowed Marie. “You live on the Moon. How can you be allergic to the Earth? Our rock came from the Earth, as did all the original settlement's components.”

“Verily,” Essig sniffled, “but our planetoid separated millennia ago from its primary -- that vile planet you call a homeworld -- and we have been mining the fine Lunar regolith for raw materials since Colonization Day, my dear thing.”

“Phew-phew,” he sneezed. He wore only synthetics; ate only hydroponics; never had a girlfriend; never a lover; barely a friend. Essig had gone into anaphylactic shock once after receiving an e-mail from a possible pen-pal from Bangalore.

#NEWS FLASH# blared across Mai's computerized concierge. She grabbed it from her belt, brought it to her face and mashed the button for the volume. “The Alien Administrator has expressed His great compassion for all Lunar residents. A spokesman for His Excellency has stated that over the century of his oversight, numerous human guests have left behind many articles. These items are now upon display in the great hall. In His great Mercy, His Excellency will commute the destruction order of the Moon if one citizen can select the Alien Administrator's single personal item in the collection. More on this story as it develops...”

Essig settled down into the chair across from Marie, the one her Tarot clients occupy. “Isn't that precious of (H)im.”

Marie began to deal out a few Solitaire cards. It was with an according-to-Hoyle deck, not the Rider-Waite version she used for readings. Ten of Pentacles, Two of Wands. “Wait,” Marie muttered, “I'm getting a Reading here.”

“I thought you had admitted that your charlatanism was just an illusion. Something good coming out of our current crisis.” Essig sneezed loudly into his handkerchief.

“He has a future! Doesn' t that mean,” Mai paused. “Eh – something! ” Thinking a moment, she added: “I've an idea. Let's go.”

They took the Tube across Tranquility's wide span. Mai knew the janitor's entrance to AlphaComplex's great hall from her mother's former boyfriend. Essig, Marie and Mai drifted amongst the crowds and the artifacts. The Alien Administrator oversaw the chaos in the hall. His species grew their bones on the outside of their skin, with only connecting cartilage underneath. Essig's nose ran and his palms itched examining all the items. These included hats, umbrellas, and other sundries. Essig scrutinized one item, a cane. He touched its purplish wood; no rash marred his fingertips. It wasn't Terran.

Essig held up the cane. “He's found it. He's found it,” shouted Mai, clapping her hands furiously. The crowd suddenly stopped, awed and anxious. The Alien Administrator shook his bony jaw affirmative, and said,“You have found the starwood!”

And thus the Moon was saved.


[align=center]THE END[/align]
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Post October 18, 2008, 02:12:15 PM

08/'07 - The Absurd Flaw

- Co-Winner -


Penguin Boy

By:
Robert Moriyama



What do you call a man with no arms, no legs, floating in a pond?

Bob.

The old joke ran through Jerry's head as he sank towards the bottom of Grenadier Pond, dragged down by the weight of his prosthetic limbs. He had arms and legs, but they were toddler-sized, too small for his body. Unfortunately, the prosthetic limb extensions that allowed him to function almost normally floated about as well as anvils.

Gotta get these damn things off...

Finally, he managed to trigger the releases on his legs and backed out of them by pushing against the bottom of the pond. His short, stubby lower limbs and torso floated upward, leaving him anchored upside down by the weight of his arm waldoes. A hard yank on a lever in each forearm released the straps and sensor pads, and then he was floating freely.

Enough light filtered down through the murky water to allow him to orient himself, and he began to paddle his way back to the surface. He'd been submerged for almost two minutes, but he was only now beginning to feel the panicky impulse to inhale that could kill a drowning man.

His head broke the surface and he took a huge, gasping breath, gagging as the fishy-smelling greenish water trickled from his hair into his mouth. Irony, thy name is Jerry, he thought. In utero gene therapy had corrected a fatal kidney disorder -- and stunted his limbs. Stunted limbs required artificial limb extensions that made it impossible for him to swim -- but let him stay submerged long enough to --

Had it been long enough?

Jerry turned slowly, trying to make as little noise as possible. Smith's goons were nowhere in sight. He relaxed and began swimming toward the muddy bank of the last "natural" body of water in the city, where his would-be assassins had left his clothes and the forged suicide note.

"Whoa, dude! You picked a hell of a place to go skinny... dipping..."

Jerry froze, but decided that the the gangly, pimple-faced teenager who had been caught in the act of checking Jerry's clothes for easily-pilfered valuables looked harmless enough, in spite of the aluminum cane in one hand. He waddled toward his clothes.

The kid stared unabashedly, transfixed by the sight of a naked man with a normal head and torso -- and arms and legs better suited to a toddler. From the way he leaned on the cane, Jerry guessed that he was a misfit, too -- just not in Jerry's league.

"These clothes can't be yours," the teenager blurted. "They're --"

"Normal?" Jerry asked. "They fit okay before I took my arms and legs off."

The boys eyes widened even more.

"Prosthetics," Jerry said. "Like bionic stilts, except the arms have hands that work pretty much like real ones." Sighing, Jerry rummaged through his clothes until he found his wallet. He dug out his driver's license (with the add-on card needed to make room for all the restrictions) and showed the picture to his uninvited guest.

"Geez -- they let you drive?"

Jerry suppressed the urge to scream. "Yes. They let me drive, sometimes, with the prosthetics on."

"Where are they? You said you took them off."

"At the bottom of the pond," Jerry said. "I had to take them off or I would have drowned."

The boy nodded, then asked, "Why'd you go in the water with them on, then?"

This time, Jerry did scream. "They threw me in, you moron! They wanted me to drown, to make it look like suicide!"

The boy's face crumpled, and Jerry hoped that he wasn't going to cry. Jerry had never cried (in public) in all the years he had spent coping with being a freak, a cripple... a penguin boy. 'Penguin boy' was the one nickname he actually hadn't minded -- much -- after he had seen real penguins streaking through the water like stubby torpedoes...

"Look, I'm sorry," Jerry said. "There was no way you could have known. But I'm worth a lot of money. My parents sued the clinic that made me like this, and won, big time. Some people figured out a way they could get control of that money -- if I wasn't around."

"So they tried to kill you, and make it look like suicide? Dude, that sucks the big banana."

Jerry nodded. Then he said, "Do you have a job?"

The kid shook his head. "Just finished my mandatory school time. No job, no money for college... And a bum -- leg..." The kid blushed as he compared his 'challenge' to Jerry's.

"Wanna be my driver and personal assistant? I need someone to help me into these damn clothes -- you'll have to cut off the sleeves and pantlegs somehow -- and drive me to the nearest police station."

The kid looked at Jerry with a mixture of elation and suspicion. "What's it pay?"

Jerry laughed. "Enough. I'll pay your tuition and arrange your schedule so you can take whatever courses you want."

The kid frowned, then said, "I want that in writing. Now, how short do the sleeves have to be?"

Jerry held his arms straight out from his body. "About like so," he said. "By the way, what's your name?"

"Andy." The boy pulled a cheap Swiss Army knife clone from his pocket and began to saw away at Jerry's clothes. "Andy Morgan."

"Andy, there's a signing bonus in it for you if you have a candy bar or some gum on you," Jerry said. "I have to get this pond-scum taste out of my mouth before I puke."

Andy grinned. "Slightly-crushed granola bar, fifty credits."

Jerry feigned outrage, then said, "Deal. You can pull the creds from my wallet while I get dressed."

He just hoped that Andy would be up to the task of helping him to dodge any further attempts at assisted (and resisted) suicide. Maybe they could rig Andy's cane with a taser...

[align=center]The End[/align]
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