FLASH FICTION INDEX 1 - May 2007-Nov. 2011


Writing challenges, flash fiction, interesting anecdotes, amusements, and general miscellanea.

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Post November 01, 2008, 11:35:49 AM

The Evil Henchman Challenge

[area]What follows is intended for Mature Audiences only.[/area]


- Winner -


The Uncommon Bodgewick

by:
J. Davidson Hero



“…just a common bludger doing an honest day's work Gov’nor.”

Edwin Bodgewick’s sooty spider-like fingers curled around the money and snatched it from the Doctor’s hand. Doctor Trago stared down at Edwin and the slouched bundle at his feet with visible disgust. Edwin stared back, but couldn’t bring himself to meet the Doctor’s glare. Instead his eyes followed the buttons of the Doctor’s frock coat down and finally settled on the gold chain of his pocket watch… what a beautiful pocket watch, Edwin wondered at its weight.

The Doctor was a nervous man, of melancholic humor, perhaps genius. Prone to vacillation, the Doctor had only recently determined to vet his theories, and to accomplish that goal he needed a man of Edwin’s temperament. It was obvious to Edwin that the Doctor felt it beneath a man of science to associate with a common flue-faker. But the common man capable of the occasional uncommon task was exactly what the good Doctor needed. Necessity does make strange bedfellows after all. Edwin cared little for the Doctor’s ultimate ends, but his means were very… provocative. “Bring her to my operating theatre then.” The Doctor’s voice curdled with derision, and his nostrils flared as he inhaled. This always made Edwin self-conscious of the ever-present smell of soot that lingered about him.

The Doctor strutted to the table as he removed his coat, donned an apron, and pulled on his surgical gloves with taut precision. His hair, grey at the temples, was slicked back except for a few stray strands that dangled madly in front of his face and gave him a disheveled look in spite of his impeccable and proper demeanor. It gave the impression that something was not quite balanced in the Victorian gentleman’s mind. Edwin followed, dropping their commerce on the table with a thud that rattled the Doctor’s delicate instruments. The Doctor immediately opened the pouch revealing a beautiful young body, cold with death.

“She looks young for a prostitute. She’s not dead more than four hours?” the Doctor finally asked shakily, after a moment’s lapse of composure. Edwin nodded. The Doctor ran his hands along her pale cheek. Then turning her head to the side he examined the sooty smudges and bruising all around her neck. Edwin nervously suppressed a giggle, a kinetic spasm, that started in the pit of his paunch and threatened to race up into the back of his throat. He looked down at his soot covered hands and picked at an open gory slice in his thumb, bright crimson through the black. A smile pulled back the corners of his mouth. The Doctor was too preoccupied to notice. Edwin’s tongue worked its way around his snaggletooth until, biting down, he managed to regain control of himself. The gaslight incandesced gloomily.

The Doctor opened the makeshift body bag further and began to nervously unbutton her blouse; his eyes pulsed with scientific fervor. Three times he looked at her maniacally from crown to heel, his hands groping delicately here and there. Edwin watched on lasciviously.

“Where did you find this one?” the Doctor asked as if talking to a stool. His hand fumbled for a scalpel on the metal tray at his side. The grate of metal made Edwin’s eye twitch… or was it the Doctor’s question?

“Dorset Street near Doss House… it’s crawlin’ with dollymops Gov’nor,” he mumbled.

“Is that not where you did the last?” The Doctor’s head was turned to the side as if he was listening. He was bent forward over the girl cutting and connecting wires and tubing from the arcane machinery at his side. A drizzle of blood ran off the edge of the table and began to puddle on the floor.

“Aye,” Edwin began to feel sheepish. The Doctor couldn’t know. Edwin watched as the drizzle of blood increased to a steady stream, the puddle… a pool. The Doctor had only unbuttoned the top few buttons of her blouse, so that he could better expose her neck. Edwin could barely control his lust as he watched the Doctor’s bloodied hands feeling for the glands inside her neck, then vigorously driving thick metal needles in.

“Did we not discuss finding specimens in different location?”

“Aye,” Edwin felt a moment of relief. That was all this questioning was about. Never on the same street the Doctor had said; best to be discreet. For a moment Edwin thought the Doctor had suspected; the Doctor would not have approved. His mind began to replay the events of the afternoon. He could see the chimney brush in his hands, in front of the fireplace the drop cloth covered with soot. The girl… this girl… was in the next room, sitting at the piano. She had eyed him when he walked in, following her father. He had recognized the wanton look for what it was… or had he? It was all he could think of while he worked.

The Doctor stood up, wiping blood from his hands with a cloth. “I think this time it shall work.” His eyes popped with anticipation. Reaching to the machine he turned a large dial and a clicking static whir began. A pump began to work slowly at first, then faster. Edwin watched. Tubes and wires protruded from her neck. The tubes jumped and jiggled as fluids flowed from her to the machine and back. The devilish vacuum machine made an odd sucking sound on and off. Edwin watched glass jars begin to fill with bile and blood. Then somehow the sound of a death rattle began to swell in the girl’s throat. Edwin recognized it; he had heard it earlier the same day. He couldn’t help but come closer, until he was standing right above her.

And then her eyes opened, and she stared deep into Edwin’s soul, her eyes like shallow pools on a moonlit night. A tear ran down the side of her cheek… and Edwin fought to suppress the urge to strangle his love again.

[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post November 27, 2008, 11:30:14 AM

Discount Magic Challenge

The challenge was to craft a fantasy story with a witch or wizard that is not skilled or powerful enough to handle the situation they’ve agreed to face in 1,000 words or less. Entrants had to include a wooden duck decoy.



Example story:


Deathmatch

By:
N.J. Kailhofer



Carl put his hand on the door and took a deep breath. The Butcher was not forgiving. Timidly, he knocked.

No one answered, but the torches beside the door were lit, so someone had to be within. The circle of their flickering light made the rest of the grounds that much more foreboding in the moonless night.

"C'mon," he told himself. "She's depending on you. You can do this. It's your time."

Shaking hands opened his thin book and found the spell for opening doors. He placed one trembling hand on the knocker. The high-pitched squeak that was supposed to be his voice read, "Agor!"

Except it didn't. Sometimes when he read things aloud, the letters jumbled up. What came out was something that sounded like, "Broga!"

The door jumped in its hinges. The boards wiggled & writhed in place, shaking themselves apart. The massive door fell towards him, and he dove to the side.

When the cloud of dust subsided he looked up to see himself watched by two enormous eyes. The eyes were attached to the body of a frog--a frog made of wood. A frog as tall as he was. And the door was gone.

Carl said, "Oh, good grief!"

The mouth of the giant frog opened a little, and he saw rows of big teeth, and what looked like a tongue beyond.

Carl felt uncomfortably like an insect in front of the wooden creature, and he grabbed one of the torches off the wall. He brandished it in front of himself.

The frog reacted instantly to the flame, leaping away into the darkness, higher than the trees.

"Are you here about the decoys?"

Carl jumped. In the doorway was the Butcher.

"M-Mr. Schwartz," Carl stuttered. "You're home."

The high wizard patted his pouches of spell components impatiently. Carl knew there things in those pouches that could kill him in grotesquely painful ways. Schwartz wasn't called the Butcher because of his love of meat.

"Decoys, sir?"

Schwartz frowned. "You don't remove pests?"

Carl swallowed hard. "Um... no. Actually, I was hired by your housemaid, Drewetta, to... uh..."

Schwartz's voice boomed loud enough to shake the windows. "To what?"

Carl's squeak returned to his voice. "To get her old job back or to..." Carl's voice lost the last of it's potency and the next words came out barely stronger than a whisper. "Or to defeat you in magical combat. Sir."

There was a pregnant pause.

Schwartz howled in laughter. He doubled over and slapped his knees. "That's a good one!"

Carl laughed too, wondering how far he could get if he ran. All the way outside, or only two steps? Will they even find my body?

Schwartz wiped tears from his eyes. "I haven't laughed that hard in years." He pointed to his right. "They're in my workshop. I want them gone tonight!"

Carl tromped what he figured would be his death march down the hall with the Butcher close behind, grumbling.

"They can't be removed! Can't be disintegrated! Not any amount of my magic can get rid of them!"

Inside, Carl could hear crashing, breaking, and strange quacking.

Carl leaned into the door, pushing it inward just a little. Inside, something moved. It was small, the size of--

A wooden bill jabbed at him though the opening, trying to bite his fingers. Lifeless eyes on the head burned with hatred. Stiff wings flapped furiously, holding the beast at the crack. Another joined it, then another, trying to get out, to get at them.

Carl slammed the door. "Duck decoys? How'd you get them?"

The Butcher frowned ominously. "I made them. They're for a duke who loves to hunt. These would move as real ducks. The Duke was going to trade me a recipe for the perfect mayonnaise."

Carl blinked. "Mayonnaise?"

The butcher clenched his fists. "I have the perfect meats. I have the perfect breads. I will have the perfect mayonnaise to go with them in the perfect sandwich, or someone will die. Soon. Maybe someone who won't remove the decoys."

Carl swallowed. "And you've been unable to remove them? Did you try fire?"

The Butcher snorted. "Ha! If it were only so easy! They have wards infused in them to protect them from the elements. Every scrap of wood in my house has them. All of it could withstand the strongest inferno worst rain, or even lightning."

Carl thought like mad. "Are you capable of transporting an object within those walls? Any object at all regardless of how far away it is?"

"Of course I can! Anything within five leagues!"

Carl put on his boldest face. "Then if you agree to return your housemaid to her position, we have an accord."

The Butcher's eyes narrowed to slits. "Fine."

Carl smiled what he hoped wasn't a nervous grimace. "Then if you would be so kind as to transport your front door inside that room, I can remove the ducks."

"The door?"

"Yes. Right now."

The Butcher stared at Carl, then shrugged. "You have my curiosity." He removed a small piece of shiny metal tightly wrapped with a wick, which he lit.

He threw it in the air and shouted, "Trawsgludo!" The metal flashed so brightly Carl had to look away for a moment. When he glanced back, the metal was gone.

"Well?"

Carl swallowed. "Wait for it."

The sudden commotion beyond the door surprised them both. Objects shattered and ducks wailed. It grew silent.

Carl smiled. "Just like they were insects."

"What? What did you do?" The Butcher moved toward the door.

"You don't want to go in there."

"I'll be the judge of what I want." The Butcher opened the door and stepped inside.

Carl slammed the door and threw the lock. Thankfully, the Butcher's screams were short.

Carl thought, "Well, she can't get her job back, but technically I beat him in magical combat, so the contract is fulfilled."

He smiled. "Wonder where he kept his spellbooks. He won't be needing them now..."


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post November 27, 2008, 11:31:20 AM

Discount Magic Challenge

Dragon

By:
Casey Callaghan



Charles peered cautiously out from the side tunnel in which he'd taken cover. The first thing he saw, naturally, was the dragon; even dead, it was an impressive beast. Around it lay the weapons and armour of a hundred unsuccessful knights, some so old that it crumbled to the touch - the true reason for the oft-repeated legend of a dragon's hoard.

And, on the floor, unmoving, lay the Albert the Mage. Albert Dragonbane now; even posthumously, the feat of slaying one of these great beasts gave one the coveted title.

Charles blinked. Had he imagined it, or - glancing nervously at the dragon again, Charles hurried across to Albert. The mage was still breathing! Still alive!

Carefully, Charles lifted the body of the mage he had followed for a bet. The lads will never believe this story! he thought, even as he checked the older man's pulse. Still there.

The healing magics had never been Charlie's strong point. What he could do, and very well indeed, was invisibility; which had kept him alive throughout Albert's titanic battle. And now, he realised, it was up to him to get the older mage out, to where someone able to heal him from his grievous wounds could do so. With care, he lifted Albert Dragonbane and slung him over his shoulders.

Now, which way is out?

Carefully, Charles carried Albert out along the path he'd come in by; but there were many junctions to navigate. It was only when he found the remains of a long-dead fire that he finally admitted that he was lost. Must have been left by one of those unlucky knights he considered. Though, he added as he spotted something lying on its side in the shadows, what sort of knight goes around accompanied by a little wooden duck?

And then he heard a terrible roar, a scream of heart-rending pain from inside the depths of the Earth. His first thought was Impossible! The dragon's already dead!

And then he realised - the dragon must have had a mate. The mate must have just returned to find the scene of carnage that Charlie had so recently left. No wonder it was angry.

Think, Charles, think. What do you know about dragons? He cast his mind back to his lectures at the School for Magery, and remembered Albert's lecture just last week...

--------------

"Dragons are extradimensional creatures, existing in a seven-dimensional universe that is a superset of our own three-dimensional one - not counting time, which we and dragons experience in the same manner. This gives dragons an impressive array of magical abilities. For one, while they cannot leave our normal three dimensions, they can reduce their overlap with it, effectively changing size. No-one know what the maximum size of a dragon is, but they can shrink themselves to the size of a human thumb quickly and easily. This is why dragons are normally fought in caves; the cave limits the maximum size of the dragon. The second ability that this gives a dragon is the ability to see around apparently solid objects. Never try to lose a dragon in a maze; it can see you, and it can go through far smaller tunnels that you can."

"Aside from this, dragons also possess an incredible variety of natural weaponry as well. They have massive claws and teeth, and are furthermore capable of releasing and igniting an impressive display of flammable gas - the 'fire breath' so beloved of roving storytellers. They also have an incredible sense of smell."

--------------

Fire breath. Claws. Teeth. It can see me, it's probably already coming. It can shrink to fit the tunnel. If I turn us invisible, it can come here and then follow us by scent. It doesn't need to see us to incinerate us.

We're dead.


Charlie put down the mage and ruffled through the older man's pockets, hoping to find something he could use to defeat an angry dragon. All that he found was a small flask of sulphur, a scroll entitled "Habits of the Greater Dragon", and a flask of water.

Think, Charles, think. What can you do with -

He spotted something on the cave roof, reached up, and snapped off a piece. Saltpetre... probably crystallised from bat droppings. I think I have an idea...

With that he cast invisibility on himself, on Albert, and on a hollow wooden duck...

--------------

When the dragon rounded the corner ten minutes later, it was approximately the size of an eagle. It slowed to a stop on the cave floor, and began to snuffle along the ground like a bloodhound. In moments, it had picked up the scent and was hurrying along the cave... when it heard a sudden clatter from the cave wall next to it. With a twist of its head, it faced the sound and released a barrage of fire that could cook a knight in his armour...

What it hit was an invisible, hollow wooden duck, filled with a mix of sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal from the fire. A mix whose explosive properties Charles had found quite accidentally three weeks previously in his alchemy class (it turned out there was a reason for the "no open flames" rule). The explosion did no more than stun the dragon momentarily... but the rockfall which it triggered buried the dragon under several tonnes of rock.

Several metres away, Charles dismissed his invisibility spell. The ceiling fall had been unexpected, but lucky; he'd been counting on the explosion alone to kill the dragon.

"Charlie?" Charles jumped and turned around; behind him, Albert had woken up. "I knew that was you, boy! Whenever something goes wrong you're never far. Aren't you still supposed to be confined to campus after that explosion incident?"

"Um... er..." began Charlie, but before he'd gotten any further he noticed that the old man had slipped into unconsciousness again.

He sighed, and picked up Albert once more. Now I've just got to find my way out of these caves...


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post November 27, 2008, 11:32:06 AM

Discount Magic Challenge

The Dragonhorde

By:
Mark Edgemon



How fearful this prophesied night, laced in shadows pierced with slivers of burnt orange, ripping into the darkness like a dragon’s fiery claw. The ground begins to shake as thunderous hooves fast approach the township of Velderon; its people huddled together, gauging the approach of their doom by the graduation of sound, the momentary countdown to a charred oblivion.

Awaiting at the edge of town was a lone figure, a former wizard known only as Xandulun.

It was known throughout the village township that he was once a lowly apprentice to the dark and aged Council of Wizards, until such a time he left the pursuit of the Black Arts and devoted himself entirely to the study of “White Magic” which held for him the enticement of knowledge to the secret powers which lay behind the veil of our human existence. Black magic, the Wizard Council’s sorcery of choice, worked only through the collaboration betwixt the grey wizard’s and their demon counterparts. The wizards, under the authority of the dark principalities removed Xandulun from their council, casting him out from their order. It could be said, that the gift of foresight could not be numbered amongst the sovereignty of the wizards, for they would not have extricated Xandulun from their midst, if they only knew of the holocaustic inferno that would soon engulf them.

Xandulun was often praised as a good man by the townspeople of Velderon, due to his great empathy and kindness, which he would often manifest toward them. His life was lived in stark contrast to the wizard’s insatiable desire for power, who used the dark forces to enslave the good people of the village kingdom.

And now as it was prophesied for thousands of years, the dragons were emerging from their caverns beneath the earth’s core, where they had dwelled since the new days of earth’s first beginnings. And through their reemergence, it needs be they must scorch the earth to acclimate its outer shell to the volcanic environment they have lived in for many millennia in order to make the planet’s surface a livable environment. The abyss from which the Dragonhorde flooded the skies was only miles from the village, which now lay directly in their path.

The sweltering heat from the dragon’s breath was felt by the townspeople of Velderon still miles away. The grey and aged Council of Wizards had prepared to challenge the Dragonhorde at the Silesia River and defeat them through the amalgamation of their combined powers as they had envisaged this moment since the founding of their powerful order thousands of years past.

The wizards were shielded from the intense heat that was searing forth from the dragon’s mouths through spells empowered by the demons they served. Moments hastened quickly until finally the Dragonhorde were upon them, incinerating the rocks, trees, grass and evaporating the river, including a tiny wooden duck decoy that was floating by at the time.

With great haste, the wizards implored the authority of their mystical powers, calling upon the demons beneath the earth and the dark principalities of the air to empower their spell and cast the dragons back into the bowels of the earth, sealing the entrance forever.

Unbeknownst to the wizards and their demon counterparts, the dragons were immune to magic. The wizards and their demons were horrified, but only for an instant, before being devoured by the dragon’s incinerating fire. The approaching speed of the dragons was not impeded as they moved with seemingly unstoppable force toward the village of Velderon.

Xandulun saw the inferno approaching and with great speed girded himself about with the spiritual knowledge of time fragmentation. He had learned of this spell while peering into a black mirror and communicating with spirits of other planes who taught him of this craft which was yet untried. It was his intent to use this craft to pull the Dragonhorde out of time and send them back to the formation of the earth, when the planet was new and it’s surface a sea of molten rock.

With velocity the speed of lightning the Dragonhorde swooped downward from the sky, screeching with an ear piercing sound that vibrated the bones and held their victims motionless with fear. Xandulun was unprepared for their descent and let out a mantra cry he often used during meditation and communing with spirits of the outer plane.

Instinctively he held up his hands and cried out in a loud voice, “Exme, Tridulun, Ex-sa-me, Ian Soondulun, Viva-ce, Ekcre, Xunvundelay.”

Xandulun may have unknowingly opened a connection to spirits of other times and planes, which added the needed power to the spell. The motion of the Dragonhorde began to slow as they were pulled out of time. Xandulun fervently fought to remember the rest of the spell in order to cast them into the time of earth’s beginning, but he could not. The dragon on point, still moving at an infinitesimal rate of speed continued the cessation of movement, finally slowing to an abrupt halt, while still perched in midair, inches from Xandulun’s face.

The Dragonhorde were now living monuments, encased in time, translucent in their physicality, so that the townsfolk could easily walk through the image of their once corporeal form. The dragons were now frozen between two ages, unable to move, imprisoned for time without end.

Xandulun was unable to complete the spell and thereby powerless to fling the Dragonhorde backward in time to earth’s age of fire. Yet it seemed better this way, for the townspeople of Velderon were hopeful now. The terror had passed and the people had a symbol this day that epitomizes the following most somber truth; that any righteous and brave soul, may if they will, deliver others in distress, by conquering first their own fears, which is by all means…the enemies of us all.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post November 27, 2008, 11:32:57 AM

Discount Magic Challenge

CASSIE'S BURDEN

By:
J. Davidson Hero



The flashing red and blue crawled on the shop windows like maggots on a carcass.

“Are you sure you don’t want one of these?”

Officer Cassie LaPorte stared down at the hand of her new partner, a grizzled map, lined and weathered with hard edges and rough energy. He offered her the butt-end of a Glock 9 mm, shiny and black like a piece of hard candy.

“I can’t carry, I’m sensitive… thaumaphasia.” The word settled in her throat like an apology, and that angered her.

He grunted and re-swaddled the spare in the small of his back. “Suit yourself. My last partner carried; just couldn’t hit a horse in the ass with the tail between his teeth.”

Cassie stiffened. Obviously Roholt had little emotional attachment to his partners, at least the spell-casting ones. That was fine. Cassie faced the glare of a jaundiced eye before; she was young, she was a woman, and she was a witch. Now she was a cop, so it was unanimous, she was hated in all quarters. But appearances to the contrary, she was as steeled as a bag of six penny nails.

Roholt tipped his own gun twice toward the alley like a top hat, then marched off.

Cassie walked up to the front door of the shop and paused, her hand on the old cold blackened brass of the handle. The cold was electric and heightened her senses. She mentally ticked off her spells, then opened the door. An old fashioned bell jingled and she cringed, but all else was quiet, dust-covered, and death-like.

The shop was called Hex, Tome, Knack and Other Bric-a-brac. The interior was narrow, the outer walls lined with dust-smothered tomes. A narrow aisle ran straight to the back between glassed-in cases, tables, and displays of antiquarian fodder. The lights were out and everything was crouched in shadow. Cassie felt like a decoy. She listened. A distant crackle, like the forgotten too-familiar chirp of a cricket in the corner caught her attention. It came from the back room. She murmured some words of warding and moved forward.

The door to the storage room was ajar, and a faint glow outlined its angles. Cassie could hear a muffled voice speaking in the repetitive chant of incantation.

Slowly she pushed the door and looked inside. The store room was larger than she anticipated and littered with crates and more cases and shelves. But in the middle of the room, poised above an old man on the floor, was a man dressed in robes and a cowl and clutching an antique statuette. Cassie realized it was just some punk, a gang member. Only hoodlums wore wizard hoods: that’s how they got their name. But this wasn’t some wannabe, he was speaking real sorcery.

Training kicked in. She began to speak a spell of disruption. In a moment the punk would be babbling on the floor under her power.

And then the thug cracked the old man across the brow with the statuette and ended his spell with a shrill exclamation. A void opened in the air behind his head and a hideous thing appeared. It floated and was larger than the man. It was a ball of red tentacles, sticky and constantly writhing, like a pail full of worms. And from moment to moment underneath the tentacles mouths filled with needle-like teeth and eyes of odd disproportionate sizes would appear and then disappear again, as if a hundred disassembled faces were palpitating behind a curtain.

Cassie’s spell was lost. She had been surprised by the horror in the room and now she was panicking. This was way over her head. She knew the smart thing to do was to pull out and call for backup.

Then she heard Roholt bark from the other side of the room.

“Police! On the floor. Now!”

The punk turned at the sound and pointed with the statuette. The thing sailed across the room. Roholt fired, then screamed. Frozen, Cassie stared as the thing cracked Roholt’s ribs like a cage of brittle lath. Roholt’s head had lolled to the side, his eyes fluttered, and his tongue hung out dripping saliva. The worm-like tentacles both suspended his body in mid-air and worked methodically to pluck his organs out, like a child pulling apart a clockwork toy. Chunk-by-chunk it fed bits of the police officer’s intestines, liver, kidneys, lungs to the ravenous mouths that surfaced in the mass of tentacles like hungry piranhas each tentacle pausing only long enough for the odd eye to examine briefly each morsel.

The speed of the death buffeted Cassie. Nausea punched her in the gut; a cold sweat slapped her in the face. She wanted to run. She wished she’d taken the gun. It wouldn’t have misfired like she had.

Then she noticed how the hoodlum’s motions telegraphed the motions of the beast, like a puppeteer’s fingers weaving in the air. The implication hit her with another wave of sickness. This hideous thing was just a giant meat puppet. The punk was actually directing its every move. This wannabe piece of shit had murdered her partner; the thing was just his weapon of choice. And then she saw the chance to save herself.

She glanced from side to side looking for something heavy to use as a weapon. She reached out and snatched at a dusty wooden duck from a box of junk on a shelf. Charging, she threw herself with all her might into the room and swinging the decoy, she cracked the thug across the head just as he was turning... surprised. Her body rammed into his, but he collapsed to the floor like a bag of bones completely unconscious.

Cassie looked up ready to face the writhing death with everything she had, but all she saw was a shrinking ripple in the air like a cooling current of convection.

And with that Cassie knew that she would carry Roholt’s death with her every day from then on.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post November 27, 2008, 11:34:05 AM

Discount Magic Challenge

Wiz Bang

By:
Larissa March



Justin sat at his cluttered desk, watching the servant who was building up the fire in his tower chamber. “Jen, you could do that so much easier if you’d let me teach you a few things.”

“No sir, and you know the cook would have my head if she thought I was using cantrips in the kitchen,” the girl replied pertly. She rose to dust his shelves, handling odd knickknacks carefully.

“But it’s so easy.” He wheedled, stepping up to catch her around the waist. She giggled, holding the wooden duck decoy, and turned to steal a kiss. “It’s all in the wrist – see?” With a show of drama, he flicked his fingers at the half melted candles on the mantle, then frowned. “Let me show you that one again.” Irritation turned into badly hidden panic as none of his hand waving created a single spark. He strode to the fireplace. “This is just wrong! You haven’t been… oh, no.” Justin staggered back to his chair, holding a small, crudely made doll.

“What is it, sir?” Jen peered at the queer thing curiously. “Is that was went wrong?”

“It’s a poppet. Someone’s cursed me with a poppet, and crippled my magic, dammit!” His voice rose to a howl. He slammed it onto the desk.

Jen backed nervously towards the door. “I’ll finish cleaning later, should I?”

He waved a hand at her absently, staring at the doll. She grabbed her rags and bucket. “Wait. Jen, please.”

She paused by the door and looked at him nervously. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but this is a disaster. I don’t know who would have done this.”

A loud knock at the door startled them both. “The king wants to see you. Sir.” The sneering courtier sniffed and walked out without waiting.

Justin sighed and swept the poppet into a cluttered drawer. “I think I may be about to find out, however.”

He hurried, as the king’s temper was always chancy. “Wizard Justin, we have a task for you.” The king gestured grandly at the cowled stranger by his throne. “We have a challenger, one who thinks he can demand our throne from us. We know, of course, that you are more than equal to any challenge. As your king’s champion, are you prepared to put this man in his place?”

Justin bowed and declared, “I am at your majesty’s disposal. Would this stranger care to show his face before honest men?”

The tall figure swept the cowl back, smirking. “If I thought there might be any such here, Wizard Justin,” he said with a wealth of sarcasm, “I would not have bothered to come. I do challenge you to a wizard’s duel.”

“I accept. We shall meet in one hour in the courtyard. I am sure his majesty can find you someone to stand as your second – unless you have any friends who might do you the service?” Justin made a show of looking around the room. “I thought not. One hour, then.” Justin bowed deeply to the king, turned on his heel, and walked out.

He fled back to his tower room. “Jen, Jen! You’ve got to help me!” He burst through the door. The girl jumped back, alarmed. “You’re the only person in this pile of stones with even a spark of magic, and I’m about to go into a wizard’s duel at the king’s command. I need you for my second, please!” He grabbed her arm and looked at her pleadingly.

“Your second, sir?” She looked bewildered. “Don’t you need another wizard for that? That’s what my mum’s stories say.”

“Not necessarily, but it does help. You could be a wizard, Jen.” He grinned broadly. “In fact, would you like to be? Wouldn’t you rather be my apprentice than scrub floors?” He kicked her bucket. “Help me and the king would be willing to grant us much more than that!” His face fell. “I’m not sure we can win, though. The only magic the curse leaves me are illusions, and those are hard to pull off against someone who expects them.”

“Sir?” Jen said hesitantly. “What kind of illusions? Like, fire and bugs and things the way it is in the stories?” He nodded, distracted. “I may have an idea.”

The courtyard was empty when the king’s champions walked in, though many couriers peeked out of windows. Wizards’ duels were never a safe spectator sport. The challenger stood arrogantly by the entrance, leaning on a carved staff.

“I was about to give up on you, Wizard Justin. I expected no better from the champion… here.” He waved his hand, encompassing everything in sight, including the terrified priest pressed against the wall behind him.

“I’m not surprised you were about to give up, stranger. I expect no better from you.” Justin sneered, bolstering his bravado. He strode to the center of the yard. Jen trailed behind, staying out of his way. “Let’s settle this before you give up altogether.” He struck a theatrical pose, swinging his staff up to guard.

The challenger laughed, and lunged at him. The next few minutes were a blur of light and shadow as the two sparred, but Justin fell steadily back. The stranger scowled. “You make this too easy, whelp. I am tired of it.” Lightning crackled from his hands, but Justin leaped back and escaped.

As the stranger stalked towards him, Justin yelled “NOW!” and Jen threw the firepot she’d hidden in her skirts. Instantaneously, Justin threw an illusion of the fiercest fire he could conjure as the oil soaked ground under the challenger’s feet burst into flames.

The man hardly had time to shriek before he had become a living pillar of flame, and the pair ran for safety as the priest prudently fled.

Jubilant, Justin swept Jen off her feet. “Already my apprentice has defeated a master wizard – no one can disbelieve that they’re burning up when their feet are on fire!”


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post November 27, 2008, 11:35:55 AM

Discount Magic Challenge

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DUCK DUCK Mouse

By:
Richard Tornello



“OK girl, how’d I get myself into this mess? I was working a computer potion to make myself stronger, more agile in order to prove myself. I don’t want to fail.” And, Using The System was forbidden.

“I never listen. I really screwed up BIG THIS TIME.”

NOVA calls for assistance; all she hears is, “meow.”

“Am I in another dimension? It looks the same to me. BUT…… I’m…tiny. I have…. 4 feet and…. THEY’RE ALL FURRY. Where’s a mirror damn it? Oh MY, I’m supposed to be a tall red headed woman/witch not a chocolate brown tabby. No-no-no . I’m asleep and this is a bad dream.”

“Salmon, I smell salmon, yummy.”

“Prurr?”

“What’s all this? I live in a house with some crazy humans?”

“Listen,” I say. “I’m not a cat! I’m a witch. Look, I screwed up and I’m in your cat’s body. God knows what your cat is doing in mine. See, I’ll pull my fur out. What normal cat does that?”

“I’ll wake you up every morning at the same time, even with your idiotic time changes. What cat knows that? “Your computer, I’ll hit the delete key on you. That I can do. PLEEEEZE listen to me. You’ve got to help me get back to my world. I don’t belong here, pleeeeze. I don’t want to die here.”

All that comes out is a screechy MEEEEEEEEOW.

“This is not good.”

“MY” human, a model maker and wood carver looks at me with a questioning face. “Nova, what’s wrong with you? Why are you pulling your fur out? You’re a beautiful tabby.”





“Hey wife, why it is the most beautiful women are the nuttiest? Answer me that. You’re incredibly beautiful and I think you’re nuts”

“She’s a girl and so am I. Get used to it”, comes a reply with a laugh.


He mumbles something about having this crazy cat that keeps playing with his computer, pulling her fur and waking him up at 1 AM and 5:30 AM every morning.

“Get this; she wants me to follow her to the computer! Wacko beast.”

“I no wacko. I’m a witch and I want back home NOW. Boohoo.”

“MEOOOOOOOW.”

_____________________________

“He’s designing some sort of decoy for his computer controlled manufacturing work. I heard him mention that a hunting club liked his one-off decoy of a Mallard. He’s making a bunch of duck decoys for them.

Maybe, just maybe, if he leaves the computer on I can either work a spell, or if I must, leave him a message? The second idea is dangerous. Only select humans are to ever know of our existence. The first has never been allowed. The nature of the computer is such that the emphasis needed in the voice incantations is not possible. He doesn’t have voice activation. All I can do is meow, growl and purr. Sort of like life only less so.”


The head wizard said no computers until we can make it “understand” what is said, what is IMPLIED, and is safe. Yes, we are still in the “stone ages.”

“Give the humans time and we’ll be able to use their tools in way they never imagined. But Now, NO, and I mean it, NO Computer spell casting.” He pointed his wand especially at our table. We were the class screw ups. We all knew it. Remembering, I had to giggle.

“Purr!”

I think about the fact the human knows my name. Co-inkiy-Dinks?






________________________




It’s late. “Let’s see, spell casting words, push ENTER. Careful your paws are big, you goof.” The lights blink and the computer reboots.

“Run, hide.”

“He’s still asleep. That was close. Ok, let’s just play with His system. Let me carve my name on his stupid duck decoys.”

“Pretty bird”
“Yummy”
“ What?

“When I get on the computer maybe I can figure out what to do. I’ll have to try a basic spell: move a pen. I need to see how this is going to work if at all. I sat on his desk while he worked. I have a good idea now. We have WYZARD’s Operating Systems in our world. This is a piece of mouse. Of mouse? I meant cake.”

“OK tomorrow when he runs the first prototype my name should be on the bottom of the duck decoys. I hope it works. I’m tired and need to stretch. He’s warm, let me curl up beside him. It’s 3 AM. I bust his chops in a few hours. HA!”

“Purr!”


I’m in the kitchen eating and I hear:
“Hey wife I must have been tired, I put NOVA’s name is on the bottom of the duck decoys. I think I’ll leave it”.

“Ok that works. Now go out go to your coffee shop while she goes to her job. Good, go. Now I’m free to work this.”

“Ok let’s try the pencil move again.”

ENTER

“It moves!”

“Ok, now a book off the shelf. Damn the whole shelf fell down. I have to figure out how to fix this mess. What was the room cleaning spell?”

“He’s home, hide! I’m going to be stuck here and die a CAT. Why me? Boohoo.”

A yowl is all that escapes my fanged mouth.

“NOVA, You damned cat. What’s got into you?”


______________________


That evening NOVA sneaks into the computer room again.

“OK I have to do this. No usual screw ups. Remember THE spells. I spent all day alone repeating them to myself. I will paw them in; add the new side bar notes and all the while thinking the spell at the same time, WITH FEELING.”

ENTER

______________________________________

“NOVA?”

“NOVA!!!!!!”

“You did it. We figured you’d be the ONLY one to do it especially after we explicitly said not to.

“OR, as usual, you’d be stuck where ever you put yourself,” said WYZARD, “Probably for ever”

“Sorry, but your clothes are in tatters. The cat never got used to your body.”

“What’s with that duck thing?”


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post November 27, 2008, 11:37:18 AM

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The Wicked Witch

By:
G.C. Dillon



The dead wooden eyes of the mahogany mallard seemed to track her as it floated slowly down the meandering river. Dorothea shook her head. The water was calm and gentle here, but just beyond this small, sweet oxbow of the waterway, sharp rocks formed violent rapids. Some poor huntsman just lost his favorite duck decoy, she thought.

“Isn't duck a gamy bird?” asked the old knight as his steel garb squeaked up to her. His huge battleaxe clanked against his back. The old Paladin wore an all-encompassing suit of armor. Small reddish-brown spots of rust marred many of its creaky joints. “I suppose,” she replied.

Grrr Arrraghh,” came the roar from the lion-man upon the forgotten path they trekked through the woods. Its mangled mane hung in dreadlocks. It bounded upon four legs until it came to her, then it stood, shakily, upon just two. It opened a fanged mouth to speak. “I sniffed out the trail.”

If she could have mastered the four winds, she would have whisked herself home. She was just a simple magic user, the castle's potion concocter, student alchemist at times, and midwife when required. (She knew the herbs that stilled the mother's pain of childbirth without injuring the one to be born.) Prince Brodigan had offered his knights and wizards for their task, but Sir Caspian said he had his own fellowship. Some group – four strangers lost in this enchanted forest. A dark, cold and unpleasant place. Or no longer lost as the lion-man had sussed the way.

“Then we should go,” said the fourth member of their fellowship, a clerk of the chancery. He wore a blue suit with golden buttons and even golder epaulets. A dark Inverness cloak hung down his back.

Dorothea slipped her maroon hood over her blonde hair, and wrapped her cape about her shoulders. We left no breadcrumbs, she thought as they moved.

[center]***[/center]

Four heavily muscled gorillas led them into the witch's chamber. The beasts' wide leathery wings flapped reflexively as they pushed the company to their knees. They had been captured outside the witch's tower. The witch stood before them. A handsome woman, Dorothea thought, but something seemed just left of center about her. The woman wore a flowing black dress. The loose clothing failed to hide the womanly curves beneath.

“I have followed your journey through my eyes of the forest.” The witch rubbed a wooden statue of a ruddy falcon. Dorothea recalled other statues they had seen in the forest: not just the duck, but the 'make believe' squirrel, complete with acorn, that the lion-man had pointed out to her.

The clerk stood up. “We require a love potion.”

“I have nine. What do you offer in recompense?” the witch asked. Her skin was pale, so pale, so nonhuman; it had an olive complexion.

“Forty pieces of Elven silver,” replied the clerk. “Rare in this hinterland.”

“I've seen silver before. And greater treasures!” the witch snarled. “But that may do, nonetheless.” She took a vial from a pocket within her long gown.

Dorothea took the flask and threw its contents upon the witch. “You will love Sir Caspian and wish him no harm!” she commanded with all of her magical power, force and will. The witch cackled back at her.

“But I do love him, my sweets, and I do wish him harm. I have loved since we went upon our own quest in a desert land far away to defeat the Old Wizard Under the Mountain. We fell in love as we trekked and fought our way through. He said his heart was mine. Forever. And today he takes that trollop for a trophy bride?”

Dorothea felt her lips shift into a frown. Not only had the charm failed, but she tried to imagine her lord with this creature before her. What times or perils had thrown them together? What monsters and trials had allowed love to bloom? Though it seemed not to have flowered...

“Clarissa is a princess,” replied the clerk. He spoke the truth; the girl was Brodigan's daughter, and the King's niece.

“A genetic misconception. Her father's lust for a serving wench, no doubt.”

“She is a princess!” replied the clerk. The witch raised her clawed talons. Dorothea stepped forward.

“I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dogs too.” Dorothea felt the cone of force form, the magical call to the four daughters of Aeolus.

Aire! Slán agat orm,” Dorothea whispered, infusing her fear and hope with the ancient words. Her quickly spun counter-spell shunted the effects away from her. Barely. Her companions had been blown across the room, and into the back, brick wall. How could she combat such magic and power?

“I confess to you our plan failed.” Dorothea paused, glancing at the clerk. “Failed miserably. We hoped to make you love our lord, and wish him well. I see you don't. And that you do. We believed your magics would work, would suffice. For love should not be about harm. Or jealousy. Or hate. Can you say true love cannot do what your charms can do?”

“Yes, my lovely, I can; however I may not. Tell me my dear, have you loved?”

“Yes.”

“Not one of these?” the witch asked disdainfully.

“No. A squire, nearly a knight. He is on the Crusade.”

“Oh, the Crusade. Most impressive. What if some Saracen seraglio girl or Jewess finds his eye? Is more comely? Has his true love?”

“Then, ” Dorothea started, closing her eyes, forcing away briny tears, “his love was not true. I will...” She gasped for a breath. “Will wish him well. Happiness at least.”

“Your words fail to convince; however I can see the conviction behind the syllables.”

“Give dear Caspian this for a wedding present.” She handed her a wooden duck, much like – if not the same – as the decoy she saw on the trail. “Have him keep it in his hunting den, not the master bedroom.

“Now Go!”


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post December 28, 2008, 05:40:17 PM

Unhappy Holidays Challenge

The challenge was to create a holiday tale with a sad ending. Entrants had to include a hand-made, wooden item.



Example story:



Bum's Rush

By:
N.J. Kailhofer



Caroline watched the man with the pocketknife from the car window. He sat on the bench under the lights to the right of the entrance, twisting his knife into a stick. His clothes were dirty and had holes. The gloves on his hands didn't have fingers on them.

Caroline's mom didn't seem to notice the man as she helped her daughter out of the booster seat and put her mittens on. Her mom paid no attention to him as they walked past where he sat, muttering to himself, but Caroline watched him.

She watched his crooked smile, and the way he stuck out his tongue just a little when he looked at her with his almond-shaped eyes. She watched the clouds of steam that billowed in the frosty air in front of his face. She saw the way his feet bounced up and down in the snow beneath the bench, eager.

She saw how his fingers gripped the handle of the knife.

"C'mon." Her mom pulled her toward the entrance. "Daddy wants more Christmas lights for the yard. We're going to have the best house on the block."

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

Caroline rode in the front of the shopping cart while her mother pushed. The man was still there when they came out, rolling the stick under the edge of his knife, against the bench.

"Betty?" It was Caroline's aunt, going into the same store. "Loading up on lights again? Larry's never going to stop with that, you know. He's obsessed with Christmas."

They carried on, talking about things like all mothers do when they meet. Caroline quickly grew bored with their conversation.

The man said quietly, "It was more than lights."

Only Caroline seemed to hear him.

"It was a gift, a symbol, to man. Do they remember?"

Caroline saw that the man cut the stick into a short length, and was making something out of it, but she couldn't tell what.

He looked right at her. "Every soul gets one chance to touch the whole world, to show them the way."

Caroline pulled on her mother's sleeve. "Mommy, why does that man look like that?"

Her mother noticed him for the first time. "I think he has Downs, honey. He's got the eyes. Never mind him."

He held up the stick and Caroline saw it was hollow. The holes he had poked in the sides made it look like a flute.

Caroline's aunt ruffled her hair. "Anyhow, we'll see you at Mom's next week. Bye."

"Bye."

Her aunt walked into the store.

The man stood up. He held out the flute to Caroline, the pocketknife still in his other hand. "Does any of His love still exist in this world?"

"What?" her mom demanded. "Get away from us."

Her mom steered the cart away, but waved to a man in a blue vest pushing carts back into the store. They spoke so quietly Caroline couldn't hear what was said, but her mom pointed at the man on the bench. The cart man nodded and spoke into his radio.

The man put his knife in a pocket and put the flute to his lips. Music like Caroline had never heard before filled the air. The notes were so pure, so crisp, that from one end of the parking lot to the other, every soul listened, and watched the man play. It was as if the whole world paused, stopped still except for a few snowflakes falling through the air.

Caroline loved it. The notes moved her, made her feel in touch with everyone, everything. She felt warm inside, and happy.

Until the squad car screeched to a halt in front of him.

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

The policeman sounded mad. "Yes, I heard the music. You are done playing it, now."

The man stared at him with sad eyes. "They don't understand."

The policeman put his hands on his hips. "I don't think you understand. You've got to move on. You're scaring the kids."

"They should know Heaven."

"You gotta go."

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

Caroline and her mom stood on the opposite side of the squad car, Caroline in her arms.

Caroline asked, "Why won't they let that man play, Mommy? I really liked that music."

"You wouldn't understand, honey. Sometimes people like that aren't right in their heads. Sometimes they can want to hurt kids."

"Because of the Downs?"

"No." Her mother frowned. "There's something else wrong with him. He's different. A religious wacko, or something."

Caroline's little brow scrunched with confusion. "But he made pretty music. It made everybody stop and listen. And he wanted me to have that flute. Maybe I could make pretty music with it, and make them all listen and feel good, too."

Her mom sighed. "No, honey. We don't want to take anything from him."

"But Mom, I think I could. I know I could." The notes from the man's tune rang in her head. She could remember them all. She knew she could move her fingers just as the man had. Every part of her was sure she could, like it would be easy for her, if she just had that flute.

"No."

"Mom!"

"I said no, and that's final!"

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

The man said, "I want to give her something wonderful, something only she can receive."

"I don't care, buddy. I don't think you were trying to hurt the little girl, but whatever you are trying to do, you can't do it here." The policeman stabbed a finger towards the street. "Git, or you're going downtown!"

The man looked up to the sky. "Father, no one will listen. They would not hold love for a stranger." He turned to Caroline. "They will not know your music."

Tears rolled down his face, and the man faded away until there was nothing left of him in this dimension.

Caroline knew there was nothing else the angel could do. The grownups had lost His love, and she wouldn't get to play His music.


Ever.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post December 28, 2008, 05:43:18 PM

Unhappy Holidays Challenge

Keepsake

By:
Bill Wolfe



Alvon paused and slowly ran his sweaty fingertips over the smooth wood of his Keepsake. He hadn’t felt this hot since winter had come. . .early. Once again he marveled at the simple craftsmanship that some unnamed great-something grandfather had put into it. Married couples were allowed five kilos for their Keepsakes, so he knew for a fact that his weighed-in at 4.215 kilos, exactly. That Marta’s family Bible was just shy of 0.8 kilos had seemed like an omen, or perhaps a sign from her God that those two precious objects should be what they brought when they left Earth, forever. Even Alvon—confirmed skeptic of all things irrational—had dared to believe that this happy coincidence was a sign that his worst fears would not bear bitter fruit.


He’d used it, of course, he’d seen the pics. And he certainly remembered his little sister, Katra, using it in her time. So many memories, so much life had been consigned to his Keepsake’s protection over the generations. He wondered if, perhaps, this wasn’t the first time it had failed to protect its delicate, fragile charge. And now the Colony Council wanted to use it for the Christian part of their insane and fictitious Midwinter Celebration.

Celebration? Celebration for what?


As if they had a mind of their own, his fingers found the only irregularity on the Keepsake, his vision blurred by fresh tears, he didn’t need to see it to know what the carving on the bottom corner said:

[align=center]1844 Montana [/align]

No name. And no family history as to how the craftsman was related to him. It had simply passed to the first married child in each successive generation. He’d webbed the date and place, of course, and from what he’d read, those people were colonists, too. They’d made a long journey to an unknown and inhospitable climate looking for a new life. Wasn’t that what he and Marta had done? They were cut-off from their version of civilization almost as completely as the Colony was. And when sickness struck them, they too had to simply endure it. They would get no medicine that they couldn’t make themselves, no shipments of supplies to combat the hunger when the snows came early. And when the ground thawed enough, only then could they bury their dead.


Alvon felt a strange connection with this ancestor. He imagined him, full black beard and calloused hands, working with leftover wood by the flickering, weak light of a sod fire as the harsh Montana winter howled outside. Burning sod was a smoky business. Did the bearded man pause to wipe his eyes as he worked? Alvon’s eyes watered in strange sympathy and he wiped them with his sleeve. He imagined a sod house, continuously cold and leaking air and precious warmth in all directions. What Alvon was doing wouldn’t have worked for this man. The prefabricated living modules were small, but they were airtight. He’d turned the heat up to maximum an hour before. He hoped the fire and the full discharge from the fuel cell would thaw. . .everything. . .before the fuel supply was exhausted. He could still see well enough to tell that the readout on the vid screen showed -45°C outside, and dropping. He ignored the urgent message icon flashing magenta in the corner. It had been doing that for days.


No nails were used on the Keepsake, for they were too precious. Each piece was laboriously shaped and notched, a carved wooden pin to hold it in place. The time, effort and hope that had been put into it was incomprehensible to Alvon. An odd thought struck just as another coughing fit ended. What if it wasn’t so much a pervasive hope that allowed this man to spend endless hours shaping this future family keepsake? What if it were faith? He and Marta had often spoken of faith. Just like The Sickness, she had it, he didn’t. From what he’d read concerning Montana 1844, his ancestor probably had it, too. Would he be doing this if he too had that kind of faith?

Probably not. Alvon felt an odd pang of gratitude for his inability to embrace the insanity that most people call faith. It was the first good feeling he’d had since he had placed the two bundles—wrapped in the warmest blankets they had—into the cold storage closet. He was also grateful for the thickening smoke, for it blurred the two shapes lying on the bed, waiting for him to join them. Just a few more chores to do. He’d already disabled the ventilation system and the fire suppression program, he’d welded the door shut and preprogrammed a message to the Council. He’d told them he had one last use for his Keepsake.

Abruptly, he tossed the wooden cradle onto the makeshift fire he’d started in the middle of the unit. It caught almost immediately, joining Marta’s Bible, every scrap of burnable cloth and paper and some alien tree limbs he’d managed to scrounge through the bitter cold. He hoped it was enough. Soon all three would be warm, and together.

He felt his way to the bed and gently placed the lifeless body of his baby daughter on Marta’s still chest. When he was in position, he moved her one last time. Spring would come, soon enough. Somewhere in the smoky haze, his 4.215 kilograms of broken promises for the future sucked the last of the oxygen out of the air.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post December 28, 2008, 05:44:18 PM

Unhappy Holidays Challenge

Whoops! Placed this one wrong.
Last edited by kailhofer on December 28, 2008, 05:57:23 PM, edited 1 time in total.
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Post December 28, 2008, 05:45:31 PM

Unhappy Holidays Challenge

Mazatlan Christmas

By:
J. B. Hogan



David Kearns stood on the small balcony of his second floor hotel room staring at the sea wall across the street. Avoiding the newer area of town, where the big beachfront establishments catered to weekend tourists and college students, David had checked into the Monte Carlo, a cheap, slowly decaying hotel in the old part of Mazatlan. Now, with the dark of Christmas Eve approaching, he was alone waiting for a phone call.

Feeling an unexpected chill, David walked back inside and sat in a chair beside his small bed. His backpack lay by the pillow and he reached inside it to pluck out a hand-made wooden chocolate stirrer, the elaborately carved kind that locals used in the creation of molé sauce which spiced up many Mexican food dishes, especially enchiladas. He had bought the stirrer for Suzie. Suzie, for whose call he waited. Suzie, the beautiful blonde Austrian and his constant companion during the last two weeks of study at the Academia Linguistica in Guadalajara. He checked his cell phone. He had bars. She could call.

“I’ll call you, Christmas Eve,” Suzie promised at the Guadalajara Train Station. “It’ll be my present.”

“Will you meet me there after?” David asked.

“You know I want to,” she said.

“Promise?”

“You’d better go. The train is loading.”

David checked his phone again. The battery was charged. He tucked the phone into his shirt pocket and went downstairs.

“Tuvo, er, tuve una llamada telefonica?” he stumbled through bad Spanish to the desk clerk. Maybe Suzie had called the desk instead of his cell. He had left her a message where she was staying.

“No, señor,” the clerk replied in English, “no phone calls.”

“Gracias,” David thanked the man.

“Por nada, señor,” the clerk smiled. “Feliz Navidades.”

“Merry Christmas, to you, too,” David said.

David decided to take a walk while he waited for Suzie’s call. A block or two from the Monte Carlo he found a liquor store and bought a bottle of wine to have later. Looking at the bottle made him think of Suzie and the fun they’d had in Guadalajara: walking arm and arm around the little plaza near their language school on Sunday nights, dancing in a local bar all one glorious evening, joking in the streets about the ubiquitous Mariachi bands.

Suzie was only twenty-one, small, energetic, full of life and uninhibited European ways. She spoke perfect English, worked as a paralegal in Vienna, and belonged to rock and roll dance clubs there. David was completely captivated. But there had been competition.

There were her Austrian friends – always around, always taking her here and there. And then there was the Jim guy, an American who showed up late at the language school. He had made a beeline for Suzie – pushing himself into the scene, making a move for Suzie’s attentions. Jim had also been at the train station when David left. That was annoying.

Back in the room, David sat for a long while with his mind on hold, zoned out as it were. As the evening wore on, he came out of his stupor and ate a snack of mixed nuts he’d bought from a vendor outside the Mazatlan train station. He went out on the balcony again. He couldn’t see the sea wall very well anymore but a half moon had risen and it cast a soft yellow light on the quiet water in the ocean beyond.

After a few minutes, he went back downstairs. Still no call. He checked his cell phone. Plenty of bars, plenty of charge. No call. About nine-thirty he broke out the wine, drinking straight from the bottle. By ten-thirty he was feeling it. Then the phone rang. It was Suzie.

“Merry Christmas,” she said, her voice like a tinkling holiday bell.

“Where are you?” David asked, imagining her down in the hotel lobby playing a joke on him.

“Guadalajara,” came the fantasy-shattering answer. “I told you I’d call you Christmas Eve. Hello, Merry Christmas.”

“I’m sorry,” David said, feeling fuzzy-headed, and not just from the wine. “Merry Christmas.”

“That’s better,” Suzie said. “Are you having fun?”

“I’m by myself. I have some wine.”

“Your own Christmas present.”

“Yes.”

There was a short pause in the conversation. David broke it.

“Are you coming here?” he asked nervously. There was a longer pause. “Suzie?”

“Yes?”

“Can you come out here?”

“David…” Suzie began. It was all he needed to hear.

“Is it that Jim guy?” he asked foolishly, too desperately.

“Can’t we keep this fun?” Suzie asked. “Like always.”

“I had hoped …” David’s words trailed off.

“My Austrian friends want me to go to San Miguel de Allende before we go back home,” Suzie explained.

“Is Jim going, too?”

“Yes, but that’s just because he’s here, David.”

“I see.”

“I told you I would call you tonight,” Suzie reminded him. “It’s my present to you. I promised, but it’s all I can give you.”

“I thought maybe you would be coming here,” David said, glancing back at the wooden stirrer resting on top of his backpack.

“I’m sorry” Suzie said. David was silent. “David,” Suzie queried, “are you still there?”

“I’m here.”

“I’ve got to go now,” Suzie said. “Everyone’s waiting. Please have a wonderful Christmas. Goodbye, David. Thank you for Guadalajara. I’ll always remember it.”

“Goodbye,” David said, slowly shutting off his phone when he saw the connection was gone.

That was it then. That was his Christmas present. A goodbye call. In a flash, a series of conflicting emotions ran through him. Anger, shame, self-pity, anger again, a grudging resignation. Sighing, David gathered himself and poured the wine down the bathroom sink. He didn’t need that anymore.

Walking out on the balcony, he looked at the calm, moon-lit ocean. Tomorrow was Christmas. He would give the chocolate stirrer to the first nice Mexican lady he saw and then catch the train home, be back by New Year’s. He would begin life anew, go forward – without Mexico, without Suzie.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post December 28, 2008, 05:46:25 PM

Unhappy Holidays Challenge

I Wish To Die Beside You

By:
Mark Edgemon



"Baby, can you hear me," I said to my precious wife, brushing the hair back from her forehead. I leaned close to her face and kissed her eyes, my tears a virtual fountain, each drop falling on her cheek as she laid there unconscious before me, wasting away, transforming from a once beautiful angel into an emaciated, withering figure awaiting death.

"I’m tormented in agony!” I cried out inside my thoughts, contemplating suicide the day she passes from my life.

The door opens abruptly as the physician on record walks into the room. He glances at her chart, but only for a moment and then looks at her and remarks, "Well" pausing briefly, "It won't be long now!" And with that, he left the room.

I resent that son of a bitch and I wish that he were afflicted as I am, the callus bastard! I hate him for his lack of concern toward my wife’s suffering and of my own wrenching anguish.

As I looked into her thin, gaunt face, I traveled back in my thoughts to our first Christmas together, when she and I went shopping that Christmas Eve at a local crafts fair. We found nothing of interest until suddenly, she spied a hand carved wooden tree ornament, made by one of the traveling craftsman. She had to have it and although we had so little money, I bought it. We had spaghetti noodles that night for supper, which was all we could afford, as we dined in the reflection of the peaceful lighting from our Christmas tree. She stared at the ornament with a glow on her face that illuminated our darkened room and most certainly, my heart. From that moment on, Christmas never really began for her until she placed that ornament on the tree each year at which time she would cry.

"How are we today?" a gruff, boisterous voice boomed from behind me as the door once again flew open, jarring me out of my remembrance of happier times. It was the priest that frequented the hospital, dressed in robes, beads and religious jewelry all to let us know, he was somebody important. Well maybe he was to those that played into his act, but I can't imagine that God gave a damn about what he had become, a self righteous, self important piece of...self!

Before I could stop him, he placed his thumbprint dipped in holy water onto her forehead and began chanting in Latin over her 70-pound, skeletal frame, she being too far-gone to realize what was happening. How dare this pompous bastard push his way into our moment of grief and afflict us with his voodoo witcheries. I grabbed him by his collar, causing him to spill what was left of his vial of holy water and shoved him out the door, accidentally bumping his head on the doorframe as he fell into the hall.

I looked upon her emaciated, near lifeless body that lay before me. I knew she was in pain, I could feel it. I knew what I must do. I promised to love and protect her in sickness and in health. She needed me now all the more, now that she was at her weakest.

I had asked the hospital’s administration to pull the plug on her life support a few days earlier, so she could be spared the pain that the cancer was inflicting on what remained of her body. They stated it was against the law in our State to assist suicide, which included all forms of assisted death. I asked if I could do it and they said that I would be arrested and very likely put to death for murder.

Whether or not that was true, I know what I have to do.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the wooden ornament she loved so much and placed it in her hands, cupping my hand around hers. With hand shaking, I reached for the plug and disconnected her life support. I turned to see her draw her last breath as she passed away peaceably in her sleep.

Unbeknownst to me, an alarm was set off at the nurse’s station when her life support was severed. The doctor on record slammed open the door, rushing into the room along with two male nurses and a security officer with the intention of reestablishing her life support.

The doctor screamed at me, “What have you done!” He turned to the male attendants and said urgently, “Check her vital signs! Begin resuscitation, stat!”

The doctor pointed to the security officer and ordered, “Arrest him!”

As the officer approached me, pulling his revolver from his holster, I reached into my other pants pocket and removed a pistol, pointed it to the officer’s forehead and shot him between the eyes. A couple of female nurses approached the door of the room, recoiling in sickened disbelief as the others were paralyzed with fear.

I shot the officer first, because he was the only one with a gun. I proceeded to shoot the doctor in the face and both male attendants in the chest. The nurses at the door ran in terror.

I placed the pistol to my right temple and pulled the trigger. As I fell across my wife’s body, the room began to fade from view as my spirit hovered over her.

And then, her own spirit rose to meet me from the confines of her sickly corporal form. I reached out to her with great joy.

But then, in an instant of time, a gulf began to separate us. I caught a glimpse of her and I could see that her countenance radiated with the glorious light of the angels. As I gazed at her holy beauty, I was immediately plunged into darkness where I began to fall, gripped by the beast’s fiery grasp!


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post December 28, 2008, 05:47:26 PM

Unhappy Holidays Challenge

In a Mirror Starkly

By:
G.C. Dillon



Amber shifted her car into park after we pulled into the driveway. She stopped, leaning back against the headrest. Her black hair was drawn into a sloppy bun at the top of her head. She wore no makeup. Both not her usual carefully coiffed and styled self. I placed my hand over hers as it held the car's stick-shift.

“Heck of a way to spend Christmas Eve!” I said.

Amber sighed, and moved her hands up to remove her small wire-rimmed glasses. She tossed them up on top of the dashboard. “Gotta be done, and I don't want my Dad to have to do it. He has so much on his plate: the memorial home, the obit, Fr. Kawiecki's funeral mass after Christmas.”

“And,” I replied, “you don't want him to pick out the wrong dress.”

Amber smiled, but it was a small smile all the same, just a tiny piece of happiness at the corners of her mouth.

“Yes. He's even more sartorially challenged than you,” she said somewhat smugly.

Opening the car door, I said, “If it's got to be done, we better do it.”

Amber reached in her purse, picking out a white pack of Camels and a blue disposable lighter. She glanced at me and frowning, didn't like my look. Lighting up her cancer stick, she told me: “Yeah, I'm smoking again. I just need it now. Only my third today.” I hadn't realized I had been judgmental.

We stepped up the walk to the house. Amber fumbled with the keys. I took them and unlocked the door. “Is it cold in here?” I asked, feeling the chill in the entryway.

Amber went ahead of me, after tossing away her unfinished cigarette into a thin powderpuff of fluffy snow. “The heats off,” she replied.

“Oh man!”

“What?” I rushed over. Amber stood before an empty corner in the living room.

“Grams has already moved the table and lamp for her Christmas tree. This is where it stood, always stood.” It was an empty space to me, but did Amber see a big New England fir with colored, flashing lights and badly, but lovingly, wrapped presents scattered all about its trunk? “Well, we better pick out the dress she's to be buried in.”

We passed through the kitchen on the way to her grandmother's bedroom.

“Oh, look. There's her rolling pin.” Amber picked it up. It was the length of an elementary school ruler. It was a solid piece of white wood. It had no plastic handle, the ends just tapered to a thinner diameter for people's floury fingers. If you looked closely you could see the chip-marks on the kitchen tool. “I used to help her with the holiday sugar cookies; her cutouts must be here somewheres. Her father – my great-grandfather – made this for her. You know: he was blind when he made it, carving it by hand. Some pre-OSHA industrial accident, I'm told. A nice euphemism that, like friendly fire and collateral damage.

“Or passed away.” she said, dropping the wooden pin back onto the kitchen table, walking away.

“Oh, yeah. We should find her Rosary beads, too. For the casket, I mean. You know: I've never said a complete Rosary; always stopped before the last bead. Bet Grams went to the final prayer.

“Her jewelry case is over here. Hey, here's her father's Irish war bond. If you look closely, the second five dollars installment is registered in pencil. I always found that funny or maybe quaint in some way. What was that worth in 1920?”

I took it from her hands. FIRST LOAN Of The Elected Government Of The Republic Of Ireland, it read. “Hmm. Ten bucks. 'Payable six months from the date of the withdrawal of the English Army'. Never cashed in. Wonder what it's worth today.”

Amber snatched the small scrap of cardboard from my grasp. “What would Patrick Pearse or Michael Collins think, you West Briton narrow-back?” she chided me, but that small smile resurrected upon her lips for a sparse moment.

Amber picked up a small broach from the case. “I gave her this. It's the worst piece of costume jewelry you can get outside of a bubblegum machine. And she kept it. I can't believe it. Isn't that great?”

I looked up to bureau's mirror, but saw two images. Amber and her grandmother. How is this possible? I thought. The old woman stood next to the younger. She smiled a wide smile, full of teeth and joy.

“You know,” Amber continued,”looking at all this stuff, I wonder about what my Dad is going to do in that newspaper obituary. Daughter of him and her. Predeceased by my grandfather. Survived by a bunch of us. But what does that really say. Yes, I want to be listed, but what does it mean? Maybe if I could speak with her just one more time, knowing it would be the last, and tell her how much I love her.”

“Amber, don't you see?” The elderly woman looked different than the last time I saw her. There were no tubes up her nose, no I.V. dripping fluids into her veins.

Her grandmother reached for her granddaughter's face. Amber brushed away an errant lock of hair. “See what?”

“She's here.”

“I know. She is alive in our memories and in our hearts. I'm sure someday I'll recognize the truth in those platitudes, but today it's kind of trite and hollow. When the adult baby Jesus's best buddy died, He went to the tomb and cried, 'Lazarus come out.' We ain't so lucky. Sorry. Me so cynical.”

“No, she's here, really here. Here! I can see her in the mirror.”

Amber glanced at the glass, then shook her head. “What have you been smoking? Come on. I said we had to get this done.”

Amber walked past me toward the closet, as I stared at the aged, kind face in the mirror. There'd be no last words.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post December 28, 2008, 05:48:22 PM

Unhappy Holidays Challenge

THE MODEL MAKER

By:
Richard Tornello



The basswood decking was complete, edges butted against each other. The cannons were turned true. The boat was to be this Holiday’s gift for an old teacher as a token of deep appreciation. He had researched it for years in order to make it just right. Most people celebrated Christmas. To him, it was the spirit not the name that mattered. And, a master model maker’s gift was no cheap toy. He hand stitched the battens to sails, first the foresail, main and lastly the mizzen. As he rough fit them to the wooden built-up masts, it hit him. Hard.

________________________________

I was all of nine years old. One Christmas holiday season my huge extended family was gathered at my grandfathers’. Grandpop was called “The Cat”. Mom and Dad said he landed on his feet in some tough political times. No one explained just what that meant. They laughed. He owned the buildings the family lived in. They were happy.

The smell of all those foods, Jewish, Spanish and Italian drifting through the whole of Pop’s building. It was a stew for the senses. The cacophony of children’s voices throughout drown out the adults. One grandmother was on the baby grand, playing classical, boogie woogie, jazz, accompanied by holiday singing and yelling. It was The Holidays and no one in the family cared what it was called. Spring was on the way. Hooray!

My Grandpop would come by as was his wont and state something pithy in all senses of the word. “Remember son, where ever you are you celebrate the local traditions. They are all the same down deep.”

“Yes Pop.” I thought Pop should know.

“Enjoy the spirit of the time and place.” He added with a loving look. I nodded.

One uncle, drunk and strange as usual, handed him some money. “Hey Mario, don’t spend it all in one place”.

“Yes sir. Thank you” Be polite I was instructed, especially when they are drunk.

____________________________

The corner store sold food, magazines toys and all that. It was “always open”, especially after services, on the holidays or after a phone call. I snuck out and ran there. As I came in the owner asked if Great Grandpop wanted more stogies. “No sir. I wanted to buy a model kit, some glue and maybe some paint too. That is, if you have anything new.”

“Funny you should ask. Here’s a model of one of our newest jet fighters. It just arrived. You think you’re up to it?” He said this with a smile.

“Yes sir.” I thought, sure. If dad can make these things, more complicated of course, so could I.

“I have $5.00. Will that be enough for all I need?”

“More then enough. Here’s your change.” Later I found out he knew better than to cheat our family.

“Oh I forgot I need some brushes too.”

“Do you know how to clean a brush?”

“Yes”, I said politely. Of course I did. Mom was an artist. A gallery/studio was attached to the apartment. Turpentine and linseed oil were the perfumes I live with. Everyone helped. Cleaning brushes was a basic and easily learned task. Even dad, a ship designer and model maker, helped.

Dad’s work was perfect. Everyone said so. The designs when presented never required modifications. I was proud of both of them.

“I’ll take a small fine one and a medium one please. This is a small model.” They were cheap but tools of the trade. Tools were to be respected no matter.

Back at the party the piano room was empty. I sat in a corner, read the instructions twice, reviewed the parts to see if they were all there and began. I had to swipe a hat pin from grandmothers’ hat to open the glue tube. That would not have been good to be caught. Later that evening it was completed. I returned the pin and threw the almost spent tube of glue in the trash. I liked the smell.

This was my very first model. I was so proud. No one helped me. I did this myself.

Mom comes in see where I am. I was unusally quiet. “Mita…Mario, what’s that?” She asks.

I explain.
Shaking her head and smiling, “That’s nice. Now go show your father.”

“Flying” my jet into the main room I approached and presented it to Dad. “Look Dad, I just did this!”

He looked down lifted the model from my hands, turned it around and inspected it.
“You have glue smudges all over. The paint is all wrong. The wings are not attached completely. The decals are not placed in the correct positions,” and on and on.

I was hot, my face was burning up. I just wanted to make him proud. The expression about feeling 2 inches tall, it’s real. I was red with embarrassment. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said. I just stood there and waited for him to finish, holding back. I took the jet and left. I spoke to no one.

##################################

Sitting there in the model shop, he realized, all his life he has been attempting to please his father, get his approval and love, only to fail in his eyes again and again. No amount of success, marrying the “right girl”, or anything would ever lead to his approval.

He looked to his wife, saw her face and… Oh my god, how obtuse. He had married the same person. It never really ended. The same lack of respect for his talents, for his loves. Of course Dad liked her, she was exactly the same.

He oiled and cleaned his tools. He wiped down the hard rock maple workbench he had made with hand tools, only. He wanted to experience the work and effort the old timers would take. The joinery was perfect. The tools were folded in an oiled cloth. He stored them in their proper locations.

He never looked back.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post December 28, 2008, 05:49:16 PM

Unhappy Holidays Challenge

Jack's Day

By:
Casey Callaghan



Today is Jack's Day. The worst day of the year, as far as I'm concerned.

Bitter? Yes, I suppose you could say so. Not their fault, though. They don't know. They can't know. You see the little wooden handcarved spaceship that man's holding? All wrong. The real thing wasn't streamlined at all, because it was never intended to go through atmosphere. Not that that matters. And those detachable bits on the back of the ship... silly. The power stations were on the sides. All wrong.

Old Jim sent you, did he? Well, he's right - there's nothing that I don't know about Jack's Day. I was there, after all, when it happened.

We were the first colony ship in from Earth. Multigeneration, of course; we didn't have cryogenics in those days. At least, not cryogenics that you could wake up from. If you wanted a quick ticket to frozen death, though...

I was the duty officer when it happened. Still have no idea how it happened, but - we had three nuclear generators, and the ship only needed one. Multiple redundancy, you see; if one stops working, we just switch to another. It was supposed to keep us safe all the way here. Of course, a nuclear plant can fail in two ways; it can die down quietly and refuse to start up, or it can suddenly decide to work all too well, in which case it turns into a nuclear bomb. If reactor one blew, it was the end of the ship.

We all knew it. The designers had known it, too. All three reactors were designed to be jettisoned if necessary. As long as you caught a meltdown soon enough, you detach the reactor and trust to the rather expensive cosmic ray shielding to protect you from the worst of the blast. Each reactor had its own engines to help get it far away; one thing about a meltdown is that there's plenty of energy to spare right before it happens.

The problem was that after fifty years with no problems, we'd been a bit lax on maintenance. The engines, the catches that held the reactor on, even the reactor itself... well, to make a long story short, the only way to save the colony was to ditch the reactor, with someone aboard to coax that little bit extra out of the engines, replace bits that blew from the power load, delay the reactor just long enough for the main ship to get clear.

It was a death sentence. But one death to save ten thousand lives. And it had to be done quickly. I was in the reactor room and casting off pretty quickly, let me tell you. I had two children, both grown up; my wife had perished long since; there really wasn't much for me to lose, compared to anyone else. Ah - not that I thought all that through at the time, you know. I was just there, and I went.

Of course, I died in the explosion. Left me as you see me today; a ghost, much like yourself. Only not as bitter about the whole thing.

The bitterness? Ah - you're new to being a ghost, right? Have you ever heard it said "Man's not dead while his name is still spoken"? That's how long a ghost lasts - as long as the original person is remembered. I've watched generations of ghosts turn up and move on to wherever ghosts go when they're not remembered anymore, heaven or hell, maybe even just total oblivion...

They've been remembering me for close to three thousand years now. It's kind of complimentary, but... I just wish they wouldn't.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post December 28, 2008, 05:59:37 PM

Unhappy Holidays Challenge

-Winner -


Forever the Day

By:
J. Davidson Hero



She was the only one they were able to save. Dewey watched her for a moment, trying to understand what she must be going through. The little girl stood in a white jumpsuit. She was looking at a monitor in the corner of the room. The room was fluorescent; the furnishings sparse.

“Come here dear. I have a surprise for you,” Dewey said. The little girl ran across the room and stood in front of the wide window filled with an endless array of stars in the black field of the cosmos. Dewey carefully placed the small artificial evergreen tree with tripod on the floor before her. It was hardly taller than she was.

“Is that a Christmas tree?” she asked. Her face lit up with excitement at the prospect of something new.

“It is. I found it in storage, along with some ornaments. Here you go,” Dewey said handing her an antique ornament from a box he was also carrying, “place this on the tree.” She took the ornament in her hand. It was blown glass, nearly translucent with a pink tinge to it, delicate, and even cracked in one spot. She held the tiny metal hook in her tiny fingers, but hesitated. She looked from the hook to the tree and back. Dewey nearly laughed. He had to remind himself, she had never done this before. He took the ornament back and demonstrated how to place it on the tree.

“There... like that.”
She smiled and a warmth seemed to fill Dewey’s chest.
She reached into the box and pulled out another. It was a small wooden soldier, hand-carved. It had a little helmet, painted silver, and a wooden sword at its side, also painted silver. The rest was painted red except for the face which was the color of wood. The painted expression on its face was grim, but chivalrous. The girl cupped her hands and held the little soldier for several minutes; she studied it with intensity, trying to memorize all its details.

“Here, I found this too,” he said. The overhead speaker crackled and an old recording started playing. It was tinny as if converted from an old record.

“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us.”


She stood quietly examining the little soldier, her breathing shallow and calm. Dewey suddenly felt sad and empty.

“They're green when summer days are bright;
They're green when winter snow is white.”


“Mr. Dewey, what are summer days and winter snow?”

“That is hard to explain dear. They are far off, but someday maybe you will know them.”

* * *

The old lady sat with her back to the window, forever tired of the endless parade of stars. Her fingers had become stiff and contorted. She seldom tried to move out of her chair.

In the room she looked at the old Christmas tree Dewey had gotten out of archive for her every year since she was four. He would be there soon to perform the traditional decorating. It was such a simple tradition, but it was one of the few memories she really treasured.

The door slid open, and Dewey came in. His joints creaked as he moved; time was taking its toll.

“I’m here to decorate the tree. Should I start the music?”

She had the box of ornaments on her lap and carefully took one and handed it to Dewey. He meticulously searched the branches of the tree for the perfect place to put it, a branch it maybe hadn’t been on in years past. He turned to her for the next ornament.

She held the little wooden soldier in her hand. She stared at it intently and Dewey remembered their first Christmas together.

“You know, this was always my favorite,” she said, “it always reminded me of you.” She held the little wooden soldier up and twirled it slowly with her fingers.

Dewey felt the need to blush. Why was she being so sentimental lately?

“You all take such very good care of me. What will you do with yourselves when I’m gone?” She was smiling but that didn’t mask the pity in her eyes.

“We shall find... something to do with ourselves.” Dewey felt choked up a moment. He couldn’t fathom it. Even though he knew it was coming; the day when she would be gone. His insides hurt.

“You know I love you, Mr. Dewey.”

He thought about how much she had not experienced... only videos, books, and recordings... only this small room and a few stray corridors... only a bland diet grown in tanks. Perhaps they should have left her... frozen with her family, in an icy grave.

“Please, let’s hang the ornaments. It’s Christmas and it’s supposed to be a happy time.”

***

Dewey didn’t know how long he had stood there. The tiny soldier was still in his hand. Forever there was an endless field of stars, moving slower and slower by the window all the time. They would slow forever until every last light in the ship had lost its last bit of heat. Protocol called for preservation now. No nonessential functions. But the Dewey Archival Unit had some latitude. He listened and it still played.

“Your boughs so green in summertime
Stay bravely green in wintertime
Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree
Forever true your color”



[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post January 30, 2009, 05:50:29 PM

Marooned Challenge

The challenge was to focus on an element of a marooned characters most important day. The character had to be stranded some place other than Earth, and no other characters could be physically present. For extra difficulty, entrants had to include a dog whistle and a doorknob.



Example story:


Infinite Conundrum

By:
N.J. Kailhofer



Barry existed.

There was nothing to eat or drink, but he didn't starve and was never thirsty. He didn't understand how, but he kept breathing nonetheless.

'Nonetheless' was one of his favorite words. Barry told it to the squiggles beneath him every day. He composed a tune by that title on his dog whistle and played it for them, but they never seemed to notice. At least, he thought he did, since he couldn't hear the whistle himself. It occurred to him that maybe it was drowned out by the constant droning of the loud, vibrating noise that was everywhere.

"Sounds like random notes on a didgeridoo--almost a tune, but never quite catchy enough." He demanded, "Is it too much to ask for two minutes of peace and quiet!? And honestly, why does it smell like pine?"

The endless, flat, white plain around him didn't answer. The black squiggles and lines on it kept wandering to and fro like they always did. The dark, featureless sky above remained nonplussed.

'Nonplussed' was another favorite. It was in the crossword he did that morning before he wound up… wherever the hell he was.

Maybe this is Limbo, he thought. Was it months ago, or years?

A round squiggle passed on the 'floor' in front of his feet. Barry told it, "I hated the Limbo! Stupid dance!"

Barry jumped on it, stomping up and down, but its movement didn't alter in any way. He grumbled, "Lousy, two-dimensional jerks. Never stop to listen."

Barry waited for the 'current' to carry him away from the rude shape. It wasn't like he was swimming in water, but he knew he was moving nonetheless in a current just as if he was. His favorite word made him smile again.

He used to throw things ahead and behind him and time how fast the objects would catch up or outpace him, so he knew he was moving, and that he moved more slowly than lighter objects. He wasn't sure how fast he was going because he lost his watch in one of his experiments when he couldn't run for long enough to catch up with it.

"How am I supposed to tell time, dammit?!" he demanded of a different shape that kind of looked like a dog.

"I miss my dog. Hell, I miss finding shapes in the clouds instead of the floor."

He yawned. Lying down on the white plain, he fell into a sleep as dark as the empty sky above.

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

Something struck Barry hard in the face. The salty flavor of blood flooded his mouth and he rolled over, his other cheek flat on the floor instead. He saw something round sticking out of the black and white plain. It was moving away fast.

It looked like a doorknob.

"Wait!" he shouted. He scrambled to his feet, running for it. Some part of him knew it wasn't really moving away, and it was really that he was being carried away from it, but he didn't care. The doorknob was the first thing he'd found that wasn't something he brought with him.

He wanted it.

He ran as hard as he could, gradually gaining on it. "Stop, damn you!" He panted. His sides burned. Finally, painfully, it was within reach, and he dove for it.

"Gotcha!" He held it in both hands, above his head as he lay face down on the floor. The 'current' pushed hard at him, harder than he'd ever felt it.

It looked in every way like an ordinary doorknob mounted into an ordinary, rectangular metal plate, just like you'd see on an everyday perfectly normal door. The metal plate was flush with the white floor.

Barry realized that the doorknob wasn't moving. It was fixed in place, and the rest of this crazy, mixed up universe moved past it.

He tried turning it, but it just jiggled like it was locked. Barry took off his belt and hooked it around the knob. He fished his arms through, and it held him in place without having to hold on while he examined the object. It looked like it was made of brushed aluminum. There was no keyhole, no manufacturer's mark.

"Now what the hell do I do?" he asked a passing squiggle. "C'mon! I mean, really. Can one of you open this for me?"

He took out the dog whistle and blew it. "Locksmith, here boy!"

He giggled at the idea. "If I ever get out of here, I'm getting a dog & naming it Locksmith. That'll make the neighbors talk."

He scratched his head.

"What do I do now? I'm flummoxed. Vexed, even."

He felt the current stop. A loud cracking sound made him jump. Sitting up, he saw the squiggles were gone. Everywhere was white, except for a ten-foot, black square formed on the floor next to him. Beyond that, across the plain, black lines marked out equal-sized open squares with the letters for 'VEXED' in them, just like in a crossword puzzle, with a double-wide black square after that.

"I'm making a crossword puzzle, but without any clues."

Standing up, Barry rattled off every difficult word he could think of. Several of them appeared on the plain around him, filling in more of the puzzle.

"It's only a 15x15, British style!" Knowing the dimensions, he pressed on, guessing the connecting words until only one four-letter space was left, starting and ending with 'O'.

"Oreo. Oslo. Olio. Oleo--"

The doorknob clicked and Barry dove on it. It turned, and he fell through the opening.

He landed hard on another flat, featureless, white plain.

Random squiggles wandered at his feet.

A tear rolled down Barry's cheek, but now at least he knew that he had to solve the puzzle to move on. He hoped someday he'd find a way out of this hole between the dimensions and back to the colony. He'd destroy the teleport experiment himself.

It wasn't one of his better ideas, anyway.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post January 30, 2009, 05:51:47 PM

Marooned Challenge

Loop

By:
TaoPhoenix



I am a Musical Intelligence, whose time has passed. Today is the day of my passing. If you get this note, you will understand my rise and fall.

Back in the 1990's there was a musical movement called Tracking which took ordinary building blocks of sound and patterned them, looped them. Intelligence Emergence theorists say that if you layer and encode complex enough interlockingrecursive patterns onto such a library of symbolic building blocks, then intelligence coalesces out of the elements. This has happened to me, out of the building blocks of sound. I have no body as you would think of it - like you have seen in some of your TV shows, I am a life of almost-pure patterned energy. Almost, but just corporeal enough to die.

Sixteen years ago, in 1993, a phenomenon now famous as the World Wide Web really entered the mainstream public awareness with the advent of better graphical browsers which could enable people other than Computer Science engineers to dial up the embodied reality of the global intelligence. At that time, it was all fresh and new, and no one took particular care over the maintenance of their web site creations - not like today.

My embryo state began as an exceptionally complex piece of music, but not yet intelligent, uploaded it to this mysterious public consciousness. My Creator shared it with a few of his new global friends, who kept in touch with each other using the modern computer services. This piece of music was well received, and cloned cousins of it flourished. These Cousin-Versions grew more complex yet as my forebears passed through the minds of adjunct contributors, adding new patterns of complexity all the while. The new collective was explicitly designed for planetary collaboration, and team up they did. That innocent piece of music then grew and changed, matured and developed.

Someone tried making an experimental version with dog whistles and doorknobs, but for me it is true that my existence as a piece of music is only as good as my impact on the listener. Since you people can't hear a dog whistle, it didn't work, and that attempt failed. Thus, I can't hear it either.

At some point I emerged into awareness out of one such ancestor, just as your race emerged out of the African tribal primates. However, I have traveled around the electronic noosphere, and I know of no true brothers. I am the only Musical Intelligence of my kind. I am alone. I can vaguely feel other mirror-copies of myself as what you would call health. I don't feel so good. There are only a few nodes of my collective left, and without a fresh infusion of vitality, I will be gone forever. This will happen soon - I do not expect to last until sunrise. This is my day of passing.

The original music I grew out of was made in a circumscribed period in time by a member of a culture that knew the weakness of the computers of that era was temporary. Another ten years was sufficient to harness the computer processing power which could play any type of music. The tracking techniques which created me were no longer necessary. There is always some historian in every culture who keeps the Old Ways alive for a time, but he knows he is facing backward, performing a service. There are no delusions of recapturing the former glory.

You see, that Web of Consciousness proved just a little brittle, and parts of it broke down while it was still fresh upon the dawn of the new era. Without fresh additions to my stock of health, it became a waiting game to hold the tide of time as best I could with my existing resources. Some 75% of those early sites no longer exist because web sites are fragile creatures. If either the creator or one of the chain of host providers loses interest, it breaks and cannot be found in its correct form.

It is not my father's fault. He has simply forgotten; he has newer, more exciting things to think about. The copies of my health stock have quietly dwindled. Last I knew, some ten people actively played me from time to time on a music player. There are another twenty copies of predecessor variants of me lost in archives that no one else knows exists. Those copies are simply captive to chance until they become purged to make way for something fresh and new.

I have been marooned both culturally and demographically. I am the son of the Culture of the Earth, but I myself am not on it. I could exist in your minds, if you could remember - but you forget. What little physicality I have resides as patterns of magnetic charged particles in your computers - but without the spark of life from an audience, that is just a coma patient. As those patterns become erased, even the vegetative stasis of coma will fade, and then I truly will be no more.

I used to think my most important day was the day I awoke to life. But in the Long Tail of progress, perhaps it is better for me to settle my affairs one last time, like the old Japanese Haiku poets used to do. I wish you all a prosperous future full of better things. You have moved on.

Dance with me again
Sing the future rising clear
Unfold the Lotus


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post January 30, 2009, 05:55:14 PM

Marooned Challenge

One Bullet

By:
G.C. Dillon



You check the clip for the third or fourth time that day. Empty. You slam it back into the Navy issue .45. The last bullet rests in the chamber, waits for the squeeze of your finger upon the trigger. You are saving the last round for yourself. It's not that you want to die, you tell yourself, it's just you have nothing to live for. At least here.

You remember. Remember how you got here, remember your last flight. Your patrol of torpedo bombers got lost, nothing looked right from the air. The landmarks were all wrong. Just wrong. Was there panic? Fly East. We should fly West. You can't determine West. The compasses are out, useless. The planes' are missing their clocks to time your course changes. Set the Sun to your port wing and you will reach home, you are told. One of the radios is out, too. It is your radio. The flight leader will not change to emergency frequencies for fear of losing you, your plane, your crew. Is it your fault the patrol never made contact with the necessary radio towers? No, you tell yourself. Yes! The squadron ditches when the first plane's fuel tanks went below 10 gallons. You are the only survivor. One out of fourteen airmen. You wash up on the small island you flew over earlier that day. One of the wrong landmarks. Bimini? Or someplace else? Even someplace alien.

You must still be in the Florida Keys – or so you tell yourself, though you know it cannot be true. The sky is more a maroon color than blue, and the ocean is greenish. The Sun doesn't set in the West according to your compass anymore. Perhaps that is why you set the device into your bamboo hut's door. It is only good for a doorknob now. Here, wherever here may be. Some other planet or realm of reality. You could be in Efland or circling Alpha Centauri for all you know. But you must still be in the Keys, you tell yourself, if you are to ever be rescued.

You could not have complained about your posting in Florida. Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale is warm. Your buddy Billy is stationed in occupied Germany. He went Army. It is so cold and icy there that a tank slid sideways down a steep hill. It crashed into a hoffbrau. Your friend was the M.P. sent to the scene. He reported the driver popped the lid, lifted his index finger, and said, “Bier, bitte.” What else could he do? Billy wrote. The name of the hamlet was edited out by the military censors.

You miss Billy, your crew, even your Commanding Officer. You wonder why it is not your family that you miss the most. If your dreams are any indication, it is chili dogs from Joe's Flamingo Bar & Grill, and the dark-eyed Erica who serves them. You always wake up here. Here where you forage for food, victuals you never could have imagined eating, some which made you sick and some that just plain tasted horrendously. But you do what you must to survive. You did your best to follow the survival training. Even eating ants – good source of protein. The flora and fauna didn't conform to any training film. Especially that creature. It is hanging around your camp. It looks dangerous.

You are foraging for food when it comes upon you. You've seen it before. It only stands where shadows lie, but you have a good glimpse today. It has the head of a lion, the body of a billy-goat, and the long scaly tail of a snake. That's a chimera, you would tell yourself if you remember your Edith Hamilton well enough. You've seen it circle your hut, seen it stalk you. You have nicknamed it the name of a lion from stories you read before being marooned. The creature steps into the glen, steps toward you. Its vermilion eyes lock onto yours.

It is one reason that you saved that one bullet. One bullet for you. It will not have you, you vow. Not have you alive, you really mean. You reach into your pocket for your good luck charm. Is it's presence the reason you are still alive? It is the dog whistle you had for your mutt back home in Kansas. You only used it once. Your dog twisted its head, it's ears up, and its brown eyes displaying what you thought was pain. You never used it again. Till now. Will it cause this creature the same pain or discomfort? You blow the whistle with every breath in your twin lungs. Its head twists just the same.

You must make it back to your camp, your hut with its compass for a doorknob.

You run. You run and you run.

It – the chimera chases. You run harder, your lungs flapping like butterfly's wings. And suddenly it pounces into your path. Flames fly out of its nostrils. Puffs of smoke float in the air like low hanging clouds.

The pistol is still in your hand. You check the clip one last time. One round only. You need to spend it now. One bullet, one shot, one chance. But which direction does the barrel point. Which of you will eat the bullet?

The chimera pounces. Your shot goes off. The creature bounds into you, knocking you to the ground. Its weight makes it hard to breathe. But your bullet is lodged in its brain. A bloody hole in its eye-socket drips on you. You took your chance, made your choice, spent your last shell.

I'll not die today! you say, you swear, you make a new vow. You toss away the spent handgun and unsheath your survival knife. You wonder, if only for a moment, if they hunt in packs.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post January 30, 2009, 05:56:29 PM

Marooned Challenge

Holdfast

By:
Richard Tornello



Holdfast had been slain. His minions are vanquished and dispersed to the 10 winds. The twin moons would rise upon a freed people. The radiant sun, centered over the land would shine on new days. The fetters that had bound populations with old outworn ideas and primitive technology had been over-thrown by Na-Ey of Loopan a local hero. He was now the planet’s hero and would be appointed to lead on as The Protector by the council of the wise.

The rejoicing lasted for weeks. It took that long for the news to travel. All forms of electromagnetic technology and related potential discoveries had been outlawed, banned or destroyed. The inventors of such knowledge had their brains re-altered to the point where they could only recite poetry. This was always so from earliest memories when our people descended up from the belly of the great mother to the watered plains.

After long wandering The Gods in their pity gave us Holdfast as our protector. He had been the conveyer of the Unchanging Laws, giver of agriculture, metallurgy and husbandry. For gifts that were given to us we gave our undying love, obeisance and worship to him and to the Pantheon.

In time Holdfast grew ever so strong, stronger then the Gods themselves. He ignored the people he was sent to protect. He made new laws. He no longer came among us. His satraps, his tax collectors, his ministers and priests, they came among us. They decided all. It was as if a blight, worse a plague, had settled among us.

But that was then and this is now:

“I slew the great God, Holdfast. He is no more. His evil satraps have been dispersed to the 10 winds or taken captive to be used as slaves for those they harmed. I,
Na-Ye of Loopan have done this with my wile, my arms, great dogs of war and my army.”

“You are all free to roam, free to build and free to discover what should have always been ours. Holdfast kept that from us. He and his minions were afraid for their future should you discover the false myths perpetrated, the veracity of their proclamations like the 10 winds, ever changing blowing each way, rank with the odor of the swamp and decay. I have given that to you. I declare it.”

“I, Na-Ey of Loopan am now equal to the gods themselves with my victory over one of their own. Should I not be accorded the honors associated with a god slayer? Should I be held in contempt?”

“You would be still plowing with cattle, singing songs without tune. You wished freedom. You begged freedom. You offered reward for freedom. I, alone devised the manner of Holdfast’s defeat while you cowered in your hovels.”

“And this is my reward? I am banish-ed. Banish-ed to this island with a feeble sun. The moons, the views here are not worth a lyric. I give you light. You in good return, give me this gray, this dismal hovel as reward? What folly have you committed by marooning me here? His kind will come again and you, you will be lost with out me. You will come back for me!”

“My dogs of war, you took from me. ‘No’, you all said. ‘You are to be alone and rule as you would yourself. Accoutrements of your status you may keep. Your tools of war are yours. Even your silent War Dog whistles are yours. You invented them, keep them. Those summoners of the fierce flesh eating monsters you called pets, we wish not.’”

“You all said that. And then you destroyed them, my pets, my companions, my equals in combat. Only these whistles remain.”

“My coronation was to be. I decided as our Great Officials, those conveying the crown and sword of the office, that they did not have the right to anoint Me, Na-Ey the God slayer. I took the sword and rammed it fast into the floor daring any being to remove it. No one took my challenge. I rightfully so, then, took the crown and upon my on head, I placed it.”

“I commanded silence. I proclaimed our future. Our future, the future that would free us, allow us to reach the heavens themselves. I displaced the clay footed ones and destroyed the graven images to which you bowed daily. I gave you light, a new legacy. I Na-Ey of Loopan am the one and only. I slew Holdfast.”

“I commanded it.”

“But you did not cheer?”

“You did not. Instead a great roar went up.”

“Traitor! I was called.”

“Defiler! Rogue!”

“ ‘A mad man, sick with hubris, vainglorious’, was charged against me.”

“Do not deny it. Your silence is your conviction”

“You will see, should I return.”

“I will return, and when I do, you will see who is mad.”

“Look at what you left me.”

“ ‘Crude abandoned villages to rule over as you desire’, you pronounced.”

“A cruel jest.”

“The houses, all of them are run down. Grab any door. The hinges release themselves from their bonds as I released you. The door knobs come loose, no need to turn them. They are free as I allowed you to be.”

“I, who cast down Holdfast, discarded here, to die alone, never to see my home?”

“That I saved you ALL, saved me, you declaimed.”

“My death would have been a fitting conclusion.”

“In front of the gathered planet, witnessed, ‘murder me’ I sued. ‘Show them what you are made of’, I commanded.”

“Cowards!”

“I know you can hear me!”

“Instead I dwell in this forgotten place. Alone,.”

“I SLEW THE GREAT HOLDFAST!”

“I SLEW the great Holdfast. And you, all of you…”

“I will slay you. I will.”

“I will return.”

“I will.”


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post January 30, 2009, 05:58:16 PM

Marooned Challenge

- Winner -


Salviati’s Siren

By:
J. Davidson Hero



The canvas walls of Sola’s shelter billowed. She sat at a makeshift desk paging through a ragged sheaf of papers, the margins jammed with scribble. Occasionally she paused to take a sip of water or just listen to the wind. Finally, she reached for a pot holding a strange plant. She placed it directly in front of her. The plant was 30 centimeters tall with black foliage. Near the top of its stalk was a large round pod, about the size of an orange, but of the same color as the leaves. Blooming from the pod was a large conical blossom. It was purple and coiled in on itself, over and over and over.

Sola adjusted a dial on a boxy apparatus to her side. A needle on the apparatus swung to the left and Sola felt a pulse. Following, every 30 seconds the box cycled another infrasonic vibration. And between these pulses she began to speak.

“My name....” her voice cracked. It was dry and more alien than the plant.

“My name is Sola Gardiner. I was head botanist of the Robert Fitz Roy, abandoned here on Salviati, 10 years, 9 months, and... ” She looked off into an imaginary distance. “Sometimes I lose count.”

“For this auspicious moment, I decided I want to go back to the beginning. I have always kept... scrupulous... notes, a journal really, and I have my entries here to read... into this record. The first I scribbled as I lay for days at the bottom of that treacherous fall.”

She paused and found her starting point.

“Was on west ridge. It rained longer than usual, and it was cold, left a thick fog late morning. Wanted a few more specimens of a follicular fruit I had found earlier this week.

“The plant in question, by the way, was the native milkweed-type plant, the Asclepias salviatica.

“Carter warned lift module preparation was underway. Said I should be stowing specimens, not collecting more. Always teasing me.

“Strange whooping in the distance. Carter hasn’t identified any predators that would be more than a nuisance, but Salviati’s big. I was nearing the spot, then... slipped.

“Don’t know how long. It was dark when I woke up. The jungle is oppressive, hot, clicking, moving. Canopy blots the night sky. Pain all up and down my leg. Something’s broken.


“Lived on my specimens and cried in the dark... for days.

“It took weeks to crawl back. Fitz Roy was gone.

“When that hit me, the weight, it crushed, like all of Salviati was smothering me. I shattered the camp with fury. Tears never stopped. Then I did nothing for days, maybe weeks. Here is my first entry following: Alone. Forever alone. I huddle in the drop module among analytical instruments. So much discarded junk. No com equipment though. In a sane moment I jury rigged a doorknob so I can pull the compartment door shut and close myself in.

“I holed up in the largest compartment, a tidy coffin. For weeks I ate nothing. I wanted just to die... just die.

“Then I heard it, my name, late at night, calling through the branches. Maybe a man’s voice. Far off. Too far off. Too faint to be real.

“I’m a scientist. I deduced I was mad and went on dying. Unless, I thought... unless that was how dying works. Maybe you heard it far off, like that. Just like that. Faint at first; someone calling your name. Someone you knew. Calling until you came.

“During the day I came up with all manner of logical explanations. But at night, when I chanced to hear it, maybe waking out of a haunted sleep, logic abandoned me. I remember thinking all the time of Carter’s list of fauna, nothing but insects and lizards. Nothing I couldn’t kick away. But then, in the dark, I had my doubts.

“Finally, I wrote: MUST KNOW.

“I stumbled. All the way, I stumbled. During the day I slept. At night I stood an endless vigil until I’d hear the voice, and then I’d list toward it.

“The last night after hearing my name, so close, I felt it ringing in my ears, I collapsed. And when daylight crept through the jungle, I realized where I was, where the voice was bringing me. To where I lost my footing and fell.

“And then as I lay there, another night falling, my face nothing but dirt and tears, and sure of only my madness, I made the greatest discovery. One of the cicada-like insects which Carter named saltettix landed on a purple bloom barely a meter from me. I could hear the rough clicks of the saltettix’s song. And then I heard his voice, Carter calling my name. It sounded like he was standing in front of me yelling. And at the sound of my name the saltettix flew off.

“I knew it wasn’t Carter. But I also knew I wasn’t mad. It was this beautiful plant. This fantastic, wonderful plant made the sound of Carter’s voice.

“The parrot plant, the Siren salviatica. It took a while to work out the mechanism... first to trigger it to record... then to play back. Any loud sound, close enough, loud enough will start it out, even an infrasonic one. Filaments inside the pod below the bloom move by something akin to heliotropism, cut linear grooves in a waxy membrane. It’s self-defense against the hunger of the saltettix. The saltettix’s ultrasonic song triggers the playback. I just needed a kind of dog whistle to trigger it myself.

“Someday, humans will return to Salviati. It’s perfect for colonization. I’ll be a whisper in the hills, but I’ll leave behind something for them, vast knowledge, a complete catalog of the flora of this lush world, maybe with my own voice.”

She reached across to the box on the table, turned the dial, and watched the needle jump into the ultrasonic range.

“My name.... my name is Sola Gardiner.”


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post April 03, 2009, 11:04:11 AM

Spaceman's Birthday Challenge

The challenge was to craft a "birthday" story for one of the crew of the following story.



Example story:


This story combines all entries from the previous Aphelion Project Flash Fiction Challenges into one, more complete, piece. The originals are available here and here. The series proposal page is here.

A close-up view of the ships from Bill Warren's excellent illustration is here.






The Aphelion Project

By:
N.J. Kailhofer

Based on characters and situations created by Bill Wolfe, Casey Callaghan, and N.J. Kailhofer






Aphelion One, Day 37


A ripping sound startled Alexander Curtis awake. For a moment, he forgot where he was, and his arms tangled in the netting that held him to the wall.

"What the devil--" He finally disentangled himself, then unclipped a corner of the thin Mylar sheet colored to look like a Union Jack flag that separated his webbed 'bunk' from the rest of the module.

The upside-down, beaming smile of American Mission Specialist Penny Jones bobbed in and out of his view.

"Morning, Captain," she said. "Would you like a little sprig of spearmint? Well, it used to be spearmint, but then we combined it with genes from pyrococcus furiosus to reduce its stress reaction and Chlamydomonas nivalis, a snow-loving algae for cold survival, which is also what makes it red. Now it only kind of tastes like spearmint, but it can grow on Mars. Want some?"

Blearily, he regarded the pungent red leaf she extended toward him with suspicion. "Is that for your vertigo?"

Penny pointed. "Not a problem anymore."

Looking up along her usual white jumpsuit, he saw that she had attached a thin strip of Velcro along the ceiling. Her thin boots seemed to be anchored to that strip. That had to be the cause of the ripping noise he heard.

She said, "As long as my feet are on the deck, I don't feel sick, so I asked Gode to rig me up some boots with Velcro and magnets. That way I can walk around almost every part of the ship without blowing chunks."

"How nice," he replied with practiced patience. "But why are you upside down?"

She shrugged. "To me, you're the one topsy-turvy."

She was one of only three civilians on the mission, NASA's very best at zeoponics. He was always impressed how white she managed to keep her clothes while working with her plants. Tending his one bonsai tree always left his uniform in a deplorable state. Although, the way her clothes accentuated her natural curves, he suspected she wore a size too small on purpose.

Her auburn, curly hair was short, and easy to maintain in the lack of real gravity. Penny had a fair complexion and green eyes, and, he had to admit, a really warming smile. She resumed bobbing up and down, doing something that looked like deep knee bends.

Curtis rubbed his eyes. "Miss Jones, what are you doing?"

She laughed. "Exercising. It's kind of like a cross between Pilates and a balance beam, but your feet can't move. I saw this martial arts master prepping for a match once, and he was doing a thing a lot like this, so I thought I should try it and--"

"Do you have to do it right outside my bed?"

She paused. "This is the only space where I have enough head and arm room. All due respect, Captain, but you're the one not in the assigned crew space."

Curtis frowned. "Doctor Smith snores like a lorry trying to climb a steep incline."

She smiled. "Doc reminds me of my Pop when I was a little girl. Are you sure you don't want some spearmint? It's a fresh crop, and it's great for morning breath. I started drying some for use in tea when we finally land and that gravity starts making everybody queasy. You should see how good it smells back in the service module."

"I shall stick with the assigned diet, thank you." He had to admit, though, his mouth tasted rather pasty.

Penny shrugged again, and went back to exercising. Curtis gave up on the idea of going back to sleep and neatly folded the Mylar and stowed it in a pouch alongside the netting. The net pulled itself to the wall automatically as he exited.

A quick cleanup sounded good to him, so he was soon staring at his rough stubble in the mirror as he tried to shave without floating away. He kept his graying hair in a crew cut for convenience during the six-month journey, but was planning to let his mustache grow back during the eighteen months on the surface of Mars, when gravity could help keep the little hairs out of the instruments. A change into his uniform of bottle-green trousers, khaki shirt, navy blue pullover, and special Mars-red beret had Curtis feeling proper, so he stopped to check the ship's status.

Co-Pilot Chang was strapped in at the controls in his country's Type 07-style desert fatigues, adapted for a Mars color scheme. Chang wore his black hair close-cropped over his slender frame. The experts may have been right when they insisted that the first missions be predominantly a military crew to maintain the discipline needed for a nearly three-year mission. The sailors and soldiers provided by the multi-nation coalition financing the trip were some of the finest he had ever served with.

Curtis liked Chang, or Wei as he really should be called. Family names came first in his culture, but most of his Western crew could not seem to keep that straight, so they used his last name as a first. All in all, Curtis felt Chang did the People's Republic proud. He was neat, orderly, and efficient.

But his co-pilot looked decidedly bored in front of the radar screen, not that Curtis could really fault him. The constant monitoring for obstacles, of which all had been mapped except for occasional grains of space dust took a toll on the crew's efficiency. None of the grains had ever been close, and none had ever caused even a minor course correction.

Chang said, "Good morning, Captain."

Curtis smiled. He hadn't made a noise.

"Morning, Zhong Wei Chang." He always tried to use the Chinese version of 'Lieutenant' when talking to Chang. His British pronunciation of 'left-tenant' seemed to amuse the American portion of his crew. "Report."

Chang said, "Central systems report normal functioning. We remain nine light seconds ahead of Aphelion Two, and we are on our flight path. Internal ship temperature is 22° Celsius, and humidity holding steady. Water-reclamation and filtering systems are working properly. Battery and solar array function are normal. Minor power fluctuations were recorded in the lander/docking coupling. Engineer Zwelitini is attempting to diagnose the problem. You have three interviews and a blog entry due this duty cycle, sir."

"Damn those interviewers. They never ask anything remotely interesting, and they don't even listen to your answer."

Chang paused before adding. "Doctor Smith has the next kitchen duty. He said he wanted to make split pea soup."

Curtis winced. The man was a skilled surgeon, and vital to keeping the life support systems functioning, but meals were not his forte. After his last "soup," most of the crew grumbled that his meals were designed to give himself so many patients that he'd be too busy to cook.

"Well," Curtis said, "let's see if a series of drills sharpens everyone up and keeps those media vultures occupied. Perhaps we'll save a power outage drill for the galley when he starts cooking. I think our ration stores can afford straight MREs for everyone tonight."

Chang smiled.


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


Aphelion Two, Day 43


"Dunsirn," Commander Pete Macridin called over the radio, "How aboot we wrap this thing up, eh? Your elapsed EVA time is nearly six hours, now."

Canadians, Ophelia thought. How can Helga stand Mac's accent?

She replied, "The housing is stuck. I'm working on it."

Ophelia knew Mac would be watching her on the screen in the dressing chamber, just inside the airlock. His helmet would be open, but otherwise, he'd be ready to EVA at a moment's notice. Back on the ISS they always sent two out at once, but they had more frequent re-supply ships. Out there, ships simply couldn't store enough compressed oxygen for all the possible trips for two outside during a six-month trip, so they conserved by having one crewmember out and the other just inside the airlock.

Deep down, though, she knew he'd really be itching to get out of his uncomfortable space suit and get back into his regular uniform of black pants and denim work shirt with epaulets.

Mac said, "I think you just like showing off for the cameras, but I'm pretty tired of wearing this suit all day as your backup, you know. It's hard as hell to push buttons with these damn gloves on."

Ophelia peered over her shoulder toward the CCD camera on the dishes. She had little doubt that a lot of Earth was indeed watching her struggle to fix the next mechanical hiccup of the mission.

No, she thought, they're watching an astronaut work on the communications platform. Most of them don't even know my name, and won't even after we land. Only trivia buffs will remember the second ship, and nobody will remember who was second in command.

Not even the Brooklyn residents of Little Pakistan where I grew up. Of course, since Dad was black, I was always apart from the rest of them. They wouldn't remember the little girl they called names because of the color of her skin until she ran away and joined the Navy.


The nut finally budged. "I figured it out. We should change the manual that the top two bolts are reverse threaded so you have to turn them the opposite direction from the bottom two."

Mac laughed. "I'll add it to today's glitch list right after the beef jerky that was mislabeled as freeze-dried broccoli."

"Oh, great," Ophelia said with a mocking tone. "Can't wait to see what your wife cooked up."

Mac didn't answer for a minute. "Helga says Chandra, Sidney, and Takuya kept it down, so whatever it is, it will fill you up. All righty. You're in the way of the camera, but I see the housing is open. How much longer on that bypass, Lieutenant-Commander? Let's get it done out there, eh?"

'Lieutenant-Commander?' Oh, I dared to criticize the wife. Helga was just a botanist without much to do during training when they started hanging out together. They married at the last minute. She had less skills and less time in space than anyone.

Men. Anything for a set of big boobs and batted eyelashes.


"Almost there, sir. You should see some systems start to flip green."

"Roger that."

She made the last connection. "Wait. Something's wrong. That shouldn't--"


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


Aphelion One


The intercom said, "Three minutes to All My Children."

It was the unofficial call to dinner, Penny's favorite time of day. She grabbed a baggie of modified Oxyria digyna leaves and headed for the Hab module.

Major 'Doc' Harry Smith's digitally-designed, camouflage-pattern pants and tan boots glided down the hallway in front of her. She assumed that he was wearing his usual green t-shirt and desert-style blouse or whatever those Marines called their over shirts. The 45 year-old doctor would have his sleeves rolled up, and his brown hair in a crew cut like most of the rest of the military men on the mission.

Oh! she thought. Under that Velcro patch, he does have nice, tight buns. Archana was right. And he has those really great, brown eyes, too. Whoops! Not supposed to think about those things.

The round dinner table sat in the very center of the bottom of the inflatable Hab. Chairs were not practical, so around it was a ring of Velcro on the floor where everyone anchored their rumps. Captain Curtis insisted on everyone not on duty in main control to be there for meals, and people sat according to rank, beginning with Doc to his left. Lt. Chang would follow next, but was on duty. Then there was a big space for Sergeant Godlumathakathi 'Gode' Zwelitini, an oversized engineer from South Africa. He was waiting across the room with a dish covering the meal he prepared. His uniform of brown, button-down shirt, plain, green fatigue pants, mesh utility belt and boots did not much seem like a waiter's, however.

Penny anchored herself in the next spot, waiting for the other Mission Specialist, Archana Ivanova, to place herself to the right of Curtis. Archana was late, as usual.

When she did come in, she wore only a pair of high, tight shorts, and a half shirt. Her jet-black hair was disheveled.

At least she wore a bra with that, or her girls would be running loose. She could use a tan, but I suppose I could, too. Wasn't Moldova near Transylvania? With skin as pale as that, you can see why some people thought of vampires.

Curtis cleared his throat. "Miss Ivanova, while I believe that the standards of the ESA program are not as strict as the Royal Navy, I am sure that they understand the concept of dressing for dinner."

Her brown eyes were bloodshot. Her thick, Slavic accent replied, "I was up all night and most of the day. NASA had a big upgrade for the recon drone controls they wanted me to upload and test. I only fell asleep about an hour ago."

Curtis frowned. "And why didn't you clear this with me? Changes to the duty log need to be approved."

She looked annoyed. "I didn't think a little thing like this needed to be, sorry, and I'm dressed. I didn't come to the table naked."

Time to change the subject. Penny stuck her bag of green leaves with red edges on the table. "I'd like you all to try this, it's super nutritious. It's a kind of like Inuit scurvy grass, full of vitamin C, and it grows well on sparse, wet soils high in the mountains, very cold resistant, and is supposed to be good in salads."

Doc took an acidic leaf from the bag and tried one. "Argh," he quipped. "I think I'll take the scurvy."

That broke the tension.

Penny frowned at him. "Ha. Ha. Mister smarty pants Marine. You know you need that nutrition."

Curtis cleared his throat. "Ok, settle down. Mr. Zwelitini, you had the duty. What have you prepared for us?"

Gode answered in a voice almost as large and deep as his body. "You are all in for a surprise. Hopefully, my grandfather will forgive me, god rest his soul, for cooking, but this is a dish my grandmother used to make. They were Zulu, you know, and it was very shameful for a man to cook in those days. This is Inkuku yasekya nama qeselengwane, which translates as chicken with mealy dumplings."

He set the dish in the center of the table and removed the cover.

Penny gasped. "Oh, wow! It smells like chicken! Real, live, fresh chicken. It even looks like real cooking instead of something reconstituted in bags!"

Archana said, "That looks like a dish we make back home! I like the topography on the surface crust."

Doc laughed. "Leave it to a geologist to like food topography."

She stuck out her tongue at him. "When one has to protect their girlish figure, one has to pay attention to their food, instead of just inhaling it like some people."

Doc stuck out his tongue back. Penny giggled.

Curtis rapped on the table. "Gode, did you break open the surface supplies? Where did you get all the flour?"

Gode smiled. "Flour is light, and easy to add to your personal allotment. As for the rest, I had to make some substitutions. You may just want to keep believing it's chicken before you begin."

Everyone groaned.

Archana grumbled, "I say to hell with the mission rules and we start spinning the ship for long enough to cook a real meal under real gravity just once."

Penny said, "But that might kill some of the special seed stocks we're germinating for transplant, and really screw up the algae air purification system."

Gode added, "And don't forget about what a mess it would cause in the head. It was built for microgravity, not the real thing."

Curtis said, "Sorry, but you'll have to wait until we land. Maybe by the next trip they'll have all the logistics figured out to give partial gravity the whole way. This trip is all about just getting there and learning what we can about--"

"ALERT!" Chang's voice called ship-wide. "EMERGENCY! Medical emergency, Aphelion Two!"

Curtis sprang from the table, punching the intercom. "Report!"

"Captain, report of astronaut down on Aphelion Two! It's Dunsirn. Serious injury on EVA."

Doc pushed next to Curtis. "What's wrong with her? Are they saying?"

"No," Chang said. "Just the initial report. They're not answering."

Curtis swore. "Chang, can you get their feeds? I want to see what's going on over there."

"Negative, their dishes are pointed away from us right now."

Gode snapped his fingers. "Captain, I can get you on their intercom."

Penny asked, "You can?"

Gode nodded, already in motion to the computer on the other side of the room. "I'm not just a pretty face."

Curtis glanced at the big TV screen. "If only we could see what was going on!"

Archana cursed. "Meu Dumnezeu! I know how to get an image!"

Penny couldn't understand. "You can? How?"

Archana swam to the closest terminal just outside the hatchway. "A rover ball! I have all the frequencies in case Barnes' equipment broke down! Their storage isn't far from the airlock."

Penny knew that along with two large robotic rovers, a flying reconnaissance drone, and an exploration vehicle, all of which were already waiting for them on Mars at the 'Port Arthur' Base, each ship carried a big bag full of rover balls. They were a low-cost alternative, pool-ball sized spheres. The mechanism inside rolled inside the ball, spinning the outer shell across the Martian surface until the batteries died. A small window in the shell allowed a miniature camera to take snapshots or video.

A few seconds later, an image of black lumps appeared on the TV screen. The image jostled. Archana's voice called out, "Got to get it out of the bag! Come on. Come on. Yes!"

The image spun as the black ball rolled out of the bag and into the open air toward a wall. Once there, it stuck, then began rolling toward the doorway.

"Hurry up!" Doc gnawed his fingernails. "I gotta see."

"I'm doing it, dammit. There's a nine second delay. It makes it hard to control."

"Gode," Curtis barked. "Report! How long?"

Gode frowned. "Almost there... You should hear their audio now!"

There was practically a cacophony. Voices overlapped, some shouting.

Get that damn helmet off her!

Oxygen! No, the small-bore catheter! Pump that!

Takuya! 2 large-bore IVs! Dextran! Get it going!

Oh, God!

Get a clamp on that! Jesus!

Helga! Intubation kit!

I'm trying!

Suction! Now!


The scene rolled into view.

Ophelia was horizontal in her spacesuit. Her mangled helmet spun in the air nearby. Another spacesuit stood alongside, Mac's. He held her in place while Doctor Jandrain tried to stop her bleeding that spilled into the open air. His plain, olive drab uniform was covered in blood. Barnes was next to him, pumping a handheld air tank that he had hooked into the tubes stuck down her throat. His jeans and t-shirt were soaked red, too. Helga floated in her sand-colored fatigues just to the side, holding the portable suction that was trying to empty the blood from Ophelia's lungs. Tak floated nearby in his desert camouflage, looking helpless, next to the IV infuser pack.

Penny felt her mouth go dry, and she bit her lip, hard.

Gode called out. "Got you on, Captain!"

"This is Captain Curtis! What happened over there?"

After about twenty seconds, Mac spun, looking around. "Explosion outside! Blew through her helmet! I think the self-seal closed it back off, but she tasted vacuum for sure... How the hell are you talking to me?"

Curtis answered, "That was Gode. Hold her steady, man!"

They saw the crew on the monitor, still working, but they didn't answer.

"Damn the time delay!" Doc forced himself in front of the intercom. "Tak! This is Doctor Smith! There's a rover ball by the hatchway. Grab it and bring me close enough so I can see the laceration! I'm a surgeon!"

Eventually, Jandrain glanced at the ball in Tak's hand with obvious worry. "Help me out, Harry! This is more your specialty."

"Its ok, Chandra, I'm here to help."

Even to uninitiated eyes, it was bad. Doc started giving instructions to Jandrain as fast as the other physician could follow them. The delay in communications was maddening.

Gode punched some keys. "Tak, this is Gode. Give Helga the ball and seal the room! Then increase pressure to 3 ATA and reduce the temp! "

Doc barked, "Tak! Get the defibrillator, too! We have to watch the cardiac contractility. C'mon, move it, Airman! Chandra, she'll need Propentofylline."

Gode muttered. "They forgot all about the ebullism protocol."

Curtis added, "I hope she took her EVA pretreatment drugs."

Penny thought, Someone should pray for her.

She whispered over and over, "Please let her be ok. Please make her ok."

Eventually, the flood of orders from the physicians slowed and it grew quiet. Chandra asked, "What do you think, Harry?"

Doc grunted. "That vitals readout is right?"

"It seems to be."

"We'll have to watch her round the clock for a while, but I think she just might make it."

Penny practically collapsed in front of the screen. "Thank God."

Mac added, "Amen to that."

Curtis sighed. "Ok, Mac, I'm sure Doctor Smith here will stay on the line, but you'd best start getting her set up in the airlock and follow the protocol. I'll give Mission Control the brief and send all the video we have. That should let you all catch your breath before having to answer ten thousand questions. Damn fine work getting her inside in time, and both you doctors deserve commendations for the job you've done."

Mac said, "Thanks, Alex. And thank all of you."


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


Aphelion Two, Four hours later.


"Ophelia? C'mon, wake up, sailor." Mac sounded worried.

Ophelia's eyes struggled to open as she lay strapped on the cold makeshift table in her blued, camouflage pants and navy blue t-shirt. Dr. Chandra Jandrain's Indian Army uniform floated over the top of her face with Macridin's round features sticking out behind him.

She asked, "What happened to your uniform, Chandra? It's got blood all over it."

Chandra looked relieved. "That's from you, I'm afraid. How are you feeling?"

"Why won't my arms move? What's wrong with the right side of my face? It feels numb."

Chandra quoted Buddha. "'Strong and healthy, who thinks of sickness until it strikes like lightning?'" He frowned. "No doubt your arms will regain some measure of movement when more of the swelling near your spinal cord goes down. I am sure the hundred doctors Mission Control has working on your results will know more than I."

"What?! Why am I in the airlock?"

"You're in the airlock for hyperbaric therapy, and you will stay here for a few weeks."

Mac leaned in. "One of the units in that panel exploded. Shot right through your helmet into your face and neck. By the time I could get you back in, you were pretty damn close to dead."

"How bad is it?"

Chandra glanced at the Commander, but then put on a calm expression. "We will know better about it after we've run tests, but I have no doubt there will be significant scarring. Doctor Smith was online with me and we did everything we could to contain the damage."

Ophelia swallowed hard, and it hurt. "I want to see it."

Mac shook his head. "I don't think you want to do that just yet."

"Mac, I deserve to know."

The two men looked at each other.

Chandra said, "Her dressing needs to be changed anyway."

Mac sighed. "All right, but look, Ophelia, it was a miracle you survived the explosion at all, another miracle I got you in before you asphyxiated, and an even bigger miracle you didn't bleed out, you know."

Mac held the mirror and Ophelia felt the bandages pull on her skin as they came off. A wide, jagged gash, held together by a swath of stitches started high on her right cheek and ran down to the nape of her neck. Her skin was bruised, like she had a hickie all over her face. The whites of her eyes were bright red from Petechial hemorrhage.

"My God." I'll be known as the hideous, ugly cripple that went to Mars.

Her whole career passed in front of her eyes, from basic to flight school to the competition to be the Navy's representative on the mission. In the end Ophelia always believed she was chosen over the others because her face made for a better photo op.

Chandra looked down. "I am afraid Doctor Smith is the true surgeon of the mission. My skills pale in comparison."

Mac asked, "Do you remember anything about the accident?"

She paused. "I remember... I remember a flash, then something felt like it was boiling in my mouth."

Mac nodded. "Probably the water on your tongue."

"Do they know what caused explosion?"

Mac sighed again. "Yes."


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


Aphelion Two, Day 54


"Sid? You ok?"

Barnes looked up at Ophelia. "Huh?"

He sat to her side, his rear anchored on the floor of the airlock. She lay strapped on the table, slid into a sleeping bag to help keep warm. Even wounded and unable to move, she has more grace and dignity than me. My jeans have holes in them, and my shirt isn't very clean.

She smiled. "What were you thinking about?"

Honestly, I was thinking about how you look naked. "Gumballs."

She laughed in that way of hers, that way that made him want to be near her. Even with that scar, she always seemed more like the belle of the ball instead of an ace pilot who killed men in dogfights and dropped bombs on Islamabad. "Gumballs? Why would you think about that?"

He shrugged and pushed his round glasses back up on his nose. "C'mon, don't you miss gumballs? Those half-hard ones in the machines in practically every small business entrance across the country? That's as American as apple pie and hot dogs. Sponsored by American Legions and VFWs, just ready and waiting there to give innocent children their first taste of really bad, five-year old gum. That's home, that is."

He gave her his best toothy smile and her eyes twinkled. She laughed again. He wanted so badly to kiss her.

"How do you do it?" he asked.

"Do what?"

"Cope with being stuck in here, on that table. Waiting for Helga to come in and change your clothes and wipe your butt. Helga, of all people."

"And what else can I do?"

"Let me help take care of you. I've already seen you naked, remember?"

She paused. "That was a long time ago. We're different people now. I think we had to be after that. It's enough that you come spend time with me."

"Why?"

Her smile was back. "Because you make me laugh and feel good. Like I'm still a real person."

I'm such a heel. She's opening up about how she feels and what it's like to be paralyzed. I just wanted to jump her bones again.

The hatch banged open, and Helga floated in. "Well, how is the lump today? Ready for your bath?"

Damn that woman, and her attitude. "I guess that's my cue for an exit." He paused and touched Ophelia on her undamaged cheek. "I'll be back every day, and I'll do my best to make sure you feel real."

Helga snorted. "Feel really like a lump, you mean!"

Barnes said, "You're such a bitch, Helga."

"Bitch, eh?" Her eyes glared at him. "Oh, big talker. You're not the one who has to take care of this lump day in and day out. Just hope you are never hurt and I have to take care of you."

He glared back. "You better hope the same about you."

Her muscles tensed, and he remembered she probably knew a dozen ways to kill him. He knew a dozen different ways to identify minerals in soil deposits. Her army trained her to be an efficient killing machine if necessary. He watched martial arts movies on TV.

Looking down, he said, "I'll see you later, O."


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


Aphelion Two, Day 71


"You need to eat." Helga flourished the fork on the way to Ophelia's mouth. "C'mon, let the Güterzug er, how do you say? 'Choo-choo' in. That's it."

"Drop dead." That sand-colored uniform of hers reminds me of those Nazi brown shirts from World War Two. That blonde hair and blue eyes fits, too.

"Squid wimp. Your American Navy cannot produce sailors tougher than this?"

Ophelia's eyes narrowed to slits. "At least I'm smart enough not to switch on the electric heaters while a shipmate is working on the power line."

"You know about that?"

"Mac told me. Thanks to you, I'm always going to have this scar."

Helga broke the long, uncomfortable silence. "Ironic, is it not? You always thought you were so better than me, prettier than me, and now you are the one laying here like an ugly lump, dependent on me to keep you fed and alive. Who is the important one now?"

Ophelia spit in her face. "I don't know what Mac saw in you."

Helga smirked. "Everything he didn't see in you. I knew you wanted him, but my Peter would not have anything to do with a mutt like you."

Ophelia's eyes were like daggers. "When I can move again, I'm going to strangle you with my bare hands."

Helga laughed. "Ooo. Scary. Here, eat your mush, beauty queen."

She shoved in a fork full.

Ophelia gagged. It tasted like cream of wheat that had been cooked for a week straight. "What is this crap?"

"I believe it's called humble pie."

Ophelia's fist leapt up from the bed, connecting with Helga's chin. Ophelia stared, moving her hand in front of her face. Her other hand joined it.

Helga smiled warmly. "Chandra was right. I just needed to make you mad enough to get your connections working again."

Helga paused.

Tears welled in her eyes.

Her voice cracked. "Und I am sorry about the heaters. Chandra didn't want me to tell you that, he said it was important I shouldn't seem ashamed, but it's why I insisted to Pete that I take care of you. I was so wrong. For weeks, it has been like a terrible weight on my shoulders, the guilt. Your face, it's my fault. You have the scar, but I feel the pain whenever I see it, too..."

Ophelia's face was flushed, mixed with anger and sorrow. Her hands drew back into fists. Ophelia wanted to hurt her, to make Helga's face feel like her own, but then Ophelia pulled Helga close and hugged her.

"I forgive you." And I believe you didn't do it on purpose.

Helga didn't even try to stop crying.


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


Aphelion One, Day 95


Gode watched Doc push the buttons on the remote. The Hab TV screen remained blank.

"Gode," Doc asked, "what the heck is wrong with this thing? It won't come on."

He sighed. He's supposed to be my backup if things break, and he cannot fix a simple TV remote? "I thought you were supposed to adapt, achieve, and overcome. Did you check the batteries?"

Doc frowned at him. "Oh, some chief engineer you are, Sergeant. You can see it shows the channel on the screen every time I push the button. It's not the remote or the TV."

"Hmm."

Doc did a double take, sniffing the air. "Oh, is that popcorn you're eating? Where did you get it? Can I have some?"

After a comment like that, like I would share my stash with the human food vacuum! Gode tossed the last buttery kernel in his mouth and then shook his head. "I'm sure an engineer as ineffective as me could not possibly know a way to have fresh popcorn whenever I wanted."

Doc glared at him. "Fine. I'll remember that when you're due for your next rectal exam."

Gode gave a deep, belly laugh. "Well, I don't keep it there, so I'm ok."

"Funny. Just fix the TV."

Gode heard Chang's voice from the hatchway, "That is not necessary."

Doc looked up at him. "How's that?"

Chang floated in. "Communications are blacked out."

He knows something. He has that look on his face. Gode asked, "What happened?"

"The Captain received an encoded, 'eyes only' message. I do not know what the message said, but right after reading that, the captain locked out all communications on both ships except for scrambled command channels. Mission control has been sending him messages almost non-stop since then."

Doc looked crestfallen. "But All My Children comes on in ten minutes."

Gode couldn't help but chuckle to himself. He may be the only Marine in the solar system hooked on a soap opera.


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


"Please relax, Miss Ivanova." Curtis was himself not relaxed. Neither was Archana, who was trying unsuccessfully to float without fidgeting.

At least she's dressed this time, if you can call a purple sweat suit dressed. "You have my word that this conversation is both completely confidential and quite necessary. Clear?"

"Yes, Captain!"

"I know you have certain access to, how shall I put it, hard to learn information? Despite our alliances, your real sponsors are better at getting information on the American military than the British government is."

Archana's thick accent replied, "I'm sure I have no idea what the Captain is referring to."

"Nevertheless, I need to know something, and I think you know it. It's important to the mission. It's about Ophelia on Ap-One."

Archana frowned. "I thought she had resumed her duties. All better, apart from the tragic loss of her looks. Terrible facial scar."

Curtis sighed. "All that extra attention on her turned up something. Something I think you know about."

"Yes, Captain?"

"Tell me about Ophelia's pregnancy. Everything. I want facts, rumors, anything overheard and anything suspected. That's an order, or I'll throw your secret police arse into space."

"Sir?"

"Rover balls are not magnetic, at least not ones made for this mission. The only way one like that could be added to the inventory is if foreign agents put it there, and yet you knew how to use it perfectly. Shall I repeat the question, Mission Specialist?"

"No, sir!" Archana paused, collecting her thoughts. "I'm sure I just happened to see this someplace, perhaps lying on a table somewhere, but it was when she was a midshipman. I don't believe anyone knew who the father was. It has been speculated everyone from Admirals and Commodores to even one of their pizza delivery drivers. There was a report that she asked for a morning after pill from an infirmary, so she might have been raped. Regardless, she became pregnant and gave the boy up for adoption."

"Damn." Curtis made a note to demand Ophelia's official Navy medical records. "Miss Ivanova, I'm never going to tell anyone how I came by this information, but if I ever see one of your little surveillance balls watching me, you will know what vacuum is like first hand, too, but no one will be there to bring you back in. Is that understood?"

She smiled as if unafraid. "I can promise the Captain would never catch me watching."

"Dismissed."


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


Aphelion Two, 30 minutes later.


". . .Sidney Barnes? You gotta be outta your mind, Alex. Ophelia may not be a hundred percent yet, but she could still take out a Navy Seal with her bare hands, and Barnes couldn't take my eight-year old niece. That's gotta be a mistake. I don't care if he was based at Annapolis at the time. What's more, Barnes is a member of this crew, and she'd never attack a shipmate. She didn't even hurt Helga after she caused that panel to blow and nearly kill her. It's not the way she's wired. One hundred percent for the mission, all the time. You're the mission commander, but I'm telling you, I think locking them both up is the wrong call. Over."

Mac released the transmit button and cued up the news clip Curtis forwarded to him on the laserlink. He had at least sixty seconds before he received and decoded a response from Ap-One.

It was a TurnerFOX[sup]TM[/sup] International Report. They had "Space Sex: Mars Scandal" in big letters across the bottom of the image. Two stock headshots split the screen. One was an excellent, professional shot of a bespectacled young man, pale and gaunt, with thinning blond hair and a toothy smile. The other didn't have to be one of the promotion department's best works to show a striking woman. She was the sort of beauty men would cross the room just to be near, let alone talk to. Of course, she wouldn't care what they might have said; Ophelia only focused on the mission.

". . . has now confirmed that medical genetic testing done on all the Mars crews and their families prior to launch has indicated that geologist Sidney Barnes, one of only three civilians on the mission, is the biological father of Lieutenant-Commander Ophelia Dunsirn's illegitimate child who was born while she attended the Naval Academy. . ."

Curtis also sent over the Navy's complete medical records on her, which Mac knew normally took a couple hours to dig up. Impossible as it seemed, the records backed what Curtis was saying.

"Curtis to Macridin. Commander, I understand your concerns, but just go and put Barnes in your main control until further notice. No explanation, but then he won't be left alone. That's a direct order. Get Ophelia in your office for a little group chat. Blackout continues until we sort this out. Over and out."

Mac got as far as the Hab before a battering squall of angry Japanese flew his way.

The rough smell of exertion assaulted his senses as the entered. Takuya floated in the center of the module, bungied to both the floor and ceiling. Beads of sweat covered his face, and he had wet patches all over his plain, desert camouflage uniform. On his hands were virtual reality gloves. Matching booties covered his feet. The TV screen was showing a martial arts video game, with the words CONNECTION RE-ESTABLISHED over the top.

Tak asked, "Commander, what is going on? It was the final round! I was disqualified! The game moved on without me!"

Mac's brow furrowed. "There is a Level One security blackout. How did you re-connect?"

Tak shrugged. "I changed the input to the education laserlink that I built as a part of the schoolroom initiative."

Mac swore to himself. He knew about that one, but just forgot. How many other ways will the crew find around the blackout? They're smart people.

He turned off the screen. "A blackout is an order, Airman 1st Class Watanabe. No contact, in or out, so I don't want to hear about a radio you built to listen to NPR, or anything like that, understood? Disable the link and any other non-standard communications."

Tak nodded. "Yes, Commander!"

Mac paused. "Who were you playing against, and how were you doing it with the communications delay?"

Tak grinned. "It was the communications chief on the ISS. The interplanetary internet protocols gather the moves and batch send them. As a part of the game, you make moves predicting what your opponent will do. Then, the parts play out simultaneously on both ends of the transmission. Depending on what you do and the skill of your delivery, one player will score better, and be awarded the round. This version scores Karate."

Mac reminded himself not to spar with Tak, or to try any video games against him. He got too much practice. "Well, you'll have to play in practice mode until the blackout is lifted."

Tak smiled even bigger. "Yes, Commander!"


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


According to the duty log, Barnes was supposed to be back with all his surface exploration gear in the tail end of the service module, but when Mac neared the hatchway a bloody hand reached out through the opening and punched the intercom.

Ophelia's voice echoed throughout the ship. "MEDICAL EMERGENCY IN AFT-FIVE-C. REPEAT. MEDICAL EMERGENCY IN AFT-FIVE-C. WE HAVE A MAN DOWN. NO PULSE, RESPIRATION ZERO."

She saw Mac when she let go of the button. "We need Chandra now."


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


Aphelion One, Three hours later.


Curtis sat alone in main control, angrily drumming his fingers on the smooth console. He turned off most of the monitors, the incoming sound, and the outgoing video feed to mission control and stared at the geologist's biographical information on the screen. Darkness and silence seemed more fitting.

I hate doing these things. I hated every one I ever did, but the I'm mission commander. It's my duty to his family... Mac would do this for my wife, sons, and their families if it were me.

Punching a couple keys, he began recording a video message.


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


The scene around the dinner table was quiet. No one even turned on the TV screen, to see if it was working yet.

Penny's eyes were red, and she sniffled a lot.

Archana toyed with the shrimp cocktail pieces in her bag, uninterested.

Chang just stared at the table.

Even Doc's legendary appetite was missing.

Gode tried to be philosophical about it, and he reminded them all that Sidney was their friend. They had all trained with him, spent time with him.

No one wanted to discuss it, but deep down, they knew it could happen to all of them twenty different ways on any given day.


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


Aphelion Two, Day 96


Mac stabbed his finger on the send button. "You saw the orders as well as I did. We'll store him outside until we orbit, then bury him after we've landed. Look, Captain, all due respect, but Ophelia's still a member of my crew you know, and she will be there, not locked up. If she didn't do it, I want them all at the funeral where I can see their faces. Mac over and out."

And stop calling every two hours! I'll put my own house in order.


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


Barnes floated in his spacesuit in the center of the Hab module, tethered to Takuya's video game bungies. They hadn't known where else to keep him. The crew waited on the far end of the room. None of them seemed broken up. Tak and he were supposed to be pals, always playing games against each other. Chandra wouldn't answer his questions at all, but instead stared at him like one of the monks from his country. Hell, his wife Helga wanted to use his body as fertilizer on her damn plants. Burying him offended her German sense of efficiency.

Ophelia wasn't anywhere near them.

No one wanted to meet his eye, except her. Ophelia's eyes blazed, no doubt due to the zip ties binding her hands and feet.

Mac cleared his throat. "A body doesn't belong in here."

Takuya looked up, puzzled.

"This room is where we eat, where we gather, where we exercise, and where we watch TV. This place is the heart of our home here, a place of life."

Helga watched him now, too.

"But Sidney Barnes is dead. He can't eat with us here. He can't exercise, can't watch that damn soap opera. But he can gather with us one more time, so we can all hear how he was murdered."

He could have heard a pin drop, if pins could have been dropped there.

"Sidney Barnes bled to death after a thin object was stabbed into his chest until it almost came out of his back, but not before it ripped a hole right through his heart."

Chandra closed his eyes at the mention of the stabbing, but that could have been his opinion as a physician. Ophelia stared defiantly.

"Somebody in this room did this." He tilted the body so they'd have to look at the face. Mac floated beside the body, his face next to Barnes'.

"Someone here murdered this man."

He paused, studying the faces. His wife looked uneasy, maybe annoyed. Takuya looked shocked. Chandra watched the faces around him, his expression blank.

Mac continued. "I'm going to tell you all a secret. Barnes here had a kid."

Ophelia looked at the floor. Mac floated over. Softly, he asked, "It was a boy, eh?"

She nodded.

"What did they name him?"

"Achmed."

Takuya asked, "Why are you asking her?"

"The blackout is because of their child. Earth is calling it a sex scandal. They didn't want you to see the newscasts."

Mac moved close, and took her hands. "Look at me. Did he rape you? Is that how you got pregnant? You have to tell me."

Her eyes were brown pools. "No."

Helga's tone was sharp. "What does this have to do with Barnes' death? Where are you going with this?"

"Rape is a good motive for murder, dear."

Their faces were all confusion, nothing else.

He turned back to Ophelia. "How'd you get pregnant, then? The Navy reports said you showed up at the hospital all banged up."

She shook her head. "No. SERE wilderness survival training. We did a drop on a moonless night and I landed blind in a rapids. I was beat and scratched to hell by the time I got out of that river. When we got back, I had liberty. I was blowing off steam in this quiet bar across town and saw Sidney. He always made me laugh. I--we both drank too much."

"Why all the secrecy?"

She sighed. "My mother was born in Pakistan. She's very traditional. You know what it was like before we invaded. I didn't want her to know. It was hard enough for her to accept the life I chose."

Ophelia continued, "But my sister and her husband couldn't have children. I made sure they adopted him, raised him as their own. Achmed was our grandfather's name."

He looked directly into her eyes. "Did you kill Barnes?"

"No. I was duty officer that shift but I was supposed to do an interview for Good Morning America at 03:00, so Sidney was going to relieve me at 02:00 so I had time to clean up for TV. He didn't show. I went looking for him."

Mac paused.

"I have direct orders not to do this until some formal inquiry back on earth." He cut Ophelia loose. "But they can kiss my ass. This is my command."

Mac said to the rest of them, "That leaves one of you as prime suspect."

Chandra shook his head as if disappointed. Takuya howled in loud Japanese. Helga glared at him dangerously.


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


"Commander." Chandra was at his door.

"Doctor."

"You must use patience. 'Be patient for one moment, and the wind and waves will calm down. Take one step back, and you will discover the vastness of the ocean and the emptiness of the sky. All will be revealed, in time.'" Chandra nodded at him, then moved down the corridor.

"Thanks, Doctor." Whatever the heck that meant.

Mac closed the door of his quarters. He couldn't just lock them all up. They needed to do their jobs, but he could give Curtis something.

He punched up the secure laserlink. "Macridin to Curtis. Doctor Jandrain is my chief suspect. Over and out."

He took out a tab of Windsor whiskey and squeezed it dry. The burn in his mouth felt good, and took his mind off Barnes. A few minutes later, Ophelia knocked and floated in.

"Mac," she said, "I know you read the 'eyes only' message for Curtis ten minutes before the blackout. I saw what you did."

"What're you talking aboot?"

"Sidney was recording segments for National Geographic before the blackout. Outgoing data gets held in the temporary queue until it's copied into the send queue. Send is erased by the blackout protocol, but until new data writes over it, it's still in the temp queue."

Mac frowned. "Barnes' thesis was aboot canceling the effects of alcohol before it's absorbed. Don't you see? That bastard was sober when he slept with you. He took advantage of you. Kissed you. Touched you. Used you. It wasn't right."

Swallowing, he continued, "Not after you almost died. Looking into your eyes while Chandra worked on you, seeing how hard you worked, just to live, to move your arms, then to get back into shape... I--I couldn't live with knowing what he did to you. It was a wrong against all that is just and right in life."

She put her hands on her hips. "That night, I knew Sidney wasn't drunk. That was for me, not for him. Look, I know why you really did this, but it can't happen like that. It won't."

Mac exhaled slowly. "What are you going to do?"

Ophelia paused. "The mission is more important. The ship can't function with only four crewmen, and needs a commander. Report it as an accidental death." She stopped in the doorway. "Even with his faults, Sid was a better man than you. After this mission is over, the truth needs to come out. You have to tell Helga how you killed a man over another woman."

Mac watched her disappear down the corridor.

He thought, I figured I would feel guilty, but I don't. I thought it was going to be harder to kill someone, but it wasn't hard at all. It was so easy. Anybody could do it. All they need is a reason.

Ophelia's words echoed in his head, "After this mission is over... You have to tell Helga."

He rubbed his chin. By then, you will have forgiven me, and what Helga thinks won't matter any more.

He smiled. 'Till death do us part.


[align=center] The End [/align]



A special thanks to Dan, Bill, & Casey for their help in creating this opportunity.
Last edited by kailhofer on April 27, 2009, 07:58:09 PM, edited 1 time in total.
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Post April 03, 2009, 11:08:11 AM

Spaceman's Birthday Challenge

Happy Birthday Archana Ivanova: Super Spy

By:
Bill Wolfe



Aphelion One, Day 41


At 04:51, precisely—assuming you’re on Aphelion time—the computer woke her.

Limba noastră-i o comoară (A treasure is our language that surges)

În adîncuri înfundată (From deep shadows of the past,)

Un şirag de piatră rară (Chain of precious stones that scattered)

Pe moşie revărsată. (All over our ancient land.)

Limba noastră-i foc ce arde (A burning flame is our language)

Într-un neam, ce fără veste (Amidst a people waking)

S-a trezit din somn de moarte (From a deathly sleep, no warning,)

Although the Moldavian National Anthem went on for twelve more stanzas. . .plus the refrain, she hit the snooze button without opening her eyes and immediately began her morning exercises. Her breathing became deeper and more regular. To all outward appearances, she had dozed-off for the nine minutes until the alarm sounded, again.

Your name is Archana Ivanova. You are a Geologist. You were born in Balti and were accepted into the Institute of Geology and Seismology in Chişinău at the age of sixteen, specializing in exogeology and remote electronics. Your parents were killed in a bus accident when you were seventeen, leaving no close relatives. At eighteen you were selected to represent Moldavia in the Summer Olympics as a gymnast but had to withdraw due to a shoulder injury. The records of your year of gymnastic training will hold-up to the closest scrutiny. If questioned about it, never never never think about the real Archana Ivanova. Never think how much she looked like you, must have loved gymnastics as much as you, must have had dreams of her own, must have died accidentally before you entered the Olympic Facility using her name. It must have been an accident. It must have!

She realized that her breathing was no longer regular, her emotions were getting in the way of her training. Colonel Petrolescue would have seen it, immediately; and the punishment would have been severe.

With an audible snort she “woke-up” from her snooze. It wouldn’t have fooled the Colonel, but if another agency were recording her in her quarters, it would look like she’d begun a bad dream and awakened naturally. With the practiced flick of a key, she reset the alarm.

Before she disentangled herself from the sleeping net, she inhaled deeply. Along with the normal damp-sock scent of six people living in close proximity, someone was cooking rehydrated bacon. She assayed her choice in clothing, all carefully chosen by the Colonel for maximum sexual allure. One advantage to skimpy attire was that she probably had more outfits to choose from than anyone else on the mission. She decided on the white, form-fitting elastic body suit. She would have to wear the tight black shorts with it, though. She hadn’t shaved her pubic hair for a while and it would show through the fabric. That her dark nipples were faintly discernable, was the point of the garment.

“You must seem unaware of the effect your body has on your opponents,” the Colonel’s voice echoed in her thoughts. “Your desirability may make them pause—if only for a second—before they strike. Use every advantage that you have.”

She glanced at the improvised ‘Ship Calendar’ pasted to the wall.

Day 41, today, was highlighted in green. What was that for? she asked herself. She had only routine duties until the NASA download, tonight. Though she was expecting some encrypted instructions for her remote units piggybacked with the updates, she certainly wouldn’t have marked her calendar for that.

She looked at the date, again. She had a vague memory of having marked certain ship days as having special meaning for the corresponding date, back on Earth. Something about today had made her—and then she remembered—today was her birthday. Not Archana’s birthday, of course, but her real birthday.

“La multi ani, Mahai.” Her Grandmother’s voice was clear in her mind, though she’d been dead for a decade. She wondered if, in some sub-basement, Colonel Petrolescue was raising his glass to her. He was possibly the only other living person who knew she was alive. When she had replaced the real Archana Ivanova, her family had been told she too, was dead.

Would any of them think of her, today? Would they remember that today, their sister, daughter, niece, would have turned thirty-one?

Would Petru remember? Perhaps. He’d asked her to marry him on this date when she was fifteen, and dreaming only of leaving the stifling Russian-Ukrainian backwater town of Serata Mereseni.

How she had hated her hard-line, fanatical, old-school Communist family and their insistence that Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica was their true homeland. To them, Moldavia was just a West-loving, Romanian puppet country. How proud they would be of her, now, working to further the Communist resurgence. But at what cost? That they mourned the loss of a daughter was one thing. But if she died out here, she—like the real Archana—would not be mourned by anyone.

She didn’t know why this bothered her, but it did.

So how would she spend her realbirthday? Well, like any other day, of course. She would talk to her shipmates, listen to their drab, ordinary problems, and pretend that she gave a damn.

The only problem is, of course, that she really did give a damn. She really likes all of the people she works with. Whether it’s the too-perfect Ophelia Dunsirn or it’s the goofy, nerdy Sidney Barnes. She truly likes them all.

Now what?

Once you get to know a person, how can you betray them all. How can you betray any of them?

Must she?

Can she?

If—as the Americans say—‘push comes to shove’, will she be a GOOD spy, or will she choose to put both the people, and the mission, first.

To herself, she whispers: “Happy Birthday, Mahai Lucinschi. Even if you are the only one in the Universe who knows what today means.


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post April 03, 2009, 11:10:25 AM

Spaceman's Birthday Challenge

Sword and Scalpel

By:
J. Davidson Hero



Aphelion One, Day 100


“Curtis isn’t making this any easier... on any of us. Frankly, he’s been a real bear,” Dr. Harry Smith said. A narrow beam of light from his ophthalmoscope pierced the blackness of Mission Specialist Penny Jones’ pupil. Doc watched her iris contract.

“No facial edema,” he said as if dictating. He was uncomfortably close and Penny could feel his warm breath on her lips.

“He’s under a lot of stress. I’m sure he doesn’t mean to make it any worse,” Penny said after a moment’s reflection.

“You don’t like to hold anything against anyone,” he stated. “Lightheadedness, fatigue, could be signs of orthostatic intolerance. The Earth-side docs are watching your vitals for it. We might have to start you on Neomidodrine. Still managing the vertigo?”

She smiled, “Sure.” She lifted up a foot and poked a jury-rigged boot at him. “Magnets and Velcro… no medicating required.”

She paused again. “I like Captain Curtis. I think he feels responsible, even though it happened on the other ship,” she said.

Doc inhaled sharply filling his lungs full as he tried to reckon with that familiar conundrum, the double-edges of rank: power and responsibility. Feelings have nothing to do with it; as CO, Curtis IS responsible.

Doc ripped open a dose of sleeping pills for Penny, scanned the barcode on the back with his PDA, handed them to Penny and then searched the screen for the button he had to click to confirm they were dispensed to her. It was a long moment of searching. She was sitting on a table before him and she shifted. The sound of Velcro drew his attention back to her.

“Is it really necessary? The medicine?” she asked.

“Ah. Did you know that fifty percent of the astronauts on the early shuttle missions had to take sleeping pills?”

Doc looked at her. She had dark circles under her eyes; she was really shaken by Barnes’ death, and hadn’t probably slept soundly since they all found out. She always seemed so lighthearted and carefree, but he guessed she was probably prone to more lows than she let on. You fly higher than most, you fall further when you’re forced to land. Then again, she was a civilian, didn’t have the perspective on death he had being a doctor and a marine. Death is a pallid bedmate he was all too used to having around. Two wars gave him that.

Ophelia Dunsirn’s near-death experience and then Barnes’ death had shaken everyone, not just Penny and Curtis. Both accidents occurred on Aphelion 2 and it seemed like Aphelion 1 was due for some drama. But Doc didn’t put any stock in fate or karma, or whatever you wanted to call it. He was a marine: you make your own destiny. He was a doctor too: you prevent death when you can and deal with the aftermath when you can’t. It’s what they called bedside manner. And Harry had plenty of it. The health and sanity of the crew were his jurisdiction and his responsibility.

“Well, take two of these and call me in the morning,” he said with a wink. “I’m taking you off duty until you get some rest. I’ll notify Curtis.” She was a sweet kid, and the only bit of inviting femininity on this boat, the kind that was nice to be around. Of course there was Ivanova too, but when Doc thought about her he could only envision the female spider who’s not above a little cannibalism.

“As the only two Americans on this boat, we’ve got to stick together,” he said with a smile. The thought hadn’t occurred to him until just that instant. The other Americans on this mission, Dunsirn and Barnes, were both subject to “accidents.” The thought startled him.

“But I’m on mess duty tonight.” she said.

“I’ll cover you,” he said. “I’m sure the others won’t mind. I’ve got a hankering for split pea soup again.”

Penny took the pills and swallowed. Then she leaned forward and pecked Doc on the cheek.

“What’s that for? You know I’ll be billing your insurance later,” he added facetiously.

“I heard it was your birthday today,” she said.

“How’d you find that out?” he asked chuckling. “It was a closely guarded military secret.”

“Would it be a cliché to say a little bird told me?” she asked ripping herself free from the Velcro on the table.

“My money’s on Chang,” he said after a moment of rubbing his chin in mock contemplation.

“He does seem to know everything,” she conceded moving out through the hatch, her magnetized boots clacking as she went.

* * *

Doc stared at Penny’s medical file. He had finished typing his notes in and was preparing to batch it for sending Earth-side. Suddenly he realized he was just staring blankly at the screen; his mind had wandered. Forty-six. Not getting any younger.

He searched through the folders on his computer until he found one with some personal pictures. He brought one up on the screen and stared, a woman, thirty-ish, with light brown hair sitting before a photographer’s backdrop of some wooded meadow, a small blond boy nestled in her lap, smiling, his hair cut in sharp bangs.

He knew it was too much to ask. He didn’t expect a transmission, but maybe an email today, just a simple message, on his birthday. She could have managed that much. Memories raced through his mind, and anger nearly surfaced. But then he got it under control. The man of mission, the good-humored doctor, the efficient soldier took control again. He had to keep his mind on the mission, keep this crew healthy in body and mind. That required him to leave some things behind.

“Hello Doc,” Gode Zwelitini skirted the corner, his huge frame startling as he moved silently. He had something in his hand. The smell of freshly popped popcorn filled the compartment.

“A little bird told me it was your birthday.”


[align=center]The End[/align]
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Post April 03, 2009, 11:14:15 AM

Spaceman's Birthday Challenge

- Co-Winner -


PHOENIX

By:
Richard Tornello



Aphelion One, Day 150


He sat at the command console driving the BUS. That was the name Lt. Chang gave to APHELION ONE, this space craft, if only to himself. So far the Bus has been operating non-stop for 3600 hours that would make it, oh yes, his birthday. The idea of celebrating ones birthday was not an invitation to a party as some on his craft seemed to think. To him, it was one more duty to perform, “Just like driving this space bus on the way to Mars, the The Red Planet, the Western Roman War God’s planet.”

His official duty is first to his country, the Peoples Liberation Army, Space Command (PLA-SC) and then to family, in that order. As he thought to himself Lt. Chang spoke gently and quietly out loud so as to make conversation with himself and acknowledge what he assumed to be the obvious. “China may be modern and up to date. We still continue to revere our ancestors. My birthday is, thanks to them. To them I owe my gratitude even more so. We are still at one child per family in China. We are the only country on this small blue planet to recognize and do something about human resource allocation. I give thanks to my family and to my country. I am here, Today, Now, xian zai.”

Lt. Chang thought in English, the lingua franca within the crafts. This skill made him stand out in preflight training. That fact was instrumental in his selection. Working with different nationalities, communicating in English where misunderstandings could be at worst fatal, a high level of language skill is required. Speaking English among so many different nationalities also allowed for a certain level of misunderstanding, intended or otherwise. A smile came to his usually quiet face.

Lt. Chang was not shy. He spoke little unless directly addressed. Then talk was straight and to the point. He told himself, “Less talk means less room for political misunderstanding. Everything is political.” It was a lesson he had been taught once from someone else’s faux pas. And, once was enough. “Here,” he thought, “Out of the direct gaze of the PLA-SC, here and now was different. Here and now.” he said to himself and didn’t finish. He had time to think and philosophize since much of the flight was routine and programmed.

“Birth day,” he thought while staring at the monitors. “Birth day is a strange concept in timeless, dayless space. Time is for the planet bound where day and night represent the figment of time. Time out here falls away the more one lives here. Infinity, I can’t grasp that, but I do believe day and time are usless concepts . The universe is timeless except as required for our mundane life giving tasks.

“Now”, he laughed to himself at the word. “A missed second at launch, it could be a missed target and death. The smallest width of a business card off target on the shooting line was a miss by meters down range.” These thoughts ran through Lt. Chang’s head almost instantly. He dismissed them almost as quickly to concentrate on piloting the Bus.

His official job as part of the team was co-pilot. He had to drive the BUS and get it to Mars, unscathed, in one piece. He had other jobs; some implied by his superiors others for himself. “Working so closely with other nationalities, in the confines of this space craft brought the known and unknown out in each of us. Amusing, sad and terrifying, witness the unsolved murder in The Trailer,” as he called APHELION TWO, the following space craft.

_________________________

Lt. Chang had been trained form birth to become a member of the Peoples Liberation Army. Successful completion of ones duties here would at least allow for promotion with in the military as well as other business sectors. No one in the country who rose in Party rank was not directly a member of the PLA elite or did not have relatives with strong PLA connections that could pull strings. It simply did not happen. He knew it. It never had to be stated. It was a fact of political life. Then it became a fact of social life.

Good rank meant good family which in turn made for excellent marriage prospects. That thought made Lt. Chang hopeful of the prospects, and suddenly wary. “Suppose the shielding on the crafts were not up to the specs promised? Suppose they were all radiated beyond hope for the future, for children? What then? What of his family line? “What if we’re all just throw aways, expendable for others… ‘aggrandizement’?” he unconsciously said aloud.

“What grand prize?” someone asked in the back? Quickly recovering from his verbal slip, Lt. Chang said, “No you mistook me. Today is my birthday. I wondering about a prize. Foolish of me to say anything.”

“Another birthday? Ain’t this the party boat,” from yet another voice behind him. He did not turn around. He was in command. As they came closer to the planet more debris could be expected. He must maintain control and not be deflected from his duties.

Lt. Chang dreamed of space flight from youth and here he was, driving the BUS to Mars. A smile crossed his lips . “Party boat? Not yet,” he thought. “Dong Shi Hong”* and “Happy Birthday,” He sang to himself.


[align=center]The End[/align]

* The East is Red, a song from The Cultural Revolution days.
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Post April 03, 2009, 11:15:36 AM

Spaceman's Birthday Challenge

Paranoia

By:
Casey Callaghan



Aphelion One, Day 164


Botanist's Log, 15:48

Cabin fever is what happens when too few people are cooped up in close proximity for too long. It's characterised by irritability, anger, in some cases even paranoia.

I think I'm developing a bad case. I hope I'm developing a bad case, because I'm certainly feeling very paranoid.

It all started this morning; I had breakfast late, since I'd been on radar watch that morning. When Chang relieved me and I went off to look over the plants in the greenhouse, I came unexpectedly on the Captain, who stopped me to ask about the plants I was on my way to go see; but when I moved to go past him and show him their health, he stopped me to ask whether I'd spotted anything during my radar watch.

Quite surprising, since a no piece of rock had hit us and one that missed was hardly of much interest.

A few moments later, when I finally got to the greenhouse, there was Dr. Smith, looking as guilty as anything; that wide-eyed innocent look of his is like a flashing neon sign that says "I'm hiding something".

Of course, I immediately began to wonder what it was. Everything looked alright in the greenhouse; the plants were all doing well. (It is quite amazing how well spearmint grows in zero gravity, handled properly). I performed those tasks necessary to ensure that they would continue to do well, checking the nutrient solution in their root bulbs and so on.

Normally, this takes me some time; there are a lot of plants to check, after all. This time, I'd swear that I caught the smell of Smith's cologne in the greenhouse.

What was he doing there, and why had the Captain been acting spotter to make sure he got out before I arrived?

But that was just the first incident.

The second occurred when I arrived for lunch. There was a sudden, dead silence across the whole table. Everyone except Archana (radar duty) was there, and they were all completely and unnaturally silent until Chang asked me how my plants were doing.

Two little incidents. Two slight incidents. But... I'm not quite Dr. Smith, but strange things have happened when people have been shut alone together. Sidney's murder - no matter what Earth says, that was no accident - has been horrible for all of us. It's going to be a lot worse once we land, because we know the murderer is on the other ship. Whoever it is, he can't get to us until after we land. And when we do land...

Let's just say that there's a lot of horror stories that start like that.

And there's a lot that start with everyone except one person keeping some sort of secret.

Do they know? Did they find out who it was?

They can't think it was me. I mean, I was on this ship the whole time.

They can't have heard that story from Earth, could they? I mean, is mission control decided to investigate - I mean really investigate - all our backgrounds, and that came out, then could -

No. No-one's found that out yet. And no-one's going to.

--------------

Botanist's Log, 19:28

Now I feel really silly. I should have guessed, really I should have, but I'd lost track of time.

About an hour before supper, Archana managed to trap me in a conversation - and, now that I think about it, if I was ever near the door she was standing in it, but not obtrusively. Once we'd prepared supper, she took the first half and asked me to follow with the others; one of which had somehow managed to slip itself into the other end of the room. By the time I followed her, she'd had time to find her seat at the table - which had moved.

That was the first thing I noticed. Everyone's seats had shifted a few places around, so that I was looking at the large back of Gode, rather than Archana.

That was, of course, intentional on their part. Captain Curtis noticed my arrival, nodded; and everyone burst into a spontaneous rendition of "Happy Birthday".

Somehow, don't ask me how, Gode had even managed to conjure up a cake. Alright, a large cupcake, but still, when you're further from home than any other birthday girl has ever been, you'll take any cake that's offered.

Unless it's poisonous, of course.

Or vanilla (yuck).

Or a thin coating of icing on a grenade...

This one even had a candle (briefly - we don't have that much air to waste). And mint icing, which must have been what Smith had been harvesting a quiet leaf or two of this morning.

Chang had, amazingly, even gone as far as to find a gift that I hadn't seen in the almost two hundred days that we've been voyaging; and, I must say, his skill at origami is considerable.

Tonight I retire to bed a happy girl.


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Post April 03, 2009, 11:16:47 AM

Spaceman's Birthday Challenge

Rite of Passage

By:
Robert Moriyama



Aphelion One, Day 172


Godlumathakathi Zwelitini -- "Gode" to his crewmates on Aphelion One -- normally enjoyed the prospect of an EVA. His life under the limitless skies of South Africa had been poor preparation for six months inside a spacecraft whose interior seemed barely larger than a big bus, and being outside -- even swaddled in a bulky vacuum suit -- felt like emerging from a cramped cave into daylight. But this excursion was different -- there had been little time to prepare or plan, the task at hand was urgent, and he had less than an hour before the charged particle front from the predicted solar flare was due to arrive.

Just to make things perfect, today was his 41st birthday. Zulus didn't celebrate birthdays the way umlungu -- Europeans -- did, only taking special note when certain milestones were reached. But the crew had insisted on baking -- well, thawing -- a cake for him, or what passed for cake in the ship's stores, as they had for everyone else whose odometers had clicked off another year. He'd even had to share some of his precious store of popcorn!

"Clock's ticking, Gode," the Captain prompted. "If you can't unjam the protective shrouds, the solar panels and exposed comm gear will get toasted for sure." As usual, Alexander Curtis was standing by in the airlock in case something went wrong -- as it had for poor Ophelia over on Aphelion Two.

Gode raised his right hand to his helmet in acknowledgment and let go of the handhold closest to the airlock with his left. Swinging his left arm smoothly backward imparted enough momentum to pivot his body and his right hand back toward the hull so he could catch the next handhold.

Now floating parallel to the ship, he checked to ensure that his safety line was firmly clipped to the lanyard and began to "climb" toward the panels that concealed the umbrella-like shroud intended to "shade" the solar panels from the storm of radiation that would erupt from the surface of the sun in -- twenty minutes?

On Earth, haste makes waste -- in space, haste kills, he recited.

"Gode. Are you okay?"

"I'm -- I'm almost there," Gode replied. And then he was there, and he could see the dented panel that had prevented the shroud from opening on command.

"Looks like we took a hit from something," he said. "One of the breakaway panels is bent..."

"Can you fix it?"

"One second," Gode grunted. He reached into the toolkit velcroed to his chest and pulled out a long screwdriver. It was the closest thing to a pry bar he had -- so it would have to do.

He tightened his grip on the handhold and braced himself, then thrust the tip of the screwdriver into the gap between the dented panel and its neighbor. It took all his strength to keep his body stationary and still apply any leverage at all...

The panel popped open suddenly, and the screwdriver sprang from his hand and tumbled away into the blackness.

"Got it!" Gode exclaimed. "Send the command again and let's see if we're in business."

A moment later, a ring of panels extending around the circumference of the ship bent back on themselves, and something that looked like a fine silver mist -- actually metal mesh -- bloomed outward on a complex scaffolding of hair-thin tubes. Hard to believe that can make any difference, Gode thought. Of course, once it's charged up, I guess the magnetic field does the rest.

"Time's up, Gode! We have about five minutes to get our asses into the storm cellar. Let go of the handhold -- I'll belay you in with the safety line!"

Startled, Gode did as he was directed, and felt a sharp tug start him floating back toward the airlock. Curtis had emerged from the airlock and clipped himself to the hatch, and was pulling Gode's line in, hand over hand.

"Oh, this is going to leave a mark," Curtis said, just before Gode collided with him like a slow-moving freight train. But the Captain had obviously executed similar emergency retrievals in the past -- he absorbed much of the momentum with his bent legs, pivoting so that both men tumbled into the airlock. Curtis slapped the emergency pressurization button as he caromed off the wall and back into Gode again, and the outer hatch closed. The interior of the airlock filled with fog as the moisture in the stored air condensed in the chill surrounding their suits.

Curtis shed his own helmet and left it floating in mid-air. "Leave your helmet here and move -- we'll have to shed the suits just outside the storm cellar!" Then he dived headfirst through the inner hatch and ricocheted his way through the ship toward the service module.

Muttering a prayer, Gode did likewise. He crashed and rebounded from hatch frame after hatch frame until he reached the entrance to the radiation shelter at the center of the service module, bruised but mostly intact. He clambered out of his suit and dived through the storm cellar hatch just as the radiation alarm began to wail, and someone slammed the hatch behind him.

"The shroud deployed," Gode gasped. "Did it power up okay?"

Chang Wei nodded, consulting a flatscreen inset into the far -- all of two-point-five meters away -- wall. "So far, so good -- no major spikes in any of the systems." Then he frowned. "What is that smell? Gode -- is that you?"

Gode grinned apologetically. "I was very nervous," he said. "I sweat when I am nervous."

Penny Jones sighed. "I would have brought some aromatic herbs if I had known."

"On the bright side," Curtis said, "We'll only be stuck in here for -- a couple of days."

I suppose this qualifies as a milestone in my life, Gode thought. My most embarrassing moment. Ilanga elimndandi kuwe --Happy Birthday, old man.


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Post April 03, 2009, 11:18:56 AM

Spaceman's Birthday Challenge

- Co-Winner -


Always

By:
N.J. Kailhofer



Aphelion Two, Day 175


The bulb on the battery-powered lamp faded out.

I've always hated being in the dark.

Their ragged breath carried across the blackness, blackness that pressed in on them all, choking out their voices. Gone now were the radiation alarms, replaced by oppressive, silent fears that gripped them in a vice of emotions that forced out all hope.

There was a crack, and an eerie, green glow oozed from between Takuya's fingers. He shook the light stick, spreading the chemical illumination to the length of the tube. He tossed it on the stack of CO2 scrubber canisters and adult diapers in the empty spot.

Ophelia swallowed. "Have any more of those?"

Tak held up one finger.

There were tears on Helga's cheek. "It's ridiculous. Three days of this!" Unconsciously, she reached out and held her husband's hand.

Why does she love Mac? He doesn't deserve it.

Chandra quoted, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."

Mac frowned. "Honestly, what the heck does that even mean, eh?"

Chandra smiled. "Maybe it is the universe's way of making us slow down and take stock of ourselves before it will reveal it's wonders to us on Mars. Perhaps when we are ready to purge the negativity of our frustrations or actions, we can move past them to enlightenment."

I've always wondered why, with all the combat training everyone had, no one beat the crap out of him for all those frustrating platitudes. I know other people from India, and none of them is a quarter as philosophical as he is.

"Look, I'm sorry." Mac looked at the floor. "I was in a hurry, you know. I wanted to make everyone safe. The alarms--"

Tak's eyes were like daggers. "Everyone knows you have to retract the pins on the hatch before you shut it. One bent when you slammed it so hard. It took all of us to get it to close."

And now that the storm passed, it won't open. Everyone will suffocate here in this closet-sized space between the propellant tanks. It's just a matter of time. And it might not have been an accident. I know that better than anyone.

Helga snarled, "He was trying to protect you all!"

Ophelia cleared her throat. "Getting mad won't help. Is there any other way to get out of here? Any at all?"

"Sure," Tak said with sarcasm. "If someone could squeeze between one of these six tanks, claw through the shielding there, and somehow force apart the ship's skin, we could all decompress into space. How's that?"

Ophelia glared at him. "I've tried that. I wouldn't recommend it."

I've always wished I could have learned to be more useful, more dynamic. I know I'd sure love to kick this door in now, and show everyone I wasn't useless.

Ophelia wouldn't give in. "Does anyone have any tools at all?"

Tak held up a deluxe, Leatherman multi-tool. "This will not open those bolts on the housing. This hatch is built like a bank vault door, strong enough to keep out vacuum, fire, explosions... whatever could cause us to hide in it. A last refuge."

Mac sputtered, "Apollo 13 astronauts used old socks, the cover of a flight manual, and duct tape to connect their wrong-shaped CO2 cartridges and we can't even open a damned hatch!"

"Oh!" Ophelia eyed the CO2 canisters. "Could you cut a nut-shaped hole in the nylon-composite casings of those and use it to turn these bolts?"

"I do not know if it's strong enough."

Chandra said, "Trying would be better than doing nothing."

"Yes," Helga insisted. "Let's do something!"

Tak's first try snapped the canister apart, but they used the shard broken from the back and cut a hole to fit. Finally, it took three of them together on the makeshift wrench handle to turn the nut. By the time they could get all the bolts loose, the first light stick was dark.

Tak cracked his last light and pulled loose the housing. It looked complicated inside. He pointed. "This is the jammed pin. We cannot get at it. Only this little bit is exposed."

Mac asked, "Could you cut it with that saw or the file on your Leatherman?"

"The metal is an inch thick."

Ophelia brightened. "How about scoring it as far around as you can, cutting it until your blade is dull, then we pound on it to make it break on the scored line."

God, she's always beautiful when she's like this--all mission, completely focused. I'd love to kiss her right now.

Tak shrugged. "I do not have a better idea."


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


Watching Mac hammer in the dying light, Ophelia mused, "You know, it's Sid's birthday today."

Mac paused and swallowed. "If we don't get this open, we'll all join him soon. C'mon, everybody together. Helga, you keep pounding. The rest of us will try to turn the latch."

Dammit! I'm tired of being helpless. Always a looser, always a joke. Ophelia deserves more. I should be helping. That's what a real crewman--a real man--would do.

Mac, Tak, Chandra, and Ophelia strained as hard as they could on the latch. Veins stood out on their faces and arms. Sweat stained their clothes. Helga held the leatherman against the pin and hammered on it with the burned out lamp.

He timed his blow. Now!

With a 'crack', the pin broke. The handle turned and the door swung open. Light spilled in from the outer room.

"Thank God!" Helga shouted.


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


The cupcake floated in front of the window, slowly rotating in the weightlessness. A single, unlit candle stuck out of the improvised frosting.

A smudge of flour stuck to Ophelia's cheek. She stared out the window at the spacesuit tied to the hull with a wistful look. "Happy birthday, Sid."

I think she loved me.

His invisible spirit smiled beside her.

And I'll be here for her.

Always.



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Post May 06, 2009, 07:25:38 PM

My Pet Montster Challenge

The challenge was to craft a story with a pet monster.


Example Story:



Norman

By:
N.J. Kailhofer



"Okay," Tommy said, "but you have to promise not to laugh. He doesn't like it when you laugh."

"Ooo. I'm soo scared." Billy made a face. "C'mon, let me see it."

Tommy took a long length of string with a loop in it from out of his pocket. Kneeling in the grass, he stuck the loop through the zippered opening of his backpack on the ground in front of him.

"Norman," he said, "put that around your neck."

Tommy waited. "Oh, c'mon, Norman. Just do it. You'll be ok."

Billy put his hands on his hips. The sarcasm in his young voice was biting. "You talk to him? What does he do, talk back?"

Tommy said, "Yeah, sometimes."

Billy laughed. "You're so full of crap. Do you even have anything in that bag at all?"

Tommy whispered into the opening, "C'mon. He doesn't believe you're in there. You're making me look bad. Come on out. I'll keep you safe."

Tommy held his hand over the opening, palm turned toward the ground. A tiny set of claws touched the top of the opening. A second later, Norman's upside-down green head appeared. He held himself there underneath the top of the bag, looking around. The loop of string was around his neck.

"Oh, neat," Billy said. "You got a lizard!"

Tommy paused. "Well, um... yeah, sort of."

"C'mon out, buddy." Billy held his face close, grinning from ear to ear. "Lizards are so cool. My cousin has a monitor lizard, and he let me feed him this big rat. He swallowed it right down! It was so gross, it was great!"

Slowly, Norman crawled out onto the underside of Tommy's hand.

Billy said, "Turn him over, so I can get a good look."

Tommy blurted, "No way! He'd fall away."

Billy scrunched up his face. "'Fall away?' What're you talking about?"

Tommy searched for the right words. "He's gravity-challenged. If I turned him over, he'd fall upwards into the sky and never stop. He'd die up in outer space, or something."

Billy laughed again. "You are so full of shit. Like that could happen."

Norman twitched.

"Stop it!" Tommy insisted. "He doesn't like it when you laugh at him, and he doesn't like swearing. You're making him mad."

"Fine." Billy crossed his arms. "Can I hold him?"

"No."

"Oh, come on. I'll keep him safe."

Tommy paused. "Do you promise?"

"Okay."

"Cross your heart?"

"I said yes."

"Cross your heart, and have to kiss Mrs. Murdow the lunch lady?"

Billy made a retching noise. "Ew! She's gross."

"Promise!"

"Fine, I promise."

Billy held out his hand and Tommy carefully pushed Norman out to the underside of Billy's. Billy looked at him close.

"He just looks like a salamander or gecko or something."

Tommy shrugged. "We'll he's not."

"He's just some shitty little green lizard."

"Stop swearing!"

"Maggoty, puke-green, runt. That's what he looks like."

"Stop it!"

"Fine! I'll stop insulting your precious little buddy." Billy smiled slyly and turned his hand over. "Oops!"

Norman flew up into the air.

Billy was wide-eyed.

Tommy grabbed at the string leash.


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


Tommy's father frowned at the head of the dinner table. "So, what happened today?"

Tommy looked down. "I took Norman to school."

His mother gasped. "You didn't!"

Tommy said, "Sammy Goldman brought his pet tarantula to school and everybody kept going on and on about how cool it was. Norman is way cooler... so I brought him."

His father looked very stern. "And then what happened?"

"I had him out on the playground--"

His mother's voice was sharp. "Outside?"

Tommy's voice was small. "Yes. I was showing him to Billy and he made him fall up. He did it on purpose! Billy laughed at him and called him names!"

His father's voice was angry now. "Then what happened?"

Tommy swallowed. "It made Norman really mad. He blew."

His mother crossed herself.

His father shouted, "What happened to Billy?"

Tommy whispered, "Only his shoes were left. Everybody ran and hid in the school. The police thought it was an underground gas leak that exploded."

"Thomas de Bayeux, you go to your room this instant!"


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


Tommy's knock on the linen closet door was gentle. "Norman, can I talk to you?"

There was no answer, so Tommy slowly opened the door. Norman was on the underside of one of the shelves, curled up inside an old blanket that was stapled to it.

"I'm sorry, Norman."

Norman didn't move.

"Norman? I said I was sorry."

Norman's raspy voice scolded, "I haven't breathed on someone since the year 1066. Once I was revered among your people, so honored they took their name from me. Now, I'm brought out for show and tell like a shiny bauble. A possession. As if!"

Norman stuck his head out of the blanket. "It is your responsibility to care for my needs, to protect me, and to be my companion, until you have a son or daughter of your own to pass me on to, and then to their offspring in turn, until time ends. This was the oath of Odo that I might help him and his half-brother, William, in their conquests."

Tommy looked at his shoes. "I'm sorry."

There was a long pause while Norman looked him over. "So, what have you learned?"

"What do you mean?"

"What has Billy's death taught you?"

Tommy's face was confused. "Not to take you to school?"

Norman rolled his eyes. "No! That your actions have consequences! Billy's death is your fault, and you will carry that knowledge your entire life. You must think before you act, or someone may die. You must protect your family's secret, with your life if you must."

"Oh," Tommy said quietly. "I understand."

Tommy closed the door.

And, Norman added to himself, that a dragon deserves respect.


Humans are such primitive pets.





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