Swirling, dizzying bursts of snow eddied and danced about her, driving her in shuffling circles until she fell over an unexpectedly solid drift. Eleanor sat up slowly, too tired to even swear as she felt the snow work in the top of her boots and start soaking her socks. She tipped her head back and squinted her eyes against the gusting storm.
"A dream! It's a goddamn dream!" she yelled, but the wind carried the words away from her. "What's the point of knowing you're dreaming if you can't control it, or even shut it down? I wanted a dream vacation in Bermuda. Damn, this feels real." She pulled the hood of her parka closer around her face, picked her staff back up and cautiously stood next to the drift.
"What are you, then?" she muttered, and poked the drift with the staff. She couldn't hear anything over the wind, but she felt a solid, metallic contact. Bracing against the wind, she poked and kicked at it until she cleared most of the snow from an oddly rounded lump about the size of her head. She jammed the staff into the snow, braced into the wind and reached to pick it up. Lucid dreaming hadn't turned out nearly as satisfying that magazine article made it sound, but she let out a sigh of satisfaction when the little golden Buddha lit at her touch, glowing like a small sun.
"That's a bit more like it." The figure gently steamed where falling snow landed on it, and cast an eerie glow through the featureless dark. Eleanor kicked gently at it again, then picked it up to cradle against her chest. It was surprisingly light, and she closed her eyes to enjoy the soothing heat against her face. If she ignored her layers of clothing, she could almost think she was in Bermuda after all. In fact, the wind seemed to have died down...
"Eleanor. Eleanor! Are you there?"
"Becky? Are you in my dream?" The little Buddha was getting uncomfortably hot through her gloves and she shifted so the heavy sleeves of the parka protected her hands. The steady light and heat against her eyelids slowly grew, and she thought again of basking in the sun on a tropical island. The wind wasn't quite gone, but it had certainly changed. She could almost hear her twin sister whispering to her, like they used to do when they were kids at the boring grown up parties. She and Becky knew better than to complain when it was time to be the Loving Family at any of her father's political rallies, but as long as they were quiet and smiling in their matching outfits, no one cared that they whispered. They had always been each other's best friend in the middle of the politics as they grew up, and that never really changed. Becky's love of science and stars got her into NASA and then into the first mission to Mars while Eleanor grew more fascinated with painting all the things she saw, and imagined she saw, in her telescope, but when Becky called to breathlessly tell her she'd been accepted for the Mars mission Eleanor congratulated her, then wistfully said it would be the first time they'd really be parted. She almost thought that if she opened her eyes now she would see her twin sitting by her in another of those awful party dresses they'd outgrown years ago.
"Eleanor? You're in my dream!" That was definitely Becky's voice!
Eleanor fought her eyes open against her lassitude. Her sister stood with one hand resting comfortably on the Buddha's head, at her ease in a light cotton jumpsuit as the snow ignored her, and grinning devilishly. "Becky! I - what? No, this is my dream! I read in a magazine about lucid dreaming and how inspirational it can be... I'm dreaming! I'm definitely dreaming! Look!" She hit her fist against her leg and it passed through. "See? I'm dreaming, this is my dream and you're in it!"
"Goof!" her sister laughed. "We're both dreaming! I hoped it would work! Listen!" In the new silence Eleanor faintly heard a ticking metronome. "I wanted to try a science experiment of my own, so I put together a metronome and made a tape before I left. I've always been easy to hypnotize." Eleanor nodded, remembering how Betsy had used self-hypnosis to break her smoking habit back in high school when she realized it would keep her out of the space program. "So I hoped if I hypnotized myself I might be able to reach you through dreams. Twins are traditionally supposed to be able to do this stuff, after all - why not? I had no idea you were learning lucid dreaming, but it probably helped."
Her devilish look became wistful. "I sure miss you, sister. I know it's a dumb clichˇ, but it's BIG out here, and we're an awful long way from home."
Eleanor's throat felt thick, and she caught her sister in a one armed hug with the glowing Buddha between them. "I love you too, Beck. Don't you get lost in all that space and forget to come home, ok? I'd have to come get you, and Mom and Dad would never let you live it down. That team's the best, and you're all coming home."
"Just as soon as we can," Becky agreed. "But it's a hell of a lot less lonely now, if we can share dreams. I have to go, but I'll try again tomorrow night. Love you, little sis! Sweet dreams!" She squeezed Eleanor once more and stepped back, fading into the storm.
"You're not even five minutes older than me, it hardly counts." Eleanor bit her lip against tears as the Buddha dimmed and cooled, and the snow drifted away into the dawn, and a golden beach in Bermuda.
Winner: The Sound of Silence Challenge, June 2007
By: N.J. Kailhofer
Mary put her book down on the desk just as the clock flashed 6:15.
Darn it, she thought. I should have closed up over an hour ago.
She sighed. If only someone would have come in this week besides the crazy guy in the lizard suit. What's the point of being a librarian if no one wants a book to read?
She was about to curse the day the town council voted to build the new library so far out of town--way out next to the Cranberry Point Lighthouse--when the door opened and a monster walked in.
It was Larry the Lizard, the guy in the suit. Mary didn't know his real name, but that was what she called him. The head of his suit looked just like the head of a reptile, but with all-white eyes. Its skin was a greenish-gray. Over it, he wore a camouflage coverall, overburdened with pockets, pouches, and overlapping belts, each of which was covered with strange, bulbous or wickedly sharp-looking objects. Thick forearms extended from the sleeves, leading down to six fingers with long claws. Bare feet stuck out below his pants, and also had six claws.
She couldn't guess where he would have bought it in this area of the state, but figured he must have paid a lot for the suit, because it pretty good special effects, almost like you would see in a movie.
She said, "We're closed."
Larry looked at her, but as far as she could tell, he didn't say anything, and hadn't since he first appeared on Monday.
"Sir, you have to leave now."
Larry's blank eyes stared at her.
She put her hands on her hips. "Sir, I can't hear you, so if you are saying something, you'll have to take your mask off."
Larry leaned his head to one side, but just looked at her.
Just to reassure herself, Mary felt the side of her neck when she repeated herself. For a moment, she wondered just how long a 911 call would take to make on the TTY phone.
Larry punched his arm toward her.
She jumped back, startled.
He raised his meaty claws up over his head and down behind him. He pulled a large tube on a strap from the equipment on his back. It looked to Mary like a knobby, gold-colored drainpipe with random holes drilled along its three-foot length. He clamped his mouth hard around one end of it.
Mary gasped. When Larry's mouth opened, it opened more than a foot wide, and was filled with rows upon rows of shark-like teeth, all the way back to his throat, across both the top and the bottom halves. He puffed out his chest and face until he was three times larger than he had been--like a frog when it croaked.
Mary didn't think Larry was wearing a costume.
His fingers danced over the holes. The window nearest to the pipe shattered. She could feel vibrations in the desktop and even through the floor.
When he finished, Larry took the instrument out of his mouth and watched her again.
She didn't know what to do.
Her index finger slashed across her open palm, a sign for "What?"
Larry took a step backward, as if afraid. Then he laid his hands flat in front of him, palms up, and brought them together at the edge.
Book? Mary thought at a hundred miles per hour. Dear God in Heaven, what are the odds? Aliens just landed on Earth, and they want a book. I don't think there's another librarian in the whole county who knows sign language.
She put her hands into fists in front of her chest, then stuck up both thumbs.
She alternated her hands, raising them up and down, to ask which book he wanted.
Larry stuck out the first two fingers on each hand, spread them apart, and then bent the long claws at the tips in toward his chest slightly. He brought his hands toward the center of his chest.
Mary grinned, and ran toward the stacks. At a particular shelf, she grabbed one by the best-known author and then brought it back to the alien.
Larry turned his head sideways and looked at it. He opened the lid and clumsily fanned through the pages.
He spun and charged through the main doors.
Mary beamed as she watched him disappear into the winter night. She had no idea what he wanted with a book on physics. Maybe he wanted to gauge how far humans had progressed. Maybe his spaceship was broken and he needed help. In either case, she was glad to give him the only book in the whole library by Stephen Hawking.
It made her proud to be a librarian.
Report on Species 6190:
Contact made at knowledge beacon 105, grid 43. Subject did not flee at any of the five required visits, and did not hide upon playing of standard challenge on fluge horn. It indicated that if played again, the playing hand would be chopped off. When given sign for forbidden contact, subject threatened to rip out my internal organs. I responded that I would protect them, and then subject shoved a tome of native symbols at me, exactly like the zealots of Mori IX do, species 392. Translation matrix indicated manuscript used advanced mathematics at level four, but flawed worldview. These animals do not even believe in the Great Zimx!
Given that, pursuant to treaty clause 13926j.z, they would not qualify under protected status. However, given their extreme aggressiveness, caution should be taken when we hunt them tomorrow.
They look tasty.
Co-Winner: The Surprise Challenge, July 2007
By: Jamie L. Elliott
The industrial wasteland opens before him, barren, burnt, and battle-scarred, a blight long before the wars, nowadays lifeless instead of just soulless, with empty factories and dead machines littering the deteriorating asphalt. A hot gust of sulfuric wind ruffles his red hair and wretched clothes. The dying light bleeds the sky crimson. He skulks in shadows today, perhaps his last, as he waits for night and skirts the mechanized death dealers hovering above. They loom close.
Freedom is not meant for him.
He slumps against a broken wall. His fingers clutch a tattered backpack, the straps missing. He ponders giving up. Death is almost preferable to this. His child face belies the scars beneath. He wants to cry but no tears come.
Standing, he scans the horizon. There is hope beyond the sunset, the red orb matching his flaming hair, even as it runs from him as he pauses. He is young but he possesses the patience of a lifetime. He needs to linger but a bit longer.
Fate abandons him. He feels the hum before he hears it. He rushes out from hiding as they converge, black things, mechanical, towering things, swooping down upon him like ravens upon a corpse. They are faceless ogres, their arms fitted with guns, the bodies vaguely humanoid. He runs headlong, his fear carrying him. His legs move fast, but the bullets fly faster.
He lies on the ground, his fingers still intertwined in his backpack. The light dies within the day and then, within his eyes.
In the last of twilight, they stand around the body, their humming, hulking forms alighting upon the ground. They scan the immediate area, their guns ever vigilant. Finally, one grasps its own head, a hand at each side, and with a twist and a hiss, pulls upward.
The act reveals a man's face. His lips turn upward in a smile. "Quick little bugger!" he says with a laugh.
One by one, the other ogres remove their helmets. They exchange jokes and congratulations. Below them, the circuits and pieces of their quarry lie strew upon the concrete. Its face is of a boy, its eyes locked forever in fear.
"Call dispatch for clean-up," says one of the soldiers. "One less automaton for humanity to worry about."
Another, a man with probing dark brown eyes, kneels down and examines the torn backpack. "I don't think this one was a combat unit."
"Well, I know what it is now," says a nameless soldier. "Spare parts."
All laugh except for the man with dark brown eyes. As they depart, he stays behind for a moment longer as darkness covers the land. With his armored hand, he pours out the contents of the backpack. He gazes upon the stuffed rabbit, the sketchbook filled with crude drawings of things seen and hopes imagined. He sees the worn copy of Pinocchio. He shuts his eyes and whispers, "Why would anything ever aspire to be one of us?"
He quells the emotion bubbling within him. Rising, he remembers his duty. He is a soldier. He is a soldier. He is a soldier. He places his helmet back on.
He rises into the air, his black armor melding into the night.
Co-Winner: The Surprise Challenge, July 2007
By: David Alan Jones
Bob slid the blue plastic stepstool next to the shelf, mounted it, and then spent a few moments rummaging through various papers, gadgets and other bric-a-brac until he found the universal remote.
"Stupid house," he muttered as he climbed down. He keyed the apartment AI - the SENTRY 7 - and waited for it to first check remote protocols and then beep to acknowledge his request.
"Computer," said Bob, "I'd like to dictate a letter."
"Proceed," said the gender-neutral voice.
Bob sighed and paced slowly from the sofa to the kitchen and back, absently holding the remote behind his back.
At length he began like this: "I address these words - my story - to whatever human being finds it. There may be no humans left by then, considering the state of this world in my day, but I hold out hope - I gamble on my faith by placing this recorded message in a sealed time capsule, which shall emerge from the earth one hundred years from now. May its words ring true."
Bob stared at the ceiling, lips pursed. Then he said, "My grandfather was president when the aliens arrived. They came in their seed ship, almost fifty thousand of them, across an astounding vastness, to beg for aid and a place to live.
"At that time we had hardly left the planet: a couple of missions to the moon, some unmanned vehicles sent out to explore our lifeless solar neighbors, but nothing so grandiose as crossing the depths of space. Grandfather was too frightened to do anything but welcome them. He and his peers gave them land and taught them how to coax it to crop.
"The aliens were vagabonds - homeless creatures thousands of light-years from their original star. We took pity when perhaps we should have taken pains."
Bob played the recording back. He was no writer and certainly no orator, but he thought it sounded good for all its faults - a nice beginning to a bad end.
"Even grandfather knew they wouldn't stay in their place - they birthed too quickly, much faster than our people. Of course that wasn't their fault. It was their nature. Do we blame the deer for her fawn? Do we worry the fox for her kit? No. And yet . . . and yet we cull them, don't we? We suppress their numbers for fear of famine. But neither my grandfather's nor father's generation would dare shepherd an intelligent species. They weren't cattle - not property.
Grandfather knew the aliens would one day join our society, live in our cities, take part in our schools. Like a fuse once lit that cannot be snuffed, it was destiny.
"Computer, I want a brandy," said Bob. "But only a small glass, mind you."
A glass of golden brown liquid appeared in the dispenser on the counter. Bob stood on a chair to reach it.
"They were so big," he said, after taking a few sips. "Computer, are you recording this? I'm still making the letter."
"Yes, I am recording."
"So big." He finished the drink and placed the glass and remote on the sofa. "I've seen videos of the first encounter: they trudged down that gangway from their enormous ship like giant beasts, with their strange clothes and swarthy faces. Hardy, that's what they were. Bearded and. . . well, good God, they were hairy - all over hairy. And yet they were kind in their way.
"Within two decades they were driving taxis and running restaurants and taking citizenship. Could we deny them? That would have been the worst form of bigotry!
"Our children adored them -- worshiped their prowess on the field of sport where we could not compete. They made raps about them. After all these hundreds of years you can still hear 'Coming on Large' on the radio. It was their anthem during those first two decades of assimilation."
Bob stood by the window. The teeming city below smoked and fumed with industry and grime.
"At first it was just their graffiti - just a few of their foreign words creeping into our language, our mannerisms, our culture. But it wasn't long before we didn't recognize our own world. Doorways were larger, hell, buildings were giant, our language became pidgin, we elected one mayor in the capitol.
They out birthed us seven to one. In just a few generations we were speaking more their tongue than our own. For Pete's sake, my own name is a testament to their influence! Robert Thelsis Morghaz. My grandfather wouldn't have had such a name!"
Bob started to slam his palm against the glass, thought better, and pressed it over his face instead.
It took a moment, but once he was certain his voice wouldn't quaver, he said, "They took everything from us without raising one weapon, without making one threat."
The door chime rang.
"Cassandra Blair at the door," said the computer.
Bob stood before the large portal and it slipped quietly open.
"Just checking on you, dear," said the red-headed warden.
"I'm well," said Bob, his face stony, though he could tell his antennae were drooping - a sure sign of his foul mood.
Cassandra sighed. "Bob, you are not under arrest, you know that. We gave you this apartment for your protection. You're one of the last of your species. Humankind isn't about to let our greatest benefactors die out. We are doing everything we can to save your people."
"Well, if you need anything, you just tell the computer and I'll come running."
The door slid shut.
"Computer, I will close the letter this way: I seal this message with a stiff warning to any human who might find it in the future. Beware any guests that wish to share this, your adopted home. They may not be so kind as you humans were to my people.
Co-Winner: The Great Character Challenge, August 2007
By: Robert Moriyama
What do you call a man with no arms, no legs, floating in a pond?
The old joke ran through Jerry's head as he sank towards the bottom of Grenadier Pond, dragged down by the weight of his prosthetic limbs. He had arms and legs, but they were toddler-sized, too small for his body. Unfortunately, the prosthetic limb extensions that allowed him to function almost normally floated about as well as anvils.
Gotta get these damn things off...
Finally, he managed to trigger the releases on his legs and backed out of them by pushing against the bottom of the pond. His short, stubby lower limbs and torso floated upward, leaving him anchored upside down by the weight of his arm waldoes. A hard yank on a lever in each forearm released the straps and sensor pads, and then he was floating freely.
Enough light filtered down through the murky water to allow him to orient himself, and he began to paddle his way back to the surface. He'd been submerged for almost two minutes, but he was only now beginning to feel the panicky impulse to inhale that could kill a drowning man.
His head broke the surface and he took a huge, gasping breath, gagging as the fishy-smelling greenish water trickled from his hair into his mouth. Irony, thy name is Jerry, he thought. In utero gene therapy had corrected a fatal kidney disorder -- and stunted his limbs. Stunted limbs required artificial limb extensions that made it impossible for him to swim -- but let him stay submerged long enough to --
Had it been long enough?
Jerry turned slowly, trying to make as little noise as possible. Smith's goons were nowhere in sight. He relaxed and began swimming toward the muddy bank of the last "natural" body of water in the city, where his would-be assassins had left his clothes and the forged suicide note.
"Whoa, dude! You picked a hell of a place to go skinny... dipping..."
Jerry froze, but decided that the the gangly, pimple-faced teenager who had been caught in the act of checking Jerry's clothes for easily-pilfered valuables looked harmless enough, in spite of the aluminum cane in one hand. He waddled toward his clothes.
The kid stared unabashedly, transfixed by the sight of a naked man with a normal head and torso -- and arms and legs better suited to a toddler. From the way he leaned on the cane, Jerry guessed that he was a misfit, too -- just not in Jerry's league.
"These clothes can't be yours," the teenager blurted. "They're --"
"Normal?" Jerry asked. "They fit okay before I took my arms and legs off."
The boys eyes widened even more.
"Prosthetics," Jerry said. "Like bionic stilts, except the arms have hands that work pretty much like real ones." Sighing, Jerry rummaged through his clothes until he found his wallet. He dug out his driver's license (with the add-on card needed to make room for all the restrictions) and showed the picture to his uninvited guest.
"Geez -- they let you drive?"
Jerry suppressed the urge to scream. "Yes. They let me drive, sometimes, with the prosthetics on."
"Where are they? You said you took them off."
"At the bottom of the pond," Jerry said. "I had to take them off or I would have drowned."
The boy nodded, then asked, "Why'd you go in the water with them on, then?"
This time, Jerry did scream. "They threw me in, you moron! They wanted me to drown, to make it look like suicide!"
The boy's face crumpled, and Jerry hoped that he wasn't going to cry. Jerry had never cried (in public) in all the years he had spent coping with being a freak, a cripple... a penguin boy. 'Penguin boy' was the one nickname he actually hadn't minded -- much -- after he had seen real penguins streaking through the water like stubby torpedoes...
"Look, I'm sorry," Jerry said. "There was no way you could have known. But I'm worth a lot of money. My parents sued the clinic that made me like this, and won, big time. Some people figured out a way they could get control of that money -- if I wasn't around."
"So they tried to kill you, and make it look like suicide? Dude, that sucks the big banana."
Jerry nodded. Then he said, "Do you have a job?"
The kid shook his head. "Just finished my mandatory school time. No job, no money for college... And a bum -- leg..." The kid blushed as he compared his 'challenge' to Jerry's.
"Wanna be my driver and personal assistant? I need someone to help me into these damn clothes -- you'll have to cut off the sleeves and pantlegs somehow -- and drive me to the nearest police station."
The kid looked at Jerry with a mixture of elation and suspicion. "What's it pay?"
Jerry laughed. "Enough. I'll pay your tuition and arrange your schedule so you can take whatever courses you want."
The kid frowned, then said, "I want that in writing. Now, how short do the sleeves have to be?"
Jerry held his arms straight out from his body. "About like so," he said. "By the way, what's your name?"
"Andy." The boy pulled a cheap Swiss Army knife clone from his pocket and began to saw away at Jerry's clothes. "Andy Morgan."
"Andy, there's a signing bonus in it for you if you have a candy bar or some gum on you," Jerry said. "I have to get this pond-scum taste out of my mouth before I puke."
Andy grinned. "Slightly-crushed granola bar, fifty credits."
Jerry feigned outrage, then said, "Deal. You can pull the creds from my wallet while I get dressed."
He just hoped that Andy would be up to the task of helping him to dodge any further attempts at assisted (and resisted) suicide. Maybe they could rig Andy's cane with a taser...
Co-Winner: The Great Character Challenge, August 2007
By: David Alan Jones
Dr. Bernard Willison's three o'clock shuffled into the office. He was a large, powerfully built man who contrived to seem smaller by hunching his shoulders.
He limped along on a shabby cane and moved like an ungainly child in overlarge shoes.
"So good to meet you, Dr. Willison, I'm Hector Diaz," said the big man, pumping Willison's hand vigorously.
"The pleasure is mine. Won't you have a seat, Mr. Diaz?" said the doctor, sighing inwardly. This one probably still lived with his mother.
Diaz glanced at the closed office door behind him. He made no move to sit.
"Are you expecting someone, Mr. Diaz?"
Diaz turned back to the psychiatrist, and all at once seemed to be standing at his full height, chest out, stomach in, dark hair crowning his head like a black halo.
"Let's get some things out of the way shall we?" said Diaz in voice full of command.
"What things?" asked Dr. Willison, feeling suddenly uneasy. In fifteen years dealing with the psychologically injured, underdeveloped, and even maimed, Dr. Willison had never felt so instantly threatened. There was something powerful about this man.
"I'm Spectacle," said Diaz.
"As in the superhero? That Spectacle?"
"You don't believe me and I don't blame you."
We had a teenage Jesus Christ in here last week, Dr. Willison almost said, but elected to hold his tongue. Instead he said, "I've heard hundreds of stories. And I want to hear yours."
"Lucky for both of us, I can prove it."
Diaz lifted Willison's coffee table -- thirty-five hundred dollars and imported from Spain -- by an exposed edge. With no apparent effort, he held it at head height with one hand. Not one magazine moved.
"Wow." It was all Dr. Willison could think to say. Of course, he had seen exceptionally strong, psychotic patients before. . .
Diaz replaced the coffee table. He smiled and began to rise towards the twelve-foot ceiling. "The fan's a bit dusty," he said from above.
"I'll - I'll have the service clean it."
Diaz landed next to Willison. Red beams of light issued from his eyes, setting the doctor's apple - Willison's lunch - aflame. Then frigid air poured from his lips to freeze it in place. The scent of roasted apples filled the office.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Spectacle?"
"First, keep my secret."
"I'll never tell."
"Second, help me destroy my nemesis."
"I'll try to explain this in a breath."
Willison retrieved a pen and legal pad from his huge desk. "I'm listening," he said.
"Okay, remember when you were a kid, there's a point where you decide what you will become?"
"A fulcrum point."
"Yeah, so, for a kid who can fly and lift a tractor, well, that point generally involves choosing to be either a superhero or a villain. You smile, but it's true. True as life."
"You chose hero."
"I never chose. I couldn't."
"And I take it your non-choice somehow has brought you here?"
"I became Spectacle in college, but I also became El Catceps."
"Should I know that name?"
"Probably not. He was always a petty criminal - I never used my powers as El Catceps. He was a joy thief. He never hurt anyone - not really. He stole and he cheated and he lied. He was my outlet."
"A few months back I started losing track of time."
"I think so. And I think he has discovered our super powers."
"Why do you think that?"
"He's a petty hood, but with super powers he can steal a lot of petty crap. My apartment is filled with jet skis and skateboards and Spectacle comics."
"Mr. Diaz, what you're describing is serious mental illness. I may not be the best --"
"You're all I've got, sir. All I've got. Please help me stop him."
"There's no quick fix. You can't just rip your alter ego out of your body and choke him to death."
"Then what can I do?"
Something niggled at the back of Dr. Willison's brain. What had Diaz said about the junk El Catceps stole?
"Did you say El Catceps took Spectacle comics?"
"Oh yes. He's always covering our bedroom with posters and 3-D lithographs. It's embarrassing really."
"He's a fan," said Willison in a whisper, more to himself than to Diaz.
"Yeah, I guess you could say that."
"Bring him here. Now."
"I don't know, Doctor. He might be dangerous. I can't control him."
Diaz cocked his head to the side, his eyes narrowed and his posture relaxed.
"Who're you?" he said in a thick Spanish accent.
"What'choo want?" said El Catceps, lifting his chin.
"To introduce you to someone."
Diaz's eyes grew wide. He looked around the room. "No one here, but us, Doc."
"Spectacle, I know you're there. Come out and meet your biggest fan."
Diaz stood taller and his body seemed to expand.
"Did you defeat El Catceps?" he asked in a deep, manly voice.
"Better. El Catceps, meet Spectacle."
For a moment Diaz stood still, his eyes glazed. Then he drew breath and El Catceps said, "Madre de Dios, it IS you!"
"El Catceps," said the voice of Spectacle.
"Si how you know my name? You're famous. I read all your comics."
"We need to talk, El Catceps. And we better bring Hector along too."
"I'm here," said the ineffectual voice of Hector Diaz.
"Does that window open?" asked Spectacle.
"Oh, ah, yes, yes it does," said Willison.
Diaz opened it, tossed his cane aside, and then turned to look at the doctor.
"Thanks, gracias, your help is much appreciated," said the thief-cum-everyday-joe-cum-superhero in each of his ego voices. "I'll make certain you're bill gets paid."
"Thanks," said Willison, shocked out of his wits.
The tri-souled hero flew up and away.
Winner: The "Finish What You've Started" Challenge, September 2007
By: Jamie L. Elliott
Osk did not compare himself to other mages, with their pretentious intonations and melodramatic finger twitches.
No, he did not compare. And could not, in reality. He had found it difficult to excel when there existed a hundred other aspiring wannabes, each with the vague hope that one day they too would be archmages, sporting their own white beards and pointy hats as they discussed inane theories in hazy dens and musty libraries.
Instead, Osk found it worthwhile to evaluate himself against the common peasant, for which the comparison favored him for once, albeit only slightly.
To them, his smattering of arcane learning made him seem like fucking Merlin.
Let the other aspirants struggle in the cities and courts. Let them stab each other in the back and throw former allies under the proverbial cart. He found his niche as a simple hedge wizard, where he flowered as Someone Important.
Life was good. What he lacked in money he made up for in potatoes and other root vegetables.
Osk sat before his new table, his hand gliding over the smooth, warm wood. Sometimes he accepted payment other than coin for his services, and this particular item he considered his grand prize. He had a particular dislike of the cold stone benches the students were forced to use. They seem to suck the warmth, like some insatiable succubus. He almost cried in happiness at his upgrade in furniture.
He sighed. He did have to work, from time to time. He cracked his knuckles.
Pulling a clean sheet of cheap parchment from a stack, he focused on the spell he reasoned would drive out vermin from someone's abode.
Well, it worked on the cat.
The trick to writing spells lies not with the ink, but with the etching, pressing down hard enough to imprint. The ink only guided, making the indentations easier to see. In nature, arcane symbols abounded by accident, found with the chaos of tree bark or the weathered fissures on rocks. It made the world a magical place. Osk, though, preferred to create his own magic in his majestic hut. Silly, chaotic nature.
His writing covered a quarter of the page when a blast of late autumn wind came in through the window, causing the papers to swirl around the room. He shivered and cursed. He hated wearing robes yet everyone expected it, even the peasants. One could, if defending his masculinity, argue a robe quite different from a dress. That brought little comfort to Osk who felt the breeze in certain places he would rather not.
He marched over and shuttered the window. Still grumbling, he began gathering the sheets of paper littering the floor.
Something behind him squeaked.
Spinning around, he saw only the table, chair, cot, and fireplace in the small room. Shaking his head, he returned to his task.
Another squeak, this time louder.
Osk turned again, his eyes narrowing on the table. He grabbed the broom and crept over. He squatted down to peer underneath.
The table rattled, startling him. He fell on his ass and gaped at his beloved furniture.
The table shuddered again, twisting, its legs spastic and alive. Then, to his amazement, it began to walk. It took a couple tentative steps toward Osk and, with the grace of a dancer, delivered a nasty kick to his forehead.
The mage tumbled backward, head over heels. He found himself with his feet high against the wall, the weight of his body resting on his neck and shoulder. As blood poured out of his wound into his right eye, he pondered his situation for a moment before gravity toppled his body over in an unceremonious thump onto the dirt floor.
He staggered to his feet just as the table charged again. He ducked sideways and received a glancing blow to his ribs. He sucked his breath from the sharp pain. He backed away until he found himself in the corner. Between him and any egress stood the table, bucking and quaking, shattering what few possessions he had.
Osk did not understand. Had some rival mage bewitched his table? Had some jealous other discovered his formula for happiness?
Then he saw something glowing on top of the table: arcane glyphs. Right where the page had rested.
Oh. So that is why they used expensive, heavy vellum on hard, stone tables. It all made sense now.
His short-lived enlightenment evaporated, replaced by terror. The table lurched forward. It reared on two back legs like a horse, its front legs pawing at the air. He saw its back legs tense, readying for a final leap.
Osk grasped a wooden spoon lying nearby. With trembling hands, he brandished it like a katana and waited for table's charge.
The door crashed open. In a blur, thunderous blows from axes rained down upon the table. In the mayhem, Osk dimly recognized a couple of the local woodcutters, their faces grimy and determined.
In the shower of splinters and woodchips, a sadness filled Osk. His table, his creation, shuddered one last time.
He dropped the spoon.
Winner: The "There Are Things That Go Bump in the Night" Challenge, October 2007
By: Mark Edgemon
Edley Barrows was born into this world on February 8, 1968 to middle income parents and lived a normal life for the most part, or at least as far as everyone could see. He was a loner, who often would sit in darkness and only went out into the real world when he absolutely had to. But it was his first encounter with the blood of innocence that christened his departure from society and transformed him into the monstrous servant of evil that he would become.
As he was driving home from work one day he passed by an injured dog, wounded and bleeding by the side of the road. He quickly got out of his car and hovered over the dog witnessing for himself the pain that was in his eyes. He pulled out his pocketknife as he placed his hand over the dog's mouth. Then without an ounce of humanity, he slit the dog's stomach open, while he watched the terror in the dog's eyes. The dog's eyes grew wide with immense pain, while Edley absorbed the torment of this innocent soul now slipping into darkness.
He stood up, wiping the blood from the blade onto the dog's fur and went home leaving the dog in agony.
There was no remorse. No horror over what he had done, only an interest now in the killing of innocence.
Within a few months, he began to watch elementary schools, waiting for a chance to kidnap an innocent child, so he could watch their agony as his knife anguished them.
One day, he saw an eight-year-old boy walking home by the side of the road. Edley drove slowly behind him until there was no sign of traffic. He then drove up to the boy and without a word spoken, opened his car door and pulled the boy inside, holding his face down hard against the seat as he drove off.
What happened after that was unbelievably horrid. The monster sliced off layers of the boy's skin, so he could watch the excruciating pain in his young face, while all the time feeding his need to see innocence afflicted.
He buried the boy's remains in the woods behind his apartment and immediately began looking for another victim at an elementary school on the far side of town.
It wasn't long before he eyed a young girl of six, who was walking out of the school building, her blonde hair blowing in her face by the heavy winds that had recently started to kick up. When Edley saw her, he knew she was the one, no matter what the risk. He drove up beside her, got out of his car and scooped her up into his arms. About that time, her teacher walked out of the school and seeing the little girl with him, waved and said, "Good afternoon Mr. Blasley".
She had mistaken the man holding the girl for her father. He waved back, got into his car with the little girl and drove off.
He went straight home and took the little girl to his backyard. There he tied her little hands behind her back while she was crying and then picked her up and placed her into a coffin that he had built for this occasion. The girl's screams were muffled as the coffin was lowered into the ground. He quickly covered the grave with dirt until the ground was level and then ran into his basement, turning on his surveillance monitors.
He had planted two small cameras and a light inside the coffin, so he could watch her suffocate. He zoomed in on the little girl's eyes, but the video was slightly blurred. The death of the girl took less than three minutes. He felt nothing afterwards, except for the feeling that he didn't get his moneys worth.
He went back to the grave and dug up the coffin, so he could retrieve his cameras and the light in case he might want to use them again.
Searches for the two missing children were on the news and a police sketch with a fairly good likeness of Edley was being shown on every newscast.
He packed his belongings and moved into a motel room about fifty miles out of town. The next day he was on the hunt once again for his next victim. He was obsessed now and careless.
Within a few days he drove past a vacant lot that was being used for a game of touch football by a group of boys who were already out of school for the day. He watched them play for about an hour, but couldn't figure out how to kidnap one of the boys without being noticed. With his obsession getting the best of him, he started his car and drove onto the lot heading directly for the group of boys. He stopped, ran over to the first boy he came to and pushed him into his car. The boy offered no resistance.
He drove for several miles until he found a junkyard filled with abandoned cars. He parked his car behind some rusted out vehicles, then fumbled while trying to pull out his pocketknife, which he dropped onto the seat.
As he removed the boy's football helmet, he felt a searing pain in his stomach. He looked down to find the knife sticking out of him. The boy had rammed Edley's own knife into his stomach.
He looked at the boy's face only to find that the boy was leaning forward looking into his face as he suffered in agonizing pain. Unlike him, the boy did feel something as he watched the life drain from Edley Barrows. The boy was excited, because he believed he had found his purpose in life. He felt alive.
Winner: The Sequels Only Challenge, November 2007
by G.C. Dillon
Sequel to The Lost Days
I came in that afternoon with some low mein Chinese take-out and a few textbooks for tomorrow morning's classes. I planned to catch up on my reading during the slow time. You meet a lot of people behind the bar. I could clichˇ it up with the happy drunks, the sad ones crying in their brew, or the tough punks whose testosterone level matches their breathalyser score. There were amateurs and there were professionals. Mr. Megrim was a pro.
Smiling, he walked into the bar. Mr. Megrim was somewhere between sixty and dead. Longish white hair covered his aged head, and a close cropped beard graced his face. Crisp blue eyes stared out at you. A glib tongue spoke most of his words. He was not a big man, maybe even slightly under the average.
"I'll take a pint, my good man." The old man wagged a finger at me. "And none of that steamed out malt beverage you pour me ofttimes. I quaffed my quota in '28."
I should explain that last comment. You see, Mr. Megrim lived in the retirement home around the block. It had been converted from the old Hummel Hotel in the city, a local landmark. Mr. Megrim would leave the establishment sometimes signing out and sometimes not through an unlocked door. He had a knack for finding them. My boss set a policy to give him a non-alcoholic beer, then check to see if he was AWOL. Only if he was legit, could we get him a real beer. I poured him a Kaliber instead of an O'Doul's into a clean wide-mouthed glass mug, hoping the more hoppy taste would fool him.
"Two bits, four bits, pieces of eight." He spread out a varied collection of coins onto the bar top. I picked out a Thomas Jefferson dollar. And a few other presidents. I did not recognize a lot of the money. Must be some far-fling foreign places they came from. Many were not even round, just a rough blunt edged sorta-circle. "I'm as legal as a two dollar bill," he said. "Or is that three? There was a three dollar coin if memory serves me correct." He slammed his fist upon the bar. "And a three cent piece, by gum."
I had to serve a business-suited man with a narrow tie a gin and tonic. When I came back, Mr. Megrim had untwisted the cap from the salt shaker we keep to sprinkle on the pub grub at Happy Hour. He had the salt spread all over the counter. Oh well, I've had to clean up worse! He was dredging his finger in the pile, shifting the white powder into swirls and curlicues.
"What'a doing Mr. Megrim?"
"These were the signs of the road on the Lincoln Highway. No, on the rails. This was the sign for a 'Nice Woman' - she'd give you food - and this was a 'mean man'. Skip that house."
"That one looks like the crossed-out 'P' Fr. Kawiecki wears on his Sunday getup."
"Vestments," the old man corrected.
\ |) / | / | \ "The Chi Ro. The first two letters in the Greek word for Christ. And this one...." He started with a large five-pointed star and then made lines that must have been taught only in a non-Euclidean geometry class.
"Cannot draw that one!" Mr. Megrim cried, and wiped the symbol away with his palm.
"Always make friends with the Snake. He ran the rail switches; he was a family man. You just avoided the Bulls."
One ear was trained on Mr. Megrim, but I heard a commotion at the other end of the bar, by the front door and the register. It was the one thing I feared more than a bar-fight. A robbery was going on. Two men stood, guns in hands, wearing hockey jerseys: N.Y. Rangers and Carolina Hurricane. Good move. Just dump the big garments and no one could identify the rest of your clothes.
Mr. Megrim patted down his pants pockets. "Missing. Not here. Lost." He grabbed my arm. "Have you a length of wood? A pencil, perhaps."
"Mister, calm down. You don't want to upset these guys," I chastised him. "Pencil? No, only a pen."
"No, it must be wood grown in the Earth's green soil." He looked about, then his sharp eyes settled on my lunch in its white carton. "Your chopsticks! Give them to me," he commanded.
I handed him the utensils. He stood up immediately and turned to face the robbers. I tried to stop him, to settle him down, to give him a brief time-out on his barstool. The gunmen swung about, raising their automatics.
"I am no fey changeling to fear iron or its stepson steel. Your bullets are hoary even to Atlas." The old man muttered. He rubbed one chopstick along the rim of the glass.
I can only say my eyes lied because what I saw could not have happened. The beer mug seemed to grow out like a Rudy Valley megaphone. Waves of glass spun out before Megrim. The robbers fired. Their .38 slugs flew through the air. The bullets spun into the glass funnel. The bullets slowed so anyone could see. The lead slugs stopped dead in the air, hung in the glass trapped. Then they dropped to the ground loudly.
"I am the snarling wolf in the night. I am the bad shadows in the dark. I am the grey wizard in the moonlight. Dare you stand before me?"
The gunmen stood there, their guns smoking a wispy white fog. They turned their heads to each other. Then they fled through the front door.
"Now a drink, my good fellow," Mr. Megrim said, reclaiming his seat in the manner I imagine Lancelot sat at the Round Table.
I poured him a Guinness.
Winner: The Holiday Spirit Challenge, December 2007
By: David Alan Jones
Ronny reached for another ornament, one of the dark green ones with the glittery white stars in the center, but it darted away before he could lay a finger on it. It rose level with his head, then began spiraling about him like a tiny planetoid. Two more joined it.
"Tammy, quit orbiting me!" yelled Ronny. He made a grab for one of the decorations, but it danced away from his hand.
"I'm not orbiting you, the ornaments are," said Tammy, Ronny's sister. At ten, she was two years older than Ronny and forever teasing him.
Mom poked her head out the kitchen.
"Tammy, stop orbiting your brother and get that tree finished. Your father's almost home."
Tammy smiled evilly and sent all three ornaments to hook themselves on the Christmas tree before Ronny could react.
"That's not fair," said Ronny.
"Whatever," said Tammy, suddenly bored with the whole thing.
Mom exited the kitchen, crossed the dinning room where the decorated tree stood -- "Good job," she said as she passed -- and opened the front door just as Dad surmounted the porch steps. His arms were laden with festively wrapped Christmas presents.
"'Bout time," said Mom, smiling.
Dad, face nearly obscured behind the gifts, said, "Well, it takes time to drive all the way to the North Pole and back."
"You didn't go to the North Pole," said Ronny.
"Oh, yeah? Then where'd I go, sport?" said Dad. He always called him sport when he felt Ronny trying to read his thoughts.
"I don't know," said Ronny truthfully. Dad was the only person Ronny had ever met whose mind was closed to him.
"So, Santa gave them to me," said Dad.
"I don't believe in Santa."
"Maybe you should."
"Ronny Wilson, you know it's impolite to read people's minds like that," said Mom.
"Well, you don't," said Ronny. "Neither does Mrs. Combinesta across the street or Mr. Brewster, or --"
"Some folks know the truth and some don't, that's all," said Dad, straightening up from arranging gifts under the tree. "Maybe they don't believe because they're not gifted like us."
"I don't believe in Santa because I'm gifted," said Ronny. "Grownups don't believe in him, so neither do I."
"Santa doesn't want too many adults knowing about him. He'd never get anything done that way," said Dad. He grew solemn and said, "Look, would you believe in Santa if you met him?"
"Yeah, but --"
"Alright, then," said Dad, as he fished his car keys from a pocket. "I'll be back in a bit."
With that, he left.
Mom was as perplexed by Dad's sudden exit as Ronny. Usually he could rely on her thoughts to clear up confusion - adults tended to know what was happening even when they wouldn't say it aloud - but not this time.
They made caramel apples to pass the time. While they waited Ronny tried, for the millionth time, to glean the nature of Dad's abilities from Mom's mind, but it was no use. She didn't know.
Even to an eight-year-old that seemed odd. How could they have been married twelve years and she still didn't know his gifts? Was his power simply keeping his mind locked away from his own son? Ronny thought that a singularly horrible ability.
They had cut the apple pie and were just sitting down to enjoy a few bites when Mom said, "Your father will be here in a moment. And Tammy, when you're sixteen you're going to date a boy named. . . Bradley. Don't go parking with him, you'll regret it."
The front door opened. Dad came in followed by a man dressed as Santa Claus.
He wore the entire suit, even the boots, belt and cap. His long, silvery hair might have been a wig, but it was a good one.
"Guess who followed me home," said Dad.
Ronny said nothing, but delved immediately into the man's mind. "Who is this?" he asked his voice incredulous.
The fat man's head was full of strange thoughts and even stranger memories. They were unlike anything Ronny had ever experienced. They felt . . . greasy, it was the only word for it. Reading them was like trying to hold one of those rubber snakes that shoots out of your hand whenever you squeeze it.
The thoughts came in flashes: an urge to take a second look at his lists of naughty and nice, Mom's apple pie smelled tasty, his current coal distributor had raised prices and he needed to find a new supplier.
Below these surface thoughts lived myriad memories: cavorting reindeer, little men in curly shoes and bright clothes, a matronly Mrs. Claus kissing Santa's frost bitten cheek after a long Christmas night, a beloved arctic desert that meant home.
"It's nice to meet you all," said Santa in a grandfatherly voice. "Is this the boy who doesn't believe in me?"
"Yep, that's my boy," said Dad, smiling.
Santa stuck out his hand. Ronny shook it, feeling dazed.
Twenty years later:
The phone rang and Ron heard Dad pick up on the other end.
"Hey, Ronny, Mom said you'd be calling."
"She tell you why?"
"Yep. You need me to do the Santa trick for the kids?"
"Yeah, Carl says he doesn't believe."
"Give me an hour, I'll swing by the mall. You got a few dollars? I hate blanking a man's memory without giving him a little something."
"I've got fifty. Thanks for this, Dad."
"No problemo, sport."
"Hey, I wasn't trying to --"
"Ronny, I can feel when you try to read my mind."
"I'm sorry, I just want to know how you do it."
"Seldom, that's how. I don't want folks asking questions."
"Yeah, I know."
"Just be thankful our family has these little traditions. That's what makes the season special -- Christmas lights, pumpkin pie --"
"Fooling department store Santas into thinking they're the real thing?"