Flash Fiction: A Trumpet Sounds

Somebody got a nuke. 90 seconds after a pirate broadcast announcing that Heaven had withdrawn its mandate and the rest of the world was ordered to stand down, Beijing went up in a high megaton mushroom cloud.

The Chinese Communist Central Committee had been meeting in Beijing. Within minutes, conventional weapons began to strike sites around China, some obvious, some mysterious to western observers. It looked like a well planned decapitation. Not so well planned that the Middle Kingdom did not descend into chaos.

Dominos around the world began to fall. Over the course of hours, then days, then weeks, failsafes put in place by Chinese leaders and operatives released certain pieces of information to specific people and organizations most in a position to take action.

Information was distributed as the case demanded. Some figures were widely exposed, with selected watchdog and law enforcement people around the world getting it. Others found themselves confronted by individuals who they had done very wrong. Violent individuals. The Left, in particular, ate itself alive.

Shootouts broke out in the CIA and FBI, as players and agents found out exactly where they stood in the plans of their enemies and friends. Operators were given very specific information and very convincing evidence about who planned to do what to whom. The bloodbaths within the factions was worse than that between them.

Similar situations prevailed in tech, industry, and of course the political parties. Those who were not themselves killers certainly knew people who were, or quickly died. One third of the Catholic hierarchy went into hiding or otherwise disappeared. Exorcists found themselves very busy. The education leadership almost entirely vanished. College faculties whined, found that no one was listening, then found out some very unpleasant people were listening, and fell silent, but only after a few true believers were tarred and feathered.

The media spasmed, twitched, and died. At first, the major news organizations tried to spin hard, but this was so far off narrative no consistent story emerged, No one knew if the next story they ‘reported’ would get them killed and so reported nothing; a couple live on the air executions put a damper on the 4th estate’s enthusiasms, and it fell silent.

Social media suffered the same fate. Direct satellite uplinks created a new internet, outside the control of the tech oligarchs. The satellite network was too big to shut down or shoot down; anyone with a dish could get access outside the control of our betters. This favored those in the country and far from cities, who had dishes because they deplorably lacked cable. For a while, the Chinese disinformation machine tried to keep the flow going, but its operatives were coming under the same or greater pressure. Eventually, the idea of a citizen press became a reality.

The news, as reported by citizens and despite the wild rumors that inevitably got through, was more free and accurate than it had been in 200 years.

Banking, built as it is on trust and caution, effectively ceased. Those confident in their widely distributed wealth faced sudden poverty.

The assault on the White House was exciting, but ultimately brief and unsuccessful. A persistent and believable rumor arose that one heroic member of the President’s security detail discovered who the moles were in the nick of time, took direct action, and died for it – but not before the inside men’s cover was blown. Several fighter pilots, disobeying commands, shot down their peers coming in for bombing runs. Chaos broke out in the Pentagon. The ground assault was over in minutes, as the White House countermeasures worked like a charm. An eerie silence fell on Pennsylvania Avenue as properties all around burned.

And the President had a satellite uplink. The news now regularly carried his speeches and directives in full. Those outside the cities got their news and instructions unfiltered, and were the first to restore order.

All this took time, of course. The Chinese had merely installed safeguards to keep individuals in line; they had not intended it as a world-ending trip bomb. One high-level disappearance or public shooting would start to worry the next man in line; the empty offices, the rumors, the dead phonelines – eventually, Scripture was fulfilled: the guilty fled where none pursued. Even the Chinese, employing the ancient inscrutable cunning that had produced Sun Tsu, had not concerned themselves with what would happen if they all ceased to be in a flash of hydrogen fusion. The mechanisms they had laid in did not, of course, know this, and so the serpent uncoiled itself and fed for months, unsated.

It was almost a pity the Chinese Communist leadership was no longer around to enjoy it.

The rest of the world was not spared. True globalization had been achieved, where not only mammon, but guilt recognized no borders. There were a few Talleyrands, but very few. There were a few comfortable retirements in obscure third-world countries, but only financially comfortable. For months following the Chinese Event, mobs or hit men discovered a former executive in Bolivia or a political operative in New Zealand, and the results were not pleasant for them.

And that’s where we end up today. The relief efforts of flyover country and the rural areas of the other states, shipping in potatoes, flour, and beans to the smoldering cities, have kept many alive. For obvious reasons, flight from the cities to the country is heavily regulated at the point of a gun, but not out of malice. If the city populations are to be kept alive, then the country cannot be overwhelmed by people useless in the production of that food.

Leadership from Washington is, despite all history and suspicion, leading. Gradually, peace is penetrating back into the cities as looters are shot on sight, and traitors are tried and hanged. Once given a look into the bloody maw of the beast, most people are fine with this. Chicago, what’s left of it, anyway, holds out, of course. Seattle was promptly overrun by the more sane people from the suburbs. No one much knows what’s going on in L.A., as it has become in fact what it always was in its own mind – its own special universe.

No one knows how this will turn our. Taiwan and the surviving dissidents in Hong Kong have made large inroads into the coastal areas of China, but, in accordance with ancient tradition, the interior is ruled by warlords. The Catholic Church has become the main channel of order and charity over much of China. Japan, a spectator for the most part, is having a baby boom.

Europe is a mess. The Sons of the Winged Hussars have managed to restore some order in the East, and Poland, of course, rode it out all but unscathed. The operatives and traitors were exposed to few people’s surprise, and were tried and shot. Your average African and Latin American hardly noticed a difference, while those with ties to China tended to simply vanish.

We are all eagerly awaiting the election of the new pope.

Flash Fiction: Black Friday

Kyle surveyed the smoldering wreckage of the Kohl’s from the roof of the Wingstop across the parking lot next to the freeway. Except for two middle aged women down by what had been the mall’s high-end appliance store, the crowd had moved on. Those two were trying to move a large Vulcan range by tipping it onto a couple skateboards, probably abandoned by an earlier wave of more mobile looters. They weren’t having much luck.

They’re making some common but mistaken assumptions, thought Kyle. Let’s say, contrary to all appearances, the two ladies get the range home. Then what? How long do they think the gas and power will keep flowing? Or do they imagine they can list it on eBay, pick up some easy cash? Like the web is going to stay up, the banks stay open, the shipping companies remain, waiting to take orders from randos? Who will pay them in what, exactly?

The last straw was Reality’s refusal to bring about the Apocalypse. Several centuries of millennialist fervor has to go somewhere, and came to take any number of odd shapes, like the water in a balloon being squeezed. Heaven and earth, with remarkable indifference, showed no sign of passing away. We’d been promised 4 Horsemen, workers of the world casting off chains, or at least some ice caps melting. Something, some sort of comeuppance. But nope.

Commercial Roofing in Pittsburgh - Roof Solutions

The children of the Puritans became the children of Marx, the environ-mental-cases, the Deconstructionists; fervor and zeal undiminished, their spirit flowed into all the isms pouring forth from the world’s fevered imaginations.

The dogmas of the abstracted are infinitely flexible. But zeal for their father’s demise consumes them, under whatever liturgical trappings this week’s catechism dictates.

The women gave up and disappeared. Kyle noticed a team of people, looking suspiciously organized, doing something at the power poles. Two men and a woman stood watch at the pole’s base, while one or two others clambered up, cut some wires, and smashed some equipment. Hard to figure what they were doing, but looting wasn’t it.

Suddenly, a grimy face appeared over the low parapet of the Wingstop’s roof. Kyle took a step back, and watched an older but fit-looking man heave himself onto the roof without taking his eyes off him. Kyle showed him his palms in an instinctive ‘I’m no threat’ gesture, but the man had evidently reached the same conclusion.

“Kid, I’ve got a couple things to take care of here, then I’m gone. We’ll just keep our distance until I’m done. Capisce?”

“Sure, no problem.”

The man, in grey coveralls, nodded, looked around, and headed over to one of two surveillance cameras set on the corners of the roof. He pulled out a prybar, ripped the camera off its moorings, then smashed it with a couple brutal swings. For good measure, he yanked the wires out. With a glance at Kyle, he went to other camera in the opposite corner, and treated it as poorly as the first.

“So, no appetited for looting? Just want to watch the world burn?” The man was now focused on a satellite dish and what might be a cell phone base station atop a large rectangular box – air conditioning unit? Kyle didn’t know – in the center of the roof.

“What’s the point? If it needs power, can’t use it. If it don’t, it’ll probably still be there tomorrow.”

“Hmmm,” grunted Coveralls, who then pulled himself up atop the box, and went to work on the equipment perched there.

“So, what are you doing?”

Coveralls didn’t turn from his work. “Oh, establishing a perimeter. Something like that.” He then stopped, and turned to Kyle. “Kid, gotta admit I’m impressed. Not one in a 100 of your contemporaries seem to understand that little obvious point you just made. They imagine they are going to burn the world down, and then settle in for some serious MMO action to celebrate on all the nice equipment they lifted.”

Kyle nodded. “I’m trying to figure out how not to get murdered, first, and how not to starve to death, second.”

Coveralls yanked the wires out of the satellite dish, then pulled on the ends still in the conduit on the roof until he’d ripped out several yards of wiring. Satisfied, he dropped back down on the roof and faced Kyle.

“You have a better handle on things.” He stared into Kyle’s face. “I’m going to trust you.”

Kyle wasn’t sure he wanted to be trusted, but he didn’t see a way out at the moment. “OK.”

“Do you have a cell phone or tablet on you?”

“Both, in my bag.” Kyle pointed to a daypack up against the parapet on the other end of the roof.

Coveralls nodded toward the far side of the air conditioning unit. Kyle followed until it was between the two of them and his pack.

“What we need to be secure against is electronic surveillance. You, or at least your phone and tablet, are a glowing dot on somebody’s screen right now.”

A whistle cut Coveralls short. The team working on the power poles was scrambling for cover. A forklift, ‘Dick’s Sporting Goods’ stenciled on its side, came rolling into the lot below, carrying a large metal box topped by a black hemisphere bristling with tubes and wires, setting it down in the middle. The forklift then hurried back to the wreckage of the mall. Kyle watched, transfixed.

Coveralls grabbed Kyle’s arm. “We need to get down and out of sight. NOW!” He yanked Kyle over to the ladder, leapt over the parapet and slid down to the pavement. Kyle had to climb. “10 seconds!” someone shouted. Coveralls kicked in the Wingstop door (the looters had used the shattered windows) and dragged Kyle in, shoving him to the floor.

Kyle could see a Tesla drive up. Where its hood should have been was a shiny metal tube, pointing upwards at about 45 degrees. .The driver ditched the car, and was sprinting toward them. A buzzing sound, like a 40 pound bee, grew louder.

A black drone the size of a gurney swung into view, and strafed vainly at the driver as he dove into the Wingstop. The drone exploded; then a flash and the sound of thunder hit them. The Tesla rocked.

“Got the bastard!” shouted the driver, sprawled amidst the shards of safety glass covering the floor. “Oh, hi, Bob.”

“Afternoon, Juaquin.” He motioned to Kyle. “This is, ah…”

“Kyle.”

“Hack’s in?” Bob asked Juaquin.

“Tight!”

Bob and Juaquin fell silent at the sound of a swarm of 10 pound bees. The black hemisphere spun into action. As the swarm of smaller drones came into view, a high pitched mechanical whine could be heard over the drones. The hemisphere flashed and spun, and each drone fell from the sky in smoldering ruin.

“Nice!” said Bob.

“As far as the network knows, those drones just took us all out. They even have footage.” Juaquin smiled. “And, in a few minutes minutes from now and a few miles from here, they all get shot down. As far as the network knows, anyway.”

“Good work.” Bob had stood up, and now lifted Kyle to his feet.

“What – what was that?” he sputtered.

“Tesla batteries can power a small railgun.”

“Mileage sucks.”

“Yea, two shot, max, and then you gotta plug her in.”

“Autotargeting was awesome, Juaquin! Old Betsy Blaster just – wow!”

“It helps to have their positional data off the network. All I did was make the tiny allowances for movement during lag. Fish in a barrel.”

“Not everybody in the government is a fascist creep.”

“Only most of them.”

“Yea, well, only takes a few. We are so deep in their systems, they can’t spit without us calculating wind direction and splatter radius.”

Bob tuned to Kyle. “Betsy’s got a liquid sulfur battery. Fast and hot. Powers little pea shooter particle beams. Good enough to smoke smaller drones.”

Juaquin was dusting safety glass fragments off his coveralls. “We gotta get out of here.” The two men started towards the door.

Bob stopped, and turned towards Kyle like he’d just remembered he was there. “So, ah, … “

“Kyle?”

“Kyle, right. About trying to improve your chances of not starving to death. Maybe we can work something out, maybe even up your chances of not getting murdered. A little, anyway.”

Flash Fiction: All the Stars in the Sky

Night fell, and the sky became suddenly black. Then, slowly, whether due to some unknown process or merely to his eyes needing time to adjust to the deep darkness, the familiar stars appeared.

“Marcellus, come see.”

At his father’s words, Marcellus turned his gaze away from the last glow of the sunset, and walked the few steps along the city walls to where his father was working. Iulus took a step back from the device, clearing room for his son to look through the eyepiece. He saw the flat, elongated disc of a star.

“That’s the one,” Iulus continued.

“Why do you say that? It looks no different than a hundred others.”

“Ah, but it is. I have calculated the relative motion of all the visible stars, from tables that go back 10,000 years, to men who stood in the dark taking measurements until their eyes failed and the next men took their places. “

“As you now stand…”

“Yes, but with my device. To these observations, I have added the spectra, star by star, noting the dark bands…”

“And, applying a theory of your own, have deduced speed….”

“Yes. And now, direction as well.”

The impossible blackness became somehow more black, the stars more bright. It was said that some, on the darkest mountain tops on the clearest nights, could make out more, fainter stars even in the blackness; Iulus’s device proved this true. There was no end to stars.

“That star,” he continued, “is moving directly away relative to us. According to my theory, based on the displacement of the dark bands in its spectrum, we would have been in it about 2 billion years ago.”

In it?”

“Yes.”

“What do you think stars are, father?”

In the darkness, Marcellus heard a mechanical rumble, the deep creaking of something large being moved. Siege engines, advancing under cover of darkness.

Iulus looked up into his son’s face. “No one really knows. The ancients thought them much like our sun, despite being able to make out the swirling shapes of a few of the brighter stars with their naked eyes. Some sort of atmospheric distortion, they said.”

“You have another theory, of course.”

Iulus returned to his device. “The stars are not mere balls of burning gas as we think our sun, that much is clear. They have structure. Some are discs; others are diffuse balls; a few are distorted, irregular.”

He looked back up at his son. “Sometimes, I can make out what look to be suns within the stars.”

Marcellus’s thoughts had turned to the battle that was soon to be upon them. They could hold out against a siege for a while, but, barring a miracle he could not believe in, the city he loved, and all within it, would soon enough be dead. Or worse. He himself would die, the young hero upon which the people’s irrational hope was focused, leading the defense of his doomed city. No amount of science in arms or any other thing could prevent it.

“I think,” his father hesitated, “that the stars are enormous collections of suns. Millions, perhaps billions, of suns.”

His son pulled his attention back to his father. “How would that even be possible?”

“The same mechanisms that formed our sun and its 3 planets could form many suns. That force that sends us spinning about, circling our light, could, given enough material and time, form many suns and planets…”

“Why would you propose such a thing? I see no problem your hypothesis would solve, even in theory.”

“Consider this: our best natural philosopher say our earth and sun must be at least 3 billion years old. I have spent my life studying the motion of the stars, comparing ancient and modern records. Almost all stars are moving generally away from us and each other. But only this one star, which we name Glosbe, moves perfectly away. If we imagine how things were two billion years ago, we would have been in that star.”

Marcellus was trying to appreciate the distraction. His father continued. “Our sun and its planets are alone and unique, we have long thought. Why should that be? Everywhere in nature we see repetition, variations on a theme. Why but one sun in what we more and more know to be an enormous universe?”

“What do you think happened, then? How did our sun come to be?”

Iulus fidgeted slightly. “Here I depart from firm science, and indulge in speculation: say the stars are huge collections of suns and planets and things unknown. Many appear to swirl. Perhaps suns are born within these stars, and,” he hesitated. He had always been a careful man. “perhaps some suns and their planets are flung away….”

“What titanic forces could fling a sun?”

“The same ones that hold our earth in its orbit. We see no limit in the scale of gravity. More and more mass would generate more and more force. Billions of suns would generate enough force to fling any number of suns away….” He stopped, almost embarrassed.

Marcellus considered. “This theory of yours presents many difficulties.”

“Yes. But I feel in my bones it is true.”

Marcellus heard a sound like a giant tree falling in the distance, followed by a growing whistling, followed by a loud thud maybe a hundred yards from the city walls. He remembered what makes that sound: a trebuchet. The enemy was finding the range.

Iulus didn’t seem to notice. He was back at his device. “Father, perhaps we should come down off the walls for the night.” Marcellus was considering what would be the pious thing to do. He couldn’t bear the though of what the enemy might do to his father if they took him alive. His father’s idea of honor would not allow him to kill himself. Attempting to escape might be possible, but only in the chaos of the inevitable sacking. He hadn’t planned on living long enough to consider that, as he would be expected to lead the defense. It would be unmanly to try to survive…

Thank the gods his mother and sister were both long dead. “Come, father, lets us return to our home.” His hand found the hilt of his sword.

Andromeda Galaxy (with h-alpha).jpg

(The science here is bad. But I liked the idea.)

Monday Mish-Mash

A. This scrap of flash fiction seems somehow relevant.

Minchinhampton Common: where the cow is king but only just ...

B. At first glance, I thought Amazon was trying to sell me bulk shotgun shells:

“Your go-to Solution” seemed a little dark for corporate America.

C. Is that, is that – Caleb Jones?

D. On a less light note: the recent Supreme Court ruling giving those confused about their sex cover as a protected class is, ultimately, the final puzzle piece in the 200+ year effort to bring all schools completely under the control of the state. As usual, the stated goals are a smokescreen: the champions of this ruling were talking fairness, discrimination, and mean old bigots, not ‘we can now sue private schools out of existence and lock up homeschoolers and take away their kids.’ But that is what this is about.

More detailed post when I can stomach it.

Big Fish

“A Submarine.”

“And a motorcycle. Indian, by the looks of it.”

Edgar nodded, then returned his gaze to his heavily bandaged hand. His scrambled eggs, slathered with half a bottle of hot sauce, were half finished.

“Barge operator saw it, too. Tried to avoid it.” Bill shook his head, and stared into his coffee cup.

“Shame about the old bridge.”

“So the barge operator ran into the old Vicksburg Bridge because he was trying to avoid a submarine? In the Mississippi?” My orange juice sat untouched.

“And a motorcycle.”

“Stars and bars on the sub,” Bill added, “12-pound Napoleon mounted on the nose, look like.”

“Like that one they used to have down in the park in Success?”

“Yep.”

Bill and Edgar fell silent. “So, this submarine, surfacing in the Mississippi near the old Vicksburg Bridge, had a Confederate battle flag and a Civil War era artillery piece mounted on it?”

“Snagged the Indian.”

“Nice bike, just wedged there under the barrel.”

I soldiered on. “And the barge operator lost control and rammed the bridge piling trying to avoid it?”

“That, and the catfish.”

Bill rolled his eyes. “Nobody saw that but you, Ed.”

Ed glared and raised his bandaged hand. “This look like imagination to you?”

“Probably cut it on that old water heater.”

I must have looked confused. I certainly was. Bill explained.

“We was noodling in the shallows.”

“Had ahold of a big old flathead, musta been 100 pounds at least.”

Bill looked unconvinced. “We’d dropped an old water heater down there last year, ’cause the big catfish’ll take up residence in ’em sometimes.” He looked away from Edgar. “Not every time.”

“Had my arm up to my shoulder down that old boy’s throat, grabbing at his gills, came up for air, dragging ‘im out, right when the submarine surfaced. ”

“I must’ve missed it.”

“You was looking at the sub!” Edgar looked hurt. “But the bargeman saw it!”

“Right. He’s looking right past a Confederate sub at some catfish. Sub’s old hat. Don’t see catfish everyday.”

“Confederate sub?” I was trying to piece this together.

“Beauregard Forrest Jones. Of an old family hereabouts.”

“Always a bit crazy, the Jones.” Edgar shook his head.

“1861. Jones gets a look at Hundley’s American Diver.”

“Old Jones was not about to let some dandy from N’Orleans show him up.”

“Has to one up him.” Edgar shoveled some eggs. “Confederacy had a $50,ooo reward for a working submarine.”

“Greybacks. Worth about a buck fifty.”

Edgar and Bill chuckled.

“Then Hundley drowned and the war ended on him.” Bill sipped his coffee.

“Union woulda taken it, if they’d a known it was there.”

On display beside Bayou St. John, 1890s

“Jones was a proud man.”

“And crazy.” Edgar finished his eggs, pulled a handkerchief from his pocked, and wiped his face.

“We’ve established that.” Bill put down his empty cup, and waved off a thin, older woman in a plaid apron who was coming to refill it. “No thanks, Velma, honey.”

“So the story goes Jones hid the thing in some backwater around here.”

“Took it out at night, once in a while, when the old rebels would get together to reminisce.”

“Would fire off that cannon.”

“Yep. The South did occasionally rise again, if only from two fathoms down.”

They laughed again.

I tried to process this information. “So a crazy old man had a home-built submarine from the Civil War hidden in the Mississippi, that he took out at night for old time sake – and nobody noticed?”

“That’s what I heard.” Velma cleared the formica table. I put a hand over my still-untouched orange juice.

“Left it to his son, who left it to his, and so on down the line.” Bill mopped his brow. The day was growing hot, humid, and still.

“Asked ol’ Caleb Jones about it, one time, he weren’t sayin’ nothin’.”

“Last time anybody owned up to seeing it was maybe, what, ’87?”

“Until last week.”

“The barge pilot will confirm this?” I asked.

“Hank? Hell, no.” Bill asserted. “It’s his barge, he’ll want to pretend nothing happened rather than own up to running into a bridge like the damn fool he is.”

“Maybe he’d confirm that catfish,” Edgar mused. “A big ‘un. Huge.”

“Right. That somehow disappeared just as I turned around.”

“Couldn’t hold ’em! I got distracted by the submarine!”

Pig Farmer pt 2. Tuesday Flash Fiction

(continuing from here)

The help in this dive clearly knew Igor and his daughter. A round dude with a round bald head and a black apron materialized, dropped off a heap of fried brown bread and checha and three tall beers, nodded at Igor and Ksenia with, maybe, the slightesdt twinkle in his eye, and dematerialized.

“You like beer?” Igor nodded at me, then drained his pint with practiced ease. Ksenia did likewise, with a ladylike elegance that didn’t seem possible. Of course, she didn’t seem exactly possible herself…

I tore my eyes away from here after just a beat too long. Oh well. Time to rep for America. I tossed back the beer as nonchalantly as I could manage.

“Czech?” I asked. Good beer.

Best craft beer places in Prague - top 16 places where to drink craft beer

“Da!” Igor nodded, and seemed to warm to me ever so slightly. Round bald guy reappeared from the ether and slapped down another round. “Vyškov Generály,” Igor looked thoughtfully into his second glass. “This only bar in Moscow carries it.”

I need these people to trust me, at least enough to do my job. I’m little more than a glorified mule, sent to fetch some information that can’t be simply emailed or sent parcel post. As such, I’m professionally charming and flexible. This Moscow gig is downright civilized. I’ve sipped vodka in a yurt over a meal of boodog. I’ve caught piranha off the back of a canoe. Those little bastards will bite on anything; catch one, CAREFULLY gut it, hook the guts, toss the line back out, catch another. Repeat until you’ve got enough for dinner. Pretty good eating, too.

This was a little different. I been warned there might be some piranna of the two-legged sort, but, so far, it was just me, the enigmatic might-be-a-pig farmer, and his insanely gorgeous daughter who, I have from multiple sources, will kill me if I touch her. They seemed cheery enough…

A tongue of cold snaked through the bar when the front door opened and closed. A tall man in a heavy, fur-collared coat and a Bromberg appeared, looming above Ksenia, and said something quietly in Russian to Igor, whose face was stone. I started to stand, when Igor put me back into my seat with one meaty hand.

The stranger laid a hand on Ksenia’s shoulder. Her face went white, and her eyes widened with fear. She looked tiny against the mass of the large man. I tried to rise again; Igor again planted me in my seat.

Ksenia stood, shaking, the stranger’s hand still on her shoulder. A trace of a smile passed across the the tall man’s face. With sudden, cat like quickness, Ksenis drove her heel hard into the man’s instep, and followed up with a two-handed uppercut into his jaw, her legs and body uncoiling like a spring, putting some force into it.

The man let out a small yelp and staggered backwards, into the arms of the round bald guy and two large, very stern looking fellows, who, without a word, pinned his arms and whisked him out of sight. The other patrons seemed not to have noticed anything unusual, and the background hum quickly returned to normal.

Ksenia straightened her skirt, sat back down, and smiled at me.

“It is a good beer,” she stated, and drained her second pint.

Flash Fiction: Unwanted

“Let’s just do it, man.”

That’s Jeremy, just do it. Just tinker up some trash and head for the stars.

What, I’m gonna say ‘no’?

We headed out to the Strew, started rounding up some trash, see if it’s doable.

“Whoa, man, this looks like an Hitachi 2800X T-drive.”

Jeremy had climbed over the wreckage of a mid-2000s micro factory rig. Those things had gotten dropped in the Strew like last week’s guacamole, generally intact, a hundred robot arms akimbo. Obsolete overnight. Sometimes, you could pull some sweet servos, maybe an idiot AI unit from those things, but mostly they got incorporated into Burning Men, ‘art’ for the sake of bored wack jobs. They were everywhere, the rigs and the wack jobs.

But a T-drive? Intact or close? That’s something!

“Take a look, man!” Jeremy had climbed down into what looked like a shallow crater, at the bottom of which lay a chunk of the smooth composite skin of a Lifter, maybe late 90s vintage. Peeking out from under one end was the unmistakable stylized “2800X” of an Hitachi T-drive, embossed on the slick black sheath of a thruster cowling.

I was impressed.

“So let’s get this junk off it, man, take a look.” I was trying to sound casual. Jeremy has a death lock on the out of control enthusiasm part of our friendship. I’m supposed to be the cooler head.

If the 2800X works, this whole thing works. Or should.

“Johnny-Bees is on it,” Jeremy said as he squinted and nodded into some invisible heads-up display. In a minute, a swarm of lifting drones appeared, and quickly arranged themselves to spell out “Johny-Bees” in a swirling light show, while blasting his theme song, some relic from the 50s – the *1950s*. The drones descended on the junk pile, and quickly removed the trash obscuring the T-drive. Then, with a flourish and a blazing guitar lick, they were gone.

“I promised him a six-pack,” Jeremy watched the swarm disappear over an horizon of broken machinery.

“We’re going to need Syd on this.” I clambered down to the T-drive.

“Why her? She’s a pain.”

“I heard that!” A voice was heard in the wilderness. A lone drone hovered a hundred meters up. “Now you’re going to have to talk real nice to me, if you want my help.”

Jeremy and I exchanged glances. “Is Johnny-Bees broadcasting this?” I asked no one in particular. A couple guitar notes confirmed. Well, at least only the usual suspects, the folks we’ve goofed with, are likely to be on Johnny’s feed. And we’ll need their help, so it’s cool, I guess.

The reason the 2800X is such a great find is that you can reason with its AI. Most of these old space rigs have either idiot AIs or military, and you’re lucky you if you can even strike up a conversation. Stories say some of the old space force units will kill you if you even try; nobody I know has ever tried. But an old Hitachi? Practically invite you in for tea.

It’s a few steps from getting one to talk, which any fool can do, to getting one to power you to the stars, which takes some finesse. That’s where Syd comes in.

I found a port, jacked in, hooked up some audio – never pass up a chance to learn, that’s practically the motto of us slappers – and talked nice to Syd. “OK, dearest Syd, I’m talking nice – can you see if this rig works, and get it to play with us? Pretty please?” I added, “I know you’re the best on all the interwebs, a legend, no one else…”

“Cut the crap.” She was on board, dying to strut her stuff. To be honest, she really is the best at this, she could talk an old industrial AI into a foot rub and making her a cup of coffee. At least.

Syd did some fiddling. “Hello sweetheart, how you doin’?”

The Hitachi AI spun back to life, after lo these decades of sleep.

“Well, thank you.” The AI spoke in a standard feminine voice, known for reasons lost in time as the Majel.

“Listen, honey, I’d like you to run a date check, tell me when we are.”

Pause. “2146. April.”

“That’s plenty, thank you. So, sweetheart, what’s your name?

“Roxanne. May I ask you name?”

“Sure thing, Roxanne. I’m Syd. Would you mind if I called you Roxi?”

The back and forth continued for almost an hour. Syd first had the AI figure out how long it had been inactive, what this meant about its mission, had it look up the companies and people it had worked for, had it survey the surrounding area, all the while expressing sympathy and concern. These old Hitachi units were built during a time when hyperrealism was all the rage, when the jocks thought they could code in intuition. With the proper approach, you could talk them into doing what you wanted, just so long as you didn’t trigger any safety protocols.

Jeremy, who had little patience with this sort of stuff, got some other slappers to help him identify and gather other pieces. Lifting drones were deployed across the Strew. Scans were run. There were inevitable distractions.

“Dudes! There’s a *Chevy* *Impala* in here! Almost intact!” gushed a slapper going by Dogberry, whom everyone assumed was a kid.

“What the hell’s a Chevy?”

At the same time, the CADdies were generating mods and modeling up transition pieces. Arguments, banter, really, broke out over proposed solutions.

“Sure, you can fab a slab that’ll get that Medex unit to stick to the Hitachi, but it will look like crap.”

“What are you gonna do, paste a navsys on the nose?”

“A big gross flyin’ GI-tract!”

“C’mon, man, it meets spec. It’ll look funky-cool.”

“Sure. Stick the head on the fuel tanks. Have to suit up to take a leak.”

“Speaking of – anybody looking for some suits?”

Drones were dropping off finds. I threw up a holo of the CADdies’ ideas. The image changed as the polling numbers came in. I froze a few I liked. Nothing I saw was going to win any beauty contest. But, so far, it was looking doable: a functional spaceship from a couple centuries of trash and abandoned scrap.

“Wow! Found an old Mech-era envirosys, off a cruiser!” one of the drone pilots chimed in. “You boys think you might want to take a 100 of you close personal friends to Arcturus?”

“The Hitachi could power that, but just barely,” a CADdie offered. “Spec says you could do it. I wouldn’t.”

Syd broke in. “Well, you doofs, I’ve convinced Roxi here to take you to the stars. Roxi, meet Steve and butt-face.”

Jeremy sighed. “See? What did I say about her?”

“Careful, monkey-boy. Show some respect. I could probably convince my new bestie Roxi here to drop you off in deep space someplace.”

“Hello?” Roxi said. “I don’t think I should drop Mr. Butt-Face off in deep space, Syd. It would not be proper. Do you really want me to?”

“See?” Syd triumphed. “I better hear some grovelling from certain parties…”

In the end, we skipped the huge envirosys, went with something off an old space yacht. Sleep 10 comfortably, although only Jeremy and I seemed committed to the trip. I’ll probably miss them, even if Jeremy is the only one I’ve seen face to face.

We were able to find everything we needed on the Strew. The CADdies estimate about 2 weeks for assembly, using a couple recycled assemblers the lifting drone team had found. The best antimatter factor we could find will take almost a month to fuel us up anyway, so that’s not a problem. In the meantime, the team would occupy itself with fighting over suggestions on furnishings and decorations – an exercise in good-natured mockery.

Roxi was running diagnostics. She seemed in good shape, just a little slow and underpowered by modern standards. She would incorporate the infotech systems of the other components as they were added, all, in the end, becoming her. Then she could fly us anywhere we might want to go. All for free, not counting the six pack Jeremy promised Johnny-Bees.

It’s crazy the stuff people will throw away. But when they took to space, they threw away a whole planet, I guess.

Flash Fiction: Datakill

(Let’s try something completely different. For me, at least. I have no idea what I’m doing here…)

“We need 11 seconds.”

No, he thought, you don’t need anything. You want me to murder a little girl.

Part of the Plan was that he, Vlad Alexander, knew only very little of the Plan. It was also probable that most of what he ‘knew’ was incorrect. He operated in a gray area straddling the cyber and human domains. Somewhere, other people knew some aspects of the Plan as it concerned their expertise in the air, land, sea, and space domains, little pieces of truth mixed with nonsense. They had all been trained to execute baffling assignments that meant nothing to them.

Vlad Alexander did not want to murder a little girl. The only reason he had been given was that the murder, executed in precisely the manner and at exactly the specified time, would buy 11 critical seconds for the Plan. Perhaps it was telling that Ops had broken, if not protocol, certainly tradition, to tell him anything at all. Why had they done that? They certainly knew he would notice.

He was aware of things, some dimly, some crystal clear, that he might be better off not knowing. He had spent years training to see and use information, how it was obtained, stored, analyzed, disseminated, and used as a weapon. He had also spent years learning how people react to information. Sometimes, the right message delivered in the right way to the right people in the right order could be more devastating than a large-scale military attack. When an executive, say, bursts out of his office to see terrified looks on his office staff, or calls home only to hear his wife scared out of her wits, he is a much softer target, much more manipulatable, than if he thinks he knows a terrible secret he is protecting his people from. Sometimes, you need a riot to make a point, to shorten the decision window, to compel the right people to make the move you want.

Vlad Alexander arranged such panics, surprises and riots.

One thing Vlad Alexander knew was that his superiors in Ops viewed him as part of the information domain he was trained to use. Another thing he knew was that his emotional landscape, his loves and hates and predilections, were part of the human domain those same superiors used him to weaponize.

Ops had laid out the outline of a plan, leaving all details to Vlad. Vlad was more an expert on these things than his superiors. They knew that as well. When they ordered him to kill a little girl, they had a very good idea how he would react.

Vlad Alexander very much did not wish to kill a little girl.

Great composers generally use the second most likely device, familiar yet unexpected. The first time through, a work should sound surprising; subsequent hearings sound inevitable.

They would expect him to prepare. Vlad called Enrique, using a first level secure channel. A first level channel has almost certainly been hacked, meaning Vlad’s message could not appear critical or even coherent to third parties. Or that the message was intended to be heard by third parties.

“Hey, man, let’s grab a beer, catch up a little.” Vlad’s voice was even.

“Sure, man.” Enrique’s voice was equally bland. “The usual place? 5:00?”

“Can we do 4:00?”

“Man, I gotta work to 5:00. Maybe 4:30?”

“Make it 4:00, and I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Oooo-kay.” A slight hesitation. “I’ll see you at 4:00.”

Calling Enrique would be slightly unexpected, but well within normal parameters. Vlad headed out to the nonexistent usual place. He stopped at Sven’s Scandinavian Pastries on Wabash, under the elevated tracks. A Chinese man peered at him from over the display case in the tiny shop. “Hey, Gustav. Long time.”

“Week before last Wednesday.” The Chinese Gustav eyed him with a slight frown. “I’m not sure you’re being sufficiently discrete.”

“Can I use your restroom?”

“Customers only.”

“I’ll take a spandauer.” Gustav nodded, threw him a key and looked towards a curtained doorway.

Vlad unlocked a narrow door, and eased himself in. Opposite the toilet was another door. After locking that door behind him, Vlad sat in the one chair in front of what looked like a stack of vintage stereo equipment. He put on headphones and pulled from his jacket pocket a small plastic rectangle with a rat tail ending in a 1/4″ plug.

Helene Sachiko Bernatone watched the stray cats play and beg from her perch on a stone bench in the Boboli Gardens. The early fall sun was about to touch the treetops to the left of the Pitti Palace. Takashi should be arriving in a moment to take her to ballet lessons. Alone, she was nevertheless fearless. Hidden eyes watched her; hidden eyes watched everyone.

10 hours earlier, Vlad Alexander had popped out of existence. This was not usual for this stage of such assignments, but within the realm of reasonable. 11 hours. It was difficult, for someone who didn’t exist, to get from Chicago to Florence in 11 hours. He caused an airplane to pop out of existence, as far as anyone in Ops could tell.

Cameras, sensors, and satellites saw nothing when he covered the 50 meters from the hanger to the Tupolev TU-444. His presence did not register with the pilot, or any of the on-board systems. The plane was heading to Peretola, although he was the only one on board to know it. The Tupolev was outfitted in communication gear; with the help of Enrique, Gustav and 2 more contacts upon which he had bet his life, that communication gear had been taken off-off-grid.

Almost all comm traffic was machine-to-machine. Speaking from the system’s perspective, data was data, and humans were towering roadblocks to speed and efficiency. The Tupolev’s systems would give the other systems plenty of busywork. Vlad Alexander intended to keep the humans in the system busy as well. He knew about them what he knew about anyone he studied: their emotional landscapes, their loves and hates and predilections. He needed to keep them entertained for another 10 hours.

Image result for Tupolev TU-444

Vlad Alexander sure hoped Enrique had gotten the message. He hoped his contacts were what they seemed to be, but, again, seeing people for what they are is what he did, or a big part of it, at least. He got to work.

File:Pianta del buonsignori, dettaglio 228 fortezza di belvedere.jpg
I, Sailko [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Helene had taken note of Takashi’s tardiness, but remained calm. Then she saw him walking briskly up the hill. He gave Helene a slight bow, and took her hand. “Miss Bernatone, your father has requested you to accompany me on an adventure. Will you please follow me?”

They proceeded together up the hill toward the Forte di Belvedere, a slight Japanese man and slender girl of 9. He touched his watch and ventured a slight look around. “The Medici, who constructed this garden and built this fort, were very much experts at subterfuge and secrecy, even by the standards of the Renaissance.” Takashi often filled their time together with little history lessons, which Helene generally enjoyed. He did not look nor act like Helene’s idea of a ninja, which is what the daughter of Chef had whispered her mother had told her he was. But wasn’t that exactly like a ninja? The Medici were not the only masters of subterfuge and secrecy.

The Tupolev landed without any notice taken by the Peretola tower. It taxied to a building off main runway, stopping just long enough for Vlad Alexander to deplane, and then took off again.

Inside the building stood three men. “Signor Bernatone sends his greetings,” said a large man in an apron, who looked like he’d just stepped away from making some porcetto. Which, given this topsy-turvy world, he just might have. “And his gratitude.” Vlad nodded. He hoped this gratitude would extend to keeping him alive and invisible for a few decades. He was now Out. The only question was if he were dead Out, or alive Out. The first was routine and often unexpected. The second was, by the nature of things, unheard of.

Enrique and Gustav had, of course, never explained their exit plans to Vlad; neither, of course, had the two others whose names he prudently didn’t know. He sure hoped they made it. He himself was at the mercy of Signor Bernatone. He knew his emotional landscape, his loves and hates and predilections. He had sorted them out from the purposeful and expert chaff meant to hide them. If Vlad Alexander had done his work well, Signor Bernatone was not the sort of man to kill a man who saved his daughter.

“I thought they built this for the view.” They had reached the top of the hill, and the tremendous panorama of Florence it provided. Takashi answered, “From here, the Medici Dukes could observe their offices at the Uffizi and the Palazzo Vecchio, the Pitti Palace and all roads leading into Florence. Forte di Belvedere is a difficult place to sneak up on.” Helene was listening while her eyes soaked up the landscape in the fading autumn light.

Image result for corot florence

They stood atop the point of one of the fortifications. A flicker, a subtle change in light, on the edge of perception such that you were not sure in the next moment that it had happened, radiated out across the landscape from where they stood. An utterly still moment passed. A light drizzle of what appeared to be insects and birds fell to the ground from trees and building facades, followed a moment later by a half dozen small drones in quick succession falling from the sky.

Takashi scanned the horizon without expression, and continued. “The Medici also put in various escapes and hidey-holes, ambushes and traps. From the time of Cosmo the Great, who had his grandson murdered in the Duomo, the family has taken steps.” He turned and took both her hands. “Your father, although only distantly related, has inherited their caution as well as much of their former empire.”

City lights which had just begun to illuminate the ancient city flickered then grew dark. An unearthly quiet, as if the trees themselves had paused to listen, veiled the city. Takashi whispered, “Follow me.”

(For reference. Miniaturization is not just for smart phones: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOTYgcdNrXE&t=1325s )

WWII Bombers, the English, Recap, Links

Incoming Potpourri!

A. For those who have served honorably in our military: thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I am well aware that it is only an accident of timing that kept me out of Vietnam (still going when I got to high school, ended, after a fashion, before I turned 18). My father spent WWII as a crack welder on the home front; some of his and my mother’s brothers did fight, but were of a generation where, mostly, it was not something you talked about much. My aunt Verna was Rosie the Riveter, complete with models and photos of the planes she help build – that she never talked about. I only found out from my cousins after she died. Uncle Louis did something with the Air Force in Korea, but all I ever heard about was his time as a voice on military radio – he had a very deep and beautiful speaking voice, bet he was good.

My father in law, may he rest in peace, got in in time for the invasion of Italy. About the only story he told was of cataloguing the weapons the Allies seized: he was struck with how beautiful Italian machine guns were, especially compared to German machine guns: scroll work, a sense of proportion. But there was no question which one you’d want to be holding if you needed to kill somebody.

He was also helped liberate some Nazi death camps. This, he never spoke of, except to tell of the dancing. Because he grew up in and near various ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago, he knew all sorts of ethnic dances. He was an incredible dancer. So, when the prisoners were freed, they – any who were strong enough – danced. And he joined in.

He paid a terrible price, even if he never, as far as I know (and I doubt I or anyone does know), had to shoot at anyone or see his buddies die before his eyes. He saw unfathomable evil up front and personal. His mother said he went to war a happy-go-lucky boy and came back a serious and sad man.

So, thank you, veterans! God bless you. And may He grant eternal rest to those who have died.

B. Read something about the comparative capabilities of American versus British WWII bombers, specifically, the B-17 and the Lancaster, which were the workhorse Allied bombers in the European theater. What was most interesting to me: the American bomber had a bigger crew and more guns, and included armour around all the crew positions. As a result, a B-17 generally carried about half the weight in bombs that a Lancaster carried, having instead invested that weight in guns and armour to defend the aircraft and its crew. The Lancaster had fewer guns and no armour protecting the crew, except the pilot – who was generally the only officer on board. But it typically carried about twice the tonnage of bombs as the B-17.

B-17. The Germans referred to them as ‘Flying Porcupines’ due to all the guns.

B-17s flew high and during the day; Lancasters flew lower during the night. The Americans targeted specific buildings and installations, while the British targeted cities. Once the P-51 Mustangs came on-line in force, the B-17s had really good fighter escorts. The net results: B-17s, partly because they bombed during the day and partly because they flew above where flak could reliably hit them, and because they had swarms of Mustangs with them to keep the (very, very good) Luftwaffe fighters at bay, reliably hit their targets. The British, flying at night to compensate for their comparative lack of altitude and defences, targeted ENTIRE CITIES because anything smaller was all but impossible to find and hit. Their success rate was comparable to the Americans, but only because their targets were an order of magnitude or 2 larger. I assume the British pilots and bombardiers were as good as the Americans, because British pilots in WWII were damn good. It is a matter of strategy formed by technical capabilities, coupled with a burning British desire to make the Third Reich pay for bombing British cities. And, boy, did they pay.

Lancaster.

Underlying this, it seems to me, is another factor, one I ran into first years ago reading about Florence Nightingale. The attitude of the British military, it seems, is that commoners both expendable and of no great value. Nightingale found the British officers showed no concern to the point of contempt for the men dying under them, and it took her years to shame the government into starting to provide decent (for the times) medical care. But the attitude persisted: the Lancaster, and, I understand, subsequent British bombers as well, embodied this disdain: only the pilot’s position was armoured. Stray bullets or shrapnel was much more likely to kill a crewman than an officer on a British bomber. And the numbers seem to bear this out: both in absolute and percentage terms, casualties among British airmen were far higher than among Americans. Americans, I should think, would be shamed and outraged if their officers were provided protections denied to the crewmen.

C. Tidy segue: Reading Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis for our Chesterton Society reading group. In it, G.K. tells the story of how a young Francis, working for his father selling cloth in the marketplace, is interrupted by a beggar:

While he was selling velvet and fine embroideries to some solid merchant of the town a beggar came imploring alms; evidently in a somewhat tactless manner. It was a rude and simple society and there were no laws to punish a starving man for expressing his need for food, such as have been established in a more humanitarian age; and the lack of any organised police permitted such persons to pester the wealthy without any great danger. But there was I believe, in many places a local custom of the guild forbidding outsiders to interrupt a fair bargain; and it is possible that some such thing put the mendicant more than normally in the wrong. Francis had all his life a great liking for people who had been put hopelessly in the wrong. On this occasion he seems to have dealt with the double interview with rather a divided mind; certainly with distraction, possibly with irritation. Perhaps he was all the more uneasy because of the almost fastidious standard of manners that came to him quite naturally.

Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi

G.K. goes on to comment about the relationship between the rich and the poor in medieval Italy, something that, though imperfect and often ignored, is one of the great triumphs of Christianity:

Another element implied in the story, which was already partially a
natural instinct, before it became supernatural ideal, was something that had never perhaps been wholly lost in those little republics of medieval Italy. It was something very puzzling to some people; something clearer as a rule to Southerners than to Northerners, and I think to Catholics than to Protestants; the quite natural assumption of the equality of men. It has nothing necessarily to do with the Franciscan love for men; on the contrary one of its merely practical tests is the equality of the duel. Perhaps a gentleman will never be fully an egalitarian until he can really quarrel with his servant. But it was an antecedent condition of the Franciscan brotherhood; and we feel it in this early and secular incident. Francis, I fancy, felt a real doubt about which he must attend to, the beggar or the merchant; and having attended to the merchant, he turned to attend the beggar; he thought of them as two men. This is a thing much more difficult to describe, in a society from which it is absent, but it was the original basis of the whole business; it was why the popular movement arose in that sort of
place and that sort of man.

ibid.

This, coming from an Englishman, one who clearly felt a great affinity to St. Francis. We Americans have, somehow, inherited, it seems to me, more from the South to which we did not belong than to the North from which we came. This brings to mind Lafferty’s assertion that, while our institutions come from the Romans, our hearts owe more to the Goths. But that’s getting far afield, even for me.

D. This is funny.

E. After I published that last bit of flash fiction fluff, I remembered that I had already written a very similar and, it seems to me, much better piece of fluff. Almost took the new story down – as low as my standards are, I do, in fact, have some. But then, remembering that authors (if only!) are the worst judges of their own work, I left it up.

To find the earlier piece, which at first I did not remember clearly, I needed to skim through the couple dozen pieces of flash fiction I’ve posted here. Distance, perhaps after the fashion of beer goggles, has made several of them look pretty OK. The ones that got the most comments were:

Prolegomenon to Any Future Old-School SF&F Adventure – the A. Merritt tribute opening;

The most positive feedback on an individual story was on Random Writing: One Day… about a crusty old man who mooned a big rig from the back of his vintage motorcycle while crossing the Vicksburg Bridge. That one was a lot of fun.

But by far the most comments and positive feedback were received on the 7 parts of It Will Work – Tuesday Flash Fiction taken as a whole. I stopped the series because it stopped being flash fiction – in order to end it, I needed to think ahead more than one episode. Perhaps this was a mistake. Perhaps I need to get off my hindquarters and finish it.

But my surprise favorite at the moment is possibly Saturday Flash Fiction (12/15/18), a story about a woman seeking healing through story therapy, which, it seems to me, displays the most craft: I set it up so that the – I hope – surprise ending carried some emotional punch, and could be read on several levels. I also like how Stanford’s storytelling came out. I’ll no doubt change my opinion in the morning.

And, thus, I’m brought to the real issue here: I can write flash fiction because, like diving into cold water, I need only pluck up my courage for a moment. A short story is like swimming the Channel to me; a novel would be swimming to Hawaii. The combination of being hypercritical, needing to plan, and being a coward is leaving me with hundreds of pages of begun, half-finished, and even very nearly finished stories. Not to mention a couple non-fiction works on education I’ve left hanging.

I’m not sure what to do at this point.

Flash Fiction: Clockwork Messiah

“There’s nothing to do, and no reason to do it.” She sighed, and made a slight gesture with two fingers of her right hand, little more than a twitch of the wrist. Flat sunlight washed the broad floor before her, mots skittering in the static beams. A pale blue sky pressed down on miles of rolling, grass-covered hills beyond her balcony. She settled back into her overstuffed chair. Two ladies in waiting, hands folded inside enormous sleeves, exchanged masked glances.

A thousand miles away, a camshaft rotated 20 degrees, lifting a valve. Icy black water, as salty as blood, under the pressure of 20,000 feet of ocean, quickly filled a cylinder. The added weight pulled it down. At the other end of a rocker arm, its twin rose.

A gate, invisible in the darkness, slowly opened. Out swam Creature. It swelled and thinned, as if taking a deep breath, and undulated upward.

“Program in unpredictability.” Right. As a Technician Superior, he was allowed some leeway in his thoughts, but must still remain cautious. Best not tempt Her Ladyship. Yes, he thought, I can make it very, very hard to predict. Very hard. Nonetheless, with enough processing power and time, probabilistic predictability, at the very least, prevails. Whatever has happened, was caused. Whatever will happen, will be caused.

There are, however, some – anomalies. In the deepest recess of his mind, the tiny thought swirled into being and evanesced even as it did so: I am an anomaly.

The Technician Superior modified the Scenario. He dared not think how.

Creature devoured a large wooden fishing boat near the coast. It opened its massive jaws, and in a moment silenced the screams of 50 fishermen. Foam and eddies marked the spot, and soon vanished. The villagers on the shore hid the best they could.

The two ladies in waiting wore mental facades as artificial as their porcelain masks. Her Ladyship could, if she wished, lay their minds bare, and punish them in a way that would make them envy the dead. The surfaces of their minds, therefore, were kept as calm and expressionless as the bone white of their ‘faces.’

Creature came ashore. The stretch of coastline was mostly uninhabited. Casualties were light. The villages destroyed would be rebuilt again.

Her Ladyship viewed the scene from her balcony, and gave her head a slight shake. “Lacks drama,” she sighed. “Someone should stand and fight – it’s a better look.” She turned, passed between her ladies in waiting, and resumed her seat.

Creature slithered across the landscape. Its course ran through open countryside; it encountered no doomed heros to devour, no churches or halls to destroy.

The Technician Superior, in a whispered corner of his mind, prepared to die. He did not dare wish it would be quick. The ladies in waiting did likewise, but for different reasons.

Creature approached the balcony. Its claws gripped the ballestrade, and pulled it loose. Its head rose to look inside.

The ladies in waiting finally surrendered to terror, screamed, yet remained at their lady’s side. Even in terror, they knew the punishment for fleeing was far worse than merely being eaten alive. They had been trained. They were part of the Scenario.

Creature turned it massive head sideways, the better to snap up an upright woman, and lunged across the wide stone floor toward the handmaid on the Lady’s left hand side, its head scraping the vaulted ceiling.

Rockets roared and metal clanged. A white-hot rod suddenly pinned creatures head to the floor. Pierced through the brain, its massive body, trailing off the balcony, twitched. A giant in power armour landed beside Creature, and dropped to one knee and bowed before Her Ladyship.

She was not happy. “You’re not supposed to save her,” she gestured toward the handmaid to her left. She shook her head. “This was not – satisfying.” Her Ladyship’s thoughts wandered back to her youth, when, upon being saved, a thrill like electricity had passed through her body and desire for her knight had filled her with passion. That had not happened in many years, although she had gone through the motions with any number of knights, until they had disappointed her and been disposed of.

“Evidently,” she spoke to no one, “We need a new Knight. And a new Technician Superior.” She looked up at the knight, who still knelt before her. “Well? Go.” She waved him away. “Await your fate.” She opened her palms to the ceiling and rolled her eyes. “You have killed the monster.”

The knight’s visor opened, his hand gripped another tungsten rod, and he looked up at her. “Not yet.”