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.
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.
“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.
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.
(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?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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-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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
“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.”
Not sure how much this really mitigates that whole Apocalypse end of the world thing, but I’ll never lack for wicked cool kicks.
Was digging through rubble down where I think Miami used to be, feeling pretty good. Couple days before I’d found several thousand mostly intact cans of food. A steeple from the church next door had crushed a Sedano’s. The large surmounting cross had somehow landed upright, planted above what must have been the frozen food section. I imagine the heat, the smell of the rotting formerly frozen food and the Sign from God rather ominously standing guard must have discouraged the freaks from digging, I don’t know. Lucky me. The stench had long since dissipated by the time I got around to exploring. Anyway, I’ve now got a lifetime supply of El Ebro delicious white bean fabada, among other things. Beats starving.
Don’t know what happened to the freaks. I’d like to imagine them all deciding to swim to Europe like the lemmings of folklore, heading out into the soft breakers and warm Atlantic waters and just diving in, never to return. Not any crazier than some of the stuff I’d seen them do. Helps me sleep better at night, thinking they’re all gone. Any rate, haven’t seen any for a couple months now.
Haven’t seen any normies, either. Last one I saw was maybe 4 months ago, a girl, maybe 15, 16, standing in front of a McMansion in what must have been an upscale suburb at one time. The back half of the house dangled over a smoking chasm; most of the subdivision was gone, vanished into a gash marked by a ragged border of torn earth on the edge of an impenetrable deep. All part of that Apocalypse thing I mentioned.
She looked a little nervous. To be honest, she looked terrified out of her wits, crazy eyes, matted dirty blond hair, in tattered Pink yoga pants and a tube top. Well, I’d tried to coax her out, tried to talk nice, because, one, I’d like some fully human company and two, I’d feel bad if she fell off the cliff, and, if she didn’t get away from that house, that’d be a sure bet.
It didn’t work. I am evidently not as charming as I think I am. She ran into the house, and when I got closer, she screamed and screamed and just wouldn’t stop. So I walked away, shouting over my shoulder every now and then that I meant no harm, but the shrieking continued. I was about three blocks away, pondering what to do next, when there was a rumble, a dust cloud, and an end to the screaming.
Anyway, this morning early I saw some high-class rubble that looked undisturbed. Little cast cornices and broken stone fascia, not the sheetrock and asphalt tile you find in the cheaper parts of town. After cracking open a can of picadillo for breakfast, I’d gotten to work.
Part of the challenge in digging up stuff is that everything is all mixed up. Sometimes it seems like the remains of buildings a half mile away from each other have been heaped up, stirred and dumped in heaps. Which is exactly what happened, pretty much. What you see on the surface is more often than not different from what you’ll find digging. This site, however, seemed to have been merely leveled, with the debris making sense as from the same house or similar nearby houses. So I dug.
Got lucky, found some stairs leading down into what looked like a lower level, blocked only by some tree branches and an ‘End Road Work’ sign. At the bottom, the door was intact, and unlocked. I cautiously let myself in. It quickly became obvious no one had been down here since That Day 18 months ago. A fine layer of dust lay everywhere, undisturbed.
A dim glow, punctuated by three shafts of light from unseen skylights, permeated a long hall. Motes danced silently in beams. I closed the door and turned the deadbolt. You never know.
The left hand side of the hall was panelled in expensive looking wood and lined with little glass shelves upon which sat nick-nacks. Only one had fallen. An aboriginal mask was grinning menacingly up at me from the floor. The rest of the dozen of so shelves still held their treasures, the kind of stuff that a high end interior decorator chooses to say ‘sophisticated taste and understated wealth.’
On the right hand side were four doors.
Behind the first door I found a shrine. A shrine to shoes. There’s no other way to put it. Unlike the cool pretend sophistication of the hall, this large room was clearly a work of passion. This was not a closet, nor was it quite a museum. It was most like a church.
It was a large room, with long narrow windows running along the ceiling on two sides. Row after row of shoes filled glass shelves running floor to ceiling along the walls. I went to the wall opposite the door, walking the gauntlet between the freestanding display cases, and picked up almost a random a nice pair of classic Air Jordan 1s, Bulls color scheme, mint condition.
11 1/2. My size.
I’m not a Nike guy myself, but the classic white high top Chucks I happened to have been wearing on That Day were held together with some camo duct tape I found in an old pickup a couple months back. Cool look, maybe, but canvas Converse kicks were never meant for rubble diving.
I slipped the Air Jordans on and enshrined my old Chucks in their place. Ecumanism in action. Happy are the poor, something like that. Smooth. Nice fit. The lip of the glass shelf hung down a little, like a drawer pull. So I pulled. I had to jump out of the way as 6′ as drawer slid silently into the room. Another 20 pairs of shoes, in their original boxes, carefully and exactly placed. The size stickers were visible – 11 1/2.
A quick inspection and a little math revealed that, in this sunny, pleasant wasteland, I needn’t ever worry about having enough shoes, even if I wore a new pair every day for a decade.
I explored the rest of the house. While invisible from above even if you were standing right on top of the rubble, the lower level was remarkably well preserved. Surviving, largely undamaged rooms included a nicely appointed bedroom, a gourmet kitchen and several other large rooms, two of which might have been an office and a library, although books and a desk were notably absent. Got the impression the residents hadn’t finished moving in. At the end of the hall, the last door opened into what might have been a gaming room or bar or both. Floor to ceiling windows ran the length of the east facing wall overlooking the brooding sea. Sea level had changed or the land here had been thrust up on That Day, such that the windowed room was now atop a cliff, with a ledge of concrete and steel sticking out 15′ above it. You’d never know it was here even if you were standing right above it. You’d need rappelling gear to get at it from up top. The ocean here was 50′ below. The only way in or out was the stairs.
All in all, this was the most snug and protected place I’d found in 18 months. So I started moving in my cases of Cuban canned goods and flats of water – bless you, Sedano’s – and built what I hoped was a secure disguise for the stairway.
A week or so later, I was awakened by the faint shuffling of feet on the rubble above the bedroom. I crept to the stairs, silently let myself out, and maneuvered so that I could see through the branches and debris without, I fervently hoped, being seen.
This was different. 4 people – normies! – gathered. A man who appeared by his habit to be a Capuchin priest stood praying a rosary. Two Dominican sisters in full habit knelt by a third, who lay motionless on the ground. The sisters were sobbing quietly.
Well, this could be an elaborate ruse, and I could be on the menu if I revealed myself. But I didn’t think so, so I stood and moved the brush aside and said ‘Howdy!’ blinking in the sunlight.
The sister on the ground, Mary Therese of the Passion, Sister Mary for short, was just dehydrated and exhausted, and some water and Caribbean canned food quickly put her to rights. Father Frank and the Sisters Elizabeth and Agnes, after effusive thanks and a good meal and safe night’s sleep, were right as rain.
So my home quickly became a little monastery or convent. My new religious housemates proved very helpful, We’d soon moved enough food and water in to take care of the five of us for years. They all prayed Mass in the morning and stopped for prayers a couple times a day. It was peaceful. I sometimes watched from the door.
Two months later, Sr. Elizabeth, a sturdy middle-aged woman who looked like a German farmer’s wife, came running down the stairs. “Someone is coming!” I gathered and shushed the religious, and went up the stairs. Hey, it’s my house, I get to do the defending.
From the stairway, I saw what looked like a bundle of rags staggering towards me. A dirty scarf wrapped its head, and what might have once been a fashionable evening dress peaked out from a tattered blanket. Her bare calves – it was a she – ended in the most remarkable shoes. They looked brand new, and ridiculous.
She collapsed. Oh well, I gambled again, ran out and picked her up and brought her downstairs, where the sisters took care of her while Fr. Frank prayed. She was delirious. “I found a million shoes,” she gasped, “all in my size!”
“I know what you mean.”
Carine recovered quickly under the local church’s tender ministrations. She fit right in, although she was some sort of lapsed Presbyterian (are there any other kind?) and a Yankee. Nobody’s perfect. She was also young, maybe mid twenties, and, once scrubbed up and fed three squares for a bit, quite pretty.
The world seemed to settle down, too. Whatever had happened on That Day and its aftermath seemed to be over or at least on hiatus. The freaks had disappeared. Neither the religious contingent not Carine had seen any for many months. Normies seemed very few and far between. But the earth neither shook nor was wrent, and that was a very good thing.
Eventually, I sort of converted. Carine held out, but she did agree to marry me. Funny how life works. I had a million women to choose from, potentially, at least, and yet the right girl practically falls into my lap, and happens to be the last girl on earth, as far as I know. Fr. Frank did the honors, and we had a little party afterwards. Married life suited me.
One day, about 6 months later, Carine came back from one of our endless recon missions, and, hands behind her back, kissed me. “Guess what I found?” she smiled. Her hands came from behind her back, holding a pair of baby shoes. “About a million pairs!”
I took her in my arms. “And they’re all exactly the right size!”
An honest and fair reader is due an account of how the following manuscript came into my possession, so that he might properly judge the frankly fantastical story to be discovered therein, the veracity of which I, myself, am now reluctantly convinced despite my initial incredulity.
Having heard through the popular press of the now-infamous Horatio G. Bloomincracker, doctor of botany and prodigious collector of curious tribal artifacts, of his sudden disappearance 15 years ago and his unexpected re-emergence from the darkest India jungles, of the curious artifacts found in his possession and his simultaneous appointment to a chair at Oxford and a cell at Bedlam, and the subsequent and possibly related reduction of much of the Midlands to a smoldering crater, it was with some not mild trepidation that I received an invitation to meet the great man.
I am of some reputation as a botanist myself, as the reader is no doubt aware. Having traveled the world in an ongoing if so far futile attempt to obtain specimens of the legendary Walking tree of Dahomey, I am more acquainted than most scholars with the various lands and peoples of this fair globe. Thus, there is a logic to Dr. Bloomincracker’s decision to unburden himself to me. Such is my fate: to share his burden, and to make known his travails, as a cautionary tale to all of humanity.
Bedlam was chosen for the fateful meeting, as Oxford was all booked up. I was shown to a large and not unpleasant anteroom with a lovely view of the lawn and the howling psychotics that peopled it, not so unlike similar facilities at Oxford. I had heard Dr. Bloomincracker’s health had been failing, which would hardly surprise any reader who knew the tale.
The great man entered the room on the arm of the Dean of Divinity, a Reverend Schoppinvax, who steered him into a chair facing mine. After the briefest of introduction, the good Reverend made his departure as if his hair were on fire.
Dr. Bloomincracker appeared before me as a glorious ruin. A man who in his youth had first made his name as a bear wrestler was now withered and hunched, although not yet 50 years of age. His once thick black hair was reduced to a motley of grey thatch and bare, splotched pate; his once imposing frame a twisted hulk; his fine broad forehead as lined as a map of Khartoum; his expressive lips and strong chin now hidden behind a wooly mustache and a goat’s beard. His attire had suffered in a similar manner: what had been once proper morning dress was now a wrinkled, grease stained mockery.
His notorious blue eyes, rumored to have had a dramatic effect on both truculent natives and the weaker sex, were now watery and reddened, and focused, it seemed, at two different distances behind, above and to the right of my face.
Without further ceremony, he reached into his waistcoat and produced a bundle of withered banana leaves, upon which were scribbled, perhaps in Sanskrit but certainly in wax pencil, something utterly inscrutable.
“Read this!” he demanded. A look of confusion must have passed over my face, but the good doctor did not seem to notice. Instead, he again stuck a hand into his waistcoat and produced a small package wrapped in a scrap of cloth.
“Would you like to see the Artifact?” He thrust the package at me without waiting for the answer. I took it gingerly in hand, and unwrapped it as the doctor fidgeted eagerly.
The cloth disgorged into my palm a small metallic oblong about the size of a robin’s egg. On each side was carved a squatting frog-god, on one side with eyes and mouth gaping, on the other with them closed. The remaining surface was curiously graven everywhere with indecipherable runes. A blood red and unshaped gem was savagely afixed to one end. I was struck with fear: it looked for all the world like a trinket one might pick up at a country fair, albeit from a country with very poorly developed aesthetics. I felt a sudden urge to toss the Artifact out the window, but feared I might harm one of the psychotic with which the lawn below was thick.
Before I could speak, the good doctor began telling me the tale that follows.