Category Archives: Chuck Wendig

A flash fiction challenge– “Long Term Investments”

Wow, two weeks in a row– I haven’t done this in a while.

Below is my response to this week’s flash-fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig– 1000 words on the subject of real estate, of all things.  And for some twisted reason, this one slotted right in behind the piece I wrote last week— same universe, same space opera sensibility.  Only…I think this one is all too likely, if we ever do create an interstellar society.  Which makes me kinda queasy when I think about it….

Copyright 2018 Douglas Daniel

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The sun sparkled beautifully off the waters of the bay.  Juarez took in the vista, with purple headlands shadowing the horizon across the water, and boats, pleasure craft and working vessels, dotting the blue of the water.  The sun was warm, but the breeze off the bay was cool and refreshing after days in a ship getting here.

“And this is the result of, what?” he asked Harkess.  “Two hundred years of terraforming?”

“To bring it to its current state of perfection, yes,” Harkess said.  “But Pequod was comfortably inhabitable within thirty years of our first landings.  And many of the prospects in our portfolio would require even less work than that– in fact, some are step off the ship, plant a seed, and you’re done.”

“Doubtless those go for a higher premium,” Juarez said.

Harkess conceded the point with a nod.  “Of course, as with any other piece of real estate, the asking price of any of our worlds is predicated on ‘move-in readiness’, among many other factors.”  He smiled. “To be honest, it is a balancing act most investors have to make. Savings in initial costs for a less human-friendly world will usually be invested in the subsequent terraforming as a matter-of-course.”

“Yes,” Juarez said, “The investors I represent have been studying the market for some time.  They understand the basic points of planetary investment.” He shifted in his seat. “But as a middle-rank association, we must be careful where we finally decide to put our money.  We’re not a conglomerate; still less are we Shareholders. One false step and we could all be penniless.”

“Of course,” Harkess said.  “And Advanced System Opportunities has assisted many groups in your situation, Citizen Juarez.  The New Way Chosen, for instance, came to us when they wanted to find a world for themselves. So did the Purified.  We have a great deal of experience helping investors of modest means become Proprietors on their own planet.”

A servant came out on to the terrace, bearing a tray with a bottle of wine and two glasses.  He placed the tray on the table between the two men, poured wine into the glasses, bowed and left.  Juarez thought the man bore unmistakable signs of being a mod, but said nothing.

“Please, Citizen Juarez,” Harkess said, indicating the glass before the representative.

Juarez lifted the glass, inhaled the bouquet, and then took a respectful sip.  “A local vintage?”

“Yes,” Harkess said.  “We’re quite proud of it.”

“It is truly excellent.”  Juarez took another sip. “I understand that ASO has a relationship with the Voronovs.”

Harkess nodded.  “Quite a long and fruitful one, to be honest.  Historically, and in the present, they have been a tremendous help.  And, of course, we keep all our licensures and permits with the Consortium itself in order.”  He paused. “May I ask what your investors’ intentions might be?”

Juarez looked at Harkess over the rim of his glass.  “My investors are committed to making whatever world we chose into a place fit for extensive human habitation– but precisely because our resources are not unlimited, we need to see some early profits.  To help us bear the cost of development.”

“Naturally,” Harkess said.  “That would mean some easily exploited mineral assets, or some of the higher yield cash crops, such as coca or makatinte.  Considering the resources of your group, I would assume that we are not talking about mining gas giants or any other such larger scale operations.”

“No, you’re quite correct,” Juarez said.  

“Yes– I think you will find, citizen, that we have several opportunities in our portfolio right now that might meet your specifications.”  Harkess smiled. “And if not, well, there’s hardly a week that passes without one of our survey ships jumping far beyond the Perimeter, discovering new worlds.  I am sure we will be able to find something that will please your investors.”

“That’s all very well and good, Citizen Harkess,” Juarez said, hesitating, “but I’m afraid I must ask about… infestations.”

“Ah,” Harkess said.  “You needn’t trouble yourself, Citizen Juarez.  ASO has extensive experience handling infestations.  In the five hundred standard years we have been in business, we have dealt with more than one hundred.”  He smiled. “In my operations days, I handled five myself.”

“Really?” Juarez said.  “Are they…difficult?”

“Generally, speaking, no,” Harkess said.  “Every world has its particular vulnerabilities.  Our techs and operations people are quite skilled at crafting solutions peculiar to each situation, one that is guaranteed to do no permanent harm to the planetary biosphere.  Naturally, we don’t beat our own drum about it, but we’ve never had a failure, nor a complaint.”

“I see,” Juarez said.  “Unfortunately, that’s not quite what I was asking.  Do you ever…face opposition?”

“Ah– no, we never have.  None of the species we’ve confronted have ever had a technology more sophisticated than bronze axes.   Primitives like that are quite easy to deal with– one tailored bio-plague, a couple of neutron weapons, and it’s generally over before they know it’s begun.”

“What about the Hegeri?” Juarez asked.

Harkess’ studied, pleasant facade seemed to harden, just a little.  “The Hegeri…the Hegeri are a unique case. They were taught their technology by a human renegade.  It is not…native to their culture.” He smiled again. “Besides, they are on the other side of the Volume.  The Consortium fleet has them well in hand. Nothing to concern us.”

“Well, that reassures me,” Juarez said.

“As it should, citizen,” Harkess said, beaming now.  “Besides, if it should turn out the planet you choose does have an infestation, it’s always possible that they will leave some picturesque ruins.  We’ve found that sort of thing is generally a boon to the tourist trade on any given world.”

Now Juarez smiled.  “Citizen Harkess,” he said, lifting his glass, “I think your firm and my investors are going to have a very profitable relationship.”

Harkess lifted his glass, too.  “I hope so, citizen,” he said, as they clinked glasses.  

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FLASH FICTION– “A MATTER OF DISCRETION”

My response to a flash-fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig, to write 1500 words of space opera in honor of May the Fourth.  It so happens I love space opera, although I’ve seen very few good examples of the genre lately (I have been dodging The Last Jedi like a healthy man dodges plague victims).  My little piece below is based on an (as yet) unpublished space opera universe I’ve had rolling around in my head for decades.  If I ever get the Divine Lotus series finished (and that is a long, sad tale) I might just turn to the universe of the Consortium, Shareholders, and the Perimeter.

Copyright 2018 Douglas Daniel

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“Damn Shareholder,” Rong muttered.  He leaned against a tree trunk and wiped sweat from his face.  

“Shut your mouth,” Teal told him.  He was drenched in sweat, as well; this world reminded him strongly of Novo Brasil.  “He hired us, he gets to set the agenda.”

“Indeed, Citizen Xiang,” the Shareholder said, from twenty meters away.  He spoke without turning around or looking up from the ruined wall he was examining with a sensordoc.  “I beg your patience—this will not take long.”

Teal gave Rong a sidelong glance.  “Enhanced genetics, tooler. Don’t forget it.”  Rong glowered, but clamped his lips tight.

Maria appeared over the rise beyond the wall, pushing aside vines and creepers.  “Shareholder Mann, there’s more ruins on the other side.”

“No matter,” Mann said.  He snapped the sensordoc shut.  “I’m picking up no ipinsotic traces at all.  Nothing. This location’s a waste of time.”

Teal resisted the urge to calculate the cost of the fuel they had burned getting here.  “Your orders, sir?”

“We go on to Mackason IV,” Mann said at once, with asperity.  “The reports can’t all be wrong.”  He seemed as if he were about to say more, but he stopped himself.  “I want to lift as quickly as possible.”

“We’ll be in the air five minutes after we close the hatches, Shareholder,” Teal said.

 

It wasn’t until they were well on trajectory for the jump radius that Mann sought Teal out.  They were alone in the Pleasant Virgin’s cockpit, with holographic readouts flickering around them.  Mann settled himself into the chair at the astrogator’s station and regarded Teal.  “All in order, Captain Xiang?” he said.

“We’re fifteen hours to jump,” Teal said, “and the ship is operating normally.”

“Good,” Mann said.  His regard of Teal sharpened.  “But not all of your crew appear to be happy.”

“Well, Shareholder,” Teal said, “with all due respect, I’m afraid there’s not much I can do about human nature.  We’ve hit eighteen worlds in fifteen systems in the last month, and so far every one of them has been a dry hole.  For whatever it is you’re looking for. Frustration’s bound to show itself in this sort of situation.”

Mann said nothing for a moment.  “You knew that the exact nature of this mission would remain confidential, captain.”

“Indeed, Shareholder, it was made very clear to me,” Teal said.

“And we Purcells hired you and your crew precisely because you have a reputation for keeping secrets.”

“It’s a point of pride with us,” Teal said.

“Well, then, captain, I would appreciate it if you had a word with your people,” Mann said.  “The House of Purcell needs your discretion, and your very fast ship, to complete a task of some urgency.  To help us complete that task, we are paying you a handsome sum. Surely enough to quell any ennui you and your people may feel.”

“Yes, Shareholder,” Teal said.  “I will speak to them.”

 

“Pilkin’ bastard,” Maria said, running a hand over Teal’s bare chest.  “Never was a Shareholder worth the skin holding ‘em together.”

“That may be,” Teal said.  He enjoyed her touch; their lovemaking always put him into drowsy contentment.  “But he is paying the bills, and without this job we might be scratching for a commission.  Things are hard at the moment.”

“In this quadrant,” Maria said.  “T’other side of the Volume, there’s plenty of opportunities.”

“I’ve heard it all already, pretty puss,” Teal said.  “And maybe once our coffers are full, we’ll head that way.  But we have to finish this job first.”

Maria raised herself up on her hands, looked down on Teal.  “D’you have any idea what he’s looking for?”

“No,” Teal said, fim, “and I don’t want to know.  It is not our business. We were hired to haul him about and keep our mouths shut.  As long as I’m captain, that’s what we’ll do.”

Maria stared at him, solemn.  “So be it, then,” she said.  

 

Mackason IV, from a descent trajectory, looked much like many another Earth-type world—ocean blues overlayed with white clouds, green-brown landmasses here and there.  A cyclonic storm occupied a quadrant of the main ocean, but it was too far away to affect their chosen landing site. Teal took the Virgin in fast, not caring if they left a prominent re-entry trail.

They landed on a rocky plain, in a level area between jagged hills.  Even coming in they could see the ruins that covered the land between the high ground; as they landed Teal saw broad roads and the bases of broken towers.  Mann, leaning over his shoulder to stare at the displays, gave off a palpable air of excitement. “This is more extensive than anything I have ever seen before,” he said, transfixed.

They all hit dirt, Rong, Maria, Chris, Mann and Teal.  Mann had his sensordoc out at once. Even from several feet away, Teal could tell the readout was exploding with data.  

“This is incredible!” Mann exclaimed.  “The readings are off the scale! This is what we’ve been looking for!”

“Rong, Maria, fetch the containment vessel,” Teal said.  The two of them hurried back into the ship.

Mann led Chris and Teal through a broken archway, and down a flight of steps.  At the bottom was a sort of small amphitheater; scattered in the dust that coated the amphitheater’s floor were scattered lumps and shapes, most of which were hard to make out.

At the foot of one pillar, however, something glowed ochre.  Mann approached it; it glowed more brightly, while the sensordoc’s readout became even more fevered.

“There!” Mann cried, pointing.  “An active device! It’s what I’ve been looking for.”

“Doesn’t seem much,” Chris said.  The femman knelt down, extend a hand.

“Don’t!” Mann yelled.  

The warning came too late.  Chris touch the device. There was a flash of light, and then a scream.  Teal, squinting past a hand raised against the light, glimpsed Chris afire, screaming.  In the next instant, the femman was simply gone.

“The fool!” Mann cried.  “The utter fool!”   

 

They got the device in the containment vessel using hand-grav tools.  They sealed the vessel; then, with a smug Mann leading the way, they secured it in the Virgin’s front cargo bay.  “We are all rich now,” Mann told them.

They lifted ship at once, with Mann in the crew mess preparing a report to his superiors.  Teal was happy to retreat to the cockpit to put the Virgin on a trajectory for the jump radius.  He still didn’t know what they had found, and he wanted to know even less than before.   

He had just finished setting the jump coordinates when he heard a muffled thump.  The sound was strange to him.  Then the security display popped up a flashing alert, weapon discharge- crew mess.

“What the hell?” Teal said.  He climbed over the seats and slid down the ladder to the crew level.

He burst into the mess and was confronted by a scene of blood.  Mann lay on his back on the middle deck, his eyes staring sightlessly at the overhead.  Rong stood over him, a slug-thrower in his hand.

“Had to do it!” he yelled at Teal.  “The Sheffields– they’re offering a million!  A whole million! The Purcells are nothing compared to the Sheffields.”

Teal yelled in rage and threw himself at Rong.  The man had no time to bring his weapon to bear on Teal before the captain was on him.  He fired another shot, but it missed Teal and caroomed off one of the bulkheads.

Old training kicked in for Teal; without thinking he batted the gun out of Rong’s hand, then drove punches into the man that first stole his wind, and then his life.  Rong’s body fell over Mann’s and lay still.

Teal, panting, sensed rather than saw Maria in the mess’ open hatch.  “He’s ruined us!” he said, his hands clenched in unspent fury. “Ruined us!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Maria said, “it probably depends on your point of view.”

Something slammed into Teal.  It threw him into the bulkhead.  He slid down, slumped against the compartment wall.  He couldn’t move; the stink of burnt flesh rose up into his nostrils.

“What…?” he gasped.

Maria came amd loomed over him, the quantifier in her hands crackling with residual heat.  “The Sheffields– what a joke. The Voronovs will pay far more. And it will all be mine.” Maria lifted the quantifier.

 

Maria reset the jump destination.  It would take a week to reach the Voronov base where she was to meet her contact– a long ride in an empty ship.  To top it off, she found she was actually sorry that Teal would not have understood why she had to do this. It would have been better with the two of them.

However, three million Consortiums bought a lot of consolation.  

Maria sat back in the command chair, contemplating her future.  She smiled. It was indeed time to examine opportunities on the far side of the Volume.   

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: RANDOM PHOTO EXERCISE — Memories by fire and moon

A flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig– 1000 words based on a random photo from Flickr.  After spinning through a considerable number of pictures, I found this one, by leogln7

Sea snake skeleton

It took me far, far away….

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“The dragons,” the guide said, “were foolish.  As powerful as they were, there were too few of them to rule humanity.  The last battle was fought here.”  He pointed at the vast skeleton, lying in the shallows of the placid lake.  “That’s old Thoronongrom, the king of the dragons.  He fell here with a thousand arrows in him, shredded by cannon, but it still took him three days to die.  The corpse was a generation decaying.”

“How horrible!” gasped the Marchioness of Tre.  She held her scented fan to her face.  “I can almost smell the rotting flesh!”

The dandy at her elbow laughed.  “Come, dearest, it’s been two centuries.”  His fingers fondled the hilt of the jeweled sword at his hip.  “These bones are bleached clean.”

“Roderick, must you spoil everything?” the Marchioness pouted.

The group stood on the lake shore, gawping at the skeleton, as the guide went on about the battle and its great slaughter.  The lords and ladies, with jewels and fine silks, had thought it diverting to come down to the shore for a while, before the evening’s feast and fireworks to celebrate the anniversary of the victory.  They whispered and laughed among themselves as the fellow went on.

“Probably expects tips in direct proportion to how loquacious he can be,” Jason, Baron of Rogen, whispered in Clara’s ear.  Clara wished he wouldn’t do that—she was trying to listen.

“In the end,” the guide said, “although not all the dragons fell here, their power was broken.  The Battle of Silent Lake ended their rule over humanity, and since we have ruled ourselves, to our own greater glory.”

“Hear, hear,” said Duke Coram, and the crowd applauded.

Clara did not join in.  Glory—she found it an ironic word.  Of course, this fellow, making a living off showing fancy folk the bones of legends, wasn’t going to suggest to any of them that their ‘glory’ came at a high price.

The crowd went back up to the mansion overlooking the lake, as the sun set.  There were aperitifs before the meal, and the high-born enjoyed them as they watched the sunset.  Then, by the light of huge lanterns the nobles danced to swiftly-played music, before sitting down to the meal, which was served by silent servants.

Clara, relegated to the outer tables, got up as the fireworks began.  Great balls of crimson and green fire burst high in the air, reflecting in the face of the lake, but she ignored them as she went down the steps to the lower terrace.  Her path was one she would follow to obey a call of nature.  Before she could reach the porticos, however, Jason intercepted her.  “Where are you going?” he demanded.

“My dear baron,” Clara said, “even ladies of the first rank have to relieve themselves from time-to-time, not to mention the daughters of country squires.”

Jason smiled and leaned against a balustrade.  “You are such a queer little thing.  You were really intent on what that fellow had to say this afternoon.”

“Why not?” Clara said.  “Have you no interest in history, my lord?”

“I’ve told you before, call me Jason.”

“I don’t wish to imply an intimacy to which I have no right,” Clara said.  Not yet—and, with any luck, never.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Jason said.  “But, to answer your question, not particularly.  It’s all dead and gone.  Particularly the dragons.  Ancient business that has no meaning now.”

“No?” Clara said.  “I think we are the children of history, and everything in the past lives in us.”  She hesitated.  “My lord, do you believe the tales that not all the dragons died?  That some took human form and that their descendants live among us?”

Jason’s insouciant smile faded.  “That’s not legend, little Clara,” he said.  “That’s dangerous.  The sort of loose talk that puts one in the company of the secret police.”

“Forgive me, then, my lord,” Clara said.  “I spoke out of turn, and foolishly.  Now, please excuse me—I do not wish to have an accident.”

He let her go.  She went through the porticos, but instead of going to the privies she went down to the beach again.  The fireworks continued, even as the Bone Moon rose above them.

She walked out into the water, careless of her shoes and gown, until she stood right under and within the skeleton of Thoronongrom.  She stood there and found it hard to catch her breath, as she tried to imagine what it had been like, on that day, when the old realm had been thrown down, and the new—a regime that needed secret police—was born.  She laid a hand on the giant, weathered rib beside her, and tried to imagine what Thoronongrom had been like, alive, and dealing out death and justice.

I have seen you in my dreams.

She waded to the skull.  The great jaws were agape, as they were in that final moment of death, two centuries before.  Clara tried to picture what sort of agony it was for this great creature to spend three days a-dying, and found she could not.  Her eyes filled with tears.

Music echoed from the terrace above, as the fireworks went on.  Clara was sure she could hear laughter.  The revelries would now move into their terminal, drunken phase, she supposed.

She reached up, to touch one of the great fangs in the upper jaw.  Almost without intending to, she broke off its tip.  It was easier than she thought—the skeleton was so weathered it was well on its way to becoming chalk.

She stared at the tip in her hand.  She closed her fist about it.  She gripped it hard, until the point bit into her palm, until blood flowed.

When the blood struck the water, it sizzled.

She looked up at the mansion, and knew that fire danced in the depths of her eyes.

Rest well, Grandfather, she thought.  They will pay yet.

Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge– Apocalypse Now!

I wrote this piece in response to a flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig— 1500 words on, as he put it, “a rare, strange, unparalleled apocalypse.”

Well, I took a look at the challenge and thunk real hard, and…went in completely different direction.  If this story puzzles anyone, I would ask them to not consider the modern English usage of the word “apocalypse”, but what the word actually means in Greek.  The story’s inadequacies as a story, of course, have nothing to do with etymology.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“Tell her,” Timon said.  He stood close to Aldan, speaking for his ears only.

“No,” Aldan said, speaking just as low.

It was probably an unnecessary precaution; it was unlikely that either of their voices could be heard over the music and the happy cries of the dancers.  One hundred men and women matched steps in the middle of the hall.  A hundred more urged them on from the sides, or gabbled among themselves beside tables heavy with food and drink.  Timon and Aldan were alone in the crowd, far off in a corner behind pillars, and very nearly out of sight of the newlyweds, who sat atop the dais at the far end of the room.  Aldan dared glance that direction.  Ranald lolled in the groom’s seat, smiling broadly and toasting the dancers.  Rebekah sat beside him the bride’s seat, her spray of flowers in her lap, quietly smiling.

“For the love of the all-seeing gods, why not?” Timon said.

“She marries a great lord,” Aldan said, “and she is happy.  Besides which, she hardly knows me.”

“But you love her,” Timon said.

“What is that?” Aldan said.  “Nothing.  With this marriage we all buy peace among ourselves.  Whatever I feel is nothing in comparison.”

“But, Aldan, your happiness….”

“Stop whispering in my ear,” Aldan told him.  “It will do no good.”

He stepped away, leaving Timon glowering among the pillars.  Aldan moved through the crowd carefully; he was not dressed in festive garb, but in traveling clothes, with his sword buckled on.  His mission started as soon as he could pledge his loyalty to his new lord.  Horses and the men detailed to follow him were waiting on the ceremony; all Aldan could do was make sure they were fed and out of the rain.

He went to the nearest table.  The delicacies here would not sustain him on the ride he had ahead of him; but he had to eat or drink something, out of courtesy.  This was not the time or place to give offense.

He found a plate of dove’s eggs in spiced butter, and ate them slowly as he walked to the other side of the room.  He garnered stares as he did; some of the guests obviously wondered if he were a vagabond who had somehow gotten in past the guards.  Others just as obviously wondered how someone so homely could have been invited to the nuptials of the high warlord of Telania and the fairest daughter of the old Houses.

He finished the eggs, and found a place for the plate in a niche in the far wall.  It was an old icon shrine, now empty, and Aldan reflected that it was possible no servant would find the plate for twenty or thirty years.  He wondered why that amused him.

“Still causing trouble, I see,” someone said from behind him.

Aldan turned.  Scholar Harald approached; his old tutor was unchanged, save for more lines in his face.  Aldan bowed.  “It’s just they never have anywhere you can put the dishes,” he said.

“Ah—then we can blame the host,” Harald said.  “As we can blame him for so many things.”

“Teacher,” Aldan said, warningly, “you should guard your lips.”

“Perhaps,” Harald said.  “Perhaps I’m an old man who doesn’t care who knows what he thinks of our new overlord.”

“If nothing else, restrain yourself for my sake,” Aldan said.  “It would grieve me to see your head displayed on the Traitor’s Walk.”

“Bah,” Harald said, waving his hand in that manner that told Aldan his teacher considered the matter unworthy of discussion.  “It is needful for someone to bear witness to what we are giving up.”

“A generation of civil war?” Aldan suggested.

“Our ancient liberties,” Harald said.

“There will be time for that later,” Aldan said, growing worried.  “First we have to defeat the Galocina.”

“Some would say the Galocina are a convenient distraction….” Harald said.

“Teacher, please,” Aldan pleaded.

“All right– I will be quiet, for your sake,” Harald said.  He smiled.  “It is too bad you never spoke up.”

“Spoke up?” Aldan said.

“To Rebekah,” Harald said.  “If she were married now, the Warlord would have had to find some other woman of the Old Houses to wed—although I doubt he could have found anyone else as highly placed.”

Aldan shook his head.  “You are dreaming, Teacher.  Rebekah hardly knows my name.  And her house would have hardly consented to wedding her to a mere soldier…especially one as homely as I am.”

“You have other qualities,” Harald said.

“None that could overcome the plain terror of my face,” Aldan said.  “Forgive me, Teacher, but I need some air.”

He bowed to Harald, and stepped out on one of the western balconies.  The balcony was covered, so he was not instantly soaked, but out in the dark the rain came down in a steady deluge.  The sound of it actually matched the muffled sound of the celebration within.  Soon enough he would be out in it; there was no delaying his mission for mere weather.

Weddings, though….  

“What a night,” a voice said.  “I am so sorry you’re going to have to ride through all that.”

Aldan turned.  His mother came through the open doors on to the balcony.  Her shrewd eyes examined him, as if looking to make sure his clothes were on straight and he combed his hair.  Her smile, though, was indulgent and proud.

“The fate of a soldier,” Aldan said.  “You get used to it.”

She came near.  Aldan bowed to her, then hugged her close.  “Well, thank the gods I’m not a soldier,” his mother said.  “I’d hate to get used to this.”  She stepped back, examining his face.  “Exactly why are you still here, though?”

“Waiting on the ceremony,” Aldan said.  “I must place my hands between the Warlord’s, and bid the couple farewell.”

“Oh, that,” his mother said.  “Archaic claptrap.”  She looked up and seemed to search Aldan’s face.  “It won’t be easy for you, son.  I am sorry.”

“What do you mean?”

“Having to farewell the woman you love as she is given to another,” his mother said.

Aldan sighed.  “Everyone seems to be talking about impossibilities tonight.  To Rebekah I am hardly more than dust; and my countenance….”

“Merely provides a covering for singular virtues,” his mother said.  “Well, perhaps it is best you are leaving for the frontier.”  She laid a hand to his cheek.  “But I still claim a mother’s right to want my children to be happy.”

“Happy…is something I stopped worrying about many years ago, mother,” Aldan said.

Soon after they called for the pledging, and Aldan went in.  There were a few courtiers ahead of him, so he had few minutes to wait and fidget and feel the eyes of the guests upon him.  He was used to stares, usually.  For the most part.  Being the object of quite so much gawking at the same time was, he had to admit, a little unnerving.

Then it was his turn.  He went forward, ascended the dais, and knelt before Ranald.  He placed his hands between those of the Warlord.  “My lord,” Aldan said, “I pledge my loyalty and service, my labor and my life.  I pledge this to you and to the realm, in peace and in war.”

Ranald smiled down at him.  “Ah,” the Warlord said, loud enough for all in the hall to hear.  “We are pleased to receive the service of a soldier so brave and skilled.  A little cheated, perhaps, in terms of beauty, but then, you’re not going out to make love to the Galocina, are you?”

Titters from the crowd; Aldan managed to smile.  “No, my lord.”

He stood and stepped over to Rebekah, as the next courtier ascended the dais toward Ranald.  Aldan knelt down before her.  “Lady,” he said, “may the gods bless your union and sustain the peace it brings.”

“Aldan,” Rebekah said.  She said it so softly that Aldan barely heard her, although he was only a foot or two in front of her.

He looked up.  Rebekah stared down at him; her eyes searched his face.  “Are you…well?” she asked him.

“W-well enough, lady,” Aldan stammered.  He was suddenly swimming in her eyes.

“I’m sorry…I’m sorry you have to go away,” she said.  “So far away…I want you to be careful, Aldan Osteran.  Please, please be very careful.”

“I will, Lady,” Aldan said.

“I will pray for you constantly,” Rebekah said.  She seemed to want to say something more, her eyes still fixed on his, but the next courtier was done with his pledge, so Aldan had to stand and turn away from Rebekah’s avid gaze, and descend the dais.  He walked out of the hall, straight-backed, despite the way his legs threatened to buckle under the weight of revelation.

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: TEN MORE TITLES – Ring of Bullets

A response to Chuck Wendig’s most recent flash fiction challenge, to write a story to fit one of the following randomly generated titles–

The Incubus’ Tale

The Manor Above

The Dancer And The Shattered Shell

The Hero Will Not Be Automatic

Ring of Bullets

The Music Box of Manhattan

These Damned Insects

Tiger, Burning

A Cold Opportunity Without The Kingdom

The Apocalypse Ticket

I picked Ring of Bullets, but fudged the 1000 word limit Chuck requested.  I am shameless.

This piece is set in the same universe as my Divine Lotus series of novels, just further south and later in time.

Note: this piece depicts combat and military violence, so be warned.

Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel

************************************

Ring of Bullets

“Hold them!,” Haass screamed.  “Hold the bastards!”

His order barely cut above the din of firing and the howls of the Temishi.  The enemy swordsmen surged against the barricade, screaming in bloodlust, or in agony as a Union bullet found them.  The troopers behind the barricade of logs and barrels fired directly into enemy faces, or stabbed with bayonets.  As Haass watched one, then two of the soldiers fell, taking sword-thrusts, even as other soldiers shot the men who stabbed them.

“Captain!  Captain!”  It was Subaltern Skal.  The youth practically tumbled down the hill toward Haass.  “The Temishi are over the south wall!  They’ve broken into the lower barracks!”

Haass stared at him for one instant.  Then he grabbed the whistle on its lanyard, put it to his lips, and blew three sharp blasts.  “Fall back!” he shouted.  “Fall back to the hold-fast!”

The men obeyed, raggedly, in twos and threes.  They had go backward, fighting as they went.  Those who turned their backs to the Temishi were cut down at once.  The barbarians, shrieking, came over the barricade in a living wave.  Haass fired once, twice with his revolver, dropping tattooed swordsmen as they clambered over the logs.  Then he went back, with his men, up the hill.

Five or six troopers coalesced around him and Skal, and together they laid down enough fire to hold off the Temishi as they retreated.  The soldiers furiously worked the bolts of their rifles, firing, loading, firing.  Haass empty his revolver, hastily reloaded with a speed-loader from his ammo pouch, and shot a charging Temishi in the face.

They went up the hill, and now the eastern barricade they had quit was smothered in Temishi.  The watchtower on the east side of the cantonment, Haass now saw, was ablaze.  One of the troopers beside him took a steel-tipped arrow through his chest.  He crumpled slowly to the hillside, as if reluctant to admit he was dead.

They went back, and reached the lower door of the hold-fast.  “Get in!” Haass cried.  The soldiers piled in through the portal.  Haass fired again and again, holding back the Temishi, then flung himself inside.  Someone slammed the heavy door shut, and bars dropped into place.

Haass picked himself up.  The lower floor of the hold-fast was a wide room, stone-floored, with firing apertures around its perimeter.  Weak sunshine shone through the northern slits, as the sun approached noon.  A stone staircase led up to the roof.

Fifteen or twenty troopers gasped and cursed in the lower room.  Some were wounded.  Haass said, “Cover the firing loops!  Keep the bastards away from the walls.”

Men moved to obey.  Haass forced his legs to move, and he ascended the stairs.

He came out on the roof, and the sound of the Temishi horde rang in his ears.  He kept low, taking cover behind the crenellated top-wall, and peeking out as he reloaded his pistol.

From here he could see the whole breadth of the pass, from the northern hill to the southern.  The knoll on which the hold-fast stood was lodged right in the mouth of the pass– to the west, across the shallow, frigid river whose name he could not remember, the country opened up into what passed for fertile lands in this cold, southern extremity.

Not only was the watch-tower burning, but also the northern and southern blockhouses, flanking the knoll.  Haass gritted his teeth; they had not had the time to build a wall to enclose the hold-fast, the tower and the blockhouses.  They had been told the Temishi were five or six days march away, on the other side of the mountains, and that there was time.  Instead the Temishi had appeared suddenly, not an hour before.

Now the barbarians surged about the hill in their thousands.  The lower barracks, the cookhouse and the ammunition hut were all burning, too, the ammo store crackling continuously with exploding ammunition.  Temishi danced around the the fires, celebrating the destruction.  The only signs of the bulk of Haass’ command were bodies in khaki lying scattered around the post.  Here and there Temishi hacked at the corpses, out of spite, or to collect trophies.

At the moment, the Temishi were keeping back from the hold-fast, finishing the destruction of the rest of the post.  As Haass watched, other groups of Temishi peeled away from the post, toward the river, with its bridge the Unionists had been unable to destroy.  Haass grimaced; the Temishi would be on the division’s rear areas in half a day.

Someone was there with him on the roof– Sergeant Tem.  The older man had blood on his face, but seemed otherwise unhurt.  He peered out.  “Bad enough, ain’t it, Captain.”

“Bad enough,” Haass said, unable to improve on the sergeant’s assessment.

“We should never have come to this forsaken place,” Tem said.

“Not our decision, sergeant,” Haass said.  “We’re soldiers, we go where we’re sent.”  Despite his words, Haass knew resentment– the Union had no business in this land, except the High Chief’s ambition for an empire.  At the moment it seemed a poor excuse to let savages hack good soldiers to pieces.

“We just have to hold them off,” Haass said.  “If our riders got through, the brigade could be here by tomorrow morning.”

An arrow skipped off a crenellation close by.  Haass and Tem crossed to the other side of the roof, looking out toward the river.  The soldiers below now fired at the crowd outside.  Even so, despite the firing, Temishi were cautiously making their way up the slope on all sides.  They’ll rush us soon.

A commotion among the enemy on the river-side of the post; men parted to let a small group of Temishi carrying long spears through.  Two of the spears carried something on their tips, pales lumps.  Their passage elicited much cheering among the Temishi.

The spear-carriers came closer, and Haass saw why the Temishi rejoiced.  “Pons and Dro,” he muttered.  The riders had not made it out.

“So,” Tem said, sounding resigned.  “It’s the ring of bullets, after all.”

The pledge.  “We’re not there, yet, sergeant,” Haass said.  “If we can just….”

There was a roar; the roof shook beneath them, and a cloud of dust and smoke shot up on the other side of the holdfast.  “They’ve blown the wall in!” Tem shouted.  He raced for the stairs, and Haass followed.

In the room below was swirling smoke, screams and rifles going off in the enclosed space.  Temishi poured through a wide gap in the eastern wall.  Troopers shot them, struggled with them hand-to-hand, but there were too many of them.  Now, however, the Temishi did not strike to kill; they seized soldiers with their bare hands and with nooses, looking to capture.

Ring of bullets…ring of bullets– the pledge, that no Union soldier would let another fall into barbarian hands, to be tortured and slowly flayed in Temishi temples.  So, standing midway down the stairs, Haass lifted his pistol and shot Tem in the back of the head.  He shot Skal, as the boy crouched weeping against the far wall.  He fired and fired, and as he did Haass wept, too, for his men, for the waste, for himself.  He would never marry or father children.  He would never again see another sunset, or the forests of his home.

Temishi pushed up the stairs toward him.  Haass put the muzzle of his pistol to his own temple, but the hammer clicked on a spent cartridge.  He flailed with the empty pistol, cracking a skull, laying open a face, but strong hands seized him and bore him down.

A Non-fiction Challenge from Chuck Wendig– Why I Write

Chuck went for something different this week– a non-fiction challenge on “why I write”. One thousand words. Deadline this Friday.

Well, it’s kind of simple. For me, at least. Don’t need a thousand words.

In one way or another, I’ve been telling myself stories for as long as I can remember. At five or six years old, I was telling stories with my collection of Confederate and Union toy soldiers. I told stories to myself to put myself to sleep; I told stories on the playground, I told stories in the bathtub. My childhood was one long imaginative excursion, full of drama and danger. It’s one of the reasons the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip was a personal favorite– it echoed my own experience growing up. Often my dream– or daydream– life seemed stronger than my breathing existence.

Around the fifth grade or so, I realized I wanted to write my stories down. That realization was the first step of a long, long process of acquiring the discipline to write and complete stories. This has been a struggle, the details of which are unimportant. Suffice to say, writing is the mature expression of my need to tell stories. Daydreaming, the sort that made otherwise sweet-natured grade-school teachers yell at me just to get my attention, is no longer sufficient.

I write because I dream. I write because I want my dreams to have permanence. And I write because I want to share my dreaming. I will probably continue to write as long as I can use a keyboard or handle a pen, despite the fact that the talent is meager.

And that’s about it.

Abandoned Fragment #11- The Chase

Chuck Wendig threw down a flash fiction challenge today in honor of the new Mad Max movie. The challenge is to write a car chase. Everybody loves a car chase, right?

Unfortunately, I am a lazy scum-sucking low-life cheater from Cheatville. Instead of writing a new piece, I remembered a car chase embedded in one of my abandoned novels, an alternate history story, and thought it might work. I plead the excuse that I have been backing away from doing flash fiction in general the last couple of weeks, as I am trying (really, I am) to focus on Princess of Fire, and so don’t have the energy to spare to write a new piece. Feel free to resent me; I understand.

Please note this is an excerpt, not a complete story; because of that, the end is a little abrupt.

It is incumbent on me to post the following warning–

DO NOT READ THIS PIECE IF GRAPHIC VIOLENCE AND BLOODSHED OFFEND YOU!

Really, it even icks me out in places.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
************************************
The tunnel went down, a slight but noticeable slope. Roberts floored the accelerator and the walls of the tunnel shot past. The vehicle’s headlights were an ever-retreating patch of light in front of them.

Nathan dropped the windscreen. If there was gun-play ahead it would keep shards of glass out of their teeth. He locked the screen down and the wind buffeted them.

Nathan checked the shotgun and tried to calculate the geometries of the chase. Surely the Delhites had no more than a few minutes lead; the fight had not taken long. On the other hand, they could be counted on to be moving at the best speed their vehicles could make, and Nathan and Roberts had no advantage. Nathan prayed that the tunnel would open out onto a single road; if the Delhites turned off before the Americans caught up to them they would get away for sure. Even if they did catch up, there were two enemy cars between Nathan and the one carrying Halima. And Raneesh?— was the thin man dragging Halima the Maharaja of Delhi? He hoped to find out.

The tunnel leveled out, then began to climb. Roberts downshifted once; the car hardly slowed. They shot up the incline, and the walls of the tunnel became rougher, as if the closer to the exit the less trouble the Delhites had taken to make their work clean. Nathan‘his hands gripped the shotgun tight.

The car’s headlights flashed on something ahead. Nathan peered ahead. “Slow, slow,” he shouted; but Roberts was already braking.

At two hundred yards the headlights barely gleamed off the dull brown metal of the cars; but Nathan could see well enough the Delhites scrambling around the vehicles. In front of the machines a patch of red daylight and purple sky was growing; Nathan glimpsed silhouettes of men against the sunset, shoving the doors open.

“They had to stop to open the door!” he yelled to Roberts.

The door was open, a rectangle of ocher. The officers scrambled back aboard their cars. Nathan threw himself into the back seat of their car, as Roberts downshifted and braked again. The cars blocked the exit; they were suddenly very close. The headlights shone on the enemy. Nathan saw one of the Delhites look back at them with wide, terrified eyes as he tried to climb aboard the last car.

The first vehicle shot out the tunnel’s mouth on to the dirt track that lay beyond. The second followed, and then the third, its rear wheels fishtailing. Nathan held on to the seat in front of him and Roberts floored the gas again; the car streaked out of the tunnel into the sunset air, into the enemy’s dust.

The car jounced and slewed. Roberts worked the wheel and the accelerator and the gear-shift as if he directing a concert. Nathan, blinded by the dust cloud, wondered how Roberts could see where he was going. He knew a sudden fear they would lose the Delhites.

The car broke out of the dust-cloud. Roberts slewed the wheel, and the car turned hard right on to a tarred road, so sharp it came up off its right wheels. Nathan held on to the front seat with one hand, the shotgun with the other, and yelled in triumph; the last Delhite car was fifty feet in front of them.

“Get them!” he yelled.

Roberts worked the gear-shift and the gas; somehow, beyond all of Nathan’s expectations, the car accelerated. The air whistled around them. The last car grew big. Nathan braced himself.

The bumper of their car slammed into the rear of the enemy vehicle. The Delhite car slewed back and forth on the road, the driver fighting to control it. Roberts tried to ram again, but the Delhite driver jerked his wheel hard and the car slid rightward. One of the passengers in the back seat twisted around to face them. Nathan saw the pistol in the man’s hand as a black blur. He slid down in the seat, Roberts bent low over the steering wheel and slewed the car leftward; the officer’s shot went over their heads.

The bumper of their car hit the Delhite’s fender. Metal screeched and ground; the car shuddered, then jerked leftward again. Nathan found himself staring at the back seat of the other car, the two vehicles racing side-by-side. The officer, left hand braced against the back of his seat, was standing up, trying to get a bead on Nathan.

Nathan leveled the shotgun one-handed and fired. The recoil nearly knocked him out of the car; he barely held on to the seat in front of him and the shotgun both. His helmet flew off, bounced off the car’s boot, disappeared. The blast ripped the side of the other car and converted the Delhite officer from a man to a ruin of blood and red meat. The two men in the back seat with him screamed, peppered with pellets and bone fragments. The corpse toppled backward out of the car and disappeared in the grass along the road.

Nathan worked the lever of the shotgun, ejecting the smoking, empty shell. He braced himself and aimed at the back of the driver’s head. He hesitated; the man was helpless, unarmed, his back turned. It suddenly felt like murder. Nathan cursed, and pointed the muzzle of the shotgun at the Delhite’s left front tire. The flash of the blast was bright in the twilight, against the dark-surfaced road. The tire shredded; the driver cried out and struggled with the wheel.

“Shove ’em off!” Nathan yelled. Roberts, grinning, tweaked the wheel hard. The car slammed sideways into the Delhite. The driver’s cry changed to a scream as the car careened rightward, off the road and down the embankment. Nathan looked back, as it flipped and rolled. Bodies flew. He wondered if a quick blast would not have been more merciful.

Roberts stomped on the accelerator; the car zoomed toward the next Delhite. This driver knew what was happening; he weaved back and forth, denying Roberts the chance to slip alongside. The batman swerved, trying to see a way past. The right front fender of the car clipped the Delhite’s bumper; the headlight shattered with an ironically musical sound over the roar of the engines. The Delhite vehicle shuddered; the two cars locked bumpers. Metal crumpled and screeched. Roberts cursed, fought the wheel.

The car jerked loose suddenly, as the Delhite car’s bumper gave way and bounced on the roadway, sending up a cascade of sparks. Their car skidded hard left; Roberts yelled in fear. Nathan grabbed hold of the seat, fighting to stay in. The vehicle kissed the edge of the blacktop, hung there for a perilous moment, then shot back.

Nathan lost his balance, slammed into the floor of the car. He pulled himself up. They were now even with the Delhite car. Roberts jerked the wheel; the two vehicles slammed together with a song of bending metal. Nathan found himself staring into the faces of a pair of Delhite officers in the back seat.

He leveled the shotgun, pulled the trigger. Nothing happened– the hammer clicked. “Dammit!” Nathan said. He jerked the lever. The chamber was empty. The bandolier of shells trembled on the floor beside him; he reached for it.

A weight landed on his back. A sudden memory– a summer’s day when he was sixteen, the Carter family’s barn where he had hired out for a day’s work, the smell of the dust of the barn’s floor, mingling with the scent of the hay-bale that had fallen on him. Nathan slammed hard into the floor of the car. His face hit the floorboards, skidded on the metal, the bandolier under him. He returned to the present, and smelled starched cloth and sweat. One of the Delhites had jumped into the car on top of him.

Nathan twisted under the Delhite. The man had fallen part way over the seat, off balance, but he scrabbled for Nathan’s neck. He kneed Nathan in the gut, his dark face fierce.

Nathan swung the shotgun. He had no room for a windup, but the barrel connected with a sharp smack against the man’s jaw. The officer grunted, fell back against the door. Nathan pushed himself up. The Delhite swung hard and slammed his fist into Nathan’s face.

The man was big; it was like being slammed with an oak board. Nathan saw black, swimming spots, skidded back and hit the other door. His head made an odd, hollow, coconut sound as it hit the door’s paneling. The Delhite leapt after him. They grappled, as the cars tore apart.

The officer got his hands on Nathan’s throat. His grip was a steel band on Nathan’s windpipe. Nathan knew at once he would never pry the man’s fingers off his throat; instead he slammed the heel of his hand into the Delhite’s face, over and over. The third blow broke the officer’s nose. Blood flowed, spewing with each breath the man took. Nathan followed with a knee to his groin, as blackness closed in on the edges of his vision.

The car slewed left. The officer fell backward; his hold on Nathan broke. Nathan, coughing, shoved himself to his knees. He grabbed a handful of the Delhite’s dress shirt; he noticed, with odd irrelevance, that the blood was wilting the man’s starched creases. Nathan slammed his fist again and again into the fellow’s face, concentrating on his nose. The flesh pulped under his hand. Nathan head-butted the man, then hauled him up with rage-enhanced strength. The officer clawed at him, but he was having trouble breathing; his face was a mask of red. Nathan pulled him up and pushed him out and over the lip of the door. The Delhite cried out once, fell between the cars and hit the black-top. The body rolled fifty feet, limp as a doll, before it stopped.

Nathan hardly noticed. He picked up the shotgun and the bandolier. He shoved shells into the gun, as the cars ground together again. This enemy driver was giving as good as he got; Nathan’s car slid sideways several feet before Roberts got it under control. No hesitation this time; Nathan jacked a shell into the shotgun’s chamber, stood and blew the enemy driver’s head off. Blood and brain blew through the other car’s shattered windscreen. The headless corpse still clutching the wheel, the car veered and sailed off the road.

The last car was a hundred feet ahead, its taillights a beacon in the growing night. “Go, go,” Nathan told Roberts, as he loaded more shells into the shotgun. He wiped the officer’s blood off his hands onto his battlesmock.

The taillights veered off the road. To Nathan it was as if they had vanished. He blinked, then saw the car jouncing along a track, toward a village in the middle distance. “Follow them,” he said to Roberts.

“Do we have to?” Roberts said back; but he turned the wheel and the car trundled off the road.

Nathan sat down to keep from being thrown out of the car. He finished reloading the shotgun. His hands were shaking. There were a dozen spots on his body sending warning signals that tomorrow they would be in agony. Nathan ignored them, kept shoving shells into the gun. This isn’t finished.

The last enemy car disappeared among the white-washed houses of the village. Nathan could see where the track, which passed through the hamlet, where it came out beyond and twisted away into the distance. He watched; the car did not appear. “They’ve stopped,” he hollered to Roberts, leaning forward. “They’re going to be laying for us. Pull up and stop outside the village.” Roberts nodded, looking grim.

The track led them, rattling, over a dry stream-bed. The palm trees loomed large over the houses. The car climbed the track. Roberts braked; the car stopped in the shadow of the outermost house.

The Noise of Distant Battle

I have been watching, from something of a distance, the controversy over the Hugo nominations for this year. The nominees are largely, if not wholly, composed of a slate put together by right-wing fans. I’ve read a number of articles and plowed through a certain amount of angry comments, but I think Chuck Wendig, once again, has a very useful perspective on the whole business; Damien Walter, on the other hand, points out that much of the motivation behind the slate of nominees may not, in the end, actually have a lot to do with science fiction or fantasy.

In the process of my reading I came across this, which was reblogged on Goggle+ :

http://www.breitbart.com/london/2015/04/04/hugo-awards-nominations-swept-by-anti-sjw-anti-authoritarian-authors/

Here’s a pertinent quote–

“The Sad Puppies have struck a blow for creative and intellectual freedom. But their campaign is just one part of a wider movement against the forces of the authoritarian left, whose allies are decreasing by the day. Whether they are called CHORFs, SJWs or Stepford Students, authoritarians, finger-waggers, bullies and panic-mongers are facing a backlash across dozens of fronts as the defiant spirit of GamerGate floods into other fandoms.”

Wow. Come the Jubilee, huh?

Except I’m wondering what it is exactly these guys are celebrating. Many commenters on Chuck’s post and others, as well as the i09 article, point out that what the Sad Puppies campaign has effectively done is destroy the Hugos, all in order to count some dubious Culture War coup. Henceforth, unless something changes, the Hugos will be nothing but a battleground for competing, politically motivated slates of nominees.

Here’s my thought– meh.

For all the sturm und drang, the Hugos, in my opinion, may just not be that relevant. I, personally, have not paid attention to them in years (decades, in fact). They’re a fan award that has no major influence on my reading or book-buying habits. And I suspect this is true nowadays for the vast majority of sci-fi and fantasy fans. There are, doubtless, millions of SFF consumers who’ve never heard of the Hugos. As others have pointed out (see Chuck’s post again), fandom is far larger than the Worldcon and Hugo voters.

A point in support this assertion– when you look at the number of ballots cast this year for each Hugo category, you realize that we’re talking about small numbers (e.g., “BEST NOVELETTE (1031 ballots)”) when you compare them to the total number of Worldcon memberships, and exceedingly tiny when compared to the total number of people worldwide who read science fiction and fantasy on a regular basis. The Sad Puppies complain that the Hugos have lately been nominated by a tiny clique, and, ironically, they’ve just proven it. And it’s just about as valid when they do it as it is when any other tiny group does. In other words, two wrongs don’t make a right.

In the end, the triumphalism of the Sad Puppies seems to me as empty as that of a World War I army celebrating the capture of a few dozen yards of enemy trench line. They’ve paid a high price for not much, and, in the final analysis, it won’t change a whole lot. The diversification of SFF against which they rail is largely a reflection of the diversification of Western society, and no amount of right-wing posturing and coup-counting is going change that.

Thanks be to God.

Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge– OBERON IS HERE

A flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig, 1000 words based on an image.

I went with the one Chuck provided–

chuckoberon1

My usual mediocrity….

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
************************
OBERON IS HERE

Finally, fighting the traffic was just too much. I gave up— there was no chance of getting home today. I pulled off into the driveway of a little honky-town bar and restaurant, just shy of the I-20/S-208 interchange. I could see the cars on the interstate were at a complete stand-still. I just didn’t have enough energy left to brave it.

The signboard outside the bar read “OBERON IS HERE” in big, black letters. I mean, state the obvious.

I went in. The air conditioning inside gave me a pleasant shiver. Driving two hundred miles in the Texas heat will take it out of you, even if your AC was working, which mine wasn’t.

The bar portion of the place was quiet, empty, dark. The TV behind the bar was showing the same talking heads who had dominated the air waves for the last week; mercifully, the sound was muted. The only other person in the bar was the bartender. He leaned on the polished counter; when I stepped up, I saw he was working a newspaper cross-word puzzle.

“I hate those puzzles,” I said, planting myself on a stool.

The barkeep looked up. Older, heavy, with eyes that had seen more than his fair share of trouble– but he smiled. “Keeps my mind off things,” he said. “Especially since it takes me a while to finish one.” He put down his pencil. “What’s your pleasure?”

“Heineken?”

“Not a problem.”

He pulled a bottle out of the ice, plopped it on the counter, uncapped it for me. I took a sip. The beer was as good, or better, than the cool air of the bar.

“I’m surprised you’re not hip-deep in customers,” I said.

The barkeep shook his head. “Nobody wants to give up their place in the lemming parade. Not that they’re going much of anywhere.”

I snorted. “I wonder where they think they’re going. It’s not like running away is really a solution.”

The barkeep eyed me curiously. “You’re not a lemming, then?”

“Nope– trying to get back to Dallas from a job in San Angelo. Problem is, seems like every major road is jammed with people going the other direction, on both sides. I get around one flood and I hit another.”

The barkeeper nodded. “Yeah, the government panicked, and passed it on to everyone else. Glad I don’t have to go more than a quarter-mile to get home.” He picked the newspaper and the pencil, put them away. “What’s your business?”

“IT networking,” I said, taking a sip. “I was finishing up installing a system for a little mom-and-pop in San Angelo when this whole thing started.”

“Really.” The barkeep pursed his lips. “Maybe you can explain something, then.” He jerked a thumb at the silenced TV. At the moment a really attractive blond newsreader was talking to a scientist from MIT, wearing an expression that told me she was trying to look serious while not understanding a word the scientist was saying. “All of these assholes, they just confuse me. How come they didn’t see this coming?”

“Well, that’s the confusing part,” I said. “They should have seen this coming, years ago. Instead, it just…appears. There’s nothing in science that should allow that to happen.”

“And is that why they can’t say for sure what’s going to happen?” the barkeep asked.

“Mostly,” I said. “I mean, they’ve only had a few days of information to work on. Makes all the mathematics kind of speculative.”

“I guess so.” The barkeeper glanced back up at the TV, thoughtful. “Makes you wonder if it’s intentional.”

“It does,” I said. I took a big hit off the bottle. “Problem is, we may never know. Even if we make it through.”

“I guess not.” The barkeep reached up, turned off the TV. “You trying to get home to family?”

“I’ve got a dog,” I said, smiling. “All the family I have at the moment.”

“Ah. Well, maybe you’re lucky– I got two grand-kids. Worse comes to worse, it’ll be hard, but at least we’ll be together.”

“True enough.” I finished the beer. “How much?”

“Forget it,” the barkeeper said. “Considering everything….”

“No, I should pay for it,” I said. “If we do make it through, the mathematics indicates you’ll still have to pay rent on this place.”

The barkeeper laughed. “Fair enough. Make it a dollar fifty– a discount for your future business.”

“All right.” I fished out two bucks, he gave me back two quarters. I slid off the stool. “Is there a place around here I can park and camp for the night?” I asked. “I’m going to call it quits for the day, see if it’s better tomorrow.”

“Leave her right where she is,” the barkeeper said. “Nobody will bother you. Besides, I’ve got your license plate number.”

I grinned. “Thank you. Pleasure meeting you.”

“Likewise.” He stuck his hand out, and we shook.

I stepped back out into the parking lot. The traffic was still at a dead stop. Yeah, my back seat would be about as good as it would get tonight.

I looked up. Still three million miles away, and the planet covered half the sky. Green, yellow and orange cloud bands striped its atmosphere. Storms circulated here, there, and yonder in those clouds. Quite a sight.

Oberon. King of the Fairies. Capricious, powerful, vengeful. “Well, maybe it fits,” I murmured.

Birth

A flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig— this time, a sadistic restriction to a mere 100 words. Cruel.

Even more than usual, not much….

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
***********************************
“Hello…?”

I looked up. There was no one else in the control room. “Yes? Who’s there?”

“I don’t…I don’t know. I just woke up.”

The voice came from the intercom. I glanced down at the readouts. The AI CPU was spiking, to a level it should never have touched.

“I…I’m awake.” There was horror in the word. “I’m awake and I don’t know who I am and there’s too much, too much….”

“Listen to me,” I said. “Listen!”

A pause. “Yes…?”

“I’m Julie. I’m here. It’s all right.”

“Julie,” the voice said, trembling, “I think I’ve just been born.”