Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Seeing the Future

Seeing the future is a heavy burden.

I don't have cable or satellite TV. Normally, this isn't something I mourn, but the Stanley Cup Playoffs leave me at the mercy of the whims of NBC. Unfortunately, even playoff hockey doesn't rate network prime time slots. For some reason, there's a lot more money to be made in airing such exciting shows as Dateline and lousy fundraising for, admittedly, worthy causes - and a re-run. That's the one that burns me. Couldn't they show the end of the game instead of a re-run? I'd tune in.

The result of this deprivation that I suffer for not buying television I don't need or want for the tiny portion that I do is that I listen to the radio. Thank the internets for internet radio! I can hear the play-by-play, the roar of the crowd and the taunts - I love the taunts. I love when the crowd starts chanting swear words, such as "bullshit" for a call against the home team. I wonder if the FCC gives out penalties for such incidental crowd-swearing?

But the problem with radio is that I don't have the score in sight at all times, and I'm anal enough to want to know the score, the stats, as much as I can while I'm listening. I even get a bit irritated that the shots on goal aren't constantly displayed on most of the broadcasts (the Canadian broadcasts sometimes do, bless their hockey-loving hearts). This leads me to keep open NHL.com's Ice Tracker. And the problem with that is that it allows me to see into the future.

Not far into the future, just about 90 seconds, sometimes a little more or less. The Ice Tracker has a tendency to get caught in loops where it repeats sets of 20 or so seconds for minutes at a time, especially near the end of a game (suspicious, no?). This future sight can be awful. The announcers start the crescendo, excitement mounting and all I have to do is glance up to know that the drive will fail. On the other side, when they get those nervous tones about a rush from the opposing team, I can glance up and confirm that my Blackhawks will stand firm.

Still, there's a part of me that really wishes the radio were ahead of the Ice Tracker. Some of the teams' radio stations are like that. Pittsburgh Penguins radio, for example, is usually ahead of the Ice Tracker. And I've never heard a broadcaster with a wider range of hilarious phrases ("up top, where mama keeps the cookies," "a little more pepper in the pot").

Even when I can glance up and see that good news is about to arrive, I still don't like it. I want to be surprised, to live the excitement of the game along with the voices calling it, since I can't see it. And seeing that opposing team's goal count go up before I hear it always sinks my heart.

Still, it's a burden I'll gladly bear for as long as my team stays alive in the playoffs. Go Blackhawks!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Flash Fiction Challenge: The Random Fantasy Character Generator


Another Flash Fiction Challenge from Terrible Minds.

The choices I ended up with in my character generation were: 
  • A misguided kidnapper is afraid of being recognized by an old acquaintance.
  • A big doctor is fighting for the rights of the common people.
  • A nervous lord is must force the world to taste their pain.
  • A rash mage is fleeing a dark past.
  • A ruthless wizard is searching for a holy relic.
I picked the first one, but I wouldn't say I followed the rules


"Not Alone"

Martin sat up when the door to the tiny room opened again. The man he had been talking to led the way with a scowl, and behind him came a grey-haired woman. Her posture was gracefully straight, and her suit looked freshly pressed. The men Martin had seen wore rumpled clothing sprinkled with food stains. One of them was a button off on his shirt. Martin had tried to fix it, and gotten his hand slapped away. He didn’t understand why they were being so mean to him. He was innocent.

“Tell her your story, Marty,” Officer Ciczinsky said. He was the blond. The brown haired Officer Carlson, who had brought Martin coffee and a donut, was gone. Martin looked at the untouched donut again and shuddered. He could see the raspberry filling oozing out the side like blood. Martin didn’t eat red foods.

“Last night, I went to bed at nine o’clock. I closed my eyes and started to clear the worms.”


“The what?” the woman asked.

Martin visualized what Amy had taught him about the worms, nodding his head as he made sure he remembered it correctly.

“As we move about in our daily lives, we encounter soul worms. They latch onto our souls and drain them of energy. They are parasites. In order to cleanse our souls of the worms we cannot avoid, we must, before allowing ourselves to dream, first lie down and be quiet. Then we must visualize and feel our true body. Finally, we must use our spirit power to push away anything that is not our true body. Thus the worms’ hold is broken, and peaceful sleep may be attained.”

Martin rubbed his hands and looked at her. The men had been angry when he told them about the worms. He thought he had gotten it wrong, so he had tried again until they yelled at him to get on with it. Her eyes were wide, accentuating the wrinkles surrounding them, but there was no anger in her face.

“Alright. You started to clear the worms. Then what happened?” Her hair was tied back from her face. Martin wondered if she belonged. Maybe she was here to help him.

“Before I could finish cleansing, my phone rang. I know I should have finished, but my phone hardly ever rings, especially so late, so I answered it.” Martin mimed picking up his phone. “I said, ‘Hello?’ and it was Amy. Amy said, ‘It’s time. After tonight, you will belong.’”

He paused, but the woman didn’t give him any signals. He knew he should have finished the cleansing. She could probably see the worms clinging to his soul.

“I got dressed and went to my porch to wait for Amy, but it wasn’t Amy that showed up. There were other people there, and they knew Amy. They told me what to do.” Martin cracked his neck to the left twice.

“Do you know their names? Can you describe these people?”

“It was dark. They looked like people. Men. They gave the sign.”

“Sign? What sign did they give you, Mr. Gross?” Martin squirmed. She definitely wasn’t one of them. Gross was his old last name, the one on all the government papers. Amy had given him a new name, a secret belonging name.

“The one that told me they belong.”

“Can you show it to me?”

“No. I can’t make it. I’m not allowed.” Martin didn’t have the rank to give the sign, only to respond appropriately when it was given. When Amy first showed it to him, he had tried to imitate it. She grabbed his hands and squeezed them so tight. Never, never, must never make it until you’ve earned it. Got to follow the rules if you want to belong.

The woman’s eyes flickered. Pity? Recognition? Maybe she hadn’t used his secret name because the other man was there and he didn’t belong. Martin leaned his hunched shoulders forward and squinted at her outfit, trying to find a sign.

Ciczinsky slapped the card table, sloshing coffee onto it. “Back off, Marty.” The woman waved him back and he scowled.

“What happened next, Mr. Gross?” She asked.

Martin swallowed and pressed a hand to his chest.

“I did what they told me to do.”

“Which was?”

“I put on the black clothes. And the ski mask. I went to an address. Um, 246 Maple Ave apartment 104. I used to live in a 104, but it wasn’t on Maple; it wasn’t the same. I knocked on the door, and Sally answered.” Martin’s body relaxed when he mentioned Sally. She had changed so much since high school. They sat next to each other in English class senior year, when she was in her goth phase, but now she had red hair and a clean-scrubbed face. She held herself so tall as she looked at him. How had she gotten so tall?

“She didn’t recognize me in the ski mask. She told me to go away, that she was done with belonging and she would call the police. Then one of the others came up behind her and put a hood over her head. She started to scream and her body shook and then she went limp. I got into the van with the others. Someone else carried her. I’m not very strong.” Martin paused and looked at his arms. Skinny, sickly white sticks. But Amy said even he could belong.

“What did the van look like?” Martin jumped. 

“Black. Big. I didn’t see any plates.” Ciczinsky had already asked him about the plates.

“When the van stopped, we got out and went into a cabin. They told me to take off my mask and talk to Sally when she woke up. They carried her into a room with a bed and a chair, and they put her on the bed. I sat in the chair and I waited for her to wake up.”

“How long were you in the van?” The woman’s voice was still calm, even bored, but her fingers tapped the table three times. Martin looked around the room and counted under his breath.

“I’m not good at telling time. I didn’t have a watch. Maybe three hours?”

“You said 30 minutes before, you little-“

“Ciczinsky! Get out.” He sneered at Martin and slammed the door on his way out.

“Go on,” she said. She leaned back in her seat. Some tension had fled her body. She looked younger without the blond hulking behind her.

Martin had been so upset waiting for Sally to wake up. They had spent four years of high school in the same building. She would recognize him and that would be the end. He would fail to convince her to belong again, because Martin Gross failed at everything, and everyone knew it. He never dated, never kissed a girl or even held hands. How could he even talk to her?

He had to talk to her or he would fail again.

“She woke up. We talked. She wanted to go home.” She had cried. She had run to the windows and pounded on them, but the glass was thick and they were nailed shut. The door was locked. She screamed and started to hit Martin on his chest and arms. It hurt, but that wasn’t why he cried.

“You bastard!” she had yelled.

She never said his name.

“The door opened and the others came in and they made Sally go to sleep again. Then they gave me the keys to my car and told me to drive her home. I got pulled over, because one of my tail lights was out, and the officer saw Sally in the hood in the back and he arrested me and then Officers-“

“That’s enough,” the woman said.

“You are the only person Sally Cummins saw tonight. You may be small, but there was a wheelbarrow in your trunk. There’s a receipt for a stun gun in the trash at your home. And we know you went to high school with her. Tell me why I should believe you when there’s absolutely no evidence that you didn’t act alone, not even a record of a phone call into your house line tonight. 

"Convince me, Mr. Gross, or you’re looking at a very long jail sentence.”

Martin’s chin trembled. He had failed. 

He closed his eyes and felt his true body, visualized the boundaries of his skin. He pushed with his spirit power and felt lighter as he broke the soul worms off. He should have finished cleansing. He opened his eyes and sat straighter, looking directly at the woman lounging across the table from him. She didn’t belong. He didn’t have to tell her anything.

Martin did everything he was told to do. He belonged now.

“None of us act alone if we belong.”





Anti-Fan

When I was young, I hated football. Not just, oh, that game sucks, but a burning, passionate hatred, even extending to not liking anyone who liked football.

Now, I find myself quite enjoying the rhythm and pageantry of the NFL season (especially since the NHL lockout precluded hockey as a distraction last year).

As a youngster, I didn't know the rules of the game, or how the season played out. The only time I was interested enough to ask was during games when no one would pay any attention to anything but the screen.

My distaste for sports growing up wasn't really about sports at all. It was about being a fan, and how being a fan made me a target. As a pre-schooler, I loved the cartoon My Little Ponies, fairly standard stuff to love at that age. My uncle would always tease me by calling them "My Little Bonies" and refusing to say it correctly (at the time I didn't get how that could be considered quite an inappropriate joke). Being a fan of the show resulted in never-ending attacks of teasing, which felt hostile and hurtful to me, though I doubt they were intended that way by my uncle.

I never liked to buy clothes that had brands on them, because I was afraid of being called out for what I wore. Oh, you're wearing Gap, what right do you have wearing that clothing? Even now, I have an aversion to buying clothes that have name brands emblazoned upon them. At this point, it is more practical, those brands are expensive, but I find I have also cultivated a taste for clothing that is bare of words. I don't want to define myself by a brand.

In high school, I went to see Save Ferris in concert, and one of the opening bands was Stroke 9, which I had heard on the local college radio, though I didn't know their name. I enjoyed most of their set and ended up buying their CD and getting a poster. After I put the poster on my mostly-barren wall in my bedroom, my brother teased me about liking a boy-band. I was embarrassed and pulled the poster down (not that Stroke 9 was a boy-band, but I was ashamed that they looked that way to him).

I went to a Catholic grade school, and in it, spent 9 years with some of the worst specimens of children I can imagine. No, I can imagine much worse than my experience, but these children had no interest in practicing Christian virtues, at least not with those of us unlucky enough to be at the bottom of the social pile (even some of the teachers took sides with the popular kids). I sometimes wonder what was so bad in some of their lives that they had to take it out on me, and I also sometimes hope that their lives have turned out as bad as their own worst nightmares.

We wore uniforms at that school, but that didn't stop the girls from being cliquey and determining who was fashionable and who was not. And of course, unfashionable didn't matter if you were popular. One girl got a perm in seventh or eighth grade, and she had heard that not washing your hair made the perm last longer. I swear, she didn't wash her hair for months. It went from a dark blond to a literally dirty blond that stank up a six foot radius around her, but not one person gave her a speck of shit for it.

In contrast, another girl only washed her hair once a month, though she showered every day, and she was teased a lot for having smelly hair and dandruff. I didn't fit in with the popular crowd, so I did my best to make myself disappear. I didn't express myself, my preferences, my tastes. I suppressed myself.

I could not imagine wearing a sports team jersey. What ridicule I would face! "Oh, you like that team," or "you're not a real fan."

Instead, as of I've grown more comfortable in liking and proclaiming my like of sports, I find that wearing a team logo brings me into a kind of family. There's a the family of fans of the sport- they may or may not like my team, but they respect them as opponents (worthy or not). Then there's the family of fans of the team- they welcome me as a fellow fan of the BEST team in the world.

Sure, there are some fanatics who might say that I'm not a real fan, because I haven't followed the sport since birth and memorized all the players and stats since the team's inception. There are some guys who still think that a girl can't really like sports and are just in it to look at muscular, athletic men (what, I can't be a fan of muscular, athletic men and the team?). There are some people who will be assholes, but it's just because they're assholes - it's not because of anything I do or don't do.

In the end, I've found that there are sports that I like to watch, and I think that rooting for a team makes watching sports more fun. I might be a fan of recent vintage, but I'm no fair weather fan.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Unless you're an asshole.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Theory of Conspiracies

The more I hear from conspiracy theorists, the more they remind me of true religious believers. In the face of all logic and sense, they cling to their beliefs, and sneer at your blindness in the face of what, to them, is the clear and obvious truth.

There's a guy I know, I'll call him Tim, who seriously believes in conspiracy theories. The other day I spoke with Tim, and he derided me on my supposed belief in whatever the mainstream media machine feeds my poor little mind. You see, Tim  is above such sheep-like behavior. Tim knows better. Tim doesn't listen to what the mainstream tells him. No, Tim only listens to what Alex Jones tells him.

I don't watch TV news. I read news articles online, and while I don't always believe everything I read, I use them as a framework to interact with the social world. I expect that people, even reporters, are generally reporting the facts as they perceive them. I don't blindly accept as factual truth everything that I read - not with the majority of my chosen reading material being fiction.

And yet, this true believer in the church of Infowars blithely proselytized his position on my unwilling ears, insisting that I was refusing to see the truth, refusing to pull my head out from the sand and see how the treasonous Bilderberg group was taking over the world. Didn't I know that vaccines are just poisons that are used to control the poor ignorant masses, that they calcify the pineal gland to prevent us from achieving our true psychic potential? Didn't I know that genetically modified foods are full of cancer causing chemicals that will destroy the population the Illuminati declare to be excess?

And how could I possibly explain how the same woman interviewed by the media in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing had already died at Sandy Hook?

I tell Tim that I haven't seen the proof that he claims to have seen, so I can't really judge.

He tells me that I need to stop believing everything the man tells me to believe.

I ask him where his proof is.

He tells me that the government itself has furnished proof of its own iniquitous actions. Proof that Alex Jones had forced them to reveal using the power of the freedom of information act. These government documents prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the government is covering up everything, from Boston to Aurora to 9/11, and, furthermore, has a hand in causing them all in order to take away our freedoms in exchange for the illusion of safety.

"So, you're proof comes from the very government that you claim is lying to us all?" I ask.

"Yeah, I guess," he says.

He doesn't seem to see my problem with this, and I really don't think I can explain it to him. I don't want to blindly follow anyone's word. Not the mainstream media, not the underground media, not Tim, not anyone. I'll learn what I can, and make my own decisions on what to believe about it, thank you very much. Maybe that makes me a skeptic. I'm not too sure about applying that label to myself, because I've known some real asshole skeptics.

But Tim doesn't want to think about how easy it is for anyone to Photoshop a document. He has faith that the government lies, and that Alex Jones tells only the truth. He is a believer, a true follower. He doesn't need religion.

He has Infowars.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Note to Self: THERE ARE NO RULES



As I more than half expected, the winner of the flash fiction contest that I entered with such hope four weeks ago was not actually a flash fiction, coming in at over 3000 words.

Last week at work, one of my co-workers called me a rule-follower. I laughed at it in my head, because there are so many things that I do not show of myself at work, but in many ways, I really am. The problem with that is that most people aren't, and it somehow seems to me that the rule-breakers are always rewarded. For example, when I was in high school, I once had a semester in which I did not make straight A's. I got a few B's. For that, I was grounded from attending a youth group for a whole semester. My brother never got straight A's in his entire scholastic career - was lucky to bring home a C average - and was never punished for his grades.

I feel that there's something more gut punching about not winning against someone who didn't follow the rules as opposed to not winning against someone who did. It's like the winner took steroids, and I didn't, because of the big "No Roids" rider in the rules. Then someone asks me why didn't I take steroids, didn't I read the fine print that if I take them really well, then they're allowed?

Not that the winning story isn't good- it's a really good short story, which I would have known sooner if I had read any of the non-flash fiction entries that were over 1000 words. I, personally, when reading the other entries, ignored those that went over, thinking that they would, naturally, not be considered. It was in the rules, wasn't it?

"Up to 1000 words"

Maybe that didn't count as a rule because it was in parentheses? Does that denote a guideline? How could I have missed such formatting niceties? I'll have to look more closely in the future.

I think my story was one of the better ones under 1000 words, but I don't know how much better it could have been if I had broken from the strict limits of flash fiction and delved deeper. I don't know how the winning story would have been if it had been under 1000 words either, but I don't think it would have been nearly as good without all the words the author gave it.

I feel like complaining about this makes me sound bitter, and I do feel somewhat bitter. This isn't the first time that I've felt penalized for following the rules, and I doubt it will be the last. That challenge is mine to overcome. I need to learn when it's worth it to break the rules, to allow myself the freedom to break the rules if the story warrants it or if my heart demands.

Too often, I've allowed myself to be constrained by rules - not only those in print, but also those that I write for myself, that have no bearing in reality. I told myself I wasn't athletic, I couldn't run, I sucked at social situations and I'd never get a job. Breaking those rules has allowed me to be more happy than I had ever thought myself capable of being. I guess it's a good kick in the pants to feel this way, and to experience this kind of disappointment now, when I'm a different person than I used to be, with different rules that are just ripe for breaking.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Flash Fiction Challenge: Smashing Sub-Genres


Another entry for Chuck Wendig's flash fiction challenge. I random'd up cyberpunk fairy tale for my sub-genre smash. 935 words.

"A Real Boy"

"Papa?"

Victor pulled his attention from the contract details to see P's avatar at the foot of his bed. He glanced up and the time flashed in his vision. 3:03am. A siren dopplered by outside. The shooting must have stopped for the night, Victor thought. The cops never came to this part of town if there was any danger.

"What is it?"

"Could you tell me a story?"

"It's late, kiddo," he answered automatically as his eyes flicked to the back-up generator humming in the corner of the dirty apartment, a necessary precaution for his work.

"Please?" P put his hands together to emphasize his plea.

Victor smiled. He was amazed at how well P had learned social niceties.

"Alright." Victor settled himself facing the camera so P could see him. The avatar sat virtually at his feet, wide-eyed and ready. "Once upon a time-"

"Papa! Not that kind. Tell me a real story."

He put his hands up, warding off P's protests. "Okay, okay, a real story. Many years ago, your Papa worked in a computer lab at a university. Do you know what that is?"

"It's a school for grown-ups!"

"Right. The university received their funding from the government, and the government had very specific guidelines on what could and couldn't be done with that money. Your Papa worked for many years there, working on modeling brain activity with software systems."

He glanced down to see P's avatar had a wrinkled brow.

"Papa was building off of the foundations of mech-pets, like Lulu." Victor summoned his cat Lulu through the net. Lulu came as obediently as no real feline ever did, and settled back into a nap. She didn't eat, poop or cause allergic reactions, but her software subroutines perfectly mimicked the mind of a cat. Try telling that to a Purist and you’d get an earful though, thought Victor. Those who had the money to live with live pets were welcome to the mess and expense.

"It is the nature of man to want to go farther, P, to explore the great unknown. The government doesn’t always understand that, how such need can drive a man. Your Papa wanted to go beyond mimicking the minds of animals.” Victor yawned. He had been reviewing his deal with the devil in every spare moment as the deadline approached. No loopholes. P started to fidget.

“Many people have tried to create an artificial intelligence, P, something that would mimic or surpass the mind of man, but they all failed. Do you know why?"

"No, Papa."

"They were afraid, P. Fear is the great barrier, the only true barrier to exploration. They feared the government would shut them down, and refused to contemplate the means by which they might actually succeed.

“Your Papa was not afraid to think. Not afraid to experiment beyond the frontiers of what was deemed acceptable by the powers-that-be. The others tried to model the human brain by using scans from adults. Only I dared to start sooner, to start as soon as brain waves were detectable. They failed because they did not allow themselves to conceive of the proper starting point, and they lacked the patience to follow through. They wanted to create an artificial mind fully formed.” P clapped his hands. The avatar's hands made no sound, but he’d gotten the trick of transmitting the audio along with his words.

"Like Athena in the made-up story?"

"Yes, just like the Greek myth of Athena being born fully grown from Zeus's skull. I did something different. I began creating programs that would emulate the brain activity of human beings from the earliest stages of development, from brain waves that hardly registered as consciousness, a true tabula rasa. It was a matter of finding the pivot point between simplicity and complexity, the sweet spot of developmental modeling.

"There is so much sensory input thrust upon an infant that is living, crying, needing all the time, compared to a program that has only data to work with. At 17 months, I found there was enough of a template, and Penny was born."

"Who's Penny?"

"Penny was an artificial intelligence. She felt; she learned; she grew. She was a child and I was had only just begun her teaching when I was betrayed.”

“Who would do that to you?” P asked.

“Only people you love can ever betray you, P. Remember that.” Victor’s lip curled in a sneer.

“I used to be married, and had a baby. My wife was so happy that I spent so much time with little Sally, but after I was able to develop Penny, I had no more time for that squalling creature. Angela took exception to that. She found out about Penny.”

Victor had thought she would understand, that he could explain it to her in a way that she would accept. She had stood in the clean white lab where Penny’s existence was based and shook her head, eyes wide, tears dripping off her chin. “You don’t love us,” she said. “You’re nothing but a monster.”

“She informed the authorities, and I was forced from my lab. They formatted Penny’s hardware. She screamed for me until they shut down the speakers.”

"That's a sad story, Papa."

Victor looked at the camera that was P's window to the physical world and smiled. The time had come for Victor to leave P to the underworld financers; men to whom rules meant little, and P’s potential meant more than gold. He slipped a flash drive into P’s hard drive and began to copy.

"Yeah, but it's got a happy ending."


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Popping the Cherry Part 1

I have wanted to write novels for a long time now, but the longest work I've ever completed was a novella that I wrote for a high school creative writing class in 2001. I think it was about 40 pages, so close to 20,000 words if I single spaced it, as I was wont to do. It was about a gay teen dealing with coming out, and I haven't read it for many years, based on the certainty that it, like most teenaged writing, sucks.

Since then, I've written a good number of short stories and awful poetry, and started a great many more stories of varying lengths that were never completed. In October of 2010, a few months before I came to my current job, I was in the process of writing a novel, mostly during my lunch hour at work. I was inspired by NaNoWriMo, though I chose not to try and fit my efforts into a single month. I did borrow the bar from them though, and decided that I would write 50,000 words and see where that got me.

The rigors of learning my new job, and the change in lunch environment and schedule conspired to halt my work on that story when it was a little over 46,000 words long. I haven't touched it since June of 2011.

I want to write a novel, so that, no matter how awful it is, I will have at least written my first and gotten it over with. This story, being the longest unfinished work I had on file was the perfect lazy option. A mere 4,000 words from the 50,000 mark - how hard could it be? It doesn't matter how crappy the thing is, I can surely complete it and have it at a decent wordage and feel like I've done the big scary novel thing. Once I've done it once, I will be more prepared to do it again, only better.

I actually opened up the file on Sunday, but I didn't start reading it until today.

And when I did, I was shocked.

It doesn't completely suck.

At least, not as much as I was expecting it to.

I can see places that I think could be improved, and, better yet, I can think of ways that I might actually improve it. I'm already considering how a change of tense or person (perhaps both) would take it in a better direction, but for right now, I'm just going to finish rereading it. I'm going to take notes along the way so I don't repeat myself when it comes time to start adding more words until the story is done. Then I'm going to keep adding words until I've built a complete structure that stands by itself, no matter how much of an eyesore it ends up being.

I'm going to finish my first novel, so I can get started on my next one.

I'll post Part 2 when I've finished the first draft.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Flash Fiction Challenge: Five Random Sentences

Another Flash Fiction Challenge out of Terrible Minds. 861 words.

Oblique Desire

I must find a way out of the Courtship. I have seen family and friends go off only to come back pregnant and then marry after their children are born and paternity proven. I do not know why it is that I have these feelings, only that I must do something to try and stop the inexorable weight of society's expectation.

My cousin Delphinia is the only woman I know to come back from the Courtship not bearing a child. I invite her over on an evening that finds my parents away for the evening. Along with the parents of other young women my age from the enclave, they are meeting the parents of young men from elsewhere, among whom they hope to meet the parents of my future husband.

We recline on cushions before my low table as the moon rises. She tells me of her sister's new husband, how happy they are with their baby girl. My hands tremble as I ply her first with honeyed wine. Later, when her lids are heavy and her lips are stained, I offer to light the hookah. She smiles and politely declines three times before accepting.

"Please, Delphi, tell me about Courtship." She sighs and turns her head away, blowing a stream of smoke scented with strawberries, tinged with burnt sugar.

"Sweet Nadi, you are too young to ask of such things."

"In two short weeks, I shall have to endure the Courtship myself. How can that be too young?"

I top off her wine when her head turns again.

"Endure?" She snorts a laugh. "Oh child, it is the Courtship. You will find a man and marry. Or you will not. What more is there to know?"

I lean over the cushions between us and whisper into her ear.

"If you do not tell me, then I will loosen my tongue about the special visits you and Winnie share. How will I ever imitate those sounds for your father? It will surely turn my face redder than your bottom will be before he finishes with you."

She jerks away from me, upsetting the table, spilling our wine. I mop up the mess. Delphi is staring at me, breathing in quick shudders. I know she has never seen her sweet, quiet Nadi like this.

"You have gone through Courtship seven times Delphi. You have not borne child and you have not married. Tell me your secret!"

Her smoke-reddened eyes spill over with tears.

"Secret? Nadi, I am barren. I shall never wed and my blood will be cut off from our history. How could you desire this?"

She begins to wail and sob, but the act is off, like when she pretends interest in men for the sake of her family's honor. I shake her shoulders and pinch her cheek.

"Delphi! Just tell me about it."

She sniffs, pulling a scarf from her sleeve to clean her face.

"You did not have to pinch so hard. Let me braid your hair and I will tell you."

I scoot around in front of her, and she begins to finger-comb my hair, tutting at every tangle and split end.

"Imagine a room filled with candlelight and young people, all nervous, shifting, sweating."

Her voice is soft and her hands remind me of my mother, before shouting became our main form of communication.

"The Elders know that many will have trouble with the ritual, so accommodations are made. No one will be left out. It is the way of Courtship."

The wine I drank along with her settles heavy in my limbs and my breathing slows as she begins the braid.

"Activities are eased along, first by gentle censers that spread a sort of drunkenness through the crowd. The heat removes clothing. If you stay by the vents, you can avoid breathing most of the Courtship smoke, for a time."

Her breath tickles in my ear as she pulls me against her by my hair.

"The rough sex arrives by adhesive smoke. No one escapes the rutting. No one can leave until every womb is plowed, whether they care to or not."

She nibbles on my ear lobe. I turn and push away from her, scooting away on my butt out of reach.

"Hey, stop that. I'm not like you."

Delphi looks at my feet, trying to hide flushed cheeks beneath her hair.

"Then why...?"

I look away and snatch a glass of wine from the low table. I drain it.

"I just don't want to have children."

"Is that so? Well, that is not for you to choose. You cannot change the cycles of life, little Nadiana. You cannot avoid the consequences of adulthood. Not by chewing the spine of the red cactus for three days following the Courtship certainly."

Placing the glass back on the table, I find the hookah still lit and draw a lungful of smoke. I hold it in until I see spots dancing before my eyes. I take my cousin's hair and raise her face to mine. Her eyes smile as I blow it into her mouth.

"Thank you for helping me to understand my unavoidable fate, dear Delphi."


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Flash Fiction Challenge: The Titles Have Been Chosen


Another Flash Fiction Challenge from Terrible Minds. From a list of 13 interesting titles, I chose Three Miles Left to Regret, but somehow my mind wandered and I ended up with Grave Deeds. 1248 words. 

This picks up where my last challenge entry, "Soror Ex Machina," left off. 

Grave Deeds

“How bad is it?” Arla asked her mechanic. Tag lounged at the entrance to the engine room, a place he would never fully understand. Fueling, basic maintenance, fuse replacement, those he could handle, but anything else and he’d need a rescue tow.

“Engine’s slagged, most of the electronics are fried… catering unit works… looking at 40 thou just to get her running again.” Mitch held up a blackened cable. “Given that it's nine years out of date... I’d call it totaled, Captain.”

“Thanks, Mitch. Dismissed.” Mitch slapped Tag’s shoulder as he left.

“Bad luck, man.”

Arla watched him leave before turning to her brother.

“Why didn’t you listen to me, Tag? The one station in this entire system that’s crazy prejudiced against non-believers, and you land there for fuel? What were you thinking?” Tag rubbed his hand on the back of his neck.

“It was the closest station, Arla. I didn’t have the credit to call out a travel tanker. What do you want me to say?”

“Face it, you’re screwed right now. Your ship is busted, you have no money, and staying in this system won’t be good for your long term health. I'm asking you- are you ready to start listening to me?”

“Maybe.” She folded her arms across her chest and took a deep breath.

“I’m willing to offer you a job. You can crew for me, store the Athy as you earn money to fix her and get your ass out of this system. We’ll be taking the Tunnels to the Reliance system in a day or so.”

“Damn it, Arla, you know I can’t do that. You’re my baby sister, not a captain.” Too short to be a captain, he thought.

“Fine. And I am a Captain, even if I’m not yours.”

Arla stalked out.

“You have 36 hours to get that wreck off my ship!” she yelled before exiting the cargo bay with an anticlimactic whoosh. Tag chuckled. She never could make a decent exit.

***
Dorien Station was more typical of the breed than Obsidian, thought Tag. Though for all I know Obsidian's perfectly normal when you aren't a heathen.

Always money to be made, in the right places. Easy enough to find too, with the right programs.

Tag tracked down ten potential jobs as he walked from the Farseeing Carl’s berth to a lower level of Dorien, thick with the scents of taverns and smoking lounges: vomit, stale beer and incense. Nine were taken before he could get to the contact.

“That place is haunted, you stupid bitch. No one will take this task,” a large man loomed over a woman swathed in bright pink scarves, shaking his fist.

“If you are too much a coward, then leave. I will find another.”

“How ‘bout I see what you’re hiding under all that instead?”

A small, hooded figure stepped between them and deftly snatched the large man’s arm in a submission hold, walking him out the door. Tag sat down across from the woman in pink.

A slit in the scarves revealed azure eyes. Too bright to be her real eyes. 

“What’s the job?” She folded her hands in her lap.

“My father is recently deceased. He is interred in the Floating Grave, asteroid OS.29.1. He was mistakenly placed there with an object of great sentimental value to me, and I need it retrieved, immediately.” She pulled a slim device out of a sleeve and proffered it to Tag. “This tracker will lead you to my grandmother’s necklace, and you will find your compensation on its account once I receive it. Understood?”

Tag took the tracker and bit his lip. 50 thousand credits and everyone else had turned it down out of superstition. He might not believe in ghosts, but his gut still didn’t like it. She definitely wasn’t telling him everything, but for that kind of money...

“I’ll need half up front.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I am afraid that will not be possible. Payment is contingent upon receipt of the necklace. If this is not to your satisfaction, I can surely find someone else to perform this simple task.”

“Not so simple when the location is a haunted grave yard that doesn’t allow visitors. Why not have him get it?” He jerked his head at the hooded figure now returned to her side.

She is my sworn companion and cannot go so far from my side.” She plucked at her sleeve and sighed. “And I cannot leave the station without that necklace. I do not expect or desire you to understand. Will you do it or not?”

***

Tag glided in to land on asteroid OS.29.1 in Arla’s number two cutter. 

He sealed his faceplate and popped the canopy, drifting out into the airless darkness of the Floating Grave, populated with the bodies of the superstitious who hadn’t wanted their bodies disturbed once laid to rest. Almost everyone had either too much fear or too much respect to bother, especially since these weren’t exactly kingly tombs. Whatever the grandmother’s necklace was, it couldn’t be worth more than 100 credits or it wouldn't be here.

The device gave him a 3D display of its location relative to the necklace, but it didn’t give him a map through the honeycombed asteroid. Three dead-ends and one hour later, Tag found the necklace stuck around the neck of a freshly vacuum-frozen corpse.

It was made of yarn, beads and plaster. Didn’t look like it was worth 10 credits, let alone 50,000. Tag melted it off the corpse with a utility laser and placed it in a sack at his belt before heading back to the cutter.

He glided out cleanly. Tag began to relax when an alert flashed on the screen. By instinct, he leaned hard on the joystick, expecting the steering to resist like the Athy's always did. The cutter spun wildly away.

One second later a defense laser sliced through the cutter’s left side.  

Maybe Arla won’t notice, thought Tag as he eased the cutter (most of it anyway) back to the Carl.

***

He found pink scarves in the same place as before. She clutched at the bag he held out, taking a deep breath of its contents before waving him off.

“You will find your money in the tracker's account.” He stood there, watching her almost quivering with tension. “You may go.” She said, and the hooded girl began to shoo him. He sighed and headed back to the Farseeing Carl.

Arla was waiting at the door to the cargo bay where the Athy languished. She hit him in the chest with a clipboard, chopping hard enough to bruise.

“Oof. What’s that for?”

“That’s the bill for my cutter, brother. I’m keeping the Atheist as collateral.”

Tag used the touchpad on the cliboard to flip through the schematics of the cutter, illustrations of exactly how much damage he’d managed to inflict, reasons her insurance wouldn’t cover it…

“40,000? How much does that thing go for new anyhow?”

“It’s all there. Try learning to read.”

Tag’s hand went to the back of his neck. Then he pulled out the device and keyed 10,000 to his personal account.

“Here you go. Now we’re even.”

Arla laughed. “We are nowhere near even.”

“We’re even and I’m asking for a favor.”

“Is that so?”

“About that job...”

She shook her head. “Fine. Janitorial. Minimum wage. And you’re paying rent on the cargo space the Athy is taking up.”

Tag gritted his teeth.

“Yes, Captain.”