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Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Friday, June 02, 2017 No comments

Hotwire (a new Skyscraper City story!) #FlashFicFriday

Pulse watched in the rear view mirror as the bus pulled up behind his blue truck. He had removed the Harr Electric signage, easy to do when it was all magnetic, and the traffic surveillance system was used to his coming and going downtown at all hours. Good electricians could stay as busy as they liked, and Pulse’s alter-ego Helmut Harr was one of the best.

Several passengers stepped off the bus, brushing by several others impatient to get on. One of the debarking passengers looked around, saw the blue pickup truck, and ambled that way.

Tap. “Got a cycle?”

“I have sixty,” Pulse replied. “Get in. Say nothing until we arrive.”

“Fine.” DeVine was not what one would call a sparkling conversationalist, anyway. He held a leather bag in his lap and watched out the window.

Pulse drove away in front of the bus, then took an indirect route to one of the many parking decks that studded Skyscraper City’s downtown business district. The lots were never empty, even on weeknights, but the upper levels allowed for some privacy.

“Sonic interference is active,” Pulse said at last. “What is it?”

DeVine said nothing, but opened his bag and took out a small netbook. “Here,” he said, tapping the password on the screen. “I left it up for you.”

Pulse looked at the open terminal window, displaying DeVine’s cracking attempt. “City Loan usually doesn’t... vas ist?” He scrolled to the bottom and paused.

Injection begun...
Injection aborted.
Hot Wire says: Don't do that again.
> inject
Injection begun...
TERMINATED

“Yeah. Looks like someone tapped my connection and inserted that,” said DeVine. “Then they cut me off on the second attempt.”

“Someone, or something,” Pulse replied. “Perhaps this ‘Hot Wire’ is a custom network surveillance program they have installed recently. I'll have to look into it.” He started the truck. “Do you want to go back to the bus stop, or shall I drop you a little closer to home?”

• • •

Pulse always kept his tools close at hand. After dropping off DeVine, he turned—not toward home, but back downtown. Something about that warning made him curious. Warmonger was fond of saying, curiosity killed the cat, but Pulse thought curiosity itself was not dangerous, at least if tempered with caution. Furthermore, sometimes one had to put aside caution to trick the enemy.

Thus, Pulse paused in an unlit parking lot, where a bodega had gone out of business some time back. He slapped a chromatic film over the hood and side panels of the truck—depending on the light, it might look yellow, green, or silver—and changed the license plate for a bogus Pennsylvania one. There were ways to trip up the traffic surveillance system, and Pulse had learned most of them. Passing on such things that Warmonger called “intel” indebted the other villains to him, and he would collect when the time came.

In disguise, he turned into the Chamberlain Two parking deck—adjacent to the City Loan offices. This was a calculated risk, but his calculation gave the potential benefits more weight. The corporate Wi-Fi carried out to the deck, and a ferret sent Pulse the passphrase on a regular schedule. He opened his laptop and connected to the network.

Roughly a fourth of the PCs in the office were compromised, and Pulse connected to one at random. DeVine had used the safer method of a cascade of anonymizing relays instead of a direct connection, but no matter. Pulse uploaded the SQL injector to the victim PC and started it.

Injection begun...
Injection terminated.
Hot Wire says, You need to quit while you're ahead.
>

Pulse swore at the prompt, then typed.

> you are not a bot, are you?
you: command not found
Hot Wire says: Go bot yourself.
TERMINATED

Pulse switched his connection to promiscuous mode, which displayed all traffic on the Wi-Fi. He did not have to wait long for the expected probe to hit his laptop. He turned off the radio, then drove away. Whoever this Hot Wire was, it was not a program. He was sure of that.

• • •

Natalie Strand tossed the last candy wrapper in the wastebasket as the IT morning shift arrived.

“Hey, Nat,” one of the guys said, dropping his bag on the desk. “Anything interesting?”

“Just a couple intrusions.” Her voice was flat, annoyed at the nerdy nickname the rest of the department gave her. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.” She was already taking up her purse and heading for the door.

“Yeah. Later.” Natalie did not hear the last. The morons who had let their computers get infested would be whining to the day shift soon enough. The boys could take care of delousing the PCs in between rounds of Minesweeper. This job was not paying her enough to deal with other people—and even with the supposed boost for working night shift, her pay was lower than any of the men on day shift. Having a look at the payroll systems took no effort and offered no risk, but told her nothing she had not expected.

She walked the four blocks to Republic Tower, where Sonny’s Sky-High Deli stayed busy on the ground floor. “Large coffee, real cream and double sugar,” she told the young woman behind the counter. “And a Mortal Sin.”

The counter woman gave Natalie a look she had seen many times: If I ate that, I'd put on twenty pounds. Sometimes, Natalie wished she could put on twenty pounds, just to see what the big deal was.

Taking her coffee and gigantic cinnamon roll, she consumed both with gusto. Work made her hungry. She knew to expect a carb rush for the next two hours, followed by the inevitable crash. But she could look for another job until then. There had to be something out there better than City Loanshark. The boys in the department called it that, and it was one of the few things they all agreed on.

Maybe she would find it, if she kept looking.



If you enjoyed this story (and more is coming), there’s lots more Skyscraper City action in my new novel, Blink! Stevie Winkler thought being able to teleport was cool… at first. As Blink, he’s not sure whether he wants to be a hero or a villain, but he finds that’s a blurry line. And Skyscraper City is home to other powers with other agendas. Blink has three goals: survive, keep Mom from finding out… and maybe get a girlfriend.

Get it at the major eBook stores now!

Amazon: US UK FR DE IT ES JP CA BR IN MX AU NL
Smashwords iBooks Nook Kobo

Monday, May 15, 2017 2 comments

The Brass Mechanism, episode 11 (CONCLUSION)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10

Difference engine
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

“Serves the louts right, tangling with a Matriarchy woman and her Northerner husband.” Reeve Kendri waited for one of her assistants to push the stone box off the trap door, then nudged the bolt away. Her assistants had already seen to the driver, who complained of a terrible headache and claimed to have no recollection of how he had ended up in the yard. “They have some means, if they can afford a juggernaut as a carriage. What were they doing?”

“We unearthed an artifact from Camac That Was while we were plowing,” Liana explained. “I don’t know how word got all the way to Queensport.”

“You should have just given the thing to the sages. It would have saved you a mickle of trouble.”

“We’re going to market tomorrow,” said Liana. “We mean to give it over then.”

“All shall be well, then.” Kendri kicked the trap open. “You are prisoners of the Crown,” she called down, “charged with assault and attempted robbery. One at a time, and leave any weapons on the floor.”

As her four assistants marched the prisoners to their wagon, Kendri followed Liana and Chakan outside. “Your ‘Misiva’ was probably using an assumed name,” she explained. “But one of her friends might turn her in for a lighter sentence. Clever idea, going out to meet them with a paring knife in your slippers. Good thing marking their carriage was unnecessary.”

“Sturdy, strong, and brave,” Chakan boasted, “everything a Matriarchy woman should be, aye?”

“That immigration program… well, I admit I was skeptical at first, but every single newcomer I’ve met has been a credit to the Matriarchy. The Queen is wiser than I gave her credit for. Well, that’s that. I’ll drive their wagon back.” Kendri stopped. “So where is this mechanism?”

“Ha!” Chakan laughed. “I wrapped it in some blankets and took it to the neighbor’s. It’s in their chicken pen.”


“I’ve not seen one so well-preserved,” Sage Datra breathed, looking over the mechanism. “We have examples others have dug up, but none like this. It still works, you say?”

“Yar,” said Liana. “We tried it out. Had an endless river of neighbors coming to consult it as well.”

“‘Tis one reason we’re glad to be shut of it,” Chakan added.

Sage Wesim chuckled, looking up from the book and the transcripts they had made. “It was a parlor toy,” he explained. “Turning the knobs, and the speed at which you crank it, creates a randomness. It’s a sophisticated version of tossing a handful of rounds into the air, and recording the patterns they make when they land. The answers it gives are vague enough that you can apply them to just about any question. These are excellent transcripts, by the way. If your crops ever fail, let us know. We’ll put you to work as scribes.”

“Gods willing, that won’t ever happen,” said Chakan. “So you say that thing really doesn’t tell the future?”

Sage Datra shook her head. “I’m sure some ancients thought it did. But what it does is let you access your inner mind. In a very real way, it tells you what you already know.”

“Well, then…” Liana trailed off. “May your studies be fruitful.”

“Wait a moment.” Sage Wesim wrote on a slip of paper, then gave it to Liana. “The Crown pays a bounty for items of interest, depending on their state of preservation. This one certainly qualifies as exceptional. Take this paper to the office, and the Provost will take care of the rest. I’m recommending she pay you the maximum of five octagons, and it’s worth every round.”

“Tell me true, Chakan,” said Liana as their plodding oxen pulled the cart homeward. “Do you believe that thing we dug up was nothing but a toy?”

“So the sages told us.” Chakan scratched his head. “But would they not tell us that in any case, so we have no regrets about turning it over?”

“Five octagons put paid to any regrets I had, my love. Even if we have to add a new room to the house, we’ll have money left over to carry us through a crop failure.”

“Aye. But let us focus on you having a healthy daughter, first.”


“Send word to the Queen,” Sage Datra told Wesim. “She needs to hear about this, and soonest.”

THE END

Monday, May 08, 2017 No comments

The Brass Mechanism, episode 10

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

Difference engine
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
“Don’t hurt me,” Liana begged. “I’m with child!”

“Indeed. Tell us where the mechanism is, and you’ll live, you and your child.”

“My husband took it to the sages two evenings ago,” Liana replied. “Not long after you left.”

The knife tip poked harder. “You had better be lying. Now tell us the truth!”

“It’s… it’s in the barn. There’s a trap door behind the compost heap. An old wine cellar. We put it down there.”

“Truly? Well then, we’ll leave you here. You’re bound—so to speak—to tell us true.” One of the men slipped around her, pulling her arms behind her back, and bound her wrists with a leather thong. Then he knelt, bound her ankles, and lowered her to the floor. “You can shout and awaken your husband, but he won’t live long afterward.” A glint of moonlight on bronze told her they each held a dagger.

The shadows retreated, and soon Liana got to her feet. She laid the paring knife, concealed in her slipper, on the table before slipping outside. She jogged across the dark yard. The danger is yours now, love, she thought. May the lesser gods watch over you.

The juggernaut had been modified to include a driver’s perch. The driver, not expecting to be called to work at such a late hour, had already worked his way through most of a jug of ale. He managed to reach their destination, but then laid back on top of the carriage to rest. Stupid louts, he grumbled to himself, listening to the noise his passengers were making in the yard, I thought they knew how to stay quiet.

He dozed atop the juggernaut, ignoring the whickering and quiet scuffing of shod hooves on the old highway. A clicking noise, and then a smoldering smell, brought him out of his stupor. He looked over the side to see a figure backing away, and small flames licking the side of the carriage.

“What—hoy!” he rasped, leaping down. He barely felt the shock of landing, drunk as he was, but the vandal rounded the juggernaut and ran through the yard.

Gotta do something, he thought, giving chase. Ahead of him, the vandal leaped and dodged, running like a frightened rabbit before a hound. Then he stopped short and staggered backward a few steps. “What’s this?” he muttered, his hand around the rake handle that had stopped him short.

Liana grabbed up a piece of firewood—one of many stumbling blocks they had laid in the yard—and brought it down on top of the driver’s head. The man gave her a sad look that said, I never asked for such treatment, then his knees buckled and he fell down snoring.


“Gods, how do they stand it?” one of the men complained, lighting a small lamp. “They must let their oxen run loose in the barn.”

“Step carefully, then,” said the other. “That must be the compost heap over there. It don’t smell much better.”

“Ah, here’s the trap door,” one said, holding up the light. “I’ll go down and fetch it, you keep an eye out.”

“Yar.” He watched as his companion descended the rickety ladder, taking the light with him. Darkness filled the barn, except for what poured up from the trap door.

“A wooden box,” the other called up from below. “They must have put it in—”

The man above yelped and jumped at the sudden stabbing pain in his backside. Unfortunately, his jump carried him over the open trap door and he plunged downward, shouting in alarm and pain.

Chakan dropped the pitchfork and reached over for the trapdoor. The first man drew his dagger and leaped for the ladder, but Chakan slammed it shut. He shot the bolt and dragged the heavy stone box on top of it. Down below, the trapped men pounded at the door and shouted empty threats.

“Done and done,” he called.

“Likewise,” Liana replied, holding a lantern at the door.

“Gods, I hated letting you put yourself in danger like that.”

“Eh, it went the way I expected. Except they had a driver. He’s snoozing in the yard, now.” She gave him a lopsided grin. Those two years I spent as a soldier were useful after all.”

They embraced in the midst of the ox dung they had spread to confound the attackers. “And like anything else you set your hand to, you performed admirably,” he said. “But let’s get this cleaned up before Mirthan brings the reeve.”

to be continued…

Monday, May 01, 2017 No comments

The Brass Mechanism, episode 9

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

Difference engine
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
“First thing,” said Liana, as darkness crept over the farm, “we should hide the mechanism.”

“Aye. But not in the barn. That’s the first place they’ll look.”

“And the second place would be under the house.” Liana thumped the wooden floor with her toe. “So where would be a good place?”

“Ah, I think I know.” Chakan fetched a blanket and wrapped up the brass mechanism, explaining his idea. “I won’t be long. Take inventory of what we can use as weapons while I’m out.”

When he returned, almost an hour later, Liana had made a long list. “One thing about farm life, love,” she said, “there’s no end of pointy things lying about.”

“Aye. And I know what bothered me about that carriage.”

“It did seem plain for such a wealthy woman.”

“The Valiant Men of the North—that’s what Reachers call their army—have them,” Chakan explained. They call ‘em juggernauts. Ya have a couple of oxen pull it up a hill, then ya unhook the entire hitch. Plenty of hills in the Reach, ya ken.”

“Your accent is getting thick, heart of my heart.”

“Aye, talkin’ about my old home will do that. So, these juggernauts. An enemy starts up the hill, you loose one o’ these things to smash into ‘em. It’ll carry a whole strike—ten soldiers, give or take—and they can steer it from inside. So they plow into the enemy, then jump out and take ‘em hand to hand. That pointed front end is thick enough to deflect a cannonball, unless it’s really close range. That’s the important thing as far as we’re concerned. Against what we have, it’s an impregnable fortress on wheels.”

“If it’s made of wood, perhaps we could set it afire?” Liana mused.

“Oh, aye, but it would take a while to do more than…” Chakan paused, then swept Liana into a twirling embrace. “I must have married the cleverest woman in all of Termag,” he grinned.

“Aye, my heart of hearts, I would agree,” Liana replied in a horrid parody of Chakan’s Northern accent. “But if it takes too long to burn one of those juggernauts down, what does it profit us?”

“Now say this Misiva sends her boys to take the mechanism. We go to the magistrate with a grievance. Misiva claims she was at some function, with a hundred witnesses, at the time. Sow confusion and doubt, and the magistrate is more disposed to the wealthy anyway. But if one of her properties is marred in a specific way…”

Liana stopped Chakan’s speech with a kiss, long and passionate. “I think it was I who married the clever one,” she murmured against his lips.

“Ah. Our girl will tie the other sages in knots, some day.”

“We’re trying to plan, here,” Liana purred. “If you keep talking like that, I’ll end up dragging you to bed instead.”

“I fail to see the problem, beautiful one.”

“Eh, you’re right. We can plan some more afterwards.”


On the night before market day, the juggernaut rolled quietly along the road that ancient maps called Sunset Coast Highway. The horses wore boots, and the wheels were wrapped in soft leather. Neither boots nor wrappings would last long, but stealth was needed only until they reached their destination.

The carriage rolled past one farm, where someone lounged on the porch with one lit candle and a jug of ale for company. They passed Liana’s farm, then turned about and stopped. Two men emerged, their clothing a darkness reflecting the surrounding darkness. Without a word, they hustled directly toward the house—

“Unh! Ah!” one of them shouted.

“Quiet, ya lout!” the other hissed. “What happened?”

“The untidy fools left a rake out here. I’ll have a bruise for sure tomorrow.”

“Nothing for it. Move a little slower, now. If they heard, they heard. Nothing they can do about it.” They continued, spotting and avoiding other hazards. “Eh, I wonder if they expected us.”

“No bloodshed, the mistress said. Unless it’s needed.”

“Yar. Maybe they’ll give us the need.” He rapped on the front door.

Liana opened the door, yawning, candle in hand. “What is it?”

Hands seized her, and she felt a knife point at her throat. The candle fell and snuffed itself before hitting the floor. “Cry out and die,” one of them whispered.

continued…

Monday, April 24, 2017 No comments

The Brass Mechanism, episode 8

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

Difference engine
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Chakan led the two men to the barn, leaving Liana with Misiva. He had an uneasy feeling, but thought Liana stronger than this wealthy visitor. As for the men… well, Chakan knew what tools could become weapons and where they were hung.

“The thing was sealed up with pitch on the inside,” he explained as they stepped inside. “We had quite a time of it pulling that lid off. Whoever put it in the ground expected it to survive the ages.”

“Indeed,” one of the men said; later on, Chakan never could remember which one was speaking at any time. “This is the box?”

“Aye.”

“I mean no offense, but you speak like a foreigner.”

“Aye, I take none. I was born a Reacher. The Matriarchy offers louts like me a plot of land, if I agree to be a good husband to my wife. Seems like I got the better end of that bargain.”

Both visitors looked amused, although Chakan meant his words as a pointed warning. Reachers were often considered warlike in this part of the wide world. One of the men reached inside the box, and scratched at a light spot on the bottom in one corner. “Wax,” he said. “They lit a candle before putting the lid on.”

“Why would they do that?” Chakan asked.

“It helps to seal the box. Perhaps the ancients had other reasons, things we forgot in The Madness.”

“That contraption showed a date… year 1812 of the Pearl Throne, if I remember right. The eve of The Madness. The rest of it warned of disaster.”

The men looked at each other. “I don’t suppose you remember the exact date?” one asked.

“Nay, but I sketched the thing as it was when we took it outta the ground.” Chakan took a breath. “Tell me true, folk. Can a machine predict the future if it’s calibrated against the stars?”

Again, they looked at each other before speaking, making Chakan wonder if they had some form of silent communication. “That we know not. Such things we leave to the mistress.”


“Ah,” said Misiva, as Chakan entered the kitchen. “I was telling your wife, I have never seen an artifact from the time of Camac That Was so well preserved in my entire career. I am prepared to offer you twenty-five gold octagons for the mechanism and the instructions, and five more for the notes and transcripts you have made.”

Liana and Chakan stared wide-eyed at each other. That kind of money would make them rich, by Chakan’s reckoning—able to live idly for over a year, perhaps two.

“Ah, ah, we’ll have to think that over,” Liana stammered after a long moment.

“Oh, I hope you won’t think it over too long,” said Misiva. “The sages will simply take it off your hands, and call it property of the realm. “You have put much work into puzzling it out, and I would think you should have somewhat to show for it, no?”

“Aye,” Chakan replied. “We’ll give it our most serious consideration.” That was a sarcastic Northerner idiom, but he doubted this wealthy Westerner knew that. Indeed, he would have to explain it to Liana.

“Good. We shall return, day after tomorrow.” Misiva stood, her menfolk bowed, and they departed.

“Chakan,” said Liana, watching the carriage roll back towards Queensport, “I am leaving this decision to you. Had we turned it over to the sages right away, as we should have done, I would not be so tempted by wealth.”

“They were polite and proper,” Chakan mused, “but that says little about their hearts. Say we took their money right away. Who can assure us they would not find a way to take it back?”

“But if they would do such a thing… perhaps they would try to take the mechanism while we consider the situation?”

“I told those men I was a born Reacher. If they took not the hint…”

“So we should take the mechanism to the sages right way,” Liana suggested.

“That they will expect,” Chakan countered. “They’ll have a trap set for us.”

None fight like a Northerner defending his land,” Liana quoted. “So we let them come to us, when we’re ready for them. When do you think they’ll come?”

“A day or two before market day. That gives us a little time to plan our defense.”

continued

Monday, April 17, 2017 No comments

The Brass Mechanism, episode 7

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Difference engine
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Brinla was indeed loose of tongue, and she was not the only one. The rain came in as Chakan had expected, but it did little to wash away the stream of folk coming to ask questions of the brass mechanism.

Chakan and Liana grew irritable, although they usually remembered to direct their ire toward the constant interruptions—at meal times, work times, gardening times, even lovemaking times—any time of day, and into the evening, someone would come a-knocking. They tried to put up a sign to limit the visits, but most folk simply ignored it.

At least, Chakan thought, they do not come empty-handed. Visitors brought chickens, slabs of salted beef, bacon, bundles of onions, sacks of potatoes or bread, and even a little money. The list of items they needed at market diminished each day, and that brought Chakan a new worry—that they would not need to go, and then they would be stuck with the cursed mechanism forever.

As for Liana, she soon became dismayed at the banality of the questions the folk brought:

Should my son marry this woman or that woman?

If I bet on the dice tomorrow, will I win?

Is my husband seeing a woman in Queensport?

After one of these left the house one day, Liana threw up her hands. “Love, I will never ignore your advice again. First thing in the morning, we’re putting that thing on the wagon and taking it to the sages.”

Chakan took her in his arms. “Soft, soft, my heart. It’s not been all bad. We can wait until market day, it’s almost here. But I tell ya true: I’ll be glad to see that hunk of gearworks gone.”

Liana pulled the bar across the door, then turned and gave Chakan a look she knew made his stomach lurch and his desire rise. “Come to our bed, love. Let us thank the Creator for giving us each other.”


Thankfully, the knocking did not resume for a while. When it began anew, more insistent than usual, they rolled out of bed and threw some clothes on, grumbling about more intrusions.

To their surprise, there were two men and a woman at the door. They were unfamiliar, and their manner of dress suggested they were city dwellers. Out at the road stood a carriage with two donkeys. It seemed plain, but something about it nagged at Chakan.

“Yar?” Liana asked, having no better greeting at the moment.

“Your pardon, notables,” the woman replied as the men gave a half nod-half bow. “We were told you have unearthed an ancient treasure?”

“If you are of the Crown, please present your forms,” said Chakan. One of the lessons he had learned in this new place was emissaries of the Crown always carry their papers. They had shown him copies of papers, so at least he knew what they should look like. He likely would be unable to tell forgery from genuine item, but it made more work for those with bad intent.

“Oh, we are not with the government,” the woman assured him. “I am Misiva sam Tiefi, a private investor in antiquities and the like. Have I indeed been directed to the correct house?”

Chakan held his tongue, but he was sorely tempted to say we left the contraption with the sages this morning. Instead, he hoped his wife would say it, with more conviction than he would be able to muster. His father used to tell him, you make a poor liar, Chakan, but the only shame in that is to try lying anyway.

“Yar, we still have it,” Liana said after a brief pause, dashing Chakan’s hopes. Something about this situation made him nervous.

“Oh, excellent. Could I perhaps see it? I am willing to compensate you for your trouble.” Misiva produced a small bag, and took from it a gold octagon.

Liana and Chakan stared at the coin. While their farm would garner the equivalent of that bag over a year, assuming it was filled with octagons, neither of them had seen that much money all at once. A single octagon would buy enough food for three weeks or more.

“Ah, indeed, we can let you have a look,” Liana stammered, taking the coin. “Do enter, in all peace and harmony.”

“Tea?” Chakan asked as Misiva and her two men—bodyguards?—followed them inside. “We have Queensport Black and Two Rivers Red. I can have the pot warmed in short order.”

“You are indeed hospitable,” Misiva replied, “but we should not be long. This is… it is marvelous! It looks as though it might be functional.”

“It is,” said Liana. “We have used it according to the instructions.”

“Truly?” Misiva looked astonished. “A book survived that long buried in the ground?”

“‘Twas in a stone box,” Chakan blurted. “Sealed up tight for the ages. We had a time of it getting it open without breaking it, let me tell ya.”

“I suppose the box has become paving stones,” one of the men said.

“Nay. We kept it intact. Thought we might come up with a use for it later on.”

“May we see it?” the second man asked Chakan.

“Oh, aye. It’s in the barn. Liana?”

“Yar, let them see it.”

continued…

Monday, April 10, 2017 2 comments

The Brass Mechanism, episode 6

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Difference engine
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
“Eh, that kettle heats up fast,” said Chakan. “Should be ready.” He fetched the kettle, scooped a healthy pinch of tea leaves into the cups, then brought it all to the table on a tray. “Our honored guest,” he said, pouring Brinla’s tea.

Brinla nodded, then took another cup and poured for Liana. “My gracious host.”

Finally, Liana poured a cup for Chakan. “The love of my heart, and the father of our child.”

“Love and friendship,” said Brinla, raising her cup. “A toast always worth drinking to.”

After Liana first, and having a farm of their own second, Chakan thought the tea ceremony might be his favorite thing about life in the Matriarchy. Woman or man, everyone poured each other’s tea. Liana had once told him that if he, a common and foreign-born man, were to take tea with the Queen, even she would pour his tea after he poured hers. All serve in the Matriarchy, the consul had told him, back before he left the Reach, and two years of living here had not shown him different.

“So,” said Brinla, “this thing you dug up. It is truly from Camac That Was?”

“So Chakan believes,” Liana replied.

“Aye. See these numbers?” Chakan pointed to the bottom display. “That’s today’s date, according to the old calendar. When we dug it up, it was showing a date from twenty-four hundred years ago. It was in a stone box, coated with pitch and sealed up. I can’t imagine it could have survived so well otherwise.”

“May I ask a question of it?”

“Of course,” Liana chirped, before Chakan could utter a word.

“Love, I should start spreading that fertilizer before it gets too dark,” Chakan said quickly.

“Go and do. I’ll join you soon.”

Brinla waited until Chakan was outside before speaking. “He seemed nervous.”

“Not a word,” Liana replied. “But I think he’s a little superstitious. He thinks the date the mechanism showed, when we dug it up, was the eve of The Madness.”

“That would be enough to frighten anyone,” said Brinla. “Perhaps the owner buried it before fleeing, thinking she could recover it once she returned? In any case, I suppose fertilizing the field is a chore that needs doing.”

“Yar. But your question? I’ll turn the crank. You twist these knobs while you ask it.”

Brinla took her place at the machine, gripping the knobs. “Will our flock prosper this year?” she asked, as Liana turned the crank.

“Zero three eight, nine two four, five four seven,” Liana read the display. “Now we consult the list.”

The wolf prowls without
Vigilance is no error
Beware the weak house.

Liana looked at her neighbor. “What does that tell you?”

“It tells me I need to get my lout of a husband to shore up that gods-forsaken chicken coop,” Brinli replied. “I’ve been after him about that for a while now.” She stood. “You have a good man, Liana. Even if he is a foreigner. May he continue to bless you.”


“And maybe if Brinla treated him like a partner, instead of a servant, he wouldn’t find ways to vex her so often,” Liana concluded. “Truly, do we spread this so thin?”

“Aye,” said Chakan, sprinkling fertilizer on the rows. “Too much, and it’ll kill the seedlings. Indeed, if we don’t get rain in two days, we’ll have to irrigate to help our crop along.”

“The mechanism said we wouldn’t have drought.”

“Aye, but a few days without rain doesn’t make a drought. A few dry days right now can be a bad thing, though.”

“I see.” Liana scattered compost on the adjacent row. “Husband… after we finish this, could you go to Brinla’s and help Mirthan strengthen their chicken pen?”

“I suppose.” Chakan clucked at the ox to move the cart up. “Is this about that… thing we dug up?”

“Yar. Brinla asked if her flock would prosper. It warned of wolves and weak houses.”

“Aye. I’ll bring a jug of ale and we can make the wind after we finish with the pen. You know, Brinla’s got a bit of a loose tongue. We’ll soon have all the folk around here coming to ask questions of the mechanism. When are we taking it to the sages?”

Liana sighed. “We’ll have to go to market in a week. We can take it then. Maybe you’re right, Chakan. Brinla said you’re a good man, and she speaks true. Your instincts are talking, and I need to stop ignoring that. So when we go to market, we’ll be shut of this.”

“That thing does worry at me, love. But we’ll ask the sages to tell us what becomes of it, aye?”

continued…

Monday, April 03, 2017 1 comment

The Brass Mechanism, episode 5

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Difference engine
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
“Will our child be healthy?” Liana asked, twisting the knobs atop the mechanism. Chakan turned the crank, wishing they had just given the thing over to the sages. Following the instructions to advance the mechanism’s calendar one day, they started planting corn yesterday afternoon, then spent today finishing the work. Now it was evening once again, and tomorrow would be a day of rest. Not that either one planned to get much rest, but…

Chakan refused to watch the numbers spinning, but heard the click as each one fell into place, sealing the fate of their child for good or ill.

“It’s done,” Liana told him.

“Oh. Ah.” Chakan had been turning the crank without realizing it was spinning freely.

“Three two one, six six three, zero three nine,” Liana read the display. “Let’s look it up.”

“All right.” Chakan tried to keep his voice light as he consulted the book.

Duty rewarded
There is no error in rest
Beware violence.

“What do you make of it?”

Liana looked over the numbers, checking her husband’s work, then sat lost in thought for a long time. “It sounds like I should pay close attention to the Healer,” she said. “And to not pick fights or wrestle lids off stone boxes.” She grinned at Chakan. “Rest when I can. That should not be too hard for a while.”

“Aye. Seed’s in the ground, now. When we see signs of rain, we’ll spread the fertilizer. Other than that? Until the corn’s sprouting, we care for the oxen, forage, and tend the kitchen garden.” Chakan found the latter a wonder—a garden that could be picked year-round. True, the winter offerings were roots and sour greens; but a dollop of fat gave the greens some flavor and local herbalists claimed they were good for the constitution. A brief walk would take them to unclaimed land, where they could forage. Northerners like Chakan found the southern coastal lands almost obscenely abundant with edible plants and small game.

“Then it’s settled,” said Liana, taking his hand. “I should rest. You can see that I sleep all night.”


A few days went by before they saw rain coming, but they were never truly idle. Between foraging, seeing to their garden and animals, and frequent romps in bed, they kept busy.

When Chakan saw the clouds building, he went out to the barn and turned the compost heap before pitching the bottom layers into a field wagon. Compost was something he had learned of in his roustabout days, and had brought the knowledge with him to Queensport. Local farmers, finding their waste could easily become free fertilizer, quickly took up the practice as well.

The heap was odorous, especially in summer, but not so much on cool spring mornings like this one. “Rain will come, tonight or on the morrow,” he told the oxen, munching hay in their stalls. “We’ll spread this mess on the field before it gets here.”

But when he went into the house to get Liana, he found their neighbor Brinla sitting at the table. “Peace and harmony,” he said automatically, putting the heel of his hand to his forehead and giving her a nod.

“All peace unto you, Chakan,” Brinla replied, hand over heart. “I had a surplus of eggs this week, and eggs are good for a woman with child, so I thought I would bring Liana a few and catch up on news.”

“Thank’ee for the eggs, and you’re welcome here as always. Would you like some tea? We have Queensport Black, and I believe Two Rivers Red.”

“Red would be good.”

Chakan looked at his wife, who nodded. “Red it is, then.” He stoked up the fireplace—it was yet cool enough to want at least some heat in the house—and hung the pot over the flames.

“So Liana tells me the two of you dug up this fascinating piece of machinery,” Brinla told Chakan as he returned to the kitchen to check on their tea supply. “And it tells the future?”

“I know not if it truly tells the future,” Chakan replied, satisfied that they had enough red tea. “But it does seem to give useful advice about matters when queried. We should be turning it over to the sages soon. Let them puzzle out the truth of it.”

“How does it work?”

“You turn these knobs while you ask your question,” Liana explained. “Someone turns the crank for you. Then you match the numbers against a list to see the answer.”

continued…

Monday, March 27, 2017 2 comments

The Brass Mechanism, episode 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Difference engine
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Chakan began to object, but stopped. Two years living in the Matriarchy, and he still found himself having to shake old attitudes. But deferring to his wife was a small price to pay for… for everything. Not only for their land, but for Liana. Her letters had raised his hopes, and getting to know her had proven reality greater than his hope. She was headstrong, aye, but better that than a woman who waited to be told what to think. Besides, she listened to his advice about farming, and mostly let him make the decisions for the farm work. If ever a man had found his ideal… “Aye. Fair enough,” he said.

“We’ll have a care,” Liana assured him. “What should we ask about first?”

“Eh. What crops will be worthwhile to plant. ‘Twould save us a mickle of work if we’re gonna face drought or blight this season.”

“So we plant nothing if the mechanism predicts a bad growing season?”

“Ah, nay.” Chakan embraced his wife. “We’ll plant crops that won’t need as much water. They won’t fetch a high price at market, but they’ll beat a failed corn crop.”

“Sensible. But we’ll need to get all these numbers and their phrases written down to make sense of it anyway. Let’s get to work.”

Working by the light of their lamps, they kept on through the night. By the time they looked up, the first light of day was struggling through the windows. Some of the pages in the old book had torn, but they had faithfully transcribed the entire thing.

“Ah,” Chakan grumbled, dropping the quill and shaking his hand. “I’m cramping from elbow to fingertip here.”

“I’d like to see a scribe do better,” Liana soothed, rubbing his arm. “A sweet potato will help with the cramping. We got one left. I’ll cook it up with some sausage for ya, then we’ll get some sleep.”

Afternoon sun streaming into the bedroom window had Chakan sitting up quickly. “Ah, the day’s more’n half-gone,” he muttered, throwing back the covers.

“Soft, soft,” said Liana, putting a hand on his shoulder. “If we don’t get the planting started today, we’ll start tomorrow. One day more or less won’t hurt matters. And we’re going to consult our mechanical Oracle first, remember?”

“Oh, aye.” He yielded to Liana’s gentle pressure, lying down once again.

“How’s your hand?” she asked.

“Better. It might actually grip something.” He reached and gave Liana a gentle squeeze.

“Mmmm. I think my husband is awake.” She reached down. “Indeed he is.”

Some time later, they sat at the table, eating their lunch—strips of marinated meat with a bland local cheese, wrapped with salad greens in flatbread—eyeing the strange mechanism they had wrested from the middle of their field.

“So the book says you grip the knobs atop the thing and twist ‘em, while you ask your question,” said Chakan. “Then you turn the crank clockwise until it no longer resists.”

“And you interpret its answer from the numbers it shows,” Liana added. “Seems simple enough. So you ask the question, I’ll spin the crank, eh?”

Chakan grasped the knobs atop the mechanism. “Should we plant corn this year?” he asked, twisting the knobs as he spoke.

Liana turned the crank, watching the numbers spin across the upper display. One by one, the numbers stopped spinning. Finally, the last number fell into place and the crank spun freely. “It’s done,” she said.

“Aye. Four one one, eight zero nine, two four seven.” Chakan turned to his transcript, and thumbed through the pages.

A plan is well laid
Sun and rain come in their time
Work is rewarded.

“It sounds like we should just plant our corn like we planned.”

“That’s a relief.” Liana grimaced. “Necessity. We can start planting afterwards.”

Chakan watched her rush for the privy, then started for the barn. But before he left the house, he turned around and went back to the brass mechanism. His sketch was in the sheaf of paper that made up his transcription, and he took it out to have a look. “One zero four, zero seven two, two nine eight,” he muttered. He thumbed through the tables, jotting down the meaning on a piece of scrap, then checked it again.

An ill wind blows strong
All empires fall in their time
The hidden prosper.

“Gods. If this thing were buried on the eve of The Madness… gods.” He tucked the scrap into the sheaf, then slipped outside and trotted to the barn. Maybe work would help him forget the dark prophecy.

continued

Monday, March 20, 2017 No comments

The Brass Mechanism, episode 3

Part 1 | Part 2

Difference engine
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Liana set their prize on the table, and they stepped back to take a look. It was a strange-looking device, but even folk with a basic education could see it was some kind of machine. All brass gears, spindles, and fittings it was, with a few flecks of the wood that had once covered it still clinging to the supports. It sported a crank on the right side, the wooden handgrip long gone. A row of numbers dominated the front of the device: 104 072 298. Below was a smaller set of numbers: 98 1812. It had a faint odor of oil and decay.

“So what do those mean?” Chakan asked, pointing at the numbers.

“Maybe the answer is in here.” Liana opened the book, watching to see if the pages would crumble at a touch. “Have a care with this, but it might survive our perusals.” She turned up the title page; it felt brittle but did not fall to pieces. “Using the Prediction Calculator,” she read. “What in the Fourth Hell?”

“This hunk of metal tells the future?” Chakan gave the device an incredulous look. “Ha, the Queen would want to get her hands on this, then.”

“This text is hard to make out. They must not have written the same way we do. ‘Accurate predictions… to ensure, against the stars shall you calibrate.’ What?”

“Sounds like Low Speech. Outside of Phylok you get, so the farmers talk.”

Liana took a moment to parse her husband’s explanation. “Ah. So the ancients all talked the same way? I see. This is saying you calibrate this thing against the stars to get accurate predictions.”

“It uses the stars to make predictions? Outlandish. Shipmasters use the stars to tell where they are on the sea, but I’ve never heard of anyone using them to predict the future.”

“Eh. I never heard Low Speech until you used it just now.”

“If the ancients used the stars to predict the future,” Chakan mused, “the sages would find this thing useful indeed.”

“Ah!” Liana cursed as the page tore. “Bring some paper, love. If these gods-forsaken pages come apart on us, we can preserve what they say for the sages.”

“The sages won’t be pleased with our destroying the originals. But if we’re going to puzzle this thing out, it’s the best we can do.” He paused. “Liana… perhaps we should give this over. Let the sages ruin the book. Knowin’ the future could be a fearful business.”

“Could be some profit in it, love. Besides, we found it. We pulled it out of our field. You got the box open. We’ll do the best we can, and that will have to be good enough. Here, write down the numbers it’s showing. Maybe we can puzzle out their meaning later.”

“Aye. Then we’ll sow tomorrow?”

“If the Creator brings us another day of dry weather, indeed. Don’t you have those numbers written down yet?”

“I’m sketching the whole works.” Chakan slid the paper to his wife.

“How do you do that so well, and so quickly?” she asked. In less time than it takes to drink a cup of tea, Chakan had sketched a fair likeness of the mechanism, with Liana looking on. He had drawn a look of wisdom and revealed knowledge on her face.

“A knack. I don’t get to exercise it often.”

“I like this. We should put it in a frame. Then we’ll wait for dark, and calibrate this… this thing. But let’s copy the instructions while we’re waiting.”

“If we don’t destroy the pages along the way.”

“Hoy, I got an idea.” Liana took another sheet of paper and slid it in between the next two pages in the book. “Maybe this will help.” She gently turned the page. “Ha, it worked! Now here’s what it says…”


The night was clear enough to see the stars, and they followed the instructions to calibrate the device. They twisted knobs and pointers on the top of the mechanism as directed, then held their breath as Chakan turned the crank counter-clockwise. One turn, two turns… then the odd clicking noises inside the mechanism ceased and the crank spun freely as the instructions said it would.

They took their prize back inside and looked it over. “Hoy,” said Chakan, “the numbers along the bottom are different, now. Now it’s 84 4269.

“Eh. I think it’s forty-two something by the old Camac calendar,” Liana mused. “And it’s pretty close to the eighty-fourth day of the year. Maybe that’s today’s date.”

“Then this thing has been in the ground a long time, waitin’ for us to dig it up.” Chakan looked at his sketch. Eighteen-twelve. Gods… that mighta been the year of The Madness.”

“Wouldn’t that be something?”

“Liana… let’s give this over to the sages. We’re messin’ with somethin’ that got buried at the worst time ever. Or just before. What was that first set of numbers? One oh-four?” Chakan consulted his transcripts. “First and third groups use the same numbers. An ill wind blows strong. Makes me wonder what the rest of it means.”

“It won’t bring back The Madness, love. That was a good twenty-four centuries ago. We’ve reset it for modern times, and we’ll make some use of it. Then we’ll give it over. Fair enough?”

continued…

Monday, March 13, 2017 2 comments

The Brass Mechanism, episode 2

Part 1

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
“It’s as tight as I can make it,” said Chakan, clambering out of the hole.

“Maybe it’ll work this time, then.” Liana tugged the ox’s harness. “Pull, ya great thudding beast!”

Chakan admired his wife as she coaxed the ox to keep pulling. She even knows the right language, he thought. The animal strained against its harness, and… “Hoy, it’s coming up!”

“Keep it coming!” Liana told the ox.

“Stay on that side,” Chakan warned. “If the rope snaps…”

“Yar. Easy… easy… ha!” The block surrendered its grip on the surrounding earth and slid up the slope and into the field. “That’s it! Drag it back to the barn!”

At the barn, they returned the ox to its stall with a bag of feed, then looked over their prize. “Eh,” Liana mused, “it might make four or five pavers. Enough for our needs, anyway.”

“Aye. But… look.” Chakan knelt and ran his finger across one side. “Looks like a line here.” He brushed away dirt. “I think it runs all the way around the thing. Like it’s a lid.”

“Ha! Maybe it is a chest full of octagons, then?”

“Could be.” Chakan tugged at the “lid,” but it did not budge. “Probably sealed. Here’s where the plow hit it.” He rubbed at a scuff mark along one side. “Hate to take a hammer to it, we might could use it for something.”

“Here, let me bring the pry tool.” Liana kissed her husband. “Keep looking it over, love. You might find something.”

“Best bring a knife, too,” Chakan called after her. “I doubt I could slip that pry tool into this tiny crack.”

“Hoy, I got an idea. Wait here.”

A few minutes later, Liana had driven an old knife blade all the way around the thin crack, and pounded others into each corner. “Yar,” she said, sitting on the ground opposite from Chakan. “Now, twist your blades on your side, and I’ll twist mine. If we get it right, we might get this thing to slide up. Ready? Now.”

“Hoy, the blades are loose,” said Chakan, after a minute of twisting and pulling. “Aye, we got it up a little.”

“Yar. I think we can get the pry tools in there now.”

The afternoon rolled by, and still they strived to open their prize. At last, they worked the lid a finger’s width up, and yet it would not lift off.

“Is it my imagination,” Liana mused, “or is the lid pulling itself back down? Have you ever seen such a thing?”

“Enough,” Chakan growled, standing over the block and working his fingers into the gap on either side. “This ends now.”

“Don’t hurt your back,” Liana warned.

“Eh, I’m more worried about my hands here.” Chakan gripped the block with his boots, pushing with his legs and pulling with his hands. “Get loose, ya Goblin-spawn!” He strained, his accent and curses growing thicker. “Ah, that’s it… come off!” At last, the lid gave way with a pop and a tearing noise, neither of which had they expected to hear from a stone box. Chakan dropped the lid in the soft dirt and panted for breath.

“What in the Seventeen Hells is this?” Liana wondered, looking into the box.

“Eh. Shoulda just handed it over and let the sages do the hard work,” Chakan grumbled, thinking about the Rules of Finding, part of the agreement they signed in exchange for the land grant: Stonework, you may do with what you will. Money is yours but for the normal tax. Items of interest should be turned over to the sages, that they may be studied and benefit the entire nation. “That’s an item of interest if I ever saw one.”

“Yar. We’ll turn it over. But the Rules don’t say we have to turn it over right away. Let’s take a look at it ourselves, first. We did the hard work of getting the box out of the ground and getting it open, so we’ve earned that much.” Liana looked at the box. “Clever folk. Whoever boxed this thing up meant it to survive the ages.” She pointed at a layer of black gunk around the top edge, then turned the lid over. “They painted pitch on the inside of the box and lid, see? It sealed the box tight. That’s why it was so hard to open. I wonder how old this thing is.”

“Well, everything in the ground out here has to be from Camac That Was, nay?”

“Yar.” Liana reached into the box and lifted the contents out. Some kind of mechanism, it seemed; the tarnished brass struggled to reflect the light. “Welcome back to the sun. Now what are you?” She looked down. “Chakan, there’s a book in there. Maybe it’ll tell us what this thing is.”

“If we can make heads or tails of it.” Chakan picked up the book, wincing at the twinge in his back. “I just hope this was worth the effort.”

continued…

Monday, March 06, 2017 3 comments

The Brass Mechanism, episode 1

Difference engine
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
The thought crossed Chakan’s mind: Plowing’s a man’s work.

The better part of himself spoke up immediately. You know better, ya lout. Reacher women plow when they have to. Two years you’ve been a Matriarchy man now, you shouldn’t think like that anymore.

He looked across the field, where his wife Liana plowed with the other ox. And she’s plenty able to do it, a third part of him thought, with mixed admiration and desire. Chakan had always found sturdy women more attractive than either the willowy Reacher standard, or the round soft kind favored in Westmarch and the Alliance cities. They would be married a year, come the autumn equinox, and Chakan often thought how lucky he was, to—

The plow lurched, nearly jerking out of Chakan’s hands. His surprised “Hoy!” did not cover the scraping of the plow blade dragging across a rock. “Hold up, ya lump!” he yelled at the ox.

“What happened?” Liana called from her side of the field. They had each taken half to plow, and now they were close together. Closer than Chakan had thought; they were nearly finished.

“We found another paver, like as not.”

“That’s good. We need a few more to finish the walkway.”

“Maybe that’s why the Crown granted us this patch,” said Chakan. “We’ll never find the end of clearing it.”

“Every time I think about it, I marvel at how vast Old Stolevan must have been. You can hear legends of Camac and Stolevan carrying a million folk each until your ears fall off, but to think this was part of the city…” Liana trailed off, looking toward Queensport, visible to the southeast. “Its boundaries stretched clear out to here and beyond. Well, mark the spot and we’ll dig it up after lunch.” She gave him a wicked grin. “But not right after lunch, mind you.”


“How much longer?” Chakan asked, somewhat later, lying in bed with his wife. This was their favorite dessert after any meal.

“Oh, the Healer said not to worry about it right away. I’m not even showing yet.” Liana had kindled two months ago, to their mutual delight. “If all goes well, we might not have to stop.”

“That’s good to know.” He rolled onto his side, draping an arm across his wife.

“Will you love a daughter as much as a son?” she asked.

“Of course. She won’t be the only one we have.”

Liana stroked his hip, then slid her fingers down. “Good. Hoy… I think you’re ready for more.”

It was mid-afternoon before they pushed themselves grumbling out of bed. But Liana was right; they needed a few more pavers. They had dug up many cut stones last fall and laid them between their house and the barn—a tiny barn by the standards Chakan had grown up with, big enough to house their oxen and what little hay they needed for a southern winter. They were plowing two months before farmers would in the Northern Reach, and needed far less hay to keep their livestock fed through the winter. Still, what they called “winter” along the southern coast was wet, and the paving stones helped them stay out of the mud.

They took shovels, a pick, and rope from the barn, then trudged across the field toward the stick that Chakan had used to mark the spot.

“Maybe this one will be a chest full of octagons,” Liana quipped, getting to work.

“Aye. And maybe we’ll get a winter without snow,” Chakan laughed, digging next to her.

“Snow?”

“Oh, aye. A Reacher saying. The land up there is still covered with it, and here we are getting ready to plant.”

“No, love.” Liana tossed another shovel of dirt aside. “What is snow?”

“You don’t—of course you don’t know about snow, if ya grew up in Queensport. Well…” Chakan stopped to think. “It’s like rain, but it’s frozen before it falls from the sky. Instead of drops, it comes down in tiny little flakes. Enough to bury the land, sometimes as high as me.”

“Ah, I’ve seen that a time or two. Enough to cover the ground, sometimes, but…” Liana grounded the shovel. “Tell me true, Chakan. Is that a tall tale you tell about it covering the land?”

“Tell ya true, Liana. The ground around the warm springs stays clear, but everywhere else? Snow as far as ya can see.”

“No wonder you moved south,” she grinned.

“Nay, nay. I moved here…” he stopped, realizing she was teasing him. But the warmer climate was the least of his reasons to leave his old home for this strange nation where women ruled. As a younger son, he had little to inherit. In his youth, he learned he was not cut out for the military. The one girl he fancied took up with a boy with better prospects. He hired himself out as a roustabout, a freelance farm hand, and found he liked the work. But that desire for one’s own land, one’s own place, was in the Northerner blood. The Matriarchy’s embassy promised land to those who would emigrate and embrace their customs…

“Hoy, ya lazy lout, stop woolgathering!” Liana laughed. “I think I just hit it.”

“Eh? Sorry.” Chakan put his back into it, and soon they looked at the corner of a stone.

“That might be enough to finish the walkway,” Liana mused. “Depends on how deep it goes.”

“Only one way to find out,” Chakan grinned, and began digging around it.

A few minutes later, they stopped. “Eh,” Liana grumbled. “Looks like a block. ‘Twould make a fine cornerstone for a tavern, but it ain’t much good for us.”

“We could always hire a stonecutter to split it,” Chakan pointed out. “That’s enough stone to finish the walkway, and give us a good start on a walk to the road.”

“If she don’t shatter the thing. No telling how long that block has been buried. Well, fetch an ox, husband. We’ll get this out of the field, then we’ll decide what to do with it.”

continued…

Friday, November 25, 2016 12 comments

Patient Zero (#FlashFicFriday)

Some of us are trying to bring the fun of flash fiction back to Twitter. Here’s my contribution, inspired by Daughter Dearest’s text this morning: Walmart is empty, like nobody in the parking lot. That would be as much a sign of the zombie apocalypse as anything…

Do join us! Go to the #FlashFicFriday blog and leave your link in the collector.



Heather was alone in the unruly crowd, but she was closer to the doors now. After all the stress of the Thanksgiving family gathering, her friends Brit and Becks (aka The Bs) invited her to a party followed by Black Friday shopping. Seemed like a great idea at the time. “Maybe it’s food poisoning,” she muttered to herself. Aunt Tammy made the most god-awful side dishes, and insisted everyone get some. Not to put too fine a point on it, she felt like shit. Thank God for the crowd, she thought. It’s the only thing holding me up.

A vision of being a Black Friday statistic brought her to her senses.”Girl up,” she growled. “You’re on a mission.” Big-screen TVs were $125 at Mallet’s (“don’t go to the maul, go to Mallet’s!”) and she meant to get two—one for her, one for her cousin Whitney, the only family member she ever looked forward to seeing nowadays.

She looked at the big digital clock over the doors. 4:54 a.m., and Mallet’s would open at five. Her vision was blurry, and her mind wasn’t much better. She focused, trying to piece together what had happened. She never got hammered enough to black out. Maybe Becks was right, and that guy she had hooked up with at the party gave her a roofie. The Bs ended up carrying her to the car, after threatening the guy’s life, and drove with her window open until she came to.

Her shoulder itched, and she winced as she scratched. A memory sputtered to life: the guy had his hand in her shirt—but behind her neck, gently scratching her shoulder. It felt good, so she hadn’t made him stop. The way it felt now, he must have taken a few layers of skin off. “Some pervs have the weirdest kinks,” she said, and this time the mom in front of her glanced over her shoulder.

Plan. Focus. Get what you came for. The terrified employees lined up a bunch of carts, staggered so you could slip between them to get to the first row. The digital clock went to 4:59, then 4:59:30, then the crowd counted down the last ten seconds.

The doors slid open, the employees got the hell out of the way, and the stampede was on. Heather made the most of her solid build, pushing the mom aside, elbowing her way forward, rolling with her staggering run, letting nobody slow her down. She weaved through the carts, grabbed one in the second row as the first row sprinted into the store, and joined the mad chase.

At Electronics, she found the stack of big-screens, and shoved two onto her cart. Someone grabbed her hoodie, trying to yank her backward, and she stepped back and threw an elbow. The stout middle-aged woman grunted and staggered back, and Heather pushed the cart away from the growing melee around the TVs.

Now that she had what she wanted, her resolve and energy crashed. Slumping against the cart, she trundled to the customer service desk in the back.

“You okay?” the flack behind the counter asked. “Do I need to call 911?”

“No,” she managed to reply. “Just need to rest a couple minutes is all.” She collapsed onto the bench and knew no more.


“Hey. Hey.” Shaking. “Hey. If you’re not sick, you have to go. I’ll call 911 if you want.”

She pushed herself up with a grunt, swaying a little. The TVs were gone, so was her purse, but she had no memory of those things. She was here for…

Rrrrowlrrrrr, went her stomach. She was here to eat. And the meat standing before her was as good a start as any.

Friday, August 19, 2016 7 comments

A Titanic Change (#FridayFlash)

"Untergang der Titanic",
by Willy Stöwer, from Wikimedia Commons
September 11, 1931

There is a running joke about using a time machine to go kill your grandfather. I mean to save mine.

April 17, 1912 saw one of the greatest maritime disasters in history. Everyone knows about it: the Titanic, having first dodged a near-collision with another liner as it left port in England, then surviving a brush with an iceberg, came into New York harbor at full steam. It ran aground and capsized. There were few survivors.

I saw the disaster, and nearly did not live to tell of it. I was part of a great crowd, gathered to see the marvelous ship arrive safe in port. Safe! My grandfather, who had retired from the steamer lines, insisted on bringing me to see. I was glad to come, if only to escape school for a day. I remember it was a chilly day, and I was glad for my new jacket.

“The finest ship built by the hand of man,” Grandfather told me as we first caught sight of the proud liner, entering the harbor. “A pity we didn’t come sooner,” he said, waving at the crowded pier.

“You think we could board it?” I asked, every inch the wide-eyed innocent.

“If we can find a man I know—hoo, she’s comin’ in fast. The captain better be going full-reverse—ho!” A tugboat turned hard a-port to avoid the speeding Titanic. “We best get back!”

Too late—the spectators crowding the pier realized the danger as well, and we were swept up in the panicking mob. I stumbled, but Grandfather was there to snatch me up, and we joined the jostling throng. The horrors of that morning are still etched on my memory, and I need only close my eyes to see them once again. Looking over Grandfather’s shoulder, unable to turn away, I saw it all. Smoke poured from the funnels, the mighty engines at full throttle to the last. I saw passengers on deck, fighting to board lifeboats, falling or jumping overboard into the murky waters of the harbor. Terrified faces in the crowd all around me, screaming and cursing. I saw a young woman fall with a shriek, and others running over the place she fell. Though I watched, I never saw her get back up.

I had little time to think There I would be, if not for Grandfather, because the crowning horror now unfolded. With a screeching and tearing noise even louder than the voices around me, the doomed Titanic ran aground. I saw the hull crumple beneath the weight of the ship above it, but its immense momentum carried it forward, forward, up and out of Poseidon’s realm and onto the land from whence it came. I saw passengers, clustered around the now-useless lifeboats, scatter across the deck in all directions.

“It’s falling our way!” I shouted to Grandfather. But others heard, and foolishly paused in their flight to look behind them. Some stood stock-still, dooming themselves double if such a thing were possible. Grandfather bulled our way past several stricken refugees, knocking one or two aside to gain more distance. With the groan of a ravenous monster, the beached ship heeled over, its shadow racing far faster than the tiny morsels trying to escape its hunger.

Grandfather pushed on, trying to get clear, as the hull loomed ever nearer. Even as a child, I knew that getting clear of the hull itself would not be enough—the superstructure would tear free and crush anyone beneath. And for those unfortunate enough to be in the path of the funnels, even the most legendary runners could not escape their fate. But he drove himself onward, although by now he must have been frightfully tired with the added burden of myself.

I recall only snatches of the end. The cries of despair from those behind us, terrified screams as more would-be escapees stumbled and fell from fatigue or over the feet of others around them, the hull and superstructure looming above. There were things falling from the deck—chairs, lifeboats, people, detritus—striking down those behind us. I remember hearing Grandfather’s last words, Ah, shit! and how he flung me forward, giving me all his momentum in his last second of life. The thunder that went on and on, the blast of air flinging me onward. I try not to think about what flew around and past me in that moment.

When I hit the ground, I tumbled like a rag doll, coming to rest at last with a broken arm and more bruises than I could count. (This I only learned later, waking up in a hospital with my frantic mother at my side.)

It was only later that the public learned of the telegraph operator, staying at his post until the last, telling any who had a radio of the cause of the disaster. I cared little, and care little still. Nineteen years have passed, and at long last I am in a position to prevent it. Unbeknownst to the crew, I have made a tiny adjustment in the rudder trim. The Titanic shall strike the iceberg more than a glancing blow, crippling the doomed liner, and its passengers shall be picked up and brought home safely. How many men have saved thousands of lives at a single stroke? I am already a hero, though none may know.

Grandfather, I shall see you soon.

Friday, May 27, 2016 3 comments

Stiletto’s Getaway (#FridayFlash)

This runs a bit longer than a flash should—just short of 1300 words—but it’s part of a larger work in progress (16K words and counting). Stiletto has a bit part in Blink’s story, being serialized at WriteOn now, but she’s the main character in this one. This takes place the winter before Blink manifested…



A jet-black rocket on two wheels glided over the streets of Skyscraper City. What little noise it made was drowned out by the roaring and wailing of three police cars in hot pursuit. The bike had no lights; the rider had a night vision display to show her where to go.

“A little tighter than I’d have liked,” Stiletto muttered to herself, snapping the motorcycle around a corner. The back end stepped out, but Stiletto knew to stay on the throttle and the bike jerked upright with a little wiggle. Pegging the throttle out of the turn, she thumbed the voice command switch. “Deploy caltrops.” Above the soft thrum of the engine, she heard the caltrops rattle onto the street behind her. The cops would have to slow down for the turn as well, and so they wouldn’t plow into a wall when their tires went down. Stiletto would kill only if she had no other choice.

Behind her, the lead cop car went into a skid and the other two braked hard, giving Stiletto some breathing room. “Now they’ll call for backup.” Captain Heroic was retired, it was too cold for No Sweat to do his thing this time of year, and the Masked Warriors never did this kind of pursuit. That left the Devis and Count Boris to worry about… but she was almost home free. She blew through a red light, swerving to miss the delivery truck lumbering through the intersection, then took a left at the next block. Two blocks down, she took another left and slowed enough to keep the traffic surveillance cameras from tripping and giving away her position.

A supervillain had to know exactly where she was at all times, and Stiletto was no exception. Twelve blocks would get her to the bridge and then to Riverside North, where she had her lair. And her home. Cops feared to tread those streets at night, but things were more orderly than they thought. That, of course, was largely due to Stiletto. She had put the word out to the gangs long ago: Don’t recruit kids, don’t sell drugs down here, and don’t involve bystanders in your wars. After making examples out of a few non-believers… well, it was a pretty safe place for everyone who belonged there. But between here and home was—

A cop car skidded around the corner, lights flashing. The driver hit the siren as Stiletto hit the gas. Between here and home was two blocks run by the LeFleurs mob. She had little use for mobs—white guys in suits who thought that made them superior to gang-bangers—but they might be good for a little distraction. Behind her, three more cop cars joined the renewed chase. Good. That should make it a fair fight. “Side guns,” she commanded. “Rubber bullets.” The weaponry clicked into place.

A hard right, a left, and now she was in position. “Fire!” The automatic weapons pumped rubber bullets into storefront windows, shattering them and setting off alarms. Mobsters on watch, hearing gunshots and police sirens, responded immediately. Focusing on the traditional enemy, they barely noticed the black motorcycle without lights. A few bullets spanged off her fairing, spending themselves against brick walls and pavement.

In turn, the cop cars skidded to a halt. Cops poured out the lee side of each, returning fire. “Now they have something else to think about,” said Stiletto, with a satisfied smile. “Disarm all,” she told her bike, slowing to a legal speed. “Let’s go home.”

At an abandoned factory along the riverfront, Stiletto ran her motorcycle up a loading ramp. A narrow door swung open long enough for her to shoot through it. She rolled between two sets of uprights; as she shut the bike down and raised the cowling, the uprights came together, clamping the wheels. The entire thing turned around, facing the door for her next caper. This was Stiletto’s hideout, and it was more comfortable inside than it looked. Some dumbass yuppies had tried to gentrify this part of Riverside back thirty years ago, and ended up running back to the white side of town. She owned this building outright, through a few shell corporations, and the defenses kept druggies out.

City Loan, a notorious payday lender with hidden ties to Grimes Financial, had lost about two hundred thirty thousand bucks tonight. They would get half of it back soon enough; she knew several families who were about to have their loans paid in full. The rest would give her secret identity a little free time. “Yeah, you deserve it hon, havin’ to put up with Stiletto most weekends,” she told herself. But for now, all but a couple hundred went into the hidden safe along with her costume.

Dressed in street clothes, she used a pair of night vision goggles to check the perimeter. Nobody nearby. She locked up and emerged into the night.

A few blocks from her apartment—another failed gentrification attempt—she paused. She knew the snick of a switchblade, the click of a revolver’s hammer, the chick-chick of a cocked semi-auto, every sound of every weapon you might find down here. But this was more of a tock sound, like someone doing a really loud tongue-click.

What the hell? she thought. It was pitch-dark here, so she felt no need to hide. Anyone coming for her would be just as blind as she was right now. She put a hand on her own switchblade.

Tock, came the noise again, rattling up and down the street. “Busy night, hon?”

“You could say that,” Stiletto blurted, expecting neither the kindly question nor the woman’s voice behind it. She always tried to put her villain identity away with her costume, but all her mental alarms were blaring. Just another lady, she tried to convince herself.

“Easy, now. You got nothin’ to fear from me,” the voice came again. “I know where you go and what you do. Doesn’t matter to me.”

Snick. Stiletto brought out the switchblade without thinking about it. “Who are you?” she demanded.

“The phantom who sees in the night.” The woman—whoever she was—pitched her voice to make it sound spooky, then chuckled. “You might want to go around one block. The Three-Knees are hangin’ out up the way you usually go. Young woman, walkin’ by herself? Could be trouble.”

“What… this ain’t their hood.” Theirs was Third Street Northeast; they used 3NE as their tag. Calling them “Three-Knee” to their faces would get a violent response.

“Don’t matter. They’re there. And they don’t quite understand how things are done down here.”

“Yeah.” Stiletto worked by cutting one of the violators out of the herd; she couldn’t take on a whole gang by herself. “Thanks for the warning, uh…”

“Don’t matter who I am,” came the answer. “Some things are gone and not forgotten. Other things… well, you ride your ride, hon. I’ll ride mine.” And the presence was gone. Somehow, Stiletto could sense that.

“No. Way,” she whispered to herself. Her aunts had brought her up on stories of the Night Stalker. The phantom who sees in the night, she thought with a chill. It couldn’t be the real Night Stalker; if she was even alive, she had to be pushing eighty. But you heard things, and not all of them were from superstitious old folks. Women and children, warned of danger up ahead in a hood where most of the streetlights never worked. Or rescued. Not all the peace in Riverside North was Stiletto’s doing, when it came down to it.

She took the recommended detour, chewing over the woman’s riddle. Some things are gone and not forgotten. Other things… “are forgotten and not gone?” she asked herself. “Was there really a Night Stalker?”

Friday, September 25, 2015 4 comments

Stealth and High Explosives (#FridayFlash)

Hey look, a #FridayFlash! I woke up Tuesday morning with the phrase “stealth and high explosives” in my head, so here’s how two opposites work together…



I could imagine the calm-faced bodyguards: Sir, we need to get you to shelter this second. I adjusted my tie and hefted my briefcase.

The side entrance slammed open, and a torrent of bureaucrats and office drones poured out, babbling to be heard over the alarm buzzers. Some were poking at their phones, half an eye on the foot traffic crowded around them. Some might be texting I’m OK to family members, others sharing the excitement on Twitter, it didn’t matter either way. After the initial crush, the traffic tapered off and I slipped inside.

Swimming against the current, I did get the occasional “what the hell?” I didn’t blame them; they were low-level government workers, and running into a bombed building wasn’t in their job descriptions. I was ready for them, though, with a fake badge they wouldn’t take the time to scan. “Security. Please remain calm and evacuate the building,” I said, and they would comply.

Even if I hadn’t memorized the layout of the building, I could have found the stairwell by following the people leaving it. It smelled in there, too many worried bodies in too small a space. Flashing my badge again, I got the crowd of evacuees to make a lane for me along the wall. I took the steps two at a time, in both show and need of haste. I had to get them to clear a lane at each landing, so it was slower going than I liked. But I’d crunched the numbers. If I didn’t get completely blocked, I’d have just enough time.

“Excuse me!” a young woman called. “Are we in any danger?”

“Not at the moment,” I assured her. “The incident occurred at the lobby. But you need to exit quickly, and move away from the building, in case they have more surprises. Tell anyone you see standing near the exits.” I passed her as I said the last. Attractive, especially for a government drone. She must be new; the work had not yet begun to wear on her. Give it a couple years.

Third floor. I had to wave my badge and repeat the magic words several times before I could get enough space to squeeze through the door and into the hallway. There were still a few people lined up, looking anxious. “Plenty of time,” I told those, waving my badge one last time. “Just keep moving away from the building when you exit.”

Past the stairwell door, the third floor was nearly deserted. One or two guys were still at their desks, looking like they were trying to squeeze in one last thing before bolting. Probably looking to prove they were Promotion Material. I was so glad I wasn’t part of that rat-race anymore. But it did remind me of the other potential snag in my plan: someone might still be in Dr. Wackjob’s office suite. He wasn’t the kind to order office assistants to stay at their desks in a crisis, so said his profile. Actually, he was a decent type to work for—which said nothing of how he treated those he worked on.

Dr. Wackjob’s other quirk was that he was ultra-paranoid. None of his work ever touched a computer. That’s why I was here. And—better than I’d dared to hope—the suite was empty, and the doctor’s office door was open. His bodyguards didn’t let him lock up behind. I added a minute to the time I had to work.

His desk had someone’s file on it. Nobody I knew or needed to know, so I went to the file cabinets lining one wall—fireproof, and built like tanks. If we had dropped the whole building, the files would have survived. Dial M for Mayhem, I thought, and opened that drawer. Zachary Malovio’s file was near the front, and I pulled the folder. It was thick with paper, and I knew I had no time to go through the whole thing, but what I needed most was on the front page: facility name, room, attendants, the works. I stuck the whole thing in my briefcase and left.

There were still a few stragglers in the stairwell, and I joined them. We all made haste, although I knew there would be another bottleneck at the exit. I was about the last one out, and joined the throng heading for the transit station.

I hoped for an open table at one of the cafes and bistros lining the street, but all the other evacuees had filled them. Not everything went perfectly, after all, and I was three-fourths done. I stopped and scanned the street, looking for possible tails, but saw neither potential sanctuary nor potential enemies. Three fire trucks blasted by, making a godawful racket, and I ducked onto a quieter side street. There was a coffee shop, a little downscale for how I was dressed, but there were plenty of open tables. I took off my jacket, loosened my tie, and took a chair.

“Everybody okay up there?” the barista asked, checking his phone.

“I think it was mostly the lobby. Can I get a medium with cream, no sugar, to go? And your wifi password?”

“Oh, yeah, no prob.” He rattled off the wifi password as he poured up my order, and I punched it into my phone. “You know they can sniff the traffic, right?”

“I have VPN,” I assured him, and set up a connection. “Just needed to send one item I couldn’t before they chased us out.” I worked from memory, then cleared and shut down the phone. I’d leave it on the train later. Zach would be discharged tomorrow and spirited away, and all would be well. I left a five on the table for the barista and hit the streets.

Stealth and high explosives might not sound like they go together, but sometimes that’s what you need to get the job done.

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