Category Archives: Fiction

[BOOKSTORE WINDOW] Two Ledges #amwriting #storytelling

The result of my fourth #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on writing prompts supplied by Craig Pittman, Colchek, and Gareth Harmer. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about an hour and a half:

The Herbert drifted above the dark forest of thick green grass stalks, a fat red ocarina of metal and ceramic bristling with guns under a cloud-scudded blue sky.

But the only music this vessel played was a fusillade of death and destruction, raking the Weedlands below. One volley exploded scant yards away from Rachard, his face scarred years ago by his first encounter with one of the thousand other Skybellies in the Greater Fleet. Shrapnel tore a hole through his gray Greatest Infantry uniform sleeve, but left him unhurt as he rolled down a ridge, through a rain-swollen gulley, over a cliff.

He landed on his side on a ledge about ten feet down the chasm. Lost his grip on his gunny sack, which tumbled into the shadows below. He heard it thump, peered into the dimness, thought he saw it on another ledge some twenty feet farther down.

He’d climb back up with his rope and hook, but those were in the pack. He’d radio Copse 227 for a gyro, but the transmitter was in the pack.

So now all he could do was wait and pray for help.

***

“Got a gray whale incoming,” reported the sensors officer on the bridge of the Herbert.

Commander Toltec smoothed the front of his crimson Greater Fleet uniform jacket and gave a curt nod before turning his attention to the viewport. Another Skybelly, plump and gray and lethal as the Herbert, sweeping in from the northwest.

“Redirect cannons,” Toltec ordered the weapons officer.

“All of them?” First Officer Clemeni sounded indignant as she rose from her station and turned to stare at the commander.

She’d only been his second-in-command for three weeks, replacing Immons, who had died in a mortar blast from the Sacama at the Battle Over Sandfall Watch.

Toltec didn’t appreciate her penchant for insinuating his incompetence. He had shown patience the times it happened at Night’s Rise and the Bloody Knife Hills. He could brook no more, he thought, lest he risk a loss of confidence among the rest of the crew.

“Identify that Skybelly,” Toltec demanded of the sensors officer, keeping his eyes on Clemeni.

The answer didn’t surprise him in the least: “The Sacama, sir.”

“The Sacama,” Toltec repeated. He glowered at Clemeni. “Redirect ALL cannons,” he told the weapons officer. Then, to his first officer, he said: “The insects in the Weedlands are of no concern with a true threat like the Sacama looming. Question my orders again and we’ll see how well you can fly.”

But Clemeni wouldn’t let it drop. “With all due respect, Commander, the Grays on the ground should be given no quarter. The Sacama could be part of a diversion. You’re playing right into their trap.” She took a step closer to Toltec, adding, “I’m not suggesting that we focus all our weapons on the Weedlands, but perhaps devote only half our cannons to the Sacama?”

The enemy whale grew larger in the viewport as the Sacama and Herbert closed distance between each other.

“They’ll be in range in thirty seconds,” the weapons officer announced.

“I won’t have it,” Toltec seethed between clenched teeth, staring at Clemeni. He told the weapons officer: “Lock all cannons on the Sacama and fire at will while nav takes us on a Peregrine Loop. Engage!”

The Sacama had other plans, it seemed, slowly breaking away in a broad arc in an apparent effort to evade any oncoming salvos from the Herbert. Bright sunlight flashed off the gray ceramic coating the metal of the enemy vessel’s hull as she angled back to the north.

An alert klaxon wailed just before the sensors officer reported: “Missile fire from the Weedlands, south and southwest.”

Toltec’s stomach sank. “How many?”

“All of them, I think,” the sensors officer replied. “One hundred and fifty.”

The weapons officer called out: “Deploying countermeasures!”

“Oh, excellent,” the sensors officer said. “Down to one hundred and twenty.”

“Time to impact?” Toltec asked. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Clemeni now, but he could feel her eyes on him. She’d been right. Now his pride may have doomed them all.

“Eight seconds to impact.”

***

Rachard watched at first in awe and then in abject horror as the Herbert struggled and failed to avoid dozens of incoming missiles as they homed in on the blood-red Skybelly, burst through the hull, and shattered the craft into so much flaming junk.

Flaming junk that suddenly plunged toward the Weedlands.

“Sha-sha.” He gasped the vulgarity with the reverence of a prayer as he hunkered down, hands over his head, head between his knees, eyes closed, waiting for death to come.

Something heavy struck him, he smelled wet canvas and fuel fumes, and then darkness came.

***

Maybe, Alenna Clemeni thought as she awoke on her back on a rocky ledge, I could’ve handled that better.

The Weedlands on either side of the gorge blazed with the last vengeance of the dying Herbert.

Maybe she should’ve asked Commander Toltec for a private audience instead of calling him out in front of the bridge crew. Maybe she should’ve drawn her service weapon and shot him in the head, saving all the worthwhile lives.

And maybe he could’ve listened to her. Maybe he could’ve given his ego a back seat to common sense. The war, going on seven years now, held few surprises for the combatants. Numerous Skybellies before the Herbert, both the red and the gray, had fallen for the same trick.

Eventually, the Sacama‘s commander might have a bad day and meet a similar fate.

She felt a fierce pain in her left leg. Broken in the landing, no doubt. Her bag, which she’d managed to snatch in the few seconds before the Herbert blew apart, should hold a splint kit.

Her fingers crept along the surface of the ledge until they touched canvas. She found the strap and tugged the sack onto her stomach.

It was gray and bore the double boot logo of the Greatest Infantry.

***

“Are you gramand kidding me?!” A woman’s voice, shouting from somewhere below Rachard’s ledge.

He wasn’t dead.

And now he wasn’t alone.

And he was wearing a hat? No. Not a hat. A sack. He rolled aside, clutching the strap, and worked his way into a seated position against the cliff wall. He looked down at the red canvas sack with the winged logo of the Greater Fleet.

Rachard leaned over the edge to look down at his companion in peril. He shouted: “Got your bag! Seems you’ve got mine, eh? Neat trick. Tell me there’s not a God, now, bloody red heathen!”

“If she exists,” the woman below snapped back, “she’s an ironclad bitch to do this!”

He tried to ignore the obvious blasphemy, instead venturing: “Well, he does not suffer from a lack of irony, to be sure.”

***

She opened the gray sack and dumped the contents on the rough stone of the ledge. Some ration packets, a canteen, a coil of rope and a hook, a transmitter encrypted for the infantryman’s biometrics, and seven gold-foil framed holy icons.

“Maybe I can pray to the magic sky ghost to fly me out of this hole,” she mused bitterly.

***

Rachard rummaged through the Greater woman’s bag, carefully setting each item next to him as he proceeded: a canteen, a splint kit, a handful of ration packs, a transmitter attuned to the fleeter’s biometrics, and six bottles of painkiller pills – perhaps intended for an unholy suicide ritual mandated by the heathen commanders to avoid capture.

“Who doesn’t pack rope?” the soldier groused.

***

“Throw my radio up,” the man on the higher ledge urged Clemeni. “Cushion it with ration packs, tie the rope to it, and throw. Easy, right?”

Right, she thought. Give up my food and the rope. Give him a means of reaching the enemy commanders so they could rescue him and either kill or imprison her.

“Drop my radio to me,” she countered. “Much less trouble.”

***

Given the glorious promise of Heaven or imminent threat of burning Hell, Rachard would never surrender that radio into the hands of an enemy who would see his people exterminated.

Just a few minutes ago, after all, she’d been aboard the notorious Greater Skybelly Herbert, gazing down at the Weedlands in atheistic condescension, blithely scorching the world with cannon fire.

“Stalemate, I suppose,” he said, with a weary sigh.

***

Clemeni grunted at the zealot’s foolishness, the sort of blind, stubborn devotion that justified their subjugation.

It always baffled her that people like him could put all their faith in a mystical, unknowable sky ghost, while proving so reluctant to bow under the undeniably real blistering onslaught of the Greater Fleet. She didn’t begrudge the soldier’s beliefs, really. She just hated the haughty insistence that it somehow made his people better than hers and gave him some grander destiny.

She knew better. Her father once told her a truth that she carried with her to this day. He’d beaten Clemeni’s mother for the last time after Mom accidentally burned the Givna warbler. The lawkeepers had arrested him once, but it hadn’t been enough. So she, at age thirteen, had gutted him with a meat fork.

As he lay dying, he muttered: “Little by little…we all become monsters.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked the man on the ledge above. “Pray your way out of this?”

***

Rachard felt sorry for the woman. And that reaction surprised him. The godly commanders of the Greatest Army had taught the troops to fear and despise the faceless heathens arrayed against them by the Prince of Darkness. He should quietly condemn her to the waiting Abyss and turn his thoughts inward to contemplation and meditation.

But now, even in a situation where they must depend on each other for a chance at survival, she belittled his faith in an obvious attempt to make her feel better about the grim situation.

“You’re not helping,” he said. “But, to your point, at the very least, prayer would not *hurt*. My name’s Rachard Limn, by the way.”

“Oh, I don’t give a gramand’s shit who you are,” the Fleeter snarled. “I just want to get the muck out of this chasm and back to my people.”

At that moment, a pair of gyrocopters whirred into view from the north and south over the conflagration caused by the Herbert‘s demise. One of the spindly vessels bore the gray colors of the Greatest military, while the other was a soot-smeared red of the Greaters.

“I suppose God answers prayers of all kinds,” Rachard muttered.

[BOOKSTORE WINDOW] Eyes of the Stars #amwriting #storytelling

The result of my third #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on writing prompts supplied by Colchek, entropymanor, and nickpalaz0123. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about an hour:

The discovery, like so many before and since, was an accident.

Every 87 years, the six moons in the sky above our world form a perfect alignment with each other. However, it turns out that once every 261 years, that alignment causes a total eclipse of our sun.

And, on that day, something truly wondrous happens.

It was 1,044 years ago that my great-great-great-something grandfather, Helefont Shawmel, left a goblet of clear liquid on a column in the Honor Temple, on the outskirts of what today is Fastheld’s Forest District. Long before the powerful mages of the Shadow Council raised the Aegis as a defense against the Wildlings.

Helefont passed out drunk, but awoke just in time to see the eclipse in progress – one moon sliding in front of another, and then the sun settling behind them all, blotted out and leaving bright coils of light like shining tears brimming.

He stared into the clear liquid of the goblet and it was then, legend holds, that he saw one of those moonshine droplets falling from the eclipsed star and into the drink. He swore to any who would listen that the surface of the drink actually rippled.

Helefont Shawmel then sipped once more from the goblet. What happened next, some say, was a descent into madness. Others called it the blessing of prophecy. Regardless, he went blind for six weeks and wouldn’t stop screaming about the Wildling threat.

So our family tradition was born.

Now, once again, the moons creep toward alignment: the blue moon called Herald, the crimson Dayhunter, the green moon Stormwatcher, the violet Serpent’s Eye, and the twin white-gray moons called the Torches. Once again, the time has come for a total multiple eclipse.

Normally, the honor of seeing with the Eyes of the Stars would fall to our father, Yancey Seamel. However, he died a few years ago in a duel with Jaswiv Zahir. In his stead, by right of succession, the goblet should pass to his eldest son. I, however, am untouched by the Gift.

So it falls to my younger brother, Emmot.

“I don’t want it,” he says, staring at the golden chalice on the squat column in the ruins of the same temple where Helefont took the first sip.

“The honor is great beyond all reckoning,” I tell him, but how can I convince him if I can scarcely convince myself?

“What if I see the end of all things?” Emmot asks.

“Then we prepare for the end and make the best of what time remains to us,” I say. Although what I do not say is that perhaps, if that is his vision, I should smother him with a pillow as he sleeps before panic tears across the realm.

“What harm is there in not doing a thing?” he asks. He gestures at the goblet. “Could we not just let the night pass without compliance with tradition? Can I not leave the drink untouched?”

Maybe we could, I think. But the Emperor has certain expectations, and his Hawk would arrive soon enough for the latest tidings of the stars.

“It falls to you, Emmot, and none other,” I say. “It must be done. It will be done. None in our line has refused it before.”

He frowns at the moons as they continue their relentless geometry toward the waiting sun. “I will go mad,” he says.

I do not disagree. “Certainly possible.”

“When we were children, you always swore you would protect me,” Emmot says.

“Yes.”

“Do so now!”

“Sometimes, I must protect you from yourself,” I say. “Watch the goblet. Await the moon teardrop. I will not leave your side.”

Unhappy about it, Emmot takes a step closer to the column with the cup resting upon it. He scowls at the reflection. “I wish father were here.” Not plaintive. Accusatory.

“Yes,” I say, softly. “But he’s not.”

The moons align, taking their place ahead of the sun for the first time in more than two centuries, and I watch the strange shadows and slivers of light dance on the stone floor.

Emmot waits. Waits. The moment of the brimming starlight tear comes, and he gasps in awestruck wonder. In his amazement, perhaps, he finds lost courage. He takes the goblet. He drinks.

“Brother,” he says.

I look to him. He gazes at me with eyes of void and nothingness. “Are you well, Emmot?”

“I see everything,” he says, his eyes now swirling with scattered stars. “What has come before. What is yet to come.”

I step toward him, placing a hand on his shoulder, and I ask: “What should I tell the Emperor’s Hawk?”

In his eyes, this time, I see twin stars, blazing red and plummeting through the sky. “The end comes,” Emmot says.

And in that moment, I realize, there’s no time to wait for a pillow and merciful slumber.

[BOOKSTORE WINDOW] Deep Sound #amwriting #storytelling

The result of my second #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on a writing prompt supplied by Lamia. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about an hour:

The bathysphere Anapos had descended to a depth of six miles into the Nyaban Abyss before the barbed tentacles looped around the cylindrical hull.

“What the hell is that?” James Clay, the pilot, looked over his shoulder at the marine biologist strapped into the seat behind him, hoping for an answer.

Dr. Moira Axlewright crinkled her nose as she adjusted her glasses and peered at the holovid monitor showing what it could (not much) of the beast. “It’s huge, whatever it is. Several hundred meters in length. Cephalopodic, most likely. Can you rotate for a better look?”

Clay’s eyes bugged. “Rotate? I can’t do a damned thing while it’s got us clamped like this!” He jabbed a finger at the monitor showing the craft’s vitals. “That monster’s pulling us deeper. Faster than the Anapos is designed to handle.”

“So ask it to stop,” Axlewright suggested.

The pilot barked a laugh. “You speak sea monster?”

“You keep calling it a monster,” she said. “What if it sees us¬†as the monsters? What do you lose for trying?”

Clay frowned, but shrugged. He didn’t have much to lose except precious time as the bathysphere continued an accelerated plunge into the G’ahnlo ocean depths. The other option that occurred to him was screaming like a little girl, but why give up that last shred of dignity so soon?

“Fine,” he said, tapping out a sequence on the console to open a channel to broadcast a transmission into the surrounding water.

“Be sure to account for hydroacoustic factors,” Axlewright said. “Deep sound frequency.”

The pilot nodded, making the adjustment. Then he spoke into the transmitter: “Uh, hi. This is James Clay aboard the bathysphere Anapos. I’m here with another human. You’re about to kill us. Please don’t.”

A shudder ran through the craft as the creature unleashed a pained shriek. More tentacles lashed around the hull.

“We’re going faster!” Clay shouted, watching the pressure monitor spike.

“Could be something about this area amplifying the sound so that it’s painful for the creature,” Axlewright ventured, shoving the glasses back up the bridge of her nose. “Reduce transmission to 20 hertz.”

“That’s practically a whisper,” he growled. “What’s the point?”

“Just do it, Mr. Clay,” the scientist insisted. “Let me do the talking this time.”

He nodded again when the system was ready for her.

“Hello,” Axlewright said with an awkward smile the beast couldn’t see through the hull. “Sorry about Mr. Clay’s outburst. He’s not one of our brightest, but please don’t implode him.” The pilot shot her an angry look, seemed ready to cuss her out, but was interrupted by a lurching of the Anapos before the vessel slowed its descent. He looked at the monitor. Still in the red, but holding around seven miles deep.

A rumbling voice rattled the hull: “NOT SAFE DOWN HERE.” Lights flickered inside the bathysphere with each word. As if to punctuate the final word, sparks showered from a control board recessed into the ceiling above the pilot’s seat.

“No goddamned kidding,” Clay muttered.

“Can we ascend?” she asked.

He checked the systems diagnostics readout. “Shorted out five of ten batteries. Two of our six ascent jets got mangled by our new friend. But, yeah, we can make it back to the surface.”

“Good,” Axlewright replied. “Let’s head up for repairs.”

“Sure,” Clay said. He watched the sensor display, making certain that the alien cephalopod had fully released the Anapos and moved away. “Just as soon as you apologize for calling me dumb.”

“Oh, please,” the biologist said with a nervous laugh. “It worked.”

“Not nice,” he grumped.

“Maybe the techs can fix your ego while we’re at it,” Axlewright mused.

[BOOKSTORE WINDOW] The Cliche Game #storytelling #amwriting

The result of my first #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on a writing prompt supplied by Entropymanor. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about an hour:

“Nobody drives in New York, there’s too much traffic,” she said.

I rolled my eyes, but she probably didn’t notice in the dark. Hugged myself hard. Three layers of Goodwill-scavenged Army jackets offered negligible comfort against the chill. “Next you’re gonna tell me it’s a dry heat.”

She got to her feet, grunting at the effort. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” She took a couple of limp-drag steps toward the sliding glass door that opened onto the balcony.

“When you gotta go, you gotta…” I let that thought go unfinished as she pulled the blackout curtain aside to show the swirling flurries of another Manhattan summer blizzard. Nothing new to see out there. Same storm. Same dark buildings. Same inert hulks of cars and trucks abandoned in the streets, up to their rear-views in noxious East River water.

“It’s not the fall that kills you,” she said, left palm against the glass door, fingers splayed. “It’s the sudden stop.”

“Hey,” I said. “Clarity. C’mon. Don’t even joke.”

“All that glitters isn’t gold,” she said, still playing the game with that damned dreamy singsong voice. Her head tilted, the bristles of her buzzcut catching the pale moonlight.

“Just don’t go out there, okay?”

She straightened. Didn’t look back. Her left hand remained on the glass. Her right hand, though, I could hear it fiddling with the lock lever on the sliding door.

“Hey, wait,” I said. “Every cloud has a silver lining.” Maybe if I kept playing the game. If nothing else, it distracted me from the nagging rumble in my stomach and the burgeoning ache in my head.

“The writing’s on the wall, Maddie,” Clarity replied. I heard a faint thump as she rested her forehead against the glass, gazing out into the bleak condemnation of a dying world.

“The city that never sleeps,” I said.

“A diamond in the rough.” So maybe she agreed? Her right hand fell away from the lock. With her left, she pulled the curtain closed again. Still, she didn’t turn my way.

“Just a matter of time,” I said.

She countered with: “At the end of the day.” I watched her shadowy form moving with that trudging gait – that battered leg, thanks to a fall through a gap in a crumbling skyscraper stairwell. Heard her rustling around in the kitchenette.

“When life gives you lemons,” I started, and then tried to remember the last time I’d actually seen one. Gilberto’s corner bodega hadn’t stocked decent food and produce in more than a decade. Might be able to catch a striped bass with my bare hands in the snack aisle, but would the mercury poisoning be worth it?

“What goes around comes around,” she said with a sigh. She moved through the apartment again, toward me this time (thank God), and settled on what was left of the threadbare blue couch. Dropped half a Ritz cracker on the concrete floor in front of me.

I snatched up that cracker before the roaches could beat me to it. Not much value to it, really. Wouldn’t do more than fill a fraction of my stomach. Fundamental nourishment was a luxury enjoyed farther down the food chain. But it might fool my headache into fading, even if just for a little while.

“And they all lived happily ever after,” I said.