Mission Control

Ben stepped through the door into his small office and collapse into his chair as it automatically adjusted itself to his profile. As he rubbed his eyes and waved at the coffeemaker on his desk, the lights flickered on, adjusted to his morning profile, and powered up his workstation. The surface flowed into the shape of a keyboard and the screen projects started through their power-on routine, cycling through every color and configuration. It was pleasant to watch, but made his head hurt, so he turned to his wall.

One light on the wall, positioned where there should be a window, slowly changed from the standard full-spectrum white to a square of his favorite vista back on Earth, a section of the Grand Canyon that glowed as the sun rose over the rim. The sun in the picture he’d used to create the Smart Window warmed to a bright ten thousand lumens, helping to push the sleep from his eyes and mind while he waited for the gurgling coffee maker to finish it’s job.

While he waited for what his coworkers called his “old-fashioned dirty bean water,” Ben tapped through the log-in on his desktop and cycled through his team’s off-hours messages. There wasn’t much of interest, just the usual memes and links to YouTube videos for research ideas, so he spun himself around in his chair a few times before switching to his internet browser and checking out a couple of forums. Once the coffee was done, he poured it into the ceramic mug on his desk and set it aside to cool.

He sent a few follow-up messages to one of his coworkers who’d sent him some direct messages and was just about to start digging into one the issues he’d been assigned when someone rapped on his wall. Ben lazily spun around, grabbing his now-drinkable coffee as he went. “What’s up, Christine?”

“Hey, Ben. We’ve got a conference call coming up in ten. Lewis scheduled it half an hour ago but forgot to invite anyone but me, Vince, and Landon. I’m going to need you on that.”

“Really?” Ben sipped his coffee and arched his eyebrows at his senior coworker. “Did he ‘forget’ to include anyone else, or did he actually forget?”

“The universe will never know.” Christine shrugged and leaned against the wall. “But you need to do your thing today. He’s got something to drop on us.”

“Yeah?” Ben sighed and put his coffee down. “You sure? I’d love to not need to be a part of this today. I’d really like to do something else with my first hour of work today.”

“Yeah. He managed to include the right manager and the two people who he’d be able to override, so he’s got something he wants done.”

“You’re too nice, Christine.”

“I mean, he is my boss. I can’t exactly tell him no.”

“Fine, then Vince is being too nice.”

“Landon isn’t going to like it, but no one is listening to him about Lewis anymore. They all think he’s got a vendetta at this point.”

“Yeah, but he’s our manager. It’s his job to represent us to everyone up the chain.”

Christine shrugged and pushed away from the wall. “You’ve got ten minutes now. Best get yourself ready.”

“Fine.” Ben shifted in his chair and it molded to his new position. “I’ll do it.”

“Thanks, Ben. You’re the best.”

Ben waved a hand and the room’s light changed so his face stood out as the chair raised itself, pushing him into a standing position in the open corner of his office.  When he turned around to look, Christine was gone so he waved the door closed. As the glass pane sealed with the rubber frame, there was a hiss of air from the corner as his temperature preferences got priority over the lab settings. Dropping everything else from his mind, he focused on preparing the right attitude for a call with Lewis.

It was a mixture of frustration, weariness, and assertive stubbornness. Lewis could talk circles around almost anyone and those he couldn’t talk his way past would eventually give up because he was more willing to waste time in a pointless argument than anyone else. Except Ben. Ben was the only person on the team who was more stubborn than Lewis and could keep up with him. Which means he got pulled into meetings sometimes just to tag in for people during long discussions or arguments when Lewis wouldn’t stop talking over people.

As he prepared himself for his least favorite part of his job, he straightened his tie, adjusted his top button, and took a deep breath. Two minutes of organizing his thoughts later, the wall in front of him beeped as it was fed into the conference call Christine was managing. The display showed everyone standing awkwardly as they self-consciously preened in front of the camera. As the youngest by two decades, Ben was the only one who’d never known a phone call that didn’t involve video, so he locked eyes with Lewis and smiled in greeting just as he began to talk.

“Good morning, everyone. I’m glad to see you all today and I wanted to share some good news. We’ve made a new sale to a big customer, TerraFirm, so we’re supporting their first launch to the Mars colony.”

There were a lot of shocked faces on the screen and Ben’s was among them. The first person to speak was Landon, who started very slowly. “Lewis, that’s incredible.” He paused for a moment, clearly searching for words, and then carried on. “But who authorized you to make a sale?”

“No one, Landon. I merely facilitated two people communicating.”

“Grace would have said something to me about a sale that high profile. Who gave you the authorization to make a sale?”

“I just said no one authorized me, but I didn’t make a sale.”

“If I call Grace right now, she’ll tell me you didn’t make the sale?”

“Correct, Landon.”

Landon made a few gestures, typed on the light keyboard that appeared in front of him, and then a new person was added to the call. Grace, the head of sales, was still climbing out of her chair when Landon started talking. “Grace. Sorry to interrupt your morning, but Lewis says you did a sale with TerraFirm for a Mars colony run.”

“What?” Grace’s face went slack in shock. “No! I think I’d know if there was something that high-profile in the works.”

“Could you make sure nothing slipped through the cracks.” While everyone waited for Grace to return to her computer and start cycling through the sales database, Ben kept his attention on Lewis, watching him keep the same placidly neutral face he wore whenever he was lying out his ass about something. Lewis noticed and gave Ben a small smile, throwing in a cocked eyebrow when Ben didn’t react. Just when Ben was about to say something, Grace turned back to the call.

“I don’t understand. We got a payment today from TerraFirm but I didn’t make any sales.”

“I managed that conversation.” Lewis nodded his head and Grace stared at him. After no one said anything, he continued. “Richard was on the email change when negotiations because, so sales was involved.”

“Lewis…” Ben shook his head and stared at the floor for a moment. “Richard died two years ago. You attended his memorial.”

“So I did, but the deal had his blessing.” Lewis gave the entire call his small, placid smile and Grace abruptly vanished. “I don’t see what the issue is. Dealing with customers is part of my job.”

“No, Lewis.” Landon emphatically shook his head and stepped closer to the camera. “You job is to figure out what they want and bring it to the project team for approval.”

“TerraFirm wanted us as their guidance system for their Mars colony trip and here’s the project team plus several extra people. I don’t see how this is a problem.”

“The problem is, Lewis, that you’re not allowed to make decisions or commitments on behalf of the guidance team!” Landon’s face was almost as red as Ben’s tie as he shook a finger at the camera, now less than an arm’s length from Landon’s red face. “This is the last straw, Lewis.”

Landon’s camera shut off and everyone but Ben and Lewis quickly followed suit. Ben stood where he was, eye’s still locked onto Lewis’ face as Lewis looked around at where each of the other callers would have been as they hung up. After the last of them had disappeared, Lewis pursed his lips in bewilderment. “I don’t see what has everyone so upset.”

“We had a meeting less than twenty-four hours ago about our development plans for the next year and you didn’t bring this sale or customer up. You even agreed to our plan. And now you’ve go-”

“We can still do all that stuff you wanted yesterday.” Lewis’ brow furrowed as he looked away from the wall, toward his computer. “There’s no reason we can’t do both.”

Ben’s face was still pleasantly neutral but he had his hands behind his back and they were clenched so tightly it looked like his tendons were about to break. “You’ve gone and not only made a commitment we aren’t prepared to meet, but you’ve given us less than six months to meet it. TerraFirm’s launch is in one hundred forty days and we have no idea what systems we’ll be integrated, let alone what hardware they’re working with.”

“We do launches all the time. This is just one more.” Lewis waved his hand dismissively and the camera switched to a head-only view for a moment before he remembered to set it back to the full-body picture. “What is so difficult about that?”

“We do low-Earth orbit launches and the occasional lunar mission. Mars is a different beast entirely and we haven’t even run simulations on how to manage something like that. We have no test data and we literally just powered down half of our supercomputers to do firmware and hardware upgrades. It’ll be another month before we have them back up and running again.”

“That’s all development time. Vince is already working on it.” Lewis took a seat in his chair, clearly signalling that he’d like to end the call.

Ben sighed and shook his head. “You’ve got no idea how this works, do you?”

“I used to be a developer, Ben. Of course I know how the process works.”

Ben laughed and smiled. “You’re so out of touch you don’t even know you’re out of touch. Good luck digging yourself out of this one, Lewis. It’s been awful working with you.”

Lewis was pulling himself out of his chair, a startled expression on his face, as Ben waved to terminate the call. Once he’s sat down, grabbed his coffee, and swapped his office back to its standard settings, he saw Christine appear on the other side of the glass as it went transparent again. She nodded to him and swiped the door open.

“I heard that.”

Ben shrugged and took another sip of his coffee. “That’s fine. I’ll say it to anyone.”

“Yeah, but he’s worked here for twenty-five years. You’re on year three. Do you think they’d listen to you or to him?”

“I don’t really care. I don’t want to work for a company that’d pick an employee with an HR record like Lewis’ over a new, promising employee who has had three glowing reviews and several commendations from his peers.”

“Okay.” Christine sighed and leaned on the door frame. “Whatever you say, Ben.”

“Can you really believe he sold a Mars mission?” Ben drained the last of his coffee and set his mug aside. “It’s impressive, considering we’ve only done local traffic.”

“Sure.” Christine folded her arms across her chest and looked down the row of offices to our asset management area with a giant “Mission Control” sign floating over it. “It’ll be a fun project to test, I suppose. I just can’t believe he expects us to have it ready to go in four months.”

“It’ll be awful.” Ben nodded and then turned to face his wall as the call-waiting chime rang in his office. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

As Christine closed the door, Ben rose to his feet and gestured to take the call. Landon appeared before him, still red. “I don’t know what you said to him, Ben, but he’s pissed.”

“Lewis always is, after one of our talks.”

“Well, good job. You got him to quit.”

“Oh.” Ben’s eyebrows rose and Landon laughed.

“Congratulations, there’s a new opening in project management and I know you’ve been looking for a chance to move up.”

“I mean, sure.” Ben shrugged, trying to regain control of his face and failing. “But I’d rather do any other job than this.”

“That’s good.” Landon nodded. “Lewis hasn’t formally tendered his resignation, so I imagine we’ll still see him tomorrow.”

“Ah.” Ben’s was no longer struggling to control his face.

“Yeah. I suggest preparing a timeline for the development he wants since it seems like we’re going to need to do it. Grace says we automatically processed their money as it came in since no one can send us money without a signed contract, so we’re stuck doing the dev and support.”

“Shit.”

“That’s it? I had a lot more colorful words than that.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Landon. That’s all I’ve got right now.” Ben lowered himself into his chair and put his head in his hands. “I can’t believe this.”

“Well, just make sure to get the software proposal done in the next couple days and maybe trick the weight sensors so it’ll not notice an extra two hundred pounds of tall asshole.”

Ben chuckled and smiled at Landon. “I’ll get right on it, bossman.” Landon smiled back, nodded, and hung up. Ben leaned his chair back and closed his eyes, already feeling like it was time to go to bed. After a few minutes of that, he got up from his chair, walked out of his office, and strolled down the row to Christine’s office.

“So, I’ve got an idea.”

“Yeah?” Christine spun her chair around to face Ben.

“I’ll need you to help me get Vince to go along with it, but I think the three of us can pull it off.”

“Pull what off?”

Ben winked and smirked. “I’ve got a new mission for us. Operation ‘Lose Lewis.’”

Christine groaned and slapped a hand to her face. “That’s a terrible name. Why would you do that.”

“If we absolutely knock this project out of the park and point out every single instance of Lewis trying to mess up the project, I think we can finally make a strong enough case to have him removed.” Ben pulled out his phone and started tapping notes into the company’s app. “I just need Vince to set up a few things for our daily calls with Lewis and I think he’ll do it if you ask him.”

“Okay, sure.” Christine pulled up her phone and looked at the notes Ben was writing on her virtual wall. “This all seems pretty straight-forward, but how do we get it to stick?”

“We threaten to quit less than an hour before launch. Hold the whole thing hostage until he’s removed.” Ben glanced over his shoulder at Landon’s office on the mezzanine above. “I think Landon would love a reason to do it and no amount of screw-ups is enough to overcome everything Lewis did before he started on his current streak of assholery.”

“I suppose.” Christine starting adding notes to her wall and then waved Ben away. “You get the speeches and proposals ready. I’ll get Vince started.”

Ben gave her a thumbs up and walked back to his office. Once he was inside, he dimmed his lights to his preferred working level, shut the door, put on his favorite synth-rock album, and pulled out his personal phone. It took a moment for it to connect to the satellite network through the metal building, but he was able to open a few personal files when it did.

He set his phone down on the desk and set it to projector more. Once it popped the document up on front of him, he started adding a couple of notes, crossing out items in a list, and humming along to the music. Once all his updates were done, he saved the file and reviewed the events and notes listed in the document.

He scrolled through it a couple of times before checking the box next to a line item that read “Lewis makes a sale he wasn’t authorized to make,” Once the animation finished it’s run, he checked the next three. “Provoke Lewis into threatening to quit,” “Turn down joke job offer from Landon,” and “Convince Christine and Vince to help set up Lewis for launch-day ousting” all had a line drawn through them before fading until they were almost transparent. Lewis looked through the last few items, ending on “Lewis quits job and you are in a position to become a line manager” as he smiled and muttered “all according to plan.”

An Academic in Ruins

“I suppose I don’t really know what I am doing.”

“Sure, but you’ve never denied that. You just always followed it up by saying no one else did, either, and thus success goes to those who act first.”

“Sure, but I feel like that doesn’t really apply in this scenario. There is so very little I know that is directly applicable to the problems at hand, so action isn’t the problem solver I once thought it was.”

“It still solves more problems than it doesn’t.”

“That’s very true.”

“It would have solved our problems, if you had acted.”

The professor smiled as he surveyed the patch of dirt he’d cleared. The smile was a shallow uptick of his mouth that left his eyes as mirthless and barren as the ground around him. This was one of the first things he’d been taught when they started exploring. Find an opening in the brush, clear a circle of plants, use fire to char anything still sticking out of the ground, and then turn the dirt over until every trace of color but black was gone. A safe, semi-permanent campsite that would stay clear of plants until long after you’d left and clear of bugs or animals until the last of the scent of smoke had faded.

“Acting got us here, though, so I’m still not convinced my old philosophy was truly as sound as I made it seem back in Sargava.” The professor looked up from the campsite he’d cleared to the face of his towering companion, the empty smile still on his face. “Acting has led to far more ruin than success, once the gravity of each has been taken into account.”

The tall man standing off to the side folded his arms over his chest, a familiar action accompanied by the familiar creak of stiffened hide trying to stretch as the pensive warrior measured his words. “That’s the way it seems now, but our journey isn’t finished. If you are correct, and the ruins are out here, then it will all have been worth it.”

“Do you really think so, Amgoroth?”

Amgoroth nodded, his beard and long hair spilling over his face. “I do, Alleck.”

“I told you not to call me that.”

“It’s your name. I’ve known you for too long to call you ‘Professor Quiston,’ fancy degree or not.”

The professor dropped to his knees besides his pack and started pulling out his camping gear, smile sliding off his face so smoothly it left no trace it’d ever been there. Amgoroth stayed where he was, watching as he chewed at a bit of his mustache that spilled into his mouth. In the silence, the sounds of distant primates chattering in the trees cut through the ceaseless din of insect and bird calls. The professor had once found them comforting, in a way, but now they reminded him of the frequent silences he endured on a daily basis.

In a desperate bid to chase them away for a while long, he turned back to his companion. “Amg, I really wish you’d call me by my title. I’ve studied long enough to deserve the recognition.”

The big man broke into grin that showed his several missing teeth and pulled at the thin, silver scars covering on side of his face. “But you will always be my friend, Alleck, playing music for us as we romped through the jungles outside our village, looking for monsters to slay.”

“We both moved on from those days.” The professor’s smile came back, but this one was smaller and clearly showed the sadness hiding beneath it. “You became a champion of the wrestling rings and coliseum. I found a benefactor to put me through university. I can literally change the way the world works using my magic and you are an unstoppable juggernaut whose terrifying rages can send even a pack of jaguars running in fear.” He turned back to his bag and finished laying out all the parts of his tent.

“True, but we are still the same where it counts.” Amgoroth walked to the center of the clearing and spread his arms out to soak in the last rays of sunlight coming down through the dense canopy. “I am still looking for dragons to kill and you are still playing music as we go looking for them.”

The professor looked up at his friend and then back down at the disassembled tent, trying to let his hands take over the process of setting it up despite knowing they couldn’t. This was only his second time setting it up, after all. He’d need his full attention for that. Instead, he sat back on his heels and put his hands in his lap. “We’ve a long ways from those children, Amg.”

“We are a long way from where they lived, but we carry them inside us always, so long as we don’t let their dreams go out.” Amgoroth turned his face up to the light and the professor looked over the constellation of scars covering his arms and shoulders, remnants of the one time they’d found a monster as children and the price Amgoroth had paid to save them both from it. After a moment, Amgoroth turned to face his childhood friend and smiled again. “I still want to find dragons and you still want to see what no one else has. That’s why you spent so much time studying ruined cities and digging up old stuff.”

“It’s called Archaeology, Amg.”

“That’s more syllables than I’m willing to say in one word, Alleck.”

“Professor Quiston, please.”

“I may be your guard on this trip for some lost city, Alleck, but I won’t call you “professor” anything.”

“I’ll dock you a month’s pay.”

“You’re not paying me anything. We left as soon as you heard the rumors. Neither of us is getting paid unless we find the city.” Amgoroth turned away from the light and came over to the professor, sitting down beside him. “We’ve been wandering through this jungle for months, now, and we haven’t found anything.”

“Sure, but you know how to live off the land. We can do this indefinitely.”

“No.” Amgoroth shook his head, temporarily clearing the hair from his face. “You packed food, but it will run out soon. I will not always be able to find food. You’ve been eating your supplies a lot lately and there might not be enough to get home again, even if we knew how to find it.”

“I said I was sorry.” The professor looked down at his hands again, trying to focus on them as he fought to keep his emotions in check. “And I meant it. I still mean it.”

“That does not change the facts, Alleck.”

“What do you want from me, Amg?”

“I just want to keep you safe and alive.” Amgoroth leaned forward and started pointing to the parts of the tent in the order the professor would need them to set it up. After he was done, he gently touched the professor shoulder, so lightly it didn’t even stir his clothing. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted. To go on adventures and keep you safe. More than dragons.”

The professor nodded, not trusting his voice at that moment. Instead, he pushed himself to his feet and grabbed the first of the tent supports. Without looking back at his friend, he quickly set the tent up, playing the memory of Amgoroth setting his tent up every night for four months in his head as he followed along. By the time he had finished, Amgoroth was gone. The professor stared at the place Amgoroth had occupied and then turned his attention to gathering wood for a fire.

By the time night fell, he’d managed to get a good fire going, set up his tent, and even find a few edible roots Amgoroth had fed them almost every day they’d been trying to find the lost city of Saventh-Yhi. He roasted them over the fire and set a two aside. After he’d eaten his and washed them down with the last of his water, he glanced at the roots as if only then noticing they were there. He turned his head away, back to the place Amgoroth had been, and reached for the harp case leaning against his pack.

He pulled his harp out, tuned it without really noticing what he was doing and, once that routine task was finished, strummed a few chords. He added a couple of words in some ancient tongue and watched Amgoroth shimmer back to life.

“Sorry, Amg. I can’t keep it going if I don’t focus on it.” The professor tucked his hard away and watched his friend, stand up, walk over to the fire, and sit down by the two roots he’d set aside. Amgoroth didn’t say anything as he moved. His leather didn’t creak. He sat without the usual thump of a three hundred pound man hitting the ground, even if the little cloud of charred plants still gusted out. Even as he picked up a root and ate it, he was silent.

After watching for a few moments, the professor sighed and let the magic go. Amgoroth froze in place and, a few seconds later, vanished. The professor stared into the flames and at the campsite Amgoroth had taught him to make. Unable to stand it any longer, he climbed to his feet, harp still in his hands, and started playing a song as he walked out of the clearing. He wandered through the jungle, playing his harp to cut through the noise of the jungle and give him something to think about other than his friend’s death.

The music never really stopped it, but it softened the memories as they washed over him. The morning they’d woken up to find tracks of some large cat around their campsite. Hungry and eager for fresh meat, they’d packed up and chased after it. Right into the den of some kind of plant monster that had snatched Amgoroth off the ground. Amgoroth had been confident he could break free, but there had been so many vines… It pulled him up into the treetops and there was nothing Alleck could do but watch in horror his friend had disappeared.

Half a minute later, as he was looking for a tree to climb, Amgoroth’s shouts fell silent. Alleck had stood there, eyes and ears straining, for any sign of his friend of their attacker. When he’d found nothing, when the noise of the jungle and the silence became too much to bear, he’d pulled out his hard and walked away, playing as loudly as he could.

Once the tide of memory had receded, the professor put away memories of Amgoroth and Alleck. He turned around, retraced his steps, and went back to his camp. He packed up his tent, put out his fire, and wandered off into the jungle again, softly playing his harp as he went in search of the lost civilization he’d lost everything trying to find.

The Countess

Jacob locked the door of his brownstone and stepped to the edge of his front porch, looking up at his most-recent acquisition as a wave of giddy pride washed over him. His brownstone was a perfect match for its four neighbors, only varying as a result of flower boxes and window dressing, but he felt like it glowed compared to the others. He took one last look over it before turning to walk down the five steps to the street.

It was a Saturday morning, just after nine, so traffic was still quiet and the cobblestone street directly in front of his home was empty aside from the few parked cars belonging to the residents. He straightened his sweater, stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans, and hummed to himself as he walked down the street. Everything was perfect.

“FORTY-SEVEN.”

Except that. Jacob started walking faster, hoping the woman who sat at the end of the brownstone row wouldn’t stop him.

“FORTY-SEVEN!” The woman waved a tattered bit of cardboard at him, the writing all but impossible to read as she swung it through the air. As Jacob approached, she staggered up from her seat and waved the cardboard even faster. “FORTY-SEVEN!”

Jacob rifled through his wallet as he walked, pulling out a fifty. Once he reached the woman, he tossed it into the violin case at the woman’s feet next to some lint, many coins, and a scattering of other bills. “Here’s fifty, now let me be!” The woman stopped waving her cardboard to look at her case and Jacob ran off down the street.

As he reached the end, he stepped into a puddle and his leg sank up to mid-calf. His shout of “Damn it!” was met with a laugh and a shout of “FORTY-EIGHT.”

The Affair

I ran down the hallway, doing my best to get out of the building as quickly as possible. Charlie had told me that if I ever showed my face here again, he’d kick my ass. As self-critical as I often was, I did not think that my ass needed kicking, and so had resolved to stay away. Despite what I had thought were my best efforts, one look at her face and I went running back into her arms. Only this time I came running back and slammed into Charlie, which constituted much more than showing my face.

I could hear Charlie’s cursing echoing down the hallway behind me. I could also hear what sounded disturbingly like the clatter of a metal baseball bat bouncing off the walls. When I reached the end of the hallway, I paused and risked a glance back. Charlie burst around the corner, waving a metal baseball bat around like he trying to make a tornado with it.

I took off running again, taking the stairs right in front of me and vaulting over the railing onto the next set of stairs as I reached the bottom. I kept this up for 10 more flights of stairs, getting a little further ahead each time. On the ground floor, I had almost two whole flights of stairs on him. As quickly as I could in order to preserve my advantage, I darted down one of the three hallways that branched out from the foyer I was in and ran until I turned the corner. Pressing my back against the wall, I looked around for someplace to hide. Twenty feet down, there was a janitorial closest.

Moving as quickly and as quietly as I could, I slipped down the hallway and tested the knob. Locked, Damn! I gave the door a sharp tug in frustration and, to my surprise, it swung open a few feet. I ducked inside the door and pulled it closed behind me, making sure to listen for the click! that told me it was completely closed.

Crouching behind a pile of rags, I took my cell phone out of my pocket and silenced it. The last thing I needed was for my it to go off and give away my position. I can’t believe I’m hiding in the janitor’s closet from Charlie. God, it’s not like I slept with his wife or anything…

Just then, I could hear the heavy tread of Charlie’s booted feet. I held my breath, not trusting the door to hide the noise of my ragged breathing. “Where’d you go, you bastard professor?” I heard. “When I find you I’m going to rip you open and smear you all over the sidewalks!” The footsteps got ever closer. He was moving slowly now, as if he could sense that I was nearby and he didn’t want to spook me into running again.

I started and nearly fell over when the doorknob jiggled. I waited, breath held, hoping that the door stayed closed and my hiding place remained undetected. I’m getting too old for this… was all that ran through my head. The jiggling stopped. The heavy steps moved away and I sighed with relief. This is the last time I sleep with one of my students…

Flash Fiction and Post-holiday Blues

Since I’m stuck deep in the Post-holiday blues and am almost too tired from them to care, have a bit of flash fiction. If I’m still this down tomorrow, I promise I’ll post some poetry instead.

I wrote this piece a few years ago, while spending a summer working on a show being put on at my college. It was Les Miserables, and this piece was the result of a challenge from one of my coworkers, who took a rather antagonistic (but still appreciated) role in encouraging me to write. He wanted me to write something about someone with a cell phone in the French Revolution, so I obliged. I had a thing for flash fiction warm-ups that summer, so I did this while preparing to write that night and he loved it. I hope you enjoy it and that you’re avoiding any kind of holiday-related blues.


With a crack and flash, guns fired. Someone screamed. Someone died. A cannon roared in the distance. Part of the barricade exploded and fell in as the cannons facing them blazed and belched their iron-fisted demands of surrender or death. Revolutionaries screamed in defiance with their last breath, refusing to retreat or take down their red flag.

Deedle-oo-doo deedle-oo-doo deedle-oo-doo-dee.

“HOLD”

Absolute silence. Nothing moved.

“Mark, if your cell phone goes off one more time during rehearsal I am going to throw you both in the river!” The director waved his arms as he yelled and started pacing through the theater.

Everybody but Mark pulled their cell phones from their pockets and ignored the irate director. Not a single person held a gun, but every pair of hands held a cell phone. Who can ignore the call to revolution, much a less a call from a friend?

The Tale of the Magnificent Prince Abrams

 

I normally don’t like to preface my creations, but I want to explain this piece a bit since I’m not ready to continue with the serial fiction yet (there’s way more prep work that needs doing than I anticipated). I wrote this story for a Fairy Tales class I took in college and it was my first attempt at what would become my favorite writing voice. I started reading Terry Pratchett in the year following this story and I improved once I had a wider variety of examples to emulate when writing this sort of humorous, trope-challenging fiction. Still, this story holds a special place in my heart because it was my first expression of what I consider MY narratorial voice, rather than the one I pick up and put down for most of my other storytelling. Here it is, reproduced and only slightly edited (I couldn’t just leave ALL the grammatical and spelling errors). I hope you enjoy it.

 


Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, where dragons and princesses lived and magic was still a part of life, there was a Prince Abrams who traveled the country and rescued all sorts of damsels from dragons. He was a brave hero who was loved by all the land and won the hearts of many princesses.

“Didn’t I tell you to stop that?”

I’m merely informing the reader of your many illustrious deeds and-

“Don’t listen to the narrator, he’s not telling you everything. My NAME is Prince; I’m not actually a prince. My father thought it would be funny and my mother loved the idea of having a prince for a son.”

Now why’d you have to go and spoil it for the reader, Prince? I would have told them a tale of your daring and bravery!

“I’m sure they have better things to do than listen to you talk about how I ‘slayed the mighty Pig-monster that was terrorizing my town!’ It was only a pig, a normal-sized pig that no one else wanted to bother with.”

Well, how about the adventure you’re on now?

“Narrator, as I’ve told you before, I’m not going on an adventure, I simply moved out of my parent’s house and am going to start my adult life in a different town.”

That may be true, but it sounds more interesting the way I say it…

“Just be quiet for now, I’ve got a long way to go before I reach my destination.”

~

The valiant Prince trudged over hills and through valleys, forged mighty rivers and blazed a trail through an ancient forest! He travelled for many days and fought his way through terrible storms but finally, he caught sight of–

“IT’S ONLY BEEN TWO HOURS!” Prince exclaimed, “and are you going to say I ‘fought my way through terrible storms’ every time I wash my face?”

-caught sight of a grand castle in the distance. It had majestic sweeping parapets and two tall towers on the far side. The lower walls were covered in vines and moss and there were many ancient trees growing near its walls. He made his way to the aged castle and knocked on the sturdy, oaken door, seeking shelter from the brutal elements. When no one answered, he cautiously pushed the door open and stepped inside.

“Hello?” called Prince, “Is there anyone there?”

Hearing no response, he walked through the empty hallways. The castle was modestly furnished, for a castle, there were torches in all the brackets and a fire burning cheerily in every hearth, but there wasn’t a person to be seen anywhere. As Prince searched the first floor, he noticed a quiet wheezing noise was coming from above, almost as if the castle itself where breathing. He found himself in the kitchens and was surprised to find that there no sign of food anywhere. All the pots were hung on pegs, gleaming and spotless, there were stacks of mugs and plates that looked as if they had never been used. Prince gazed in awe at that spotless kitchen and was thus caught by surprise when a door opened behind him.

“Who are you?” exclaimed a burly man with a sword and buckler in his hands.

“I’m merely a traveler,” answered Prince, “one that is looking for a place to spend the night if I may.”

“You certainly look harmless enough,” murmured the burly man, “but it is up to the steward to decide. Follow me.”

Prince followed the burly man through the door and down a flight of stairs into the castle’s cellar. The cellar was furnished much better than the rest of the castle and hardly resembled a cellar at all. The only signs that this was indeed a cellar were the stained walls, the group of ale barrels in a corner, the vast wine racks, and food stored in a side room. The burly man led him through the entry room and into the back storerooms where they greeted by a tall, well-dressed and distinguished-looking man.

“Ah, Maxwell! I see you have corralled our intruder. Who is he?” asked the distinguished man.

“He claims to be a simple traveler and his possessions speak to the truth of what he says.”

The distinguished man turned to Prince and said, “Hello, I am this castle’s steward and I wish I could welcome you into the castle in a more comfortable setting, but we are having a few issues at the moment. Pardon me for asking, but what is your name?”

“I am Prince Abr-” began Prince, but he was interrupted by a gasp from the burly man and the steward.

“Prince!?” exclaimed the steward, “Please forgive me for my rudeness, my liege!” and with that, the steward fell to his knee in a bow, as did the burly man.

“Did I hear you say prince?” came a voice from the other room and in walked a broad and well-built man wearing a white apron. Seeing the steward burly man bowing, he too fell to one knee and called out over his shoulder, “I heard right, it’s a prince!”

Prince groaned inwardly as more people came rushing into the room and fell to their knees. After everyone had come into the room, they all rose and returned to their business. The steward approached Prince, but Prince rushed to speak before the steward: “You misunderstood me, good steward, I am-”

“You are our savior!” exclaimed the steward jubilantly. “You will be able to break the curse that awful witch has set upon our castle.”

“Please let me- wait, you have been cursed?” queried Prince, for he was truly a good man who would not hesitate to help others in need.

“Yes,” replied the steward with a mournful sigh, “a witch placed a curse on our beloved princess that caused her to grow enormously fat and eat everything in sight in one bite!”

Prince was startled at this horrid curse and immediately felt a pang of pity for the poor princess. “What can I do to help?” he asked gently.

“You must take your sword and slay the awful witch! She has taken up residence within our princess so we would not be able to touch her! But you, my good Prince, will be able to survive being eaten by the princess. Then you can hunt down that dreadful witch, slay her, and everything will return to normal!”

“How will I survive where another might not?” asked Prince.

“All princes have some magic that enables them to survive,” said the steward, “did you not know your own power?”

“No, you see I-” began Prince.

“Where is your majestic sword and princely attire?” interrupted the steward, “how can you go save our princess without your sword and attire?”

“You see, I haven’t got a majestic sword and princely attire because-” Prince said before he got cut off once again by the distinguished steward.

“You where robbed during your travels? How awful! Then we must find you a sword and dress you in our finest garb! Blacksmith? Bring your finest sword to the prince so he might save our castle! Good Tailor! Bring your finest tunic for our savior, the prince!”

A blacksmith appeared from one of the back rooms bearing a beautiful sword with a jewel encrusted hilt sheathed inside a scabbard with gold and silver inlay. He lowered himself to one knee and presented Prince with the beautiful sword and scabbard. Prince took the sword somewhat reluctantly and bade that man rise. As he left, a tailor appeared through the same day and presented Prince with a tunic of purple that almost simmer as it shifted in his hands. The prince slipped the tunic over his head and buckled the sword to his waist.

“Wise prince! You look marvelous in your princely attire and your sword looks most fearsome! Please, find our princess underneath the west-most tower and defeat the evil witch inside her!”

Prince looked at the smiling, expectant face in front of him and sighed. “I shall do as you ask good steward. I will save your princess.”

The steward began bubbling with gratitude and showed Prince to the stairs, supplying him along the way with directions to the princess’ room. Prince walked up the stairs and strode out confidently to the princess’ room. He stopped at the door as the wheezing sound seemed to grow stronger the closer he got to the room. He threw the door open and was horrified by the sight lay before him. A mountain of flesh lay in the room. It was impossible to distinguish any body parts from amongst the piles of flesh. Prince stepped cautiously into the room and before he could react, he was grabbed by a pink lump and thrown into a gigantic mouth. He tumbled down the throat and splashed into what appeared to be the princess’ stomach. He pulled a lantern out of his pack and lit it.

Prince spent the entire day searching through the princess organs, but found no witch, only enough furniture to furnish the castle and innumerable bones, both human and animal. After sleeping awhile, he continued his search in her leg. He found a vicious tapeworm that proceeded to attack him. Prince slew it with a few deft strokes of his majestic sword and continued on his way. After finding nothing more in her leg, he returned to the stomach, slept, and then he searched her other leg. This leg looked almost like a huge empty hallway except for stacks of partially digested food sitting around on the floor; her entire leg was completely hollow. The next day he searched one of her arms and found it filled with weapons of all sorts, but all of them were rusted and decaying. The Princess’ other arm was a maze of tissue that took him two days to navigate his way into and out of. Finally, on his 6th day inside the princess, he searched her head and found it full of brains but otherwise empty.

“Narrator, it’s been 6 days since I began my search, and I’ve found no witch.”

Do not give up yet valiant Prince! The witch may yet be hiding within the poor princess!

“No. I’m done. I’m leaving.”

But you can’t! You told the steward you’d slay the witch! And if you don’t, who will save the princess?

“How about this? You, Narrator, go find an actual prince to narrate and get him to come to this castle.”

But where will I find another prince as brave, kind, and valiant as you?

“I’m no prince, and there’s no witch here. The princess is simply a person of gargantuan proportions who ate so much that her skin no longer fits on her bones, or has been an unfortunate victim of some unnatural phenomenon.”

But princes save princesses!

“Indeed? Well, maybe that’s why they always need saving. You can’t count on someone to come along and solve all your problems for you. More often than not, no one will do anything about your problems unless you have already started.”

But Prince-!

“No, I’m leaving. If these people want the princess to return to normal, then they had better break a hole in the wall so she can go out and get some exercise. But I’m done. I’m going to cut my way out and leave. Good-bye Narrator, hopefully you’ll find someone else to narrate.”

Prince swung the jeweled sword and cut a way out. He dodged the pink lump that tried to snatch him then ran out the door. He returned to the steward, fully explained his name, returned the sword and tunic, and recommended that they take the princess out to get some exercise as there is no witch. He was then chased out of the castle by the steward and burly man as they believed the witch had taken him under her control. Once out of the castle, the prince brushed himself off, and without a look backward, walked off into the horizon…

So… Um… Reader! How would you like to save a princess…?

Unfortunate Business

Arthur walked through the door into the sunshine, briefcase in hand, and dreaded the walk to work. His office building was only a mile and a half away from his apartment. That was one of the perks of living in the city, he supposed. But he hated how crowded everything was. It always took him longer to walk to work than it should have. He was in a hurry this morning. There was a meeting at 9 o’clock at which he was supposed to present his proposal. He patted his briefcase unconsciously, feeling the reassuring bulk of the envelope.

Arthur nervously adjust his silk tie as he watched the heavy flow of foot traffic moving up and down the sidewalk from the stoop of his apartment complex. People paid little attention to him as he stood there watching them. With a small, tired sigh, Arthur stepped down the stairs to the sidewalk and joined the throng.

Arthur waded through the sea of people moving back and forth, to and from apartments and offices. Some of the people had the almost unkempt, disheveled look of those coming off a night shift, and others had that crisp, almost vacuum-sealed look he associated with lawyers. There were punk rockers, high school students, women going shopping, men drinking coffee and glancing at their watches, women applying makeup as they shuffled through the crowd, and everywhere was the noise and smell of automobiles.

Arthur was bumped and jostled as he did his best to stick close to the buildings. Someone as small as he was did their best to stay away from the street. It was only last week that he had read of some poor soul accidentally getting pushed out of the sidewalk traffic and into the way of a bus.

Arthur checked his Rolex and ducked into a small alley between two large buildings, taking advantage of the decrease in foot traffic to speed up. About halfway through the alley, someone jumped out from behind a dumpster and, with a disgustingly wet “THNK,” clubbed him in the head with what looked like baseball bat.

Arthur stared for what seemed like almost an hour, stunned, at the dark figure holding the bat in its hands and wondered why he was taking so long to fall down. Arthur noticed a large red splotch on the side of the dumpster. He wondered if it was blood. Maybe it was blood from a previous victim? But no, it was only rust, he realized, as he got closer to it; some of the paint had been worn off over the years and the metal below it began to surrender to the harsh elements of the big city.

Finally, with a “thud” that sounded like it was coming from fifty feet away, he hit the ground on his stomach. It was surprisingly dry. He had always imagined that the alleys where people got mugged had pools of water and slime everywhere. Thank goodness there wouldn’t be any wet spots on his freshly-pressed suit when he made his presentation. The ground was also very warm, despite the approaching winter.

Light kept flashing into his eyes as it reflected off cars passing by the far end of the alley and through the gaps in the passing crowd. Why did none of them come to help him? A driver in one of the cars should have been able to see him lying there, and surely one of the people on foot would have already called the police. But why did no one come to help him? Why did no one stop and look in the alley?

Hands rifling through his pockets. They took his wallet out of his jacket pocket, his cell phone from his pants’ pocket, and they just TOOK his entire briefcase. They didn’t bother looking through it. They just took the whole thing.

Arthur had an important letter and plans in that briefcase. They were part of a business deal that would finally get him that promotion he’d been dreaming of for the past two years. At 34, he would be the youngest junior partner in the history of his company. He would finally be able to get a house in the suburbs for Alice. He’d be able to buy each of them a nice car. An extravagant SUV that just guzzled gas. He and his wife would finally be able to have children, a dog, maybe even a cat.

But the hands had taken his briefcase with his letter and the plans for the proposed office complex. And now his watch too! They also began tugging at his wedding band. They were leaving him with nothing. Suddenly, the ring popped off his finger and the pressure of the prodding hands was gone. After a few moments, Arthur supposed that they had finally left him alone.

Suddenly, a pair of feet walked into his vision. He wondered what the feet were doing there. Where had they come from? Had they noticed him lying there and come to help? And what was that? There was a long, thin object next to them. It looked like it was round. The bottom didn’t rest very well on the ground. It dragged behind the feet, never once lifting from the ground like feet would.

The feet stopped right in front of his face and the round, thin object got closer to his face. He realized then that it was made of wood. Very well-polished wood. With some dark, wet splotches on it that partially covered some writing. The unstained portion read “Louisville Slu-”. He wondered what a “Slu” was.

Suddenly, it moved a little on its own, skittering about on the concrete, no longer following the feet. Then, it jumped up and disappeared from his sight. He heard another one of the meaty, disgustingly wet “THNK’s” from earlier. It seemed like he should have felt something. But he couldn’t quite place his finger on what it was he should have been feeling. It was all very odd. He had taken this shortcut through the alley almost every day for the past 3 years and he had never fallen down onto the ground, nor had hands ever searched him. He heard another of the “THNK’s” and thought he should have felt that too.

The feet finally started moving away. They ran down the alley and he saw then that the feet were attached to some legs, and these legs decided to go into the back door of one of the buildings bordering the alley. Arthur hoped that the feet and legs were going to call the police. But why, he thought, did he want the police? That’s right. The hands. They took his house in the suburbs with a car, kids, and pets. He wanted those things back. But first he needed a nap. He was extremely tired. He had been up so late working on his car and kids. He smiled as he drifted off, as the world slowly faded from his senses. At least he had remembered to make photocopies.