Thursday, 31 December 2009

#FridayFlash: Assassin's Future

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

Loki Treize had traveled a long way in both space and time to fullfil his mission - from his home planet millions of light years away to Old Earth, at a time a few centuries before he had been born. He had managed to escape his war-ravaged world in a stolen Chronambulist-10, and had landed in one piece on the mother planet. His mission was unsavoury, to say the least, but he knew there was no alternative. The boy could not be allowed to live.

The traveller eyed his target as he walked across the park towards it. Tommy Smurthwaite looked like any other twelve year old boy - textbook early Twenty First Century, in fact: baggy trousers, scruffy sneakers and hair messed up more through affectation than through play. Loki had to remind himself that Tommy's open, innocent countenance belied the legacy he would leave when he grew up. The hitman pictured the state of the world he had left, hundreds of years from now, and steeled himself further to finish the job he had started.

Tommy continued to play, oblivious to the threat he faced. Loki carried on walking towards him, slowing down more and more the closer he got. The hitman felt his stomach churn at the idea of what he was about to do. He is only a boy... - before the thought could take hold in his head he reminded himself of the preacher this boy was to become and of the seeds he would plant for the holy war that was to rage across the galaxies a few centuries hence.

Loki brought one more memory to the forefront of his mind as he lifted his weapon and advanced on his target. He saw his wife's lifeless body as he had found it that day, seven hundred years from now, eviscerated and branded, like other unbelievers, with the mark of the Prophet Thomas. The boy had to be stopped.

Tommy looked up from his game to see a man dressed like something out of a Science Fiction movie bearing down on him and aiming a weapon at him, the like of which he'd never seen before. He froze.

"Please, no", he said in a hoarse whisper. Loki squared up in front of him and pointed the gun at his head.
"I am truly sorry for what I am about to do, but I cannot let you live."
"But why? What have I done?" His eyes were welling up.
"It's not what you have done. It is what you will do." The hitman took one step closer so that the gun was touching the boy's forehead, between the eyes.

Loki braced himself to pull the trigger but made the mistake of taking another look at the child. Tommy's eyes were wide and he was crying silently, in shock. A wet stain had appeared at the front of his trousers. He looked even younger than his twelve years. Loki knew then he would never be able to go through with the hit. He lowered his weapon, his own face now streaked with tears. Better to be a failure than a monster, he thought as he turned and ran back to the Chronambulist-10 before the boy could raise the alarm.

Tommy never mentioned the incident to anyone, but would always refer to it obtusely as the moment he realised God had a plan for him.
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Thursday, 24 December 2009

#FridayFlash: Death Goes to Motorhead

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

The band were leaving the stage to loud applause from the crowd as Death walked unseen into the venue. He checked his diary: 11:03pm, Tony Evans, goatee beard, tattoos on forearms, black leather trousers and a Motorhead t-shirt. Death sighed; locating his latest charge in this crowd could take some time and it was already 11:02:49. Then he spotted a commotion near the bar: a body lay on the floor and two men were trying to resuscitate it while a third ran to get help. A soul hovered over the body, looking confused. Death berated himself for not being there in time to greet it. He rushed to the soul, knowing he'd never hear the end of it from the Big Man if he got there after the paramedics.

"Mr Evans, how do you do? You are to come with me", he said to the soul.
"Oh come on! Now? Couldn't you have waited till after the Encore?" exclaimed Tony Evans.
"I'm afraid I am not the one who devises the schedule, Mr Evans, I merely see to its timely execution. Now please, come this way".
"But they haven't played Ace of Spades yet".
"They haven't?" said Death, trying to conceal his excitement.
"No. Nor Killed By Death", Tony Evans added slyly, sensing weakness.
"Oh. Oh well, in that case, perhaps we can stay a little longer".
The band stormed back onto the stage and the crowd cheered as the familiar riff hit the air, and Death remembered what it was like to have a pulse.
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Friday, 18 December 2009

#FridayFlash: Feast

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

Her husband was coming home today, and joy mingled with apprehension in her thoughts. His letter, written on the hospital ward, had not been out of arm's reach since it had arrived - she must have read it over a hundred times by now, almost not daring to believe that it was true. The war was over for him: a leg cut off at the knee had seen to that.

Tomorrow, they would be celebrating his return with his parents and younger brother, but tonight she would have him all to herself. She smiled at the thought of the meal she was going to prepare, and at the way she had procured the ingredients; none of them had resulted in a stamp in her ration book. She couldn't very well feed the returning soldier powdered eggs: they would be having pheasant, and she had even got chocolate for dessert.

The chocolate had been the easiest; she had Lizzie to thank for that.

"The things I do for you", her friend had said, handing her the large bar of chocolate. There were American soldiers stationed at the village, and if anyone knew how to coax a handsome GI into giving her food, it was Lizzie.
"I even promised I'd see him tonight as well, so he wouldn't suspect I was using him for chocolate", Lizzie had continued, with a wink. A tart with a heart, her husband called her friend, and she hugged herself as an image of his smiling face flickered in her mind.

The pheasant had been trickier, and she had had to sell Great Aunt Meryl's brooch in order to buy it, which made her a little sad - but she reminded herself that Great Aunt Meryl had been a rather large woman and would probably have approved of her doing this.

Meeting with the poacher to arrange procurement of the bird had proved to be a little adventure in itself. She smiled as she remembered how nervous but also excited she had been, taking a deep breath before entering the insalubrious pub the man was known to frequent. It was not the sort of place a girl like her should ever be seen to visit, and her mother would have been furious had she known, which made her relish the memory all the more. Her husband would find it amusing, and she couldn't wait to tell him. His train would be coming in soon - it was time to walk to the station.

When she saw him get off the train, a little unsteady on his crutches, it took her all of an instant to decide that the leg he had left behind in the Ardennes was of no consequence. Though I might have missed an arm, she thought, as his crutches tumbled onto the platform and he hugged her almost tight enough to crush her.

At dinner, after she had put the plated food on the table, she sat down and found she wasn't hungry after all. He looked up from his steaming plate to see her staring at him.

"Are you eating me with your eyes?" he asked, with the raised eyebrow that had been instrumental in his courtship of her.
"Yes", she said, returning his smile, "that's exactly what I'm doing".


Not sure slice of life is my thing at all - I'm feeling decidedly "meh" about this piece. I've been preoccupied with prepping for a job interview these last few days and this was all that came to me (amputations and job interviews go hand in hand, of course). Still, normal service will resume: I'll be back on Christmas Day with some death, and maybe some aliens for New Years Day
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Friday, 11 December 2009

#FridayFlash: Witness

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

I was still dry-heaving when the police arrived at the scene. I didn't think I'd be going for a run in this part of the woods again, somehow. The sun, still low in the east, was shining straight into my eyes, but this was preferable to looking in the other direction. Not that it would have made any difference - the image of the bludgeoned girl was plastered all over my mind's eye and was unlikely to go away any time soon.

She was young, in her early twenties. There was congealed blood on the side of her head, a dark clump in stark contrast to the fair hair it matted. A halo of cerebral matter, skull fragments and blood framed her face. She was fully clothed - I am not a religious man, but I found myself thanking some unspecified entity for that small mercy.

After being interviewed by the Detective Constable that had been assigned the case, I called my boss and informed him I was taking the day off. I holed myself up in my flat and sought oblivion through bad television and a bottle of whisky far too expensive for the task at hand. It was not till the shadows grew long again and the flush from the booze had brought some colour back into my face that it occurred to me how astoundingly pretty DC Claire Stone was. Would it be inappropriate for me to ask her out, I wondered? Would it be inappropriate for her to accept? Could anything good ever come out of an encounter brought about by a violent death?

It was dark by the time I poured myself the last of the Scotch. As the liquid trickled down my throat, I expected the familiar warmth to course through me. Instead I felt a shiver though there was no breeze coming in through the window. The temperature in the room dropped noticeably. In front of me, the dust motes illuminated by the television no longer danced haphazardly: they were taking shape of some sort. When they had come together in such a way as to form the face of the dead girl, I passed out.

I laughed at myself when I woke up the next morning - so this is why people avoid bingeing on the expensive stuff, I thought. I left for work, catching the 08:20 bus as usual, and the faces I recognised from the daily rat run served to calm me down further. I sat down at the back of the empty top deck and was just about to open my book when I felt a sharp drop in the temperature. I sat there terrified as I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. The figure coming out of the stairwell revealed itself to be a fellow I see most mornings on this service. I berated myself for my foolishness - then my heart lurched as steam leapt off the windows and formed an image of the dead girl in the aisle, next to the man. He was oblivious and carried on looking straight ahead. She looked right at me, raised an arm and pointed at the man, mouthing the same word repeatedly. It took me a few moments to realise she was mouthing "Murderer". The particles that made up her spectre dissipated, and I was left wondering whether I was going mad, but more importantly whether I wasn't.

Later I called DC Stone. She sounded understandably dubious, but said she would join me on the bus the following day. That morning I chose to wear one of my better shirts and my fanciest tie. On the bus, DC Stone sat with me at the back of the top deck, having disguised her appearance somewhat with sunglasses and a hat. I nudged her when the man appeared. Her chin dropped, and she took a sharp intake of breath. She turned to me, looking for confirmation. The instant I nodded she rushed off without a word.

A few days later I was on the sofa, watching television, when I felt extreme cold, like the other times. The spectre formed again out of the dust motes; this time she was smiling . She mouthed the words "Thank You" and came up to me. She put her arms around me and kissed me full on the lips - it felt like a bracing midwinter breeze had passed through me. She then vanished into nothing and had the phone not rung I would have remained standing there, in shock. DC Stone was at the other end of the line - the man on the bus had been arrested for the girl's murder. In a fit of inspired foolhardiness, I asked her out and to my surprise she acquiesced.

On the date, she told me that the man had been the girl's neighbour. Not believing in coincidences, she had concentrated her efforts on him, and had been rewarded with the necessary evidence to convict him. The rest of the date went remarkably well. After, I went home alone sporting a big grin, equally delighted and disappointed that Claire was not a first date kind of girl.

The grin was wiped off my face as I entered my flat and I felt a cold fiercer than I had ever experienced. The dead girl sat in the armchair, facing me. Her arms were folded across her chest and the anger in her look was unmistakeable, as was the word she mouthed: "Cheater". Then she smiled, and pointed at the television: the image changed to that of a kitchen. When Claire walked into that kitchen, my fear shot through the roof. I watched in horror as Claire's kettle exploded in her hands, electrocuting her. After convulsing a few times she lay still on the small screen. The spectre made no sound, but I could hear her cackling.

This was two years ago. I haven't been on a date since, and my evenings have been very cold.
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Friday, 4 December 2009

#FridayFlash: Dreamers

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

You must understand, I meant no harm. I was only trying to help. Really, when you think about it, our people are no worse off this way. We are effectively dead already, and have been ever since They came. Ever since They interfered with the Dreamers. Don't look at me like that. You'd have done exactly the same thing if you'd had the opportunity. If you'd been the one to find the Dreamer They didn't manage to kill. If your ears hadn't already been shriveled and your fur turned coarse from living under the shadow Their world has cast upon ours.

I'm sure you remember the day They arrived as clearly as I do: the fire and smoke in the sky we all thought so pretty. The enormous beast that appeared a mile above us when the smoke cleared. How we all stood there in delight at the sight - for we knew nothing of fear, then. The smaller winged beasts flew out of the large one, down into the clearing and we saw for the first time our visitors. How we marvelled at Them! Their long limbs that made Them tower over us. Their bodies covered, not in fur, but in impossible materials. Their small, flat ears. They spoke to us in our language, and said They came as friends. How could we not believe Them - we knew nothing of enemies, then, either. Or treachery. Or lies.

I'm sure you remember how we welcomed Them, and showed Them round our land, and They admired its beauty. How we told Them that it is the Dreamers that make the beauty. We explained that in every generation, a handful of little ones are born that are different from the rest - with ears almost impossibly plump that never stop moving, and fur that glows under a certain light. That the Dreamers stand out from the rest of us in more ways than this: that they never speak, and never mate, not even with each other; that they do not see, as we see - their vision is within, but also extends beyond the outer limits of ours.

They were aghast when They witnessed the Dreamers at work, playing with tendrils of light, making the world around us grow: the trees that we live in, and the fruit that we live off. We asked, did They have no Dreamers? How did Their world grow without Dreamers to urge it along? They made Their world grow Themselves, They said, but not like the Dreamers do. I am pleased I will never set eyes on Their world; judging from the ugliness They have brought to ours it must be a horror to behold.

Remember the feeling of unease when we woke up the next day to find a big cloud over our land, making it almost as dark as night? We knew at once it was no raincloud. And the sight of rotting fruit peppered along the ground - how we milled about asking one another, what happened? Then the despair at the realisation that the Dreamers were gone. Of course, we looked to Them for answers. They denied any involvement, but even in our innocence we couldn't quite believe Them.

With every passing day, the cloud above our land got darker, until all days merged into one night. More and more fruit fell to the ground, rotten before it had even ripened, and no new fruit grew. Then the trees themselves started dying, and each and every one of us had found that our ears were starting to shrivel before their time, and that our fur was changing texture.

Remember how anger took over: we gathered in a mob and challenged our visitors to return the Dreamers. They responded by using the long black sticks that hang from Their shoulders – bursts of fire were sent coursing into our midst, bringing pain and death. We had but rocks and sticks to retaliate with. Then that commotion among Them: They piled into the small sky-boats that were still sitting in the clearing and flew up, beyond the black cloud, to the big sky-boat we could no longer see.

We scattered, our heads bowed, our shriveling ears aching. I remained in the clearing after everyone left. This was how I saw one of Their small crafts returning; its hatch opened and I saw three things being thrown onto the ground. My ears started tingling – as soon as the craft lifted off, I ran to find exactly what I expected: the bodies of the Dreamers. I covered my ears in despair – then caught something in the corner of my eye. One Dreamer wasn’t quite dead; his ears twitched a little. I carried him to my hut.

Don’t look at me like that. How was I to know? At my hut, I took a closer look at his injuries, which seemed to be mostly on his head – on his ears especially. They were covered in puncture wounds. I tended to these wounds as best I could and soon his ears started moving faster and faster and he got up and walked out of the hut. I was overjoyed – maybe one Dreamer would be enough to fix the state we were in. Then he started screaming.

You know what happened next. He held out his hands, and tendrils of light came out as they used to when he would make our world grow – but this light was a dark red; we could feel no fruit grow, and the black cloud did not lift. Then it started – in some quicker than in others, and the slower ones amongst us sought refuge as best we could. So here we sit, you and I - our fur growing longer and coarser, our teeth growing bigger and sharper, and our hunger for those of our own kind growing stronger and fiercer. I still say it’s for the best: we will be over it quicker.
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Friday, 27 November 2009

#FridayFlash: Hub 12

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

I have only been dead for a week and already I've been summoned to see the Beast. Woodhouse shakes his head in that despairing way of his.
"I've been here for two years and he's not asked to see me once", he says, in his best underdog voice. Woodhouse is such a likeable fellow that no one can figure out why he hasn't been moved up a long time ago, let alone why he was sent to a hub as low as Hub 12 in the first instance. We can't ask him what he did to be brought here, of course - it is not the done thing. In prison, everyone may be innocent, but here we all know better. Nevertheless, in Woodhouse's case one cannot help but think that he might be an anomaly. Even the Beast himself is perplexed by the chap's presence, as I am about to find out.

"Would you like to earn some karma credits?" he thunders at me. "I need someone to visit the human world for me and do some detective work. You were an MI5 agent I believe?" - I nod - "That would make you the most suitable of my souls for this task. I need you to find out what Woodhouse's story is."
"Why not ask Woodhouse himself?"
"Ask a human to tell its own story? Don't make me laugh", he grunts, in no danger of cracking even the faintest of smiles.

"In all the time Woodhouse has been here," he continues, "I have received no instruction regarding his situation. I do not even have an admittance record for him, which is most peculiar. I can't remember signing him in, and neither can any of my Underbeasts. I even asked around the other Hubs, in case he had been mis-delivered, but they have no record of him there, either. When I was moving Manston up to Hub 13 for good behaviour, he happened to mention Woodhouse; if he hadn't I would still be unaware of his existence."


I waddle around the human world in the ungainly body that has been provided for me as I try to put together the pieces of the Woodhouse puzzle. It would appear no one knows for sure that he is dead - he is in fact on the Missing Persons list. One morning, he went to work as usual, had an unremarkable day at the office, and then simply failed to return home. This worries me, I must admit. As much as I like the fellow, I do not believe him to be an overly industrious chap; had he decided to walk out on his entire life, I am sure he wouldn't have failed to notice that it presented him with a fine opportunity to miss a day's work. I suspect Woodhouse may have met with foul play.

My next step is to find the people that would have known as much as there is to know about Woodhouse: the regulars at his local pub. As I head for the Pig and Whistle, it occurs to me that I haven't had a pint since before I died; I wonder whether I will be able to taste beer using this body. Upon entering the pub and seeing the selection of mass-produced beers on offer, I decide that it doesn't make any difference.

It doesn't take me long to establish that Woodhouse went missing two years ago, leaving behind a wife and a greyhound he doted on. The landlord and the three men propping up the bar proceed to tell me various endearing stories that feature a tipsy Woodhouse and I know for sure that he must have been sent to Hub 12 by mistake - I would have placed him in a much higher Hub, and would even go so far as to suggest that he might be suitable for the Other Place.

"'Twas the Shimmy on Eyres Street that got young Woodhouse".
The pronouncement comes from an old man sitting in the far corner of the pub. The landlord waves at him and informs me in a whisper that the old codger isn't currently in possession of all his marbles. Now, one does not work in Her Majesty's Secret Service for 20 years without developing some instincts about old codgers and their marbles, so I set off to investigate. I don't think the Underbeast that wired me into this body did a very good job: I can feel the beer I drank pooling inside my left ankle. This is probably for the best, otherwise I might find that I have to relieve the bladder of a body that isn't mine and, well, that simply doesn't bear thinking about.

I wander up and down Eyres Street for half an hour failing to spot anything out of the ordinary when suddenly I see what looks like a small, transparent cloud floating at chest height. I approach it and stick my hand in to try and figure out what it is - and find myself back in Hub 12, still wearing the now beer-sodden body I had borrowed. It is now clear what happened to Woodhouse, and I tell the Beast of my findings.

The Beast agrees with my deductions, and orders an Underbeast to locate Woodhouse's body and fit him back into it. Thankfully for Woodhouse it is a different Underbeast from the one that fitted me into my borrowed body. The Beast then summons Woodhouse and informs him that he is going to be sent back to the human world as he is not actually dead.

"Oh thank God", Woodhouse says, and bursts into tears.
"We do all the hard work, and who gets the thanks?" mutters the Beast under his breath, handing me a karma credit slip as he walks away.
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Wednesday, 25 November 2009


I will never forget how she looked when I saw her, on that morning as I was jogging in the woods: the dappled light dancing on her face, dark hair caressing her shoulders in the gentle breeze, full lips slightly parted, eyes bulging and feet still twitching a little as she hung from the tree. Read more!

Friday, 20 November 2009

#FridayFlash: A Brush With Death

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

The combination of 4 inch stiletto heels, cobblestone pavement and an attempt to fish out a cigarette packet from an overflowing handbag proved too much for her inner ear; she toppled over and felt the sharp pain of a twisted ankle. When she looked up and saw Death standing over her with his hand outstretched, she nearly had a heart attack.

"But - it's only a sprain!" she exclaimed.
"Oh, I'm not here for you. Just because I take lives doesn't mean I can't be a gentleman" said Death, with a smile. She blushed and accepted his help in getting up.

She heard a loud crash and turned to see that a bus had collided with a lorry. The bus was in flames and the lorry's cab was crunched up. People were screaming.

"Ah, that'll be my twelve o'clock, I must dash. See you soo - er, eventually", said Death, with a twinkle in his eye socket. She watched him saunter over to the vehicles and suddenly didn't feel like lighting that cigarette.


I wasn't feeling very inspired this week. I was, however, craving cigarettes quite badly
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Friday, 13 November 2009

#FridayFlash: The Hatching

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

Rothbert Spires, current Scholar of the Court, put on his ceremonial robes and strode to the workroom. After ten years of believing those cursed birds had become extinct, he now found himself having to perfom a Tallid reading; if the reading turned out to be a bad one, it was very likely he would be beheaded before the day was out. He wanted to make sure everything was set up properly. He would be presenting his findings in front of the most exalted of audiences for the first time. He had prepared for it as much as was possible, but some things were after all out of his control, and science alone could not be relied upon; he prayed for a little luck.

He walked straight to the heated tank and looked apprehensively at the large blue egg sitting in its centre. The birds had been extremely rare for years before they had been believed to be extinct; no one had seen a single bird for ten years so he was amazed when his assistant had walked into the workroom carrying the egg. He smiled ruefully as he remembered the scene: Amantia had entered at a snail's pace, carrying the large blue egg out in front of her as if it might explode at any moment, her eyes wide and her face pale with the fear of dropping it. He wished she had - then she would have been beheaded and he would have been spending this very hour enjoying a hearty breakfast.

He cast his mind back ten years - he had been the assistant, then. He smiled at the thought of Scholar Westly: a good man, a good teacher, and a fine Scholar. He must also have been a very lucky man, for Tallids had not been too rare in those days - Westly had had to report on  hatchings a prodigious six times and had lived to tell the tale after all but the last one. Spires had taken over as Scholar after the old man's beheading, and had enjoyed a Tallid-less ten years of tenure. He had thought the land had finally been free of the ridiculous superstition - and now this! He didn't consider himself a lucky man: the chick that would hatch from this egg would most likely be his death knell.

His assistant snapped him out of his morbid reverie by bursting into the workroom, in that blustering way of hers, and announcing that the King's party was on its way. He took a last look at the examining table to make sure all the measuring equipment he needed was on there, glared at the egg and inwardly cursed Amantia for not tripping when she was carrying it. The clumsiest of women, she had managed to walk at least four miles with such a fragile cargo and had met with no mishap. He rued the day when he had selected her as his assistant. He had chosen her for her fine mind and natural skill at alchemy. He now wished he had gone with the oafish but malleable young fellow who would never have recognised a Tallid egg, let alone thought to go out looking for one.

Once the King and his generals had made themselves comfortable, the Scholar proceeded to stoke the fire that heated the tank. The egg started pulsating lightly, its beat increasing as the heat went up. A small crack appeared in the shell, was crossed by another, and finally a third served to expose the Scholar's nemesis to its eager audience. The creature made a few feeble cheeps as he lifted it out and gently placed it on the ceremonial tray. Now for the moment of truth: he used the Auspice Dagger to slit open the chick's stomach.

Then everything happened very fast. He handed the Dagger to Amantia and lifted the bird's entrails out of its stomach cavity. He found the blue intestine, separated it from the rest and laid it out on the tray as an underline to the eviscerated chick. Globules of sweat forming on his forehead, he reached for the measuring tool and worked out the length of the blue gut.

"It is under!" he declared, elated. "It is under four inches! Your Highness shall enjoy another year of good fortune in your reign over the land". He bowed, trying to disguise his nervousness and the sweat patches under his arms, but the King was too busy rejoicing to notice. There was much back-slapping exchanged between the generals and their king, and some of it even made its way to the Scholar and his assistant. The royal party walked out as quickly as they had come in and would now proceed to ignore the Scholar until harvest time, when they would want him to interpret the stars. This was how he preferred it.

Amantia congratulated him stiffly and left the room. Once he was sure she was not going to return, he sat down, trembling, and removed the scalpel he had attached to his wrist, which had been hidden by the voluminous sleeve of the ceremonial robe. Then he reached into the robe's pocket, picked out the small length of blue matter and threw it into the fire. One didn't spend ten years as a Scholar without developing some sleight-of-hand skills, and he was thankful for them. He would have to decide what to do about Amantia though - she was clearly after a promotion and he didn't want to have to go through this again the following year.
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Thursday, 5 November 2009

#FridayFlash: First Place

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

I have been preparing for this day for a year, but it feels like a lifetime. Ever since the prize for first place was announced, I knew I would have to not only enter the race, but also win it; all year I have been training for it, to the exclusion of almost all other activity. I whisper a prayer to the Great Lady of the Eastern Plains and look into my beast's eyes.
"We can do it, Squibs." She flaps her ears and smiles at me as only an elephant can, and I feel bolstered. We make a strong team - the bookmakers have declared our odds to be astronomical, but I believe we can prove them wrong. Squibs knows what is at stake: the prize is a dance with the Princess Alita, the brightest jewel in the kingdom's crown. I am only a cobbler's son, but tonight I have the chance of holding in my arms the most beautiful girl in the land.

I put on my tunic; it is an understated white tunic with grey threading, depicting elephants and the sign of the Great Lady. My mother spent five months on the embroidery, in stolen moments between tending to the younger ones. My father pretends to disapprove of all this, but I see the twinkle in his eye. It is the last time I will have the freedom to do something like this; we both know he will not see another winter through, and I will have to take on his mantle as provider for our family. It is my last chance to be young and foolish and he does not begrudge me it.

Squibs gives me a leg-up with her trunk and my family wave me off. We head in opposite directions - Squibs and I to the racecourse, they up the steep hill overlooking it: they have no money for spectator tickets within the ground. As we amble towards the starting line, Squibs blowing air in my face as if it were any other day, I take a look at the opposition and grow pale. I have known who they are, of course, but seeing them in their finery brings it all home. These are not cobblers' sons, riding their family's only elephant, having robbed their frail father of his beast of burden for a year. These are men who had entire herds of elephants to select their ride from; whose tunics are threaded with gold; whose mothers would have picked the tunics from the best items on offer in the West. These are men, whereas boyhood still lingers in my look. What was I thinking? We will be the laughing stock of the race. My heart sinks. I will never dance with the Princess.

A tremendous trumpeting noise distracts me: the favourite walks past me, his elephant louder even than his tunic. He is Khalith, the merchant's son and last year's winner. He looks us up and down and doesn't even have the courtesy to hide his smirk. As he flounces off on the fabled Principal Boy I feel my blood boil and Squibs blares out what can only be an expletive.
"We'll show him, Squibs", I exclaim. "By all the gods of the mountain and the riverbed, and by the Great Lady of the Eastern Plains, we will give him a run for his money." Squibs hoots her agreement and we saunter into our allocated starting position. 


"And they're off! Around the first corner it's Principal Boy by a length and a half, Mousey Girl second, followed by Midshipman, A Tart Taste, Spring Chicken and The Gazelle, and bringing up the rear is Squibs on the outside...

"Principal Boy leads into the second turn by two lengths, followed by Midshipman who moves up to second, and there is a battle going on for third place. At the rear of the field, Squibs - an outsider at 500/1 - has gained a length on Spring Chicken who is falling farther behind...

"And we're into the backstretch! Principal Boy still in the lead by two lengths, but oh no! Disaster: Mousey Girl has fallen, taking A Tart Taste and The Gazelle with her. They are trying to get up, but Squibs has taken the advantage and is fast closing on Midshipman...

"Into the far turn - Principal Boy still holding the lead by two lengths, but Squibs has found a burst of speed. Closes in on Midshipman. Passes Midshipman - and it's now a two elephant race...

"Coming down the stretch - Principal Boy ahead by a length, but Squibs is gaining!  She's pulled another burst of speed out of nowhere, by the Great Lady - Principal Boy and Squibs are now neck and neck - a relentless drive to the wire...

"Principal Boy, Squibs. Squibs, Principal Boy. Principal Boy, Squibs... and it's Principal Boy by a tusk!"

She was so close I could almost smell her hair. Everyone is congratulating me on a fine performance but I feel like crying. I am never going to dance with the Princess. I dismount Squibs and give her a hug, which she returns tenfold with her trunk, as ever. We walk dejectedly, a few paces behind Khalith and Principal Boy, over to the King's platform to receive our loser's medal. I will have to watch the odious man receive his prize - the one thing I wanted more than anything in the world. The King puts his hands on Khalith's shoulders.

"Well done, young man! A fine race. But now I have a bigger honour to bestow on you than you were expecting. My eldest daughter Elmina has returned a week early from her coming-of-age travels, so as the rules of courtesy dictate, you must dance with her instead of Alita.

"I am loath to disappoint my youngest daughter, however. I promised her a dance partner and what sort of father breaks such a promise? Perhaps our valiant young contender would oblige?"

"I would be most honoured", I say, bowing low, and Squibs makes a sound sweeter than I ever thought possible.
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Thursday, 29 October 2009

#FridayFlash: Riot

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

The soul-searching is over. I have been through all the stages: anger, then denial; from there to doubt; eventually to acceptance, and finally beyond that to conviction. I now know what I must do, and that I must act fast. I set off, stopping only to collect the one weapon I will need on my quest. I pass the fires still burning from last night, the broken glass from shop windows, the assortment of charred items strewn across the pavement. This is not a night to be crossing the city, but cross it I must. I am frightened, but I am also bolstered by determination and the hope of redemption.

As I walk up the hill overlooking the Square, I hear the chants getting louder. I get to the top and below I can see the opposing factions preparing for tonight's carnage. On the left, the City Guard is in formation, dressed in full protective gear. On the right, the dissenters with their masked faces shout slogans at the Guardsmen from across the divide. A smattering of small objects fly over the barricades, falling on riot shields like raindrops warning of the deluge to come. It is through this that I must pass, so I can get to the south side of the city - all other avenues have been blocked off by the authorities in an attempt to keep the dissenters under control.

I walk, unseen, down the hill towards the Square. More people join in the chants; their collective voice becomes deeper and louder and drowns out the admonishments coming from the Guard's loudspeakers. I get to the edge of the crowd and take a deep breath. Flanked by riot shields on one side and the rioters' barricades on the other, the divide sits empty and waits - but only for a short while longer. I must go through now, or it will be too late. I hold my weapon in front of me and stride into no-man's land. The chants falter, then stop, and the loudspeakers change their tune.

"Guardsmen, hold your fire!"
"Sir, please turn back and leave the area!"
"Who's that idiot?"
"He's holding a - "
"Sir, turn around and leave the area immediately."
"This is for your own safety, sir."
"What the - "
"What's he doing?"
"Can you see what - "
Some whistles, some cheers, a lot of swearing.

I walk about half way along and the first hurdle of my mission is over. I now must walk through a mob of masked men wielding knives and homemade explosives so I can get to the bridge that will take me to the south side. I turn to look at the nearest masked face. The man understands; he holds out a hand and helps me clamber over the barricade and into the dissenters' space.

"What are you doing that for?"
"He's not one of us!"
"Hang on now - he's not one of them, either!"
"Oh just let him through!"
"Yes, I mean look at him - "
"Get on with it, they'll be on us in a minute!"
"The sooner you let him go by, the sooner he'll be gone - "

Dissenters move aside to let me in; as I walk towards the back of the crowd, masked men clear a path that I can pass through and stare at me as if I'm mad. Perhaps I am - but my madness has a higher purpose and I walk on, leaving the rioters behind me as I head to the bridge. They have already forgotten me, and the chants grow louder again.

There is nothing now that is holding me back. I cross the bridge running like my life depends on it, because it does. I run and run, holding my weapon steady as I go, along avenues and across  alleyways until I reach my destination. My lungs hurt, I have a stitch in my side, and my nerves are shot - but all these symptoms are quick to subside. It is my heart that feels like it might burst, when she answers the door and I see in her eyes how much I have hurt her.
"Forgive me", I say, and hand her the rose.
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Friday, 23 October 2009

#FridayFlash: Of Blood and Bare Breasts

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

The Laurentian warrior lords sit around the banquet table, enjoying what has for the past few weeks been a nightly event. The atmosphere is as usual one of unbridled raucousness, and of an uncouthness that only noblemen can manage. The Campagnard Elder is shackled to the wall behind the lord Daubert, the cuts and bruises on the old man's face a map of his tormentors' character. He ignores their jeers and keeps his gaze set on a point in the distance; his back is straight, his chin high, his face impassive.

Young peasant women carry platters of food and jugs of wine into what was once the banquet hall of the Liege of Campagne. The Liege is no longer of this earth, and young Campagnard women are subjected to hands upon them that would have, in more civilised times, been hacked off at the wrist for their insolence. But since the fall of Campagne the days have been ugly; one father will, from now on, only ever be able to see half his daughter's face - a drunken lord, a knife, and a few moments of disposable hilarity have etched away the other half. Other fathers are envious of him - his daughter is out of danger now, whereas theirs are still pretty and can still bring shame and sorrow to their home.

Meat is greedily torn from bone, juices drip down warrior lord chins, jeering laughter bites at the ankles of all those not sat at the banquet table. Empty platters are carried out, and the tray of smoking implements and materials brought in. The Laurentians are ready for the second part of the evening, and the jokes take a more lascivious turn. The group of specially chosen young women is heralded into the banquet hall, while their fathers sit at home in shame and sorrow.

The old statesman can no longer feign pride and strength. Tears fall down his cheeks as they always do when the evening reaches this stage: the sight of the young woman leading the bare-breasted procession once again proves too much for him. He is not her father, but she is like a daughter to him; she is the late Liege's only child and the Elder is the one who watched over her first steps, and taught her to read and write . But she is no longer to dance across the banquet hall, spreading sweetness to old and young alike with her beauty and her gentleness. She is now reduced to a conqueror's plaything and made to traverse the hall bare breasted, her eyes spitting bile at the man who intends to defile her again. The Liege is not here to witness this, but the old man takes upon himself all the shame and sorrow that death has spared the girl's father.

The lord Daubert beckons over his favourite toy, delighting in her anger at him, and in her powerlessness against him. She goes to him as she must, if she is to avoid his dagger devouring part of her face. She positions herself between the table and Daubert, and the other young women take their cue and file into their respective places, their eyes expressionless, their shoulders stooped. Daubert leers once again at his prize; he barks an order at her - it is a worse one than usual, and the girls pale as the lords cheer. The Liege may be dead, and by the Laurentian's own hand, but the lord finds he can relive the satisfaction of his victory every night by bringing more shame and sorrow upon the sovereign's house.

The other lords watch Daubert and his trinket with gleaming eyes. But the old man has a keener eye than those who have spent the last few hours drinking wine; he watches it all unfold. One of the serving girls lets out a cry and holds her fist high. The Elder watches as the Liege's daughter reaches under the table and brings out a knife. With her teeth bared, she grabs a fistful of Daubert's hair, plunges the knife into his stomach and guts him like a hare; his eyes widen in the horror of realisation and she spits in his face. She takes the dagger to his throat and with a swift move empties him of the rest of his blood. As it courses thickly down his chest she plunges her hands into it and covers her breasts in the dark, warm liquid. The old man looks on in shock as she picks up her knife again and removes the nobleman's scalp.

The Elder watches this almost in a reverie. One of the serving girls frees him from his shackles and helps him up. He kisses the girl's forehead in thanks, and looks around in disbelief: he sees serving girls with bloody knives, Laurentian stewards with bloody necks. He is open-mouthed as he sees the lords all slumped around the banquet table, with their scalps held aloft by women wearing dark red tunics made of the most precious Laurentian material. He watches as the Liege's daughter leads these women out of the banquet hall and onto the balcony overlooking the busy marketplace. The people in the square look up in surprise as they see the blood-covered knives and the scalps held high, and hear the women issue a cry the like of which has not been heard before. It is a cry the Campagnards can but answer with one of their own; the uprising has begun and fathers no longer feel shame or sorrow for their bare-breasted daughters.
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Thursday, 15 October 2009

#FridayFlash: High Feast

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

Captain Drew boarded the transfer vessel to the Lauk-Parthians' ship with excitement. He had given up hope of humanity ever making contact with a peaceful extra-colonial race in his lifetime - he had certainly never expected to be the guest of honour at a banquet held by such a people. He nervously patted the front pocket of his dress uniform to check his speech tablet was there; he had practised delivering the speech for so long during the previous evening unit that he didn't really need the prompt, but he didn't like to take chances. It was such a momentous event after all - and indeed one that the First Minister of the Colonies herself would be attending instead of him, had she not been 12 parsecs away, orbiting Jupiter on Satellite A.

Contact had been made ten days previously in the vicinity of 55 Cancri, where Drew's ship was assigned to the Hibiscus convoy as its protector craft; the Hypersloop Badger had been escorting the utility ships as they harvested frozen volatiles from the star's asteroid belt. There had been some suspicious activity on the ship's radars; alarms had been triggered in some of the surveillance systems. The entire crew of the Badger had positioned themselves at their stations in readiness - for what, they did not know. Then an amber cloud had materialised about half an astronomical unit away, to the ship's starboard side, and all on the Badger had watched in awe as it had slowly solidified into what they now knew as the Lauk-Parthian ship. Human science had investigated the possibility of such methods of hyperspace travel; it was referred to in academic circles as the GoldDust process, but had as yet not even reached the experimental stages in the Colonies.

Drew had fervently hoped that the Lauk-Parthians were a peaceful people; humanity was still reeling, not only from the loss of life, but also from the disappointment of the one and only other alien encounter. The scale of the joy that had been felt across the colonies - We Are Not Alone! - had only served to intensify the collective despair after the attacks. The colony in the Epsilon Eridani system had never recovered from the onslaught; even twelve years after the enemy had been forced back into their own reaches of the Universe, the real estate market hadn't picked up. The advertising materials that had once enticed with "Columbus Never Discovered A World As New As This!" were now garishly, pleadingly concentrating on the "Rock Bottom Prices!" of habitation units. It was not because people were worried the colony might be attacked again, but because the habitat had now been tarred with the brush of dashed hope.

On this occasion, however, hope was at a high, and with good reason. Delegations had been sent back and forth over the last few days. Languages had been programmed into translators and bio-information had been exchanged - the Badger's resident scientists had been a little disappointed to find that these new life forms were not only carbon based, but also reasonably similar to humans in terms of their nervous, endocrine and digestive systems. Drew himself had been spending this time exchanging respectful, yet amicable, messages with the extra-colonial ship's leader, Ktarshmie. He was struggling to refer to them as Lauk-Parthian - some vestiges of the boy he had once been insisted on whispering delightedly in his head: Aliens!

Captain Drew and his party reached the Lauk-Parthian vessel in good time, and were cordially greeted by Ktarshmie. Both leaders introduced the crew members to each other and a tour of the host ship was conducted. As the guests were ferried about, Ktarshmie filled Drew in on the rituals traditionally performed by Lauk-Parthians at important banquets. These were traditions that, in the modern day and age, were only upheld at events such as a high statesman's appointment, but Ktarshmie felt that the momentousness of the occasion - the first official meeting of two peoples previously kept apart by thousands of light-years - called for a High Feast. Drew listened to his host explain about how each dinner guest would be allocated a young Lauk-Parthian, termed a Parthenium, who would bathe them prior to the banquet, then rub them with oils that had once been considered sacred, and finally dress them in robes fit for the High Feast.

The entire party entered a wide room, which Captain Drew deduced to be the ante-chamber to the hall where the banquet was to be held; he could see one corner of a regally laid table through a crack in the door. Ktarshmie and his crew started forming a line along the width of the hall; the members of the human delegation took their cue from their hosts and joined the line. The door at the opposite end of the hall to the banquet room opened and a procession of Partheniums entered the hall; they were beatifully adorned, lithe of body and of ambiguous gender. Captain Drew was surprised to feel the stirrings of arousal, but at the same time it felt somehow expected. His Parthenium took him by the hand and led him to where he was to be bathed.


"So, Captain - what did you think of this last dish?"
"Delicious. The meat was tender, and while it was delicate it was nonetheless hearty and satisfying. The marinade was perhaps the perfect match for it. In fact, my only criticism - if one can even call it that - is that maybe the meat would have tasted even better had it been marinaded for a while longer; then its flavour could have infused the meat that little bit more".
"Thank you Captain, I shall pass your kind words and suggestion on to the chef".
"Thank you. And now perhaps it is time for us to leave, before our new friends get wind of our treachery".
"Certainly, Captain Ktarshmie. I shall give the order to jump back to Lauk-Parthia immediately".
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Thursday, 8 October 2009

#FridayFlash: Late Bloomer

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

Gods do not always beget gods. It is rare, but sometimes it happens that the union of two perfectly ordinary gods can result in a mortal child. I fear I might be such a child. I am 14 - not far from 15, in fact - but my back is still bare. A few months ago there was another in my group of peers who had not sprouted yet either, so no one was worried. Late bloomers, they called us. It will come, they said. You will sprout when you least expect it, they promised. But my back is still bare.

I sit with the rest of the boys as I always do, but it is now beginning to be awkward. Their jokes about my tardiness stopped not long after Tarian finally proved himself immortal; no one jostles me any more in our friendly scuffles for fear of touching my smooth back. Still, we remain friends. There will likely come a time soon when the adults will force the divide upon us, but until then I savour the company of the boys I have grown up with.

We sit in the Courtyard, a little removed from the hustle and bustle of the mortals tending to immortals' needs, and I see her walking past. She smiles at me; she does not need to bow before me - I have the status of a mortal as I have not yet sprouted. She curtsies to the rest of the group as is proper and wanders over to the market stalls. Her name is Estria and she is my mother's handmaid.

We found out at the last midsummer fair that she is a remarkably talented archer, not only for a mortal but even by immortal standards; since then, at my mother's insistence she discarded some of her handmaid duties in favour of instructing me in the art of the bow and arrow. She is my age and yesterday, as she was helping me adjust my elbow for a shot, she overwelmed me with the warmth of her breath against my ear and the yielding breast that brushed against my arm. Whether my time in the world be finite or not, it is a moment I will remember for all of it. I have all the other stirrings you see - all except the one that I so anxiously wait for.

She makes her way around the stalls, picking up delicacies for my mother, smiling at all those fortunate enough to cross her path. I watch her make her way back across from the market, the sunlight dancing with the myriad of hues in her hair - but my reverie is cut short by the sight of the hateful Campian crossing the Courtyard.

He was, to the annoyance of all of us, the first of our peer group to sprout. He is the kind of boy that takes pleasure in others' discomfort - he is the only one who still brings attention to my unadorned back by making scathing jokes. Since he can no longer lord it over the others as they too have now almost fully sprouted, he makes me the butt of his jokes with unfailing regularity. The others have started shouting him down about it though, so he needs to find new ways to torture me. He has seen how I look at Estria and now has the fodder he needs. He prances up to her and grabs her by the waist; he moves his other hand inappropriately over her body. She is terrified, but can do nothing - he is a god after all and she but a mortal.

I run across the Courtyard propelled as much by rage as by the twin bursts of pain shooting from my back. As I run my shoulderblades are on fire and by the time I reach Campian I am almost fully sprouted - this is unheard of, and will be talked of for generations, but for now my only concern is the girl. I grab hold of Campian's throat and squeeze. He releases Estria and turns meek and apologetic at the sight of the stormcloud in my face. I push him away and turn to Estria, thrown off balance by my new appendages. I realise that this is only one of many things I will have to get used to: I watch in despair as she averts her gaze from mine and curtsies respectfully from behind the barrier that has suddenly been brought up between us - and all that I want is to be mortal again.
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Friday, 2 October 2009

#FridayFlash: Puma and Jaguar Save the Planet

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

Rushka, Galactic Overlord of the Kharsh Group, Commander of the Luarrh Nebulae, Honorary High Pontiff of the Moons of Aramis and would-be conqueror of Planet Earth, stood cornered with a small armoury of laser guns pointed at his chest and head. He hadn't expected this insignificant, isolated planet to produce any resistance worth worrying about. Earth's technology was inferior - humans had not even managed to get as far as the edge of their own solar system, for Marrh's sake! He observed his nemeses in disbelief: not an army, not a battalion, not even a platoon. Two Earthlings - two!

The call had come directly from the top. As soon as the enemy battleship had declared its intentions and advised immediate surrender, the President had ordered his generals to assess the situation and prepare for war. He had then disappeared into his private quarters, demanding that nobody disturb him. In the bathroom, he had uncovered the hidden cabinet and brought out the red and blue telephone that it housed. The army would be slow in responding; its sheer size was against it. Time was very much of the essence - he had known his only option would be to engage his most secret of weapons. He had made the call.

Special Agents Puma and Jaguar had raced to their ship's  hangar. It was a unique vessel, designed by the agents themselves. It was not much to look at and was slower than most ships its age, but it was the only ship on Earth that could avoid detection - not only by radar but also by sight. Jaguar, never one to pass up an opportunity for fart humour, had insisted that they name it Silent Creeper. Puma had eventually acquiesced because the name itself had a good ring to it, if one simply ignored Jaguar's puerility. As with all such things, it wasn't long before they had taken to referring to it, fondly, as Creepy, which had rendered the argument moot.

They boarded the battleship unseen and proceeded to cause havoc for the enemy - incapacitating grenades were deployed, rendering clusters of enemy soldiers unable to move; machinery was sabotaged; sentries were knocked unconscious with laser gun butts. Puma and Jaguar continued inexorably to the enemy leader's inner sanctum, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. The goons at the door were no match for the agents' wile; the Overlord's quarters were breached and his security detail gunned down. Rushka tried to make a dash for the servants' exit, but Puma was too quick for him. He now had nowhere to go.

"Looks like Earth is not the one that needs to surrender", said Puma.
"Call off your army - or die", said Jaguar.

The Overlord's face turned a deeper green. There was nothing he could do but admit defeat.
"Fine", he said, petulantly. "You have won this battle. I surrend-"

"Annabel! Maria!"
Special Agents Puma and Jaguar watched in dismay as the Overlord's quarters were engulfed by sunshine and lawn. Their arch-enemy himself had been enveloped by a disgruntled tree ("those sticks they're brandishing at me have probably come from my own trunk, too - the cheek of it").

"I guess your Mum's come to pick you up", sighed Puma
"Mmmm", said Jaguar. They rested their weapons on the tree and walked towards the house, as slowly as possible.
"I'll see you at school tomorrow."
The secret handshake officially marked the end of yet another successful mission.
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Friday, 25 September 2009

#FridayFlash: A Daemon Meets Its Maker

dae-mon [day-muhn]

- noun
1. Classical:
"supernatural beings between mortals and gods, such as inferior divinities and ghosts of dead heroes" - Plato, "Symposium"

2. Computer Science:
An operating system process that runs in the background "and does something
(more or less automagically) that the users can't be bothered with doing themselves" - Peter,


She was known as RazorWire to her online cohorts and as something altogether more forgettable to the lesser mortals she interacted with in real life. Like any self-respecting hacker, she would never dream of doing any serious coding unless it was late at night; one just wasn't focussed enough until after the witching hour watershed. On that night, her shift at the office had finished early. She had found herself at home and with all her chores finished well before midnight. There was a very interesting and almost legal project that she would have liked to continue working on, but all she could manage was to stare blankly at her three computer monitors in turn.

Still, even the most illustrious of hackers must occasionally tackle mundane tasks, so she decreed that this was as good a time as any for her to write some necessary, though dull, code. Uninspiring code was no excuse for uninspiring surroundings however, so she went through her usual pre-coding ritual - she turned off all but one of the lamps in the room, so that the majority of light was coming from the glow of the monitors. She made sure her bottle of Scotch was to hand, in case of either complete lack of inspiration or overload thereof. She closed the heavy curtains so that no one could see into the room (she wasn't paranoid, but had been known to write code with her mouth open), and waited for the cat to jump on her desk.

"At least we'll get the boring stuff out of the way, Beastie".
The cat blinked languidly in response. She picked the top item from her mental to-do list, tickled Beastie's chin for luck, then faced monitor 1 and started coding. It was easy coding, so she only needed to keep half her attention on it; the rest was spent keeping up a conversation with her curmudgeonly cat - not easily done, but nevertheless rewarding.

She was halfway through that particular bit of code when the town hall clock started striking midnight. The cat shifted his position slightly, and fixed his attention on her. His tail made a seemingly involuntary twitch; his ears appeared uncertain of which way to point.
"You know what, Beastie - thinking about it, this code should probably be a daemon". The cat's ears lay a little flatter on his head, as the clock kept striking. His tail was flicking fast now.
"Silly Beastie, it's only the clocK", she said, only half noticing his discomfort.
"Yes, it would be silly not to - a daemon it shall be".

The town hall clock struck for the twelfth time, and Beastie ran out of the room, hissing. She didn't have time to wonder what had spooked him - an unearthly scream came from behind her. She jumped out of her chair and turned to face the noise, unconsciously grabbing the whisky bottle by the neck.

The noise itself was the first hurdle the senses had to deal with. It was relentless: it was wailing and howling and screeching, all at once; it was so loud that one was almost distracted from what was making it. Almost.

She nearly dropped the bottle. It had four limbs - two of which it was standing on, and two that were flailing in time to its howls. It looked like something that had once been humanoid, but had since been skinned. It glistened hideously in the light from the monitors. It had eyeballs, but no pupils. It was a mass of raw muscles, of tendons and exposed bones. She was about to attack it before it could attack her, when she noticed Beastie had come back into the room. The look on his face was one that rarely surfaced; it was a beseeching look, one he only used when absolutely necessary.

She took a closer look at the monster - the demon - the... the daemon! Her daemon? But she hadn't even finished coding her daemon...
Realisation hit her in a big wave - she sat down at her computer and started typing code again, as fast as she could, turning around every so often to look at the creature. She saw it gaining muscles that covered its naked bones, then subcutaneous fat followed by a grey epidermis, and finally the creature stopped screaming as grey trousers and a grey shirt materialised over its body. It stood there, its forehead glistening with perspiration, its chest rising and falling in short, sharp spurts.

She could look at its face properly now that the fear and panic had subsided. It would have looked human if it hadn't been so grey.

"Thank you for finishing me", it said and walked towards the door.
"But... where will you go?"
"To join the others."
"But... this has happened before?"
"It happens more often than you'd think."
"But... how come I have never seen any of you?"
"Because we are in the background. In the grey area. In the corner of your eye."
"And what do you... do?"
"Oh, we are just as useful in this world as we are in that one", it said pointing at her computer. "We take care of things humans have all but forgotten how to do." It made to step outside.

"Oh - wait!" she said, turning back to her desk to type some more code.
A pair of grey shoes appeared on its feet. It bowed low and started walking through the door when it hesitated and turned to her, looking a little shy.

"What... what is my name?"
"xshrpd. Sorry."
It smiled wryly and walked out the door.
Many thanks to Peter from the forums for his invaluable help with teaching me to speak a little UNIX and explaining what a daemon is , not to mention with naming RazorWire's cat

Thanks also go to the following folk: ilikecows for more UNIX lessons, and to figaro, pludi, DukeNuke2, markone, methyl, Corona68 and sparcguy for the excellent ideas for cat names
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Friday, 18 September 2009

#FridayFlash : Anti-Social Networking

She was enjoying a rare evening in on her own, as he had gone to the pub for a solitary session, to have a drink and a think. She settled onto the sofa with a glass of wine and a novel about a deadly virus, bio-engineered by an alien race who wished to take over the planet.

Halfway through the evening, a sudden recollection hit her - she had intended to let him know about something before he had left, and had forgotten. She picked up her phone with the intention of sending him a text message, but then decided against it - why break his beery reverie with a banal issue? Instead she sent him an email so he could read about it at his own convenience.

She was hit by small wave of nostalgia: only a few months ago, in a similar situation - he at the pub on his own, she at home alone - they would have been exchanging text messages throughout the evening. He would have been telling her about the man in the strange hat sat two tables across from him; about the group of students who hadn't yet learned how to drink; about whatever castles in the sky the two of them had been building at the time. Now she couldn't remember the last time she had received a text message that didn't have a practical purpose. She jeered at herself for being upset about a matter that was pretty insignificant in the grand scale of things, but despite this she couldn't suppress a yearningfor what had been lost.

He came home shortly after closing time.
"Good pub session?"
"Yes, didn't you read my Twitter feed?"
She blinked. The yearning turned into realisation, and then sadness - the intimate text messaging had been replaced by bursts of 140 characters that the whole world could see. She also felt a little affronted at the assumption on his part that she must be hanging onto his every world wide web witticism.
"No, I've been reading."
He sat down next to her on the sofa, mumbled briefly about the suspected conspiracy theorists that had been at the table next to his, and fell asleep.

To the tune of his gentle snoring, she got up from the sofa and sat in front of her PC. She logged onto Twitter and browsed to his account. With no hesitation, she chose to unfollow him. From now on, if he wanted her to know what was going on in his life, he would bloody well have to show her the courtesy of employing the personal touch and telling her himself.

He wouldn't notice, of course, that he had one less follower than he had the previous day. She briefly toyed with the idea of a relevant Facebook status update, but dismissed it with a smile as ridiculous. Instead, maybe she would blog about it, and leave it in the hands of the gods as to whether he would pick up her new blog post in his RSS feeds.
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Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Question for the Bear

It had been bothering him for days, but up to now he had hesitated to speak to anyone about it. He went first to get his brother's opinion but the older boy only widened his eyes and told him to hush. Stubborn, the boy braced himself and went to ask his father. He received a clip on the ear for his trouble, which wasn't wholly unexpected, and went to sit under his favourite tree to sulk, resigned.
A little later, his father surprised him by sitting next to him, and saying gently:
"Some things were not meant for boys to know. Some not even for men."
He sat there for a good while after his father left, a little stunned. This was almost akin to an apology - something his father never indulged in. He had been ready to abandon his quest for an answer, but his father's behaviour bolstered him. It reassured him that his question was important. He decided to branch out a little, and went to find his mother.
After a boy passes a certain age, and has begun his journey towards manhood, it becomes unthinkable for him to discuss important issues with his mother; for what can a mother know of the world of men? In this case though, the boy felt compelled to speak with her, although he could not imagine why.
 "You should go to the Elders with this", she said.

He was surprised, elated, and also nervous. It was not an answer he had been expecting, but as soon as it was uttered, he knew it had always been the answer he'd been hoping for. It was not until much later, with the benefit of hindsight, that he realised the look on his mother's face had been the same one she put on to disguise the fact that his mischief amused her, while scolding him for it.
He waited until the appropriate time to visit with the Elders, his nervousness growing. Boys his age would go out of their way to avoid the forbidding old men, and yet here he was placing himself in the Elders' path voluntarily.
Sundown finally came, so he made his way to the gathering point. When it was his turn, he was ushered into the Elders' enclosure. A little stutter in his voice, he raised the issue to the tribe leaders. He was met by silence. The five men appraised him sternly and intently, and exchanged glances between themselves. They seemed like angry, apprehensive glances to the boy, but he tried to dismiss these thoughts as the product of a young mind inexperienced in reading people – certainly venerable people such as the Elders. He was told to leave the enclosure, and that he would be summoned when the council was ready to discuss his issue.
A few days passed, and the boy’s initial nervousness and excitement had been replaced by interest in other things – there had been work to do, and games to be played. He had almost forgotten about his issue (he had, after all, left it in capable hands),  and thought nothing of the hushed conversations among the older people in the tribe, and failed to notice that there was a certain tension in relationships between villagers which perhaps had not been there before. When the summons came, it sought the presence of himself, and that of his father. Together, his father’s face a study in anger, his that of a boy much younger than his years, they walked to the enclosure.
The Elders were sat in a semi-circle, in full ceremonial clothing, which caused both father and son some concern. The acting tribe leader beckoned to them to come forward.
“We cannot answer your question”, he said. “You are going to have to talk to the bear.”
The boy was shocked. Never in the history of his people had someone as young as him been allowed to go to the bear. A few had asked, over the years, but had been denied instantly. He felt proud, but also terrified. The look on his father’s face he couldn't quite interpret, but at least the boy was no longer worried about being punished when they left the enclosure.
One cannot simply go up to a bear and start talking. There are certain procedures that must be followed, and so the boy spent the next few days in the company of one or other of the Elders, receiving instruction: how to approach, how to show respect, how to bow; how to formulate one’s question in a way that makes it clear that one is kindly requesting that the bear consider devoting some of his time to one’s measly concern, and not demanding a response. The boy found himself fascinated by bear lore, and the Elders warmed to their pupil, despite themselves.

The particular bear that had been assigned to his people was an old soul; his wisdom had been a help to them for almost two generations now. He had been becoming easier to anger over the last few seasons however, and the boy once again felt apprehensive. He remembered his grandfather’s story about the Elder who had met his death at the claws of the bear’s predecessor, despite following procedure and showing no disrespect. The story being in living memory made it all the more poignant and as the time neared for the boy to leave on his quest, he became increasingly subdued.

Finally, the day of his journey dawned. His mother saw him to the edge of the village and embraced him and spoke warm words to him in an uneasy voice. His father walked with him for about half a day, to the outskirts of the Deep Forest. Those without good reason to be in the forest enter at their own peril, so it was from here that the boy would journey on alone. His father wished to impart some words of wisdom, or at least encouragement, but found himself unable to think of anything lofty enough for such a momentous event. He settled for gripping the boy’s shoulders and showing him how proud he was with his eyes and his smile. The boy returned the smile and with a lurch in his heart, turned around and stepped into the forest.

The rest of the day passed without incident and by nightfall he had found a quiet clearing where he could make a bed, prepare and eat some food, and gather his thoughts for the possible challenges he faced over the next day. His main worry was that he was carrying no weapons; the Elders had insisted upon this - it was a sign of respect towards the bear, and therefore non-negotiable - and assured him that he would need none. Back in the village, he would never have doubted the word of the tribe leaders, but he was sat on his own, in the dark, in a forest teeming with all sorts of dangers. He eventually drifted off into an uneasy sleep, and dreamt of teeth and limbs and his mother's face.

He awoke with a start at first light, bad dreams all but forgotten. His enthusiasm for the adventure ahead had returned, and he set off with a spring in his step. In his exuberance, he failed to notice the cougar in the tree up ahead, until she jumped down in front of him, appraising him as she stood poised to pounce.
"I am going to see the bear", he said, as the Elders had instructed.
The cat laid her ears flat on her head, bid him good day with pursed lips, and returned to her tree where she proceeded to ignore him. He stood in shock for a short while - polite encounters with cougars were not unheard of, but very rare. He then walked on heartened, and feeling a little foolish about the doubts that had kept him awake the night before.

As the boy was nearing the bear's domain, the creature himself sat in his usual spot, his back hunched, his head bowed from tiredness. There had been a seemingly endless procession of old men for the last few days, all with tiresome questions. All questions he was able to answer, but he was finding their tedium almost unbearable. Maybe he was just getting too old for this - he cursed whoever it was that decided that oracle bear appointment should be for life. He would have retired years ago if he'd had the choice; instead he had to put up with day upon day of solemn, austere old men, their grey hair long, their faces longer.

One more to go, then - the last of the day. He looked at the figure, standing awkwardly in the  respectful bowed stance the bear had long since come to hate. However a closer look told him that this was no old man - the creature's hair was dark, and barely fell below its chin, and its stature was small. There was neither austerity nor solemnity in its look, only awe and timidity. And something else - something the bear had not seen in a long time: excitement.
"Why, it's only a cub", he thought. "Maybe this will be interesting, for a change".
He motioned to the cub to approach.

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Sunday, 6 September 2009

Mission Statement

AKA, the purpose of this blog.
At the moment, I am mostly going to be using this blog to record my offerings to the fortnightly Leeds Writers Meet-up Group. Eventually I hope to expand to include thoughts on Wing Chun Kung Fu, weight training, nutrition, bioscience, photography, SQL Server, C# and who knows what else.  In other words, assorted geekery, nerdery and kill skills.

I now inform my one reader (who isn't following me yet but will do so pretty soon if he values his life - ref: kill skills) that I will hopefully be blogging again in the near future about talking to bears

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First blog post ever

Yes, yes it is.
My very first (I'll never forget it, I'm told). Read more!