Flashfiction anthology > 30 authors – selling now on Amazon and Smashwords

No secret that I do enjoy my SF as long as it doesn’t bog itself down in technology or take itself too seriously, and as a commuter I particularly enjoyed flashfiction collections, because you don’t get so caught up in the story you forget to get off the train (miss one station, tops). So this anthology is going to be pretty good news for anyone who enjoys a good variety in their SF. There are of course a few flashes of serious technological cleverness for the purists, but most of the stories are fascinating whatever your genre. Or, as the press release puts it, this is an eclectic selection of stories by both established and emerging sf authors, ranging from traditional character-rich tales to cutting-edge speculative fiction

The anthology is on Amazon (clickable link) and Smashwords and going into bookshops shortly.

The press release went on as follows:

The Future Is Short: Science Fiction in a Flash, an anthology of 57 microstories by 31 authors, edited by Jot Russell, Paula Friedman, and Carrol Fix. Lillicat Publishers 2014, ebook editions available June 29 through traditional online stores, print version forthcoming July 2014.

Step through the borders of reality in these 57 evocative tales by 31 science fiction authors.

Discover wonders and horrors of science and speculation in this sparkling collection. Swift to read but unforgettable, each story evokes a universe, a concept, a feeling human or alien.

These tales, each under 725 words, hold truth and laughter, comedy and tragedy. For instance: aliens take a novel view of a most human pastime in Perihelion editor Sam Belloto’s “What’s Past Is Past.” A Palestinian woman’s brilliant medical breakthrough carries a cutting barb, in Andrew Gurcak’s “Collateral Damage.” Unlike NASA, prizewinning British author Andy Lake asks, “Did Curiosity kill the cat?” Despair and horror turn to hope—perhaps—in Carrol Fix’s “Rebirth.” Revolution may come too late for the inter-species lovers of “Sentience,” by award-winning author Paula Friedman. One man’s decision will save or condemn a civilization in much-published Richard Bunning’s harrowing “Meek Survive.” Mike Boggia’s “Everyman Dies, But Not Everyman Lives” locates the heart of human-nonhuman encounter.

You should get it. It’s a cracker, and at $4.99, a very good deal.

Dragons are lucky (SF Microstory May 2014)

Theme: A container (anything – pillbox, space station).
Required Element: eccentric pet .
 

‘Excuse me. You, the lady with the dragon—if you could step over here, to the Zoological control desk?’

The blonde sighed and changed direction, the little dragon on her shoulder hissing and ducking its head as it braced itself against the turn. Her hover trolley, obedient to her wristband control, was waved forward and up onto the table. Johnson sympathized, but graveyard shift or not, it looked good on his record to stop the occasional passenger. Not to mention the chance to see a dragon close-up. . .

He went swiftly through the two boxes of shimmering clothing, then looked dubiously at the third one, glass-topped with tiny ventilation holes, half-filled with writhing slender black worms winding themselves into flowing knots.

‘And this?’

‘Dragons only eat live food.’ She looked bored, dug in her shoulder bag and produced a slim box, taking out a cheroot and putting it between her lips. She half-turned her head for the little dragon to burp flame and light it. She drew deeply and looked back at Johnson, smoke trickling from her nose in scornful plumes. ‘Do you need the paperwork?’

‘Yes, please. That’s a lot for one little dragon.’

‘Immigration Law allows us to bring in everything we need for our personal use. I’ll be on Earth three months. That’s a three month supply.’ She handed over a sheaf of papers. ‘Proof of ownership, his sterilization, and his vaccinations. All up to date.’

Johnson flipped through the papers, then looked up, formalities over, ready to chat. ‘That seems to be in order. He’s a beauty. A pet?’

‘Part of my act. I’m an exotic dancer.’ She smiled for the first time. ‘I think people come to see him as much as to see me.’

‘I’m not surprised. I’ve never seen one close up. Where will you be performing?’

She handed over a courtesy pass to a well-known club instead of replying, and he thanked her and pocketed it after a glance, smiling. He looked covetously at the dragon, which was staring intently at the container, and on an impulse popped the container open, picked up the first worm his fingers touched, deftly re-sealed the top, then offered the treat. The dragon gave a hoarse shriek and tried to leap away, brought up short on its tether.

‘He’s not allowed to take food from anyone but me.’ She looked both startled and annoyed, and he flushed and put his hand back on the container, ready to replace the creature. One worm near the lid was convulsing particularly vigorously. Thread-like spores suddenly appeared all over its skin, then dropped free and vanished into the depths of the box. It was so quick he almost thought he had imagined it.

‘Livestock brought to Earth has to be sterile.’ He frowned. ‘Did that thing just spawn?’

‘They excrete from multiple orifices. They’re fairly disgusting, actually. Crap all over the place.’ She was looking annoyed again, but he shook his head worriedly. No-one but him on graveyard shift, and a choice to make—believe her, let them through, potentially spark a career-ending eco-balance nightmare? Confiscate the worms, and risk the port being sued for starving a creature worth five years pay? It had been a long day and he was tired, and wanted to get away. She was the last passenger through, the paperwork was in order. . .he glanced at the worm writhing between his fingers and his eyes widened as the black rubbed off, revealing the iridescent colour they were warned about, trained to recognize, from the first day on the job.

dragon

After the press conference, and the presentation of the very generous reward, the Earth President of Zoological Control hung back for a word. ‘Well spotted, my boy. Cleverest way I ever saw of smuggling drug worms. So much for dragons being lucky, eh? Not so lucky for her.’

‘Pretty lucky for me, sir.’ Johnson grinned. ‘The reward, and all. I might buy myself one now!’

Oops (SF Microstory June 2014)

Theme: “the day after the end of the world” or irrevocable changes in a way of life.
Required Element: something that used to be abundant and is now nearly or completely depleted.
Required Element: some kind of conveyance (chronal-challenged time machine or humble butter-making yak with cart).

=================================================================================================
So what do we do? Ann’s voice sounded frightened and Tony’s reply was quick and impatient.

There’s nothing we CAN do. The only way we could possibly reverse it would have been for Central pull us back, and try again for an hour earlier, so we could stop that stupid bitch before she sprang into action. If there was still a Central. Which there isn’t.

No need to call her a stupid bitch, Ann said mildly and Tony sprang up and paced.

No? What WOULD you like me to call her? How many times, how bloody many times, was it drummed into us? Do nothing. Observe only. No contact. Do not, repeat do not, change anything in any way? How many times, Ann?

Ann’s mental voice strengthened. You don’t need to do it telepathically, when she can hear. She feels bad enough.

He rounded on her, his whole body radiating rage, and opened his mouth. A guttural grunt emerged—a really good ear might have made out words. Ann heard it as “hab gew tried talkig?” and shrugged.

Mary turned back to face them, her eyes under the heavy brow ridges cold. So they don’t talk. Doesn’t mean they can’t talk. Babies learn. These bodies have vocal chords. We have to keep trying. She added aloud “ee cag do id.”

We wouldn’t have to if you had followed orders, Tony flung at her and she shrugged her heavy Neanderthal shoulders.

You’re the leader. ACT like a leader. Okay, one little mistake, I wiped out the future as we know it. I have said sorry every way I can think. Fact remains, the far past is now our present. We control these bodies. We can survive. We can learn to speak. Or we can sit here hating each other and weeping over the biggest spill of milk in all time until we turn to dust. I want to live.

The biggest experiment in human history – sending three minds back thirty thousand years into Neanderthal hosts, on the most extraordinary research trip ever—boils down to Mary wants to live
, Tony was bitter, but there was no real heat in it. She was right. He hated her for what she had done, but that hatred had to dissipate. Life—even if it was just one foot in front of the other—had to go on. He sank back down onto the boulder, his enormous unfamiliar head in powerful horny-palmed hands, to try to think, to plan. Mary was right, he was the leader. Two hours ago, the most brilliant man of his generation. Now a Neanderthal youth, accompanied by an elderly Neanderthal woman and another who was probably his sibling, and facing the biggest challenge of his life.

Two plans. He lifted his head at last. We have to find others—we’ll never survive alone. You two had better do that, they might attack me on sight. And I’ll start working on a message. He looked at the sheer granite face of the rock rising behind them. I’ll carve it into that. Maybe, he smiled bleakly, future scientists will work out how to whisk us back. It will take days. Weeks. If it works, we’ll be straight out of here instantly, so I won’t add the last word unless you’re both here. If it doesn’t . . . well, we start life again. Go.

As they finally left he wearily started the search for a stone he could use as a chisel, and another that would do service as a hammer. If he survived long enough to leave the message, if it worked, what then? Where then? A time machine, perhaps, to come from a crude chisel and chunk of rock? Hope was all that was left.

Neanderthal_2D_src

Borrowed Pleasures (SF microstory April)

Every month I do a story in the SF competition on LinkedIn – this month’s theme was resurrection, and the elements to be included were a glass of wine and silver coins (bit of a genre crossover, to be sure).  This story wasn’t used, in the end, I replaced it with another, but it was darker than my usual and I rather like its understated nastiness. 

clones

 

Harris paused unseen in the doorway, adjusting to the dim light and unpleasant mix of odours before approaching the old man’s sickbed. The nurse touched the old man’s arm to rouse him, then slipped away, and Turner stirred, rolling his head on the pillow and opening rheumy eyes.

‘Harris.’ His voice was a breathy husk. ‘What news?’

‘All good, sir. The clones should be fully mature in days.’

‘Excellent. Excellent! How many?’

‘Four—better than I hoped.’

‘And the woman? Beautiful?’

‘Early to tell, but yes, I believe she will be. ‘

‘She was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.’ Turner mused, and wheezed a chuckle. ‘Getting her DNA was worth your fees just on its own. You’ll thank me, too. You’ll enjoy her.’

‘Er, I don’t think I should, sir. Not very professional.’

‘My dear chap, you won’t be able to resist. No-one ever could. I shall insist. The other three are all me?’

‘They are, sir. I do need to remind you they will only have an active adult lifespan of months. A year at best; less in view of your plans for them.’

‘That’s longer than the doctors are giving me, and I don’t really care what happens to them afterwards. In view of—as you say—my plans, I doubt I’ll last six months, but I shall die a happy man. You’re still no closer to resurrecting me permanently in them?’

‘Sir, no. I did warn you. When you die, they become inanimate. Presuming they outlast you.’

The old man shrugged. ‘When can you start linking my consciousness to them?’

‘Within the week. Will you start with the woman?’

‘I want to, but I won’t. I’ll start with one of mine. I want to experiment with the degree of sensation before you start linking the next. I ordered four cases of the world’s best wines ready for this. If any of the boys has a particularly healthy liver, link him first.’

‘They’re all perfect and identical copies, sir. Your own liver managed seventy years before it started failing.’

Turner wheezed another chuckle. ‘It got the occasional break while I was getting on with the tiresome interruptions of living. This boy won’t have interruptions, but yes, even with my plans for him, it should last six months. The last pleasure taken from me, the first to be recovered, a simple glass of wine. Have you named the clones in your case notes?’

‘You’ve always referred to the woman as Desiree, so she’s in my notes under that name. The males are just the glutton, the sensualist and the spare.’

‘Well, the glutton hardly needs a name. He won’t be getting out much. My sensualist, though, he can take my nickname. Burner Turner, they called me. Burned through the sheets in over a thousand beds in my time. I tell you, Harris, that’s what I’m looking forward to the most. Burner having Desiree, with me experiencing both. Even more than the orgies.’ His raddled old frame shuddered in anticipation.

Harris swallowed, repelled, and was relieved when the nurse returned and sternly ordered him from the room. He returned to his superb lab and paused, as always, in front of Desiree’s pod. Cool, remote, inanimate, she stared back. He had bribed his way into the clinic where the real Desiree flickered toward the close of life, and she had opened her eyes unexpectedly as he drew off the DNA tissue. Glorious eyes, shockingly out of place in the frail parchment of her ancient ruined beauty, the eyes of a woman totally confident of her impact, adored and desired to the point of madness, arrogant and knowing; the only woman to ever reject Turner’s money and power. She had laughed at him, but it would be Turner’s corrupt and depraved soul that directed her clone. Harris reminded himself again that the original Desiree would never know, but a trick of the light seemed to scatter a handful of glinting silver coins over the pod as he turned back to his desk.

Big Game – the fun alternative for the bleeding heart brigade

Every month I do a story in the SF competition on LinkedIn but this month a Facebook post provoked a second story and I took down the first and replaced it with this one. The theme was resurrection, and the elements to be included were a glass of wine and silver coins (bit of a genre crossover, to be sure).  I am very bad at thinking up names so I borrowed some names from the FB post, but would like to stress that it’s just a bit of light-hearted SF, wishful thinking if you like. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is, well, unavoidable, but the histories and reactions of the characters, that’s purest invention. Just me taking my own potshot at a safe distance from cover, against what is not, unfortunately, an endangered species. 

Brad

‘Not just because you’re a hunter, Brad. It’s because you are so very proud about it, so open and honest in the face of the bleeding heart brigade. It makes you the perfect man.’ She smiled at him, her eyes warm and quite definitely admiring. Brad swelled slightly. Pretty women didn’t, it had to be said, look at him with warm admiration very often. And he didn’t think he’d ever been called a perfect man before. He rather liked it.

‘Well, of course I’ll help if I can. Virtual reality, is it?’

‘Oh, much better than virtual. A huge scientific breakthrough means hunters can have a real safari but the animals are resurrected. A kind of a closed loop, secret from the bleeding hearts, and still offering the whole experience.’

‘Like stocking a trout pond?’ Brad offered and she beamed at him, openly impressed by his quick understanding.

‘We’ve approached you as an expert for advice in the marketing. And to ask how popular you think it would be.’

Well, to be honest;’ he hated to disappoint her, but she just wasn’t quite getting it. ‘I’m not sure, if the animal jumped up two minutes later and got on with its day, that there would be the same feeling at all. You said I can say anything to you, right?’

She nodded, smiling, and he shrugged almost shyly.

‘Well, when I was four, I killed my kitten. Hit it on the head with a toy hammer. It’s the strongest memory of my childhood, it was bouncing around its little tinkling ball and I hit it and it was just a scrap of fur and meat. I couldn’t believe it. My mum got me a new kitten that afternoon and I watched it and watched it and then I hit it and the same thing again—just blood and fur and meat. Four years old, and I felt like God.  Now if the kitten had come back to life, shaken itself and gone back to playing with its ball, well, I wouldn’t be God, would I?’

She topped up his glass of wine, her brows puckered in thought. ‘I hadn’t seen it that way. That could be a problem. Would it help if they only had a few lives, and would eventually die?’

‘It might, a bit,’ he daringly patted her knee and swelled again when she smiled sidelong at him and didn’t twitch her knee out of reach. ‘I tell you what, I’d be happy to try the game for you, tell you how convincing it is.’

‘I hoped you’d say that! We’ll make it nine lives, I think—in memory of your kitten. Do you accept the tokens?’ She handed him a few silver coins and he nodded eagerly, huffing with pleasure to see a rhino etched on the first, a leopard on the second.

‘I’ve killed a good few of these in my time! I accept, yes of course. But what;’ he was still squinting, trying to make out the bipedal image on the third in the sudden flood of light, when he realized the light was hot sunshine, that he was naked, that the exciting unique smell of Africa was filling his nostrils, and he was not alone.

‘Our guns, Brad! Where are our guns?’ Stephen grabbed his arm in panic, just as a heavy rifle boomed out and his head disintegrated, blood and meaty chunks of flesh a wet spattering against Brad’s face. He recoiled in horror even as his leg was abruptly knocked heavily and he staggered, numbing shock followed by a wave of excruciating pain before the crack of the rifle had even registered. Matt screamed thinly as he backed away, then turned to run, and Brad hopped frantically after him before a huge thump in his back shoved him to the ground and agony flared.

Through the roaring in his ears, his heaving gulps for air through the pink froth bubbling on his lips and the distant excited cheers, he heard her warm voice. ‘That’s one, Brad. Get well soon. Eight to go.’

 

 

 

Ask Not – February entry in SF microstory competition

Theme: A crime is being or has been committed
Required Element: Reference your favorite author (By name, quote,etc.)
Required Element: First person narrative (I had also decided it was time to try my hand at present tense. Hmm)

woman weeping
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man is, in Goona, a precious resource. A virile, fertile, single man. When there are only three men to every twenty women of child-bearing age, the competition is fierce, and the fiercest are ovulating and mean business. A woman’s power and influence when old are directly related to the children she bears when young, and we have but ten years of fertility. Partner a sterile man and you waste two years, fail to partner in three successive mating Games and you’re either too old to produce young at all, or the resented outrider in an older man’s pack and wondering whether he can impregnate you before he drops dead. Men don’t last long here.

Lin stumbles into the square, looking distraught, as I go out to take down my finery ready to dress for the dance, the start of the Game, and I cross to her instantly, because although she is, right now, the enemy, we are friends between Games. She’s on her second Game and has sultry experience and one child already at heel. This is my first Game and I have youth and novelty. She shakes off my first attempt to catch her arm but bursts into gusty sobs.

‘Carl. CARL,’ is all I can hear between the sobs, enough to make my blood chill. Carl is my choice for the Game. He’s young, merry, a father four times over, a good hunter and, I have been watching him covertly, a good partner. Most of us want him but he watches me and this year, my first year, all the men want me.

‘What about Carl?’ I pinch her fiercely and she wails, eyes huge with grief.

‘Where?’ She just points and I run, fleet as a deer, heart pounding with terror. He’s lying by the path, only minutes from the village, and he looks as dead as a man can, his throat gaping open. I fling myself on my knees by him anyway, shrieking his name and my shaking fingers on his neck next to that obscene and bloody grin. The blood is already drying, and the skin under my fingers is already tepid. My Carl, my mate, my hope and plan for the future, is gone and I raise my face and howl like a wolf as others hurry up the path and crowd round.

‘He was never yours.’ Anol, his recent partner, objects, paper-white, spots burning in her cheeks. ‘We were going to re-partner for another two years. We bred sons together, and he loved me.’

At this, Lin’s tears abruptly stop. ‘You lie. Re-partnering isn’t allowed, it breaks our laws on consanguinity. He wanted me, he told me so.’

‘He wanted me,’ I want to say; but he never said it. Just watched me. Many of the village men watch me, and try to draw me aside to discuss Game strategy, but Carl—Carl and I would have needed no strategy. Raw with loss, I ask instead, ‘who did this?’

‘What is done is done,’ Anol whirls on me, harsh and abrupt, but I hardly hear her, tears pouring as I look despairingly from face to face, seeing shock, horror, sorrow; on one face they look fake. Jake’s face. I blink, re-focus, and he feels my stare and looks away, and I know. Jake has been watching me for seven months, always ready to wink, to smile, to come over to me at any encouragement whatsoever. I rise to my feet like an avenging Fury. ‘Jake!’ my voice breaks and I have to clear my throat, start again. ‘JAKE murdered Carl!’

He breaks and runs, and after a frozen moment of shock the other hunters pound after him. The older men look stunned, but the women, young and old, are glaring at me with fury in their eyes and it takes me a moment to realize what I have done. I have robbed us of another man for the Game.

January 2014: Decision

Theme: Distance (physical, temporal, emotional) 
Required Element: A ship (anything from a dugout canoe to a kilometre-long void carrier) 
Required Element: A decision (to be considered, made, or have foisted upon you)

Canoeing

When you know there’s something or someone watching you, but you shoot quick glances out the corners of your eyes and there’s nobody in sight? That.

Dan paddled a little faster, and his dugout shot across the water. His best time for crossing the distance between his home island and the one Mira lived on was forty-seven minutes and nineteen seconds, measured on the watch her family had given him when they accepted his request to court her. A man in love with the pretty daughter of a wealthy family paddles fast, but a man who is being watched by somebody in hiding paddles faster. He was pretty damn definitely going to shave a good few minutes off his best time, presuming he got the chance. He half turned his head again, quickly, but nothing, just his crisp wake in the still water. And then he saw the shadow, immense, drifting up the wake as it blotted out the sun.

Mira’s family hadn’t picked a fool, there was nothing wrong with his reflexes. Even as the shadow closed with his dugout he tipped over and came up gasping inside it, treading water. What what what what—he couldn’t even formulate the questions, the reality was so completely outside anything life had sent his way so far, but at least here he was safe, nobody could see him. Just an upturned canoe. Nobody here but us fishes, fly away monster.

Instead there was a strange singing sound in his ears, an odd feeling of pressure, a moment of weightlessness—and he was standing upright, his canoe sliding off his head to clatter to the steel floor.

*A perfect specimen* a voice purred in his head, sounding deeply satisfied. *Look at the depth of that chest! And those thighs and arms! What age is it?*

*Around twenty, I would say* there was a definite touch of smugness in the voice that responded. *Should live for years, this breed has been known to reach eighty or ninety in captivity*

‘Hey!’ he looked about wildly ‘what you talking about, man? I’m no specimen, I’m Daniel! You put me back right now!’

*Good bark, too, I like that. It’s a male, of course. Do you think we can source some females for it? Ideally at least three, but try to get fatter ones this time. The thin ones don’t last well. Anyway, give it some food, see if we can coax it to eat.*

A shutter in the nearest gleaming wall slid back and Dan stalked across, stiff-legged. Hmm. Roasted meat, cold, but—he took a bite—delicious. And roasted roots, not as delicious, but at least the food would be good. Dan rather liked his food. And three females, all the food he could eat, no more paddling to get everywhere and living twenty years at least longer than anyone on his island, in living memory . . . he chewed thoughtfully.

They didn’t understand his voice, but he understood them. Was there an advantage in staying dumb? Or was it in his interests to think-talk to them, tell them about Mira, how pretty and healthy she was, and her best friend Tali, and even Gina, who had made him a man and then refused to teach him any further? One would need to think REALLY clearly, and REALLY loudly, perhaps. He glanced back at the dugout and saw beyond it a big bed, some sculpted furniture. A viewing screen on the wall.

Well, faint heart never won three fair ladies—*ER, HELLO? CAN YOU UNDERSTAND ME NOW?*

(see my SciFi tab for the other monthly entries in the friendly microstory competition on LinkedIn)

December 2013: The Red Cloak

THE RED CLOAK
(The theme for December was Midwinter Solstice, and the elements were fear and not here, not now) 

red cloak

Warmth spread to his horn-nailed fingertips with the first gulp and he drank again greedily. Wonderful. Wonderful! Between the firebox walls, even the delicate web of flame flickering overhead, this excellent drink, and the cloak slung around his shoulders, he, who had thought warmth and life lost forever, was alive again. He fingered the cloak wonderingly. It was soft, fine, red, the most magnificent thing he had ever seen. As they brought him in, half-dead with the cold and fear, a young Galan in the startled crowd had pulled it off his own shoulders, and, at a nod from an older man, rushed over to fling it round him. The same youngster stood by him now, attentively waiting to top up his drink, beaming at him as though he were the most wonderful sight in the world. It wasn’t a look the traveller was used to, and he wondered uneasily whether he was being wooed. These primitive Northern folk, one heard strange tales—but on the other hand, one couldn’t be a traveller and turn down new experiences, and the lad was, for a Northerner, very taking. He looked back to the glossy-furred Elders smilingly watching him.

‘The cloak,’ he asked haltingly in Galan, ‘how make?’

‘As our Lady returns, we comb ourselves every day.’ The woman picked words he could understand. ‘The combings are spun, then dyed and woven into cloaks. There is only ever one red cloak, it is sacred to us.’

‘We have no thing like this.’ He marvelled. ‘But our fleece are short.’ By Southern standards he was shaggy, with a winter mane of which he was secretly proud, but he felt positively svelte among these hirsute people. His people thought the Northerners wild, with their flowing pelts, but the cloak was superb. He wondered what he could trade for it. Sacred wasn’t a word he knew, maybe it meant friendly, in which case they might even give it to him. ‘You said your—Lady?’

‘Our Lady of Summer. While she reigns, we grow our food, hunt, and raise our young. As the Winter Lord’s dark shadow grows we turn to learning and inventing. Every year, a day comes when there is no daylight at all, and on that day we light the fires, because fire is their link. We spend this day in worship, we sacrifice to him, and he lets the Lady take us back, day by day, to the summer. We do this also on the day there is no dark, because we crave the knowledge the Lord brings us.’

‘We had hear you superstitious!’ He was delighted to get the stories confirmed.

‘What else do Shorthairs—Southerners—say of us?’ one of the men asked with interest, and he felt a warm rush of affection for these friendly, lovely people.

‘We say,’ he confided, ‘that you primitive. Hostile. Must not to visit in winter.’ He shivered. ‘Now I know why. So cold!’

The Galan looked puzzled. ‘Are you cold?’

‘No, no, not now! I ready to die for cold when you find me. Now warm. I not ever see fire like this.’ He pointed a claw at the delicate tracery of flame above. ‘Beautiful. This drink, you call moonshine? I never taste drink like this. Make me warm, happy. Is good.’

‘We learn much during the reign of the Winter Lord,’ the old woman repeated. ‘Fire is precious, for two days a year only, for the rest of the cold time we use the heat that we stored during the months of the Lady.’

He was puzzled, but his Galan wasn’t up to pursuing an explanation and he returned to an earlier comment. ‘You say sac-ri-fice,’ he used the barely familiar word carefully. ‘That is to kill a beast, yes?’

‘No, for the Lord we draw lots. One must burn so the rest can live. This time, it was to be Gered.’ She gestured at the handsome lad who was so attentively caring for him, and he felt a shock of protest. This promising and charming young man? Barbaric!

‘Was to be, not now?’ He looked up and Gered bent forward eagerly, tilting the jug invitingly. Flame reflected, dancing, in his eyes.

November 2013: The Worst Time To Travel

THE WORST TIME TO TRAVEL
(The theme for November was The Unwanted Gift, and there were two elements , Travel, and Forgetfulness)

delayed flights

‘You look, if you don’t mind me saying so, absolutely fed up.’ The fat man, having thanked her for lifting her bag off the seat next to hers in the crowded waiting room, now seemed to want to make conversation and Carol sighed inwardly. But if it passed this interminable waiting time …

‘I hate travelling at any time. But most of all at this time of year.’

‘So why are you?’ He unwrapped a burger, his obvious anticipation undimmed by the soggy bun, flabby burger patty, and wisps of tired vegetable matter being revealed by the process, and she averted her eyes.

‘Oh – my daughter. She sent a note and a gift saying I had to open it immediately, and join them for Christmas. I’ve not been able to reach her, so there was nothing for it but to book. I don’t want it to be an emergency, but I’ll be a little cross if it isn’t. She knows how I hate to fly!’

‘Did you bring the gift?’ He lowered the sad limp burger, and looked interested. ‘What is it?’

‘You tell me.’ She produced what looked like a steel powder compact. ‘It does open, but there’s nothing inside. And anyway, who needs a powder compact these days? I’ve got a powder spray. She gave me that, too, last year, so she knows I don’t need a compact.’

‘Well, now,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘And those powder sprays – last year, you said? But they only came on the market a few months ago.’

‘Yes, I know, but she works with new inventions. Did you ever watch that TV show, a Town Called Eureka? A bit like that. No direct contact with the outside world, that’s why I couldn’t reach her.’

‘And that’s where you’re going?’

‘Yes.’ She eyed him warily, suddenly aware she’d said more to this total stranger than she should. Holly had asked her never to discuss anything about the Centre.

He gave the compact back and took a bite of his burger, and she blinked. Just for a second, as he bit into it, the patty had looked thick and delicious, topped with crisp lettuce, juicy tomato and a generous supply of fried onion rings – the sort of burgers she’d made for Holly and Nicholas, when they were young. The impression was so vivid she could actually smell it, and her mouth watered automatically – then he was chewing, and for all his obvious enjoyment, the portion left in his hand looked as tired and limp as it had before. She looked away politely and focused on the tired, irritable and fretful passengers around them, staring with dulled eyes at the departures board which flickered again. ALL FLIGHTS DELAYED.

‘Not much Christmas spirit, is there?’ He really was a very rosy man, against that snow-white hair and tidy beard. ‘Tell me, did you ever ask her for anything in particular?’

‘No. Well.’ She laughed despite herself at the memory. ‘I asked her not to expect me to travel ever again until they invented a teleporter! I’d forgotten that. So did she, obviously.’

‘She didn’t.’ His eyes lit with laughter. ‘Carol, for security reasons she sent the instructions separately, and they got stolen. You go find a private corner, open the compact, and tell it to take you to Holly.’

She stared at him and he twinkled merrily.

‘I’m by way of being in the Christmas business, Carol. And I love the way your family names reflect my traditions. Now off you go and have a wonderful holiday with your family.’ With that he started to laugh, an old-fashioned belly laugh. ‘I’ve got some planes to sort out!  Ho ho ho!’

 

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I know, I know, cheesy. But it was the winning entry for that month so go ahead, laugh.

October 2013: Back to Basics (William’s in this one)

BACK TO BASICS
(The theme for October was Deception, and the element was Fire.)

firepot

The brief, three years ago, had been electrifying. Interstellar travel was a reality, with the first exploration ship due to launch in five years.  Nick Taylor had been one of three thousand experts pulled onto the project, and the years since had been the most exciting, exhausting, alarming, and thrilling years of his young life.

His section covered crew wellbeing—even at interstellar speed, the closest promising-looking planet was four years away. The ship would transport a team of experts, spend a year on the planet—all going well, of course—and return. Most of the passengers would travel in stasis, since it wasn’t logistically possible to provision up to ten years for so many people, but the minimum crew of nine—three at a time on duty, twenty-four /seven—was their main worry. How could nine people be kept from going stark staring mad in eight years, during the hours they were neither working nor sleeping?

The section personnel were gathered today for an update on that vital issue, rehashing the many suggestions that had been tabled—revolving all the personnel in and out of stasis, or choosing only crew who shared a single language; loading ship databanks with thousands of films and books; hurriedly inventing a Voyager-style holodeck. That one never drew many laughs; it was so obviously what was needed. Entertaining a crew, even a multilingual one, wasn’t the impossibility; relaxing them, however—the five volunteer teams living in trial conditions were all stressed almost to incoherence within months.

Overall coordinator Tom Burkett tapped a pen against his glass for attention, and the heated conversations died. ‘You’ll remember at the original brief we invited some SF writers, in the hope they could think outside the box on this? We’ve got a presentation from William Robertson coming up next. We’ll go through now.’

William Robertson! Nick had been a fan all his teens, still was if he had time to read, and craned eagerly over the heads of the people walking in front of him for his first close-up glimpse of the author.

Robertson was taller, heavier, and older than anyone in the room; he nodded unsmiling greetings as they entered the room, where nineteen chairs were grouped around a steel fire bowl. Fire? Nick took his place with the others, and Robertson, leaning on one of his trademark sticks, bent to touch a lighter to the bowl.

Flames leapt and Burkett spoke up. ‘No talking. Relax and watch.’

This was stupid—there couldn’t be an open fire on a spaceship!—but Nick watched obediently. His frayed nerves eased; he could smell wood burning, and an elusive faint trace of something else. Someone, presumably Robertson, threw a chunk of rock salt on the fire, which sparked and burned blue. There was something else . . . people, shadows against shadows, and the plaintive strains of a harmonica. Horses snorted nearby, and stars burned huge in the night sky. One of the men threw a log on the fire in a flurry of sparks—

Nick flinched, and was back in his seat.

‘How the hell did you do that?’ he exclaimed involuntarily. The others were looking equally startled, and Robertson grinned into his tidy beard.

‘Since we first learned to summon fire,’ he rumbled, unexpectedly Scots, ‘it has been our comfort, our safety, our dreamy pleasure, triggering our most primal feelings of wellbeing. I released a permitted narcotic—milder than a wee dram—to prime you. The crew will have the same narcotic. Imagination—memory—you’ll have all experienced summat different. And will, every time you look into the flames, no matter how often you look. Our trial team use it a few times a week, and their stress levels have dropped back well below concern levels.’

He swung his stick at the fire pot, which flickered as the stick went straight through the image.

‘It’s not real?’  Ann Moore wasn’t the only one to gasp, but she was the only one to speak.

‘Och, it’s real, burning right now, and it will for the next two years. Every flicker, every added log, all captured on holographic film for the journey. Smoke and mirrors, ken? Smoke and mirrors.’