Friday flash fiction – Remote Retrieval

I don’t know if this thing is recording. I hope it wasn’t damaged in the attack. It probably doesn’t matter anyway. Even if you get here soon, it won’t be soon enough.

I found the drone, for the record. Node Charlie 1449. It came down outside ODIN’s search perimeter. Dumb luck to stumble on it. The mountains played havoc with its beacon. It didn’t ping the scanner until I was almost on top of it. If I’d crossed the stream another twenty yards on, I would have missed it. Then again if I’d done that, I might have missed the bear as well.

The drone’s transmitter is half-fried. Not intact enough to re-establish a link. Telemetry confirms it was hit with a worm distributed node to node through the encrypted handshake protocols until the entire network was infected. The kill code burned them out simultaneously. Two thousand surveillance drones gone all at once, dropping out of the sky like used-up fireworks. The eyes of the free world, gouged out.

One feeble signal got half the Agency’s boots out here following ODIN’s search plan. Just my luck to draw the short straw.

Charlie-49’s emergency chute was charred but intact enough to get caught on a fir branch about three floors above a ravine. It took all day to winch down a half-tonne chunk of scorched spy plane. I was freezing and exhausted. I had twenty minutes of light left to crack the casing and get the storage cards out. I didn’t hear it coming.

I’ve heard survivors of animal attacks say things like “I didn’t feel anything until it was all over”. Adrenaline spikes, fugue states, you know?

Like hell. I knew straight away that bastard ripped my arm off.

I rolled over screaming and there she was, looming over me like I’m cold cults in a buffet. I tried to line my Gloch up for a double tap to the face. Everything blurred. I hesitated. One shot chopped up an ear. The other one made her back off a ways.

Listen, when you find me don’t copy this recording to the network. If it’s not too late, don’t play it inside any Agency facilities. For God’s sake don’t turn my phone’s network reception back on. ODIN will be listening in. Even if it doesn’t scan the data itself, it assimilates body language and facial tics faster than human thought. Don’t let it see your faces. It’ll know you’re onto it.

I’ve wedged myself into a crevice and cauterised my arms with a flare. Hopefully it’ll keep the bear away. If not, maybe it’ll decide to leave my body intact. Maybe.

Check the drone’s data if you want. That encryption is unbreakable. It’d take longer than the universe’s remaining lifespan. North Korea isn’t up to it. It wasn’t China either. Not a cell of methed-up Berkeley students. Nobody.

The hack was an inside job. Only an AI with access ten levels above top secret could have fed that worm the network security codes.

I can’t even guess what ODIN’s second move is, but it didn’t want any eyes watching.

I don’t know if someone from the Agency will find this. I don’t know if there’s an Agency left. Or people, for that matter.

I’ll bet the bears will be okay.

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100 for 100 challenge

I’ve just returned from a very quick trip to introduce my children to that abyssal money sink some people call skiing. I’ve learned a couple of things.

The first is that I have the knees of a terribly old man. I hope he comes back to collect them soon. I want him to return the ones that don’t flare into searing agony after a mere few hours of pounding them again an iced-up mountain slope. That’s not too much to ask, surely?

The second is that a couple of days of wrangling kids, hefting a metric ton of hired gear and trying to rest in a hotel room directly adjacent to a ping pong table plays hell with my writing habits.

Specifically, this quick trip away has broken my “100 words for 100 days” progress at the quarter mark.

The idea, which I first heard from Twelfth Planet Press publisher Alisa Krasnostein, is simple – for one hundred consecutive days, write at least one hundred new words on your current project. If you miss a day, you must start the count again from zero.

Obviously in one sense this is a peculiar form of self-torture that I wouldn’t recommend for anyone. In general, I agree with the air of skepticism surrounding the idea that “real writers write every day”. While presumably well-intentioned advice, it’s unsound to build a gauge of personal success around an expectation of daily habits which fail to account for the inevitable interference of daily life. “Write every day” can all too easily set you up to fail.

On the other hand, I like a challenge. A one-hundred-word stint could take as little as three minutes to write, so it’s not as if we are talking about a significant daily imposition. The hard part is maintaining the habit, especially in the face of disrupted routines.

I got to 25 days on my first attempt. Not a bad run, until I broke it by planning for a trip and then being away from home for two days.

Tonight I’ve reset the clock.

The lesson I’ve taken from the first stab at this particular challenge is to plan for the disruptions. I know I’ll be travelling for work in a few weeks, and then again in late September, so I need to plan ahead to ensure I can keep my new run alive. I need to have my tools at hand for when I’m outside my usual patterns – notebook, laptop, story notes. Whatever I need to make sure I don’t have an excuse not to write when the opportunity arises.

What I hope will come of this is a new habit of writing in the gaps. Filling the interstitial moments with a quick description here or an exchange of dialogue there. I tend to think of myself as a momentum writer, and so far this is looking like a good tool for building momentum. It’s working for me, at any rate.

It’s quite possible this is a terrible idea. It’s not unreasonable to picture a scenario where I get to ten or twenty or fifty consecutive days, miss a day due to some unavoidable problem like sickness or unexpected travel, and lose all that lovely progress. I can imagine feeling somewhat disheartened – demoralised, even – in those circumstances. It could be I’m setting myself for a fall into self-recrimination and bitter disappointment.

We shall see. Hopefully in exactly 99 more days.

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Friday flash fiction – October Music

October Music

Every Halloween, Bernie Flinders plays music to quiet her ghosts.

When the evening’s stream of costumed children dissipates to a trickle, she snuffs the candles in the jack-o’-lanterns, sets the remnant candy in a bowl on the porch, and walks into the backyard with her pitted ’75 Fender and a Marshall amp big enough to sit on.

They come, and she plays.

Great-Aunt Joan arrives first, every time. She was a nurse in Korea; she died in ’52 when an ammunition truck caught fire and rolled right into her ward. They never met in life. Bernie’s mother used to show her old photos of Joanie in her uniform with her hundred-watt smile and a ukulele. She always told the story of the night the call came through about Joanie, while she was in her fourteenth hour of labour. Baby Bernice arrived ten minutes later.

Joan flashes her teeth when Bernie plays a little laid-back bluegrass, and then she’s gone for another year.

Bernie doesn’t know why it has to be Halloween. Crinkling leaves dance around her feet and she purses her lips to keep the dust out.

Ambrose, her father, appears on the stoop, whistling a tune she can’t quite remember. He’s whittling the skin off a pumpkin to make the same Dracula face he’s always done. Jutting from his pocket is the pawn ticket he was taking in to recoup with his winnings from the track, the day he was hit by the midtown express bus.

Bernie’s been plucking away at “Classical Gas” for about forty years now, and maybe she’s just about got it. When the song tumbles from her gnarled and calloused fingers like a spring rain, Ambrose sets down his carving tools and fades away.

Skye’s always the hardest. Here she comes now, with her flannel shirt, the skirt with buckles and studs and the two hundred dollar pair of tights that came pre-laddered. What was magnetic under a spotlight looks too small now. Her skin is just a little too white, her lips are just a little too blue, and the take-no-crap butch goddess hair is matted to her scalp. All these Halloweens, Skye’s never said a word. Bernie can’t ask her: “Did you drive your tour van off that bridge by accident or not?”

All she can do is play “Come as You Are” until that secret tiny smirk cracks the bland teenage disdain, and her daughter leaves her again.

Bernie doesn’t know why it has to be Halloween. Maybe that’s the one day she can’t avoid thinking about them.

It rains cold and hard on her last Halloween. Bernie drags her kit out under the weathered gazebo. She drapes the Marshall with a tarpaulin, weighs it down with garden pavers dislodged by spreading tree roots.

She waits, but the ghosts don’t come. Who can blame them? So she plays for herself, letting her fingers find their rhythm and claw melodies from the night, from the past, from memory. She plays until the Fender slips from her grasp with a splash.

And they tell her the rehearsal’s done. It’s time to join the band onstage.

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A word about Fridays

Starting this week, I am going to post a short-short story here every Friday morning.

Have a read of this

This is a mental health measure. I get too many ideas I’m convinced should be turned into stories. When I don’t do anything with them, they gnaw at me and demand the attention I should be paying to something else. When I succumb and write them, they end up somewhere in the vicinity of ten thousand words (or forty to fifty pages in a book, probably more for an e-reader).

Frankly, I need to rebuild the habit of writing shorter works. I need to get some distracting little ideas out of my head. And I want to regularly reinforce my delusional view that writing can be fun. Plus I really can’t overlook the satisfying dopamine hit that comes with finishing something.

So once a week, for the foreseeable future (which is to say, when I either get a pressing deadline or I get the urge out of my system), I will post a new very short story – less than five hundred words, probably – up here.

They will probably be safe for work. Other than that, who can say? I won’t know what the story will be until it wakes me up at three in the morning and demands to be written.

If this is your first time here, welcome. I have a newsletter that comes out every six *cough* eight weeks or so. It includes announcements, sneak peaks of what I’m working on, a free adventure fiction serial, and the ever-looming threat of a comic strip or song lyrics. If you liked this, you might like that too, in which case you can sign up here:


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GenreCon 2017, for your consideration

My first choice for a speculative fiction convention with a heavy writers’ stream is my local, Conflux. I’ll probably talk about that from time to time.

But for those of us who can’t make it to Canberra in October (as indeed, I can’t this year), allow me to propose my very-close-second choice: Brisbane’s GenreCon 2017.

As the name suggests, GenreCon steps back from one literary ghetto to embrace all the big ones at once: speculative, crime, romance, and probably others I’m forgetting. The cross-pollination of ideas and approaches to fiction is eye-opening and well worth it, especially if, like me, you mostly tend to stick to one patch of the territory.

I’ve only been to one GenreCon, back in 2013, which I believe was the second time it was run. Every year since, I’ve regretted not being able to make it. That first one was such a blast. First of all, the guests are top notch: the year I went, Chuck Wendig was one of the guests of honour. Chuck is one of my writer heroes – it was partly his relentless and hilariously crass blogging about writing that pushed me off the fence and made me start writing again. Getting to meet him in person was a rare treat. That was also the year I kind of fell in love with the passion and humour of Anita Heiss, who is an amazing speaker.

This year’s guests look every bit as amazing – Delilah Dawson and Nalini Singh for the international guests, and a slew of big Australian names – Sean Williams and Angela Slatter from the speculative pond, Amy Andrews repping for romance, and Emma Viskic for crime.

If you are a working genre fiction author or aspire to be one, I can’t recommend GenreCon enough. Peter M. Ball and the whole GenreCon team put on a good, focused con that really digs into professional techniques, writing skills and the business side of things.

If I recall correctly they run two parallel streams of panels and workshops, which means you are only ever in the position of having to agonise over two options at a time – but agonise you will, because the program is always, always dripping with that good juice. Choosing which sessions to attend and which to forego is brutal: it will help with that resilience thing writers are always talking about needing.

(Pro tip I learned at GenreCon: If you have any contact with the publishing industry as part of your writing career, you owe it to yourself to attend Alex Adsett’s workshops on publishing contracts. Seriously. If you plan to avoid being screwed over by an unfair deal at any point in the future, Alex is a very good person to know).

(Pro tip I confidently predict about this year’s GenreCon: Delilah Dawson’s pre-convention seminar on How to Write Sex and Violence will be equal parts hilarious and horrifying, because damn, she knows how to write some great sex and violence).

I still don’t know if I can go to GenreCon this year, and it hurts to think I might miss out. If you’re on the fence about attending, let me know and I can definitely give you a push in the right direction.


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