Friday Flash Fiction – The Last Nine Drum Beats

Boom!

The drum pounds again, far below Bruck. He hooks onto a cross-rope and hauls himself up to a platform set near the top of the southern midfield mast. He gulps air as he takes stock of the field. The two Bulls down in the Ground Zone, Grease and LaForce, circle out to reclaim the egg. Their earthbound opponents won’t possess it for long. The Algerand Bulls are faster, stronger, ruthless hardheads.

https://pixabay.com/en/hook-hoist-crane-equipment-2309593/

 

He raises his eyes to the Sky Zone, a maze of ropes, nets, short bridges and beams suspended between a small forest of poles and raised platforms. To his left, Villus is hanging by one hand from a taut ladder, trading kicks with the rake-thin Redlake Sweeper. Below and ahead, Cindra clambers like a monkey from one platform to another, pursued by the Redlake Rover, who swings his scoop ineffectually at her heels, to the appreciative roars of the crowd.

Boom!

Bruck shakes the sweat from his head and spits muddy dust. Gantler, Redlake’s Striker, is closing fast, positioning to cut off Bruck’s line of attack on the scoring funnel. The big Striker favours dive attacks, dropping from the high ropes to pummel or bounce his victims off their lines, and he has the weight and the balance to make it work.

Bruck’s crossed paths with him before – years ago, before the fall that cost Bruck his hand and his first career. With any luck Gantler hasn’t seen him play since he came out of retirement.

The crowd’s foot-stomping applause announces a conclusion to Villus’ skirmish. The Redlake Sweeper falls badly, hitting a jutting spar. He tumbles end over end into the Ground Zone dirt. He tries to rise. A passing LaForce puts him down with the heavy leather scoop strapped to her arm.

Boom!

Each drumbeat is separated by a recitation of the titles and honorifics of Princess Besheba the Tempestuous, She Who Carries the Storm in her Lungs, the Searing Fire of the Principalities, the…and so on. Bruck can’t hear the herald’s sonorous repetitions. He hears the drums.

Six strikes left, and the arrayed score flags – bloody crimson for Redlake, pretentious indigo for the Algerand visitors – are evenly matched.

Bruck reaches out with his hook hand and traverses to a thicket of knots where several ropes converge. Overhead, Gantler swears, a little out of breath, and changes direction.

Cindra sweeps past, still leading her pursuer. She gives Bruck a hard look, as thick with meaning as a slap to the face. He blinks back at her like they don’t both know what’s what. As she clambers past, he tugs a guy rope with his hook. A shiver spreads through the rope network. The chasing Rover misses a handhold. But his momentum is gone, and Cindra is free to claim what spot she may.

She sneers at Bruck. He shrugs. “He should’ve brought a hook,” he says.

Boom!

LaForce and Grease separate the Redlake Bulls from the egg and each other. As LaForce hip-checks one off his balance beam into a mud puddle, Grease scoops up the egg. The speckled red dodecahedron, stolen from some irate kajako bird’s nest, rests in his curved arm scoop. Grease to lock eyes on Bruck.

Grease flashes the same warning look. “Do it right,” says the look. “Or else.”

Grease launches the egg at Bruck. It’s a clean throw, right where it needs to be. Not a hint of a fumble. Nothing to say afterwards that the fix was in. This is all on Bruck.

Bruck feels the egg slap into his palm through an inch of leather.

Bruck could drop it. He could let Gantler’s coming attack rattle him, force a wild pass to Cindra or Villus. Hell, he could take his shot and just plain miss.

Boom!

That’s what Harph wants, the thick-browed Algerand owner. He’s brought Bruck back from broken obscurity. He’s invested in him. He custom-built a hook to fit over the ruins of Bruck’s left hand. Made a spectacle of him.

And the crowds love him again. Nobody else used to be Bruck the Unbested. Now he’s Bruck the Hook, better on the ropes than ever before.

Two hands. One hand. No hands. Bruck’s too good to lose.

Harph wants him to lose. Harph’s invested the entire team’s winnings on an improbable tie.

Boom!

Gantler makes a move. He springs from a rope, grabs a vertical pole with his free hand and swings around it, scissoring his legs to build momentum. He flings himself across the field, back and away to a patch of net close by the scoring funnel.

Bruck admires the elegance of the manoeuvre but he doesn’t stand to watch it. He sprints a short tightrope for the central mast. Finding knots and notches with his hook, he climbs.

Villus cuts off the Redlake Rover with a midsection tackle that sends them both down to the mud. Cindra bounds down the right flank, charging Gantler’s stronghold. If she flushes him out of position, Bruck has a clear throw at the funnel.

Bruck shakes his head. These kids are great players. Why throw that away on one fixed match?

Boom!

Gantler sees Cindra coming. He changes tactics. He abandons the nest and heads up to the mainstay, the rope bisecting the arena at the tip of the central mast.

Bruck could let Gantler win the race to the mast’ peak. His pride decides for him. He’s a kajaka champion, once and always.

Bruck hooks to the mainstay a breath ahead of Gantler. The Redlake player wraps both legs around Bruck’s waist. They both hang by Bruck’s hook.

“Let us win, you idiot!” he hisses. “Harph’s money is good for us all!”

Boom!

They slide on Bruck’s hook, gathering speed. The scoring funnel is ahead. Bruck raises the scoop out of reach of Gantler’s snatching fingers, readying his shot .

He decides. “I only play to win.”

The buckles anchoring the hook to his arm give way.

Gantler snaps, “So does Harph.”

Boom!


I quite like sports dramas, but as the only real sport I can write about with any authority is cricket, I thought on the whole it might be a better idea to invent a new one. By which I mean slightly reinvent lacrosse to include such necessary improvements as rope nets, hook hands and the constant threat of falling injuries.

 

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Friday Flash Fiction – The Turn of the Tide

The moon’s silver ripples and shatters into a thousand glints in the wake of the lone fisherman crossing the mud flat. Its dim dappling is the only light in the long dark before the dawn. The muddy shallows settle, erasing the fisherman’s boot prints. Crabs sift the disturbed mud without reward. Nothing else moves.

https://pixabay.com/en/fisherman-seaside-sea-fishing-1149682/

The fisherman yawns as he sets his bucket on the rocks of the promontory. It’s as empty now as when the night began. He casts his line into the listless waters, more by habit than optimism. The fish won’t begin biting until the turn of the tide at dawn.

How long has he been coming out here? Longer than he can remember. Since childhood, and the old fisherman can’t even remember a time when he could remember being a kid. After dawn arrives, the kids will come, with their footballs and their boards and their noisy music, and the fish will find somewhere else to be. The old fisherman will pack up his bucket and line and trudge around the point. He doesn’t begrudge the kids. They have to live their lives, don’t they?

The old fisherman feels in the pockets of his jacket for a cigarette, his fingers hunting of their own volition through all the old patterns. They won’t find anything but holes and lint. It’s been so long since he had a smoke he isn’t even sure what it was like any more. Only his fingers remember their part.

He tugs the tip of his fishing rod up, two gentle jerks to entice some phantom fish. Nothing bites.

He looks across the wide expanse of the moonlit beach. The water line, the mud flat broken here and there by the indistinct scurry of some shelled creature, the beach of gritty sand, the shrubs and grasses holding the dunes to their swollen shapes, and the rising slope of the forested range beyond. In the distance, across the curve of the bay, a faint gap in the tree line marked the dirt carpark at the end of a twisting dirt road. It’s a quiet spot. A beaten track off the beaten track.

In a short while, the first battered cars of the morning will arrive, just ahead of the dawn. They will disgorge tanned bodies and fresh-waxed boards. As the sun brings colour from the darkness, the others will follow. Headphone-clad joggers looking for a peaceful stretch of sand. Retirees hobbling behind little dogs stretching cable leashes to the limits. The oyster hunter with his wet sack and his wickedly sharp dirks. And as the morning stretches forth, families will arrive to roll out towels, set coolers at the foot of umbrellas, and shout at each other about sunscreen.

By then the old fisherman will be long gone. The scene has played out in every possible combination over the years. There’s nothing left to surprise him.

His bucket is empty. The bites will come at the turning of the tide.

The day belongs to those others. The old fisherman has the night to himself, and if that’s not quite a comfort, it’s at least familiar. Sometimes he thinks he misses it, being with other people. But after all this time, who would he talk to? He doesn’t remember the last time he talked to anybody, but he knows it didn’t go well. The memories all drained out of him like a receding tide, and isn’t it better that way? Better just to fish, forget, and wait. The tide will come back in its own time.

A hungry gull calls, the first of the morning. The fisherman tries to spot it breaking the pattern of the stars but there’s nothing above him. From the deepest pits of him comes the echo of the bird’s hunting call.

When was the last time he ate? Hunger stimulates his memory. He recalls the meal.

Oysters, shucked fresh from the shell. Before the first salty mass slithers past his tongue, the oyster hunter has offered another, and the old fisherman takes it, stretching out his wrist. His father’s watch casts a dull yellow glint of reflected moonlight, catching the oyster hunter’s eye. He nods appreciatively. The fisherman takes the shell from the oyster hunter’s fingers and raises it to his mouth.

Nothing ever tasted so good as those oysters. The best meal he ever had. He wonders where the oyster hunter is now. He hasn’t come back to the beach.

The fish aren’t biting yet. The fisherman looks to the sky again, where his searching eyes find a few less stars than a moment ago. Dawn is on its way, and with it will come the turning of the tide. Then they’ll take his bait and his patience will pay off.

The old fisherman wonders about his bait. Maybe it’s not to their taste any more. Do fish learn new habits? Folklore would say no, they just repeat their old patterns endlessly, unable to change ingrained behaviour. But he thinks about silver schools banking around alien shapes in the water, about darkened waves churning through rocky crevices, and about a thousand thousand tentative nibbles polishing bones bare. Maybe the old bait won’t do any more, not for fish with new appetites.

He glances down at his bare wrist. More force of habit. He’s not sure of the time, but he can taste change on the wind. The horizon is clawing shape from the darkness. Sunrise isn’t far away now.

And this morning, like every morning, low tide is at dawn. The beginning of another day heralds its return.

The old fisherman stands at the rocky promontory next to his empty bucket, and waits, and waits, for the rising of the sun and the turning of the tide.

Any time now.


Happy new year, folks. I don’t think I remembered to say that last week.
So this week in my post about my 2018 goals, I teased my upcoming book. I’m planning to make a proper announcement about it soon. In the meantime, I’m spilling more of the details to the folks on my mailing list. Anyone who has signed up to the newsletter not only gets advance notice about the book, they’ll get the ebook free. Sign up below.

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More Mountains for the Climbing – My goals for 2018

Every year around this time I set out my goals for the year in a blog post. In theory I’m doing it for the personal accountability – if I make a public declaration of intent, I’m much more likely to see it through, right?

Right?

People standing on a jutting mountain peak

Image source: Pixabay https://pixabay.com/en/users/sasint-3639875/

Well, no, not if my track record is anything to go by. Normally I miss most of my targets by somewhere between a sliver and a yawing gulf. If this were photography, all I’d have to show for myself are a portfolio of blurry shots of Bigfoot-like hikers, clumps of flotsam passingly resembling Nessie, and a series I’d call UFOs or Overexposed Clouds – You Decide.

It doesn’t matter to me much if I don’t hit the specific targets I set out to hunt. As long as I accomplish something in the vicinity, I’m usually happy.

So, with the year’s broadest caveat out of the way, let’s have a look at what I want to get done this year.

Publishing a book

Very soon now, I’ll announce details of my book project. Subscribers to the newsletter (are you one?) have already had a sneak peek of my upcoming release, and I’ll go into it more on the blog soon. Until I get a few more loose ends screwed down, though I’ll stick to vague hints.

What I will say is this is a self-training process. I’m learning how to publish a book – or more specifically, how I will publish books, since there’s a million ways to skin that cat. I may or may not ever use those skills again (I probably will) but I find value in knowing how it’s done.

So. New book. Soonish.

Writing targets

I track my word counts. Which means, at the end of every day, I record how many new words I wrote, and in roughly what form. Last year my totals were a bit over 110,000 words, which included fiction – aborted novels, short stories and flash fiction- and non-fiction – blog posts, newsletters and various other tidbits that I decided counted towards a productive writing life.

That’s actually not much writing: it breaks down to about 300 words a day. Which if you include blog posts like this one in the stats, makes my fiction output look pretty scant. Which it was, if I’m honest.

This year I’ve tweaked my word count spreadsheets. (Yeah, sorry, this is super-nerdy, but useful for me). My daily stats will separate fiction (and very limited forms of creative non-fiction) from more prosaic blogging, critiquing and various administrative wordage.

For the fiction, I have a target in mind – 100,000 words for the year. That means a lot more story writing than I managed in 2017, but I’m pretty sure I can do it. For one thing, the weekly flash fiction project has a word count in the vicinity of 1000 words a week, which means I’ll hit half my target by not breaking my weekly streak.

As for the rest of it, I have plans for another novel project, I have an ongoing serial and I have a couple of half-finished stories to work on. And if previous years are anything to go by, new opportunities will come up all the time.

Flash fiction

My plan is to carry on publishing a new story on the blog every Friday morning. Some of them will be good, some of them will be written at 11 pm the previous night and may not withstand close scrutiny under the light of a new day. Nevertheless, I’m shooting for the appearance of reliability, if nothing else.

Short stories

Building on the flash fiction muscles I’m working out, I plan to write more in the 2000 – 4000 word range. It’s not an easy space for me to work in – short enough to not get bogged down with details, but long enough to introduce more characters and complexity than is possible in a flash piece.

I could use the practice. Most of my non-flash work over the last couple of years has tended to be in the 8 to 12K novelette range. If I don’t have a hard word limit to work within, I tend to sprinkle in secondary characters and subplots like I’m on a bombing run. There’s almost certainly a fruitful middle ground I’ve not explored in depth.

Novels

Well, I wrote one over the last eighteen months, but I’m not happy with it. Apart from the usual issues of first drafts – plodding sections, redundant characters, subplots that explode like a dropped bomb etc – I realised that I’d committed an even worse sin: I wrote the wrong book. To be clear, I wrote the first novel in a series, in a genre I don’t enjoy enough to want to commit to in the long term. Bad idea, setting myself up for burnout and worse.

I do have a couple of novel projects in mind, either of which would be exactly in my wheelhouse. I’ll take my time and develop both ideas, and I won’t start writing them until I’m sure they’ve had time to percolate. So I *may* start on a new novel this year, but I can’t say when.

Marketing

I’ll probably have to learn how to do this. Worse, I’ll probably have to learn how to enjoy it.

The horror.

Seriously though, part and parcel of producing the book will be tinkering with various options for getting the book in front of people who might enjoy reading it. Finding an audience for their work is the number one frustration I hear cited by writers, and I have no reason to doubt that I’ll have the same issue. So I’m also going to learn the basics of marketing and promotion.

That is a phrase I doubt I have used any time in my life before this point.

So that’s what I’ve got line up for 2018 – a few exciting new things, and a lot more of what was already working.

 

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Friday flash fiction – Seetha’s Race

This is how Seetha the shark hunter raced the Brazen Armada to save her people.

Malleus, he of the red-plumed hat and the whispering tattoos, commanded the pirate fleet’s raids throughout the Cloudy Archipelago, pillaging stores and killing all who resisted. The small navies of Greater Insalata and the Cherubi Straits gave chase, hunting for the Armada’s brassy sails. But the pirates were swift and Malleus was cunning; they flew to their hidden strongholds and hid while the navies searched in vain.

In time, Malleus’s eyes turned to the fringes of the archipelago, where the Tu’olo people lived in peace.

The Tu’olo dived for gleaming pearls and juicy sea slugs. They brought down broad-winged seabirds with their darts. They tended to cliff vines groaning with plump hafich-fruit. And they hunted sharks from the backs of tamed kilshada, the sea serpents of the archipelago.

The best of the Tu’olo hunters was Seetha, who tamed the great serpent Shrillsong at just thirteen. Eighteen now, she was still a lean runt with nut-brown skin and broad swimmers’ shoulders. Her catches were legendary. Hooting and whistling from Shrillsong’s back, she could bring down a shark as big as eight drunkards laid head to toe.

It happened that an emissary from the inner islands sailed her skiff to the Tu’olo islands, ahead of the Brazen Armada. Mochai Vale was red-faced and ginger-blonde, with an Insalatan’s well-fed bulk. She came bearing gifts of yellowgrass wine and spicy cheese, but also a warning. “The Brazen Armada is coming,” she warned the Tu’olo elders. “They will steal what they can and kill what they cannot. You must flee.”

The Tu’olo people were too proud to ask their rich cousins for help, but they were not so foolish as to discount the emissary. They packed their goods and moved to the cliffs, where caves offered uncomfortable shelter from the raiding pirates.

True to Mochai Vale’s promise, the Brazen Armada came in their ships with gleaming sails and blackwood hulls. They spilled ashore and plundered what the Tu’olo were unable to secure.

But the pirates were angry, for Malleus had promised them pearls on strings, pickled birds, and potent jugs of fermented hafich-juice. They found nothing so grand. In their wrath, they burned down the birthing huts and ancestor shrines of the Tu’olo.

In their arrogance the pirates thought nothing of Seetha and the other shark-hunters. As they pushed their little-boats laden with Tu’olo trinkets into the waves to rejoin their brass-sailed sloops, the kilshada boiled up from the surf in attack. They coiled about the little boats and crushed their timbers. The Tu’olo shark-hunters cut the throats of flailing pirates. The kilshada ate their skins and made a reef of their bones.

Watching from his flagship, the Hammer of Winds, Malleus raged. He signalled his fleet to loose their arrows on the serpent-riders, but as the deadly rain fell, the Tu’olo drew deep breaths and drove their steeds below the surface.

The pirates gave chase in their fury; their sails filled with spell-summoned winds. The harpooners on their bows speared the kilshada stragglers as they surfaced to let their riders breathe. The Tu’olo serpent-riders sliced themselves open so they could not be taken, and sank with their steeds.

Seetha and the other Tu’olo led the Brazen Armada away from their islands. Though the pirate vessels were swifter, the kilshada-riders knew the waters well and evaded their hunters all through a night and into the next day.

One vessel outsailed the others and caught up to the Tu’olo shark hunters. Seetha wheeled Shrillsong about and prepared to sink the small boat but she spied Mochai Vale on its deck instead. Vale carried another warning. She said, “Your beasts are clever but they will tire long before Malleus’ anger ebbs.”

Seetha said, “The pirates should have stayed far from our islands.”

“But they didn’t, and you’ve killed some of them. Now Malleus must kill you to save face before the rest.” Mochai Vale smiled. “But I have a plan, if we both are brave enough to challenge the Brazen Armada.”

Mochai Vale sailed to the Hammer of Winds under a flag of parley, to present an offer to Malleus. She said, “The Tu’olo challenge the Brazen Armada to a race. One hundred miles from here to the Thumbtip Islands. If the Armada wins, then the serpent-riders will join the pirates and fill their bellies with shark meat forever. If the Tu’olo win, you will leave these waters and never return.”

Malleus agreed to these terms. A race would amuse his pirates and so strengthen his hand. He struck Mochai Vale down and threw her in a hold. His flag-master signaled the Tu’olo: “Let the race begin.”

The serpent-riders fled and the Armada gave chase. Seetha, who with Shrillsong could dive deeper and swim faster than the rest, pulled ahead of the others. The pirates followed; their arrows flew constantly, and with improved luck. One by one the Tu’olo fell behind, exhausted or struck, until only Seetha and Shrillsong remained.

Seetha beat them to the Thumbtip Islands, a dozen dozen knobbly spouts of grey stone rising from mist and churning waves like the hands of drowning giants. Though the race was won, Seetha knew they would not honour the terms of their deal.

As they closed, she nudged a piercing cry from Shrillsong. At once the sea came alive with dozens of kilshada fingerlings: Shrillsong’s brood. They flung themselves onto Malleus’ deck and lashed out at his crew with teeth and the deadly whipping bodies.

The pirates drew swords as the fingerlings wriggled and bit.

Distracted, they didn’t see the Insalata Navy spring from the Thumbtip forest to surround them. Navy Captain Vale shortly emerged to accept Malleus’ surrender.

Seetha called the last baby serpents to follow her home to Tu’olo. As they parted, she told Vale, “Don’t come back to Tu’olo.”

But the Tu’olo people are hospitable, and so she added, “At least, not without more wine.”


I’m not sure I have much to add to this, except that I like pirates and sea serpents.
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Call This One a Draw – My 2017 in Review

At the turning of the year, it is the custom among my people to reflect on what has passed and what is yet to come.

Some spectacular moments, but mostly a cold and lonesome trudge from there to here

Of course by “my people” I am talking about self-absorbed writers on the internet, and by “reflect” I mean complain and self-sabotage. Which in fairness is not a terrible summary of 2017.

I’d like to leave aside the toxic waste fire smouldering its way through the political systems of the English-speaking world (which a special shout-out to New Zealand, who seemed to keep it together better than most). But realistically, spending the entire year watching helplessly as civil institutions were not so much eroded as blasted with high-pressure acid hoses, while a great orange paralysis tick tried to bloviate the world into a limited nuclear exchange, and various other supposed servants of the people demonstrated themselves to be almost clownishly venal and corrupt, it’s kind of hard to ignore all that.

It certainly had an impact on my work. Looking back on my resolutions for the year – which I will allow are more laughable intentions than concrete plans – I wanted to write a trilogy of novels by the end of December. As I write this, it is very nearly the end of December and I am quietly confident that the remaining 200,000 words of that target will not scrape in under the NYE wire.

The first book – a YA science fiction survival adventure called A Flash of Black Wings – is drafted. The sequels are outlined and ready to go. In theory at any point in 2017 I could have cranked out some editable manuscripts in three to four months. I’ve never pulled the trigger on them. They’ve stayed in the “Ready to go” drawer.

Why? Among many reasons, the foremost is I decided I just didn’t want to write them. Not that there’s anything much wrong with them – they’re fun action-adventure romps with friendships, drama and numerous objects exploding – but having written the first one, I found myself unenthusiastic for taking on the sequels. It wasn’t fatigue or an unusual failure of confidence – I just didn’t like the book that much. It didn’t feel like a strong enough opening hand.

So what did I write instead?

Up until mid-year, I worked on longer stories – several in the 10-20k range. A couple of them were finished, a couple are still ongoing. I completed the first story in the Orphans’ Moon serial, which runs in my subscribers-only newsletter (which is free, by the way).

I also wrote a long fantasy Western story, finished a couple of nagging projects and sent them out on submission, and started what looks like a novella-length yarn pitting doomsday-seeking cultists against an ancient and uncooperative dragon.

Then in July I started the flash fiction project.

Having a weekly writing commitment has been great for feeling productive – I’ve always responded better to hard deadlines than vague commitments. I’ve posted a complete short story by 7:30 am every Friday morning for the past six months or so (this week’s Christmas-themed story was the 25th). So far I haven’t missed one, though it’s been close on occasions. The glue is still wet on a few of them.

Oddly, the weekly flash goal has boosted the rest of my writing. I’ve finished a couple of extra short stories, including two anthology submission pieces, and started several others. Until I went through the spreadsheet where I record my writing sessions, I thought it had been a lean year. In fact I’ve been as productive as ever, if not moreso.

If I go by my publication stats, that’s where 2017 comes across as a mild disappointment. I’ve kept up a pretty disciplined routine of submitting stories to publishers – online magazines, anthologies and so on – with only middling success. I’ve been grateful for a handful of acceptances, but so far only one has come out (‘Burn the Future’ in Andromeda Spaceways 69). I have a maddeningly large stable of stories due out sometime in the uncertain future.

So the year was bookended by my two publications – ‘Mnemo’s Memory’ in The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume 2 in January, and ‘Burn the Future’ in December’s Andromeda Spaceways.

Not bad, but I feel like I can do better in 2018. More on that in another post.

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