Friday flash fiction – Black Spot

Ness checked her phone as she and the ambulance were spotlighted by the high beam lamps of the returning police car. This road received so little signal it was a wonder her emergency call had gone though.

https://pixabay.com/en/landscape-night-road-696825/

The ambulance driver, who’d breathlessly introduced himself as Sammy back when she thought there was a crisis, now leaned against his door, shielded from the flashing red and blue police lights, smoking his second cigarette.

The policewoman – her name has been Doherty, if Ness had read her lapel badge correctly – climbed out and slammed her door with a forceful weariness. She looked like she’d been driving for hours rather than twenty minutes or so. Her partner stayed in the cab, in conversation with his radio.

Ness didn’t need to wait for the policewoman’s report. “Nothing?”

Constable Doherty shook her head. “We drove up and back three kays in both directions,” she said, pulling her hat on even though dawn was still a few hours away. She drew out her notebook again and consulted her notes. “We dodged a few early kangaroos, but saw no sign of anyone in distress or any kind of accident.”

“Sounds like a false alarm, ay?” muttered Sammy, over the sound of idling engines.

Doherty ignored him. “Ms Buckingham, are you certain-”

“Call me Ness. I don’t – Formalities make me uncomfortable.”

“Yeah, take it easy on the lass, Constable. She’s had a shocker tonight, I reckon.”

Doherty nodded, slow and encouraging. “Okay, Ness. No problem. Are you sure about what you saw?”

“I didn’t make it up!” It came out more forcefully than she meant it to, but Ness looked the policewoman right in the eye and straightened up. She’d heard Australian cops could be hard-nosed about tourists getting cheeky and wasting their time.

“You stand up for yourself, love,” called Sammy. “Don’t let her intimidate you.”

“I didn’t call you a liar, Ness,” said Doherty, holding up a placating hand. “It would be good if we could just go through it all one more time.”

Ness swallowed hard. She didn’t want to tell her story over. Without any evidence, it sounded absurd even to her. She glanced at Sammy and wondered if it was too late to beg a cigarette off him. When she answered, her voice quavered. “There was a man in the middle of the road. He had blood on his face and he was carrying something. An animal. Maybe a – what do you call those small kangaroos?”

“He was carrying a wallaby?”

“I think so. Something like that.”

“And he was in the middle of the road? So you swerved to avoid him and -?”

Behind Ness, parallel black lines traced a long arc from near the centre of the road to its verge, and two deep ruts in the soft dirt picked up where they ended. Her rental car lay thirty or forty metres downslope, tangled in the twisted remains of a wire fence. “At least I missed him.”

“Bloody lucky you didn’t hit a tree, love,” observed Sammy.

“When you got back up here-?” Doherty prompted.

“The man was gone. The wallaby too. I tried looking for them. Then I called the emergency number.”

Doherty closed the notebook with a sigh. She turned and made a gesture at her partner, who reached across and switched off the patrol car’s front lights. He left the flashers running; the scene was alternately flooded in red and blue.

“Where did you say you’re from, Ness?”

“Isle of Dogs,” replied Ness, bracing for the inevitable joke.

Doherty appeared not to be in a comical mood. “That’s in London, right? Have you seen those before?” She pointed at a small cluster of white crosses and weathered plastic flowers at the road shoulder opposite.

“A roadside memorial? It marks the spot where there was a fatal accident.”

“That’s one of thirty-three along this part of the Mulga Highway. This stretch is what we call a black spot. It has a higher rate of road accidents than the national average. The fatality rate is also at the wrong end of the bell curve.” Doherty pocketed her notebook and unclipped a halogen torch from her belt. She pointed its powerful beam into the darkness. “Six years ago, just up around that corner, a bus rolled over, killing the driver and six passengers. Twenty others injured. About two minutes back up the other way, there was a head-on smash last year that turned into a five-car pileup. Seven dead in total.”

Ness shivered. “That’s awful.”

Sammy crushed his cigarette on a wing mirror and lit another. “I’ll say.”

“Oh, there’s more.” Doherty took a step toward her, shining the light at Ness’ feet, then around the road, then into the quiet bushland beyond. “Three kids thrown from the back tray of an overturned ute, two dead and one a paraplegic. An old couple dead when the gas cylinders in their caravan exploded, and another killed when two responding emergency vehicles collided. And last week-”

“What happened?”

“A man was killed by a hit and run driver after he stopped to help an injured animal.”

“What kind of animal?”

“An unlucky one,” said Sammy, blowing a smoke ring.

Doherty stepped closer, flashing her light everywhere. “He hit a wallaby, Ness.”

“Are you saying – What are you saying?”

Doherty was close now. Ness tensed up and took an involuntary step back.

“We have more than one reason for thinking of this highway as a black spot, Ness.” Doherty’s voice was low. “A lot of people die here. None of them are happy about it. Tell me, have you seen anyone else?”

Ness took another step back. “I don’t understand.”

Sammy said, “Back off, copper. You’re scaring her.” He flicked his cigarette away and started towards the women.

“Ness! Do you see anyone else here right now?”

Ness shot Sammy a frightened glance.

Doherty’s eyes flicked in the same direction. She squinted.

“Ness, you should get in my car. Right now.”


A bit of a spooky one, in the Halloween spirit. This story is another example of me reworking an old story that never went anywhere. In the same way that Aeolian Wine and Southbound Again were more or less complete refurbishments of concepts I once tried and failed to execute, this time I’ve dusted off an idea from one of my earliest attempts to get serious about writing, back in the mid-to-late nineties.

I’ve taken the core idea of that story in a different direction here. As I recall, the original story was about an ambulance officer who gradually suspects malicious intent behind a country highway notorious for car crashes. It was very Australian outback gothic-noir, and almost certainly contained dangerous concentrations of melodrama. You’re better off with this version, believe me.

If you happen to be new to these Friday flash fiction stories or my blog, you can see more of my writing in my collection Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales (which is available for free if you sign up to my newsletter by filling out the simple form below).

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Growling in public: Book launches, discussion panels and whiskey at Conflux 2018

Conflux 14 The Unconventional Hero was four (!) weeks ago now, and I think I’ve nearly recovered.

Like a lot of conventions, I packed a lot into three days, and still missed out on three-quarters of everything. I’ll hit some of the highlights here:

Panels

Jumping straight into the deep end, I chaired a discussion panel early on day one. It was bit terrifying, since I’ve never sat in the moderator’s seat before, but luckily the panellists – editor Abigail Nathan and fantasy writers K J Taylor and Paula Boer – made it an easy job. We talked about the “Do it yourself” Hero, and what ingredients go into making a hero interesting.

My second panel was a variation on a similar theme: The Unconventional Hero’s Journey looked at the standard Campbellian heroic journey and how writers could mess with that trope. That panel, ably chaired by Conflux 2014’s MC/ringmaster Rob Porteous, flew by so fast that all I remember were the other panellists – Gillian Polack, Simon Petrie, Abigail Nathan (again) and me. I’ve no idea what I contributed to the discussion – jokes about superheroes probably.

Workshops

Conflux has a great workshop stream, with subjects typically focused on the craft and business of writing and publishing. I didn’t manage to get to as many workshops as I wanted to this year (I was particularly dirty not to be able to squeeze in late to Russell Kirkpatrick’s talk about cartography in fantasy, a fact he probably won’t let me forget for some time).

The one workshop I did get to was Aiki Flinthart’s on writing about women in fights, which was great. Aiki’s a trained martial artist and had a lot of eye-opening things to say about the physiology and brute physics of physical confrontations, and in particular the differences between how men and women typically behave before, during and after a fight. The workshop was fantastic – rich in details, and revelatory about what is and isn’t realistic in a fight. If you get a chance to take Aiki’s clinics, I highly recommend them!

Book launches

Conflux has cemented itself over the years as one of the big events for book launches. This year there were about a dozen – too many to keep up with. Notably, Kaaron Warren launched two books at the same time, with the assistance of emergency last-minute Guest of Honour Lee Murray (who also has several new books coming out at the moment)! Kaaron launched two new books – Tide of Stone and Exploring Dark Fiction #2: A Primer to Kaaron Warren. The hosting venue also celebrated the occasion by inventing a brand new cocktail, called a Tide of Stone, which looked remarkably like molten silver slurry. I heard it was delicious but I wasn’t remotely game to try it!

Tide of Stone and A Primer to Kaaron Warren

Of the many others I managed to catch Dawn Meredith’s Letters from the Dead, Simon Petrie’s 80000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess, and Rob Porteous’ The Book of Lore. My pile of books waiting to be read is big enough to trip a herd of elephants, but that didn’t stop me adding to the stack this year. One day I may even manage to read some of them!

Fresh new books at Conflux from Dawn Meredith, Simon Petrie and Rob Porteous

Whiskey Con – My scurrilous associate T R Napper, who regularly tears up the pages of Interzone with his Asian noir-cyberpunk SF, organised an evening of exotic whiskey tastings at Verity 112, the underground bar where Kaaron held her book launch. Or should that be whisky tasting, since four of the six samples were products of the USA? At this point I can’t recall the name of a single thing I drank, but I guarantee I’m never going to forget the sensory assault of that last cherry moonshine shot. I may never recover either.

A Hand of Knaves

A Hand of Knaves

The main event for me was the launch of CSFG’s 2018 anthology of roguish short fiction, A Hand of Knaves. The book launch was hugely well attended, including by almost half the contributors to the book (many of them from as far afield as Hobart, Melbourne and Brisbane). Rob Porteous (him again!) dressed up as a space pirate, the editors Leife Shallcross and Chris Large came as Cersei Lannister and Jayne Cobb respectively, and –

Look, I didn’t put on a costume, but I did do a voice. I was one of three contributors who read an excerpt from their story. While my fellow reader Eugen Bacon pitched her reading with a note of sultry swagger and Louise Pieper went for a sparkling, swordplay-like wit, my story “A Moment’s Peace” demanded frequent demonic interjections. I would categorise my performance as somewhere between Lord Voldemort with a throat infection and Animal from the Muppets. Fortunately I had a microphone to protect me from my own overacting impulses, and a nice glass of sparkles afterwards to calm the voice box. It was hugely fun and I don’t think I traumatised too many people (my kids were in the audience, but they’ve heard my Voldemort impression plenty of times!)

In which the author growls at the customers, warily observed by editors Chris and Leife (Photo by Sarah A)

The launch concluded with book sales and an epic author signing table with about ten of us passing books back and forth. I was too busy trying to think of amusing things to write and making sure I didn’t misspell my own name. I completely forgot to take photos. One of my friends did catch a couple of key moments fortunately, so I didn’t only have a sore throat to commemorate the occasion!

It was a busy one. I didn’t get a chance to catch up with as many visitors to Canberra s I would have liked, though I did get to see a few old friends and make some new acquaintances. I’m already looking forward to next year’s convention (not least because I won’t have any particular responsibilities this time around) so if you get a chance, do come along.

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Friday flash fiction – Sunset Strip

Tears welled in Dorian Bogdanov’s eyes, and even he couldn’t say whether the blame lay with the glare of the setting sun or a sudden crush of emotion.

https://pixabay.com/en/bulgaria-buzludzha-communist-3718341/

“Please, for all that’s good and pure,” he said to his companion, “tell me you see that.”

The pale, thin man at his side filled his lungs with the sweet mountain air and focused on the object hanging above the bustling suburbs. “Yes, I see it too. It’s not inconspicuous.”

Dorian help up his phone like an offering to the gods. “Max, I’ve been waiting for this my whole life. It’s a real, actual, no-doubt-about-it UFO.”

Max shook his head, his dipping wide-brimmed cowboy hat hiding a small smile playing on tight lips. “Is unidentified really the right word?”

“No,” breathed Dorian. “It’s a spaceship.”

He had indeed lived in anticipation of this exact moment for as long as he could remember. So far it had not disappointed. The object – the spaceship – was a classic design: two fat dinner plates stuck face to face, with two thin pie tins attached at the top and bottom; silver all over, and dotted with random flashes of light. From their mountaintop lookout, it seemed to fill the sky, though Dorian estimated its diameter at between two and three football fields.

“It’s beautiful.” He was suddenly self-conscious, on the verge of tears. He glanced sideways at his best friend and co-spotter.

Max seemed not to notice Dorian’s uneven state. “It is at that.”

Dorian had come by his obsession with visitors from other worlds early. A chance encounter at the impressionable age of eleven with a wildly sensational guide to global UFO sightings called They Descend to Earth! lead to other fanciful interests. Ghosts, monsters, and eerie phenomena. But though his fascination with the supernatural and the unexplained was to carry him down endless rabbit holes over the years, he always came back to where it all began. Dorian Bogdanov considered himself, first and foremost, a UFOlogist.

He studied the records. He frequented the forums, where he and Max struck up their friendship. He sifted the evidence and argued conclusions. He discovered he had a gift for observing patterns and furthermore – most unusually for the circles in which he moved -he had a gift for translating those patterns into the real world.

Dorian’s predictive models for where and when the next saucer sighting would occur swiftly developed a reputation for unprecedented accuracy. One UFO chaser, not entirely playfully, began calling him “the UFO whisperer”, and the handle had stuck. Enthusiasts pestered him constantly for the date and location of the next “drive-by”. When the date arrived, inevitably the blurry, out-of-focus photographs and shaky, breathless videos would flood his inbox, all chalking up yet another vague, unconfirmed sighting to the UFO whisperer’s genius.

Tonight was the first time the date and place were within driving distance of Dorian’s home.

“Are you recording this?” asked Max distractedly.

“Of course I am.”

“Why? You know those pictures never come out.”

“There’s a first time for everything,” said Dorian, not quite ready to admit his secret disbelief that theories of extra-terrestrial surveillance-jamming technology were a more plausible explanation than everyone before him being just too overexcited to take decent footage. He ignored the thrumming shake in both hands. “Besides, I’d have thought you’d want something to remember the occasion.”

“Hmm.” Max looked at his watch. Apparently irritated by what it had to tell him, he took it off and threw it over his shoulder.

Dorian continued to stare at his phone. The UFO hung in the air, a perfect silhouette at the centre of the screen. “You know what I don’t get?”

“What’s that?”

“Down there.” Dorian pointed at the city surrounding the foot of the mountain; it lights were coming on as the sun continued to drop. “From down there the sunset must be hitting the spaceship squarely. It must look like it’s on fire or something.”

“We don’t have time to move to a better photo spot, Dory.”

“No, I mean – why aren’t they reacting? Where are the sirens? The news choppers? The rubbernecking drivers throwing the streets into gridlock? Why don’t they care?”

“Probably because they can’t see it.” Max began to unbutton his shirt. He took his time unfastening each one with his long fingers, as though enjoying it. “You know, I can’t thank you enough. I’d never have ended up here without your help.”

“Hey, come on, you did all the driving.”

Max smiled wider now. He balled up his shirt and tossed it over the safety rail at the edge of the lookout. “No, I mean, I’ve been waiting for years, but I could never get a fix on the pickup zone. Without your calculations I’d have been stuck here for another hundred years.”

“What are you doing?”

Max unbuckled his belt and slid it out through the loops with a quick yank. “I’m getting my clothes off. I don’t want to freak anyone out.”

“Um, you’re freaking me out.” Dorian finally tore his attention away from the spacecraft, although not before wondering whether it was closer than before.

Max sat on the hood of his car and removed his boots, jeans and underwear. “Sorry, can’t be helped. Showing up dressed as a human would be a grave insult to the rescue crew. They’ve been very patient with me.”

“Wait, you mean all those sightings-?”

Max examined his hat with a faintly sad expression. “All looking for me, as far as I know. Look after this, will you?” He tossed the hat to Dorian, who caught it with both hands. “Something to remember the occasion.”

“Wait!” cried Dorian. “Take me with you.”

His pale skin gleaming in the dying sunset rays, Max said, “Would you really want to?”

“I’ve wanted this my whole life!”

“Sorry,” said Max. “No can do, I’m afraid. You’re too human.”

As Dorian’s tears returned, Max took off the last pieces of his disguise and faded away.


I am aware the title is an unforgivable pun for an otherwise straight story. I will have to learn to live with the guilt. I hope you can too.

No real news this week. My household has been involuntarily internet-free for nearly five days, which has been a remarkably stressful experience. This has been a forbidding glimpse of the upcoming dark ages that will surely engulf us all. I fear I can no longer function in a world without Netflix or desktop banking.

I did get a lot of reading done though. That was nice.

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A quick guide to Friday flash fiction

I just counted. As of yesterday there are 67 stories in the Friday flash fiction archives.

In case you ever want to go back over them quickly to see which ones you might have missed, I’ve now added a handy index to the site menu.

Just scroll up to Bibliography, click on the Friday Flash Index link and then click on the image to get a full (alphabetical) listing of the stories along with the associated image.

I’ve also added extra tags to each story to make them easier to find using the Search bar over in the right-hand column, adding things like genre, character names and motifs like “Pirate” or “Ghost” to the tags. That should make a story easier to find if all you remember was that it had a werewolf in it, or if you want to get all the references to Hetchag the Ravener in one easy-to-browse location.

 

 

 

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Friday flash fiction – The Many Names of Stacey Park

Stacey Park has been a superhero since she was nine.

https://pixabay.com/en/mask-carnival-mysterious-close-up-3092920/

When she was a little girl growing up in Busan, the daughter of an American diplomat and a Korean industrialist, she was once exposed to a radioactive meteor, or she was touched by the spirit-power of a mischievous Dookaebi, or she met a future version of herself who made her drink a bubbling serum. Stacey’s recollection is unreliable, riddled with suspiciously-timed gaps. She has learned to live with the ambiguity.

She has been a superhero her whole life, so as Madame Carmilla’s neural probe sizzles through her brain on a full-spectrum deep scan, she relaxes. This isn’t the worst jam she’s even been in. As far as she recalls.

She began her vigilante career under the name Rocky, sneaking off the balcony of her mother’s apartment balcony at night, wearing a grey hood and a handmade face mask. With extraordinary strength and an uncanny inability to suffer harm, Rocky fought street gangs, railway ghosts and the monsters that regularly emerged from the harbour. The mysterious “monster-punching-girl” enjoyed modest celebrity in the news and social media, but when Stacey’s parents decided to relocate to Colossus City in the United States, Rocky went into permanent retirement.

Stacey found herself in her element in Colossus City. Quick-witted for a ten year old, she soon deduced her classmate, Shelly Ness, was secretly Princess Silver, a probationary member of the Super-Scouts. She and Shelly became fast friends – their favourite joke. (Princess Silver’s top speed was once measured at over Mach 3). Stacey created a new persona called Kid Anvil, the Unwreckable Girl, and stayed with the Super-Scouts for several years, until a successful litigation forced the organisation to change its name.

The invasive scan has pulled this story from the recesses of Stacey’s mind and projected it as a glowing purple and red hologram for Madame Carmilla’s consideration. “All this time,” muses the masked villain. “You’ve been right in front of me for so long.”

Rebranding as Hammerteen and Silver Skater, Stacey and Shelly co-founded the Teen Rangers, who met on weekends and after school to deter alien invaders, unethical scientists and rogue artificial intelligences. It was during the Ranger years when Stacey made a startling discovery: instead of sleeping for the past several years, she had adopted yet another late-night crime-fighting identity, Midnight Owl. Though she had absolutely no recollection of her nocturnal adventures, internet research revealed a longstanding partnership with the teen avenger Tyrannosaurus. To her shock, some enthusiasts believed they were a couple, shipping them as M.O.A.T.

“You and Tyrannosaurus? Really?” Madame Carmilla sneers in disbelief and twists the dial on the neural probe. Stacey bites down on a scream. “All he ever did was grow twelve feet tall and chase cars. I expected you’d have higher standards.”

By the time Diabolus Cruz and his Diabolic Crew settled their longstanding grudge by blowing up Ranger Central with a nova detonator, Stacey had already moved on. Too restless to settle on just one codename, she joined Bastion Command as Anvil Girl (later Ms Anvil and finally just Anvil), the Battle Gurus as Flintlock, and Team Infinity as Diamondstrike. Shelly, now calling herself simply Silver, rose through the ranks of Bastion Command, and for years would chide Stacey to devote herself more fully to the paramilitary defence company. Stacey always declined with a laugh. “Me, get a career? Do I look like my mother?”

Though she was by now fully aware of her parallel occupations, Stacey was unable to clearly pin down how and when she moved between them. Whenever she paused to ponder her improbably intense schedule, her memories clouded over and she lost focus. She decided it must be a temporal slippage effect from her frequent dimension-hopping, time-travelling exploits with Team Infinity. That sort of nonsense would confuse anyone.

Come to think of it, Stacey’s been Madame Carmilla’s prisoner for over an hour. Team Infinity’s standard procedures when one of them is taken hostage is to mount a time-rescue within fifteen minutes of the capture. Maybe they don’t know she’s been caught?

“Maybe they’re not coming at all,” says Madame Carmilla, as if she can read Stacey’s mind. She smirks to show that’s exactly what she is doing.

As she finally left her teenage years behind her, Stacey began to learn that she was not the only one who kept secrets in her family. It was after one bruising encounter in which the Smoke Society almost got the upper hand on Bastion Command. A minor acrobat called Spring-Heeled Jack, trading information for leniency, revealed his previous career as a certain Korean business tycoon’s personal art thief.

Stacey, horrified to find her father criminally implicated, created yet another identity. Determined to uncover the truth and expose her father’s corruption, she went undercover as the industrial spy-for-hire.

Night Shrike.

“And there it is,” gloats Madame Carmilla. “I knew you had it in you.”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

“Night Shrike is wanted for burglary, sabotage and industrial espionage,” says Madame Carmilla. “Not to mention you put Aeronaut in traction for six months. Did I miss anything?”

Stacey fumes. She says nothing.

“So you committed all these crimes pursuing your father’s shady business dealings, and you thought you’d find the ultimate proof hidden in my office?”

“Something like that.”

Madame Carmilla pulls off her mask at last.

“Your father and I are very disappointed in you, dear. With your abilities you could have been such an asset to the family business. If only you hadn’t kept all these secrets from us.”

Stacey frowns. “I wish I’d been wrong about you, Mother.”

“Don’t worry dear. Once I’ve switched the neural probe settings, you’ll be a loyal daughter.”

“I know,” says Stacey. “I’m sorry.”

She drops the false memories she’s been projecting, letting her mother glimpse the truth just as the timewave opens and Team Infinity steps through.

“Really Stacey?” says Captain Silver, aka Shelly Ness. “This is how I get to meet your parents?”

 


A return to Colossus City, because I’ve been dying to get back to Night Shrike all year. She first appeared in Flyers, and got a fleeting mention in Tock Tock. She might come back again. There’s a real temptation with the Colossus City stories to build a continuous narrative out of them, but I’m conscious I don’t want to serialise too many of the flash fiction worlds.

I’m emerging from a very busy few weeks blinking and bleary-eyed, very conscious that I haven’t even talked about the book I helped launch at Conflux yet (nearly three weeks ago). I will get to it soon, I hope – and to make up for the delay, I will be running a contest. For books! More news soon.

Hello new readers!

My weekly flash fiction project appears here every Friday, but you can also get my short story collection Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales for free just by signing up to my newsletter:

 

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