Friday flash fiction – Totality Blues

Jason’s been obsessed with this eclipse ever since he smelled it coming a month ago.

“Bro, I’m telling you, this is my big chance. You better keep your distance because I’m gonna rip this thing the hell up.”

I crack a beer to hide my sigh. He’s trying too hard again. It’s always like this. He thinks he needs to prove himself. To be the head of the pack. To be better than the Alphas.

It’s like that time he spent the summer holidays in a basketball clinic because he thought beating Bristleback Johnson in a pickup game would impress the whole school. He doesn’t even like basketball.

Or what about when he got it in his head to build up immunities? Licking silver nitrate off the back of old Polaroids gave him mange for a year. Mixing powdered belladonna into his chai lattes gave him the kind of flatulence usually reserved for corpses recovered from swamps. And the less said about his experiments with mistletoe, the better.

He explains his theory for the tenth time. “See, if I shift just when the moon eclipses the sun, it’ll be, like, a lunar super-charge. Lycanthropic totality.”

I’ve given up pointing out that a full moon is a hemispheric reflection of the sun, so if anything a full solar eclipse is the exact opposite of optimal conditions for getting his monster on. He’s determined to try it out, though, what can I say? I tell him I’ve got his back.

There’s a crowd. The whole town’s come out; it’s like a huge summer barbecue but with dorkier sunglasses. No signs of trouble because Jason’s older brothers – the policeman and the ambulance officer – keep the peace by sheer presence alone. A crowd surrounds Jason’s dad, the shifter-rights lawyer who turned this whole suburb into a were-friendly community. Norms and howlers, living in harmony. It’s not hard to see why Jason thinks he’s got a lot to live up to.

Everybody else is watching the skies, and here’s me watching Jason. A shadow falls across us and he jumps up. He chugs his beer and takes off his shirt. “This is it,” he yells, climbing up on the roof of his Corolla. What a sight. “Check this totality!”

Hair sprouts, his back arches and teeth stretch his face out of shape. I look away.

There’s a ripping sound, the smell of ozone, and Jason’s howl jumps up in pitch by about two octaves. I start yelling. Help doesn’t come until the occultation is over, and when Jason’s brother arrives with a first aid kit and oxygen, he’s got the giggles.

“You’ve burned your fur, you’ve stripped the enamel off your fangs and you’ll have a migraine for a week,” says the brother as he loads Jason into the back of the ambulance. “And you forgot to put on your glasses. God, you can be a dickhead.”

I put his paw between my hands and give him an encouraging squeeze. “Don’t worry about this, mate. You’ll get there. It’s just going to take some time, okay?”

No need to rush things. My boy’s still got some changes to work through.

Hi, wow, this makes seven straight weeks of Friday flash fiction, which is about three more weeks than I thought I’d manage. If you like this week’s story, or any of the previous ones (which are collected under this link), I’d appreciate your sharing them on social media. Or sending an email to your weird aunt or that guy you like-liked in high school but never said anything because come on. Or just leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you. Though not love-love.

Well, okay, maybe a little.

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Conflux 13 – Grimm Tales

Conflux is Canberra’s convention of speculative fiction creation and appreciation, held this year on the long weekend of 29 September to 2 October. It’s a writer-friendly gathering of the tribe where writers, readers and aficionados meet to celebrate the speculative fiction community and talk shop.

The theme for this year’s spooooooky 13th convention is Grimm Tales: we’re talking dark fairy tales, or as I like to think of it, culturally-reinforced moral education through horror.

The programming alone is worth it, especially for new aspiring and emerging writers, with streams on the craft and business of writing, as well as discussions of folklore, pop culture and fiction ranging from the cheerfully chatty through to the thoughtful and nigh-academic.

This year there are panels about horror in fairy tales, magic schools, female villains and the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter (which is ridiculous as it has definitely not been that long since they came out), and that’s just the tiniest taste of the goodness on offer.

But if that doesn’t convince you to seriously consider participating, then this year’s guests ought to:

  • The International Guest of Honour is Ellen Datlow, who recently added yet another Best Editor, Short Form Hugo to her long list of awards and recognition as one of the world’s premiere editors of short SF, fantasy and horror fiction.
  • The Australian guest is Angela Slatter, one of this country’s best writers of short fantasy fiction, not to mention one of its most prolific. (Seriously, any of her numerous short fiction collections are more than worth your while. I started with Sourdough and Other Stories and never looked back, and I’m really looking forward to diving into her novels).
  • The MC is Kaaron Warren, about whom I cannot say enough wildly flattering things, so let’s just stick with the fact that her latest novel The Grief Hole is one of the best things I’ve read this year.
  • Finally, Meri Amber is making another appearance as the Musical Guest, and will be launching a brand new EP which she wrote and recorded specifically to launch at this convention! (Guests don’t come much more dedicated than that!)

On top of all that, Conflux is just a fun convention – laid back, with interesting panels, bad jokes and a generally celebratory attitude towards the genres we love. If you think you can make it, I honestly can’t recommend it enough.

You can get tickets from the website (this page) and I hope you’ll be able to make it this year.

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Friday flash fiction – A Watchman Called Dennis

“You are not being detained,” the men in smart uniforms told Chambers as they helped him from his taxi. “His Excellency would simply prefer that you do not leave the city just yet.”

They got him a hotel room and a 24/7 guard named Dennis.

Or at least, as part of his efforts to suppress anxiety and boredom, ‘Dennis’ is what Chambers called the squat security drone, which bristled with sensor arrays, swivelling lift fans and a variety of supposedly non-lethal small arms. The stubby taser projecting from its underside as it hovered overhead was painted with black and red stripes, just like Dennis the Menace’s sweater. The British one, not the American kid with the catapult.

Chambers appeared to have the run of the luxury hotel complex, with its restaurants, gyms, pools and a cinema. The first time he strayed experimentally close to the rotating glass door in the lobby, Dennis swooped up close by his ear and whispered a gentle warning alarm, which forcibly pacified him, along with two door attendants and a German tourist who had just emerged from her taxi.

After he came around to the sound of the hotel doctor clucking her tongue and dabbing blood from his ear, Chambers decided to postpone further experiments. His availability to answer the government’s questions seemed not to be optional, however little he might desire to provide them.

With nothing else for it, he settled in and made the most of his accommodation.

He quickly struck the small cinema from his entertainment list. Dennis’ whiny lift fans and its habit of periodically flooding the darkened space with searchlights drew complaints from the movie-goers. Besides, Chambers barely spoke the local language and the movies were all tiresome ordeals about singing gangsters.

He was no more welcome in the restaurants, after Dennis launched a tear gas canister at a cleaver-wielding chef who triggered its threat-assessment protocols. In the hotel disco, the flashing lights and infrequent bursts of mood smoke caused Dennis to issue deafening prerecorded warnings as it clicked between infrared, thermal and a dozen other sensor modes to keep Chambers in sight.

So Chambers mostly stayed by the pool. Dennis appeared satisfied with this; as Chambers swam or lounged, the drone nestled watchfully on a charging station or drifted up overhead like a squat grey cloud shaped like a suppository with wings.

Chambers showered under a mock waterfall; Dennis circled. Chambers made a raft from a collection of children’s float noodles; Dennis buzzed. Chambers idly backstroked to the mouth of an artificial grotto, allowing his upper body to drift out of line of sight; Dennis dropped from the sky like a hunting falcon and hit him with a 20,000 volt taser needle to the big toe.

Chambers recognised the tongue-clucking doctor before he opened his eyes. She gave him a paracetamol tablet, and dismissed him, shaking her head.

When the feeling returned to his legs the next day, Chambers returned to the pool. Eyeing his hovering watchman with a wry grin, he stripped off his clothes and stuffed them in a laundry bag. The German tourist, who had been sunning herself on the pool deck, dropped her phone and martini and beat a hasty retreat indoors. The pool staff, in cargo shorts and garish tropical shirts, all found important work to do behind the heavy timber bar.

Dennis hovered, too high to reach but close enough for Chambers to stare down the barrel of its black-and-red throat.

Shrugging off the thought that he was doomed to lose a staring contest with a guard with cameras for eyes, Chambers lazily dived into the water. He snagged another noodle. He floated on his back, watching Dennis watching him. He drifted from one end of the pool to the other, and back. Dennis matched his unhurried pace. As the sun began to set, Dennis emitted its own light, illuminating Chambers in a cold blue glow.

With a flurry of hard kicks that splashed water directly onto Dennis’ camera, Chambers dived for the grotto entrance. He cleared the mouth, still submerged, wrestling with his float noodle in the darkness. Less than two seconds later, a floodlight opened up directly overhead as Dennis flew into the grotto through the narrow opening. The striped taser tube broke the surface directly above Chambers’ face. As he’d hoped, no taser blast followed. Dennis, programmed to protect itself from the electrical discharge, hesitated.

Chambers thrust up from the water one end of the pool noodle clutched in either hand. The soft noodle tips plunged into the whirling blades of Dennis’ lift fans and caught. The foam tube twisted and mangled, jamming the fans.

With a surprised sound like a burp, Dennis fell out of the air into the water. Something inside it made a hiss and pop of protest, then its lights went out.

Grinning like a drunk lifeguard, Chambers dragged Dennis the security drone out of the grotto and onto the pool deck. He whistled as he straddled Dennis like a toy plane. He popped off its upper casing and prodded at the diagnostic panel beneath.

In a few minutes, the threat sensors and autonomous guidance systems had a much friendlier outlook when it came to Chambers, and, if he had his colour-recognition parameters right, a newfound enmity towards certain uniformed members of his Excellency’s intelligence services.

He clawed shredded strips of foam out of the fan blades, blew a few circuits dry and gave Dennis’ system a reboot. In a moment the underbelly lights resumed their glow and the familiar whine of its rotors resumed.

As he wrapped his legs tight around Dennis’ fuselage and allowed himself to be lifted, laundry bag and all, over the wall of the hotel and into the darkness of the streets beyond, Chambers reflected how delightful it was to make new friends in unfriendly places.

(No picture this week, as I’m travelling. If anyone wants to draw a picture, I’ll post it on the story, with my deep gratitude!)
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Flash fiction quick link

No, this isn’t a new story. But if you’ve missed any of the Friday flash fiction episodes to date, you can get them all on this link: Friday flash fiction

In a few hours I’m getting on a plane to go overseas for a week (boring work stuff, don;t worry about it). Check in again on Friday to see if I somehow manage to post a new story in time.

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Friday flash fiction – The Census Taker’s Quandary

Once, there was a King who called forth his census taker. “My kingdom is unsurpassed in peace and prosperity,” he observed, “yet from every corner I hear grumbling. As their King, I must know the mind of my subjects. Find the discontented and have them speak to their dismay.”

The canny census taker bowed respectfully in the face of this false command. She knew the King wished to know the names of dissenters, that he might banish them or lock them up. She went to her task with a vexed heart. The census taker held her profession in noble esteem, and she could not bear to compromise her work; but nor did she wish to be an instrument of the King’s malice.

She came to the first home, where lived a woman and her husbands, and she asked them the King’s question. “Why are you not happy subjects of his majesty the King?”

The woman and her husbands pointed to the rutted road and the crumbling telephone wires and said, “The King’s taxmen take much of what we earn and spend too little of it in keeping things in good working order.”

The census taker frowned, for such an answer, however truthful, begged for a public whipping or a week in the stocks. She marked her census with their names and a note: “The subjects praised the efficient workings of government and the King’s steady hand on the economic tiller.”

She hurried to the next house, where a group of young men with long faces greeted her. When she asked the king’s question, the men looked distraught. They said, “The King’s marshal has sent us all letters of conscription. We are to don armour and spears and patrol the borders. If we see the neighbours with whom the King squabbles, we are to kill them and steal their belongings.”

The census taker frowned, for the penalty for insubordination might be a soldier’s hand or eye. She took their names and recorded thus: “The subject praised his majesty’s successes in keeping unemployment and immigration low.”

Finally she came to a third house, where two women who were not sisters nursed babies and sold drinks made from sugared lemons. When she asked the King’s question, they said, “The King’s fine schools are open only to the sons of fathers, and we spit on the King for leaving not a crumb for these daughters of ours.”

And the census taker wept, for she knew the King would not suffer such an accusation of injustice. She could see no way to hide the grievous disparagement, and so she set down her ledger and was a census taker no more.

She took up a chalk and board. She taught the daughters and mothers how to take a census. And one by one her students went forth and asked questions of their own devising.

Little by little, the mood of the people was revealed to all. They begged the teacher to carry their discontent to the King, but by then he had fled his throne.

Thanks to a memorably awful cold, this week’s story did not exist prior to Thursday night. Before you attempt to read anything into this story, bear in mind my heavily medicated state. But on the other hand feel free to take whatever shots you like in the comments or on social media. And next week, we get to see whether I can overcome the difficulties of overseas work and hotel wifi in time to get the next instalment up.
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