FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: MUST CONTAIN…
Last week’s challenge: Describing one thing ten ways.
This week’s pretty straight forward.
I’ve got two lists at the bottom. Pick (or randomly choose with dice or a random number generator) one from each list, then make sure your flash fiction contains each of those things.
That’s it. Easy-peasy, Ramona-and-Beezy.
You’ve got an upgraded 1500 words. Due in one week (March 14th). Post it at your online space of choice. Drop a link to your completed story in the comments below. Any genre.
Now, the lists…
MUST CONTAIN #1
A lover’s betrayal.
A dead body without a face.
A mysterious — perhaps even magical — photograph.
An antique gun.
A terminal illness.
An ancient tree.
A time machine.
A faithful hound.
A talking cat.
MUST CONTAIN #2
A distant outpost.
An infernal bargain.
A pair of detectives.
A stolen treasure.
A forgotten manuscript.
An escaped prisoner.
A hard drive filled with secrets.
A plane or train ride.
A piece of lost technology.
A comatose patient.
(author’s notes appear at the end)
By J N Keir
Ice piled up where the manufactured stone tower met the natural rock outcropping. Seven stories up a platform of compressed plastic planks sheltered the base from weak sunlight filtered through omnipresent clouds. It was a lonely place; a crummy assignment in a crummy season. So it wasn’t too hard to imagine that Kendrick was in a crummy mood while he chipped ice away from the tower’s one terrestrial entrance.
The storm last night had been a howling nightmare. The only way to sleep through it was with narcotic assistance, which is exactly what Meyers had done, and was exactly why Meyers was still useless in a monumental coma. The force recon scout had only appeared at the tower a few days prior and Kendrick didn’t know him well. That the duty roster had called for Kendrick to man the station comms wasn’t really important; there were hands available, but they weren’t presently useful. With the outpost on general alert since last night, Kendrick was tense. Comms were twenty-four-seven, and someone had to man them. Even now a faint beep repeating in Kendrick’s head told him he was actively connected to the tower relay via wireless. Any signal in or out was subject to his scrutiny. It made concentrating a little tricky.
Protocol and safety dictated the single tower entrance remain unobstructed, so when the ice had accumulated past a few feet, someone had to clear it. No one had thought to set out the portable solar collector, so the transportable multi-tool unit was mostly useless. Kendrick smashed ice with a demolition bar and celebrated his mood by naming the flying chunks of frozen water after his absentee cohabitant. With luck the hulk would come wandering out and fall on his monstrous backside. He laughed out loud at the thought of the Jotun-class reconnaissance unit taking a tumble. It was so unlikely.
From the observation platform above Meyers’s voice boomed, “What are you doing, Chief?”
Kendrick grimaced. He tuned into the tower security feed and checked out the monitors. Sure enough, the tower system had him on camera, he could see himself holding the demo-bar. Kendrick moved the platform cameras about until he found Meyers standing on the exterior observation deck. His huge body blotted out the horizon.
“You know perfectly well what I’m doing, Corporal. Get down here and help.”
There was a momentary pause.
“Yes sir, Chief.”
Still tuned to the security system, Kendrick saw the scout pass the camera on the lift and enter the pneumatic chamber. An instant later he was ducking through the tower’s automatic door. Meyers was nearly twelve feet tall and rebuilt for heavy combat. Kendrick shook his head.
The concept of “conversion” brought with it limitless possibilities for the very imaginative. Almost any application could be implemented and become a living (well, sort of) function. Cost and practicality were still a factor. With an unlimited budget, anything was possible, but who had an unlimited budget? Certainly not the military. Added to the mix the Humanist Commonality continually raised thoughtful, and frightening moral considerations. What of the individual? Where does the individual exist if not in their own body? Early prototypes were turned entirely into the things they were tooled to control, and all semblance of humanity was deleted. It hadn’t gone well. Without something to relate to, the converts were utterly alien. Psych profiling had to take a long, deep breath and say, “Hold on here; this isn’t going to work.”
So guys like Meyers were a rare breed. The only thing left in that shambling horror was the nervous system, and precious little of that. The giant’s face was a projection above the torso; an after-market concession to humanity’s need to perceive these units as still being human, having a human shape, having an identity.
“Chief?” Meyers asked.
Kendrick slung the transportable down off his shoulder.
“Let’s skip the formalities for now.” Technically, Kendrick was a civilian in charge of the tower – a military asset – making him effectively a chief, but outside of a formal setting he was just an interface jockey. He was a modified man capable of direct or wireless interface with computerized systems.
Kendrick hefted the transportable. “TMU’s out of juice.”
“Here, give it to me.” Meyers said. Kendrick handed the backpack unit over. With a few twists, Meyers converted the charge interface from its nominally useful construction standard to a field standard with only two poles. It fit loosely into the Meyers’s on-board power supply multi-port. The scout spun up an accessory converter and fed power to the transportable.
“Convenient,” Kendrick muttered.
“Full conversion has its benefits.”
“Look, I’m sorry Kendrick. It’s against regulation for me to turn down my systems while on general alert. The narco was the only thing I could do to keep my brain from overloading – it’s a limitation of organic tissue. You know-”
“Uh huh,” Kendrick interrupted. “Forget it. Let’s just get this station out of the ice. It’s bad for the foundation.”
Kendrick stabbed the demo-bar down into the ice and cracked a few chucks away. On the opposite side of the door, Meyers stomped a massive foot into the accumulation and pulverized it. With a few deft kicks he cleared several cubic feet. Kendrick sighed.
“That was some storm last night, eh?” Meyers asked. The transportable – now ignored – swung idly from his arm while he kicked his way along the tower’s base.
“Haven’t seen one like this since I assumed the post.” Kendrick answered. Then as an afterthought, “The accumulation alarm sounded at oh-one-thirty-three. I had to run down the tower’s batteries heating the door enough to get it open. It was either that or rappel down from the platform.”
“I suppose you could jump it, eh?” Kendrick asked.
The convert ceased stomping for a moment and swung his frame into a semblance of looking up. “Yeah, sure.”
The TMU beeped quietly then, registering a full charge. Meyers disengaged the cord and it retracted into the backpack. He walked the unit over to Kendrick, who accepted it without comment. The tower chief took a moment to configure the TMU into something resembling a leaf-blower, and switched it on. A wave of heat escaped the hose-cannon; it was hot enough to cause a distortion shimmer in the air.
“That’ll do,” Kendrick said, more to himself than to Meyers.
Meyers went back to the other side of the entry door and resumed crushing ice. He made steady progress.
The TMU cleared roughly a cubic foot of ice every three or four seconds, but only within a few inches of the hose cannon. It was better by far than the demo-bar, but still tedious. Kendrick tuned into the tower while he swung the TMU back and forth. The comms were nothing but static. He turned the exterior cameras so he could watch Meyers’s progress around the opposite side. A shape in the ice caught his attention.
The hulking scout froze in place, discipline overriding curiosity.
Kendrick double-timed it around the front of the tower and checked to make sure the security system was recording and transmitting. He steadied himself on the ice using the scout’s massive arm for leverage. A few passes with the transportable and the ice vaporized, revealing a distinctly humanoid figure in a state of repose against the tower’s base.
The tower received a signal then in reply to Kendrick’s feed, stopping both men. Kendrick grimaced. He imagined the scout received the signal directly, probably encrypted instructions, too. Kendrick’s wireless connection to the tower terminated itself with a lockdown signal – the tower would refuse wireless administration until the alert category downgraded.
“Shit,” Meyers said.
“I got the upgraded alert,” Kendrick offered. “What’d you get?”
“Not much more than that: contact warnings, all garbled. Something is interfering with ground-to-ground.”
“There are messages in the encrypted queue-” Kendrick started.
“I should-” Meyers said.
“Approved, go. Go!” Kendrick used the old integrated keypad to unlock the door, and ushered Meyers through. He exhaled slowly, feeling the moisture in his breath frosting up in his mustache. While he waited he resumed clearing ice away from the humanoid and tried not to damage it. It was a gangly, featureless thing.
Meyers stomped back through the tower door a moment later. It was impossible to read anything in the convert’s statue-like posture and holographic visage.
“Well?” Kendrick asked.
“Contact: something made planetfall during the storm, presumed hostile. I’m supposed to find the impact site.”
“I guess that means they’re here,” Kendrick said. He gazed at the sky.
The convert moved around Kendrick to see the frozen figure.
“Gah, that’s creepy,” he said. “It has no face.”
Kendrick looked at the monstrous scout and tried to keep the irony from his voice, “Really?”
Looks like 1480 words. Not too shabby given how horribly out of practice I am. My own fault, of course. Still, I enjoyed doing it, and look forward to doing more.