26 December 2008

"The Forty"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Merry Christmas," Andy said as he slid back into the passenger seat, holding out a paper cup.

"I'm Jewish," Jake said, taking a swig of coffee. "And this is awful."

"Sorry. Not a lot of Starbucks around here... hey, is that him?"

Jake looked out the windshield. "Yup. Let's go."

They exited the car into a gust of wind. Andy trotted to keep up with Jake as they crossed the street.

"Anthony Torza?" Jake called.

The man stopped walking. "Who wants to know?"

Jake held up his badge. Torza cursed.

"We need to see your artifact, Mr. Torza," Jake said.

"It ain't mine," Torza said. "I'm just holding it. For my cousin. He ain't a bad guy, he's just got a record--"

"We don't care, Mr. Torza," Jake said. "We just want to see the artifact."


Torza led them upstairs to his apartment. They watched him struggle with his keys, then finally take off his gloves to unlock the door. Once inside, Torza opened his closet and extracted a battered cardboard box.

"Be honest with you, I'll be glad to get rid of this thing," Torza said. "They give off some kind of radiation, right? I just hope it ain't made me sterile or nothing."

Andy opened the box. It was full of pencils.

"What the hell?" Andy said.

"It's lead," Torza said. "To stop the radiation?"

Andy wasn't sure if he wanted to laugh or cry. He settled for shaking his head, then scooped pencils out of the box until he revealed a metal shape, which he lifted with both hands.

Torza's artifact was identical to all the others: a regular icosahedron roughly the size and weight of a basketball. Nobody knew where the artifacts had come from. They had simply appeared one day, scattered across the globe. The agency had determined there should be forty artifacts--twenty matched pairs--based on their surface markings, and was tracking them all down. Andy rotated the artifact until he found the symbols.

"Seventeen," he translated, then stood up quickly and threw the artifact at Torza. "Think fast!"

Torza reflexively raised both hands to catch the artifact before it hit him in the chest. As soon as his skin touched the metal, the artifact began glowing with a soft blue light.

"We got a winner," Andy said, smiling.

"Thank you, Mr. Torza," Jake said. "We'll take that now. And at your convenience, we'd like to schedule an interview and routine medical exam."


The contents of the cardboard box rattled as Andy put it in the trunk.

"Lead," he said, getting into the car. "Clearly these things don't choose people based on intelligence. You ever wonder why they come in pairs? Or why the faces are twenty triangles?"

"Not interested," Jake said, starting the car. "Just four more 'owners' to track down, then we can get back to real work."

"Yeah." Andy scratched his chin. "But I'd still like to solve the puzzle. Close the case. You know?"

Jake shrugged. "If wishes were horses, kid. You'll learn to settle for a decent cup of coffee."


Audio: "The Forty"


Music: "bellsong" by maurixxio and "Rich Strings 192kbps .mp3" by orang_redux_777, licensed under Creative Commons from ccMixter.

Boy, am I out of practice. I wanted "Torza" to sound like a mook, but he came out less Brooklyn than I had intended. Still, close enough.

I'm also working on my pacing. Something I was taught in narration class, many years ago: no matter how ridiculously slowly you think you're speaking, it will not be too slow for the listener. After spending all summer on the road with audio books, I understand completely. If the ideal experience of reading words on a page is a light trance state, the ideal listening experience lets you continuously process just the right amount of information--not so much as to be distracting, but also not so little that you get bored and drowsy.


D20, Not Futbol

Several of my friends turned forty years old this month: Chang, my roommate from VPXII; Jerry, a fellow Richter Scale; and Karin, who introduced me to my wife (they've been best friends since high school). I've already written a story about birthdays, so I did a little brainstorming on the number 40 and came up with this week's piece.

This particular idea turned out to be much too big for flash fiction, and I had a hell of a time trimming this scene down to fit here--though I did manage to tie a nice bow on it at the end, if I do say so myself. I'm still writing the longer story, and plan to finish and submit it next month.

Yes, the artifacts do look like twenty-sided dice, and yes, the longer draft includes a bit where Andy and Jake discuss truncated icosahedrons. (Archimedes versus Plato--fight!)

The last paragraph also contains a shout-out to my Viable Paradise XII classmate, Tiffani, who just sold her short story "If Wishes Were Horses" to Strange Horizons. Woo hoo! She'll be published in late spring, 2009.