31 December 2010

"Sweet Nothings"

By Curtis C. Chen

Amy concentrated while holding the piece of candy, thinking: You're not fat. Stop cutting yourself. You are not fat.

The girl on the other side of the counter was wearing long sleeves, but Amy had seen her bare wrists when she turned to point something out to one of her friends. The older scars were horizontal, across the width of the girl's arm; but the newer, brick-red scabs were diagonal slashes, turning ever closer to fatal.

"Here's a free sample of our Milk Bordeaux," Amy said, identifying the candy in the tiny paper cup as she slid it across the top of the counter.

"Thanks," the girl said, picking up the candy between her thumb and forefinger.

You're not fat, Amy kept thinking. She was pretty sure her power to imbue objects with thought impulses only worked as long as she was touching them, but it couldn't hurt to try.

She forced a smile while ringing up the girl's purchases. Amy's face was starting to feel sore from feigning holiday cheer. After the teenagers had left, Amy rubbed her jaw muscles with both hands.

"Long day?" said a male voice.

Amy looked up and saw Joe leaning against the doorway and smiling at her. His mall security uniform was rumpled, as always, but Amy knew that was just an act; when push came to shove, the stern looks he could summon far outweighed his informal appearance.

"At least it's Friday," Amy said. "Free sample?"

"Nah," Joe said, patting his midsection. "I get enough of that at home."

"Right," Amy said, smiling. "I forget your wife's got that cottage industry—"

An arm appeared over Joe's left shoulder, and the attached hand closed around his throat. Joe made a gurgling noise and jerked forward and to the side.

Amy saw the owner of the arm, a stocky bald man wearing a gray suit and dark glasses. The man's other arm raised a menacing black pistol to the side of Joe's head.

"Step out from behind the counter," the man said.

Amy couldn't say anything for a second. "M-me?"

The man looked annoyed. "Yes, you! Amy Washington! Get out here before I—"

As suddenly as the man had appeared, he stopped talking. His hands twitched, and Amy was afraid the gun would go off; but then his entire body went limp, and he crumpled to the floor. Joe fell forward, also unconscious, and Amy rushed around the counter to help him. She froze when she saw the woman.

The woman—tall, blond, imposing—stood behind the collapsed man. She had one hand inside her jacket, which she slowly withdrew as Amy watched. The woman held both hands up, palms out, empty.

Another man, younger, with brown hair and an angular face, came jogging up and skidded to a halt beside the blond woman.

"I can't believe that worked!" the younger man said to the blond woman. "Were you actually touching him?"

"Discuss later," the blond woman replied. She looked at Amy. "Miss Washington, you need to come with us."


Photo: See's Candy by Brad Lauster, December, 2009

24 December 2010


By Curtis C. Chen

"My art is not a weapon," Glenda said to the soldier.

The man in the khaki uniform smiled, and his blue eyes twinkled in the afternoon sun. "We'd never call it that, Miss Knopp. We like to think of it as a force multiplier."

"I don't know what that means."

The soldier leaned forward. "Something that increases the effectiveness of our troops beyond their numbers. For example, GPS. Knowing exactly where you are grants a huge tactical advantage."

Glenda nodded, only half understanding but wanting the soldier to think she actually cared.

A door opened behind her, and Jeff walked through the living room of the small apartment on his way to the kitchen. "Sorry," he said, in a tone of voice that indicated he really wasn't. "Don't let me interrupt."

"Not at all," the soldier said. "I was just explaining to Miss Knopp that the Army doesn't want to weaponize her artwork."

Jeff refilled his coffee mug and headed back to the office. "You're still the military. She doesn't like the military. And neither do I."

The door closed again, making more noise than it needed to.

"You'll have to excuse Jeff," Glenda said. "He's from Berkeley."

"I don't care what your boyfriend thinks, Miss Knopp. I'm asking you to help your country."

"By killing people?"

"I can guarantee you, if you allow us to use your artwork, that it will never be used offensively," the soldier said. "In fact, you can help us deter violence. We air-drop information leaflets into the Middle East—"


The soldier shrugged. "Right now, most of it gets ignored. But can you imagine if each leaflet had your artwork on it? Images that would compel people to look at the paper, read the words, and believe them?"

"I get final approval on the design," Glenda said. She wanted the soldier to think that she was getting as excited as he obviously was.

"Excuse me?"

"I'll only agree if I get to approve all the propaganda messages," Glenda said. "You'll need original brushstrokes on every piece anyway. It doesn't work with mechanical reproductions."

The soldier smiled. "I think we can work that out."

She made some additional, minor demands, asked for double the money he was offering, and otherwise kept pushing until his eyes stopped twinkling. Then they shook hands—his palm was cool and dry—and the soldier said he'd send over the paperwork right away.

"You've made the right decision, Miss Knopp," he said as she showed him to the door. "Your art will save lives."

She closed the door behind him. When she turned around, Jeff was standing in the kitchen, watching her expectantly.

"So?" Jeff asked. "Did he go for it?"

"Oh yeah," Glenda said, hugging her boyfriend. "I thought he would balk at the price, but I guess the Pentagon's got a big budget."

"I still don't trust them."

"Of course we don't trust them." Glenda smiled. "That's why we're not telling them about your music."


Photo: arte em movimento by Tiago Sousa Garcia, July, 2009

17 December 2010


By Curtis C. Chen

Lewis stared at the shifting swarm of tiny, six-legged, black beads inside the clear plastic box and wondered where his life had gone wrong.

"You're going to take over the world... with ants?"

"Pay attention," said Mentarian. Lewis had never learned his current employer's real name. In fact, Lewis had never seen Mentarian's face. The old man always wore goggles, and rubbed his bald head with his vinyl-gloved hands, making a squeaking noise like two balloons being rubbed together. It set Lewis' teeth on edge and reminded him of his worst childhood experiences.

"The insects are just one of my many tools," Mentarian continued. "Tell me, Lewis, what do ants do that no other creature can?"

Lewis fought the urge to roll his eyes. Mentarian indulged in long Socratic dialogues—not just in the lab, but also during heists and battles. Lewis suspected that was why none of Mentarian's plans ever succeeded, and why he had agreed to take on an intern. Lewis was yet another person Mentarian could talk at.

"I don't know," Lewis said. "Find unattended picnic baskets?"

Mentarian frowned, creasing his brow above his comically huge goggles. "I'm getting a little tired of your attitude, Lewis."

"Only a little? I'll have to work harder then."

"Is this all some kind of joke to you?" Mentarian snapped.

"You really don't want me to answer that."

The bald scientist stomped around the table to stand toe-to-toe with Lewis. Mentarian shoved a gloved finger into Lewis' face. "You serve at my discretion. If this course of study is unfulfilling for you, I can find another intern who is more receptive to my teachings."

Lewis thought about biting Mentarian's finger, but the entertainment value would be outweighed by the council's disciplinary measures. There were better ways to get reassigned. Like bringing up the one question his introductory paperwork had said never to ask Mentarian.

"Why do you wear those stupid goggles?"

Mentarian took a step backward. "I can see you're not in a studious mood. We'll continue this tomorrow." He turned and walked away.

Lewis followed. "You know they make you look like an idiot, right? People might take you more seriously if you wore a better costume."

Mentarian whirled around and pointed at his face. "These are not a fashion choice! This is a necessity."

"Are you horribly disfigured?" Lewis asked. "It can't be that bad. Come on, you're supposed to take sidekicks into your confidence." He reached out and grabbed the goggles.

"No!" Mentarian clawed at Lewis' arms, but the old man wasn't nearly strong enough to prevent Lewis from lifting the goggles.

What lay underneath those dark lenses was the last thing Lewis ever saw.


"I swear, Mentarian," the council inspector said, "you go through interns like other people go through toilet paper."

Mentarian shrugged, placed a water dish inside the box of ants, and closed the lid. "You know what they say. Gotta kiss a lot of frogs."

"Or ants?"

Mentarian grinned. "At least they're useful."


Photo: Ant by Jeff Kubina, May, 2007

11 December 2010

Book Interest Survey Results

(with apologies to Harper's Index...)
         Number of responses to survey: 16
        Most desired price, in dollars: 10
    Percentage of votes for that price: 31.3
                    Number of comments: 8
     Requests for "best of" collection: 2
So here's the deal. I've decided. I'm going to finish out a full four years of 512s--that means a new story every week until October, 2012, making over 200 to choose from--and then I'll sit down with someone (probably DeeAnn) to pick the "best of" for a print collection.

Who knows? Maybe I'll even have sold a novel or two by then, and a real publisher will want to do all the heavy lifting. We can dream. I'm pretty sure I'll be a better writer two years from now, which means the "best of" will be higher quality than they are now--and if I'm not, well, then it'll be time to end this sabbatical and go back to software engineering.

Thanks to everyone who completed the survey! If you have further comments, feel free to post them here or send me an e-mail.


Photo: I was going to start procrastinating from I Can Has Cheezburger?, January, 2010

10 December 2010


By Curtis C. Chen

The rain started the same day the animals started talking. Noah was sitting in his office, staring out the window at the gray clouds, when the female pig with an Australia-shaped blotch on her right ear trotted into his open doorway.

"I don't want to go with Ricky," said the pig.

"Who's Ricky?" Noah asked.

"Whoa!" The pig stumbled. "You can understand me?"

"Yeah," Noah said. "Why didn't you ever talk before?"

"I've been talking for years!" the pig said. "Okay, hold on. Repeat back what I say exactly: multi-variable calculus equation."

"Multi-variable calculus equation," Noah said.

The pig nearly fell over. "How long have you been able to understand our talking?"

"What do you mean, 'our talking'?" Noah asked. "You don't mean all animals can talk?"

The pig snorted. "Okay, don't go anywhere! I'll be right back!"

"Where would I go?"

The pig ran away. Noah looked out the window. Lightning flashed in the distance, and fat raindrops slapped against the glass, distorting the skyline of the distant city.

"Okay, I'm back!"

Noah turned to see a camel hunched in the doorway behind the pig.

"We have camels?" Noah asked.

The pig nudged the camel's leg. "Go on, say something! Let's see if he can understand you, too!"

The camel looked at the pig with baleful eyes, then said, "A radical government may be toppled by a reasoned populace."

Noah repeated the phrase.

"Bloody hell," the camel said. "How long has he been able to understand us?"

"I don't know!" the pig said, hopping up and down. "I just came in here to tell him about Ricky, and he could understand me!"

"Ricky," the camel said, with obvious disdain. "Why do you hang out with that wanker?"

"He's not so bad. I just don't want to spend forty days at sea with him, you know?" The pig ran over to Noah's desk. "There are other male pigs, right? I can get a new partner?"

"Not my department," Noah said. "You need to ask Eliza about that."

"Right!" the pig said, and ran off. The camel stared at Noah.

"Can I help you with something?" Noah asked.

"Did you see that ludicrous display last night?" the camel asked.


"Chelsea and Everton," the camel said. "What was Ancelotti thinking?"

"Is this sports?" Noah said. "I don't really follow sports."

"Typical." The camel shook its head and retreated back down the hallway.

Noah picked up the telephone and dialed a four-digit extension. When the woman at the other end answered, he asked, "When did the animals start talking?"

"How long has it been since you left your office?" Eliza asked.

"Don't change the subject," Noah said. "Are they actually talking, or am I hallucinating again?"

"Interesting," Eliza said. "Why do you think you might be hallucinating?"

Noah hung up the phone and ignored it when it started ringing. He looked out the window. The rain was coming down harder now, in glowing sheets of luminescent green. He was pretty sure that wasn't supposed to be happening, either.


Photo: Camel by Catherine Joll, Cyprus, September, 2008

03 December 2010

"Exterior, Alley, Daytime"

By Curtis C. Chen

Detective Burgeson dragged me out to the dumpster, where Morales' body lay under the black tarp.

"Some free advice," she said. "If you ever want to make detective, you need to be more circumspect when interviewing people."

"Who says I want to make detective?" I said.

"You're a good cop, Griff." I could tell it took great effort for her to pay me a compliment. "There aren't enough thinking police in this city. You want to walk a beat for the rest of your life, or do you actually want to put away the bad guys?"

I didn't want to think about this. I might be dead in three years. I didn't want to complicate my life any more than it already had been by my uncontrollable magic superpower.

"In case you haven't noticed," I said, "those of us in uniform are the ones watching your back when you walk into a crime scene. The black-and-whites are first to respond when there's a riot, or a gang war, or a run on DVD players at Walmart."

"I am not in any way belittling the uniformed officers of SFPD," Burgeson said. "But we both know there'll always be more cadets. You can do more than this."

"Why this sudden interest in my career?" I asked. "Last year we didn't even know each other. I don't think we've had ten conversations since then, and most of those were while you were investigating me for Debra's murder. Now suddenly we're best friends?"

Burgeson sighed. "You're treading water, Griff. I know you've been through a lot. Your partner died. That's some heavy shit. But I don't see you dealing with it. You gotta move on, and getting out of that uniform is a big step."

I started walking away. "Thanks for the pep talk, Dr. Shawna. I'm going now."

"Griff! I'm serious!"

I whipped back around and glared at Burgeson. "You think I'm fucking around here? You think I'm wallowing in self-pity or grief?" I felt my hands curling into fists. "Have you ever lost a partner? Have you ever had to watch someone's throat get torn out, and later wonder if you might have been able to prevent it?"

Burgeson shook her head. "No."

"Well, I hope you never have to. And maybe you'd react differently. Maybe you'd make a run for police chief, or sell all your worldly possessions on go on a spiritual odyssey." I felt tears burning behind my eyes. "Or maybe, just maybe, you'd decide that the best way to honor your dead friend is to keep doing the job for which she gave her life. And when it's my time, I hope I go down in the line of duty, because anything less will be an insult to everything that I ever chose to stand for."

We stared at each other without blinking for a long moment.

"Somebody order a meat thermometer?" called a female voice behind me.

I turned to see the ME, Pamela Walker, strolling down the alley. She waved at the tarp. "Is that the body?"


Photo: Dumpsters in an alley by marika.laurel, Seattle, March, 2009

26 November 2010

"Lost in the Snow"

By Curtis C. Chen

"It's almost noon," Joseph said.

David didn't look up. "Keep digging."

"We've got less than two hours—"

"Then shut up and help me dig!"

David's shovel bit into the frozen ground. He levered it upward, and Joseph watched another tiny chunk of icy dirt sail through the air and land on top of the mound they'd been making.

"It's no use, David," Joseph said. "It'll take us a full hour to perform the funeral rites. There's no way we can dig deep enough in the next hour."

David made an inhuman noise and attacked the earth again. The shovel clanged against something solid—maybe a rock, maybe ice—and slipped. David fell forward, his face denting the snow at the edge of the shallow grave.

It had been snowing since yesterday morning, since before their mother had been killed at midday by a pack of dire wolves. The wolves had rushed directly for Rachel, perhaps sensing that she was the weakest of the humans.

Joseph and David had both drawn their weapons and started firing at the animals, and by the time Joseph remembered the portable defense energizer on his back, two of the wolves were inside the perimeter. He had sliced one wolf in half when he powered up the force field, but the other wolf had torn out their mother's neck before David could blast its head off.

The remaining wolves had left and not returned. The battery on the defense shield had failed six hours ago. Joseph and David had been digging all night, and they had only managed to dig a hole barely a foot deep. Not deep enough to cover their mother's body and ensure her a resting place in the afterlife.

David rolled onto his back and wailed. Joseph sat down on the cold, hard ground and waited for his brother to finish.

After a moment, David sat up, grabbed his pack, and pulled out his pistol. He held it out to Joseph, handgrip forward, and said, "Shoot me."

Joseph blinked. "What?"

David pressed the pistol into Joseph's palm. "One shot, right into my forehead. Make it quick."

"I'm not going to kill you!"

David turned the pistol around and pointed the barrel at Joseph's chest. "You shoot me right now, or I'll shoot you."

Joseph shook his head. "This is insane."

"One of us has to stay with her," David said. "If we can't lay her to rest, one of us has to stay with her, and it can't be a suicide! Now is it going to be you, or me?"

Joseph blinked back the tears in his eyes and took the pistol. "What am I supposed to report to the outpost?"

"Tell them the wolves got us both," David said. "Nobody's ever going to come out here to check. Now hurry up, I'm freezing."

Joseph raised the pistol, closed his eyes, and pulled the trigger.



"Hello, David."

"What is... are those wolves?"

"Yes, David."

"But they're... they're..."

"I know. We were wrong, David. About so many things."


Photo: our Prius in a Portland snowstorm, January, 2009

19 November 2010

"Vampires of New York"

By Curtis C. Chen

The thin girl in the silver bikini unwrapped her wrist slowly, as if she were doing a striptease. She must have been new. Max hadn't seen her in the club before, and he spent a lot of time in the club.

"I don't need the show, honey," Max said. "I'm just here for a drink."

The girl stopped and shrugged. "Whatever you say." She yanked the rest of the bandage off unceremoniously and held her wrist valve over Max's goblet, releasing a steady trickle of dark red liquid.

"You a vegetarian?" he asked. There was a faint grassy aroma to the girl's blood.

"I thought you just wanted to drink."

There goes your tip, thought Max.

The girl pulled a new bandage out of the dispenser attached to the table. She put a thumb over her valve to stop the flow, then wrapped the bandage around her wrist and turned away. She didn't even offer to let Max lick the blood off her thumb.

"Kids these days," he muttered.

"Talking to yourself again?" said a voice behind him. "Not going senile, are you?"

"You should be so lucky," Max said.

Josef walked around the table and sat down. "I swear, these chairs get less comfortable every time."

"Maybe you're losing weight."

"Don't you start with me. My doctor keeps telling me I can't drink positive. You believe that? I say he can tell me what to do when he's a hundred and twenty years old." He turned to flag down a waitress.

"Why do you keep dragging yourself to that free clinic?" Max asked. "Why don't you join a health plan like a normal person?"

Josef scowled. "Max. How can you ask me that? We both lived in the ghettos, we both went to the camps, how can you even ask me that?"

"It's not the same, Josef."

"It's never the same," Josef said. "They always find some new way to kill us."

Max shook his head. "Things are different, Josef. This is America."

Josef snorted. A blond waitress stopped next to him, and he smiled up at her. "Hey, sweetheart, what's on tap today?"

"A-positive, A-negative, B-pos, B-neg, O-neg," the waitress recited, chewing gum and clearly bored. "Soup of the day is beef and barley."

Josef grumbled. "Nothing AB? What's her name, the brunette with the curls?"

"Called in sick," the waitress said. "I can get you a plasma mixer."

Josef made a face. "Please don't. A-positive, make sure she's an omnivore. I can't stand that grassy vegetarian aftertaste. I want a girl who enjoys a good hamburger once in a while, you understand?"

The waitress nodded. "Stacy. I'll send her right over." She dropped a napkin on the table, then sashayed off toward the bar.

"Oh, look at that," Josef said, ogling the waitress' backside. "I tell you, Max, it's a damn shame we didn't get turned when we were younger. The things I'd do if I still had a twenty-nine-year-old body..."

"Please," Max said. "You'll ruin my appetite."


Photo: Bloody Moon by Steve Jurvetson, August, 2007

12 November 2010

"Gone But Not Forgotten"

By Curtis C. Chen

The first time I met Detective Shawna Burgeson, I made the mistake of asking if she'd ever played basketball. I was young and stupid then. I make much more subtle mistakes nowadays.

"Okay, I'm here," I said, walking across the Marina District garage to Burgeson, who was standing next to a black-and-white. "Now what couldn't you tell me over the phone?"

Burgeson pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket and unfolded it. "I didn't think you'd believe it unless you saw it for yourself. This is the suspect identified by a witness to a convenience store holdup on Polk early this morning."

She handed me the paper. It was a printout from the department's composite sketch software, showing a crude image of a woman in her thirties. Dark hair fell past her neck in grayscale ribbons. Solid black eyes peered at me over a pointed nose and round chin.

My brain recognized her before I could tell it not to. It was Debra. She'd been dead for over a year. I had watched her bleed out on the ground.

"Okay," I said, "is this the part where I'm supposed to be shocked that this looks like my dead partner?"

"I wanted you to see for yourself," Burgeson said. "Harry did the composite with our witness. He didn't know Sorkowitz. He couldn't have influenced the witness in any way."

"This could be anybody," I said. "That crappy composite program is at least ten years old, and it doesn't have enough different facial features. We know Debra's dead, so it can't be her. Why are you wasting my time?"

Burgeson folded the paper and put it away. "Calm down, Griff."

"I am calm!"

"No, you're not!" She pointed a finger at me. "Just shut up and listen. I didn't want to believe it, either, so I walked the witness through a photo array." A photo array is an identification line-up using mugshots instead of live people. It's a lot faster and easier than doing a live line-up, and because human brains are wired to recognize faces, it's usually just as reliable. "He picked Sorkowitz out of an entire photo book."

"Then you got a false positive," I said. "Is this all you wanted to show me? 'cause I've got roll call in a few minutes."

"We had to put together the photo array pretty quickly," Burgeson said. "The only picture I could find of Sorkowitz was a publicity photo of her in uniform." She paused to let that sink in. "Our witness saw that, and he still picked her. What kind of idiot accuses a cop if he's not absolutely sure?"

"We got a lot of idiots in this city."

"I just wanted you to hear it from me before people started talking."

"Thanks for nothing." I turned and walked away.

"I'll let you know what we find out!" she called after me.

I kept my back to Burgeson all the way to the elevator. I was glad she couldn't see me starting to cry.


Photo: SFPD Crown Vic by Todd Lappin, May, 2006

05 November 2010

"Up in the Air"

By Curtis C. Chen

Stratton's job is to fly, chasing a thin stripe of daylight across the planet. He was born in the air, and God willing, he'll die without ever setting foot on dirt. He doesn't question these circumstances. He doesn't wonder about the world below. Stratton just flies.

His partner's name is Victoria. They met for the first time three days ago, when the air tanker refueled Stratton's bomber and a devotion crew removed the body of his previous co-pilot, Marcus.

The ceremony was dignified and short. Stratton and Victoria stood side by side watched Marcus' body fall through the open bomb bay and disappear into the clouds below.

"How did he die?" Victoria asked.

"Unknown," Stratton replied.

Victoria frowned. "That's a little worrisome, isn't it?"

Stratton shrugged. He didn't understand why Marcus had suddenly started vomiting blood and then stopped breathing. It wasn't important exactly what had killed Marcus. It was important for Stratton to get back to work. Back to flying.

Now, Victoria completes her maintenance checklist and watches Stratton from the right-hand seat as he adjusts the flight controls for some approaching weather.

"Must get pretty boring up here," she says.

"In the cockpit?" Stratton asks, confused.

"In the sky," Victoria says.

Stratton struggles to understand what she might mean. He can't imagine anything boring about living above the clouds, watching a perpetual sunset, seeing stars twinkling on the edge of night. He can't imagine a better life than the one he has.

Victoria fills the silence. "I grew up in Rookly," she says. Stratton recognizes the name of the city from the bomber's land maps. "Never thought much about the sky until I enlisted. I mean, we'd see the flights overhead, but it didn't really affect our everyday lives."

"Our work is important," Stratton says.

"Oh, I know that," Victoria says. "But it's just so far removed from everything, you know? That's why I joined up. I wanted to see the world from a different perspective." She's staring at Stratton. He can see her out of the corner of his eye. "What do you think? How does this compare to life on the ground?"

"Never been on the ground," Stratton says.

"You're kidding," Victoria says. "Come on! You must have been born on land, right?"

Stratton shakes his head. "My parents were Sky Corps. They lived on the Patrick Hayden."

"The heli-carrier?" Victoria is momentarily speechless. Then she reaches across the center console and punches Stratton in the arm. "No way! You're messing with me!"

Stratton feels his face growing hot. He hates this woman, who talks too much and asks too many questions and touches him without asking permission. He wants her to go away. He wonders if what killed Marcus in that seat will kill her soon. Stratton can only hope.

"Yes," he says, "I'm messing with you."

Victoria laughs. "You're all right, Strat."

Stratton has nothing to say. He stares straight ahead, out at the sky, and watches the sunset for as long as he can.


Photo: Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean, May, 2009

03 November 2010

512 Book Interest Survey

Dear Reader:

Do you enjoy 512 Words or Fewer enough to want to purchase a paperback collection of my stories?

I'm thinking about making a paper edition of my first two years' worth of 512 stories, and I'd like to know if anyone would buy it. This print-on-demand (POD) book would include all my weekly flash fiction from October 2008 through September 2010--that's over 100 different stories, and more than 50,000 words of content.

I'm also taking suggestions for "special features"--for example, commentary on each story, black-and-white illustrations/photos, or other types of "liner notes." (Think of this as the DVD box set of my flash fiction.) No promises; I'm just pondering ways I can add value to this POD proposition.

Tell me what you think: Take the survey!
(Bare link: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/WYJB8QG )

I'd appreciate your input, even if it's to say that you wouldn't care to buy such a book. The 512s will continue regardless.

Survey expires at the end of November. Please respond before then!



Photo: YES, Ize WERKING! from I Can Has Cheezburger?, June, 2010

29 October 2010

"Friday the Thirtieth"

By Curtis C. Chen

The first postcard simply said "Have a killer birthday," with a photo from an old cemetery on the other side. No signature, no return address. I figured it was a joke, one of my old sorority sisters who'd seen my Facebook post and felt like messing with me.

The next few were the same kind of thing: "One day closer to dying," "Nobody lives forever," stuff like that. All with pictures of cemeteries in New England.

It wasn't until they started writing the messages in blood that I began to worry. I know because I scraped off some flakes, snuck them into the hospital where I worked, and tested them. Human blood, type A negative. No joke.

I had expected to get some weird stuff. It was one of those stupid ideas you have late at night, after drinking a little too much and maybe smoking something not quite legal. And yeah, I'll admit, I was feeling lonely. I was turning thirty in less than a month, and I didn't have a boyfriend or a decent career or a pony.

So I decided I'd ping my friends, ask them to send me postcards for my birthday. My parents moved around a lot when I was younger, so I knew people all around the world. I didn't specify what people should write on their cards. I figured I'd let them exercise their creativity. I just wanted to feel loved—or at least liked.

I posted on Facebook, sent a few mass e-mails, and waited. I got some nice postcards, but after a week of also getting a creepy graveyard image every day, I wasn't looking forward to the mail so much as dreading it.

After the tenth postcard—the one which talked about how many pints of blood are in a human body, and how many square feet of wall that could paint—I called in sick and sat by the window and waited for the mailman. He showed up around eleven o'clock. I walked up just as he was pulling out a plastic bin full of catalogs and credit card offers.

"You got anything for number twelve?" I asked.

The mailman turned and stared at me. "Hello. Have we met?"

"Apartment twelve," I said. "I'm expecting a postcard."

He smiled. "Ah, it's you. Of course." He turned back to his truck.

"Listen, aren't there federal laws against tampering with mail?" I asked. "Or sending hazardous materials? I only ask because I've been getting postcards written in blood, and that seems, I don't know, like it might be not okay."

The mailman turned back to me, grinning and holding a single postcard. His eyes glowed red, like coal embers inside his skull.

"I'm just the messenger," he said.

He thrust the postcard into my hands and disappeared in a plume of smoke.

After I finished freaking out, I sat down on the ground and looked at the postcard. The picture showed Edgar Allan Poe's gravestone. The message said:

Happy Birthday! You have been chosen. Enjoy the cake!

I'm really not looking forward to the cake.


Photo: gravestones at Chalmette National Cemetery, May, 2008

22 October 2010


By Curtis C. Chen

"Can't fight if you don't eat," the guard said.

Galena stared at the puddle of gruel on her tray. "Maybe I don't want to fight."

"Don't fight, don't live."

"Catchy. Can I get that on a t-shirt?"

The guard tossed a spoon into the cell. "Eat."

Galena choked down the food. It wasn't supposed to be appetizing. It was designed to prevent starvation. Nobody was allowed to die outside the arena.

The lights went out at midnight. Galena counted to one hundred, then silently rolled out of bed and felt her way over to the corner of her cell.

Her fingernails caught on the edge of the loose brick next to the toilet. She was just starting to pry it out of the wall when she heard an unfamiliar shuffling noise. It was headed directly for Galena's cell.

She coughed loudly to cover the sound of her pushing the brick back into place, then summoned a belch to mask the noise of pulling her pants down and sitting on the toilet.

A small, bright light clicked on and shone in her face. She squinted into it and crossed her arms over her crotch. "What the hell!"

"Galena Moritz?" It wasn't the guard. It was a woman.

"Sorry, Miss Moritz is currently indisposed," Galena said. "If you'd like to leave a message—"

The flashlight beam swung up, illuminating the visitor's face. Galena's mouth hung open.

"So you recognize me," Aurelia Langwies said. "Good. Put your pants on and let's go for a walk."


"You want to trade places with me?"

They were walking around the darkened exercise yard, illuminated only by moonlight.

"Pay attention," Aurelia said. "You take my place in the ring. I go into hiding. The quod thinks you've escaped and replaces you with another plebeian."

"Great plan," Galena said. "I love it, except for the part where I get caught and executed."

"Nobody will ever see your face," Aurelia said. "I have a reputation as a recluse. I arrive in full armor, and I never unmask."

"What if I get injured?" Galena asked.

"You're too good for that."

"It's not about being good," Galena said. "I watched Kalium go down last week after slipping on a piece of fruit. My luck won't last forever."

"By contract, only my personal physician can treat me. Both he and my agent are in on the plan." Aurelia stepped closer. "I know about your child. That's why I came to you. I knew you'd understand why I'm doing this."

"Because you're insane?"

"None of us fight by choice," Aurelia snapped. "And if I don't fight, my family suffers. Do you understand that?"

Galena nodded, thinking of her son. "I'm not left-handed."

Aurelia smiled. "I'm going to take a blow to the head in my next bout, and the concussion will affect my mental state."

"And your height?"

"Oh, honey," Aurelia said, "I wear lifts."

Galena chuckled and looked up at the moon. She knew the charade would never survive a whole nine months, but any freedom was better than none.


Photo: LEGO Mirmillon by Andrew Becraft, June, 2008

15 October 2010

"Division of Labour"

By Curtis C. Chen

Blake held the airtight bag over the gerbil's head until it stopped struggling and the life monitor above the cage squealed a tuneless dirge. He removed the bag and pressed the holding pin deep into the animal's spine, verifying the contacts on the control module readout, then stepped back.

"Is that all?" asked the Minister of War.

"The holding pin only prevents necrosis," Blake said. "It stimulates the nervous system to keep brain cells from deteriorating, for up to twenty-four hours."

He moved over to the second gerbil, which had two wires protruding from the back of its skull. He held the antennaed rodent down with one hand and connected two wires from the control module, then pressed the activation button.

The second gerbil collapsed, the monitor display spiked, and the first gerbil twitched back to life. A moment later, the second gerbil leapt up, shaking its head.

"So the dead rat is now imprinted with the live rat's memories?" the Minister asked.

Blake resisted the urge to point out that the animals were gerbils, not rats. "No, Minister. There is no transfer of consciousness. It's only energy. Think of it like donating blood."

The Minister nodded. "Very good, Professor. You may be the first scientist who hasn't tried to sell me immortality. But why come here at all? Why not Ministry of Health?"

"They'd never allow me to experiment on humans."

The Minister raised an eyebrow. "You have my full attention."

"I've done all I can with animals," Blake said. "It's impossible to know how a more complex brain structure will respond without using actual humans."

"And where do you propose to find these volunteers?"

"Prisoners of war," Blake said. "Detainees. Anyone who needs to disappear from a re-education center." Like my sister. "You're going to kill some of them during interrogation anyway; why not do something useful with their bodies?"

The Minister smiled. "I like the way you think, Professor." He snapped his fingers, and his aide produced a square of stiff paper. "You'll begin as soon as you can relocate your laboratory to Crag Island. And congratulations, you're now a Captain in the Burgish Army."

"Wh-what?" Blake suddenly felt light-headed.

"It's purely ceremonial," the Minister said, signing the paper, "but you do get a nice uniform."


"I expect results, Professor."

The doors swung open, and one adjutant rolled away the experiment table while another hustled Blake out of the audience chamber. Before he knew what had happened, he was alone in the hallway with his brother, clutching the signed order from the Minister.

"Well?" Adam asked.

"He said yes." Blake stared at the paper.

"That's great!"

"And I'm in the Army now."

"Oh." Adam frowned. "What are you going to tell Mother?"

Blake shook his head. "I'm not. You are."

"What? Oh no. No no no. She'll kill me! Then herself!"

"Remember why we're doing this!" Blake hissed, lowering his voice. "I'm going into that hellhole to find Callie. You get to stay home with Mother. You have the easy part."

Adam grumbled. "That's debatable."


Photo: Lab Rat Taxidermy, Berkeley, California, September, 2009.

08 October 2010


By Curtis C. Chen

"So what's your superpower?"

Nathan turned to the man standing behind him in line. The stranger was wearing a green jumpsuit with yellow trim, and a green balaclava that covered his entire head except for his eyes. It must have been hot as hell under there.

"I don't have any powers," Nathan said.

"Well, aren't you kind of in the wrong line, then?" The green man chuckled as he spoke, as if he were telling a joke and expected Nathan to also find it humorous.

"The receptionist downstairs told me to come up to 4-B."

"Let me see your paperwork," the green man said, holding out one hand.

Nathan didn't feel like arguing, and he didn't want to find out what might happen if he refused. Most costumed avengers weren't the most psychologically stable people in the world. He handed over his forms and watched as the green man squinted at them.

The clerk called for the next in line, and they all edged closer to the window.

"Wow. Sorry, man. I didn't know." The green man handed the forms back to Nathan.

"It's okay." Nathan folded up the paper and stuck it inside his jacket. "At least I survived."

The green man inched closer. "I hope I'm not prying, but—if you don't mind talking about it—what did it feel like? To lose your powers, I mean?"

"I was unconscious," Nathan lied. "I just woke up, and they were gone."

The green man nodded as if he understood, even though he couldn't possibly understand what Nathan was going through. "Harsh, man."

The clerk called out, and the man in front of Nathan walked up to the window, a shiny blue cape fluttering behind him.

"So listen," the green man said, "I'm kind of in a situation myself, here. I used to be part of this organization, but lately we've been having, you know, creative differences. You know how it goes."

Nathan nodded and avoided eye contact.

"Anyway," the green man continued, "I've been thinking about hanging out my own shingle for a while. But—" he lowered his voice, as if divulging a secret— "I can't fly, so I can't really go solo."

"Why are you telling me this?" Nathan said.

"Have you ever considered being a sidekick?"

The clerk called for the next in line. "I can't fly, either," Nathan said. "As you know."

"Well, not right now, obviously, but the gem's effects aren't permanent." The green man leaned close to Nathan and whispered, "If it makes a difference, I do swing both ways."

He winked, and Nathan controlled his urge to punch someone in the nose. "I gotta go."

"Think about it!"

The clerk at the processing window was a surprisingly attractive young woman. Nathan wondered, as he handed over his paperwork, if this was really the best job she could get.

"Thank you," she said, filling in her part of the form with a red pen. "So, what's your superpower?"

Nathan gritted his teeth. "I'm a people person."


Photo: Cory Doctorow @ eTech, March, 2007

01 October 2010

"The Ties That Bind"

By Curtis C. Chen

The door to Interview Two closed with a soft click behind Jake. He stood there for a moment. The woman had stopped crying, but her eyes were still red, and she clutched a kleenex in one hand. Her bony fingers looked like claws.

She and Andy both shifted in their seats. Jake leaned back against the wall and folded his arms across his chest.

"We got a name?" Jake asked Andy.

"Leah Comler," Andy said, holding up his phone. The woman's DMV record glowed on the tiny screen. "ID checks out. No priors."

"Why do you need to find your father, Miss Comler?" Jake asked. "Other than the obvious emotional closure, I mean."

"Jake," Andy said. "She's sick. Hospital sick," he added quickly.

Nobody said anything for a moment. Jake glared at Andy. Andy glared back. Jake walked around the table and sat down next to Andy.

"Sorry," Jake said. "I didn't know."

"No, I should apologize," Leah said. "What I did was wrong. I'm sorry. It's just—" She sniffled. "I've been trying to find my father for months. I was sure you were the one."

Jake nodded at her hands. "What is it?"

"Idiopathic aplastic anemia," Leah recited.

Jake slumped back in his seat. "You're looking for a bone marrow transplant." He didn't say what he was thinking: You're dying.

Leah nodded.

"I'm already in the system," Jake said. "I give blood four times a year. If I was a match, you'd already have found me."

Her lower lip quivered. "I was hoping that my biological father would have had other children. That's my best chance for a donor match."

"I'm not your father," Jake said.

She started crying.

The door to the interview room slammed open, and District Attorney Libby Wasserman stepped inside. "Detectives!" she said. "A word, please? Outside?"


"For crying out loud, Jake!" Libby said after she had ushered Jake and Andy into the monitoring lounge. "She's not some wirehead junkie. Could you try to treat her like a human being?"

"Give me a break," Jake said. "A stranger walks into my precinct, points a gun at me, and says she's my kid? How am I supposed to feel?"

Andy stepped forward. "There's an easy way to settle this. Were you listening in earlier?"

"No," Jake and Libby said in unison.

"Well, Leah's mother died in January," Andy said, "And in her will, she left Leah a safe deposit box at Craneson Credit."

That got both Jake's and Libby's attention. Craneson Credit International had a reputation as bankers to the rich and famous, ensuring security and privacy with state-of-the-art technology from strong encryption to biometric sensors. Craneson's customers included CEOs, celebrities, and more than one organized crime family—which the NYPD only knew because of their grudging cooperation with ongoing federal investigations.

"What's in the box?" Libby asked.

"No idea," Andy said. "According to the will, it's coded so that only Leah and her father can open it. Fingerprint and DNA scan required."


Photo: Manhattan Crime Stoppers flyer, photographed by Adam Greenfield, August, 2007

24 September 2010

"Death Trap"

By Curtis C. Chen

The food was the same every Sunday. Its appearance changed each time—meatloaf, pot roast, chicken, sausage, casserole—but it always tasted the same to Charles: bland, flavorless, with a texture that turned to mush the moment it touched his tongue.

Today it was green bell peppers stuffed with rice. His simulated daughter-in-law, Maria, brought it to the table, holding the pan with giant oven mitts. The steam rising from the food quivered as she set it down—the programmers had gotten that detail right, anyway—and Charles felt his mouth watering and his stomach rumbling, an imaginary hunger for an illusion of sustenance.

The family sat down around the table, poorly rendered mannequins snapping into their chairs. All the little imperfections jumped out at Charles: the body parts that didn't quite match up at the edges, the pixelation of fabric texture too small for the surfaces they had been mapped onto.

His unreal son, Doug, turned to Charles and asked him to say grace. It was the one time every week when he didn't feel like a puppet being pulled by invisible strings, when he actually had a chance, however slim, to make contact with the real humans outside this virtual prison.

"Get me the hell out of here!" he shouted at the ceiling. "If you're watching now, if you still give a damn about me, stop this and let me die! Just pull the plug! I don't want to be here any more!"

He shouted until his throat felt hoarse, and then he kept shouting, because he knew it wasn't real. None of it was real. He was in limbo, and the worst part was knowing it.


"Can't we do anything for him?" Maria asked.

Next to her, Doug remained passive and silent. The technician, a middle-aged woman, peered at the couple from behind large, round eyeglasses.

"We can modify the simulation," the technician said. "But it will take some time to ease his brain into the new environment. A transition that's too abrupt could cause further trauma." She looked at Doug. "And there would, of course, be an additional charge."

Maria nodded. "Could you give us a few minutes alone?"

The technician shrugged and left the monitoring chamber. The door hissed shut behind her.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Doug whispered.

"You're right," Maria said, watching one of the many screens surrounding them. Charles was still shouting, but nobody was listening. "He's miserable."

"But he's still a hero," Doug said. "And a son who kills his father doesn't get re-elected."

"We don't have to choose right now," Maria said. "You sign over his caregiver power of attorney, and I'll keep visiting while you campaign. Let me decide how to end it. It'll be a real surprise, and you'll be able to deny everything. Denounce me well enough and it might even give you a bump in the polls."

Doug shook his head. "Sometimes you scare me, honey."

Maria smiled. "As long as you still love me."


Photo: My Brain on MRI by Julie Falk, June, 2005

17 September 2010

"Working Graves: Habeas Corpus"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Are you a vampire?"

Conrad studied the man asking the question. Tall, slightly overweight, standing with that posture particular to law enforcement. It was almost as good as being able to read his aura, which was nearly impossible amid the flashing lights of the nightclub.

"I don't believe we've met," Conrad said.

The man held up a metal star imprinted with a number and the words SAN FRANCISCO POLICE. "I'm Puff, the magic dragon."

The badge holder wasn't worn enough for it to be something the man carried around every day. So he couldn't be an actual plainclothes detective. But the badge was real. A uniformed patrolman, trying to bluff his way through an unofficial investigation? Why?

"I'd like to ask you some questions, Mr. Vansek," the man said.

Normally, Conrad would have signaled his bodyguards to remove an unwelcome guest from the club. But Conrad was curious about this little man doing his best to seem big.

"My answers may not satisfy you, officer," Conrad said with a smile, "but please, ask away."

"We should talk in private."

"I trust these men with my life. They can keep secrets."

"You sure?" the man asked. "Because I'd like to talk about Mira Sorkowitz."

Conrad's smile evaporated, and he rose from his seat. "My office is upstairs."

One guard led the way, followed by Conrad, the policeman, and the other guard. They halted in the brightly lit corridor just outside Conrad's office, and the trailing guard tapped the policeman on the shoulder.

"Lift your arms," the guard said.

The policeman rolled his eyes. "You think I'd bring a gun here?"

"Ain't looking for guns."

Conrad moved around to face the policeman. "I'll answer your first question, officer. Yes, I am a vampire."

"Yeah, I got that, thanks," said the policeman. "Your aura's lit up like a fucking Christmas tree back here."

Conrad was startled. "You have the sight?"

"With a capital S," the policeman said. "I can see spirits."

"Remarkable!" Conrad said. "And how did you meet the white witch?"

"I worked with her daughter."

"I didn't know she had a daughter."

"Two." The policeman looked away. "They're both dead now. Long story. Anyway, Mira told me if I ever needed help, I should come find you."

Conrad grumbled. "I owe her a favor. But what can I help you with that she could not?"

"Mira's missing."


"Taken from her house last night. No physical evidence, but she left a message for me. Written in her own breath."

Conrad shuddered. A conjurer's breath was more precious than her blood, and the white witch would not use it for simple messaging except as a last resort. Which meant that whoever had taken her was even more dangerous than she had been.

A powerful new player like that would make a great ally.

"Leave us," Conrad said, waving off the guards and unlocking the door to his office. "Let's talk inside, officer...?"

"Jay," the policeman said. "Griffin Jay."

"Delighted to make your acquaintance, Officer Jay."

Griffin chuckled. "You don't know me yet."


Photo: Badge and Bar by Sara Bassett, March, 2008

10 September 2010

"Tiny Leverage"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Am I inside the cerebellum yet?"

"You'll know when you are."

"Yeah, and HOW will I know that, exactly?"

"Trust me, you'll know."

"See, there's that word again. TRUST. Something that's in pretty short supply right now, on this side of the event horizon, anyway."

"I can't work very efficiently if I have to keep explaining everything to you."

"How about explaining ANYTHING? How about that? I don't even know which way is up!"

"Irrelevant. At your current size, gravity doesn't affect you as much as other forces."

"These instrument readings don't make any sense at all."

"You're still passing through the electrical interface. The sensor pods won't open up until the hull polarity stabilizes."

"Okay, I see that—no, wait, this is wrong. The primary sensor array is showing 'no data.' That's not a valid status, is it? What does 'no data' mean?"

"Keep your pants on. I'll run a diagnostic."

"And that's another thing. Why are you always the one running diagnostics? Why can't I do that from right here in the vehicle?"

"Can you interpret raw log file data? The vehicle isn't set up to process that kind of volume. Your instruments are all real-time displays. There's not enough memory to run the calculations we need."

"I'm flying a liquid-nitrogen-cooled supercomputer designed by a coalition of scientists from twelve different planets. You couldn't figure out how to plug in a couple of flash drives?"

"It's not that simple. Modern storage devices depend on microscopic effects which get distorted by the miniaturization process. All your components are oversized; that's why you need the liquid nitrogen cooling. They're generating ridiculous amounts of waste heat, but it's the only way they'll work at this scale."

"I'm going to be honest with you. I stopped listening after 'microscopic.' How's that diagnostic coming? Which button do I push to fix the damn sensors?"

"You're a real joy to work with, you know that?"

"Hey, I'm staying on mission. You can lecture me about tech at the debriefing. Right now, I need to stay alive long enough to find an excitatory axon. And I can't fly without sensors."

"Okay, I've got the readout. Looks like the auxiliary bus clock got out of sync with the primary data bus—"

"That's fascinating. WHICH BUTTON DO I PUSH?"

"You'll have to do a manual reset and re-sync both buses to the system clock. It's procedure 910A in the green manual."

"Green book, nine-one-zero-alfa. Got it. Is this reset going to affect any other systems?"

"The radio will lose power momentarily, but it should come right back."

" 'Should?' "

"Trust me."

"Not like I have a choice."

"You always have a choice, Gabriel. You could choose to crash the vehicle instead of going back to prison after this mission. You could choose to cripple the Prime Minister instead of saving his life."

"No. I couldn't."

"You'll be out of the corona in less than a minute. Better do that reset now."

"Yeah, yeah. Here goes nothing."


Photo: cell model at Science Museum of Minnesota, July, 2008

03 September 2010


By Curtis C. Chen

Thirteen brave soldiers storm’d into Mount Mars.
Thirteen brave soldiers cannot see the stars.
Thirteen brave soldiers are buried in dust.
Thirteen brave soldiers will do what they must.
— colonial nursery rhyme, c. 2130

Jennifer knew what to expect when she entered the cavern. She’d been fully briefed by the Security Council, but she still wasn’t prepared for the tangible quality of the light that filled the space when the soldiers appeared. The translucent figures seemed to melt out of the rocks all around Jennifer, and each one shimmered like nothing else she had ever seen or imagined.

“Hello,” Jennifer said. “I’m Envoy Wakefield—”

A ribbon of light shot up from the ground, enveloped Jennifer like a cocoon, and knocked her off her feet. The light wasn’t quite solid—it didn’t grip her body so much as it interfered with it, making her skin crawl where it touched and partially phased through her—but it was strong enough to lift her a few centimeters into the air.

One ghostly face, a woman, rose to Jennifer’s eye level. She looked familiar—angular features and straight, shoulder-length hair—but Jennifer couldn’t recall a name from the personnel files. A lot of records had gone missing during the war.

“What year is it?” the woman asked, in a voice that sounded like running water.

Jennifer struggled to breathe. “Who are you?”

“Answer my question,” the woman said.

“I was told not to.”

The ribbon of light disappeared, and Jennifer dropped to the dirt. She yelped as she landed and fell forward onto her knees. The ghosts started merging back into the rocks.

“Wait!” Jennifer said. She scrambled to her feet and reached for the woman who had spoken. Jennifer’s fingers sank into the woman’s shoulder, and she tried to remember her briefing on the hard-light projector. How long could she be in contact with a ghost before her cells started imploding? Was it three minutes? She’d have to risk it.

The woman struggled against Jennifer’s grip, but she couldn’t exert enough force on her own, and the other twelve soldiers had disappeared already.

“I’m here to give you an update on our research,” Jennifer said.

“Save your breath,” the woman said. “You envoys have been lying to us for years. Maybe even centuries. We know the war’s over. We know Mars was bombed into a radioactive wasteland. We know the only reason you people even visit is so you can change the batteries on the alien hardware, to keep us trapped here, to keep the wormhole open.”

“We’re very close to being able to free you,” Jennifer said.

“It’s been almost a minute,” the woman said. “Are you sure you don’t need that hand?”

Jennifer released the woman’s shoulder and yanked back her hand. The woman flew up toward the ceiling of the cavern.

“I’m telling you the truth!” Jennifer said.

But the woman was already gone.

Thirteen brave soldiers stand watch under Mars.
Thirteen brave soldiers protect ev’ry star.
Thank you, brave soldiers—what secrets you keep!
But one day, we promise, you will go to sleep.


Photo: ancient Egyptian statues at the British Museum, June, 2009

27 August 2010


This is my one hundredth piece of weekly flash fiction, and I'll hit the two-year mark on this project in about a month. Right after my birthday, in fact, at which time I'll be 37 years old. (ObClerks: Thirty-seven?!)

Anyway, it's time for my second annual bout of soul-searching, to decide whether I want to continue doing 512s for another year. On one hand, it does keep me writing, and creating new, workable story ideas each week; on the other hand, though it may be good practice, it's not directly helping me produce anything salable.

On the gripping hand, even Robert Heinlein didn't make it big until he was 41 years old. And this 512 project is an easy way to track the progress of my self-funded writing sabbatical, which I consider to have started with my trip to Viable Paradise in 2008. I took the oath, and I've been trying to live up to it since then--though I could (and should) be trying a little harder.*

I am a professional writer. I have not yet sold a substantial work of fiction, but that is one of my ultimate goals. (The other is to never actually need to interview for a full-time job again, but that's a different post.) I'm not ready to give up on that yet, and I feel like ending the 512s would take a lot of the wind out of my sails, so to speak.

I guess that's it, then. Get ready for another year of weekly flash fiction, right here at 512 Words or Fewer! Subscribe by RSS or e-mail! Tell your friends! And stay tuned for another survey in the coming weeks...

* I know, I know. "That's what SHE said."



By Curtis C. Chen

"Tell me again how we're not going to get shot, killed, and/or court-martialed?" Rhee said.

"You worry too much," Murtry said.

"Tell that to Harmsa."

"Harmsa had a big mouth." Murtry glanced around the corner of the building. "Okay, it's time." Murtry pulled out a metallic starfish. "Grab one of these arms."

Rhee frowned. "Is this another teleporter?"

"Just touch it!"

Rhee put his hand on the device, and Murtry pressed down on its center. Everything around them rippled.

"Let's go," Murtry said, moving into the light.


"Chill." Murtry pointed at the other end of the building. The guard there was frozen, the smoke from his cigarette hanging in the air like a translucent gray ribbon.

"So the starfish stops time?" Rhee asked, following Murtry to the door.

"Basically." Murtry pulled out his lockpicks. "Watch the smoke, warn me when it starts moving again."

He got the door open in less than a minute. They went through and closed it behind them.

The inside of the warehouse was empty except for a large, glowing oval of light floating a foot off the ground. It showed unfamiliar barracks behind a barbed-wire fence. They watched an old man walk into view.

"You think he can see us?" Murtry said.

The man turned to look at them. He threw himself against the fence, shouting.

"Yes," Rhee said. "Also, your starfish time-stopper has worn off."

"What language is that?" Murtry asked.

Rhee looked at the yellow, six-pointed star on the man's shirt. "Polish."

"Excellent observation, Airman Rhee," came a booming voice behind them.

Murtry and Rhee whirled and stood at attention. Colonel Cranston, the base commander, walked up to them, followed by two MPs wielding pistols.

"Airman Murtry," Cranston said, holding out his hand, "I believe you're holding some inventory from Hangar 18."

Murtry sheepishly handed over the metal starfish.

"You didn't think we'd have detectors for these things?" Cranston shook his head. "Now that your pal Harmsa's talking, we have enough to lock up all three of you troublemakers. But it would be a shame if the Air Force didn't get some use out of you first." He nodded at the oval. "What do you think that is?"

Rhee said, "Time machine."

"Close," Cranston said. "We've been calling it a 'side-portal.' It's an opening to a different time, and a different reality."

"Like a parallel universe?" Murtry asked.

"Exactly," Cranston said. "We should be able to bury something in the past and dig it up in the present, but we can't. The theory is that the portal branches to a completely separate future."

"I have a question, Colonel," Rhee said.

"Go ahead, Airman."

"What's the point of time travel if you can't change the future?"

"Research," Cranston said. "What if the South had won the Civil War? Or the Germans had assassinated Hitler in 1944?" He smiled. "We've got all kinds of thought experiments to try out. And who better to send back in time to tinker with history than two of our best liars?"


Photo: cobwebs on barbed-wire fence at Cape Lookout State Beach, Oregon, August, 2010

20 August 2010

"Stranger in a Strange Land"

By Curtis C. Chen

Dyla rolled down the car window, held out the plastic bottle, and said, "God bless you."

The old beggar woman lowered her cardboard sign, shuffled over to the car, and reached out a hand. "Thank you," she said, and took the bottle. Then her face soured. "What the hell is this?"

"It is a plastic bottle."

"It's empty!"

"Yes!" Dyla smiled. "Fill it with any electrolyte solution you prefer. I have sterilized the container, and the material does not contain bisphenol—"

"Is this some kind of joke?" The old woman tossed the bottle aside, startling Dyla. "You got any spare change? Dollar or two?"

It took Dyla a moment to comprehend the vocabulary. "You want—currency?"

The old woman glared. "Yeah! I want money! It's not enough I gotta stand out here, you gonna humiliate me, too?"

"I do not understand," Dyla said. "You would need to travel to a retail location to exchange currency for usable supplies. Is this not more convenient? Do you not fear dehydration and exposure?"

"Okay, you had your laugh," the old woman said, walking away.


The old woman ignored Dyla and went back to the corner. The traffic light turned green, and Dyla drove her car forward through the intersection. She pressed the attention button on the dashboard.

"This better be important," said the computer. Its synthesized voice always sounded grumpy to Dyla. "I'm doing analysis here."

"I do not understand this planet," Dyla said, and summarized her encounter with the old woman. "What does your research say about beggary?"

"I'll flag it for collection," the computer said. "But as you've seen, their electromagnetic broadcasts are not reliable information sources."

A red indicator light flashed, accompanied by a dinging noise.

"Low on fuel again?" Dyla said. "This vehicle is horribly inefficient."

She pulled the car into the nearest filling station and powered down the engine. As she stepped out of the vehicle, a uniformed attendant nearly ran into her.

"Sorry! Uh, good afternoon, ma'am!" the attendant said. He appeared to be a juvenile, and he kept glancing down at Dyla's chest. "Fill her up for you?"

"No, thank you," Dyla said. "I will refuel the vehicle myself."

She took a step toward the pump, but the attendant held up his hands and stood in her way. "Whoa! You can't do that!"

Dyla frowned. "Why not?"

"You must be new in town. It's state law. Just tell me which gas you want, and I'll pump it for you."

Dyla shook her head. "I am responsible for the maintenance of my vehicle."

"I told you, it's against the law. You'll get slapped with a fine—"

"A monetary payment?"


"Is this the only punishment imposed for such an infraction?"

"Yeah, but it's like five hundred bucks."

"That is acceptable." Dyla stepped past the attendant and picked up the pump nozzle. "Please prepare the documentation. I will pay in cash."

The attendant shook his head and walked away.

"This is a very strange place," Dyla said to the computer.

"Welcome to Oregon," the computer said.


Photo: "In the Tree Tops" sculpture by Margarita Leon, Lloyd district, Portland, Oregon, March, 2010

13 August 2010

"Who's Your Daddy?"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Detective Jacob Lanosky?" asked a female voice.

Jake looked up from the desk he shared with Andy. As the young woman standing next to them lowered her arms, Jake got a glimpse of the card she was holding: a photograph of a man, maybe twenty years younger than Jake, smiling, wearing a blue police uniform.

He looked back up at the woman, studying her face but not recognizing it. Why does this girl have a copy of my academy graduation photo? "That's me."

"I need your help," she said.

Jake stood up. "This is homicide, miss. We don't handle general complaints—"

"Please, Detective," the woman said, "I'm your daughter."

Jake felt a defensive smile creeping onto his face. "You must be mistaken, miss."

The woman opened her purse and pulled out a piece of paper printed with gibberish. "My mother went to a fertility clinic. Artificial insemination. That's the donor profile. I matched this to the municipal genome database."

Jake sighed and turned to Andy. "Do you know what the hell she's talking about?"

Andy bounced up and out of his seat. "We're city employees, Jake. Remember those drug tests? Blood and tissue samples? All that's public information. The department's required by law to make it available."

"That's great," Jake said. "Just one problem. I've never been a sperm donor."

"But your genetic profile is an exact match," the woman said.

"Computer error, then," Jake said. "Look, I'll put you in touch with the records division—"

The woman shook her head. "No! It's you. It has to be you!"

"Calm down, miss," Andy said, raising his arms and holding his palms out. The gesture appeared friendly but actually helped corral suspects.

The woman dropped her paper, turned, and yanked Andy's revolver out of his shoulder holster. She raised the gun to Jake's chest.

"Gun!" Andy shouted. "GUN!"

All around Jake, police officers ducked behind furniture and drew their weapons. Jake and Andy both stayed perfectly still. The woman's hands shook like a leaf in a thunderstorm.

"You're a policeman, right?" she said. "I must be breaking, like, five different laws right now. You have to arrest me. You have to talk to me."

"I swear," Jake said quietly, "on the grave of my mother and my honor as an officer of the law, I will hear you out."

She stared into his eyes for a moment, then nodded and lowered the revolver. She seemed to feel its full weight for the first time, and she fell to her knees. The barrel of the gun thunked against the tile floor. Then she burst into tears.

Andy swooped in to retrieve his weapon. Jake waved off the other detectives, who had risen from their cover and were advancing on the woman.

"She's down!" Jake called out. "All clear! We got this!" He looked down at Andy. "Cuff her, Dix."

Andy looked up, surprised. "But you said—"

"I said I'd talk to her," Jake snapped, "not serve her tea and cookies. Get her into an interview room. I'm going to find a goddamn lawyer."


Photo: warthogs at Zoo Atlanta, May, 2008

06 August 2010

"Out of the Frying Pan"

By Curtis C. Chen


In the year 2345, the captain, first officer, and chief engineer of the United Earth troop transport WUKONG attempted to scuttle their ship after it was crippled during a battle in an alien star system. But an ancient artifact hidden in a nearby asteroid interfered with their self-destruct mechanism, and instead hurled the WUKONG four million years into the past.

Stranded without a functioning stardrive, the crew of the WUKONG made a desperate decision: they recalibrated their star-charts and plotted a course back to Earth at sub-light speed. Then, using the last of their power reserves, the crew put the entire ship into suspended animation, hoping to reach Earth in their own time period and to be rescued by their contemporaries.

Now, four million years later, the stasis bubble around the WUKONG has begun to decay...

Commander Emily Gunderson blinked. Did it work? She turned to look back at the captain and Lieutenant Firmin, WUKONG's chief engineer. They both appeared to be just as confused, bobbing in front of the helm and damage control stations, respectively. Still in zero-gee. At least that means we haven't crashed into anything yet...

The navigation console in front of her made a noise. She and Firmin had reconfigured this station to automatically triangulate WUKONG's current position using known reference stars, and to calculate the current date based on stellar drift. Emily smiled as she recognized the location coordinates. Her smile faded as she deciphered the date reading.

"Captain," she said.

"Commander?" Captain Loa pulled himself over the top of the helm console and glided down to the navigator's station. "Report."

"Well, there's good news and bad news," Emily said.

Loa nodded. He turned back to the damage control station, on the opposite side of the bridge. "Lieutenant?"

"Just a second," Firmin said, her fingers flying over the control panel on the back wall. "I think we're about to lose—"

The entire bridge went dark, leaving the three officers in complete darkness except for the phosphorescent red lines around the edges of their jumpsuits.

"—power," Firmin finished. "Dammit!"

"Well, the good news is, we made it back home," Emily said. "We're inside Neptune's orbit, headed for the inner planets."

"And the bad news?" Loa asked.

"We got here too early. The computer figured the date to be somewhere around 1863."

After a pause, Firmin said, "What?"

"1863," Emily repeated. "Middle of the nineteenth century. Pre-spaceflight. Lack of radio traffic confirms it."

"Goddammit," Firmin said. "What the hell are we supposed to do now? Even if we can find the power to rig another stasis field, what the hell do we do? Hide out on the Moon? Wait for Buzz Armstrong to dig us up?"

"We have a more immediate problem," said Loa, "don't we, Commander?"

"Yes, sir," Emily said. "We're still moving at nearly a quarter of lightspeed. Even if we can get power back, we don't have any fuel left. We can't generate enough thrust to stop WUKONG from falling into the Sun."



Photo: the Fremont Rocket in Seattle, Washington, September, 2008

30 July 2010

"Guys and Dolls"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Come on, Mike, it's easy money." Tracy waggled an unlit cigarette between two fingers. "I'll deal with the client. You never even have to meet him. Totally clean."

Mike closed the file folder and slid it back across the table. "Look, you got the wrong idea. I don't know who told you what, but I can't help you."

"Don't be like that." Tracy's forehead wrinkled into a frown. "Word on the street is you are the man when it comes to robotics. Come on, help a brother out."

Mike shook his head. "I can't do the job your client wants."

Tracy pointed an accusing finger at Mike. "You made that android to take care of Gramps Hogan when he got sick. Don't even tell me you didn't, 'cause those manipulation subs did not come from the factory."

"I don't do repros," Mike said.

"This is not a repro job!" Tracy opened the folder again. The club's blacklights made the white pages glow. "Look. No identity features. Flat-texture fingertips, bloodless retinas, it's all legal—"

"You've got voiceprint specs in there," Mike said. "Chemical analysis of perspiration and skin oils. Your client wants an android that looks, sounds, and smells exactly like his dead wife."


"All my droids are originals," Mike said. "That's the deal. I don't do repros."

"Well, why not?" Tracy slapped the folder shut. "Isn't that what your day job is all about? Using a template, stamping out identical droids on an assembly line?"

"That's different." Mike sighed. "If your client really wants to fuck a corpse, he can pay Genepool to grow a clone in a vat. But it might be cheaper for him to just buy a wig and rent a hooker once a week."

"What the hell is your problem?"

"We're done here."

Mike stood up and turned to walk away. A hand clamped down on his shoulder and spun him back around. Tracy jammed the barrel of a black pistol into Mike's stomach.

"Why don't we step outside," Tracy said. He now held the cigarette between his lips on one side of his mouth, making the other side sneer when he spoke. "Have a smoke. Relax and continue this conversation."

Mike glared at his cousin. "It's like that?"

Tracy nodded.

Mike swung his left arm over and closed his fingers around the pistol. He squeezed hard, crushing the chamber and most of the barrel, sending jagged ceramic bits flying everywhere.

Tracy flinched and let go of the pistol. Mike pistoned his right arm back, then forward, slamming his palm into Tracy's shoulder. Tracy spun and flew backwards, knocking over their table and two more before hitting the back wall.

Mike leaped over the debris, knelt down next to Tracy, and yanked the client file out of his jacket pocket. "I'm going to burn this. You're going to forget about being a digital pimp, and you're going to call me on Monday about an internship at the factory."

Mike dropped a business card on the floor next to Tracy's face. "First lesson? It's cybernetics. Not robotics."


Photo: "Programmable Android" exhibit at Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, July, 2008