27 December 2013

Making Book: Selection Criteria

(With apologies to Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

The 512 collection DeeAnn and I are publishing next month will include one hundred and seventeen stories out of the two hundred and fifty-six from my weekly blog. Why aren't we including all the stories? The main reasons are:
  1. Some have been or will be published elsewhere.
  2. Some are in the process of becoming longer finished works (e.g., novels).
  3. Some of them just weren't very good.
So given all that, how did we pick the stories to include? First, we each rated all the stories independently.

In hindsight, we should have synced up on our rating methods beforehand, because I only used integers (0==no, 1==maybe, 2==yes) and DeeAnn used rational numbers between 0 and 2, inclusive. But we averaged the scores anyway, and discussed any wildly divergent scores or right-in-the-middle ratings.

After we agreed on the set of stories to include, we had to decide on an order in which to present them. To that end, DeeAnn created a new spreadsheet where she summarized each 512 in a logline, and also noted the general theme of each piece and whether it was a strong candidate for an opener or a closer.

Out of all that data, she distilled the themes down to six major sections. Then I took a stab at sorting the sections and stories. (Note my clever use of an old BASIC line numbering trick--i.e., using increasing but non-consecutive numbers to allow later additions--which would have much more useful if I had started doing it before I was halfway through the spreadsheet.)

At that point, we knew exactly what content would be in the book, even if we weren't yet sure about the final order. I spent a few days copying the text of all 117 stories into a Scrivener project, using that latest spreadsheet as a guide, and now we can make whatever tweaks we need to while looking at the actual, mostly formatted text.

So now we have a book, more or less. Yay! What are we going to call it? I'll talk about that next week.


20 December 2013

Making Book: Teaser

(With apologies to Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

I don't think I ever made a formal announcement about this, so here it is: a collection of stories from 512 Words or Fewer will be available next month, as a print-on-demand trade paperback or e-book edition. I'm aiming for an official release on Friday, January 31st (which happens to coincide with the Lunar New Year).

Note that this is not a "best of" collection. Certainly some of the best 512s are included, but I've turned other great pieces into longer stories for submission to paying markets. For example, I recently sold "Somebody's Daughter," a Jake and Andy novelette (13,400 words) which started with "Who's Your Daddy?". The expanded story will be in the next issue (#65) of Leading Edge Magazine, and you should all go buy that when it comes out. :)

Anyway, I'm going to post every Friday from now until the 512 book launches with some background info on its creation. DeeAnn helped me select the stories, I love the title we came up with, and there's going to be spectacular cover and interior artwork by our friend Natalie. Stay tuned for details on all that and more!


27 September 2013

Free to Good Home

Did you know that my short story "Don't Fence Me In" is featured in the Song Stories: Blaze of Glory anthology? And did you further know that said anthology is a FREE Kindle download this weekend (through Monday, September 30th, 2013)?

And if you simply must have a physical artifact, you may purchase a trade paperback edition of Song Stories: Blaze of Glory for the paltry sum of eight dollars and ninety-nine cents (plus tax and shipping, if applicable). Your book will be made to order, or "printed on demand," if you will. What marvels this brave new century hath delivered!

P.S. Tuesday is my 40th birthday, and I'd like your help with an unrelated project: would you kindly tell me how we met? (If you've already responded, feel free to encourage someone else to do it. I'd love to hear from one hundred people before Tuesday, and we're so close!)

P.P.S. Yeah, yeah, I know. "That's what she said."


09 September 2013

Go West, Young 512

Hey, remember "Don't Fence Me?" Well, it took a while, but I turned that 512 into a longer version (3,600 words) and submitted it to various markets. After fifteen rejections, it found a home in the anthology Song Stories: Blaze of Glory--which is now available in trade paperback and on Kindle!

The anthology also includes a story from fellow Pacific Northwest writer Camille Griep, who organizes the annual Cascade Writers workshop!

Every story in this collection is a "weird Western" inspired by a particular piece of music, which each author describes in an afterword. I couldn't include a music video with my afterword, but here's my song:


I built the longer story around the same emotional core as the original 512, but added a lot of depth, if I do say so myself. There's more of all the main characters, an extended ending, and a new opening scene. Here's the first line:

The first time I met Horace Granger, he almost got killed by a magic bullet.

Want to read the whole thing, and six other song stories?

Buy Blaze of Glory in paperback ($9)

Buy Blaze of Glory on Kindle ($3)


23 August 2013

"The End"

By Curtis C. Chen

God woke up on Saturday morning, went downstairs to check on her animals, then stomped into the kitchen. Satan stood at the counter, fussing with the French press.

"What happened to my terrarium?" God asked.

"I didn't touch your pets," Satan said without turning around.

"They're not pets," God said. "And that ecosystem is very delicately balanced—"

"Okay, eco-sphere, whatever." Satan carefully filled his insulated travel mug. "Your aquarium was blocking the screen. I had to move it so we could watch the game."

"You moved it next to the wine cooler," God said. "Interior temperature dropped by half. Most of the reptiles are dead."

"Are you sure they're not just hibernating?"

"Oh, you're a herpetologist now? And would it kill you to clean up after your little boys' club meetings?"

Satan frowned at God. "Geez, what crawled up your ass and died? Is is that time of the month again?"

"I'm going to forget you said that," God said. She glared at Satan's suit and tie. "You really need to go in today?"

"Yes," he said. "Conference call with Asia. Time zones. Can't be helped. Don't worry, I'll be back before seven."

"What happens at seven?"

"Oh, for Pete's sake." Satan grabbed his briefcase. "Dinner with Lucy and Geoff! Reservations at the Garden? Remember?"

"Yeah." God fidgeted. "Sorry I've been distracted this week."

"It's been more than a week," Satan muttered, and slammed the front door shut.

God ate two granola bars and drank a bottle of water, then returned to her experiment. The mammals which had survived last night's big freeze were quite resilient, and she wanted to see what would happen if she made them more complex.

The phone rang at five-thirty. God put it on speaker, but had trouble understanding what her husband was saying. It sounded like Satan was driving.

"I'll be ready to go soon," God shouted at the phone.

"No," Satan said. "Listen! There's been a change of plan. I didn't want to do this over the phone, but—this marriage is not working."

God was only half-listening. Her attention was focused on extracting bone marrow from a sedated male specimen, which she could use to create a female clone. "I'm sorry I've been busy. I'll take tomorrow off, I promise."

"That's not the point! Dammit, how do I say this?"

"Just hang up," came a female voice through the speaker. "She doesn't care."

God frowned. "Is that Lucy?"

"You had your chance, honey!" Lucy said. "He's mine now!"

"Okay, stop," Satan said. "You're making it worse."

God put down her instruments. "Where's Geoff?"

"Probably still at the office," Satan said. "Look. Baby. I'm sorry, but I can't do this anymore. I need someone who's more attentive, more invested in our relationship."

"You should have sucked his dick more!" Lucy said, giggling.

"Really not helping!" Satan said. "I'm sorry. We're leaving. This is the end."

The line went dead. God turned back to her work.

"No," she said, watching as the male and female shared a piece of fruit. God smiled. "This is just the beginning."


Photo Credit: Anua22a via Compfight cc

Wait for it...

We spent all day driving from Portland to Palo Alto, so I'm a little behind on work. The final 512 will be up, oh, let's say mid-afternoon today.

Thanks for your patience, and thanks for reading.

Meanwhile, for no apparent reason, here's a picture of a marsupial.


Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

19 August 2013

I Wanna Be Your Sledgehammer

ETA (22 Sep 2013): The Readers' Choice Poll is now closed. Winners will be announced soon!

ETA (22 Aug 2013): The Readers’ Choice Poll is now up at sledgehammercontest.com! Look in the left column for the ballot of eligible stories (including mine, "Born to the Legion"). Vote until September 21st!

ETA (21 Aug 2013): You can now read "Born to the Legion" online, as well all the other Sledgehammer 2013 submissions. Voting form coming soon!

Portlandia residents: If you're free tonight at 7:00 PM, join me and other writers at Blackbird Wine & Atomic Cheese for three-minute readings from this past weekend's Sledgehammer 36-Hour Writing Contest! I'll be reading the opening of my talking-animals-at-war story, "Born to the Legion."

Everyone else: Visit the www.sledgehammercontest.com and vote for the Readers' Choice Award (coming soon; polls open until September 18th)!

The writing prompts, given during Saturday's scavenger hunt, were:
  1. An animal trainer
  2. "Don't eat that!"
  3. Cornfields
  4. Doughnuts
  5. Spending $4
  6. Owls
And yes, I did spend way too much time watching video clips from Twin Peaks, and the working title was "The Owls Are Not What They Seem." Then I got halfway through the draft and completely changed the MacGuffin that drives the story. (Spoiler alert: it's pretty much just an episode of Stargate now. It's what I do.)

All of this year's contest entries will be posted at sledgehammercontest.com next month.


16 August 2013

"My Least Favorite Martian"

By Curtis C. Chen

The trouble starts before I can say hello.

"You again, human oppressor?" John says by way of greeting. He opened the door a split second before I could knock. Stupid Martian senses. "What vile directive must you impose now?"

I hold up a copy of his lease. "You signed this lease. It is a binding legal contract." I point to the circled paragraphs. "And you agreed to this condition, right here: no pets."

"This one is ignorant of the subject of your tirade," John says, wiggling his antennae.

"I'm talking about the six different cats your neighbors have seen through your back window."

"What is a... 'cat'?" John enunciates the last word theatrically.

Before I can ask just how stupid he thinks I am, a large orange tabby leaps onto John's shoulder. He attempts to shoo it away with his upper arm cilia while it scrabbles for purchase on his deltoid ridges. I fold my arms and watch the cat decide that the flat part of John's skull is a better resting place. The cat settles in between John's antennae.

"You've got thirty days," I say, shoving the lease into his hands.

"Human definitions are primitive and flawed!" John calls as I walk away down the hall. "A sentient being cannot be considered a mere domestic animal!"

I stop and turn around. "Oh, you want to call them roommates, then? You're only allowed up to three of those! Get rid of the cats."

"Cruel, unfeeling human!" John raises both arms to point at the cat now sleeping on his head. "You would ask this one to render an innocent companion creature homeless and destitute?"

"Hey, no one forced you to live here. You can find a new apartment. I don't care!" I realize I'm shouting, and lower my voice. John has followed me all the way down the hall. "But you can't stay here and keep the cats." I push the elevator call button.

John lowers his arms, but his cilia continue vibrating, like Davy Crockett in a wind tunnel. "Your respect for the law is admirable, enforcer human. But perhaps we may yet reach a compromise?"

"This is not a negotiation. Like I said—"

"If you were to consider the cats my roommates, I could retain three of them?"

I shake my head. "Look, you want to be a test case for personhood, that's your problem. Go talk to the ACLU. You've still got thirty days to comply or vacate." The elevator arrives, and I step inside. "These are the building's rules. I don't make 'em up. I'm just the messenger."

John stops vibrating and seems to slouch a little. "You are firm but fair, child-bearing human."

"Word of advice," I say, pushing the button for the ground floor. "It's 'woman,' or 'female,' or 'lady.' Not all of us want babies."

"I was not referring to your gender," John says. "Are you not aware of your medical condition?"

I'm unable to speak for a moment. "What?"

The elevator doors close before John can explain.


Photo Credit: hugovk via Compfight cc

09 August 2013

"Money for Nothing"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Don't know why you're wasting your time with the lottery," Rutina says, watching me twirl the ticket between my fingers.

It's because I know something you don't, Ruti. And I can't tell you my secret. It's too dangerous.

I don't know if this will work. It's a long shot, but even if it doesn't pan out, I'm only out a few bucks. And, you know, a third of the money goes toward public education. Hopefully including basic math skills.

The TV announcer shouts something—I'm only half listening, focusing my attention on the Lotto ticket, the object I want to push. Out of the corner of my eye, I see white balls spinning inside a metal cage.

"Maybe turn it down a bit," I say. "We just got Wally to sleep." A crying baby will definitely affect my concentration.

"Tevs." Ruti lowers the volume.

I have no idea what I'm doing. If I do win the lottery, how much luck does that count for? What's the price? Because I don't make the luck I push onto things—I steal it from somewhere else. And I'm always hoping it comes from someone I don't care about.

Ruti punches me in the arm.

"Ow!" I glare at her.

"Did you win or not, weirdo?"

I look up. I read the numbers on the TV screen, then compare them to my ticket. I read them again. And again.

"Well?" Ruti says.

"I did it," I say. "I won."


"Hey, Ollie! You're on TV!"

I rush out from the kitchen where I'm helping Ruti's mom with the dishes. Ruti's bouncing excitedly on the couch. Of course the news chose the worst possible photo of me, the one with my hair in those stupid curls, but the big number floating beside my dopey face softens the blow.

Six zeros. Two commas. More money than I've ever imagined.

And sure, a lump sum payout will be only half that amount, and income taxes will eat half of that, but that still leaves eight figures. Over a hundred thousand dollars, tax-free, every year for the rest of my life.

As soon as I finish doing the math, I'm reminded it's all too good to be true.

When I regain my senses, I'm kneeling on the floor, crying. Ruti is next to me, holding me upright.

"Ollie, what's wrong?" she asks. I point at the TV. "Who is that?"

"Dead," I sob. "He's—supposed—to be—dead."

Ruti's mom crouches down and puts a hand on my shoulder. "It's okay, Olivia. We'll figure this out."

"Mom?" Ruti says. "Do you know what she's talking about?"

Mrs. Alwen nods. "I haven't seen him in years, but that looks like Olivia's birth father."

So this is the price. This is what I have to live through to win the lottery.

Jesus, we're all going to be at the award ceremony, all four of us together. I don't know if I can do it. Mom sure can't. And I don't know how we're going to keep Steven from killing him.


Image: Fred Meyer Rewards Rebate mailer, August, 2013

02 August 2013

"Meet Cute"

By Curtis C. Chen

"We have faster-than-light interstellar travel," Anglana said. "We have medical technology that can regrow entire limbs. I have a chip inside my skull which allows me to access the sum of human knowledge in a fraction of a second." She took a breath. "How difficult can it be to find one name on a goddamn registration list?"

"I'm very sorry, miss," said the robot behind the check-in desk. "Could you spell your name again, please?"

Anglana held out her passport. "Here. Can you see that? Can any of your sensors detect at least one of the three distinct identification markers in my official travel documents?"

"I'm very sorry, miss—"

"Of course not!" Anglana threw her hands up.

"Is there a problem here?" said a voice behind her.

Anglana turned and saw a man, roughly her height, wearing a hotel uniform and a nametag labeled RILEY. His dark eyes were as unreadable as the robot's. They stared at each other for a moment.

"Yes, Riley, there is a problem," Anglana said. "This robot can't verify my conference registration."

Riley nodded. "Yeah, that's been happening quite a bit. Some problem with their local data interfaces."

"How hard can it be to set up one lousy database?"

"I saw one of the conference organizers—a human—down that way." Riley gestured behind him. "If you'll follow me, maybe we can track her down and get this sorted out?"

Anglana exhaled. "Thank you. I will." She turned to the robot. "Thanks for nothing, you waste of silicon."

"I'm very sorry, miss."

"I'm married!"

Anglana followed Riley down the hall, around a corner, and then—after they both made sure no one was looking—through a door marked ASSOCIATES ONLY, down a service corridor, and into a supply closet. Riley closed the door, and they both began taking off their clothes.

"'Married?'" Riley said, kicking off his shoes and undoing his pants.

"Orders said make a scene," Anglana said as she unbuttoned her blouse. "I made a scene."

"You had to have the last word." Riley had removed his shirt, and Anglana had to admire his naked torso for a moment.

"Do I need to do anything with this?" she asked as she pulled on the hotel uniform.

"Nope." Riley had retrieved a garment bag and extracted a new, business-casual wardrobe for himself. "Hotel imprints a new day code into the fabric at start of shift. You've got full security clearance until eight AM."

"Good." Anglana twisted up her hair and fastened it in back. "Visual confirm on target?"

"Room 1024." Riley handed her a keycard. "Still partying, last time I checked."

"How long ago was that?"

He blinked. "Just under three minutes."

Anglana stepped back into her shoes and adjusted the RILEY nametag. "How do I look?"

"Dressed to kill."

Anglana made a face. "Really?"

The man shrugged. "It's a weakness."

Anglana opened the closet door, walked out, and turned around. "Nice to meet you. Don't die on the way home. Good-bye."

She closed the door before he could respond.


Photo Credit: elkit via Compfight cc

26 July 2013


By Curtis C. Chen

Welcome back to everyone watching our live broadcast of the 127th Galactic Harmony Games! I'm Gropflixnum Square, and with me here in the booth is Braznart Morchey-Morchey-Pop. Whaddya say, Braz? Still having fun?

My status is unchanged.

Hey, me too! Now, I gotta tell you, folks, I have seen some outrageous plays over my five decades of announcing for the Harmonies, but what happened in this last quarter absolutely takes the cake. What do you think, Braz? Is this going to be the most memorably disastrous Harmony Games to date?

Gropflixnum, my dear friend, you are as ignorant as you are sexually promiscuous. Do you not recall the final moments of game seven of the 64th Harmonies, when an entire starting line-up of humanoids failed to defend their home goal from the onslaught of a trio of mind-bonded lump-beasts? Or game three of the 96th Harmonies, when a single Zallgallian child scored the winning point against an all-star team representing Arbogastia's best and brightest? I hardly think today's tawdry events will rate even a footnote in the grand history of this heroic competition, the greatest athletic tradition in the known universe.

And that's why we have him here, folks, to give you that unique Pop-Snarquijan perspective! Thanks, Braz.

It would not disappoint me if you were to perish in a conflagration, foul Gropflixnum.

Okay. Folks, if you're just joining us, I don't know what to tell you! We are still in a time-out here in game six of the 127th Harmonies, and the referees are still conferring over how to call that last play. Not to mention the stadium medical teams have been treating the wounded players for nearly twenty centizhus, and we still do not have an update on their status. Even the coaches have been barred from entering the surgical tents, and you know that's gotta be driving them crazy!

That is unlikely, Gropflixnum, you polyp on the rectum of existence, since the Earth humans use telepathic implants for communication. Their coach is surely aware of every development as it occurs—

Hold that thought, Braz, here comes a ref to make the call!


Ouch, that's gotta hurt!

Gropflixnum, you are a genetically inferior specimen of questionable mental faculty.

Okay, folks, a quick recap of the action so far: the Earth humans are down by five points in the final six centizhus of the fourth quarter, and in what can only be described as an act of desperation, they finally unleashed their trademark "meltdown" attack! It's virtually guaranteed to generate some forward motion for them on the field, but always results in heavy collateral damage. Braz! Your analysis?

Thank you, honorable Gropflixnum. Taking all variables and available data into consideration, I believe—with better than 90% certainty—that your mother was surely an unlicensed sex worker, and more than likely a blood relation of your eventual father.

I meant your analysis of the game, Braz.

I know.


Photo Credit: Werner Kunz via Compfight cc

19 July 2013

"Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?"

By Curtis C. Chen

"I'm not a terrorist," Ava said as soon as the man in the dark suit walked into the room. He ignored her, sat down across the bare metal table from her, and continued reading his display tab.

Ava watched the man's dark eyes scan back and forth. He swiped his finger across the display once, twice, three times. How was it even possible that her police file would be that long?

"I want a lawyer," Ava said.

The man looked up from his tablet. His expression was unreadable.

"I want a lawyer," Ava repeated.

The man turned the display face down on the table. "Where do you think you are, Miss Farman?"

"I want a lawyer!"

The man shook his head. "You are no longer on American soil. In fact, since this room doesn't officially exist, you are not anywhere. And nothing that happens here is real."

His smile made Ava want to punch him. She couldn't do that with her wrists cuffed to the table, so she kicked him in the shin. He yelped and jumped out of his chair.

"What the hell!" he said.

"Oh, are you experiencing some phantom pain?" Ava asked. "Because I'm pretty sure nothing at all just happened."

The man glared at her. "Fine. Here's the deal. We've confiscated all the computer equipment in your home and disabled your networked computing projects--"

"Bullshit," Ava said. "You can't shut down the grid. It's a decentralized global volunteer network. Open source, asshole."

"What do you think the 'National' in 'National Science Foundation' means?" the man snapped. "We see everything that's managed by the Berkeley servers."

Ava gaped. "You're NSA."

The man shrugged. "Close enough."

"I'm not a terrorist. I was sequencing my mother's genome—"

"To try to cure her, we know."

Ava shivered. "Right. My search history." She had always known the government was watching every unencrypted thing she did online, but the reality of it had always seemed distant, academic. Now it was a very real knot in her stomach. "Then you know I'm telling the truth. I haven't done anything wrong."

"Not yet," the man said. "But it's only a matter of time."

He turned the display tab around and held it up. Ava recognized a PCR scan of her mother's DNA, showing the thousand or so base pairs which might be causing her cancer. Ava blinked back tears.

"How the fuck is curing cancer a national security issue?" she spat.

The man lowered the display tab. "You're not going to cure cancer, Miss Farman. Not like this. We already know what these particular genes do."

"And what's that?"

The man manipulated the display tab, then slid it across the table. Ava looked down and saw a dense block of text. She had to read the page twice before its meaning registered.

"This is an employment contract," she said.

"Yeah," the man said. "All things considered, Miss Farman, I'd much rather hire you than kill you. But I'm going to let you choose how you leave this room: in a body bag, or with a keycard."


Photo Credit: Boreio Selas via Compfight cc

12 July 2013

"Photorps and Emotions"

By Curtis C. Chen

Shut the fuck up, son. I won't allow that kind of talk on my deck. Those officers have earned your respect. Sit down, you're going to get a lecture. Yes, that's an order!

There's a Lieutenant JG up in Science, Spork or something--I can't pronounce Fulcan names. Anyway, couple months ago, he figured out how to stabilize the yield on our new torpedoes, those Unlucky Thirteens. Intermix chambers always went out of calibration after firing and dampened the impact detonation. Annoying as hell.

Of course the captain's interested. He reassigns my entire work crew, including me, to help Spork. Pulls us off vital shuttlecraft maintenance to experiment on three torpedoes. But what really chaps my hide is how Spork struts onto my deck and starts giving orders left and right, telling my people when to jump and how high.

I was ready to give him a piece of my mind. But I'm no dummy, I ain't gonna put my chevrons up against his stripes. So I don't confront him directly. I tell my gang to sabotage his little science project. Nothing dangerous, just a solid fail, enough to make him lose face in front of the captain.

I was wrong. Yeah, you're not gonna hear me say that again in this lifetime, so enjoy it while you can.

Yarrison and Belso got the worst of it. Third-degree plasma burns, toxic inhalants. The rest of us just got thrown back by the explosion. Spork cracked his skull against the deck. I saw him bleeding like a motherfucker, but he didn't hesitate. He yanked on half a hazmat suit, walked right into the burning debris, pulled Yarrison and Belso out before the fire suppression force fields suffocated them.

Anyway, Spork won't go to Sickbay until he's checked the torpedo, and I stay to cover up what we did. But of course I can't. His scanner readings are clear as day; there's no way the intermix went that far out of true without tampering.

But Spork just closes his scanner, looks at me, and says, "It appears one of us miscalibrated the inputs. We should be more careful in our next attempt."

He knows what I did, but he ain't gonna tell. He doesn't have to say anything. I feel bad enough already--I nearly killed two of my own people, and for what? Because I don't like the guy? What the fuck am I, ten years old? I'm an engineering supervisor on a goddamn starship.

So I say, "It won't happen again, Lieutenant."

He nods, and we get back to work.

Forget him saving Yarrison and Belso. He also saved me from myself. I didn't trust the Academy for graduating him, I didn't trust the captain for assigning him, I didn't trust all the evidence telling me that Spork knew his shit.

Yeah, everybody makes mistakes. But don't fuck up the same ways I did, okay? Don't worry, you'll find plenty of new ways to screw up. Just be a little bit better than your old man, that's all I want.


Photo Credit: MATEUS_27:24&25 via Compfight cc

05 July 2013

"Bookworm Adventures"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Shouldn't you be talking to your advisor about this?" I ask Nicole as she pulls another book off the shelf with purple-gloved hands.

"I don't trust my advisor," she says. "Is that thing ready?"

She points at the old film camera which I borrowed from the campus art center and lugged down here at her behest. She still hasn't told me why she wanted it, and I can't imagine a dozen dusty old books in the library's basement will make for an especially compelling student film project. Unless maybe she's planning to take off her top and read them aloud.

I check the camera and nod. "Willing and able. But you know you can record videos with your phone, right? And why don't you trust Professor Wigan?"

Nicole starts opening books carefully—some of them look like they could fall apart at any second—and arranging them on the table. "My phone won't work for this. And Wigan is the one who started me down this path. I think—" She shakes her head. "I don't know what I think anymore."

"Nicky, have you been getting enough sleep?"

She laughs, then looks at me with unfocused eyes. "Start the camera."

I flip some switches, and the camera clicks and whirs. "Okay, it's going. You've got about ten minutes before this cartridge runs out."

Nicole looks into the lens and starts talking.

"My name is Nicole Redberg. I'm a master's student at Leland University. My thesis is on the phonological evolution of Sino-Tibetan languages during the seventh century AD. I found these rime dictionaries in the university's rare books collection and was studying them when I discovered—something."

She holds up one book, showing a dense grid of Chinese characters.

"There are gaps in the rime tables," Nicole continues. "Missing sections corresponding to sounds which are known to exist. In fact, the gaps are different in every book, and tones which are missing from one book appear in others. They have been excluded deliberately.

"Each table has a specific grid pattern, and the gaps indicate a unique sequence of excluded sounds. When combined, they don't correspond to actual words in any of the known languages from that period, but there is something else interesting about them."

She puts down the book, pulls a folded-up paper from her jeans, and recites a series of vaguely Asian-sounding noises. I wonder if it's supposed to mean something to me. After all, Nicole could have finagled her own camera; why did she want me here, too?

"Do you see it, Rachel?" she asks quietly.

"See what?"

She points at the table. Twelve open books, just as before, the overhead lights casting their shadows across the wooden surface--


The books are all floating several inches above the table.

I stumble backwards into the wall. I gape at the levitating books, then look at Nicole. She's smiling.

"Good," she says. "You see it, too." She nods at the camera. "Now let's develop that film and make sure we're not both crazy."


Photo Credit: citizenoftheworld via Compfight cc

28 June 2013

"Free Advice"

By Curtis C. Chen

I wait an agonizing fifteen minutes in line for the right maker window to open up. Gods aren't used to waiting for anything, you understand; and the bored smiles I get from the hostess in a flimsy Naiad costume are infuriating.

At least I know my own disguise, as a potbellied business drone, is working. Normally a woman would be all over me within seconds. Especially the married ones. It's a curse to be the god of betrayals.

Finally, the diner at window three rolls off his stool, and the hostess waves me over.

The boy working window three can't be more than sixteen years old, but his hands are nimble and quick. He could be one of mine. I order Thunnus sashimi to start and watch as he makes art out of the preparation.

Cut, dip, form, assemble; his grace honors the once-living ingredients and the patron who demands this sacrifice. It's a quaint ritual, designed to give mortals a simulation of receiving worship. I don't begrudge you that need, but it is only a shadow of what real adulation feels like.

The boy bows his head when presenting the wooden slab, adorned with three perfect portions of fish. He doesn't look up as I consume the offering. The textures and flavors unravel magnificently in my mouth, and it almost feels like a sin to swallow.

I compliment the boy, order an Arachne roll, and ask: "Did you grow up on the island?"

He stiffens, but doesn't pause his dance, spinning inside the tiny booth to retrieve a soft-shell crab, turning back to fold it into his next edible creation. "Long time ago, sir. Live here now."

"Ever visit back home? Friends, family?"

He pauses, knife in mid-air, and glances at me. "Got no family since the war, sir. No friends, neither."

The knife descends, slicing through the seaweed-wrapped bundle.

"Not even Kritodemos?"

He stops the blade and looks up. His hands move to grip the edges of his counter, and I see them shaking. "How you know that name?"

I smile at him, a god's smile, and I know it calms him, even if he refuses to soften his stare.

I pull out the hundred-drachma note the man in the alley gave me. The hologram of Zeus glitters in the light. You'd never know it was counterfeit if you didn't have a god's eyes.

"He's here," I say to the boy. "Paroled last week. He will arrange a chance meeting soon, be surprised to run into you, want to catch up. You'll go along. Why not? It'll feel just like old times. You'll wonder how you ever had any fun without him. But he will betray you at the first opportunity."

I slide the cash across the counter.

"I can't accept," the boy says.

"A generous gratuity," I say. "Take it. You're right, islander: you have no friends. Only the gods."

After a moment, he snatches the money and hides it in a pocket, faster than even my eyes can follow. Nimble and quick.


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21 June 2013

"Where the Shadows Run From Themselves"

By Curtis C. Chen

The elevator stops and the doors open on a featureless white chamber, a single room with a square table in the middle. There's something on the table, blinking different colors, but you can't quite make it out from here.

You step out of the elevator.

The doors slide shut behind you, and when you turn back, the elevator has disappeared. There's only a blank white wall there, and all around you. No windows, no doors, nothing.

Soft white light seems to emanate from every surface, as if these objects are glowing from within.

The lights on the table keep blinking. You walk forward to get a better look.

Attached to the table is a rectangular white box. You can't move it; the box feels like a single, solid block, except for three blinking lights on top.

The lights shine inside three big plastic push-buttons—red, green, and blue, from left to right—each one a convex disk as big as your palm.

You reach out and press down on the red button. You feel something click inside the box.

A male voice booms from the ceiling: "I said don't push the red button!"

You jump back. Nothing else happens. You wait for what feels like a long time—you start counting slowly, but stop after you reach twenty-six.

The button-lights continue blinking.

You push the green button. Nothing happens. You push it again. Still nothing.

You push the blue button. All the illuminated surfaces around you go dark, leaving just the buttons blinking in blackness. You push the blue button again. The lights come back on.

It's weird that the green button doesn't seem to do anything.

You stare at the buttons for a while, and you realize that each one is blinking a different sequence. Sometimes the light stays on for a long time, and sometimes it's much shorter; similarly, there are short pauses, long pauses, and extra-long pauses between lights. The sequences repeat.

The red and green sequences are very similar. The only difference between them is where their single extra-long pause occurs. For red, it's after a long light and before another long light. For green, it's after a short and before a long.

The blue sequence is significantly different from red or green. Blue has more short lights, and a longer sequence overall. You wish you had some pen and paper to write this down, but it's a small enough data set that you can keep it all in your head.

You leave out the extra-long pauses, since that's where each sequence repeats, and the short pauses, which simply appear to separate the lights. What does that give you?

Red: long, short, pause, long, long, long.

Green: long, long, long, pause, long, short.

Blue: long, long, long, pause, short, short, long, short, pause, short, short, long, short.

Recognition snaps into place. You know what this is. You know what the lights are telling you to do.

You push the green button, then the blue button.

And then you see it.


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14 June 2013

"Interview with a Gatekeeper"

By Curtis C. Chen

I open the door, I close the door. That's all. I don't look inside, I don't go through. You could not pay me enough to go through.

They say what's on the other side always changes. It's different for every person, and different every time that person opens and closes the door. Sometimes it changes on both sides, and the person who went in never comes out. We give them forty-eight hours. Then we have to send the next one in.

It's busier here than you might think. Anyone above a certain national security clearance has to open the door. Every President since Carter has had to at least look inside before taking office. Sometimes they step through, but we never close the door on them. Can't take the chance that he'll disappear. Even if he freaks out—well, that's why we have them do it, right? To see if they can handle it.

No. We have no idea how it works. Every now and then, the eggheads come by with some new sensor they've cooked up. They're always disappointed when they leave. And they always argue about who has to open the door.

See, the door knows who's opening it. It has to, right? Because it shows you something that will scare the shit out of you specifically, and only you. It also knows if there's more than one person looking inside. If there are two or more observers, it does nothing—open it and you see the back wall there. The door works for a single person at a time, and it's eyes-only—no photos, no video. If you try to record what you see, it just doesn't work.

And isn't that almost scarier than the door being a portal to weird-ass places which don't exist? It implies that the door can tell the future. It doesn't decide to stop working after you open the door and pull out your phone to take a picture; it doesn't work at all in the first place. It knows what you're going to do.

But here's the other thing. You see how they installed the door here? It opens toward you. It doesn't work if you open it from the other side, pushing the door away; it only works if you pull it open.

Now think about the doors you have in your own house, like your front door. You pull the door open when you're inside. You push when you're entering the house, pull when you're leaving.

So here's my question. We can open the door and go through—out—to whatever bizarre reality it's created for your own personal torment. But every time we do that, what the hell might we be letting back into our world?

I'm pretty sure we won't like the answer, whenever we finally find out. But that won't be anytime soon. Meanwhile, you know, it's a paycheck. I'm not rigging elections or doing illegal domestic surveillance or anything morally questionable like that.

I open the door, I close the door. That's it.


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07 June 2013

"In Which Miss Hartfeil Drops Some Science on Her Tenth Grade Classroom"

By Curtis C. Chen

The Martians came from the future. We didn't know that at first, and neither did they. And how did we find out? Anyone? That's right, Becky, we had sex with them.

All right, everybody simmer down! You knew this was going to be today's lesson, and we have a lot to get through here.

Who knows where the first ship from Mars landed?

Yes. And the name of the woman who greeted our first visitors from another planet?

Correct. Does anybody know more about that initial encounter? Go ahead, Tanis.

Okay. Thank you, Tanis, for that disturbingly clinical retelling of what was, at the time, a rather sensational news event.

Some of your grandparents may have been alive for this, so as a side project—yes, Molly, it is worth extra credit—you can interview a family member about what they remember from that time.

Now, before anything else, I need to say this: Do not have unprotected sex with anybody! Especially not alien life forms from outer space.

I'm going to say that several times today, because though it might seem like an obvious health safety tip, clearly it wasn't anywhere near Jessy Harper's mind on that fateful night in Willow Creek.

Once again: Do not have unprotected sex with space aliens. Or humans! Just don't do it, okay?

It is possible that young Jessy thought she was safe from disease or pregnancy because her lover wasn't human. Well, she was wrong. There's another important lesson here: If something seems weird, it's probably even weirder than you think. The universe is really, really, really weird, guys.

Here's the punchline. That Martian who had sexual intercourse with Jessy Harper was, in fact, also human. The same species as us—homo sapiens. He came from a civilization of humans who had left Earth, some time in our future, and colonized Mars, hundreds of thousands of years in their distant past.

I'm not going to get into the time travel stuff, because I honestly don't understand it, and that's Mr. Wright's job to teach you about wormholes and brane spaces and quantum foam. It took everyone here on Earth a long time to figure out what was going on with the Martians, but after we did, whole new areas of scientific research opened up to us.

Back to the species thing. Who here has a pet dog or cat at home? Angie, what breed is your dog?

Okay. Does anybody know how many different breeds of dogs there are?

It's a lot. Hundreds worldwide. And while a sheepdog may look very different from a chihuahua or a terrier, all dogs can interbreed and produce viable offspring. So you could think of Martians as just another breed of people. Another race.

Despite their unusual appearance and strange language, the Martians were still biologically human. They had basically human genitalia, which made possible that first Martian's coupling with Jessy Harper, and human DNA, which made possible her subsequent pregnancy.

Yes, Dora, we will talk about Martian penises very soon. You can put your hand down. Thank you.


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31 May 2013

"This is the Job"

By Curtis C. Chen

I had to burn my clothes after the first time. There was no way to get the smell out. It wasn't that the odor was unpleasant, exactly; but it was such a unique thing, something you wouldn't, couldn't smell anywhere else. It would always remind me of the job.

The second time wasn't any better. Different, sure. I went out with a partner, a guy with a handlebar mustache who would not stop talking. Eventually I figured out that if I just kept feeding him, he'd be too busy eating to yammer about his wife or his kids or his goddamn athlete's foot. As an added bonus, the smell of the raw onions he piled on his overcooked street-vendor hot dogs helped mask the smell.

That one didn't go so well. I work alone now. But thanks to that yappy idiot, I can't eat sausages anymore, either. Reminds me of the fucking job.

Sometimes it feels like the work is taking over my life, making it so I can't do anything without thinking of how it relates to the job. I hear a song on the radio and remember that it was playing in the shopping mall where I did number four. And playing everywhere, piped into every corner of the damn place, even those long, bare concrete back hallways where every sound echoes like a curse.

I was interrupted that time. Some kid leaving his shift at the food court, still wearing his stupid colorful uniform and sipping on a giant plastic cup of sugar water. He dropped his drink and ran, but I had a job to do. So he turned into number five.

Cutting out soda pop wasn't such a bad thing. I still get plenty of caffeine from coffee, and I've also got powders and pills to keep me going when I need a boost. Plus, forcing myself to avoid the temptation of sweet fizzy drinks means I don't hang out around so many teenagers anymore. That's good. Number five was another underage girl, and that was a fucking chore. Never again. It's so much easier when I can get them drunk first.

Planning helps. I figured that out pretty quickly. You have to think on your feet in this line of work. I mean, no plan can account for everything, but it helps to have a few options in mind when you start the job. Know your exits, keep a cover story in mind, stuff like that. You don't actually need much preparation. If you don't act too strange, people will fill in most details for themselves. No need to explain if nobody asks.

Yeah, the smell still bugs me. Mostly because I don't know what it is. I mean, I know the smell of blood. I know sweat and tears and piss and shit and even brains, but it's not any one of those. Maybe it's a combination. Or maybe it's, I don't know, something else. Something particular to the work.

I hate this fucking job. But somebody's got to do it.


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24 May 2013

The Last of the 512s

Three months from now, on Friday, August 23rd, 2013, I will publish my 256th and final piece of flash fiction on this site.

On that day, it will have been nearly five years since I started this project. I could continue, but I feel I've accomplished what I set out to do with this project. (And yes, I could continue until the full five years is up--going to 260 stories--but these are all arbitrary numbers, and I prefer powers of two. It's, like, thematic and shit.)

I've demonstrated to myself that I can produce on a regular deadline, and with fairly consistent quality. I can generate new ideas nearly on demand and turn them into stories, or scenes, or at least writing exercises. It's time to move on to bigger, better, possibly salable things. This has been fun and productive, but it's not the endgame.

However, that last piece won't quite be the end of 512 Words or Fewer. I'm going to put together that "best of" collection I was talking about, years ago; my discerning, well-read wife DeeAnn will help me edit the book, and we'll publish it no later than my 40th birthday, on October 1st of this year. It's a happy coincidence of milestones, and I'm going to take it.

So stay tuned for the last of my 512s, to be posted on this blog over the next lucky-thirteen weeks. I can't promise they'll be any better than previous installments, but they will be new.


"Who Died?"

By Curtis C. Chen

If you tell me, I can bring him back. Or her. Whoever it was. Tell me.

Oh, no. Stop. I'm sorry, I wasn't clear. It has to be your first. Yes, the very first. Your first experience with death. It may not have been a human; perhaps it was a pet, a goldfish or dog or—no? All right. But it must be your first.

I'll know if you're lying. It only works if you tell the truth. It has to be the first. The first death which made it clear to you that death is real, permanent, pervasive, inescapable. Your first. That's the only one I can bring back.

That doesn't mean it has to be someone who was close to you. That's the other thing everybody gets wrong. It's not the first person who died and affected you in some deep, traumatic, emotional way. No. It's simply your first death, the one that exposed the reality of dying to you.

Yes, they do often coincide, and those stories are as horrible as they are pedestrian; the young child who loses a parent, we've all heard that one, haven't we? But the good news is, I can do something about it. I can bring that parent back. If that was your first death.

Well, of course there's a price. Isn't there always? That's how this works. The price, in this case, is your memory.

Oh, not your entire memory. Heavens, no! That would be unspeakably cruel. I only take that single memory, of your first encounter with death. That moment of revelation, when you understood that the Reaper was whispering around every corner, waiting for each of us at the end.

I take that memory, and you get your dearly departed back.

Of course, there will be certain side effects. That knowledge of death, of what it does and how it affects us, has informed every decision you've ever made since you acquired it. You would have been a very different person without it. And once I take that memory, you will be different.

Not different in any noticeable way; not at first. You'll still be you, with the same personality, the same fears and foibles as always. But you'll not have the same understanding of death any longer. You'll have to go through that experience again. You'll have to relive your first death.

Maybe it will be easier this time, better; maybe it'll be worse. Who can say? Some actually desire that opportunity, that second chance to grasp the ineffable.

But in any case, you'll have your dead back. That's the important thing, for most; they're willing to sacrifice to save that person. They're willing to plunge themselves into the unknown for the guarantee of seeing their long-lost loved one, alive again.

Oh, I can't tell you what happened to any of the others. Also part of the bargain, I'm afraid. You don't get to play the odds. You must decide with only the information I've given you.

Have you decided? Excellent.

So, tell me: who died?


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17 May 2013

"Down to Earth"

By Curtis C. Chen

"They have telescopes," Perry said. "They've all got telescopes. Some of them are tracking you right now, feeding live video to public web sites. We can't shut down the entire worldwide amateur astronomy community. You can't de-orbit."

I hated not being able to see him. Several of the meteors—the smaller ones—had impacted my helmet, knocking out the heads-up display embedded in the transparent visor. It was weird, hearing Perry's voice in my ear without seeing his face, and I wondered if it would have been better if one of the bigger rocks had smashed into my head. At least then I would have died in an instant, instead of now having to choose a terrible public demise.

"You think it's going to be better if I yank off my helmet and suffocate?" I asked. "Then the whole world gets to watch my corpse circling the planet for centuries. At least if I burn up, it's over in a few minutes."

"Do you want your husband to see that?" Perry said. "Do you really want your immolation broadcast live, in high-definition 3-D?"

"Fuck you, Perry," I said. "Lamont's smart enough to turn off his TV. You're worried about how this is going to affect the stock price."

There was a long pause. I stared down at planet Earth, huge and beautiful and still. I wondered how many people were observing me from the ground. They probably couldn't see my face through the polarized helmet visor—unless somebody was using a wide-spectrum receiver. Never underestimate the ingenuity of bored graduate students.

"We have another option," Perry said at last.

"Does it involve me not dying?"

He hesitated before answering. "I wish I had better news, Kayla—"

"Just tell me."

"Your spacesuit thrusters still have eighty percent of their reserves," Perry said. "We can give you a procedure to overload the primary fuel cell cluster."

I kept my face calm and hoped nobody watching from the ground could read lips. "You want me to blow myself up?"

"Just let me finish," Perry said. "It'll be quick. Over in less than a second, and any debris gets incinerated in the atmosphere before hitting the ground. We can program in a random delay, so you won't even know when it happens."

"You're so kind," I said. "And then the company gets to cover up the whole thing, pretend my suit was damaged in the meteor shower, and call this entire 'incident' a terrible, unavoidable tragedy."

"I'm on your side, Kayla," Perry said. "I'm sorry, but this is your best option now."

I squeezed my eyes shut, holding in my tears. "I want to talk to Lamont."


"I want to talk to my husband."


"You get my husband on comms," I said, "or I start waving my arms in semaphore and spelling out exactly what happened for the whole damn world to see. You've got thirty seconds, Perry."

"That's not enough time!"

"Twenty-five seconds."

"Okay, okay!" The line beeped and went dead.

"Fucker," I muttered.


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10 May 2013

"Dear John"

By Curtis C. Chen

The day Michael's dead wife wrote back to him was the day the world started to end.

Michael had written to Barbara every day since the one after her funeral, when he'd woken up, bleary-eyed, to face a house full of the assorted stationery she loved to collect.

There were notepads of all sizes, and letterheads from fictional organizations like "The Watchers Council," and whimsical cards featuring original, hand-drawn cartoons. Michael couldn't bear to throw any of it out, but he also hated the idea of packing it away. Either one felt too much like he was making an effort to forget her.

Then, while sorting through a pile of note paper made from strips of recycled concert posters, Michael started writing down a grocery list. Maybe the long, narrow format of the paper influenced him. Maybe his subconscious had decided that since he wasn't going to get rid of the paper, he might as well use it.

Partway through the list, after "eggs" and "milk," he didn't know what came next, but his hand continued moving the pen. What emerged was a series of questions that Michael would have asked Barbara: do we need more cereal? what dishwasher soap do we use? does the spinach really need to be organic? why don't you just subscribe to that magazine?

He filled the rest of that page and several more, until his tears made the ink run.

After that, he wrote a new letter every day, using a different type of paper each time. When he finished a letter, he sealed it in an envelope and packed away the rest of that stationery. After sunset, he started a fire in the living room and burned the letter, watching as his words became glowing flakes and spiraled up and away.

One morning, three months after the funeral, Michael brought his mug of coffee into the living room and dropped it on the hardwood floor.

He stared at the envelope which sat on top of the ashes of last night's fire. It was not the stationery he'd used; that had been lavender-colored, with ponies prancing around the border of each page. This was a plain white number ten envelope.

Michael fell to his knees and crawled through a lukewarm puddle of coffee to reach the envelope. He poked one shaky finger under the flap, tore open the seal, and pulled out the letter.

It was a single sheet of paper, eight and a half by eleven inches, folded in three parts to fit inside the envelope. On the paper was written a single word, in Barbara's delicate script, without capitalization or punctuation:


Michael turned the paper over, then held it up to the window, trying to see if anything else might be written or watermarked or scratched there. There was nothing. He went back to the kitchen and placed the letter and envelope on the counter.

As soon as he let go of the papers, they crumpled themselves into balls and disappeared in two flashes of green flame.

Michael ran.


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03 May 2013


By Curtis C. Chen

"No," Hailey said as soon as Mark dropped the brochure on the table. She didn't need to read past the title: MECHANOID DEVELOPMENT EXPO, rendered in shiny chrome letters above a photo of an automated sentry unit guarding a little girl.

"Come on," Mark said, sitting down and unwrapping his sandwich. "This is the perfect opportunity for us."

"To embarrass ourselves?" Hailey shoved the brochure across the table. "No thanks, I can do that just fine right here at my day job."

Mark frowned, pushed the brochure back at Hailey, and said through a mouthful of roast beef, "You want to design robots. We both do. This is our chance to get out of the tech support salt mines."

Hailey sighed and put her sandwich down. She turned the brochure to face Mark and tapped a finger against the photo. "What's that?"

"A little girl."

"A little white girl," Hailey said.

Mark shrugged. "So?"

Hailey shook her head. "Boy, it must be nice to be a tall white guy from an upper middle class family."

"What the hell does that mean?"

Hailey pointed a finger at her own face. "What's this?"

"Your... face...?" Mark said.

"This is an Asiatic of indeterminate national origin," Hailey said.

"You were born in Oakland."

"And you can tell that by looking at me?" Hailey held up the brochure. "Every single robotics manufacturer depends on some kind of government or domestic defense contract for the majority of their income. They're not going to hire a non-white, potential security risk when there are plenty of 'real Americans' available to do the job."

"You're exaggerating." Mark bit off another hunk of sandwich and started chewing. "Besides, the prejudice works in your favor. Everyone thinks Asians are good at math."

Hailey counted to ten before responding. "Do I look Chinese to you?"

"Dude, your family's from Bangladesh."

"Forget that you know me," Hailey said slowly. "Do I look Chinese to you?"

Mark shrugged. "How should I know? You look Asian. Maybe a little Hispanic."

Hailey scrunched up her face in disbelief. "Hispanic?"

"I don't know!" Mark threw up his hands, sending a shred of lettuce flying over his shoulder. "I can't tell. You just look—normal."

"No," Hailey said, "you look 'normal.' People look at you and they don't have any preconceived notion of who you are or what you do. People look at me and they instantly think they know something about me."

"That's stupid," Mark said.

"It is what it is." Hailey dropped the brochure and stared at her sandwich. "But I have to deal with it every day, whether I like it or not. I'm not going to go looking for more of it to deal with, and I'm certainly not walking into a convention where everyone is going to be paranoid about Chinese spies stealing their secrets. Can we talk about something else now?"

Mark nodded. "You are good at math, though."

Hailey stood and jabbed both middle fingers up at Mark. "I'm going back to my desk."


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26 April 2013

"Hang a Lantern on It"

By Curtis C. Chen

"I can't feel my legs," Trager said.

"Is every word out of your mouth a goddamn cliché?" Jamie held down the field communicator's power button until both her thumbs were numb. The screen lit up a second later. "What the hell does 'OPSEC' mean?"

"Operational Security," Trager said. "Need access code."

"What's the code?"

"Can't tell you." Trager's left arm twitched, then fell back into the dirt. "I'll do it."

"You're about to pass out," Jamie said. "Tell me the code."

"Can't. You're civilian."

An energy beam sliced past the bunker, making the ground sizzle. Jamie grabbed Trager's helmet and turned the other woman's head until their eyes met.

"Tell me the fucking code, please," Jamie said.

Trager grinned. "If I tell you, I'll have to kill you."

Jamie bit her lip. Trager's pupils were huge. Whatever painkillers and other drugs the battle armor was pumping into her system, they were working fast.

"I need the code to activate this beacon or we're both dead." Jamie pressed the communicator screen up against Trager's visor.

Trager pursed her lips. "Quid pro quo, Clarice."

"And now she's speaking in tongues."

Trager raised her right hand and unbuckled her chestplate. The seal opened with a hiss, followed by the urgent beeping of alarms.

"Whoa!" Jamie said. "Stop! That armor's keeping you alive—"

"I'll give you the code," Trager said. "But you need to do something for me."

"Sure, anything, just put your armor back on!"

Trager reached under her chestplate and yanked hard, snapping the chain around her neck. She held out her fist.

"No," Jamie said. "You're not dead. I'm not taking your goddamn dogtags."

"Not my tags," Trager said. "The other thing."

Jamie looked down at Trager's open palm. Strung beside her dogtags was a smooth obsidian ring, bulging on one side but with no gemstones or markings.

"Your ring?" Jamie said.

"Not mine," Trager said. "Found it."

Jamie picked up the ring. "Okay. I'll get it back to HQ—"

"No!" Trager clamped her hand on Jamie's shoulder. "Not the military. Give it to my brother."

Trager slumped forward. Jamie caught her.

"His name is," Trager slurred. "What's his name?"

"I'll find him," Jamie said, shoving Trager's chestplate back into place. The armor resealed itself and stopped beeping. "Don't worry. Now what's the code?"

Trager recited a string of digits. Jamie started typing them into the communicator. It was hard to work the keypad while holding the ring, so she slipped the black circle onto her finger.

"Don't do that," Trager said.

"What? Ow!"

The ring bit into Jamie's skin, like a pinprick, then grew warm. It rotated itself around her finger until the bulge faced upward. Multi-colored dots danced beneath the surface.

"Holyshitwhatthefuck!" Jamie said.

"Told you not to do that," Trager said.

"You could have warned me earlier!" Jamie tugged at the ring, but it wouldn't move. Flickers of light appeared at the edges of her vision, then coalesced into clusters of unfamiliar shapes. "What is this thing doing to me?"

"Funny story," Trager said, and passed out.


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