Please VOTE!! in the Anthology Thread of the December 2013 SDMB Short Fiction Contest!!

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Anthology Thread of the SDMB Short Fiction Contest, December 2013 edition. The poll will be appearing shortly after 12 Midnight EST, Wednesday, December 18th/Thursday, December 19th.

A quick recap of the rules -

At 12 Noon EST, Wednesday, December 4th, 2013, I posted a link to a photo (found by random means) and also three words (again, obtained by random means) in an auto-reply message at sdmbpoetrysweatshop at gmail dot com. Writers then had 60 hours to write an original piece of short fiction, no more than 2,000 words in length, based in some way on that photo and those three words. All interested participants worked from the same compulsory material.

The contest closes at 11:59 PM EST, Wednesday, December 18th, 2013 - as I write this post, anyone interested in participating still has around 38 hours to write a story, if they wish.

A multiple choice poll will be established shortly after the close of the contest to determine the readers’ favourite story. I would also ask voters to choose those stories that have incorporated the compulsory material in the most interesting manner. At the end of a week, the poll will close and we will declare a winner of the PoeHenryParkerSaki award.

The poll, once established, will be a secret ballot type poll. No one need ever know how you voted. I would, however, encourage everyone to please vote. You are providing an important source of feedback to the writers.

Readers’ comments are enthusiastically encouraged!! One favour - please wait until the contest is closed and the poll established before commenting. That way, the first posts in this thread will just be the stories. Once the poll is open, comments are welcome!
The compulsory material is -

The Photograph

and the following three words -

And now, here are the stories that this contest has produced. I want to point out - the authors’ user names are in spoiler boxes at the end of the stories. Please do not be fooled by the fact that they appear in ‘replies’ sent by me - only one of these stories is mine.


Le Ministre de l’au-delà

Tyler had talked about the Path to the Underworld ever since Tracy’s funeral. I mean, I can understand the appeal. We live in an age of miracles, and it must be so hard to lose someone you love that much and not be able to get a miracle for them. Tracy’s family petitioned all the healing gods they could find, but the only one whose people would talk to them was an obscure Gallic deity who also sidelined as a God of Luck. When the time came, he tossed the holy runes for Tracy, and her lucky stone didn’t come face up, so he let her die.

[spoiler]And we’ve all heard the stories about the gods even more volatile than gods of healing, or love, or what have you; the death gods. That there are a few people who can take you to the underworld, and bring back someone who’s died. I could never met somebody who claimed to have been along for the ride.

But the November before we graduated at McMaster, somebody told Tyler about my high Psi rating.

The first times he asked, it was easy to blow him off. All the stories said that if you didn’t do your research correctly, the paths to the Underworld could be a one-way trip. The right place to make the crossing, the right words to say, the right holy man or woman to officiate, the right death god to greet–above all, figuring out which underworld the deceased could be found in, (if he or she wasn’t in a heaven or paradise, in which case who’d want to rip them out, and so on and so on.)

After Tyler got the point, he stopped bugging me about it, and I figured that he’d forgotten. I had nearly two months’ peace, went back home to have Saturnalia dinner with the folks and everything. (I don’t pray to Saturn myself, but it’s never really worth arguing about religion with family, is it?)

One week after we got back to campus, Tyler knocked on my door. And he’d brought research.

“This is everything we’ll need,” he said. “Most of it is from a Greek monk I found in Caledonia, but I’ve checked it out as much as I could with second opinions. I trust him, I believe he’s done his part, and he’ll come through for us if you do.”

“And he said that I’m somebody who can lead the way into Hades or whatever? He’s never met me?”

“I gave him a token of you.” He smiled awkwardly and handed me a camera lens. “Sorry. I had to be sure.”

“Whatever.” I took a deep breath. “Okay, tell you what. I’ll do this. Even if it’s a stupid stunt that’ll probably get us both killed, I’m in. Always figured I’d die doing the bone-head, this seems as good a way as any. But we do it on my terms.”

“What does that mean?”

“I want to film it.” I flipped the lens up into the air and then caught it. “Nobody else has brought back video from the great hereafter before. I could be the first to record it for posterity.”

“How do you even know it’ll work?”

“I don’t, for sure, but that’ll be my problem. If you get Tracy back and my film is ruined, that’s no worry of yours. We’ll still be square, as far as I’m concerned.”

“And what if Hades takes offense at you pointing the camera at him?”

“It’s a risk we both take,” I admitted. “What do you say? You’re in this for love; I’m going to give it a try for the glory.”

We made our preparations to go over Spring Break. (Yeah, I know–what a choice of vacation destination!) I was tempted to tell the local papers and make a big deal of our journey, but Tyler pointed out that the cops have arrested kids to keep them from making their transition to the Underworld before. I did tell a few friends, people who I thought I could trust not to stand in our way, the morning of, once all the preparations were done. Tyler drove us out to the spot where he’d been told to start the process.

It was way out East, most of the way to Grimsby and then south, up the mountain, to a deserted spot near the one-lane country road. As we got out of the car, the only sign of civilization beyond the road was a lonely power line strung on old-fashioned wooden poles, this side of the trees. It was nearly sunset, and the sky seemed orange all over, even where there weren’t any clouds. The clouds looked bizarre, like bubbles pointing down at the ground.

“Okay, that’s creepy,” I muttered.

“It’s like they know what we’ve come for,” Tyler agreed. “Okay, the GPS co-ordinates are… right over here.” He led me over to a patch of grass, and I looked at the instructions.

I sighed, held the camera up in one hand, recited the Greek words phonetically, and gestured grandly. One moment there was only the grass, and then there was a ramp of sand leading down. It didn’t appear in the blink of an eye or anything obvious like that, and it didn’t quite seem to lead into the ground; it just went down. I shrugged and started along that path. Tyler followed.

The psi-camera is one of those weird gizmos that just about nobody knows how it works. Of course, it’s never been tested in an Underworld before, but I figured it was my best shot. Psi-cameras are supposed to film the truth of things, to see through illusions and other deceptions. You can’t tell what they’ve registered as long as you’re in a magical field, at any rate, which for us, wouldn’t be until we climbed back up out of the Underworld. Opening up a psi-camera in a magic field is like exposing ordinary film to sunlight.

Soon the passageway that we were walking down started to broaden out and I could make out water beyond.

We got to the edge of the Underworld and walked down the Stygian shore, to the only pier on this side of the river. The boat was waiting for us, completely empty. The steersman looked a little bit like James Marsters, which I’m sure he’d just love to know about. “It’s not often I take mortals across, guys.”

“Are you refusing us passage?” I asked formally, just as the instructions said.

“Not if you can pay the fare.” I fetched out the tiny little golden maple leaf coin, and Tony offered his. I’d bought two coins from the dealer in Toronto, one to cross the river each way, and Tony had insisted on buying another for me, ‘just in case’, even saying that I’d be free to keep it if we didn’t need it in the Underworld.

“Alright,” the steersman said, pocketing the coins. “Take any seats you like. We’ll cast off in a moment.”

Once across the Styx, a gorgeous blonde girl in a toga escorted us directly to see Hades. The Underworld didn’t look like it was underground here, though it wasn’t bright and sunny either. We meandered through a hedge maze under a gloomy, overcast ‘sky.’

“Are you ready for meeting Hades, buddy?” I asked. “That’s your show.”

“Yes, I remember. I’m as ready as I can be.”

A man with a short dark goatee sprawled in a decorated, gilded chair at the center of the maze, and among the toga-decked attendants was Tracy! Tony rushed towards her, but Hades cleared his throat with a sound like a thunderclap. “Don’t touch her until I give you leave, or you’ll be sorry.”

“I have come to bargain for her life and her freedom.”

“Yes, of course you have. What do you have to offer?”

“If you let her go, we will have at least four children, and dedicate them all to your worship and service, oh Lord Hades…”

Hades pointed a finger at Tony. “Will you sacrifice the first-born to me on his or her twelfth birthday?”

“Uh, no! No human sacrifice.”

“Then I’m not interested.” Hades looked around. “Does anybody else have an offer to raise?”

Tracy stepped forward. “I have a bargain, Lord Hades. Take Tony to stay here, and let me return to the world of the living.”

I stared at her, and so did Tony. I was expecting him to protest, but he seemed beyond that. “Now that one is interesting!” Hades crowed. “You, psi-boy. Marshall. You undertook to convey Mister Anthony on his journey, so you would have to agree to this. Does Anthony’s journey end here, and will you see her back to the realm of the living?” He waved at Tracy.

I looked into Tony’s face, but he seemed too shocked to say anything. I should have said no, but–well, what did I owe the guy? We weren’t really friends. He badgered me into this, and we accepted that we were both taking our own risks. This is one of the risks he was taking…

Yeah, I know. I’m a worthless shit.

It was the lure of posterity that tempted me. If I bring back the psi-camera video, but Tony and I came back to Ontario without any other tangible proof of where we’d been–you know, so-so story. If I bring the dead girl back, and the boyfriend disappears without a trace? Well, we might face criminal charges, but we’d be legends.

“What are the terms?” I asked Hades. “Is Tracy going to get sick again as soon as she reaches the mortal realm?”

Hades gestured again. “She will enjoy reasonable, if not perfect health, for at least fifteen years. Long enough to pursue any reasonable dream. Beyond that I cannot promise.”

I looked at Tracy, and she nodded. Tony’s eyes were silently pleading me not to leave him behind, but he didn’t make as much as a whimper. If he’d begged out loud, I don’t think I could have gone through with it.


There wasn’t anything tricky about our trip back across the Styx. The steersman didn’t blink an eye about the change in my companions, though I got a twinge of guilt when I used the coin that Tony had bought me to pay for her passage. Soon enough we were back at the car. My digital watch had stopped, but it felt like two hours before dawn, and the stars in the sky seemed perfectly normal.

“I gotta ask,” Tracy said once we were on the road. (Tony left one of those hide-a-key things on the bumper. Had he been planning for me to make it back without him?) “What’s the deal with the video camera?”

“It’s a psi camera; it’s to record the supernatural. I guess I’m going to do an expose about your return to the land of the living,” I said.

“Cool. Let me know when you need me for interviews or the press conference or anything.”

“Well, sure. Where do I drop you off?”

“I’ve got a friend who shouldn’t freak out too much to see me, and let me crash while I figure out what to do next.” She gave me an address in Westdale.

It took me most of a day to get the psi-video converted and review the footage. Most of it looked just like what I remembered, except for the scene where we finally met Hades.

On the tape, the figure lounging on the chair in the hedge maze wasn’t a man in a beard. It was a curvy girl, and her face was Tracy’s face!

I scanned carefully until I got to a shot of Tracy among the attendants. She still looked like herself, except there was something like a cloud of darkness surrounding her.

What did that mean? Who or what did I just guide up into the land of the living?



Jane stepped off the train at around midday. The deserted station seemed to be one of the largest buildings in town. Shouldering her little backpack, she glanced up and down the high street, getting her bearings, then swung west, heading for the harbour.

The tiny marina held a handful of yachts and a flat-bottomed ferry, rusty and strung with tyres. The sign at its berth read “Fil Ferry, passage £10.” Jane walked down the gangway and enquired of the almost laughably stereotypical ferryman when the next departure was. He peered up at her from behind the helm and mumbled something, pointing at the sign. On closer inspection, she saw a small pile of timetables, weighted with a round grey stone. Nodding at the ferryman, she liberated one, learned that the ferry would leave at 6PM, then pocketed the grubby slip for posterity.

[spoiler]Jane climbed back up to the town and found an empty tea room on a side street. She settled down with a sandwich and a pot of Darjeeling, content to wait and reflect on her destination. Fil, the ancestral home of her people, lay a few hours in her future.

Jane was a faun: goat hoofs, pan pipes, the works. She had been in throes of some kind of identity crisis this last month or so; her integration into human society, so long sought, she now rejected. She had been meeting with fellow fauns to discuss what it meant to be a faun, a modern faun, and how modern life was existentially difficult to reconcile with their folkloric, mystical past.

She’d read about Fil in an old book, and was immediately determined to visit. Real life had intervened, and it had taken several weeks to rearrange her life enough to withdraw from it, at least temporarily. Her boss had seen the wild look in her eye, and enough of her recent, volatile behaviour, that he gladly signed the paperwork allowing her a leave of absence, ‘for mental health reasons.’

And now, she thought, now, finally, she would set hoof on the green island, a smudge on the far western horizon. Intellectually, she was aware that she’d possibly just transplanted her identity crisis. She was doubtful that this place, Fil of legend, would provide her with the clarity or answers she sought.

But, stepping off the launch some hours later, she felt a calmness descend upon her. She snuffed the iodine smell of the washed up kelp tangled on the beach. Her eyes traced the outline of the treed cliffs rising above her. The steersman at the helm of the ferry, himself an old faun, watched her disembark and stand, staring. He called to her. “First visit, eh? Welcome home.”
Jane was nonplussed. “Er, thank you. But…”
“Oh, I don’t mean anything by it, just, well, you know the stories. Fil is a special place for us fauns.”
“Yes, I mean, I’d read about it. But being here, seeing it…”
“Yes, you look like you need a visit,” he said, eyeing her shrewdly. “I’ll be back now and then, if you need anything.”

Jane watched the ferry recede into the blue distance. Alone, she waded into the freezing water, which soaked through her furred pasterns. Tears welled in her eyes and slid down her cheeks; impatiently she brushed them away, blinking hard. She turned inland, and began the long climb up the rough-hewn stone steps in the cliffside. Breathing hard now, the cool wind stirred her hair and kicked up the fine sand. She lifted her eyes to the wooded crest above her, and saw a tall pile of granite boulders shouldering out from between the trunks of the yellowing poplars.

A long climb later, she leant her back on the sun-warmed granite, staring back out down the cliff and out over the sea. The island sloped away beneath her, taking away her breath with its beauty. She saw noone else, but could easily imagine great crowds of fauns weaving through the copses and crags. This, she felt, was truly a faun place – enchanted, holy. She yearned for pipes, despite her own shortcomings as a piper. Instead, she turned again to the cliff and sang, calling aloud in strange, tripping syllables. The autumn evening grew darker, and strange masses of low dark clouds were lit by the sinking sun, heralding a coming storm. Jane shivered as she felt the temperature, and the air pressure, falling. Foreboding overcame her.



Laura and Beth, in the kitchen, like twenty years ago. But now, their father lay dying in the bedroom, and their mother had diminished, fading to thinness, a fragility Laura hadn’t imagined. The window over the sink still steamed up, and outside the black night reflected only their hazy images back at them, moving silently in the kitchen. The dishes were the same pattern of yellow flowers and green ivy, chipped in a few more places. A calendar from the drugstore still hung by the phone, marked with doctor’s appointments.

[spoiler]It was almost silent. There was less to talk about these days, even as their father drifted in and out of drugged sleep, and their mother rested on the bed they’d shared for all the years the girls could count. They hadn’t been girls for decades, but somehow were again. Back in Canton, in the house off RR 42, in the kitchen with its scuffed cupboards and awkwardly fitted appliances. It had never been a cheerful, stylish room, but a place of endless grease in soapy water, the same limited repertoire of family dinners, the same small, bickering arguments about whose turn it was to wash, whose to take out garbage. Squabbling and smiling all the while, pretending that they didn’t hate each other. Sisters weren’t supposed to feel that way.

Beth’s husband would come soon and take her home. He’d roll up in their truck, a big, quiet man with a mustache and a belly soft enough to play Santa in December. Laura couldn’t imagine being married to a man like that. And she couldn’t wait until her sister had gone. But that would leave her alone with her mother, thin and brittle as a twig blown off in a winter wind. There was nothing she could say; Laura’s words of comfort didn’t come from a New or Old Testament, and wouldn’t give any succour. She’d never be the daughter to her Beth was. So, Laura would go into the room where her father lay dying, and take her turn to sit with him, trying to read her novel over the sound of his breathing. That hollow rattle had sounded more dead than alive the last two days, like an October wind through a burned-out building. Daddy.

*God, I hope it doesn’t take a long time.

How can you think that?

I just don’t want him to suffer.

And you don’t want to stay here much longer. Your job, your life, everything’s on hold until he dies, and there’s a funeral. Then what? *

There didn’t seem to be a handbook for this sort of thing, a list to consult. Proper period of time to stay with family after the death of a close relative, page 38.

Laura would take a walk, after Darryl’s truck had disappeared down the road, carrying her sister away, and smoke a cigarette when she was out of sight of the house. Then she’d be able to come inside without feeling like she was going to go crazy. It was so small. Cramped and shabby. Had she really grown up here? Nothing seemed to have changed. Even the pictures on the mantelpiece were the same as when she left, their colours yellowed and faded.

It was claustrophobic, being back in the house on edge of prairie, alone under the sky. Death took the old man slowly. At night, he was restless, as if become who he’d been a lifetime ago, talking to people Laura didn’t know, alternatively querulous and pleading. People from fifty years past, long dead, walked in and out of the room, and only he saw. She wiped the counters down, and managed to thank her sister for coming by.

Beth only nodded.

He slipped away in the early hours, leaving the women behind. Death, the last escape. An unremarkable life was over, and the procedures of grieving began. Even the funeral was mostly planned; Laura was surprised there wasn’t more to do. People came, and arrangements already in place proceeded. Relatives arrived, bringing food and memories, the house getting even smaller. The air was hot, and someone opened a window. It became a reunion, the kind that happens for weddings and funerals. Laura found herself out on the back porch more often, gulping cold, clean air between drags on her cigarette. Her father wasn’t around to chastise her. Not any more. Finally, the tears came, when she could cry them alone in the dark, under the glittering stars. Before she had to go back inside.


What was worse? The house, already small and now crowded with people, or the endless sky above? Laura still dreamed of the house some nights, alone on the edge of that wide, open space, stretching up and all around. It was dizzying, it was too much. That sky made everything insignificant. Like gravity itself was something building, pinning her down, trapping her under that immensity. At the same time, tenuous. Any moment, she could just slip away upward and be lost to the sky. Becoming nothing.

She wondered how long they’d keep their peace, with everyone in the house, jostling and apologising, making small talk. There were old hurts and wounds, in a house too full of memories. You go home for a death and a funeral, and people who shouldn’t be in the same rooms for too long together, suddenly are. It hadn’t been long after she arrived, and Laura felt them slipping back into childhood, acting the way they used to be. Somewhere, deep inside, the children they would always be. Beth, the good. Laura, the bad.

Laura never asked her sister about children that didn’t come, leaving it to their mother to sigh and fret on the telephone, never a grandmother, with no posterity, no pride. So each daughter failed her, in their own way.

Laura missed gentle, green rain and silver water. Here, everything felt volatile, subject to forces she couldn’t see. The weather could change at any moment. She waited for someone to say the wrong thing. She hoped it wouldn’t be her; that she’d remember small towns had long memories and lightning gossip. Did anyone remember the baby? They must. But it was all politeness on the surface, the usual expressions of sympathy. Laura and Beth moved around, drank coffee, accepted condolences. They were courteous to each other. It might have stayed that way, sisters who spoke nicely, enquired after each other’s lives, all the old enmities disintegrating into something inert, harmless, if they’d left it alone. If they’d stayed apart. If she could leave again soon.

If her mother didn’t always turn to her sister with a smile, even now, and tell everyone how wonderful Beth had been. How good Beth had always been.

All the cards in the deck, all the battling queens and black spades, the women were like that, thin with anger and hurt, words said to cut and wound, to score a slash in the soul of another, no matter the cost. Ask the cards a question; the answer: prone to uncertainty, chaos, and change. Laura read Tarot cards in her university days, embracing reason by day and mystery by night, finding a persona entirely different from the prairie girl she’d been.

That girl had grown under skies as vast and empty as all the endless days of her life stretching before her. Her life, going on forever and full of—nothing. The years ahead seemed endless at seventeen. A lifetime sentence in the jail of a small town that shrank every year, and with a baby on her hip by eighteen? No, thank you.

So she’d lied then, and there’d only been one other to tell her secret. And it was his secret, too.

Laura nursed the bottle of rye she’d put in her suitcase, measuring out one careful drink a night. Did they still sell booze to teenagers at the Ace of Spades, the roadside bar down the highway past town? Where she got pregnant at seventeen in the back seat of a car.

By eighteen, the baby had come and gone away again. Laura refused to cry even when her breasts swelled and ached. She went to the coast for university as planned, just a year later than she’d meant to. The bump in her belly was just a bump in the road. She made it out of Canton, and never came back. Beth stayed. The good daughter.

Whatever happened to him? Were there other dreaming girls, too young to know, or had the years diminished his charm? It took her too long to realize that she was nothing special, that no romance began in the parking lot of the Ace of Spades after the thrill of illicit drinking. Because Laura always wanted to go one step further.

He’d seen her, knew she was under-aged. I don’t care, but you’re my favourite student, and I don’t want you to get in trouble, he’d said. You’ve got a scholarship. Don’t fuck it up. Let me run you home before you get busted. He’d cursed in front of her, he’d put his hand over hers. He’d made her feel grown-up. But it had been Laura who’d put her hand on his thigh in the parking lot. Laura, feeling wild and brave, who’d leaned in and told him what she wanted. So he’d driven until there were no lights but for the July moon, a thin crescent in the sky, and took her in the backseat of his Toyota.

Just a bump on the road out of town. The road he’d showed her with one hand, scholarships and dreams. With the other, he’d worked her bra undone and whispered Yeats in her ear. He’d driven her to the edge of the fields, and worked her panties off. A July moon, a summer wind.

A missed period, a secret.

Two secrets—the child, and the man who’d made it. Everyone assumed it had been her boyfriend, and Laura let them. She sent the boy away, and let everyone believe it was because of what he’d done to her.

But it had been her favourite teacher.

Eleven months later, a steersman ferried her between islands a world away. Laura sat outside on the deck, not minding the cold wind at all. She loved the ocean the moment she saw it. This was a vastness that for once, did not scare her. Even the sky was different, and the taste of the air: salt, seaweed, and dreams dark and powerful, but good.

The last argument started in the truck, coming from town. Sisters, with nothing in common but their parents. Nothing but the town and the sky they grew up beneath. Nothing but the blood that pulsed beneath their skin, the same shade of ivory.

“Guess you can’t wait to get out of here again,” Beth said, eyes on the road. Only the thin fence running along the edge of the fields broke up the waveless sea of grey and brown.

“Guess so.”


They weren’t talking by the time they got back to the house. Tight-lipped, they unloaded groceries and mail silently, not even looking at each other.

Then everyone came out to stare at the sky.

Those clouds meant something terrible Laura couldn’t name. Strange and unsettling, swelling, in eerie silence. It was all wrong. Something awful was being birthed above. Even then, the old arguments weren’t forgotten. “So, leave. You just left your mess behind for everyone else to deal with before. Where’s your baby now? Where’s your daughter, Laura? How do you even sleep at night?”

“I was practical. And so you hate me?”

“Of course I hate you. And you don’t even know why.”

Laura stood a moment, then followed Beth, the light a strange, unearthly green. She faltered, looking up, helpless under that unfamiliar sky. It looked like the end of the world; it looked like nothing Laura had ever seen. Then there was a snatch of memory, a glimpse of something on a television set, something she’d read, watched, and then it was gone, she’d changed the channel, or… Laura stood motionless, looking up. There was something they should be doing—

“Run!” she cried. “There’s going to be a—”

Was it run, or was it to fling yourself against the earth to stay with it? “The basement. Get inside," she screamed at her sister. “Go into the basement.”

“The basement? Fuck you, Laura. What, you’re going to lock me in there again, just like you did when we were kids? You think that? Well, fuck you.”

“No!” She reached her hand out, but Beth turned and walked away into the yard.

The sound came first, and then the world went dark. Laura tasted dirt in her mouth, and thought her ears would burst. She dropped to her knees, then flung herself to the ground, hugging the earth as if it was true, all her nightmares were real, she was trapped beneath the sky, then she’d be lifted and lost—

So small in the grass, the ozone sharp in her nose, and mud, sweat, and the copper electric taste of blood in her mouth. The air itself was charged with strangeness, power unimaginable. It would rip her to pieces in a few deadly seconds.

And how much later it was, she never knew. She reached for her sister’s hand, but found nothing but dead, dry grass.

Laura wailed, alone under that empty, dreadful sky.


It was Stephen’s birthday. Nothing was going to ruin this day.

The alarm rang loudly, promptly at 7:00 AM. Stephan woke up and smiled – he had taken the day off work and intentionally left the alarm on so he could ceremoniously shut it off, roll over, and take another couple of hours to ease into the day; something he so wished he could do every workday.

Thing is – he didn’t remember how to turn off the damned alarm, just hit the snooze button – so it rang again in five minutes. This wouldn’t work. He sat up and reached for his glasses to see where the “off” button was on this damned alarm. He remembered he left his glasses in the living room, so he stumbled out of bed and wandered down the hall to the living room.

[spoiler]It was freezing cold and, as soon as he found his glasses, he would turn up the heat. As he got to the living room he looked out the window - the sky was weird and had volatile clouds like huge gobs of spit or sperm about to fall from the heavens; hopefully not an omen.

His glasses were not in the living room; maybe in the bathroom?

Stephen had to pee anyway, and the freezing temperature in the house wasn’t helping the urge, so he dashed to the bathroom. He was just about to pee when the damned alarm in the bedroom went off again, giving him a start and making his aim less than perfect. He went back to the bedroom, hit the snooze button and returned to the bathroom to clean the floor where his talent as Penis Steersman had failed him. He took some toilet paper and got on his knees to clean the puddle of urine. He probably should have turned on the bathroom light first.

Now, with both knees actually in the puddle, Stephen was a bit grossed out and decided he had to shower quickly – but he still cleaned up the mess and dropped the soggy toilet paper into the toilet bowl and flushed. He probably should have stood up first, as now there was a bit of toilet spray on his face as he had looked to watch the toilet paper disappear.

The alarm in the bedroom went on again and Stephen hiked himself up and went back to the bedroom to hit the snooze button. He was freezing now, and being soaked with his own pee, he didn’t want to jump back in that warm bed until he took a hot shower. Where in the hell were his damned glasses?

He would just unplug the stupid clock. He got down on his knees and reached behind the bed to pull out the plug. He couldn’t reach the plug. He got up and decided to move the bed – a rather heavy, solid mahogany bed. It didn’t exactly slide and he couldn’t move it. Stephen went to his closet and took out a wire coat hanger. He spent a few minutes bending the wire and getting a nice hook on the end and went back on his stomach and reached with the wire coat hanger to wrap it around the plug and yank it out. Oh, he wrapped it around the plug alright – and the 120 volts proved that fact as Stephen jerked and banged his head hard on the side board. Now he lay naked and freezing, still wet from his urine and with a sore head. And the alarm went off again.

He pulled himself up and went to the clock and just yanked with all of his might. It worked – either the plug broke or it came out of the wall and Stephen fell backwards and landed on his tailbone.

It was painful to stand up, and he had to use his arms to pull himself up using the bed. He made a mental note to clean the sheets. With great effort, he was able to stand and stoically walked naked into the bathroom to take that hot shower he now desperately needed.

He got to the shower and couldn’t lean over to turn it on. Plus, as the shower was in in the tub, it wasn’t easy to get one foot over, and then the other, to stand in it. His back was killing him and his head hurt. He turned on the shower. Forgetting that it took a tad for the water to get even warm, let alone hot, Stephen felt the icy stream of water flow off that glacier onto his already sore body and lurched back, slipping and landing once again on his ass. The icy water woke him – ending any chance of climbing back in bed to ease into the day.

Finally the water turned warm, then piping hot, and Stephen began to feel cleaner and his aches were starting to be soothed. The damned alarm went on again. Stephen had forgotten he had spent the extra money to buy an alarm with a battery backup, in case the electricity went out and thus he wouldn’t be late for work.

Stephen just lay in the shower and shut his eyes and tried to ignore that obnoxious alarm clock. Impossible.

Getting out of the shower was no easy trick. There wasn’t much to hang onto and everything was wet and slippery. With his back hurting, it took every bit of effort just to get to his knees and then flop over the side of the tub, drag himself onto the floor, pull himself up using the sink and stand up.

He grabbed a towel to dry off. Looking in the mirror, he saw the bump on his forehead and some red marks on his chest where he had fought the losing battle climbing over the metal shower frame on the side of the tub. There would be bruises.

He spied his glasses on the bathroom sink, under the magazine he had been reading on the toilet the night before. Now that he could see, he wrapped his towel around himself and walked to the bedroom and tossed the alarm clock out of his window. Then he walked to the thermostat to turn up the heat.

Sleep was out of the question now – perhaps a nap later? Stephen decided to make some coffee and put some in the filter and took the pot, filled it with water and dumped it into the coffee machine and turned it on. Soon there would be hot, strong coffee, and Stephen eyed those fresh croissants he had bought last night for today’s birthday breakfast. He put them in the oven and turned the oven on – just for a few minutes to get them warm.

He went back into the bedroom and tore off the sheets on his bed, threw them in the laundry hamper and realized with his back hurting, he was going to have to wait to put on the new sheets as he couldn’t really bend over now. Actually, his back was starting hurt even more and Stephen went to the bathroom. He still had some kind of pain killer from when he had had a tooth pulled about 9 months ago and figured they would still be good. He took three.

He heard the bubbling of the coffee machine and went back into the kitchen to relax with a hot cup of strong coffee and a couple of warm croissants with the Irish butter he had splurged on at the local grocery store.

He walked into the kitchen and promptly slipped and fell on his knee - hard. He saw a huge brown puddle on the counter, dripping down onto the kitchen floor – and noticed he had put the coffee pot back on the counter instead of under the coffee machine. He got the mop and started to mop the floor and wring it out in the kitchen sink. It took about 15 minutes to clean the floor and the counter and he smelled something burning and quickly opened his oven to see a cloud of black smoke pour out and a few pieces of burnt charcoal sitting forlornly on the oven rack.

Stephen just started laughing and laughing and wondered why he was laughing and, guffawing his way back into the bathroom, he read the label of the tablets that said, “Not To Exceed One Tablet Every 12 hours.” Stephen had had three and he found this even funnier and laughed and laughed and went into the living room and sat on the sofa and then flopped backwards and passed out.

Eleven hours later, Stephen felt something odd on his face and realized the zipper of his sofa pillow had been pressed against his cheek for several hours. He tried to stand up, but his back and knee hurt so badly he could barely sit, let alone stand. It was dark in the house. It was also hot as hell in there – easily 95 degrees.

With great effort, Stephen stood up and hobbled to the thermostat – he couldn’t see and started to look for his glasses. He had no idea where they were and he limped into the bedroom and saw his naked bed, went to the bathroom and saw the bottle of tablets and remembered that story, went to the kitchen and could see brown coffee stain on the counter and floor, and there were charcoal briquettes on the top of the oven that had once been croissants. Still no glasses.

He went back to the sofa and found the glasses on the floor next to the sofa. He bent down to pick them up. Bad idea - now he couldn’t stand up. Hunched over, he staggered to the armchair in the corner and was able to sit.

His plan was to ease into the day, take a leisurely bath, have a quiet breakfast, go see a movie, stop by his favorite restaurant, hit his favorite bar for a few drinks and then come back to fall gracefully into bed; the perfect birthday.

Now he was sitting awkwardly on his armchair, realizing he was both hungry and thirsty and he had to pee and he was sweating from the heat and he couldn’t stand up. His back hurt, his knee hurt, he had a huge bruise on his head, some red welts on his chest and he was still feeling groggy from the medication.

Suddenly he heard a beep. Perhaps he had a headache or his ears were popping? Nope – there was that beep again. It was the smoke detectors. Every couple of minutes that damned beep again.

Stephan had five smoke detectors in the house. He barely pulled himself out of the chair and painfully walked to the hall closet where he had some batteries. Yes – he had enough.

He got out the ladder that was tucked in the back of the closet. It was heavy, and every muscle in his body ached, but he got the ladder out and set it up in the living room.

Now all he had to do was climb that ladder, reach up, get the smoke detector, change the battery, put it back in the ceiling and then climb down.

What happened next will be a story for posterity. So many things had gone wrong, and could go wrong, and would go wrong.

Suffice it to say that the fire department had been summoned by a neighbor, detectives suspected a brutal beating at the hands of someone who had a personal vendetta. They wouldn’t know for sure until Stephen would come out of his coma.

Stephen awoke from his coma. He could hear everything – even that annoying “beep, beep, beep” on the monitor attached to his chest.

Stephen came up with a plan. He could just reach up and pull out one plug. The question was, which plug and would it make any difference?

Yep. It made a difference.

RIP Stephen – oh, and a belated happy birthday.



“Thank you for taking the time to see me, Mr. President. I need to bring you up to speed on something critical.”

“I’m told you can shed some light on these accusations from China, Mr. Pilkey.” He settled back and folded his hands on his desk.

“I think I can, but before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this story.” He leaned forward and opened the files on his laptop.

“Six years ago, we became aware of some scientific research being done on a remote island in the South Pacific Ocean. We were using a steersman on a supply vessel as a mole, and he reported a research facility. At the time, it was a Greenpeace-like group; well funded by their standards. According to our source, they were pursuing the Branson prize – trying to come up with a tangible way of removing carbon from the atmosphere.”

[spoiler]“Then, about four years ago, the direction of the group changed radically. They had been exploring a mechanical device, powered by solar panels, that would ascend to the upper atmosphere, convert carbon dioxide into water and isolated carbon monofilament, descend and use its stored electrical power to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Using the hydrogen, it would re-ascend and the cycle would continue.”

“This is all very interesting, but I fail to see how it connects to the problems in the South China Sea.” the president interrupted.

“I assure you, this is relevant background. The change in the groups structure and focus shifted to genetic manipulation. Around this time, our mole in the supply ship reported that he no longer saw the people he used to see; the last time he had spoken to one of his contacts, the man had expressed his misgivings about the changes in the project. Then, that contact was gone.”

“That mole’s reports led to a further interest from my department. Later, we lost contact with our mole, causing us to send operatives to investigate further.”

“Our operatives set up surveillance operations, and were able to intercept communications. It seems they were working on a bio-mechanical organism. Some of the aspects of the initial design had been incorporated, so that it served a similar function in terms of energy cycles. However, it could now self-replicate. More interestingly, it could replicate both its biological structure and its mechanical/electrical structure. The biological parents had a strong instinct to build and program its solar panels, microprocessors and mandibles.”

“That’s impossible; we’ve been researching self-replicating technology for decades, and what you’re describing just can’t be done.”

“Sir, I know it sounds like something from a comic book, but here is the file, containing the reports of the surveillance team. It gets worse – when the surveillance team was discovered, the creatures were used against them as weapons. The team all but wiped out; one man lived long enough to send the last files.”

“It’s from his report that we’ve reconstructed what happened next. The creatures turned on the facility, destroying it utterly. Our operative watched from another island as the facility burned completely. After a week, he went over to investigate. Everything was completely destroyed – no paperwork, no computers, nothing. Meanwhile, he observed these Stingrays constantly ascending and descending freely.”

“This was his last communication.” He clicked on a different file, and a grainy video appeared. A shakey, panting voice came out.

“Agent Ferret, last surviving member of operation Minion Watch, reporting. I hope you receive this message. The Stingrays are able to hone in on my signal. I’ll never make it home, but you need to know about these. For two weeks now, they have been freely roaming the upper atmosphere. There are many more of them. They seem to have evolved some means of controlling their flight. They have a hive mind with some form of communication, probably adapted from the tech they removed from the lab they destroyed.” As he spoke from behind the camera, a thick cloud formation began to develop in the distance.

“They seem to have the capacity to generate volatile substances, and store them within individual stingrays. They also have some means of choosing whether to fly as individual bubbles, or solidify as a mass.” The cloud formation loomed closer, appearing to pick up speed.

“I need to send this before they get here. We’re really fucked, here, though – these things have the jump on us, and nothing I’ve seen can take them out. They blew up three helicopters from the lab, it was – Oh, God, here they come!!” The last image was of a cluster of bubbly clouds, with long tails that dropped toward the surface of the ocean. A Zodiac was pulled up on the beach – two bubbles dropped into the Zodiac, and one of the tails glowed with a flickering light as it touched the bubbles in the Zodiac. There was a brilliant blue flash. By the time the sound reached the recording device, the image showed that the Zodiac had been destroyed. The image blurred as the camera moved, and then the screen went blank.”

The president sat in shocked silence. He slowly turned and cast a questioning glance at Agent Pilkey.

“Sir, that was two weeks ago. We’ve sent two reconnaissance teams into the area – no survivors, no reports.”

“So these reports, these videos that we’ve seen from Indonesia, The Phillipines, Taiwan?”

“They’re quite real, Mr. President. There’s no doubt in my mind, we are under attack from a man-made species.”

“Do we have any idea of their range? What distances they can travel?”

“None, sir. When they disperse, they’re too small to be detected by radar; we can only go by ground sightings. In theory, there’s nowhere on earth they can’t get to.”

There was a long silence.

“All right, Mr. Pilkey. I want daily reports on the status of this situation, starting with – how soon can you have this information in a form that I can share with other countries? “

“Give me an hour, sir.”

“Very good. Dismissed, for now.”

As the door to the Oval Office closed, he put his head down on the desk. “God, do I ever need a cigarette!!”, he thought. He pulled the middle drawer all the way out, and retrieved an unopened pack of Marlborough’s.

As he stepped out onto the balcony, the marine sentry saluted sharply. “At ease.” he said, peeling the wrapper. He offered the marine a smoke, which was politely declined. As he leaned over the railing, he contemplated the world they were leaving to posterity. He looked up at the sky, and as he watched the sunset, he noticed the strange, rounded bottoms forming the underside of the cloudbank that was headed toward them. It was a moment later, when he saw the long, dark tails drop.[/spoiler]

Le Ministre de l’au-delà

“A final exam should not include this bit of landing on the rocky side of a mountain” Pablo pondered, as he noticed that his glider was tumbling inside the clouds without control.

Looking back and forth to the instruments and outside his cockpit he noticed that lightning was happening nearby, the last thing he remembered seeing was a dark silhouette in front of a cloud that was showered with the light of the electric discharge, it was in the shape of a girl… floating in mid air.

“Well, THAT was not included in the meteorological lesson either” he told himself when he saw that girl. Many would use swear words when seeing something so peculiar close to their deaths, but he was not that kind of guy. He was more upset that he did not have a camera pointing to that spot to record such a curious sight for posterity. Just then a sudden deceleration of his rigid glider surprised him and knocked him out for a few moments.

[spoiler]Before this incident, early in the month, the professor had promised to give Pablo credit on the next meteorological society meeting in his paper regarding the causes of the Mammatus clouds. There is a debate among the scientists regarding the causes of those curiously round collections of clouds that form close to the “anvil” of larger clouds.

Due to budget cuts the research airplanes capable of going to the cloud level and well capable of dealing with the turbulence became off limits to the university; luckily, Pablo’s family was not poor and he was a good glider pilot. He loved to do this, but the addition of some scientific equipment increased the weight and the danger of the flights, and losing your visual when entering clouds was dangerous already. Still, thanks to GPS navigation it was something that Pablo had gotten used to.

Pablo was not doing this just because he needed the credits, the costs related to his flying hobby were expensive and he would had sold his glider this year. He still wondered a lot about his future job prospects so losing the glider was still very likely. Fortunately, this paid assignment to do on the field research on clouds appeared.

So, the target was those curious Mammatus clouds. Pablo thought that now that he was out of high school that childish observations were not going to show up in a center of high learning. He was wrong, more than one of the students made fun of Pablo and his tit clouds.

It was a matter of being on standby for many days as the formation of those kind of clouds was not a daily occurrence and it was a volatile phenomenon, finally the call came for him to jump from his class to his glider, with the permission of his teacher, professor Emmanuel.

The modified Schweizer glider was standing still. Pablo realized that somehow he was still alive, but was afraid to open his eyes. “Well, I feel in one piece, and it sounds peaceful outside” he thought.

He opened his eyes and to his surprise he just saw a white field outside his glider.

“Well, this could be limbo, heaven, or my final thoughts.” he looked around, after a few seconds he noticed that he was on a very strange room, the “walls” were a little bit translucent, he opened his canopy and looked down, he could look beyond the translucent “ground” and noticed that somehow he was still up in the sky.

Now he was afraid to get out and step on the “ground” where his glider was standing on.

Suddenly he noticed that behind a wall of the tenuously looking structure someone was walking towards the “room” where he and the glider stood.

The “door” dilated and in walked a very beautiful woman that looked suspiciously like a traditional angel, she had blonde hair and she had a bright halo over her head and was wearing a glowing dress.

“Ah, good to see you awake Pablo”, the Angel said.

Pablo’s mind was jumping from being scared, to feeling insulted; it did not help that he was still a little bit confused with the bump on the head that he had.

“Uh, how did you know my… Excuse me, but who are you?”

“I thought you would know already Pablo…”

“Well miss, I thought that since you know who I am you would be aware that I’m not the kind of person that would see you and automatically worship you, I do admit that I’m a little bit worried that you may be a real angel, but the most likely alternative to me is even more scary.”

“Damn it!” The “angel” exclaimed. “You are not swallowing this are you?”

The angel with a gesture took her halo off and the glow off her dress, she got closer to Pablo and said:

“Well, the boss also thought this tactic was a mistake, even Latinos that go to the university nowadays are in reality more skeptical of traditional points of view, I still thought that this was a good idea to try, it beats the alternative that includes tampering directly with your brain later to make you forget about this incident before we send you down. To me it was the option of using the miracle set piece or the Alien scenario, and I’m out of anal probes…”

Pablo was now really worried, and not just because of the probes. “Yep, a military operation was the alternative that I suspected and was afraid of. Cloud Nine prototype I presume?” Pablo said pointing at the surrounding structure.

The young woman was now very gloomy. “Do not make it worse Mr. Ortiz. The less you learn will mean the less that we will have to “remove” from your brain, you will have to excuse me while I make preparations and inquiries before we decide what to do.

Pablo realized that it was just like he deduced when he was younger, for many UFOs and strange sights it was easier for many to give credit to divine intervention or extraterrestrials, but it was more likely than not that the strange incidents involved the military organizations of the world.

So he decided not to ask more questions as it was likely that he would lose his freedom, his mind or both. At least the “angel” took care of the small cuts that he got and she gave him some medicine for his headache before she left him alone with his glider.

After a few minutes of waiting next to his glider the only thing he could do was to notice how firm the surface was, he knew about the ideas of Buckminster Fuller regarding his geodesic structures having the potential of becoming airborne if they were of an specific size and able to contain warm air or other light gases. Those structures were not possible until recently because of material limitations, but now with aerogels, graphene and fast reacting robotic structures what he was seeing showed to him what it was possible to do now.

The girl entered the room again, this time wearing an impressive and tight pressure suit but with no helmet on.

Well, Mister Ortiz, after a more careful investigation you seem to be a good standing American citizen, we are considering giving you a chance, we will not scramble your mind if in exchange you are quiet about this incident, the government will be very generous if you cooperate. We think that you and your professor are on the right track, and the hyper cloud 9 needs to have more independent information on how strange clouds like the Mammatus form and behave.

Pablo began to smile, “you are not from the government or the military are you?”

“Damn it! How did you?..”

Well, any pilot that keeps up with aeronautic news knows the proper air force colors that you should be using, and also to know about the call letters of the companies that are involved in getting military and aerospace contracts like in the logo that your suit has.

Too late the girl covered the small lettering stamped close to the ring of her pressure suit.

Now it was her turn to feel worried. “Why are you not cooperating? You are getting in trouble the more you learn about me and this ship. I can just call the deal off and just dissolve the floor you stand on and let you fall to your doom.

“I did not say that I was not going to accept your proposal miss… uh, what is your name?”

“My name is Emily, I’m a test pilot for Cybermeteoric Inc. and the only Steersman… uh, Steer Person on board…”

Pablo and Emily looked at each other and understood each other, both then remarked at the same time:: “Budget cuts? Yeah…” They began to relax and smile.

“So, Emily, you are proposing a deal to me to actually avoid a lawsuit because it was your fault that I ‘crashed’?”

Emily began to look down and her face was blushing.

“I see that you did guess that it was the hyper cloud that caused your loss of control. I confess that I was worried sick that the structure was going to kill you, it was a quick decision that I made that allowed the structure to “catch” you and move the glider to the middle of the structure. I still have not reported this incident to my boss. I was distracted, and did not pay proper attention. I was too late to tell the hyper cloud to change shape and let you go trough like it was supposed to take place.”

Pablo began to feel worried and grateful to her.

“I know that feeling, you are worried sick that you will lose your ship, I guess it would had been easier to let me fall down without control, but I do agree that we can help each other.”

“Well,” said Emily “this was suddenly forced by the fact that you need to report immediately about your location before they worry and send a report to look for you. I learned about who you are thanks to your early radio communications and the internet, your friends and family will look for you in force if you do not report soon.”

After a few calls Pablo convinced the professor and other pilots that he was OK and that he had landed in a small field farther away due to unexpected winds.

Emily said “Thank you Mr. Ortiz”

Emily looked up from the contract she had prepared, and did catch Pablo not looking at her face.

She smiled and said: “I’m looking forward to working with you. I can tell that you are interested also in my Mammatus, eh?”

Pablo now was the one blushing and looking away, “Uh, where do I sign?”[/spoiler]


I don’t know why I’m writing this. Maybe it’s to make sense of the past, maybe it’s to try to leave something for posterity, if anyone ever manages to find us here. Maybe it’s just for myself. Writing is all I really know how to do, anyway. Or at least, all I think I know how to do.

If anything seems a bit muddled, then I really am sorry. Right now, I’m a bit muddled. More than a bit, actually. But I’ll try to lay things out as clearly as I can.

[spoiler]It was a Wednesday, in the March of 1902. That, at least, I remember. I woke slowly, sliding off the narrow white cot with a faint groan. The cabin, which I shared with five other men, was entirely empty. I had been woken by the shouts of the crew on the deck.

I walked up the rickety staircase, still chasing away traces of sleepiness. As I reached the top step, the sight of the morning sky nearly caused me to fall back down them.

Large geometric clouds filled the air, almost perfect white spheres that hung down from the heavens, the sun casting a strange warm glow that outlined their puffy figures. I drifted over to the side of the ship, mouth slightly open, head straining upwards.

“What d’you think of them, hmm?”

I started in surprise. The Captain had a habit of silently sidling up next to you and speaking in your ear.

“It’s . . . It’s beautiful. What are they?”

He snorted. His breath smelled of stale chewing tobacco and wood polish.

“Beautiful, eh? Funny, that. Never thought of them as beautiful . . .”

“But what are they?”

Suddenly invigorated, he slapped me on the back.

“Clouds, boy! Mammatus clouds. The come around when a storm’s blowing up, but I’ve never seen ‘em so thick.”

He grinned at me, long, yellow teeth shining out from behind his bristly gray beard. He gestured towards the deck.

“We’ll be getting her ready for the storm today. A big one’s coming up . . .”

He chuckled happily and strolled of, bellowing something at the steersman.

I stuck my hands in my pockets and leaned against the side of the ship rather awkwardly, watching the activity. I wasn’t a sailor, you see, I was a journalist. The Captain had been generous enough to allow me to accompany his crew aboard the Rosaline. I was employed by the Philadelphia Weekly, and was to write an article on the daily routine of a sailor. Now, I wasn’t quite sure who in Philadelphia would be interested in the daily life of a sailor, but the whole idea had seemed rather dashing and adventurous.

I headed back down the stairs to collect my notes. I thought briefly of attempting to participate in the preparations, but decided against it. After the incident with the sails yesterday, I suspected the crew wouldn’t be too eager for my help.

I flipped to a fresh page in my notebook.

Mammatus clouds, I wrote, lay above the ship in enchanting round orbs. The Captain says they indicate volatile weather, and an oncoming storm. The crew are diligently readying the ship.

I stopped, and stared blankly at the wall. Sighing, I put the journal aside and went back on deck.

The Captain had come in that night. He’d tried to stay up on deck through the storm, but even he needed sleep. The Captain’s cabin was located in a little house-like structure above deck, and he thought the winds were too strong for it to be safe. Being of the lowest rank, I gave up my bed to him. Whenever the ship hit a bad wave, we’d all roll to one side of the room, cursing out everything we could swear at.

I had thought that the sailors manned the deck in storms, but tonight we all crouched in the bunks. One of the men had stuck his head out into the open, and he reported that the real storm hadn’t yet begun. The wind was gaining speed, howling into the night.

After a few hours, everyone else was asleep, or pretending to be. The floorboards were unforgiving, and I was still awake. It didn’t sound too bad up above. It would be interesting, I thought, to be able to write about what a storm looks like at sea. I wouldn’t actually go on deck, just pop my head up for a glance, like the sailor had done.

As I crept across to the staircase, I had the same feeling as a child does who is creeping downstairs late at night on Christmas Eve. I knew it was wrong, but pure curiosity pulled me onwards.

I crouched down on the top step. It was silent. The wooden floor planks were black with water, but there was almost no wind and only a light drizzle of rain.

I stood, excitement building, and took a few tentative steps. The Captain’s cabin was a wreck - the planks that boarded up the portholes had somehow been torn off by the sheer force of the storm. One of the larger wooden sheets used lay on the deck, a long, bent nail sticking out of it, a testament to the incredible force of the winds. I picked it up, rubbing the nail with my fingers. It was definitely hard metal, and definitely crooked.

Peering down the side of the vessel, I saw the calm, black waves. The air was cold, with a sharp bite to it. I felt a peaceful sense of solitude, breathing in the salty scents in the vast, perfect silence.

That was when the wind hit.

It was a powerful gust, knocking the air out of my lungs. My hands flailed out, trying to find the ship’s wall, but they slipped on the wet wood. I tried to scream, but could only let out a small squeak as I plunged into the freezing water.

It was cold. That fact, above all, is the one I remember now. The sheer iciness of the water as it hit me seemed to turn every other sense off in its intensity. Bubbles streamed from my mouth, and I clawed upwards.

When I surfaced, the harsh wind burnt my wet cheeks.

“Hello? Someone? Er . . .”

I tried to shout louder.

“Help! Please!”

Something distinctly slimy brushed against me, and I recoiled. It was the wooden plank. I tried to clamber up onto it, and after flipping over a few times, it floated nicely. I resumed the shouting, squinting in the darkness for the ship.

I sat there, shivering and yelling, for a handful of hours. It seemed like a dream I was on the verge of waking up from; if only I could jolt myself awake, I would open my eyes to morning light streaming in through the stairwell. I tried that a few times, squeezing my eyes shut and flicking them open, only to be met with the oppressive darkness.

After a while, the shouts became interrupted by yawns. I was tired. I was all rather pathetic, really. Here I was, hopelessly stranded in the middle of the ocean, and I was falling asleep. The human body, however, doesn’t much care about what’s pathetic, and very soon I was asleep.

I woke with a violent jerk. I was lying in a cot almost exactly like the one on the former ship, but a bit narrower and with scratchier blankets. I raised my head cautiously. There was a small table to the right of the bed, and on it was an oil lamp, made of rich brass that still had a shine. As I swung my legs over, a tall man walked through the doorway, having to bend quite low. I coughed nervously before speaking.

“Er, hello. I’m sorry, I must’ve gone overboard, I was just trying to get a good look at the storm, I’m not a sailor, see, I’m a journalist, writing a story, about sailors, and there wasn’t any wind and I- I- I . . .”

My voice trailed off. The man had a very peculiar look on his face. It was a sort of pity, with some sadness mixed in. His eyes were an incredibly light blue, almost gray, the kind that could pierce one’s very soul.

“Yes, I know,” he replied. He pulled over a chair and sat, still looking at me.

“You . . . know? Where exactly am I?”

He gave a large sigh and leaned back in the chair. His clothing, I noticed, was very strange; he wore a long, blue coat, accompanied by white tights and small black shoes.

“The question, of course, is not where, but when,” he said. “And I’m afraid I can’t even answer that one.”

I stared at him, entirely confused,

“What do you mean, when? It’s 1902.”

He gave a bright smile. “Already? My, my. How quickly the years can slip.”

I began to feel as though I was missing a vital piece of information. Outside the open door to the room, a curious face appeared briefly. It was a small child, possibly a girl, in a long smock and a white, frilly bonnet.

I spoke slowly.

“What . . . year is it, then?”

“That’s a very difficult question, you know,” he answered. “Very difficult indeed. But a slightly easier one would be ‘what year did you board this boat?’”

I nodded my head slowly, never breaking contact with the blue eyes

“And the answer . . .?”

“Why, the greatest year of all. At least, in my opinion. 1706.”

I laughed. It was a nervous laugh, a pained laugh, and to be honest, it sounded more like a bark.

“Oh, yes, yes, very funny, very funny.” My voice was high and I spoke with trepidation. “This is, is, some kind of prank, hmm? Dress up like, like, like someone from 200 years ago, tell me I’m on, on, on some kind of ghost ship, hmm? You, you, you . . .”

I trailed off. The man was not smiling. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes.

“You’ll adjust. We all do. It can take a long time, however. I am truly sorry. We all are.”

He turned in his chair and raised his voice.

“You can all come in now, I know you’re just itching to.”

About ten people crowded into the room, followed by two children, one of whom I’d seen peeking in. Their clothing varied greatly, and although I couldn’t tell from which period each came from, I saw a few Elizabethan neck-rings, quite a lot of very large dresses, and a man wearing nothing but a dirty cloth tied around his waist.

Something snapped. I ran through the crowd and up an old staircase, up to the fresh air of the deck. It still smelled the same as the air I had breathed yesterday. Leaning over the edge of the ship I let out a whimper as I stared at blackness below - no waves, no water, just . . . a void. Above me lay large, spherical clouds, floating peacefully in the sky.

And that’s why I’m here. Well, not really. That’s how I got here. Why I’m here, why any of us are here, is the question we all ask ourselves every hour of every day. The blue eyed man, whose name I learnt was Thomas, says that there can be glitches in life, that sometimes people fall through the cracks. He told me not to think of the ship as a ghost ship. We’re not dead, he said. We’re not ghosts. I asked him how he knew. He changed the subject.

Sometimes I think of how the Captain laughed at me in his disbelief when I told him the globes were beautiful. Back then, I didn’t understand why. I try to avoid looking up at them too much. We all do. The weather is unchanging, and we know that the tempest the clouds warn of will never appear.
But secretly, we’re all waiting for the storm.


The poll is established. Now is when I get to read and savour the stories!

I’d also like to take this moment to encourage readers to comment on the stories. This is one of the most valuable aspects of these contests - writers seldom get a chance to hear directly from their readers. Fellow writers and editors have a different way of commenting on a story…

And above all - VOTE! Usually, there is a wide discrepancy between the number of times the thread has been ‘read’, and the number of votes.

I’m the first to vote? Golly folks, come on in and read these great stories. I liked all of them, actually; it was a great group and I was fascinated as usual to see what everyone did with the words and the picture. Great picture by the way, Ministre.

Oh, and since I am the only voter so far I guess everyone can see who I voted for (Oops). But really, all the stories were amazing. What a lot of talent here!

And I’m personally ready for another Poetry contest…Ministre?

Here goes…

The unique premise was a good way to start and made me want to read more. This story had a couple nice twists, what with all of the various mythologies being true in a modern day setting, the counter proposal by “Hades”, and the Tracy switcheroos. It would have been nice to know why Tracy was masquerading as Hades, who took her place, and why the truth telling camera still saw fake Tracy as Tracy, albeit with added doom clouds. The use of steersman was obvious, but it inspired a creative premise. The use of the picture wasn’t essential to the story but it fit well atmospherically.
The premise and twists got my vote, though I would have liked a stronger ending.

The beginning was mostly scene setting, with only a little bit of oddity to draw you in. It wasn’t until the fourth paragraph that things got interesting. “Set hoof” was a nice bit of wordage. Steersman was mythological but not in the underworld this time. And then the story just sort of ended. An interesting premise, but the story never seemed to get beyond the set up.
I liked the premise, but the story would have had to have led to something to get my vote.

The beginning paragraph is poetic and sets the scene well, but there isn’t a hook to draw you in, unless you happen to be predisposed to end of life stories. Interesting that this story involved death, but that aspect was unrelated to the steersman. I’d say that the writing itself was very good, the scenes were painted well, the characters felt real, the drama felt realistic. But the story was a little weak. It seemed like the characters were literally waiting for it to be over, and I couldn’t help thinking that isn’t what you want your reader to feel. The secret from the past was interesting. The dynamic between the sisters might have been interesting if there was more to it or it had some kind of resolution. The ending felt tacked on though, a bizarre tragedy packed on top a series of bummers.
I loved the writing, and the scenery, and the characters, but to get my vote there would have had to have been a little more to the story than painting a scene of people waiting.

Happy Birthday
The pre spoiler section begins the action, but doesn’t have a strong hook other than the possibility that “nothing was going to ruin this day” was an author’s challenge. The description of the clouds was amusing. Best use of “steersman” so far. And yes, it appears it was a challenge to ruin Stephen’s day in mostly amusing ways. The series of unfortunate events started out funny but went on a little bit too long, and was a little repetitive. Well set up killer twist at the end, though.
The story was a little repetitive and occasionally sophomoric, and all of the pratfalls would have worked a little better as a short film, but it got my vote for the well set up twist ending and most creative use of a required word.

The Medusa Plague
The beginning has a strong hook. The premise was fairly interesting, although the attributes of the creatures seemed a bit mashed up and a strange mix. The ending set up a decent cliffhanger. There was a little bit too much tell and not quite enough show.
This kind of seemed like the beginning of a 50s B-horror sci-fi movie, which can be entertaining, but it would have had to have either the fun action scenes or the cheesy scenery eating characters or zingy one liners to get my vote.

Take a look at those clouds!
Well the title says it all LOL. I’m expecting something tongue in cheek or perhaps meta. The pre spoiler opening makes me think of anime, and has a decent hook. The way things are phrased is slightly awkward, so I’m guessing the author is rushed or ESL, although that actually works well with the potential anime aesthetic going on. Bonus points for the meteorological lesson explaining the clouds from the picture! Laughing at “tit clouds”. Also bonus points for making the clouds so central to the plot line. I liked the twist of the angel trick. The latino comment came across as slightly racist. I liked the technical details about graphene and Buckminster Fuller. And another twist! And a delightful double entendre with the Mammatus line.
This story got my vote. It was a little cartoonish, but in a good way. The cuteness of the characters, the fun action, the amusing twists, the playful interactions, and the dashes of intriguing technical details and ideas brought me back to my youthful enjoyment of anime series. I’d love to see this story continue on as an animated series or graphic novel complete with world book companion. I would change the title though to something a little bit more appropriate to the theme or focus of the ongoing series.

Waiting for the storm
The beginning sets up a clear trope, but it’s a mystery with plenty of potential and a decent hook. Hey, another writer who did their research on the clouds. I’m very glad that the title did not describe the plot of the story, but rather alluded to the clever and poetic final line. The twist was kind of interesting, but I wish it happened sooner, and led to a situation with more potential than limbo.
I would have voted for this story if there was just a little bit more adventure on the other side of the looking glass, and if the protagonist had a bit more agency.

It was not surprising that more than one story had mythological overtones inspired by the word “steersman” but it was surprising that they both had modern settings. It was kind of surprising that only one story took place at sea. A lot of the stories had clever twists this time. A lot of the stories felt like the prologue of a much longer story that we didn’t get to read. A lot of them had unhappy themes - in some cases this felt like a bit of a bummer but in other cases it was used to humorous or clever effect.

I wish this contest had been a week later! There just wasn’t time for me to finish in the brief hours between my last final and the deadline. But the story I was working on is something I’ll still enjoy developing for some other purpose, so there’s that. But I do miss the getting feedback aspect, and the cheap thrill of watching the voting bars race each other like horses in a carnival game. :slight_smile:

Underworld and Happy Birthday got my vote for their clever twists. Take A Look got my vote and was my favorite, though, for it’s anime aesthetic and adventurous fun that both left me satisfied and also wanting more. It may just have happened to have hit all my particular tastes, but I really hope it gets more votes.

Your reviews are really excellent, jackdavinci. I’m sure the authors appreciate them as well. I agreed with most of what you had to say but I couldn’t vote for Take a Look as the language errors and awkwardnesses distracted me a little too much. I guess the anime idea makes “awkward” seem less troubling but as a grammar nazi I couldn’t seem to get past thinking the author should have proofread more carefully. Sorry, GIGObuster; I liked some parts of your story a lot. As I said before, I actually thought all the stories were good, especially given the limits of time and using the words. While I agree that “Sky” could have benefitted from a little more story, I think the short story as prose-poem is ok too.

I’m glad to see there’s more votes and I hope more people come in and comment.

Thanks to all my fellow authors for submitting! I love these contests.

I’ve read through and placed my votes. I’ll write up more notes when the voting is closed, but I was definitely charmed by “Take a look at those clouds!” :slight_smile:

Just a quick bump - I’ll be offline and without power for a couple of days…

Warmest wishes to all of you!

Aha! So you really are Santa Claus!
I will add my comment to these stories later - there are some really good entries this time!

With all the holiday stuff done, I finally got some time to read these stories. Great job you guys.

  1. Underworld.

I really love the whole idea of this story and was very satisfied overall with the ending. I find myself so confused though. Tyler changed to Tony and I can’t figure out if it’s a mistake or a twist to the story that I’m not clever enough to get.

  1. Fil

This is well written, but just never goes anywhere. It’s like a teaser for the book to come.

  1. Sky

I think jackdavinci sums this up perfectly. This is a good writer.

  1. Happy Birthday

I love how this story started and liked the humor, but it did go just a little too far. Nobody could make that many wrong choices and still be alive to tell about it. But the idea is fun.

  1. The Medusa Plague

This one got my vote. It was well written and had a very realistic feel to it that I always enjoy. I agree that the creatures need some better definition. But it was my favorite.

  1. Take a look at those clouds

This almost got my vote and even now I wish I could have voted a tie. I find it interesting that I correctly guessed who the author was. I think that’s a first. Great story.

  1. Waiting for the storm

Again, I really love the idea of this story, but there’s something a little off to me. I’m not sure I can even define it properly because I know I suck at writing. But I’ll try. There are too many small details that don’t fit with what is supposed to be a journal or diary type of thing. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that is what is bothering me, I think.

I’m probably terribly unqualified to offer these comments, so please keep that in mind. Anyway, kudos to all of you.

Regarding voting, not what you’d expect, you are aware that you can vote for more than one entry?

Just mention this as many don’t realize it when they first see the poll.

No, I wasn’t. I am now. Thanks.

So, less than three days left in the poll, and we’re at 15 votes. This is the point where I start exhorting people to express themselves!

(Please bear with me - I’m not feeling well today, and my writing is not terribly coherent.)

A first general question, to the writers - if you had the chance of one more draft, what would you change?

A general observation - this time around, the photo was so very strong, that it is much more evident in the stories than the words are. That may partly be because the words were rather beige, in my opinion. What do you folks think?

Here are some randomly scattered thoughts and editorial suggestions -


I enjoyed this very much; I have a couple of real detail things to ask about, though. One of the big things is - I think like to see a stronger relationship between Tyler/Tony and the narrator. I think it would lead to a bigger pay-off, with the narrator having a real reason to feel like ‘a worthless shit’, and then realizing the betrayal of his friend in order to bring back the Psi camera footage was all for naught anyway, as they both got tricked.

I think it might make the ‘what have I let loose in the upper world?’ ending stronger, too. All of the above just my opinions and suggestions, of course.

I have a strong sense that this isn’t a complete draft, and yet, it’s detailed enough to make me think it isn’t just the first draft. At any rate, what is there makes me want to hear a lot more. If I were editing this, my first suggestion would be at least another 500 words about what happens after Jane’s arrival on Fil. Or, if you wanted to keep the ambiguity of the ending, I’d then suggest about another 500 words during the journey, reflecting on what life as a fawn is like, about Jane’s expectations, about her youth.

A writer I’ve followed for a few of these contests, now. Your strongest suit is your ability to describe everyday personal relationships without diminishing the scale of the characters’ emotions.

I came away with the idea that Beth somehow could not have children, and that was the source of the resentment between her and Laura. If that’s the case, I think I would have liked one more clue to lead me to that conclusion. And if I’m wrong, I think I’d have liked less implication of that idea…
Happy Birthday

This was my favourite - I loved the litany of misfortune with the irony of it being the character’s carefully planned birthday, and the Tom Stoppard mis-construction of the events that led to the condition of the body was a great touch.
The Medusa Plague

I think if I’d been organized better/had more time, I would have done one more draft that would have told the story from the point of view of the government operative trying to send that last report. As it stands, it’s not a story so much as it’s a recounting of government meeting; everything other than the last teaser takes place in the past and is related second hand. I also think the tone would have been better if I had simply surrendered to the Stan Lee/Marvel Comics level of science that was being dealt with.

‘Before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story…’ was a tribute to/ripoff of Dav Pilkey’s ‘Captain Underpants’, depending on your point of view.
Take a look at those clouds!

I’ve been following this writer for a while now, and I’m pleased to note a lot of improvements. The overall story is quite coherent. There are places where individual words in the dialogue don’t ring quite true, and there are individual sentences or paragraphs where the through line takes what strikes me as an unintended turn; still, this strikes me as something that could be much improved with a good editor and a couple more drafts.

Which is a worthwhile accomplishment for something done over 60 hours.
Waiting for the Storm

I thoroughly enjoyed this take on the clouds, and I liked that you avoided over-explaining the ghost ship.

Underworld - a nice tale, with a nice twist at the end. I liked this story for concept of bargaining for a life, but finding out you don’t always get what you bargain for.

Fil - I thought the premise was quite good - you can indeed go home again - but I wish there had been a somewhat more satisfying ending. Perhaps running into an old friend or discovering something about what happens and what is learned?

Sky - a bit of a contradiction here. Really nice descriptions and mood and character development, but it seemed to lack some kind of compelling story that made you want to read faster to find out what happens. Without meaning to digress or dwell on it, I find myself also struggling to keep a story moving, but also fleshing out the characters; in the time constraints and word constraints, this is a lot harder than many might think.

The Medusa Plague - this was kind of freaky as it had a very similar plot and story to what I started to write (and later dropped)! It worked far better than my original story, and it captured the moment of defeat in the face of the inevitable.

Take A Look At Those Clouds - this was fun to read, although I think it is more of a draft version of what could and should be a longer story. I liked the perspective and dialog, and there was enough interest to keep you reading - so that is a very good thing!

Waiting For The Storm - a nice progression into the story and it built up to a good ending, but there might have been a bit more description towards the ending. The journey was great, but I just think there could have been more to tell at the end, and perhaps shorten the first part? I know - easier said than done - but a nice job.

My own story, Happy Birthday, was somewhat of an afterthought. I started one story, far too obsessed with the photo, that was rather bleak. I had the world ending, but only one scientist knew about it and also knew the one place on earth that would remain unscathed. I got about 800 words into it and the story just bummed me out and I tossed it. Wasted a day of thinking about and writing that.

So I jumped off into a totally different direction and went for one man’s plans going awry, with the photo of the clouds simply being an omen of what was to come. I went for the comedy of errors in what should have been a simple plan for a pleasant day. I only wish I had had time to tighten the story and the action a bit, and added a few things here and there to explain why the main character really needed this day of celebration and relaxation. But as is evident in the ending of the story, sometimes you run out of time, screw things up, and it is too late to go back for a do-over.