Flash! Friday # 16

This contest is now closed to entries, but is always open to comments/feedback. Thanks to everyone for coming out to play in such a dashingly noir and steampunk style. The decision by judge Dan Radmacher will be posted tomorrow (Saturday).

Welcome to Flash! Friday (#FlashFridayFic) Round 16, beloved would-be dragons and other draconian folk! (Need rules?) Today’s judgemanship is provided by valiant and ghostly SVW member Dan Radmacher (glad to have you back, O Brave One!).

Let’s get right to today’s contest and see what you’ve got! I’ll give you wide berth this week:

Word limit: 200 – 400 word story based on the photo prompt.

* How: Post your story here in the comments. Include your word count (200 – 400 words, exclusive of title) and Twitter handle if you’ve got one.

* Deadline: 11:59pm ET tonight

Winners: will post tomorrow (Saturday)

Prize: An unabashedly dragonish e-trophy badge, your own sassy winner’s page here at FF, a 60-second interview feature next Wednesday, and INTERGALACTIC PUBLICITY (or as close as we can get you to it). NOTE: Winning and non-winning stories alike remain eligible for selection for Monday’s Flash Points. 

* Follow @FlashFridayFic on Twitter for up-to-date news/announcements/dragon TV-watching preferences (freebie: favorite Twilight Zone episode is ‘To Serve Man”).  And now for your prompt:

Mechanic

Mechanic, public domain image.

And now: WRITE, oh my dears, WRITE!

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122 thoughts on “Flash! Friday # 16

  1. @StephenWilds
    War Machine – 372 words

    Hugo tightened the last bolt in the steam-powered death machine with a final grunt as his hands shook, gripping the mighty wrench. He was hungry, tired, his skin was dirty, and he had worked so hard that his hands had begun to bleed. The tips of Hugo’s fingers were raw and red, with small pieces hanging off in stringy misshapen tears. The blood had smeared on the wrench, the sacrifice to the gods that had shown down on his work.

    Taking a step back from the monolith of destructive power with its many moving parts, Hugo admired the work he had accomplished. This would work. It would win the war against those blasted metallic bastards. The Red Army could finally set their families free from the resistance camps, they could all return to The Motherland, out of this underwater hideout.

    It was dark, damp, depressing. The lack of natural light kept them all drained, zombie-like in their faces and morale. The ocean sat above them, a giant protector and a cross to bear. It had been a prison, a lab, a staging ground, it would be the metal-ones undoing, since the water scared them so much. The water that had protected them would be harnessed, a weapon.

    Illyana’s face ran through his mind. He knew how much she yearned to escape, to be free. He had done this in a large part for her, perhaps more than for himself. Hugo couldn’t wait to see her walk though the parks again. Her golden hair would mimic the color of the flowers, contrast beautifully against the green grass, and he would walk hand-in-hand along with her, his powerful wrench in the other hand. They would walk in a free world.

    The thoughts of Illyana and freedom had caused him to zone out. Building the destructive force that stood in front of him, combined with the steam pouring thick from all of the vents had made him even more tired. The attack would go forward tomorrow, assuming the others did not disagree. For now though he would try and rest, nestled snugly in his beloved’s arms, after a shot of vodka. The future looked bright to Hugo, if only he had known about Illyana’s betrayal.

  2. Sweat pouring off his forehead, Tim used his wrench to turn the loose nut on the boiler. Such a little thing, just one damned nut; it’d taken him all day to find which one needed turning.

    When he’d been told that the output from the machine wasn’t of sufficient quality, he had a suspicion that there wasn’t enough work being generated by the boiler. That meant that there wasn’t enough steam coming from the furnaces, and that meant that there was a leak somewhere.

    It was all very well for Giles – knew ‘ole Bess’ better than anybody – he could just walk into the chamber and feel the hum in the air, tune himself in. He would stroll around, in no hurry at all. He’d lay his hand on Bess’ flanks and pause, look downwards and frown a little; then he’d look up and smile and say “mm hmm”. He just knew, he’d been in this place that long.

    Tim on the other hand was fresh out of his apprenticeship – a journeyman – knew all the theory and had years under his belt, but he wasn’t tuned into Ole Bess like Giles was; still a ways to go before her pulse became his own.
    So he’d had to look carefully at every panel, every ridge looking for steam venting out of gaps where there shouldn’t be any. Finally he’d found it, deep in her bowels. Tim had sighed and tutted, took up his heavy wrench and turned the nut.

    That oughta do it. The steam was essential for the boiler to work; there needed to be steam to boil the meat properly.

    Tim stood up and walked away to go and relax, have a beer. He’d long ago learned to shut out the screams of the maidens that he could hear echoing around the pipes as the heat and pressure were turned up.

    Ever since Shibboleth – that old dragon – lost his teeth, he liked his meat tender.

  3. Inspection Day

    By the time word of the Demonstration reached the Workshop, the Inspectors were already on their way. There was so little time, and so much to be done, and everyone knew what that meant.

    ‘Grigor must be recalled.’ It began as a whisper, from throats both flesh and iron.

    ‘The Collective has need,’ went the grey recitation, up and down the corridors of the Workshop, reflecting off the dull metal surfaces, absorbing into the grease. The words of the summons soaked into the threads of every bolt, and flowed like ichor through the pipes. ‘We are the Collective. Bring us Grigor.’ Every hiss of steam called for him, the hero-Worker.

    Eventually, the call reached the Infirmary.

    ‘They ask for you,’ murmured the nurse at Grigor’s bedside. A machine hummed, removing the oil and filth from his body, making him fit to work once more. The nurse kept an eye on its readings, observed its pressure as though it was an Engine. Grigor’s eyes remained closed. He’d known, of course, that he was needed. He’d known from the first.

    ‘Will you go?’ The question was gentle, but Grigor said nothing. The nurse’s fingers flicked, adjusted, monitored, maintained; she saw the increase in his pulse, and realised she had been answered.

    Without a word, she unhooked him from the equipment, and left him alone.

    He returned to the Workers’ Mess carried shoulder-high, the Engines hooting and hissing their approval, and the Foremen allowed themselves a smile. Nobody mentioned the Breakdown, and nobody could find the words to ask him how he felt. Grigor was silent, and they were glad.

    The following day, the Inspectors arrived.

    They were welcomed with banners and the clanging of wrenches on pipes; they were applauded as they strode toward the Engines.

    ‘Productivity,’ said the Inspectors, ignoring the tumult. They were focused. ‘Commodity. Output.’

    The Foremen gazed upon their inscrutable faces as Grigor stepped out of the crowd.

    ‘You are the Collective?’ they asked him. Grigor made no answer besides to pick up his wrench and settle his grip on its worn-smooth handle.

    As he bent to his task, he remembered the pain, and the dark exhaustion. He remembered how it had felt to break and fail. He closed his eyes and took the strain.

    The bolt was loosed before anyone could stop him.

    Nobody stood a chance when the explosion came.

    394 words, excluding title
    @SJOHart

  4. Brilliant – particularly like the cult-ish aspect of the whole story with the religious conviction of the collective and the incantations echoing around, and their reverence for Grigor who ultimately betrays them.

  5. The handle turned slowly as usual, and I had to lean into it to get the latch to fully disengage. As it swung open, I could hear the rhythmic pulses of steam coming from the pressure relief valves, and I winced. I’d been here long enough that I could tell how the machinery was doing by the smallest of sounds, and those were new sounds, sounds a machine like this was never designed to make. The only comfort came from the sight of the ever-present fire that was the heart of the machine. Without that fire, it didn’t matter if this fix worked – we wouldn’t have enough power to keep running.

    Clangs of metal on metal guided me to the worksite. An impossibly burly man was tightening a staggeringly large bolt with an even larger wrench. Pooled around his feet was some sort of viscous liquid which had leaked from the machine. Through the steam in the air, the ruddy glow of the firelight made the liquid look like blood, and I was shocked to see how much had spilled.

    “There. All done. She’s good as new.” The workman stepped back, dropping his wrench into an open slot on his tool belt with a solid thwump.

    “Good as new? You’ve disconnected the entire southeast quadrant! In nearly seventy three years, we’ve never disconnected an entire quadrant. Not once! Not even for maintenance.” I’d known what they were going to do, of course, but seeing it in person was unsettling.

    “That quadrant was FUBAR. It’s been screwed up ever since this thing became operational, and it was threatening to take down the whole works. You’re going to need to re-route some systems, but she’ll hold together.” He grabbed a rag from his belt and wiped the sweat from his face. “Everyone reacts the same way at first, but I’ve done lots of these. Just be patient – everything will be up and running before you know it.”

    I’d been looking at the floor as he talked, and I closed my eyes, gathering myself. “I know. It’s just -”

    “You never think something like this could happen.”

    “Exactly.”

    “It’s not supposed to, but it does. Welp, I’m out of here.” He picked up his toolbox, slung his jacket over his shoulder, and smiled, holding out his free hand. I shook it, and smiled back, trying to show more confidence than I really felt.

    400 words
    @drmagoo

    • I like the strength of emotion conveyed in the sentence “I’d been looking at the floor…closed my eyes…gathering myself”; really added to the feel of what was going on.

    • Powerful scene there and excellent imagery, but I’m left wondering if that was really it. What were they fixing? Why hadn’t a whole quadrant been shut down before? Who was the guy with the wrench? Great characterization of both workers though.

  6. The bolt groaned under the strain and Henry remembered the poster. Bright purple and blue starry background with glowing yellow words that proclaimed “SEE THE STARS! JOIN STAR CORPS TODAY!” So bright, so clear, an impossibly beautiful star field. Henry had looked from the poster to the sky, as though wishful thinking could somehow pierce the heavy veil of gas lit smoke and haze that smothered London day and night. He’d been four the last time he’d seen a star. His family had gone on holiday to the Scottish Highlands. There, at the top of some castle whose name Henry would never remember, there had been a tiny break in the smoke and haze that was thinner in the country but never gone. A tiny break and for the span of a handful of heartbeats, a tiny bright pinpoint of light burned into his vision forever. A star, an actual star, they really did exist. The smoke wasn’t even thin in the Highlands any more, hadn’t been for years. Then, five years ago, Verne and Wells had announced the success of a jointly funded venture. Manned spacecraft were a success! Man could finally escape the perpetual haze and smoke we had created here on Earth and find the stars again.
    The bolt groaned again and Henry sighed, brought back to his current world. With a hand to his back, Henry straightened slowly as he stood. The catch in his back got worse every day it seemed but it was worth it. Henry walked over the small porthole, one of three allowed the engine room staff, and gazed out at the stars through the breaks in the smoke streaking past the porthole.

    281 Words
    @thorns_n_claws

    • So the place he’s working in is above the smog huh? Lucky fella. Good dystopian imagery there, especially the back-ache as it implies age and weakness which underlines just how awful Hnery’s life is.

    • The first time I read this piece I was convinced Henry was aboard a steampunky spacecraft, and I thought ‘what a fabulous idea’. But I’ve read it again now, and I’m no longer sure I got the right idea. Is he still earthbound? I love the idea of the smoky haze covering the whole country, and that it keeps people from aiming for the stars, literally and figuratively; I feel a lot of empathy for Henry. I think I’ll keep believing he’s on board a spacecraft at the end. 🙂

  7. Iron Justice

    Hugo lies at the bottom of the mine shaft, watching as the clumps of rock and dust topple down onto him. His arm is angled out above his head and his leg bent forward, glistening shards sticking out from underneath his flesh.

    Strangely, he feels no pain. The drip, drip, drip of his blood splattering down onto the rocks is the only thing he can hear, even as he can see the others try to climb down towards him. Their mouths twist with words he cannot understand.

    A feeling of fullness aches through his stomach but it takes him time to move his head to look across his broken body. A huge stalagmite pokes up through his abdomen, his torn flesh tightly enclosed around it. With a slight release of breath, Hugo tries to move his arms but they are weak, twitching intermittently.

    “You dare go near her again…” Walter growls in Hugo’s memory, as they stand on the planks high in the air.

    Walter curses, his fists swinging until Hugo finally turns, giving the asshole a bloodied lip. But as he turns, the floor is swept out from under him with one well-timed push, and the bottom of the shaft comes up to meet him.

    The anger gives him motivation and finally Hugo manages to lift himself up. The sharp object stuck through him causes a deep throbbing as he huffs, easing it out of his flesh. Without looking down, he knows that there is a great hole exposing his broken innards to the musty air.

    Walter’s face still watches as Hugo lifts himself from the ground. Despite his broken bones he shuffles towards the ladder, completely numb.

    “But he should be dead!” He hears Walter cry and Hugo smiles bitterly as he climbs up one rung at a time. On reaching the top he comes face-to-face with the man who pushed him.

    “How are you alive…?” One of the men starts, but when Hugo turns they all fall silent.

    The hole through Hugo’s middle shows his carved metal bones, the tiny copper wires and system of crumpled cogs that move his hips and torso. From his broken arm they see the shattered mechanisms, rubber pulleys playing muscles and tendons, some snapping as he reaches out towards Walter. The man is too shocked to move as Hugo closes in on his throat with his strong, iron hands.

    (399words) @DelilahEDay

    • That is brilliant – first I feel discomfort as I imagine the shards of my own bones piercing through my torn flesh, then there is the back story, and then the twist and justice at the end! Great story.

    • Yay! Iron Justice! I loved Hugo the moment he got up, but that he was mechanical was still a surprise to me. His circumstances were so well described I actually felt a little ill reading them.

    • This is great! So well paced, and so well described. I really liked how you began with the powerful image of Hugo lying broken and then took us back to the argument that put him there. Excellent writing.

  8. FALLBACK

    John reminded Lorelei of her first husband. That was not a good thing. Still, the resemblance was mostly physical, and she could always close her eyes.

    Where her ex-husband had been loud and domineering, John was quiet and passive.

    Unlike her ex-husband, John treated her with respect.

    With her lover’s baby growing inside her and her current husband conspicuously absent, Lorelei was growing ever more desperate. She’d been a wife twice and a mistress once. Neither position seemed to have a great advantage over the other. As a mistress, she’d known she was wanted. As a wife, she’d known she was not.

    If John would take her as either, she’d do her best to make him happy. She was good on her knees… or flat on her back, or bent over a three legged barstool while his friends jeered…

    No. John wouldn’t be like that. He’d probably use her as his end-of-the-day relief each night and then fall asleep on top of her. She could live with that. At least he was well-off enough to have a cook and a maid; if her husband had indeed abandoned her as she suspected he had, John would make a good safety net. He wasn’t wealthy, but he was safe. Maybe this time she could keep her baby…

    “John…” she said, taking the opportunity now that he’d finished tightening the huge…something or other on whatever the invention was.

    He nearly dropped his wrench, and blushed ten shades of crimson. “My lady… Your Grace… I… hello. What can I do for you?”

    Lorelei wasn’t sure how to flirt. She was used to being pursued and claimed. And she was the wife of John’s employer… he might not be so eager to endanger his position.

    “I was just wondering if you’d heard anything from His Grace…” It was a stupid thing to say and she regretted it. She didn’t want to think about him, or who he might be with, or what he might do to her when he came home. If he came home.

    John perked up. “Oh, yes Your Grace. He’ll be arriving on Sunday.”

    Sunday, Sunday, Sunday… it echoed in her mind. She had until Sunday to manipulate John into feeling something for her. Pity might work in such a short time frame. And pity she could live with whether or not her husband threw her out.

    @USNessie 395 words

    I broke my own rule and wrote an excerpt from a longer work. But it’s a work I haven’t written yet. I’m getting ready to write it, and I’ve been using the various prompts to warm up to my characters. The title is “To Whom She Was Married” and it’s Steampunk Romance.

    • Ha ha – brilliant! There was me thinking she was a poor, downtrodden woman who had been turned into a whore against her will, and then she turns out to be nobility! Great twist which then turns the story from being a potential tragedy into dark comedy.

    • Steampunk Romance sounds all kinds of awesome, and I definitely approve of using these blog challenges to warm up characters from larger works–I do that pretty regularly myself. I doubt things will go well for John and Lorelei, but I already feel for both of them in a way that really makes me hope things work out for them together.

  9. The Enumerated

    With the last bolt in place Epsilon 548 stood up straight and stretched his sore back. He wiped sweat from his brow and made his way out of the refinery. His designated rest day was tomorrow and for the first time in over a year it coincided with his wife’s rest day. He and Zeta 775 had only had three such days since their application for an inter-echelon marriage was approved. They were the first couple to be approved in the community, since the Germ-line Oversight Board had eased restrictions following the most recent gene inventory.

    He arrived home before Zeta 775 did. The slight offset in their work schedules would provide him with about an hour to wash himself and clean their living space. Every time he saw himself in a mirror his eyes went right to the enumeration tattoo over his right eyebrow. He’d worn it his whole life, but he still noticed it, perhaps because it was always the first thing the Denominated noticed about the Enumerated on the rare occasions that they met in person.

    The data-screen in the room behind him came to life and a familiar Denominated face appeared.

    “Good evening, Citizens. This is Corporate President Caleb Warren. This evening there was a structural failure in the North-West Refinery. The incident resulted in the termination of most that refinery’s B-Shift. the following A-Shift workers are ordered to return to the refinery immediately: Gammas 566-588, Deltas 376-402, and Epsilons 542-551.”

    “Damn,” Epsilon 548 muttered. “third time, this year.”

    “The Council on Enumerated Supervision has approved remote neurotransmitter manipulation.” Corporate President Warren continued. “Additional credit payments have not been approved at this time. Enjoy your work shift.”

    The screen turned itself off. Within a minute Epsilon 548 could feel the effects of the neurotransmitter manipulation. The soreness in his back and his fatigue faded. He felt alert and invigorated. Every time this happened he was always tempted to ignore the order and wait for his wife to come home. Then, he would take full advantage of his artificially enhanced state. Unfortunately, such an action would violate enough rules for a state-issued termination, so, instead he wrote a quick note for Zeta 775. Then, he and his heightened physical state headed back to the refinery to put in a second shift so the company-state could maintain the Denominated’s lifestyle.

    392
    @acmarkz

    • Agh, sounds like the inter-echelon marriage was only approved on paper and is being manipulated to not exist in practice. At first I was concerned the structural failure was going to mean Zeta 775 had died, but I think this is even more depressing.
      That and the Greek Letter/number combo for names. That’s pretty depressing too. Well written though, I feel I now know the Enumerated/Denominated’s world well enough to be incensed by it.

    • I really like everything about this – you create the world so well. I was very impressed with your eyebrow-tattoo image, and the concept of the Denominated vs. the Enumerated. I’d love to see this story developed into a longer work. It’d be my kind of book! 🙂

  10. Revelations From Genesis

    Max couldn’t ever remember being as tired as he was right now and that was saying something. He’d grown up in the hardscrabble of northern Minnesota where nothing was grown without hard, backbreaking work.

    Sixteen weeks of infantry basic training, followed by paratrooper school and topped off by the Ranger course had molded Max into a man of exceptional strength, endurance and durability. If anyone was prepared to teach a lesson to that trumped-up Austrian house painter and his goose-stepping stooges, Max was that man.

    So, that being the case, what the heck was he doing here in the middle of the Nevada desert? He was beginning to wish he’d never, ever had occasion to find out the answer to that question. The nondescript major who’d handed the orders to him hadn’t been very forthcoming with the finer points of his assignment.

    Max would be required to provide security, general labor and assist with whatever tasks Command might deem appropriate. The major added, in hushed tones, this secret project had the potential to revolutionize the way war was conducted and, upon completion, would save countless Allied soldiers’ lives.

    After a succession of flights, Max got his first look at the cryptically-named Camp Genesis. Behind a double fence line topped with barbed and razor wire he saw Quonset huts and several squat cinderblock structures. Home sweet home, he mused.

    His daily routine became a succession of grunt tasks requiring little imagination. The eggheads that ran this place confused him with their muttering of “forced evolution’ and “genetic manipulation”. All he knew for sure was whatever was in the huge steel “containment chambers” sounded big, mean and hungry.

    He hadn’t slept a wink in the two days since one of the…experiments breached containment and tore 12 people limb from limb before finally being subdued by the continuous fire of .50 caliber machine guns. Max might not have known a whole lot about much of anything, but he sure as hell knew a wolf wasn’t supposed to be 12 feet tall with bony spikes all over it.

    Turning the heavy wrench with all his might, he finished the last modifications to the reinforced chamber. Of all the thoughts that might have been in his mind at that juncture, what concerned him most was just how the Army planned to get their damned secret weapons all the way to Germany when the time came.

    400 words @klingorengi

  11. Progress.

    “It’s not how it looks…” I stand up, step away from the machine, hide the spanner behind me.

    “Martin, this area is off limits. And, you don’t work here any more.” Philip’s voice is as nasal as ever. Strained, like steam forced through a tight pipe.

    “…” I open my mouth to apologise, but then his words hit me. I smile, he’s right – on both counts. This area sits in the deepest recesses of the factory; no one else will disturb us. And I have nothing left to lose. I raise the spanner.

    “Whoa, lets keep calm about this.” Philip makes a placatory gesture with his hands and takes a step backwards, but he has misread my intentions.

    I put the spanner back against the nut I was working on, and give it another half turn.

    “Don’t-” Philip’s warning is cut short by venting steam and the resonant groan of machinery.

    I twist the nut again. There is another mechanical grumble.

    “I know everything Philip! Everything!” I glare at my former manager, and let him see the wild abandon which is now dictating my actions.

    “What do you mean?”

    “I know what you’re planning, what you’re trying to create!” Long before Philip had sacked me I’d held suspicions. The late night deliveries, the foreign components, the complex schematics; they were all parts of the puzzle. A puzzle completed by my tightening of the nut. Machines don’t groan when you tighten a nut…unless.

    Philip starts towards me, his expression hard. “So you’ve worked it out, have you?”

    “It’s alive.” I clank the spanner against the machine. “I’m going to the press, the police, whoever will listen.”

    “No, you’re not!” Philip doesn’t halt his advance.

    “You can’t stop me!” I raise the spanner, thinking to threaten, but it is too late for threats. I swing at him. Give it all my strength. There is a metallic pwang. The jarring impact deadens my arm, and sends the spanner spinning from my grasp, but it doesn’t bother Philip.

    His hands close around my throat in a vice-like grip.

    As the periphery of my vision bristles with white dots, and my lungs burn, I hear Philip’s odd, nasal voice. It’s almost apologetic. “Our plans have progressed further than you think.”

    390 words
    @Brev_

  12. NOTHING TO SEE HERE

    “Mike, the wrench isn’t even doing anything. You can’t use a wrench like this. This is stupid.”

    “Look, Steven, just trust me. It doesn’t matter how authentic your pose is. Just look good, and stand in a way that you can hold for a few minutes. That’s all.”

    “I feel ridiculous.”

    “You’ll thank me. I’m gonna go to my spot, you stay there. Please.”

    “Fine.”

    “You’ll thank me, I’m telling you.”

    “Fine, Mike, I’m standing here, aren’t I?”

    Mike runs off to take his own position in the Strong Men of the Railroad exhibit.

    Before long, birdlike twitters and cackles reach Steven’s ears. Sounds like a big group, maybe ten or twenty. He’ll know when they come in.

    In they come. A gaggle of ladies, all clutch purses and pillbox hats. Solid-colored suits, matching shoes. If they wanted, they could be an elderly girl group. Or four or five groups, there’s enough of them. All except that one, in the fanny pack and the sweatshirt with decals of deer and squirrels on the front.

    “Oh Ethel, I think you’re going to like this exhibit,” says someone.

    “My, how very lifelike! Would they notice if I took one home?” The group erupts in giggles.

    “No touching the merchandise,” says someone.

    “Not even a little?” More giggles.

    The little ladies move in closer and closer, like birds examining fast food spilled on the sidewalk. Steven focuses his attention on a spot of carpet in front of him. Got to stay here, just long enough…

    “Oh look, there’s another one!” Heads turn. A few walk on, some stay for another moment with Handsome Wrench Man. Pictures are snapped. No one touches the merchandise.

    Soon the gaggle moves on. Pressure’s on Mike, now.

    Once he can’t hear enough to make out words, Steven figures they’ve gone. He lets the wrench down, and rubs his neck. From now on, he’s tipping those people who play human statues on the street. This is hard work.

    He waits a beat. No more voices. The group has left. Maybe off to the botanical garden.

    Mike bursts in. “It worked! Do you think the police are gone?”

    “Yeah, probably,” says Steven. “Let’s go out the back, anyway.”

    “Sure thing. Here. Help me get this back in place.”

    They reposition the dummy, stick the wrench back in its hands, and race for the back door.

    399 words(!!)
    @betsystreeter

  13. The Museum of Forgotten Relics

    The Museum of Forgotten Relics is an interesting place. It’s also huge; trying to see all of it in a year’s time isn’t possible, much less a weekend. She’d looked over the pamphlet that described just a few of the sights that could be viewed, trying to make a decision. Now, as they stood at the main entrance, she still couldn’t decide.

    “Let’s look at the viewscreens and see if anything suits,” Mother said. Nodding, she moved with her elder over to the large monitor showing different scenes from inside. For a few minutes, nothing appealed overly much, but then her emerald eyes widened. Machinery of all sorts..and something else. She tapped the screen twice, making the picture larger, wanting to be certain. Fascinating.

    “The Hall of Mechanical Wonders?” Mother’s tone was slightly distressed, but at her offspring’s decided nod, she nodded as well. “Very well then.”

    Their i.d. cards were scanned, and just inside the front doors, a small car waited on a silver track to take them to their destination. The ride was smooth and over almost before they knew it. “When you are ready to depart, touch the buzzer by the door,” a mechanical voice said. “Enjoy your stay.” The doors opened to admit them.

    When she stepped inside, she felt immediately lost and at home at the same time. The scents in the air were intoxicating; some she had never smelled before. Loud clanging and hissing surrounded her, and she felt a warm draft stir her hair. Mother stopped, looking a bit dismayed. “Goodness…it’s quite loud in here.” She paid no attention, moving forward to see what awaited her. She didn’t even notice when Mother chose to wait by the door.

    Rounding a corner, she was mesmerized by the sight of a huge….contraption. Wheels and pipes ran together, but the most fascinating thing of all was the figure standing in front of it, wielding a wrench. Muscles strained in the arms as the creature used the tool with expert ease. The clothes it wore were dirty and stained, the hair on its head short. It paid no attention to her, intent on the task at hand. Boldly she moved closer, the movement catching its attention.

    The creature looked up. Human eyes met cat eyes.

    “I thought they were all extinct,” she murmured softly. “Never thought I’d see a real one…a real human.”

    396 words {not including title}
    @Angelique_Rider

  14. She watched the men shuffling to work, unaffected by the choking humidity, fascinated by their unassuming strength and stamina. Every morning as she prepared for school they would pass by her window. With each passing day, she grew more curious about work at the local steel mill.

    “Mary Margaret, quit your dawdling. You’ll be late for school.”

    “Yes, ma’am.” She hated being called by her given names, both equally wretched as far as she was concerned. She preferred Mags, but her mother would never comply.

    Slipping out into heat, she was transformed into a knight, slaying dragons, from a folklore driven tale in which the hero was always, sadly, male. She imagined the weight of the steel breast plate weighing her down considerably, but nothing would deter her from accomplishing her quest. Regaled with a chalice of wine for her bravery and heroics, if only in her fantasy world, while hoofing it on her way to class.

    She dreaded the reality of her days as she was being schooled in the ways of a proper young lady. Sufferable subjects, she felt would not aid her in the least for what she wished to explore in life. She couldn’t care less about embroidery stitches, her penmanship was atrocious, and nothing about a well balanced meal spoke to her inner curiosity. She wasn’t allowed to dabble in metal work, the newest addition available for boys at her school.

    Reading had proved beneficial as she spent her spare time nose deep in the pages of anything she could clutch in her grasp, transporting her far away from the vapid details of her current life. So often, she’d lost track of time dreaming herself into roles created exclusively for men.

    “Mags! Wait up,” Thomas hollered.

    Thomas, a few years her senior, worked at the local steel mill; she was insanely jealous. She knew he was going to ask her out and dreaded the moment he would, not because he wasn’t an attractive fella. Wide set shoulders, angled jaw, large hands, he had the markings of a well breed man and the wit to match, but she wasn’t interested in dressing up and dancing. Her perfect date would be to sneak inside the steel mill late at night and have him show her all the machinery he worked on. Ridiculous. She could never admit to this, any of it.

    “Hey, Thomas.” She smiled sweetly instead.

    400 words
    @blackinkpinkdsk

    • No! Out of words already? That was a perfect set-up for:

      “I was wondering if you’d meet me at the steel mill tonight,” Thomas spoke in a more conspiratorial tone.

      Or something. I really like Mags, and I guess it’s the romantic in me that wants Thomas to be that guy she can’t even admit to envisioning.

      • I dunno. See how Mags is studying insufferable subjects at school, like embroidery and penmanship? How old do you think this school girl is?

        She thinks Thomas is going to ask her out. School girl whimsy or is he retarded, or a paedophile?

        This story could end up being so dark…

  15. “Join my crew! See he world! That’s what he said.” I leaned into the wrench, putting all my muscle into it. “Come on, you damn bitch! Turn!” Sweat dripped off of me, onto the metal grating of the floor.

    The chief was hammering away at a stuck joint one deck up. “Just make sure there’re no leaks in that casing!”

    “Yeah, yeah! I know!” Having secured the that bolt, I moved to the one above it. At least the captain had been honest. I’d joined his crew, and seen a lot of the world. Including parts most didn’t even know were there. Like the Mid-Atlantic ridge and the Abyssal Plain.

    But I did have to earn my keep. We all did. Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep steam engines working in an underwater ship? Do you know what you smell like when you spend twelve hours in the engine room, making sure there are no steam leaks anywhere, as the air goes from being fresh and sweet, to something straight out of hell, that stinks of sweat, blood, oil, and iron?

    “Where’s he heading now?” I shouted up to the chief.

    He laughed. “Madagascar.”

    “Madagascar? Where the fuck is that?” I moved to the next bolt, and started tightening it. The top three bolts were always a bitch to tighten. I always saved them for last.

    In between loud banging noises, I heard the chief respond, “I hear,” BANG! “it’s some big damn island, “BANG! BANG! “off Africa. “ BANG! The chief let out a string of curse words and I heard his hammer bouncing on the grate. “Son of a bitch!”

    I laughed, “Gonna lose another fingernail aren’t you!”

    I put my shoulders into it. “Well. Maybe he’ll even let us go ashore for a couple of days.” Pushing up, I grunted, “Move you sorry bastard! Move!” And it did, with a couple of loud pings.

    “Yeah. I think he’s planning a couple of days of shore leave for us all.” BANG! BANG! BANG!

    Join Captain Nemo’s crew. See the world. If you survived. With three bolts left, I paused, and dreamed of stretching out on a beach, in the ocean surf, getting clean, and soaking up the sun. “Just one day ashore! That’s all I want! One frakkin’ day!”
    397 Words
    @LurchMunster

  16. I lived many cycles here, enough so I passed as a human. I was now often sought out as a friend, confidante, even a frequent date.

    My project was a long-term one. I had started out adapting to a human form, residing in small, rural communities as I learned to fit in.

    Then I moved to larger cities. Became adept with machinery, music, and men. There were always men.

    Hard-working men, scoundrels, husbands and fools. Sometimes all in the same man. It wasn’t time for me to engage more closely with men yet. Until I had enough information, I had to bide my time.

    Being in a human form for so long had side effects I did not anticipate. Urges, longings, desires. to be touched or touch someone else. It was disconcerting.

    To collect my samples from humans, I found it easiest to steal time. A frozen moment allowed me to collect all the data in a human minute and it only took a week of the human’s life and a minute of their memory.

    I found it kinder than the more conventional methods employed by my kind. Though even my own Grid-Master had preferred the lengthy, and far more damaging, catch and release program.

    During my terms, I had been taught and practiced a variety of methodologies before choosing which path to follow. Catch and release had disturbed me the most. Sometimes our experiments damaged the specimens too much for them to survive.

    Besides, once I had finished going through a study of this data, the next step in my project required a very gentle hand.

    Inter-species mating was my field of interest, and this specimen, this man I’d been secretly monitoring… David, was the one I had chosen to be my mate.

    He moved and I gasped, palming the info cube and sliding it into my pocket. I couldn’t believe I’d lost track of time and let him see me, before I wanted us to meet.

    “Women aren’t supposed to be down here,” he set down the wrench and pulled a dirty handkerchief as if to wipe away some grime.

    I jumped towards him, handing him my clean, scented one instead, “No here, please take mine.”

    In my skittishness, we collided and I gasped an introduction, “Hello, my name is June.”

    @FlabbergastedMa

    • After reading the other entries, I really wasn’t expecting this. Chilling and heartwarming- unless the last bit was part of her plan…

    • Good to be getting into some sweeter entries–I choose to interpret June as good for David (the worker) and cite her preference for less damaging data collection and interest in inter-species mating as evidence she’s a good sort.
      I feel like all the story is here I need, but I’d gladly spend more unfrozen time with these characters.

    • There’s a lot packed in here: shape shifting aliens, a protagonist with a heart coming from an inconsiderate culture, form affecting emotions and desires, frozen time…wonderful plot devices.

  17. Apologies in advance, I couldn’t whittle down to the word limit, but here’s my story at 504 words

    Punk and Steam
    By Wakefield Mahon

    The pipe burst and Vincent cursed. Fifteen minutes to quitting time and he had to track down a leak and Vernon Joules did not believe in that new-fangled overtime for his steamworks employees.
    Vincent resisted the urge to leave the problem for the night shift. Darcy was a dapper chap, but he didn’t know a bolt from a wrench.
    A bit of ingenuity and a lot of elbow grease later, Vincent was done.
    Exhausted, Vincent began to enter the nearest pub he could find, a new place called Dairyman’s Ghost, when he was nearly decapitated by some sort of flying contraption.
    “My bad!”
    Vincent started at the sound of a young woman’s voice as the driver took off her goggles and helmet.
    “A woman, riding about in such an odd contraption, what does your husband think of this?”
    She stared at him as if her were mad. “I don’t have a husband, or a fiancé for that matter,” she paused as a grin grew across her face, “at least none that I know of.”
    Vincent didn’t understand much of the wild woman, but he wild abandon intrigued him. He didn’t realize he was staring until she cleared her throat.
    “At any rate, as I nearly ran you over, it’s appropriate I should compensate you. Let my buy you a cup of tea.”
    “YOU want to buy ME…”
    “Just recompense mind you. And my name is Susan”
    Vincent shrugged. It was a new pub; perhaps no one would notice him there.
    All hopes of anonymity were shattered when the waitress informed Susan, they only served chilled tea.
    Susan jumped on top of the table and shouted, “Anarchy! That’s what the world has come to when a woman can’t get a hot cup of tea in London. The world’s gone mad!”
    The waitress glared. “The only mad one I see is on my table.”
    Vincent tried to help Susan down from the table, but she pulled him up. Stunned at first he looked around the room and all the eyes fixed on him. “My friend has a point. No hot tea, on such a winter’s day? I have to agree it’s rather peculiar.”
    “Gunnar, we have a couple of trouble makers in here.”

    “That would be our cue to leave” Again Susan grabbed Vincent’s hand and they dashed out of the pub and into her flying contraption. Susan laughed as two large men chased them down the street while they hovered just out of reach.

    At last Susan delivered Vincent to the modest flat where lived.

    “This was fun,” she said. “You should come meet my parents for tea on Sunday.”

    Vincent smiled. “I would like that very much. Say, I’ve a question before you leave.”

    “What’s that?”

    “Did you build this contraption?”

    “No I stole it from my Uncle Verne. He and my father run Joules Steamworks. Have you heard of it?”

    Vincent saw his life flash before his eyes, then – looking at Susan once more – decided it had all been worth it.

    @WakefieldMahon
    Inspired by the song “Punk Rock Girl” by the Dead Milkmen

    • I can see where you couldn’t whittle that down. There was a lot crammed in there and honestly even at 504 words it felt too rushed–but the concepts there seemed worth sharing even in a rough form. Am I right in guessing the uncle is a reference to Jules Vern? Seemed like a lot of fun references crammed into that one.

      • Definitely too much crammed in there. I think a proper story is going to be 1500 words just getting through this introduction, not to mention where the story goes from here. We shall see!

  18. I thought about apologizing. I knew I was right about what I said, but I was seriously considering apologizing just to get out of here. Being locked in the boiler room was torture; even the air was tearing at my brain. I’m going to go crazy down here; I guess if I survive, I’ll be just like my parents.

    “You say you’re a grown-up; this is a time-out for grown-ups.”

    Liars. This is more than punishment. They want me to die down here. The room hasn’t had anyone in it for a long time, and it seems to tighten up so that I can’t escape. Blood is all over the walls and ground – and on me now since Mom and Dad literally threw their only son into the abyss. The blood was dried; it seems to flow – like there was a cut on the walls. It also had to be a working boiler room, so the plasma donated to the decor is expanding with my fluids. I managed to stand up, but the heat was making me unsteady and delirious – at least I hope so. If this wasn’t a fever dream, then someone else is down in this hellhole with me. Rather, I should say something; you can’t use the term someone if they’re dead.

    Based on his body, he couldn’t have been older than me, but the hair that topped his head was white. Naked, bloody and dripping with sweat, he kept trying to tighten this one bolt on one of the boilers. He was putting all of his strength into his wrench to tighten a screw that didn’t look like it could go any further. At some point, he stopped. He stared at the screw as if he couldn’t believe he had done it. After seven seconds, the screw and its fastener popped out of its hole and fell near his knees. He started to pick it up – but that’s when he noticed me. He pointed beyond me to another boiler at the other side of the room. In front of it was a bolt, a nut and a wrench. Then he pointed at me.
    357 words – @JSHyena

    • Egh, that does sound like more than punishment–that sounds like a very familiar sort of hell. Makes me curious how the protagonist got there and what his circumstances had been before.

      • In retrospect, that familar sort of hell was probably greek. Didn’t realize it until I shut down my computer.

  19. Kin

    The sun was almost done flaring for the day when he stumbled upon it, all forty feet of it, tucked inside a subterranean shaft in the northeastern corner of Anniston Army Depot.

    Vagrant rust and willful sand blended into the cooling air that in some other era bathed that threshold where afternoon clocked out and night started calling the shots. The time for such reassuring dependability had passed, though, and he was grateful that serendipity had not chosen to turn the place and the moment into a full-fledged blast furnace.

    He walked around the edge of the darkening square maw, trying to locate a way down. He came upon a crenelation in the concrete fringe where a series of steel rungs ran the inside length of the dugout and tentatively applied his considerable weight to the first few aging rods. Experimenting no sudden breakage or vibrations of major concern, he went in.

    The quartz eyes of the goliath caught the last of the day’s orange brilliance and the refracted beams made its head shine with fiery animation. But that was where all liveliness stopped; the rest of its massive body looked as oxidized as the trusses and crossbeams that snaked past him as he descended. Death spares not the modest or the monstrous.

    Reaching the bottom of the tunnel, he reclined against the foot of the construct, his fiber matrix muscles bulging under polymer skin in stark contrast with the cold and unwavering alloy plates of the giant. Blackness would be upon him soon, and without night vision to work with, there was nothing for him to do but rest. Rest, and ponder.

    He knew what it was. But, who was he?

    On the floor, amid loose wiring and discarded components, he found a slammer wrench suited for the fist-sized bolts that lined every seam and juncture on this other robot. He hugged the tool against his chest like he would a comforting plush toy and commenced suspension.

    Tomorrow would be the day for breaking the thing apart, just like he had been breaking the humans and their get apart in order to arrive to where he was now. And if he did not find the answers he sought, he would finally give in and leave skin to rot, muscle to rupture, and frame, like all metal, to rust.

    This would be a fitting tomb for him.

    -o-

    @righteousgeek
    400 words

      • Thanks! I tried to do a play on the he/it–being/thing theme and saw no big trouble at first (other than what I intended to be purposefully confusing from the character’s POV) . But I have to admit I didn’t have time to let this one rest and come back to edit later on, so you might be right!

    • I enjoyed the poignancy of this piece and the visions it created in my mind. Sometimes I found the language a little obtuse, though – I think a final ‘read-through’ would have helped. I love ‘Death spares not the modest or the monstrous.’ Great work.

  20. And here we are:

    All Hope Abandon

    When the Ultimate Judge passed sentence, Seamus O’Maillaigh, shipbuilder, late of Belfast’s Harland and Wolff, understood the meaning of “a special place in hell.”
    In his life he’d fastened countless rivets and bolts. His part of the three million rivets in HMS Titanic was small; he was one of a crew of 15,000, after all. Say what you will that H&W missed making her unsinkable; they kept immaculate and intricate records. They knew who had laid the floors, who had painted which stateroom, who had set which rivets and where.
    When the bad thing happened—that’s how H&W always referred to it, “the bad thing”—blame went mostly to the mountain of ice itself, maybe to Captain Smith for ignoring facts, maybe to old man Ismay for pushing to make a deadline. At least the captain had recovered enough honor to go down with the ship, unlike Ismay, who made sure he had a seat in a lifeboat. Still, O’Maillaigh was sure no one knew when he’d worked on the section of hull raped by an iceberg he was drunker than a defrocked priest. No one had ever noticed the flask Mrs. O’Maillaigh had tucked in his lunch pail along with the cottage pies and soda bread.
    But it was the same for HMS Olympic, HMHS Britannic, SS Zealandic, and more, though some were lost in war, some to chance, but all containing his whiskey-soaked handiwork. Knowledge he alone would take to his grave.
    Or so he thought.
    When O’Maillaigh’s hands became too arthritic to rivet or bolt, H&W gave him a gold, captain’s watch and a decent stipend, enough he and the missus could live a quiet life away from the sea and boats. Death came quietly, in his sleep, but he was pleased to know he could watch his own wake, the likes of which would be talked of for years to come. Had his ghost mouth been able to water, it would have over the nice bottle of Jameson’s his friends had put in the coffin with him.
    Then, when he stood before that Judge at the Gates to Heaven, he discovered someone knew after all.
    “Put yer back into it, O’Maillaigh!” some imp shouted at him.
    At least in Hell he had his young, strong body. He needed it. God himself had decreed he’d fasten the bolts on that great wheel for eternity.

    Word Count: 397 sans title
    @unspywriter
    Genre: Historical Paranormal

    • Historical Paranormal… Nice. Seems there’s always a genre I haven’t heard of yet that really appeals to me. I really love how the historical details ground the paranormal elements and make them feel more real by association. I was prepared for O’Maillaigh’s guilt to be his personal hell and was taken off guard when it proved to be a literal one.

  21. MINDLESS

    The one thing Dale Smith knew for sure was that you couldn’t count on things to go the way you expected. Machines hummed a steady cocoon of sound around him making it all too easy to forget where he was and just work on auto-pilot. Tightening bolts, checking mechanisms, making sure everything was working, all on auto-pilot.

    As a child he’s seen the world differently than those around him. He didn’t stop believing in super-heroes until high school, and then five years later the first confirmed super hero team started making international news. Another two years after that he proposed to the team’s leader, Angie, and she said yes. It was even better than if he’d been right about Santa Claus.

    The heat and steam muddled everything to the point Dale was only aware of himself and the machines. He probably sweated close to his body weight in a day, but there was plenty of water handy and the work was important.

    Things went bad some twenty years after he and Angie got married. The villainess now calling herself Lady Martel finally won a decisive victory against the team and in a heart grinding instant Dale lost his one true love forever. The team did their best to rally after that, but Lady Martel’s momentum was impossible to stop.

    Muscles flexing and relaxing to the pulse of the machinery, Dale lost track of where the devices ended and he began. He was doing this for his and Angie’s son, for their daughter in law, and for their little granddaughter who Angie never got to meet. Lady Martel’s forces were out there, but if Dale kept the defenses online then the Resistance would live on.

    “I can’t believe you have her husband maintaining your factory, Mistress. Doesn’t he realize he hasn’t seen his family since he started here?”

    “My pet, he isn’t even aware how very ancient he’s become.”

    318 words
    @DavidALudwig

    • What an original take on the prompt image. I’m not sure I fully follow the story, and I’m wondering if that’s deliberate – Dale’s own confusion about his personal narrative being reflected in the story’s narrative – or if I’m just missing something important. If I’ve read it right, Dale is working on a machine which Lady Martel (which is a great name, btw – made me think of Charles Martel) needs to keep her empire going, but he *thinks* he’s working for the resistance. Or is he actually working for the resistance, and pulling the wool over Lady Martel’s eyes? I’d like to hope the latter is the case. 🙂

  22. Mindless
    All these parts are interchangeable. I am interchangeable if I fall ill or fall in. Keep the machines going. Keep the parts moving. Stay away from the moving joints. Keep my open-end wrench out of the moving parts.

    I thought these thoughts yesterday. I thought the same last month and last year. I am still here. My friend is not. His tool caught a moving joint, thus pushing him into the joint and grabbing his singlet. The thin shirt bound and pulled him into the works. I saw it all and lunged to help but could not. The force of the incessant, mindless machine drew my friend in with not so much as a hesitation in the steel against flesh and bone contact.

    Another worker replaces my friend beside me. My friend’s family suffers now. His two children must leave mechanical school and work. His wife must endure long hours in a parts milling factory. My wife works in that factory.

    My wife and I are consumed by thoughts of staying away from the mindless parts of the machines. We have met no one who thinks or speaks differently. Is there any different way of living?

    When I walk outside at the end of my shift, I look up to a bowl of steel sky with the gleaming copper orb lighting my way home.

    Wd ct =228

    • I like your title, I suppose the image really must suggest it. The staccato rhythm of your sentences is perfect for evoking the mindless automation of your narrator and his world.

  23. “Stranded”

    She was stranded. Among clouds and moisture and too much space, Zatarra was stranded on a airship that was slowly puttering its way to the ground.

    The captain was dead. In fact, he had jumped overboard. It had been a bit of an over-dramatic response to the crumbling state of his flying apparatus and the ruining of his career (as all the Genteel Proper knew: there was no recovering from an interrupted course).

    Most people stood at wide, rounded windows: some silently stared out into the endless sky; others bemoaned the failing ship. Still, there was those that carried on as if nothing was happening. But then there were those like her that had bustled around until they’d been brought to the root of the problem: the boiler room. There was some confounded trouble with pressure or the steam engine or something or other. Either way, the problem remained, the only people who could fix it more concerned with watching their bleeding hearts flop about across the wood boards.

    And the first mate stood with her crewmen, all standing forlornly in the shadow of their captain’s hasty retreat. He had made this ship heavy, and the great beast felt the weight, dipping and trembling like an injured whale.

    Well, Zatarra wouldn’t stand for it. She tugged up her kid gloves (ignoring both the growing heat and the deplorable origin of the gloves–for the status it represented) and marched right up to the first mate, her skirt frame making her quite a formidable size.

    “Lady Machinists and Sir Engineers,” she started (she was careful, as she used their preferred titles), “I know that you’ve faced a tragedy here today, but the captain that you cared for…well, that man who left you today wasn’t him.” She didn’t know that, but she had their attention. “And the man who he was, who be truly was, would have wanted you fine people to carry on. To succeed in his wake. To bring his ship home.” At least she hoped so. She felt the shivering slide of a bead of sweat slip beneath her corset.

    There was a stirring. A murmur that grew into a roar. The first mate began to bark orders. A strapping, young men stripped his shirt off and began to tighten the most gargantuan bolts on a chamber.

    Zatarra had to fan herself. “A job well done,” she murmured.

    @J_M_Blackman
    399

    • A job well done indeed, made me laugh with relief and happiness. Also I love the designation “Lady Machinists and Sir Engineers”. How cool is that? And the name Zatarra for that matter. I want more of this setting.

      • Aww, shucks, David. 😀 Thank you! I’m really glad you enjoyed it. I had fun writing it. I’m definitely putting this in the vault of “come back to.”

  24. Tighten the Bolts, Lock the Doors

    Tighter.
    Tighter.
    Tighter.
    Twist the bolts ever tighter.
    Lock the doors – gotta keep them out.
    Lock the doors, twist the bolts ever tighter.
    Gotta keep them out.
    The hiss of steam doesn’t quite cover up the clanging of their boots on the checker-board steel plates, doesn’t quite cover up the ragged sound of my breathing, the omnipresent pounding of my heart against my shattered ribcage. I can hear their droning voices through the walls.
    “We are coming, we are coming, we are coming.”
    They’re in my head. They’re coming.
    Three weeks now. Three weeks of solitude – if my tally holds true. Diagonal scratches scored into the metal walls of my prison, of my sanctuary. Diagonal scratches gorged deeper and deeper into the walls. I’m losing track of the days as they come and go.
    Tighten the bolts, lock the doors.
    Three weeks now, and finally the antiphonic droning has stopped, the ritual chanting above my head has finally stopped.
    The screaming hasn’t.
    Not yet.
    I was lucky. Managed to escape, to get into the boiler room and start what now seems an endless task.
    Tighten the bolts.
    Lock the doors – they are coming.
    Menacing shadows twist and dance around me – they are no longer coming.
    They are here.

    http://chriswhitewrites.com

  25. “TUCKER”

    “Hell with you,” he said, and drank.
    The bartender was gone already. In the levels below the engine, you took the credits before you served the drinks, and you didn’t make conversation with the men drinking.
    There were women in the bar, but they weren’t drinking. Tucker looked at one of them speculatively. She was tall and young, and for a moment he considered it. He could pay for her—but when she left he’d be alone, cold, and still out of work.
    The whore tried her business smile, but Tucker had already turned back to the bar. She was the age of his own daughter, if he maybe had one. Fifteen years ago the Last Message came from Earth, and he’d got caught up in all that panic shit. Fair chance he’d knocked up at least a couple of weeping colonists.
    “Duty To Mankind,” he muttered, but only to himself. Nobody thought that way now. Tucker paid for another drink instead, then looked up at the screen above the bottles. “The fuck is that doing there?”
    The bartender checked what Tucker was angry about. “Say’n emergency, neh? Radi-o-logical, summat. Showing them bolts good hour now.” He turned back, but in Tucker’s place was an empty glass.

    Mackenzie licked his lips and touched his necktie. “Risk mitigation passed internal and external audit, Tucker. Speak to options going forward.”
    “Screw you,” Tucker said, and hit him, hard, on the jaw. He went down like a sack of shit. Tucker turned to the pretty secretary pressing herself against the wall. “Work for him?”
    She nodded. “Pro—Project Management Office.”
    Tucker was drunk and angry, so he kept it simple. “Go there. Tell ’em Mackenzie’s project broke Reactor Two, bad. Tell ’em Tucker fixed it.” He opened the hatch, and she ran out. She had nice calves, and high heel shoes that made a sound like a pony.
    Tucker had seen a horse, but the kids on board never had. If they found a planet, they’d defrost the horse embryos. Then all the horses would have to spend a few weeks screwing. “Duty To Horsekind,” he said.
    He unracked a number two spanner and started the first bolt. Soon it fell to the deck, and he stopped to breathe a little. The radiation warnings were getting pretty loud, but he knew he’d start going deaf soon. He started in on the next one.

    @FraserMcFraze
    400 words

    • This may be one of my favorite post-apocalypses in a long time. You do a great job with the bartender’s dialect, Tucker’s gruff but ultimately heroic character, and all the little details like echoing “Duty to x-kind”. I like it.

    • Oh, wow. I *love* this. I think Tucker’s the best character I’ve met in a long time! I love the tiny, but effective touches here – the dialects, the mentions of frozen horse embryos, the bar beneath the engine room – and I love the story’s conclusion. This is a wonderful piece.

      • Thanks for the kind words you guys! I surprised myself a little with this one—my secret recipe for gritty realism is now: have a fight with your wife right before writing it.
        Update: she realized that she was wrong, so I apologized.

  26. Pull, turn, flex, hold (back tears).

    In his world I can’t reveal the pain inside (seeping, draining, gnawing). My wife at home, pregnant (with twins) while my old man turns up his nose at my sweat and her swollen ankles.

    “Dammit, son,” he says, his fisted hand pounding on his shining, regal, mahogany desk, “You’re better than this! No son of mine should be put to the grind!”

    And then: “No son of mine should do this lowly work!”

    And next: “Dammit, Hank. How’d you screw up like this? You should be behind the desk at my firm. Partners.”

    And later: “No son of mine would have dropped out of school!”

    And finally: “Hank? Never heard of him.”

    That was our good-bye. No “See you tomorrow” or “How’s that pretty girl of yours?” Just the pressure, the judgment, the denial—and my constant yearn to impress him. To win his approval.

    I’ll never be good enough.

    He won’t judge me by the picket fence I built with my own hands, the ten years of marriage I’ve been true, the garden I have reaped and sowed…

    I couldn’t make the grade.
    I dropped out of high school.
    I didn’t go to law school.
    I ruined his plan.
    I’m not his.

    And I know when I leave Piedmont Steel tonight to visit him at Piedmont Medical, he’ll slam the same insults, the same lecture, the same goddamn hurt.

    What I don’t know is that tonight he’ll tell me he’s always been proud, that he raised me “tough” because “men don’t cry”, that I’m a better man than him because of my work, that he’ll admit he’s sad he won’t see the twins, that he really thinks Michelle is pretty, that he failed his senior year and got his GED, that he only wanted something better for me.

    And we’ll share our first smile, our first laugh, or first tears—

    And then Dad will pass.

    • Oh dear! I hope I can still be considered! I’ve never done one of these (just found it tonight) and here is the info you asked us to include: Twitter: @nXgWVteacher; Word Count: 323.

    • You really brought that strained parent/child relationship to life, and brought it all around to a sense of completion with the father’s forecast deathbed sentiments. In many ways this reminded me of free verse poetry with the attention to how the lines look and flow.

  27. Minerva

    “Loosen the bolts, Giuseppe.”

    Giuseppe froze. Despite the heat, a chill traced its way up his spine. Minerva.

    “Hey,” he heard Paolo call from behind him. “What’re you doing? You’re going to get us fired.”

    “Don’t listen to him.” Minerva’s voice floated from the other side of the door. For a second, Giuseppe turned his head toward the massive plate of steel and placed his palm on it.
    “Just turn the wrench back the other way, Giuseppe,” she said. “No one will know. You don’t even have to do it very much. Just enough.”

    The lunch bell rang and Paolo’s wrench clanged to the ground. When Giuseppe turned around, Paolo started to jog over, hands bent like crab claws as though he was still holding on.

    “You can let go now, Joe.” The nickname angered Giuseppe. No American-sounding name would ever make him pass as American. He knew Paolo meant well, but delusions were dangerous.

    “What happened to you?” Paolo picked up Giuseppe’s lunch and steered him outside.

    “I got something in my eye.” After a moment, Giuseppe added, “What’re we closing off anyway?”

    Paolo’s boss had given them the job. He needed three strong men to start immediately and work overnight. The chambers had to be sealed. It was urgent, he said.

    “Don’t know. Didn’t ask. Don’t you, either.”

    The two ate in silence for a while.

    “Giuseppe?” Paolo only called him by his given name when he was working an angle. “Why did you stop?”

    “I heard something.”

    “I thought you said you had something in your eye.”

    “Yes. Both.”

    “It’s her, isn’t it? You heard her?”

    Giuseppe caught the note of concern. He mistakenly told people he heard her crying that first week.

    “No.” He knew the script now.

    “She’s gone, Giuseppe. She isn’t following you around New York. She’s gone to God.”

    “I know.” He didn’t, though. She was still only missing. She’d been gone for two weeks. Paolo was the last to have seen her. He said she was dragged away by armed men. None of it made sense, but the grieving mind doesn’t question stories at first.

    The work bell rang.

    Back at the chamber, she called again.

    “Giuseppe, loosen the bolts.”

    He did. As the crew was leaving, a gush of water filled the chamber, opening the door. Minerva’s body rode out on the tide. Clearly dead, she also clearly pointed at Paolo.

    400 words
    @thedharmadiva

  28. “He’s an automaton, obviously.” Cindy smacked her gum and tried to blow a bubble, but about halfway through she blew the whole piece of gum out and had to catch it before it fell on the picture I was holding out to her.

    I jerked away and stared in disgust as she popped the gum back in her mouth and began gnawing at her fingers to get the thin bubble residue off. I shuddered and gagged, then shook my head to get back to the point, “How can you tell? It’s not like they have any telltale signs-”

    “They did back then,” She interrupted. “See?” She waved her bubble gum fingers in the vicinity of the picture, “It’s all in the face, the blank stare and lack of facial expression. They didn’t have the technology to duplicate all that muscle movement back then.” Cindy then licked the fingers of her other hand, spit her wad of gum into it, and began dabbing it onto her sticky fingers.

    I realized I was rubbing my own hand along my pants and quickly crossed my arms over my chest. “How am I supposed to know every historic automaton in existence? It’s a completely ridiculous assignment.”

    “Not as ridiculous as mine!” She popped her gum back into her mouth and wiped her hand down the front of her shirt. “There must be clues in the photo to give you a place to start.”

    I glanced at the man again as Cindy tried to blow another bubble. “I guess he’s a mechanic of some sort. He’s working on some big…um…something?”

    The bubble popped. I looked up to see in now all over her nose and chin. She grabbed hold of the main wad and pulled it away from her face. It stretched and pulled some of it off. “Ooh! That could be Tinker!” She pulled the picture closer and got my hand sticky. “Yeah. It could be.”

    I looked at the picture again as she began dabbing her face. “Do you think Tinker still exists? He’s practically the father of us all! I’ll have to run and do some research. Thanks!” I reach my hand out to her to shake her hand and pull back reflexively. “And, um, good luck with that bubble assignment.” I run off hoping I never have to do that one.

    390 words
    @lissajean7

  29. Ack! It didn’t post! Gah…
    Thought it took it. Hmm, guess I’ll make the first entry next week. Lovin’ the entries, by the way. Will be back to comment on a few of them!

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