Archive for the ‘Challenge’ Category

The Fatal Engine

Monday, June 24th, 2013

My hands were covered in blood again, but this time it was my own. And it was green.

“Mister Martin sends his regards, London,” the lady with the .45 shouted through the broken windows of the tea shop. “Says he would love to take you apart one piece at a time, but he can do it just as easy if you crash first.” Her partner followed up with a volley from his Uzi, tearing holes in the counter I was crouched behind, and the corpse of the waiter I’d used as a shield.

Martin. I thought I’d killed him, and his backups. I must have missed one. I had to get out of there and warn Thea.

The shop had a back door, but a quick scan told me it also had a half-dozen jacked-up Crazy Dragons in the way. I was caught between a gun and a knife place, and I’d already discharged my stunners.

I’d take my chances with the blades. My bionic left eye cast a green glow on the shards of pottery scattered over the floor. Glass crunched behind me as the hired guns advanced. Time’s up, I thought, launching myself at the swinging door to the kitchen.

Shots followed me in, and the Dragons flanking the door waited for them to stop before pouncing. The back door was ten paces away. I sidestepped one knife and grabbed a nearby kettle to parry another, splashing a third banger with the boiling water inside. Seven paces. A fourth banger got a face full of flame courtesy of the gas stove. Six paces.

I felt the skin of my left shoulder part, blood spraying onto the gold-papered wall. Then the guns were there, and I dove sideways, landing on the burning Dragon. The girl who’d sliced me took a slug to the gut, another to the chest, and suddenly I wasn’t the biggest piece of chum in the shark tank. The Dragons converged on Uzi-guy, distracting him just long enough for me to sprint out the back door, lady goon cursing like a spacer.

I fumbled with my com as I ran as fast as my modded legs could go toward the end of the alley. I had to reach Thea. If Martin was alive, then Operation: Snow Crash was still active. A massive, coordinated series of EMP strikes, designed to fry the circuits of any borgs in the capital, which was pretty much everyone, including me. And Thea.

I was almost to the street. My com buzzed as it called Thea, and on the sidewalk ahead I heard the first few notes of Ode to Joy. But that would mean…

I couldn’t stop quickly enough, barreling into the waiting arms of two goons with muscles like gorillas. And next to them, lips puckered like she’d French-kissed a lemon, stood Thea.

“Sorry I missed your call,” she said. “Bit busy tying up loose ends.”

I couldn’t speak. Thea. How could she? We’d been trying to bring Martin down for months. I’d left her this morning, sleeping and naked and beautiful, to finish the mission once and for all.

“Are you going to cry?” She laughed. “That would be swell. It’s nice to see you bleeding, but some waterworks would really ice the cake.”

That didn’t sound like Thea. “Martin, you son of a bitch,” I growled. “How long has Thea been a backup?”
“That’s my little secret, London. But did you really think Thea was going to screw you without some… Encouragement?”

My gut twisted. The goons dragged me toward a waiting van, and I rapidly considered my options. There was one more hit of nerve gas in my left boot, and I might be able to manage a quick shock if I could get my com close enough to–

“Take it easy,” Thea–no, Martin–said with a grin as he patted my bleeding shoulder. “Now that I’ve got you, we can finish what Thea started while you were sleeping.”

“What are you–” Inside the van, I glimpsed a mobile Proteus unit. No, I thought numbly. She couldn’t have. I would know…

“Time to reboot, London.” Martin watched the goons strap me in, struggling and slick with green. I searched her eyes for the tiniest spark of Thea in there, but I knew it was pointless.

“If I ever get restored–”

“Don’t worry, chief, you won’t.” The faceplate dropped and I got one last glimpse of my face, bionic eye glowing, human eye wide with terror. “But you’re going to love being me.”

* * * * *
For Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge for June 21.

Promotion

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Everyone is a part of the Game, but few realize it. Fewer still are chosen for the Long Game. I have yet to encounter someone who truly knows the rules, but we all seem to share one firm conviction: the Game ends when the King is defeated. Some seek this end, while others seek as fiercely to prevent it. Most simply muddle about and let the pieces move as they may.

I first met the knight after the Sarzens sacked Ruka, when the holy shrines were pillaged and emptied of their riches and relics, loaded onto waiting ships and ferried off to Sarze. He caught me trying to make off with some gold plates from the walls of the temple, and would have lopped my head off if I hadn’t happened to scream in my native tongue.

“You are from Bernia?” he asked, voice muffled by his face mask.

“Aye,” I answered, heart rattling. “And yourself?”

He hauled me into a side room and pulled off his helmet. His hair was as red as his sunburnt face, eyes blue like sapphires, and I realized I had no idea which side he’d been fighting on. Worse, I could see the mark of the Long Game on his forehead, like a hook or a spear depending on who you asked.

“I’m from Brettan,” he said. “How did you come to be so far from home?”

I hesitated. He knew how to use his sword, and the last Game piece I’d met had tried to poison me after a rather refreshing private evening. Still, it wasn’t often that we came across others like ourselves, and it was never by chance.

With a shrug, I removed my hat and brushed the hair back from my forehead. “Long Game, same as you.”

I needn’t have worried. He dropped his sword and fell to the ground, grabbing the loose fabric of my pants.

“I… It’s been… I had never thought to meet another.” Tears filled his eyes, and I remembered my first meeting with a piece. A holy man from Pardesh, kind and wise and over a thousand years old at the time. They crucified him eventually, then stuck him up on a burial tower for the birds to finish. Took him an age to climb down, but he wasn’t exactly in a hurry.

“Easy, man, we all move as we must.” I kept an ear on the remnants of battle as he collected himself.

“I have tried to return home,” he said. “Years and years, by land and sea and air, to no avail. I am thwarted by bad luck at each turn.”

The clang of blade and shield grew louder in the corridors outside. I thought of the gold stashed in my undershirt and itched to put a few miles between me and the city.

“We should talk somewhere safer,” I said. “Follow me.”

“But I have so many questions–”

“Later.” I threw open the door and leapt sideways in time to avoid an axe that had been meant for someone else. We darted outside, and I left him crossing swords with three men who looked to be Sarzens by their green sashes. So he was with the Rukans; a shame, they were losing. A few hours later I was trading gold plates to a smith for smaller coins, and the knight was a fading wistful figure among many others in my long life.

I didn’t see him again for another hundred years or so. By then I’d made my way across the continent and taken up with a merchant in the Hanging Market, in the shadow of the Crystal Mountains. I was his translator, aide, and occasional lover. We dealt in spices, exotic and expensive, and reputation eventually put us in the path of the local nobility.

One cool day in the waning season, a richly dressed messenger brought us an invitation to present our wares to the royal cook of the queen herself, so we bundled up in our finest white furs and made our way to the palace. Behind crystal doors worth a kingdom each, who did I find lounging in an antechamber but that red-haired piece with his deep blue eyes.

“You!” he exclaimed. “I thought you’d been killed!”

“I almost was,” I said. As the merchant didn’t speak our language, I explained to him that this was an old acquaintance and left it at that.

We were interrupted by our business, which was concluded to mutual satisfaction, at which point the knight accosted me and I begged leave to join the merchant later. We retired to his chambers, a surprisingly opulent suite attended by two servants in the pale green of the royal house.

“You’ve done well for yourself,” I said.

He waved it off. “It’s all thanks to Her Highness. She is in the Game as well, did you know?”

“Is she? What a coincidence.” Three of us together was a strange turn, and my skin flushed at the implications. What gambit might this be?

“She has told me much,” he said, pacing as he spoke. “How we each have a role to play, guided by the fates to fulfill our great destiny.”

Ah, a fanatic. I’d gone through that phase myself. “And what does fate hold for her, and you?”

“She is a queen, of course, destined to rule by the king’s side. We need only find him, that we might ensure his power and protection.”

I examined the glittering brocade on his curtains and wondered if they would be missed. Old habits died hard. “How does she know she’s a queen?”

He stopped pacing to stare at me. “Because… Because she’s a queen, obviously.”

“It’s not as simple as that. There may not even be such a thing. We could all be soldiers, or–”

“But there is a king?”

“Probably. Yes. Somewhere.”

“And must we not see to his welfare?”

“Only if we want the Game to go on.” I fell silent as servants brought in warm spiced wine and sharp cheeses for us. He drank quickly, and by the servants’ reaction this was odd of him. They made obeisance and left, and he resumed his pacing.

“Do you not wish to continue in the Game?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I think… We cannot remove ourselves, and I find it hard to wish others ill, for all that it may increase my own position.”

“How so?”

This was tricky territory, as it was mostly speculation compiled over centuries. “Some say that if you kill another piece, you take on their role and powers. If indeed any such powers exist.”

His pace quickened. “So if I killed you, then your role would pass to me?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not, if we are all the same in essence. And imagine if I were a mere soldier while you were a knight, or general; your role might be diminished, or remain unchanged.”

He collapsed into a chair. “I only wished to go home for so many years,” he murmured. “And yet I have never been so far. I am compelled onward, ever south, until I suspect I will find myself on the edge of the world and see only ocean’s fall and the darkness beyond.”

I finished my wine and stood, patting his shoulder. “At least you have found a lovely respite here with your queen. We can only hope for as much, we wanderers. We all move as we must.”

I excused myself, as I had work awaiting me, and he seemed to have sunk deep into thought.

Within days the queen was dead and the market in an uproar preparing for the funeral. Her younger sister took the throne, and at her coronation, I saw the knight by her side. I had no evidence, of course, but I wondered if this was the play we’d been put here to make.

I found myself moved again not soon after, and just as well, for the power of the knight grew until he was able to wrest the throne from the next queen some years later in a bloody coup. He set himself up as a god-emperor, his claim bolstered by his apparent immortality, having well outlived everyone in the court as well as surviving several assassination attempts. Luckily, he seemed content to stay in his mountain kingdom and rule as he saw fit, and for centuries no other neighboring ruler stirred up trouble. The god-emperor became almost a myth to outsiders, some quaint custom by which the title was passed without fanfare each generation, for the Long Game was a secret one and its players, whoever they might be, cared little for time.

Eventually I found myself back in the Crystal Mountains, where the Hanging Market had given way to a series of floating platforms with regular air ferries between them, but the people were little changed since my last visit. Still, it was beautiful, and I was rich then, and so I took my pleasure in their crystal singers and light sculptures and cold, clear pools. I even received an invitation to a royal banquet and foolishly accepted, little thinking that a god-emperor would deign to mingle with mortals in such a mundane fashion.

The palace was the same carved crystal with few additional embellishments, and the food was delicious if uncreative. To my surprise, we were each presented to the god-emperor in a boring and lengthy ceremony whose purpose I realized when it was my turn to be introduced. My head wrap was stripped from me and I was made to kneel with my face raised to his, forehead exposed, and quick as that I found myself in a private chamber that was probably the most comfortable jail cell I’d ever occupied.

The knight joined me, dressed in a plainer robe and crown than his dress costume. I didn’t move from my seat when he entered, though it was probably rude of me. I didn’t want to make any sudden moves, given my treatment.

“You again,” he said finally. “Why are you here?”

I shrugged. “I thought I was just visiting. Did you need me for something?”

He shook his head, staring down at me. “I should probably have you killed.”

“Whatever for?”

“As a precaution. You may be here to usurp my position.”

I laughed. “No, thank you. The life of a god-emperor isn’t for me.”

“Oh? You envied all this, once, did you not?”

I nodded, regarding the rich fabrics and glowing gems set in the silver walls. “I even fancied stealing your curtains, last we met. It’s the staying in one place that gets me. My feet itch to feel the world move under them.”

He clasped his hands behind his back, a half-smile on his lips. “Mine never did, you know. I never wanted to leave my home, my lands, my liege. I have made a life for myself here, but still, it is not my home. Not really.”

“Yes, well. We all move as we must.”

“You always say that.” He loomed over me suddenly, grasping the back of my chair. “You never seem to have a purpose, yet you turn up like a bad coin and leave destruction in your wake.”

“Whoa, now, easy!” I leaned back, arms up. “I guess it might look that way to you, but–”

“But you are not the one who killed the queen,” he muttered, eyes vacant. “I think she was not really a queen, you know. Not in the Game. Maybe you are right, and we are all soldiers or pawns or stones. Maybe I am a castle, fixed to this place now when before I had moved ever forward.”

“Could be. Maybe you’re the king, eh?”

His eyes narrowed and pinned me to my seat. “And maybe you are. Or perhaps it is you who are the queen, moving freely as you do over the face of this world. Perhaps you could help me return to my home, if I take your power…”

That was enough of that. I hadn’t gotten almost two millennia under my belt by inviting Death in for drinks. I bit down on a secret tooth the guards hadn’t thought to check for, and spit poison into the knight’s eyes, sliding out from under him as he screamed and writhed in pain. Guards rushed in, but I evaded them, and sent the next wave of guards rushing to the chamber to look after their god-emperor.

He didn’t make it, alas, and I’m sorry to say that the Crystal Kingdom was torn apart by war for over a century before it splintered into smaller fiefdoms that ruled by some strange committee model involving duels with poison knives. I haven’t gone back yet, and I certainly hope not to.

But who knows? Maybe I will, someday. Maybe I am a queen, and I can go where I please while others are stuck in place, or ticking forward a little at a time. Maybe I’m the king and I don’t know it, and the pieces move to protect or destroy me while the players watch in silence. Maybe one day I’ll find out.

Hell, maybe I won’t. We all move as we must, and the Long Game goes on into eternity.

* * * * *
For Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge for May 17.

Always Have an Exit Strategy

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

The sky was black and swollen with rain clouds about to blow their loads, and in the weeds on the side of the dirt road, every shadow had eyes. Giselle was not looking forward to the drive back, when the ground would be churned into the world’s biggest mud pie, but Randy had insisted time was of the essence. That was the kind of thing Randy said: time is of the essence. She was partial to “hurry up or untold demons will walk the earth,” but that was why he was in charge and she was just along as the Clair. Clairvoyant, mostly, but that was more preference than ability.

“What’s the plan?” she asked.

“You sit in the truck,” Randy replied. “Stan and I will search the grounds and neutralize the target.”

“That’s it?”

Randy glanced at her in the rear view mirror, his brown eyes narrowing. “We’ve been instructed to be more… Selective in where we take our non-combat psychics.”

Giselle grinned and slumped against the beige leather seat. “Sweet. Can I put on the radio?”

“Negative. We need you on alert.”

“How about a walkie-talkie?”

“Only for emergencies.”

Stan swiveled around in his seat and slid his sunglasses down his nose to glare at her. “Serious emergencies, kiddo. No comments from the peanut gallery while we’re inside.”

“Oh my god, I’ll try not to critique your stance or whatever.” She rolled her eyes. Stan was old enough to be her dad, and he couldn’t stop acting like one; it was how he coped with extra-bad assignments. He also tended to chug nasty green vegetable smoothies, and break boards with his head, but hey: she’d probably do that, too, if she could.

They pulled up in front of a house that reminded Giselle of the Wizard of Oz–the Kansas bit, not the Technicolor fever dream. Dingy gray wood gave her splinters from looking at it, and the crawl space underneath creeped her out even with her third eye closed. A big bolt of lightning flashed in front of them, thunder cracking so fast that she couldn’t even count one Mississippi. The weather in Florida was nothing if not theatrical.

“Survey the area, please,” Randy said.

“Yeah,” Stan said. “Where’s our little ecto-terrorist hiding?”

Giselle took a deep breath to center herself, closed her eyes, and opened her third eye. That’s how she pictured it, anyway; chakra, pineal gland, whatever it was, it had always been her little cyclops secret, even if it seemed to let her do more than just see stuff that others couldn’t. The world got the washed-out look of an old Polaroid, grasses and other little scrubs turning fuzzy and pale while the sky stayed dark as coal. Some of the older trees were more solid, and one tree in particular towered in front of the house like the Conan of conifers. Randy was his usual knight in shining armor self; Stan was mostly wispy. But the house, holy crap…

If it was ugly before, it was triple ugly now. The foundation oozed dark, stringy stuff like bloody snot, and the boarded-up windows shone with a red light that made Giselle’s closed eyes burn. This wasn’t new evil; this was years of psychic garbage piling up in the can. A low-pitched keening started from inside, growing no louder but somehow more intense until her chest buzzed with the sound. A shadow passed in front of one of the windows, and Giselle knew the demon had spotted her. With her third eye open, her aura was extra bright, like a flamethrower in a cave. And there were plenty of giant moths around ready to throw themselves at it.

She closed the eye with a shudder. “House,” she said. “Very much house.”

“So maybe it is stuck inside, like the girl’s mom said,” Stan murmured.

“I vote we burn it down,” Giselle said.

Randy shook his head. “We have to try to get the victim out.”

“Do we?” she asked.

“Christ, G,” Stan said. “We can’t leave her in there.”

“I’m just saying, I’d probably want to die in a fire after–”

“A roaring lion kills no game,” Randy said, his dark face impassive. “Wait here.”

He and Stan climbed out of the truck while she cowered in the back, teeth clenched to keep them from chattering. They approached the house and eased open the front door, guns drawn. It was one thing to hear that some psycho had thought it would be rad to let a demon rape his daughter; it was another to see the demon digging around inside the dude’s nasty house like a maggot in a festering wound. The Research and Defense Agency had some good shrinks, at least. She’d seen them often enough herself.

There was a shout, and Giselle got a glimpse of something like a dinosaur covered in tumors charging in her direction. Then the truck was lifted into the air and launched into the massive tree she’d seen earlier. It landed with a crunch, branches crashing through the windows and denting the doors. She screamed as whiplash cracked her head against the glass of the rear passenger door, which spider-webbed but didn’t break.

Below her, shots clapped like little thunders. Her vision was spotty, but she could see Randy swapping clips while Stan unloaded on the demon. Standard bullets must have been a wash, she thought. Probably needed silver, or blessed iron.

Or holy water. Randy reached into his coat, pulled out a vial and dumped it on his bullets. He fired as methodically as if he were at a range targeting a piece of paper. The demon skittered around below her, and had taken a few hits because its skin was sizzling.

It started to rain, and the creature crowed like a rooster on meth as the sizzling stopped. The holy water would be washed off, diluted, and the bullets would be useless again. Unless they could bless the rain somehow…

Giselle clambered over the edge of the front passenger seat, her head spinning as the truck creaked and shifted. A branch clawed at her arm, but she ignored it. She had to get into the glove box. Water poured through the broken windows, making the leather slippery and soaking the knees of her jeans. She collapsed into the seat, fumbling the latch on the glove box, but it was stuck. She kicked it once, twice, and it fell open. The vial she wanted tumbled out and slid under the seat, and she yelped, then started to climb back down to recover it.

With a groan, the truck dropped a few feet, slamming her into the dashboard. Stars flew across her eyes. Outside, Stan screamed. She had to hurry before they ran out of bullets, or shooters. Down she went, quickly as she dared, reaching out a hand until her fingertips brushed the vial. The branches shifted again but held as she made a short lunge and grabbed it. Now she just had to get the thing to Randy.

“Stupid power doors,” she muttered. She couldn’t get out the top window because branches blocked the way, and if she kicked out the bottom one, the truck might fall.

A stray bullet turned the spiderweb of cracks into a mosaic. It also zipped through her hair, but she wasn’t going to look a gift shot in the mouth. She gently knocked the glass out and poked her upper body through. The truck was about two stories off the ground, twenty feet from the demon and maybe thirty feet away from Randy and Stan. Stan, who got extra protective around young women in trouble. Stan, who was on the ground, bleeding and clutching his stomach.

“Jesus, Thor and Quetzalcoatl, bless the hell out of this pitch,” she muttered. “Randy! Heads up!” She waved the vial so he could see what it was, then threw it underhand as hard as she could.

It carved a beautiful arc through the rain. Randy followed it with his gun, and just as it flew over the demon, he shot it clean through. The thrice-blessed ashes of an ancient martyr exploded in a cloud that mingled with the rain, showering the demon with a holy slurry that melted it faster than a wicked witch could say, “Oh, what a world.” In seconds, it was just a wisp of smoke and an evil stain slowly mixing with the lighter mud around it.

“Nobody messes with Thor!” she shouted to the sky.

The walkie-talkie squawked, making her jump. “Giselle,” Randy said. “You okay?”

“Only mostly concussed,” she replied. “Is this enough of an emergency for Stan yet?”

Randy shook his head and she giggled.

“Stan says to get down here so he can bleed on your sneakers.”

He was probably going to be okay, then. She sobered. “How’s the girl?”

“Alive. We’ll find out more when our backup gets here. Shouldn’t be long.”

“Good,” Giselle said, turning her face to the rain and letting it wash the blood out of her hair. “Because I have no clue how I’m going to get down from here.”

* * * * *

For a Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge.

Tourist Trap

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

The problem with the ringing phone wasn’t how loud it was, or that it hadn’t stopped ringing for an hour, but that Tom didn’t have a phone. What he did have was a banana with more brown spots than he liked, in a bowl with two mangos and a papaya, vibrating and jangling like something out of a catchy song. It rang while he read his newspaper on the veranda, while he pulled on swim trunks and sandals and buttered himself up with sunscreen, even while he walked down the foot-worn path through the trees to the beach beyond. He could hear it while he swam, the salt water stinging every fresh cut on his skin, and he knew it wasn’t in his head because it drove flocks of bright macaws into the air and away from his bungalow, their screeches barely audible over that damned noise.

He knew who was trying to reach him, and he didn’t want to talk to Kim right now. But she was nothing if not persistent, and even isolated as he was, someone was bound to hear the phone and start sniffing around to see what was what.

He sighed and picked up the banana, holding it to his ear. “Hello?”

There was a pause as the spell connected, then Kim’s breathless voice. “Tom, finally. Are you still in Cayman? I need a favor.”

“I’m on holiday.”

“Right, I know, but–”

“I’m on. Holiday.”

“It’s just a quick pick-up! The Agency will be happy to extend your leave another day for the inconvenience.”

He watched a sailboat drift lazily out at sea. “Kim, you are talking to me through a banana.”

“Am I?”

“Yes, because I do not have a telephone. Because I threw it down a sewer grate as soon as I left the airport. Because I am on bloody holiday and I don’t want to bloody pick up a thing for you, and if I knew how to hang up a banana I would have done it already!”

He was surprised to hear no response from her, and wondered for a moment if he actually had managed to end the call somehow. Magic was a fiddly thing, even Agency magic, as straight-laced and properly British as it was.

“Tom,” she said finally. “It’s Pris. We can’t reach her. She’s stranded in Hell.”

Pris. Priscilla LaRue: witch, secret agent, ex-wife. Of all the islands in the Caribbean, she had to wind up on this one, investigating who knew what magical misdeeds. Cayman was still under the jurisdiction of the Crown, after all, so it was the Agency’s purview. Still…

“Call her a taxi,” he said.

“We did. They can’t get in. Something has sealed the area, and you’re the only agent nearby. She needs to be out before sunset or her mission is bollocksed.”

The sailboat passed beyond his view, and he idly wondered how far he could throw a banana.

“Hell’s in West Bay, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Yes, great, how soon can you be there?”

* * * * *

Hell was a jagged stretch of black limestone spires and ridges that flooded at high tide with brackish green water, like a miniature version of something from Dante’s nightmares except for the blazing blue sky overhead. Hell was also a road, a post office, souvenir shops and a petrol station, which was where Tom found Pris’s car parked. She stood in the shade of the white building, sipping pop from a glass bottle like any other tourist on the island, eyes hidden by mirrored sunglasses. Her short hair was teased out into an afro that floated around her head like a dark dandelion puff, but Tom knew from experience that there wasn’t a wind strong enough to blow those hairs awry.

“How did you get here?” she demanded, stalking up to him as he rolled down his window.

“I drove,” he said. “Get in and let’s go.” The petrol fumes made his eyes water in the afternoon heat.

“Oh, of course, why didn’t I think of that?” She yanked the door open and flung herself into the seat, her white linen pants bunching against the gray fabric. She didn’t bother straightening them, just buckled her seatbelt and waved imperiously at Tom to be off.

“You’re bloody welcome,” he muttered, peeling out of the parking space and shooting down Hell Road toward the west. It wasn’t a very long ride to her hotel, and he was eager to be rid of her as fast as his battered Chery QQ could get there. They passed the shops, the post office… and then the petrol station appeared on his left again, Pris’s car still in the lot.

“Huh,” he said.

“Exactly,” she agreed.

He swung around and headed east instead. Within moments, he was passing the post office, its wooden sign swaying in the light breeze. When they reached the petrol station, he pulled in and turned off the car.

“Want to go for three?”

Tom squeezed the steering wheel. “All right. How long have you been stuck here?”

“Four hours.”

“And all you’ve done is buy a bottle of pop?”

Pris lowered her glasses to turn the full force of her icy blue eyes on him. “Of course, because I’m an idiot. I haven’t walked the perimeter of the spell, I haven’t attempted to pentangulate the source, and I haven’t used aleuromancy for some hint as to how I should proceed.”

Tom suppressed a smile. “You still carry around fortune cookies?”

“They saved you that time you were lost in the catacombs in Rome.”

“Not before I was neck-deep in reanimated priest skeletons.”

“Maybe if you’d used Ariadne’s Skein like I said–”

“How was I to know the necromancer would–” He stopped himself and took a deep breath. “This bickering will get us nowhere. Have you had tea yet?”

“Just the cookie and soda. Want one?”

“What, a drink or a fortune cookie?”

Her coral-painted lips curved into a smile, and some part of his lizard brain remembered why he had married her long ago. “Cookie. You never know.”

He shrugged. “Sure, fine. Give over.”

She grabbed a handful and held them out to him, and he selected one at random. The plastic crinkled as he tore it open, and he could see the paper curled up inside the hard biscuit like some kind of insect waiting to hatch. Cracking the shell in half, he pulled out the fortune and scanned it.

“When the time comes, choose the top one,” he read aloud, shaking his head. “Bloody useless.”

“Yeah, well. What have you got in YOUR pocket, Agent Nguyen?”

He opened the door and stepped out, leaning on the roof. “I’m going to talk to the locals. See if this has been going on long. There must be some reason I was able to get in when the taxis couldn’t.”

“I already interviewed everyone in the area,” Pris said. She ticked them off on her fingers. “One, the attendant at the gas station. Says he’s had a couple of tourists complain but he always assumed they were nuts.”

“Crazy?”

“Right, or drunk, or sunburnt. Two, the guy at the post office. Nice older dude, said basically the same thing. He thought the people were lost and sent them to the gas station for maps. Three, girl at one of the stores. Has had a few people ask how long the road is, weird stuff like that, then they usually buy something and that’s that.”

“And these people are locals, are they?” Tom asked. “Don’t live within the spell’s boundaries?”

“Right. No houses on this part of the road, just shops.”

Tom rubbed sweat off his temple, watching some birds take off and veer seaward. They had no trouble leaving either, it seemed. “Surely plenty of people stop here for petrol, at least. They can’t all be stuck for hours or it would be crowded in no time.”

“Whatever it is, it only seems to affect tourists.” She laughed. “A regular tourist trap.”

“What’s that?” He looked at her sharply. “Do you think?”

Pris tapped a finger against her lip. “Hmm. A variation on a Sierpinski trap?”

“No, then we’d see duplication at the edges of the matrix.” He scanned the sky, then the ground, trotting toward the place where the road had gone recursive. “This is more like a Mobius loop.”

“Can’t be: there’s no edge. I tried walking north and ended up behind the post office.”

“So some kind of Klein bottle, perhaps. But there must be a door, because people can get in and out.”

“An Alice box,” Pris said. “We dropped in through the rabbit hole…”

“And we can’t climb back out,” he concluded grimly. “I suppose that makes you Alice, and I’m your white knight?”

She smiled. “So let’s find the Red King and put him in check.”

* * * * *

The only shop Pris hadn’t been able to enter on her sortie was The Devil’s Hangout. Unlike the other white wooden buildings, this one was painted bright red, with big block letters on the side that read “WELCOME TO HELL” in a field of orange-yellow meant to mimic flames. Below that, a cartoon devil in a white tank top and shorts grinned impishly, a camera on its hip. Another sign closer to the road proclaimed “THIS IS HELL!!!” with an arrow pointing towards the shop.

“It was closed earlier,” Pris said. “For lunch, I figured.” She bounded up the ramp to the door and yanked it open. Tom followed, his skin prickling as he went from Caribbean heat to air-conditioned shade. Shelves of knick-knacks and trinkets were arranged in clusters that formed a maze from entry to cash register, forcing any patron to look at everything if they wanted to see anything. T-shirts, magnets, snow globes, rum cakes… Standard fare, plus a selection of Hell-themed paraphernalia, including postcards ready for a Hell stamp and a Hell postmark from the Hell post office across the street.

He coughed, but not from the sudden drop in temperature; he’d gotten a tickle in his throat from a hefty dose of magical residue. This was the place, all right. He glanced at Pris, and she nodded.

“Sulfur and rosewater,” she muttered. “And something else?”

“Rum, I think.”

“Are you looking for rum, young sinners?” A man emerged from a back room, his voice deep and lilting with an island accent. His face was ruddy, his hair and beard white, and he wore a pair of red horns and long red cape like Santa Claus half-dressed for Halloween. His shirt was painted to look like an old-fashioned tuxedo, but shorts and sandals completed his ensemble.

“You sell it here?” Pris asked. Tom admired how quickly she recovered. He was still trying to digest the man’s appearance.

“Like hell we do!” the man replied. “You’ll have to visit the nightclub for that vice. Here, we have the finest damned merchandise that Hell has to offer!” He gestured expansively, gripping his cloak and flaring it out like a bat wing.

“We’re just looking, thanks,” Tom said. He dug into his pocket for his loupe, holding it up to his eye and searching the magnified blur of the shop for any residual magical auras.

Pris, on the other hand, tended to prefer the soft approach. “This shop is great,” she told the man, wandering through it and picking up the odd doodad to give it a closer look.

“Damn right!” he agreed. “Best damn shop in Hell, if I do say so.”

“Have you worked here long?”

“Half my damn life,” he said proudly. “Sold my soul to Hell, you could say!”

Tom realized that there was a low-level glow permeating the shop, a pale lemony color that would have been hard to see from outside, even if it were visible beyond the interior walls.

“You’re very funny, mister… I’m sorry, what was your name?” Pris asked.

“Everyone calls me Uncle Bob, cause Bob’s your uncle!” Another cheeky grin.

The glow brightened as Tom turned toward the counter where Uncle Bob stood. It didn’t seem to be coming from the man himself, though. Something near his right elbow… Tom had to crab-walk past shelves of mugs and shot glasses and picture frames that jutted out just enough to invite an accidental jostle.

“What do you think of this shirt?” Pris held up a black t-shirt that read, “This shirt has been to Hell and back!!!” She winked at him and he nodded.

“Ace,” Tom said. Three exclamation points, dear god. He realized the man was giving him a strange look; he must have noticed the loupe. Well, couldn’t be helped. They were in a rush, after all, with sunset not far off.

He was almost there. It had to be something in one of the displays–a necklace, maybe, or one of the magnets–there! Tom pocketed the loupe and leaned down to examine a display of snow globes that were like any of the others in the shop. Clear dome, plastic base with the words “Greetings from Hell!!!” printed in block letters at the bottom. Scale models of the road outside, complete with buildings and the brackish patch of limestone that drew tourists. Three of them, all identical, one on top of the other in their own little shelves.

How would he know which it was? Up close, the glow was too diffuse to tell. He thought back to the fortune cookie and groaned inwardly. “When the time comes…” The top globe, he saw, was resting on a slightly concave mirror made of burnished silver, which seemed to magnify and reflect the globe more than physically possible. Now that he had found it, he noticed it also had a subtle look-away spell that rendered it unobtrusive. He reached out a finger to tap it gently.

“Eh, that one’s not for sale,” Uncle Bob said, moving to shield the globe from Tom. He noticed that the man didn’t touch the globe or the mirror, just held his hands in front of them protectively.

“It’s very nice,” Tom said. “A little miniature Hell. Come see, dear.”

Pris was next to him faster than he would have thought possible. “That is so cute!” she exclaimed. “There’s the post office, and the gas station… Where did you get it?”

“Er, my niece got it for me,” Uncle Bob said. He had started to sweat, despite being almost directly underneath the air conditioning vent. “Look, these other ones are just the same–”

Pris smiled like a cheshire cat. “Except they’re not, hmm? Had this one specially made, did she, your niece?”

“Yes, I suppose she did.”

“When business wasn’t so hot, maybe? People coming to Hell for the joke of it, but leaving without opening their wallets?”

Tom examined the globe while Pris talked. He couldn’t break it, or they’d have another Atlantis on their hands. Move it from the base, and Hell would probably end up in null space like Area 57. No, he had to figure out some way to subvert the conditions of the enchantment. It only seemed to catch tourists, and Pris had mentioned them leaving after buying something–

“Look here, miss, I don’t know what you’re insinuating, but why don’t you just make your purchase and have done?” Uncle Bob’s face was as red as his cape. “Then you can shove off to wherever you’re from, quick as you like.”

Aha. “That’s it, then,” Tom said. “We’ll have the snow globe there. How much?”

“I already said–”

“We know what you said,” Pris snapped. She reached over the counter and grabbed Uncle Bob by his fake bowtie, pulling his face toward hers. “Listen, Bob: I’m in a hell of a rush, got a big offshore magic circle to take down before the full moon rises. So you can either sell us this incredibly dangerous enchanted item, or we can buy something else to get out of this spell-hole, and come back with a posse of pissed-off wizards faster than you can say you’re my damn uncle.”

Uncle Bob stared at her, eyes big as souvenir saucers. “There’s no such thing as wizards!”

“Says the gent with a magic snow globe,” Tom muttered. “Come off it, man, we’ll give you a good deal and you’ll get off with a warning.” He held up a wad of bills, which Uncle Bob stared at sadly.

“A warning, you say?”

“Much better than wizard jail,” Tom assured him. “We’re not big on fresh air and balanced meals.”

“Fine,” Uncle Bob said. Pris released him and he slumped back, his impish grin gone.

“How much?” Tom repeated.

“A thousand?”

“Done.” Uncle Bob’s sour face told Tom that the man regretted not asking for more.

Pris shot him a look, but Tom ignored it and handed over the money. Uncle Bob rang up the purchase like any other, on an old cash register that dinged when the drawer opened. Tom resisted glancing inside to guess at how business was doing. It didn’t justify a nasty trap spell like this one.

“Grab it, Pris,” Tom said.

She shook her head. “You bought it, you take it.”

She was right, of course. He gingerly picked up the mirror and carried it to the door, which was just beyond the counter at the end of the shop’s labyrinth. Pris opened the door for him and he stepped out into the bright sunlight, blinded by both the sun and its reflection in the hazy silver dish.

“Come again,” Uncle Bob called weakly after them. Tom stifled a laugh. Ever a salesman.

They walked past the gas station, toward where the spell ended. As they reached the border, there was an almost audible pop and the smell of bad eggs and burnt flowers. They went a little farther just to be sure, and came to a faded blue house with an old woman in a rocking chair on the porch. She called down to them, “You lost, then?”

Pris smiled. “Just walking our souvenir, thanks!”

The old woman muttered something inaudible and Tom laughed. They headed back to the petrol station and Pris climbed into her car.

“You’re welcome,” Tom told her.

“Yeah, well, you know,” she replied. ‘You gonna keep that?”

He shook his head and handed her the mirror and globe. “Here, you have it. A little memento of your trip to Hell.”

She laughed and shook it, watching the snow inside fall gently on the miniature street. She put it on the seat next to her, flashing him a warm grin and slamming the door behind her.

He watched her pull out and take off toward the west, to whatever mission she was supposed to finish for the Agency today. She’d probably call Kim on the way to debrief, so he was free to get back to his holiday. Just another tourist on this island paradise. Except, he thought with a sigh, he should probably find out about this niece of Uncle Bob’s who had given him such a potent spell in the first place. An agent’s time was never his own.

Oh, Hell, he thought. Maybe I’ll buy a t-shirt.

Lava

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

“David, don’t move,” I said calmly.

“What? Why?” He spun in place. There was a click as a tile under his foot shifted, then a loud grinding sound from within the walls.

“So you don’t set off the trap,” I said, sighing.

With a puff of dust, the floor started to move, two pieces sliding away from each other to expose what hid underneath. David stumbled into Melissa, who slapped his arm away.

“If we get out of this alive,” she hissed at him, “I’m going to kill you.”

The inside of the temple had been hot, but as the floor opened, the temperature rose until I thought I was going to melt. Unfortunately, if we didn’t move fast, I was more likely to burst into flame.

“The floor is turning into lava!” David shrieked.

“Very observant!” Melissa retorted.

“Up here!” My voice echoed in the cavernous room. I clambered onto a stone dais stained with fresh blood. A huge wooden statue towered over it, jutting out from the wall, arms extended as if to receive the sacrifice below. If we could get onto its head, we could jump to one of the viewing platforms carved into the rock above.

Melissa scrambled up beside me and started to climb, David close behind. I glanced down at the widening gap in the floor. At this rate, we’d just be able to make it out before–

Melissa, now at the top of the statue, yelped and clapped a hand to her neck. It came away tinged with blood and a darker, tarry substance.

“Curare,” I whispered. We only had a few minutes before the poison shut down her respiratory system. But now I saw that the natives who had chased us in here were up on the platform we’d been trying to reach. We had nowhere to go.

I pulled out my pistol and fired a few rounds at our pursuers, but I could hear them ricochet off the walls. The lava had almost reached the altar below us. Sweat ran into my eyes and made my grip on the statue slippery.

There was another platform on the other side of the cavern. But how to get to it? I scanned the walls and ceiling, dense with vegetation from the jungle outside. Vines thick as my arm looped down or dangled over us.

Melissa shot me a stricken look. “My arms’re getting stiff,” she slurred.

“We need to reach those vines and get up there,” I told David, pointing. “You help Melissa and I’ll cover for you.”

“There’s no way we can make that!” he exclaimed.

“It’s that or the lava,” I snapped. “Are you going to give up like you always do? Or are you finally going to pull yourself together and do something right?”

It was harsh, I knew. But the slant of his eyes told me it wasn’t enough.

“Are you just going to let Melissa die when you could be the hero and save her?” I asked, softly.

That did it. He scrunched up his face and shimmied up the statue. The vines were barely within reach, though it took David a few tries to get enough to support their weight. He wrapped Melissa’s arms around his neck and grabbed her by the waist. To my surprise, she planted a firm kiss on his mouth.

“For luck,” she said, her skin flushed. Probably from the heat.

David beamed and took a deep breath. “Geronimo!” he shouted, flinging the two of them toward the platform. The vines creaked under their weight as they swung, then tore free from the ceiling. For a long moment they arced through the air, over the shimmering golden death that burned below. Their momentum carried them up and over the lip of the platform and they landed with a thud, David on top of Melissa. I was sure she’d give him an earful about that later.

Now it was just me. I reached for as many vines as I could grab. I would have to hope that I could avoid any darts, because I doubted David was going to be able to give both of us CPR on top of getting us back to the plane. The huge emerald eyes of the statue winked at me, and I wondered if I could pry them out quickly, take them back to the museum…

And then the statue burst into flames. That settled it. I wrapped the vines around my wrist and threw myself backwards, shooting at the natives as I flew through the smoldering air. I dipped precariously low, my hat flying off and bursting into flame before it even hit the molten lava. Would the vines hold? Or would I join it? My vision swam and shimmered, spotted from the brightness beneath me.

And then my feet hit the platform and I fell, sliding away from the lip of the cave and hitting my head on an unfortunately placed rock. I stared at nothing. I’d have a goose egg in a few minutes, and a headache later, and for some reason that struck me as absurd. Icing on the cake. The big, gooey lava cake. I stifled a giggle.

Smoke from the fiery statue obscured our pursuers, so I turned my attention to David and Melissa. David was busily giving her mouth-to-mouth–or so I assumed. I opted to give them a moment to be sure, instead carefully climbing to my feet and investigating our new surroundings.

The cave was small, with a narrow entrance at the rear just wide enough for one person. Beyond it looked like the ground sloped up. And–dare I hope–sunlight?

Now we just had to walk through miles of dangerous jungle, avoiding hostile residents and predators while giving constant CPR to a poisoned, paralyzed person. I patted at a tiny flame that smoked on the sleeve of my shirt.

Piece of lava cake.

* * * * *
For Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge for February 22.