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Today’s fiction is in honour of this

*

Emily stood at the top of the abseiling tower and peered over the edge.  She clutched at the rope running from her harness to the attachments in the roof and swallowed.  The ground seemed a long way down.  Why had she agreed to this?

She looked over at Susan.  The seven year old was grinning like a maniac, practically bouncing on her toes as she looked down at all of her friends.  Her harness, as tight and secure as Emily’s own, she was sure, was carefully arranged so that you could see her uniform beneath. 

“Are you ready?”

Emily and Susan looked at the instructors and then at each other.

“As I’ll ever be,” replied Emily.  She patted her pocket and winced as she pricked her finger on the open end of Susan’s new badge.  “Are you ready, Susan?”

“Yes!”

Together, they backed up to the edge of the tower, leaned back, and let the ropes take their weight.  Emily swallowed again, suddenly aware of how thin the rope looked.  She began to shuffle her feet, walking backwards down the side of the tower.  Beside her, Susan was bouncing, bending her legs and jumping in giant steps.  Emily shuddered.  Half way down, they stopped.

Emily glanced up at the instructors and saw that they were tieing off the ropes.  Satisfied that they wouldn’t be plummeting to their doom in the middle of a sentence, she turned her attention to the girl beside her.

“Susan,” she began, “you’ve been coming to Brownies for a while now, and you’ve decided that you’re ready to make your Promise.  Do you understand that once you’ve made this Promise, you must do your best to keep it, everywhere, every day, for the rest of your life?”

As she spoke the familiar words, she felt herself calming.  As long as she focused on what they were doing, and not where they were, she thought she could do this.

Susan nodded.

“Ok, then please make the Brownie sign, and make your Promise.  Nice and loud,” she added, “so everyone can hear you!”

Emily pried her right hand from the rope and held it by her head, three fingers raised towards the sky.  Susan did the same.  The child took a deep breath, and then recited loudly.

“I Promise that I will do my best,
To be true to myself and develop my beliefs,
To serve the Queen and my community,
To help other people,
And to keep the Brownie Guide Law.”

Emily smiled widely.  “Well done!”  She carefully switched her hands on the rope and held out her left hand to her newest Brownie.  Susan grabbed her hand and dragged herself closer, then held on to Emily’s harness while she fished out the Promise badge and pinned it on to her uniform.

Once they were done, they separated again and Emily shouted up at the instructors to let them down.

As the ropes began flowing again, Emily started to lower herself down the tower.  She glanced down at Susan, bouncing again and now far below her.  Feeling slightly silly, she took a deep breath and bent her knees before jumping out into space.  Just a little.

At the bottom, she placed her feet on solid ground and took a moment to enjoy the feeling.  Unscrewing her carabiner with trembling fingers she left the rope to dangle and helped Susan with hers.  Susan grinned up at her.

“You’re the best, Brown Owl.  I’m going to remember this for ever!

Oh right, thought Emily, that’s why.

 

Burble, verb.
Flow in an irregular current with a bubbling noise.

*

The brook burbled over the smooth stones, splitting and rejoining as it meandered towards the larger creek.  Anthony followed it with a heavy heart.  Occasionally he glanced back, hoping against hope that the sight would have changed, but each time he was disappointed.

The woman stood by the house, a shotgun in her hands.  A shotgun pointed directly at him.  Every time he paused to look, the figure scowled and gestured with the metal tube.  Behind her stood a small group: her neighbours and friends, come to support her in her time of need.

He wondered how it had come to this.  How had it gone so far, so that everyone had turned against him?  Would not a one of them help him?

Apparently not.

He turned back to the stream and trudged onwards.  It sounded so merry, running along without a care in the world.  Anthony envied that stream.  It knew where it was from, and it knew where it was going, and if something got in the way it just flowed on around it, not worrying.

He approached the edge of the property, where the brook entered the woods.  Turning back, he took one last look at the house he had grown up in, at the people he had known all his life.

At his mother.

He entered the woods, never to return.

Today’s word of the day was nemesis.  Just a little snippet of real life.

*

Nemesis, noun.  A source of harm or ruin.

*

“And now, my fuzzy nemesis, your time has come!”

Jasper looked up at the human looming over him.  She was going away again, he could tell.  He stretched slightly and snuggled deeper into her lap, starting to purr.  She sighed and stroked his head.

“Really, Jasper, I need to go to bed.  You’re going to have to get up.”

He lifted his chin and she obediently started to stroke his throat.  She was so easy to manipulate it was ridiculous.  On a good evening he could hold her in place for half an hour or more past the time she first started trying to leave.

“I mean it,” she said.  “I’m going to bed.”

She stroked his head and sides for a few more minutes and then sighed.

Gently she started to insinuate her hands under his body.  Rebelliously, he went as limp as possible, almost sinking into her legs as she struggled to remove him.  Eventually, though, she managed to get enough of a grip to lift him, and then he knew it was over.

He shook himself slightly and stalked a few paces away before sitting down and looking reproachfully back at her.

She laughed and stroked his head again.

“Sorry, darling, but you should be used to this by now.”

Recently, I’ve been using the “word of the day” feature on my phone’s dictionary as a fiction prompt.  Today’s “word” was give-and-take, which I personally view as three words, but that’s beside the point.

*

Give-and-take, noun.  An exchange of views on some topic.

*

The sudden appearance of the German master had Jackson and Anders hastily straightening up from their half-crouches and brushing ineffectually at their trousers.

“And just what is going on here?”

His voice was soft like silk, with a hidden iron core.  Mr Sanderson never raised his voice to get the attention of the students – in or out of class.  There was no need; his very presence caused everyone to stand in silence.  Jackson gulped.

“Nothing, Sir.  Just a friendly debate, a little give-and-take.”

Mr Sanderson raked his eyes over the pair.  They fought the urge to fidget, both uncomfortably aware that their shirts were not perfectly tucked in, their ties slightly skewed.

“It seems to me,” he said, “that there was a little more take than there was give.  I note that Mr Anders has misplaced his lunch in the excitement, and that you have found it, Mr Jackson.  I will assume that you were merely returning it to him?”  Somehow he managed to make the statement sound like both a question and an order.  Frantically Jackson nodded, and held out the plastic box to the younger boy.

Anders glanced at Mr Sanderson before hesitantly taking it and clutching it to him.  Mr Sanderson gave him the slightest of nods, so small that he was almost sure he had imagined it.

“Mr Anders, I fear you must find other companionship for now; Mr Jackson and I are going to have a conversation about the quality of his latest essay.  Come,” he added sharply, looking at Jackson, and swept off towards his classroom.  Jackson’s shoulders slumped as soon as the teacher’s back was turned, and he made a rude gesture.

“I saw that.”

His eyes widened comically, and he scuttled down the corridor after his teacher.

Anders smiled, and went to eat his lunch.

The mirror swirled with green and yellow, a confusing vortex of colour whirling around a central point.  Slowly, a face emerged from the chaos.  It was the face of a young man, exotic looking but not what any would call handsome.  There was just something slightly off about the way his eyes sat, the angle of his nose, the tilt of his chin.  Nothing that you could put your finger on, but it all added up to something less than pleasing.

He tilted his head and considered the woman before him.  Her question was the same as it had always been, but there was something tugging at his mind.  He cast his thoughts out across the land until he found the source of his troubles.

‘Thou, queen, art fair, and beauteous to see,
But Snow White is lovelier far than thee!’

“What?  It cannot be!  Why, just last week you declared me to be the prettiest in the land.”  The Queen paced back and forth in front of her mirror, frowning.  This would never do.  She was queen, so she should be the fairest!  What if the King’s eyes started to stray?  Or worse, he saw through her trickeries and potions, and realised that he didn’t love her at all?

“I shall send the huntsman to kill her,” she thought.  “He could take her into the woods and do the deed away from prying eyes.  But he might be seen leaving with her, and he might tell someone what he has been asked to do.  He has a softness about him which I do not like.  No, the huntsman will not do.  Far better to arrange for some slight… accident to befall my stepdaughter.”

So thinking, the Queen summoned Snow White to her chambers.  When the girl arrived she stood and smiled.

“My dear, I feel I have not had the chance to really know you since I married your father.  Would you take a walk with me?”

She smirked inwardly as the confusion and hope showed plainly on Snow White’s face.  The silly chit probably thought she wanted to be friends.  Ugh.  It was sickening, how much trust this girl had.

Fighting the urge to sweep majestically out of the room, she consciously slowed her pace to give the impression of an afternoon stroll.  She started a conversation about some trivial matter of palace politics, and paid only enough attention to the girl’s reply to know when it was appropriate to nod and smile.  Fortunately, given a prompt, the girl seemed able to witter on without stopping.

Slowly, they wound their way through the gardens.  After stopping to smell the roses and admire the size of the fruit developing on the apple trees, the Queen suggested they look out upon the city.  They climbed the outer stair to the walls, and there the Queen’s plan had an unexpected boost.  Snow White herself suggested that the view might be better from the top of one of the towers. The Queen was careful not to sound too eager in her agreement, but inwardly was gloating.  There was even a guard close enough to have heard who made the suggestion!

At the top of the very tallest tower, it was a simple matter to manoeuver the girl close to the edge.  A slight distraction, a sharp push, and the matter was concluded.

The Queen was sure to sound suitably shocked when she screamed for help.

 

Epilogue: The Mirror Swirls

The mirror swirled with green and yellow, a confusing vortex of colour whirling around a central point.  Slowly, a face emerged from the chaos.  It was the face of a young man, exotic looking but not what any would call handsome.

It was the same face that the Queen had looked at many times since she acquired the mirror, of that she was certain.  And yet, there was something different.  Was the skin perhaps paler?  The hair darker?  The lips a touch redder?  There was nothing she could put her finger on, but the face was not quite as off as it had been.

She shook her head irritably and asked her question.

I’ve always wanted to feel like a movie star.

The thought popped into her head as she ran through the meadow towards her lover, causing her to laugh.  The wind whipped her hair around her face and the sun lit the scene with all the ferocity of a newborn kitten.  Beneath her feet flowers danced among the grass.

Suddenly her foot sank deep into a rabbit hole and she fell, cursing, into the mud.  She picked herself up and tried to stand, but her ankle collapsed and she fell again.  Choking back tears she saw her lover start to sprint towards her.

She didn’t look back, but she knew it was hopeless.

The zombie horde would reach her long before he did.

James glared at the computer.  How could he possibly have got an F for that essay?  His argument was well structured and logical, his work was neatly sectioned into manageable chunks of similar size and he’d even included lots of examples to prove his point.  The word count was within 20 words of the requested 4,000.  What else could he have done?

He checked the marking schedule again.  “Spring Term Final Essay – F – Click here for more”.  He clicked on the link.  A little pop-up appeared in the centre of his screen.

This essay was auto-marked by AI56923.

The following apply: 
– Structure: 87% 
– Content: 92% 
– Word Count: 99% 
– Spelling: 5% 
– Grammar: 5%

Overall Score: 46% 
Grade: F

James scratched his head.  Was there a glitch in the marking software?  He knew his spelling wasn’t that bad – in all of his previous essays he had scored over 95%.

Wait.

Groaning, he flicked back to the title of the essay.  The decline of spelling and grammar in the modern world: a comparative study of literature from three centuries 1900-2153.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have included quite so many examples.

“Honestly, it’s a very simple system.  I don’t understand why you can’t work it.”

John shifted his feet and stared at the desk, avoiding the disappointed gaze of his senior secretary.  He had tried to do his own filing, late one evening after she had left for the day, and now he desperately needed the file and it couldn’t be found anywhere.

“I know I put it in that cabinet, Susan, I just know I did.  Somebody must have moved it.”

He knew he sounded whiney.  He couldn’t help it.  It was almost time for his appointment with Mr Wyndham-Smythe, and if he didn’t have the file he would miss key points, and Mr Wyndham-Smythe was notorious for sacking his solicitors for the most minor of reasons.  Losing a file would probably result in a lawsuit.

“Tell me again where you put it.”

He sighed.  “In there,” he pointed once more at the offending cabinet.  “In the bottom drawer, in the section labelled ‘W’.”

“Hmm, but this was last Tuesday, wasn’t it?”

“…Yes?”

“So it should have been two drawers up, in the ‘T’ section.  The imps probably realised it was in the wrong place and re-filed it for you.”

Susan turned to the cabinet and riffled through the papers for a moment.  When she turned back she was clutching a file, bursting with papers.  She handed it to him with a despairing shake of her head.

“Really, Mr K, you should put some effort into learning the system.  Papers are filed under the letter of the day they were last accessed, except on weekends and bank holidays when they go to the previous Wednesday.  In each section they are organised alphabetically by the second letter of the client’s dog’s name, except if the client doesn’t have a dog, when they are filed by the last letter of the client’s surname.  It’s not that hard once you get used to it.”

John retreated into his office, resolved never to do any filing ever again.

This week’s fiction comes from the roughly 20,000 words I have written so far this November.  In the true tradition of NaNoWriMo, it has not been edited, refined, fixed, or in any way amended, and is therefore mostly drivel.  Make of it what you will.

 – – –

Seth moved through the town searching for a tavern.  The darkness was swiftly falling and he was worried about the warning the gate guard had given about sleeping outside.  The first tavern he came to was called “The Witches Love”, and after a moment’s thought he passed it by.  It wasn’t safe for him to be mixing with witches, even if the chances were high that no witches were actually in the inn.

“The Bonny Lass” was a better bet, and he pushed his way in to the bar.  The place was only moderately busy, and he could see a barmaid lazing against the wall near the fire, so he didn’t hold out much hope of work.  With no money he needed to find somewhere that would allow him to work for his bed.  Sure enough, the innkeeper laughed in his face when he asked about work.

“Look around you, lad.  I’ve not enough work for those I already have.”

“I don’t suppose you know anywhere that’s looking?”

“No.  Now are you going to buy ale or leave my tavern?”

Wondering at the rudeness of the man, Seth left to continue his quest.  He wandered down several streets which contained nothing but houses, and a street entirely of shoe shops.  Imagine having so many shops all selling shoes!  How many people must there be in this city if all of these shoe shops could stay in business?

Around the corner from the shoe shops was the “Cobblers Arms”.  Seth stuck his head through the door and immediately left again.  If there were only three people in the tavern there would be no work there for him.

“The Lazy Shepherd” had a sign with a picture of a boy sleeping while a wolf stalked the sheep.  Seth wasn’t sure he liked the image or the implication, but there was light and noise spilling from the door.  Even as he watched a large man fell through the doorway, his lip bleeding and one eye rapidly blackening.  Another man followed him and started to pound him with his fists.

Seth was moving before he knew it.  With the number of well trained fighters who lived in his home town, brawls could quickly get out of hand, and he was used to taking his turn in the prevention details.  He grasped the second man’s collar and yanked to the side, forcing him to use his hands for support or crack his head on the pavement.  With one hand he pulled the man’s arm behind his back, and with the other he grasped his shoulder.  Kneeling in his back he leant down and spoke seriously to the man.

“I could easily break your arm.  I suggest you calm down before I decide I want to.  I don’t know what that man did to you, and frankly I don’t care.  If he broke the law, report him, and if he didn’t then deal with it like grown men, not like children.  Do you understand me?”

He gave a little squeeze on the man’s arm and watched as he winced.  The man began nodding frantically.

“Good.  Now, go home.”

He released the man and sprang backwards.  Sure enough, the man flailed out as he rolled to his feet, expecting to hit him.  When his fist met air he looked confused for a moment before his eyes focussed on Seth.  He looked him up and down, and suddenly the fight went out of him.  Seth nodded.

“Go home,” he repeated.  “Before you do something you’ll regret.”

The man nodded and stumbled off, weaving from side to side along the street.  Seth turned to the other man.  His confrontation had taken place so quickly that man had only just staggered to his feet.  He was dabbing at his lip with a scrap of cloth.  When he noticed Seth looking at him, he put it away.

“Thank you.  I really thought he was going to do me in.”

“Go home,” said Seth in exactly the same tone of voice he had used to persuade the more violent of the pair to leave.  “I don’t know what went on between the two of you, and I don’t care, but I do know that you aren’t in a fit state to be moving around.  Go home, put a cold cloth on that eye, and sleep it off.”

The man stared at him.  “But I’m the victim here.  Why should I go home?  Who are you to be telling me what to do anyway?”

Seth just met his eyes steadily until he reddened and looked away.

“Fine,” he muttered.  “I’ll go.”  He wandered off along the street in the opposite direction to the first man.

Seth watched him go, and shook his head in bewilderment.  He’d never understood what people found so wonderful about fighting while drunk.  In his experience it just made you sloppy and easily defeated.  He turned to go into the tavern and suddenly noticed that he had an audience.

Tzk’l scratched at his ar’dh with one forelimb.  He glanced at his podmates to see how they were reacting to what they had discovered.  Mrrk’l was frowning pensively, while Pyk’l was clearly upset, his ppdorth drooping in a most unattractive way.

“Why?  Why would anyone do that?”  Pyk’l moaned.  The damage to the first two experiments wasn’t too bad.  A trace of foreign contaminant, some lingering pressure holes.  The third experiment was ruined, the tkali structures set back decades in growth.  There was traces of fire damage, something which should have been impossible on the planet in question.  Four, five and six were fine, apart from traces of the same contaminant that tainted the first two, although the logs from the gravity generators on Five showed some unexpected readings.  It had taken many drrr to clean the contaminant from the atmospheres of the planets, and the podmates were frustrated.

The three podmates were approaching the seventh experimental planet, intent on discovering if there was any damage to this one.  They hoped not – Seven was the most promising of the experiments and it would be a shame if it were ruined.  It would decrease the un’k of their pod and require them to send one podmate to the home world for retraining.  However, given that the damage extended to all of the other planets in the system it was very likely that this one had also been ruined.

They slipped into orbit around the planet and within seconds a picture was building up of the surface.  Mrrk’l hissed, his ar’dh twitching uncontrollably.

“The experiment shows the same contaminant.  No damage detected yet, but analysis shows that if the contaminant remains for longer than one drrr there will be irredeemable changes to the biosphere.

“Begin the cleaning process,” instructed Pyk’l.

Tzk’l instructed the computer, and soon three rescue pods were racing towards the atmosphere.  When they touched the outer edge they slowed and began scrubbing the air to remove the contaminant, a polycarbon string molecule with nano-fibre attachments.

Tzk’l was watching the readouts closely, and he began to notice something odd.  The contaminant levels were not dropping as fast as they should be.  He released another rescue pod.  Perhaps one of the pods was not working as efficiently as it should.  The rate of cleansing increased, but it was still not as fast as it should be.  He frowned.

“Mrrk’l, what is the status of the surface scan?”

“It finished 2 ikkitz ago, why?”

“Is there a foreign body present?”

“You think the source of the contaminant is still present?” asked Pyk’l.

“The cleansing is not proceeding as fast as expected.  If more contaminant was being released it would explain it.”

“Hum.  You are correct.  The scan shows a foreign body present on the northern continent.  It is large – a spaceship, perhaps.  A smaller body is present also, emitting lower amounts of contaminant.”  Mrrk’l’s ar’dh was twitching at a ferocious rate.

“Can both be removed from orbit?”

“The smaller, perhaps, but the larger is too heavy for our tractors.  The smaller appears to be a life form, I’m not sure how it would react to being removed.”

“A spaceship and a life form?  Mrrk’l, are you sure?”  Pyk’l’s ppdorth stood tall, and his eyes were bright with excitement.  Mrrk’l was oblivious to the rising mood in the lab, however.  His voice still reflected anger.

“Yes, the scans are definitive.”

Tzk’l had caught on to what Pyk’l was implying.  “If we discovered alien life – just think how high our un’k would rise!  The ruination of this experiment would be forgotten.  We must go down there.”

Quickly, the shiplab was instructed to land next to the foreign contaminant.  The three podmates emerged with no regards for safety protocols or experimental contamination.  If they could not remove the alien life form the experiment was ruined anyway, and if they succeeded in removing it they could fix the experiment later.

The alien spaceship was sleek and shiny.  It was roughly half the size of the podmate shiplab.  There appeared to be no sign of dzuuzi engines, which led Tzk’l to believe that it was powered with some primitive burning compound.  How this race ever managed to get into space was a puzzle best left for another time.  He waved around his ar’dh and pointed towards a wooded area.

“The trail of contaminants leads in that direction.”

The three set off to hunt down the alien life form inhabiting their experiment.  Very quickly they were under the trees, dappled sunlight making ever-changing patterns on the leaf-covered ground.  The trail of contaminants led in a wide arc through the woods, and the three followed it for perhaps half a klkkk until they came to a clearing where the sunshine fell unhindered from above.  At the edge, leaning against a tree, was the life form.

It was bright white.  It seemed to consist of a long thin trunk with two high branches and two low branches.  The lower branches were horizontal, bent out to the side.  The trunk and upper branches were almost vertical, leaning against the tree.  There was a soft rasping sound coming from the figure, and Tzk’l wondered whether it was an attempt at communication.  The noise didn’t change when the podmates approached, through, so perhaps it was a natural sound emitted by the creature?

Mrrk’l hesitantly reached out and touched the top of the being.

“Hard, feels like synthetics.  Perhaps this is an outer shell?  Something protective like those who engage in dangerous experiments wear?”

“There is nothing dangerous here,” scoffed Pyk’l.

“There is nothing dangerous to us.  This creature may be different.”

“True.”

Pyk’l poked the lower branches of the creature.  “It is softer down here.”  The creature twitched slightly when touched, and began to squirm.  Suddenly it let out a loud scream, almost too high pitched for the podmates to feel.  It unfolded at a remarkable rate, becoming entirely vertical and causing the three podmates to leap backwards.  The lower branches were revealed to be a very effective locomotion system, and the podmates watched in astonishment as the figure disappeared into the distance at high speed.

A metal replica of the creature, until now unnoticed in the shade of the trees, whirred into motion and followed the creature at a slower pace.  The podmates followed it curiously, attempting to talk to it but getting no response.  It led them directly back to the alien spaceship, where it disappeared into a hatch.  The spaceship immediately started to emit huge quantities of the contaminant, and slowly began to rise into the air.  It gained speed quickly, emitting a horrible whine.  The podmates ran back to their shiplab and entered the control room.

Tzk’l commanded the rescue pods to continue their cleansing work while Mrrk’l set the shiplab to follow the alien.  They had left orbit and were well on the way to leaving the system when the alien ship suddenly shivered and then disappeared.  One moment it was there, and the next it was simply gone.

“Where did it go?”  Tzk’l asked.  The others shook their heads in shared bewilderment.

“That did not look like dzuuzi engine output.  The alien race must have found some other way to travel long distances.  We must examine the data before we can learn to track the spaceship.”

“It will be an interesting challenge.”

 

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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