Category Archives: Short Fiction

Short Fiction: “ALPHA FOXTROT UNIFORM”

I don’t post much short fiction, but it’s an area I’d like to be spending more time and effort on, if I could catch up on other projects. When I originally began my writing career in the 1990s, I wanted to split my time between game writing and fiction writing, but I kept getting offered guaranteed money for game writing, and all fiction was on spec, so…

This is inspired by the quick vigilante/heroes concepts I’ve dabbled with for months on social media with the #StreetLevelHeroes hashtag/

ALPHA FOXTROT UNIFORM

Mike-Mike tossed two smoke cannisters around the corner then dove away from the cover of the alley wall, using a powerful kick against its brick to send him flying swiftly and suddenly across the refuse-covered back street and toward a storm drain. Bursts of automatic gunfire sprayed out around him, but didn’t immediately get a bead on his movement. The smoke wasn’t thick enough for good visual cover yet, but he’d mostly thrown the cannisters to create a distraction. He ended his leap in a slide, staying as low to the ground as possible, and reaching out for the storm drain grill. He felt twin sharp pains in his left leg, but didn’t have time to check if he’d taken shrapnel, or if bullets had impacted on his ballistic cloth costume, or if he was seriously hit.

His fingers just barely grabbed the grill and he quickly pulled himself past the gap between grill and the street, down into the drain. It was a tight fit, but one he’d checked he could make months ago when he’d first begun operating in the old Satan’s Hollow district. He also knew that it was, on average, a three-meter drop from a storm drain entrance to the floor of the crumbling brick waterways. He tucked, trying to roll blindly onto the curved wall he couldn’t see.

He hit, hard, and more flopped than rolled. His right shoulder flared in pain, but he didn’t think it was broken. Cracked, maybe. It would demand attention soon.

If he was still alive.

The muffled sounds of gunfire up in the alley stopped almost immediately, which was bad. It meant his assailants had a good idea where he was, which wasn’t a shock but it would have been nice to catch a break on their acuity.

This hadn’t been a “catch a break” kind of day.

He popped his last smoke cannister, hoping it would cut visibility enough to  make the gunmen cautious about following him into the drain system, then forced himself to his feet. The pain in his left leg returned with a vengeance, but the limb didn’t collapse under him. The drain was nearly empty—it hadn’t rained in this part of the state in more than a week – so at least he could move with fair speed down the tunnel. He hesitated for only a second before flicking on the light attached to his cap—right now it was more important that he move quickly and not bean himself on a cross-pipe than to maintain stealth.

He vacated the spot under the drain grill just as a burst of automatic fire sprayed down from the alleyway. The gunshots were deafening, but at least he didn’t catch a ricochet as he jogged away. His light revealed a cross-drain not more than five meters ahead of him, and he moved toward it as quickly as he could. Just as he reached it there was a clatter behind him, beneath the drain grill.

He threw himself sideways into the cross-drain, as a flash-bang filled the previous tunnel with blinding light and thunderous sound. The shockwave buffeted him, but didn’t make him senseless. He forced himself to his feet again, and ran down the cross-tunnel as fast as he could. He couldn’t be sure the assailants above were following any specific protocol, but most training made flash-bangs a step taken just before a breach.

They were coming to get him, and soon.

Thankfully, the layout of storm drains beneath the Satan’s Hollow district was as convoluted and irregular as the streets of the neighborhood above. He soon found a second intersection, then a third, each time dashing in a random direction to force his pursuers to spread themselves thinner and thinner to chase him down.

Unfortunately, it had looked like they had the numbers to DO that, even if it took some time. Their gear had included some upscale communications and screen devices as well, so he would guess they had nine backup giving them schematics, traffic camera views, and local internet chatter. No maps of the drain system were 100% accurate, but with their numbers, resources, and apparent competence, he couldn’t trust he’d be able to safely disengage without being followed.

Or mowed down.

He didn’t even know what he’d done to warrant the sudden attack, and honestly if he hadn’t been who he was, able to do what he could do he’d be dead already. But he’d already played the one good trick he kept up his sleeve, and it hadn’t been enough. The attackers had kept coming, in numbers, out in the open, with no apparent concern about retaliation from law enforcement. He was out of his depth.

He needed his own back-up.

He slipped an old-fashioned flip-phone out of a pouch, and popped it open. It had no dialpad, and showed clear signs of modification. It automatially came on and dialed a long, complex tone, which was followed by a series of soft clicks. He rarely used it, and just hoped he wasn’t catching its creator at a bad time…

“Ops.”

The woman’s voice was cool, calm, and firm. It was the sweetest sound Mike-Mike had ever heard.

“Mike-Mike, danger word ‘Bananagram.’ I stepped in it Ops. I’m in trouble.”

“Location?” Her voice remained just as calm.

“Storm drains, under Satan’s Hollow. I went in somewhere between Milton Street and the Piles. I’ve been moving roughly south.”

“Condition?”

Mike-Mike took the time to actually look at his leg, crouching to shine his light directly on it. There was no blood, which was good. However when he gingerly touched it, pain shot through him like a hot poker. Which was bad. His shoulder was nearly as painful, and he could feel more bruises and stiffening muscles as the adrenaline leaked out of his system.

“Pretty badly battered. Nothing critical, but I am not in fighting trim.”

“You loaded?”

Mike-Mike looked at the timer on the inside of his right wrist. It automatically went off when he used his “Boom Blast,” counting down until his AB-human power could be used again. He’d expended it when he had first been jumped, and it was the only reason he’d survived the first moments of the attack.

“I got about forty-five minutes before I can pop off. I’m out of smoke. I still have my G19 and two spare clips, but I’d rather not get into a firefight.”

There was a brief pause. “I’ve got you situation. CyberChat in the area is all over it. Reports of four or more armored trucks, two dozen troops. I have video of two of them. No sign of police. Traffic cams are down. No sign of insignia or nametags. Just ranks, which match what Red Stone Consulting use, though they aren’t in standard Red Stone gear. Looks like they’re spreading out, likely trying to cut off your possible evac routes.”

Mike-Mike closed his eyes, and took three deep breaths. That was all about as bad as it could be.

“Options?” He tried to keep his own voice calm.

“I’m boosting the social media awareness now. Shutting down false stories where I can. Making sure footage gets out. Eventually either state enforcement is going to have to pay attention, or mainstream media will which might force federal intervention or a major hero group to drop whatever else they’re doing and head this way. But that’s going to take time I don’t think you have.”

Mike-Mike’s leg flared in pain again, and his visual briefly blurred. That was extra-bad.

“Agreed,” he said simply.

“I can ping potential allies. Get them to the most public spot you can reach, make sure it’s well-seen, and see if these fuckos are willing to go hot against some well-known masks with the eyes of the world on them.”

“I’ll take it.” Mike-Mike didn’t see any better options. “Who’s on deck?”

“Dvork and Chooper are already en route on their own initiative, Broken Heart is nearby and I expect to have her moving your way shortly. I’m pinging Clunker, but don’t know his location. And Boilerplate just reached out to me. She’s apparently also involved in this, and willing to help with an extraction.”

A wave of relief rolled through Mike-Mike. He’d take any help he could get, but Boilerplate brought both near-invulnerability and legal expertise into the mix. And she was well-liked and respected, making it less likely anyone would try to gaslight the public about her involvement.

“What’s my exit?”

“Can you make it to the Yamatown Market?”

Mike-Mike tried to focus on a mental map of Satan’s Hollow, and what he knew about the storm drains. They would all move roughly south or east, to dump into the river. Yamatown was right on the edge of southeastern Satan’s Hollow, divided from it by the 102nd street viaduct, which had connections to the drains. As long as he kept moving in approximately the same direction…

“Yes. It’ll take me maybe 20 minutes.”

“Go.”

Mike-Mike forced himself back to his feet, gritting his teeth at the pain. He had no idea which of the things he’d been looking into had brought this sudden hellstorm down on him.

But he was now a good deal more convinced he was going to live long enough to find out.

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Marvel Movie Pitch: DOOM

Marvel Movie Pitch

DOOM

Victor Von Doom is a young rebel fighting against the petty warlordwho rules the small nation of Latveria, The Baron. Victor is not a hero, but a rebel leader fighting a war, and he knows it. He uses sorcery learned from his parents and science he gleans from constantly reading tech specs from AIM, Stark Industries, and Roxxon.

(Get Roma writers, actors, and directors to include good Roma depiction and representation as one of the groups within Latveria)

Victor deposes the Baron, and steps back to allow the people of Latveria to create a democracy. Now free from war, he receives a scholarship to Empire State University in New York. Here he meets Reed Richards, who becomes his natural rival, and Ben Grimm, who thinks Victor is a bully and war criminal.

Reed is working to build a rocket to examine cosmic rays well beyond the atmosphere. Victor is building a machine to allow him to speak with the dead, in the hopes of using it to help Latvarians recover from war losses. each sees a flaw in the design of the other, and neither believes THEIR calculations are wrong.

Afraid Victor is the one who is right, Ben Grimm sabotages the Doom Projector, expecting it to just short circuit. Instead it explodes, badly damaging Victor’s face. Victor is expelled from the school and, no longer a student, his visa to stay in the U.S. is pulled.

Angry and scarred, victor goes to Tibet to find the Ancient One, who he has heard can heal him. He fails, collapsing on a mountainside, and is rescued by a secretive group of sages who strive to blend magic and technology, but wish to do so without the rest of the world finding out. Victor joins their order, and becomes a master of this technomancy. he begins working on a suit of armor he claims will be the “mystic equivalent of Iron Man,” thought the process takes a long time and the armor takes days to cool. The sages, impressed by his acumen, grant him the doctorate degree he was denied by ESU.

News arrives that suggests Latveria is collapsing into near civil war, unable to cover its international debts and having no institutions to support democracy. (In the background, another news piece suggest Reed Richards is lost in space with friends during an unauthorized spaceflight.) Victor begins a grassroots movement over the internet and via astral projection to bring peace to Latveria anonymously.

His efforts are stymied by Prince Rudolf, who claims to be the rightful monarch of Latveria, and who controls the sorcerous Mephistopheles Guard. In a techno-crystal ball conversation between the two, Victor warns Rudolf he will not allow some faker to take over the country. Rudolf warns Victor he is not as safely secluded as he thinks.

Then the Mephistopheles Guard attacks the Tibetan sages, their sorcery and modern weapons firing magic bullets too much for the sages’ defenses. Victor rushes to put on his technomagic armor to save the sages… but the last piece, the control system mask, has not yet cooled. Gritting his teeth, Victor puts it on anyway, and we hear searing and smoke, but no cry of pain.

Victor defeats the remaining attackers, but nearly all the sages are dead. the few that remain thank Victor for saving them, and pledge their loyalty to him.

Victor goes to Latveria, where he blasts his way into the Royal palace, and confronts Rudolf. Rudolf promises that defeating him is pointless, his diabolical master will just recruit another pawn to take control of the country.

“Let them come.” says victor. “And they, too, can meet their Doom.”

Von Doom sits on the throne. He orders Rudolf’s political prisoners released. They come to the throne room, and suggest Von Doom should step down and let them establish an autonomous collective. The politicos begin to should louder and louder, until Von Doom silences them.

They have clearly failed Latveria, Von Doom notes. He shall not. He will modernize, protect, and get to the root of who was behind Rudolf and possibly the baron’s, supernatural plots.

And no-one, notes Doctor Doom, shall stop me.

Credits.

End Credit Scene. We see the last few seconds of Doctor Doom’s taking over speech on a TV, which is surrounded in Egyptian iconography. There’s a date listed (day the movie is released).

There are two voices.

“So, we jump to before this moment, and stop him?”

“No, too risky, We’ll have to travel to just after this, and see if we con convince him to see things out way.”

They Killed Me, Again, Today

They killed me again, today.

I suppose I should be used to it by now. I mean, anytime anyone comes to the old carnival grounds, or the camp and lake next door, it always ends up with me getting killed again.

I mean, yes, the first time was legitimately surprising. I put on the dead firefighter’s gas mask and coat to help get those campers out of the burning building, not hurt them. But I guess when you catch on fire, roll around in plastic tarps to put it out, and get covered in patchy molten tarp cloth, you look a little scary.

Especially when you have a 4-foot long flaming bill hook hedge cutter in your hand.

So, sure. I get that they thought I was a vengeful spirit come to drag them to hell. I don’t think they needed to wrap a chain around me, hook it to a pickup truck, drive to the lake and jump out just as it went off the dock, so I was pulled underwater and drowned in brackish muck, but at least I get it.

And I guess if you are dumb enough to run an illegal underground carnival and blare intentionally Satanic lyric over the loudspeakers, and that actually DOES raise a vengeful spirit in the form of one wet dude with a patchy coat, mask, and flaming bill hook, you might decide to “douse its hellfire” before discovering I was vengeful about poor OSHA compliance from the original carnival’s corporate owners. I still think dumping the illegally-stored tanks of liquid nitrogen on me was taking it a bit far, though.

So I confess, when one of the things stored in the liquid nitrogen turned out to be a human regeneration formula that brought me back as an infectious zombie… rotting flesh visible through the broken gas mask (but still with the same patchwork coat and flaming bill hook — Black and Decker, man, it’s a quality brand), I was pretty sure it was going to go badly for me. So, yes, I lurked a bit as the urban explorers took pictures of my stomping grounds. I didn’t want to get frozen or drowned again! But when i saw they had mobile phones, I did try to ask them to call for help!

Turns out, enunciation is tricky with a rotting, burned, flash-dried tongue.

No drowning, at least. Getting fed into a wood chipper, mixed with mulch, and spread over the baseball field was hellishly painful, especially since as a regenerating mutant undead spirit of vengeance I was still aware the whole time, but at least I was outside. Some nights it was quite nice.

I DO feel bad for terrorizing people when that freak storm dropped a phone line onto the field and I was sucked into cyberspace and tried to kill people using the internet. But what can I say, it was the 1990s, and netiquette for horror monsters wasn’t really codified yet.

And then the seance, being reverse-possessed by the brother of my first “victim,” the attempt to recreate the serum by cloning me, turning out not have been killed but just in hibernation for 7 years while digesting a guys liver, the SECOND clone of me, the group of multi-denominational priests who summoned me just so they could destroy me “once and for all,” the alien parasite…

I gotta be honest, I’m not even sure I didn’t hallucinate that last one.

So when I reformed from a single drop of my original burning blood and found a mock-up of my original mask and coat in the roadside attraction based on my exploits (but with the SAME bill hook — *man* those people can make gardening tools!), I should have know that moving away from everyone and everything wasn’t going to be enough.

At least someone ought to be able to make a cool movie out of all that cell phone footage those kids got of me and themselves before the fungus that grows on my mutant undead body turned them all into homicidal killers and they did each other in.

And chained me to a bigger truck, and drove me into a bigger lake.

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The Next Last Stand

The “Next Last Stand” is a campaign idea, which spawned a bit of fiction. Both are presented below.

Campaign Idea: “The Next Last Stand”

You build a character explicitly to begin with a scene where you died heroically, delaying enemy forces in a last stand that achieves greatness, even though your death is inevitable.

Encounter 2 is with the rogue Valkyrie who recruits you, in death, to join the Verloren, the “Lost Troops” who are the only hope for staving off a planar apocalypse.

Fiction: Last Stand of Knight’s Bridge

“Stay calm! If you can’t carry it, set it aside. Do not block the path! Move, quickly.”

Valaina’s voice was ragged, the warning harsher in her throat the fiftieth time than it had been when she first shouted it an hour ago. There were still refugees streaming past her, rushing out of Arches Square and the roads that ran into Oldstep and the Tanner’s Town. But the numbers were far fewer, and she realized with a shock most of those running toward the Knight’s Bridge now were truly carrying only small bundles, and several showed smoke stains on their clothes.

And a few had wounds.

She turned to her cohort and waved to indicate they should keep directing power over the bridge, to the relative safety of Aldenear Citadel.

Her eyes scanned for, and quickly spotted, a lanky blue-skinned lad in a hauberk, carrying a massive plate of wood and steal over his shoulder and guarding the closest avenue from Oldstep.

“Sinjin!”He turned at the sound of her voice. “How close is the main force?”

The lean orc armiger set his bulwark shield against the corner of the lesser Knight Bridge tower, and nimbly climbed up its tightly-fit stone side as if it was a ladder, the weight of his armor and toolkits slowing him down not one bit. Once he reached the peaked roof he braced a leg and swing out like the lookout in a ship’s rigging, barely hanging on to the tower with one hand and using the other to shade his eyes from the flashing light of magebolts streaking back and forth across the skies.

His face looked paler than usual, but his voice was calm and strong.

“They’re marching through Oldstep now, lady. They could rush us in ten minutes, or a tad less, if they rushed us. But are clearing every arch and building.” He paused, then looked down at her. “There won’t be many more fleeing to use from there, m’lady.”

Valaina nodded and waved him down—his keen eyesight, and it’s ability to cut through smoke and haze, were worth the risk of running him up high once, but she’d not leave him there to be a target for mage or sling-stone.

Besides, she was going to need him soon.

She marched calmly to where the Tower Guard were holding the line onto the bridge proper, and maneuvered herself next to Guard Kinnon, the watch commander, and Elder Berett, though the “elder” was no more than twenty summers old, and the bands of mastery on his robe cuffs had been roughly stitched in place just hours earlier.

“Liegemen, it’s time to prepare the withdrawal. The enemy is nearly upon us. We’ll want to give people every change to make it to Aldenear, but once the enemy is here it’ll be too late to begin to fall back. We need ordered lines, and warn the yeomen some folk aren’t going to make it. We can’t let that break the formation.”

Kinnon nodded and turned to begin giving orders, but Berett put a hand on the guard’s shoulder.

“Can’t we redirect refugees to go around the moat and killing field? Rush through the city to the farther gates? The enemy is just coming up this one direction, so far, so surely some of them could enter Aldenear from the harbor-side? I know they won’t all make it, but…”

Before Valiana could speak, Kinnon shook his head and cut Berett off.

“Once the enemy forces take the Knight’s Bridge, the citadel will have to close the curtainwall gates. And the bridges—ALL the bridges—with be brought down by sappers. Those fleeing from the far side will be cut off as well, with little warning. Otherwise the moat and killing field won;t serve their purpose.” Kinnon waited a moment, staring into Berett’s eyes to see that the young Elder had understood, the turned and walked to his men, leaving Berett’s hand hovering mid-air.”

Berett turned to Valaina, his eyes wide.

“M’Lady, most of the city will be fleeing through the far gates. There are far more neighborhoods with access to the Queen’s Gate and Harbor Gate. If those are closed and their bridges destroyed as the enemy takes Knight’s Tower…”

Valaina nodded, grimly.

“You’re right Elder, but there’s nothing to be done for it. It’d take hours to evacuate the city, and it’s not time we have. Once the bridges come down, any remaining cityfolk will have to flee into the fields. they’ll have no walls, but the invaders can’t sweep the surrounding lands thoroughly until the citadel is taken.”

A hint of desperation came into Berett’s voice.

“My lady, they have necrothurges! Every death will swell their ranks. Which means every minute we buy here not only saves our own, it robs them of more troops. If we hold the Knight’s Bridge Towers, even briefly, we buy the city more time to flee through the far gates.”

Valaina shook her head. She nodded to the assembled guard, who were nearly in formation preparing to move slowly back from the two Knight’s Gate Towers. Only a trickle of refugees fled past them now.

“If we hold, all who stay here are lost. There will be no relief for us, and the oncoming forced will overwhelm us. I cannot ask the yeoman guard to die here, they will be needed on the citadel’s walls soon. And my cohort alone cannot stave off this advance As you note, they have necrothurges. Without a warder…”

“I’m a warder.” Berett voice was calm, for this first time since he had arrived at the towers.”

“Elder…” Valaina began gently.

Berett shook his head. “I don’t mean I am a warder because I am an Elder. I know these” he waved vaguely at the bands on the end of robe’s sleeves, “are a measure of desperation. But I am a trained warder, lady. I came up through the Siege and Fortifications house of the School of Abjuration. Put me in a tower,” he nodded at the greater Knight’s Bridge Tower, “and I can screen a unit of two score or more against all hexes and maledictions. I swear it.”

Valaina looked at her cohort. Nine squires, each lacking only patrons and experience from being full knights. Ten armigers, each with a massive bulwark shield.They could span the gap between towers, but…

“We haven’t the support, Berett. We’d need lancers, crossbows in the towers…”

Berett, very much looking an Elder for the firs time, turned to the assembled guard formation.

“Who among you yeoman have family on the far side of the city?”

Half the assembled guards raised their weapons, spears and crossbows held high.

“How many will give their lives to buy those families more time to flee to Aldenear?”

Not a single weapon lowered.

Berett turned back to Valaina. “Thirty, maybe forty defenders lost here. To prevent hundreds or thousands from becoming soldiers for the Adversary. Tactically, a good trade.”

Sinjin had come up beside Valaina, and when she glanced at him, he nodded, almost imperceptibly.

A distant scream echoed up from the streets of Oldstep, but was cut short.

Valaina nodded.

“We are guided by your wisdom Elder. Kinnon!” The guard commander turned from his formation. “Ten lancers, ten crossbowyers, volunteers only. Those without families and older than thirty take precedence. Then get across that bridge immediately, and beyond the curtainwall. No lingering, not for anything!”

Kinnon began selecting men and women with their weapons raised, and dressing the line to fill the gaps.

“Sinjin, set the armigers. Bulwarks down, one swordsman behind each, one lancer behind that. Set one at each tower door. Elder?”

Sinjin rushed off, and Berett looked at her.

“Take the crossbowyers. Six to your tower, and they guard you above all else. Four to the other tower. As long as you ward us, we’ll hold.”

Eyes wet, Elder Berett nodded, and hurried over the the gathered crossbow-armed guards. Kinnon’s remaining unit was already falling back, and a single old man with a ragged bundle–fat cat sitting atop it–was scurrying up to rush with them across the bridge.

Valaina marched over to her position, the center of the line of defenders, behind Sinjin.

“WE HOLD.”

From the streets into Oldstep, a shambling figure staggered forth. It was dirty, and hunched, missing most of its face and part of its left arm.

Behind it, were many more.

Sinjin’s strong voice bellowed, and he drew a hatchet and braced his massive bulwark.

“ALL TOGETHER, IN THIS LIFE AND THE NEXT!”

.

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Short Fiction: “Carry a Torch Song ” (Sorcerers & Speakeasies)

CARRY A TORCH SONG
(A Sorcerers & Speakeasies short story)

Felspethe moved silently from her office to the interior balcony overlooking the main room, her form concealed in the dark shadows the balcony’s drapes cast from the stage lights hanging just under it. It was a good crowd, tonight. Mostly human, as you’d expect on a Saturday night at an upscale place like the Annwyn Avalon, but with a smattering of feybloods, dworrowfolk, sidhe, and one small block of uroks. She saw with approval that Tam-Tam, the night’s floor manager, was lounging in apparent boredom between the uroks and the nearest humans. It was unlikely anyone would dare bare iron in her club, but it was better if Tam-Tam could calm tensions before they got anywhere near that far if someone had too much to drink.

Or smoke. Or snort.

Her Court was similarly alert, if lazily so. Their dull yellow beaks and dark feathers were nearly invisible in the rafters, up at her balcony’s level, though from time to time a rook or jackdaw would flutter from one beam to another, and sometimes a patron would look up. The larger crows and ravens were much quieter, content to sit in spots picked out before she opened her doors. If they took wing tonight, it would be at her command alone.

One of the largest ravens, nearly three feet from tip of razor-sharp beak to end of it’s tailfeathers, was sitting on the railing of her balcony. It had ignored her when she walked out, but turned it’s head now to regard her with one shiny black eye.

Felspethe smiles. “What catches your attention tonight, Valgrn?”

The corvid’s voice was quiet and deep, very much at odds with its appearance.

“Captain Auburn is back.”

Felspethe raised a long, delicate eyebrow, and scanned the room more carefully. To her annoyance, she couldn’t spot the brazen-headed police agent who should have stood out like a pumpkin in a potato patch.

“Where?” She kept her voice calm — no reason to ruffle the Court.

Valgrn tilted his head and leaned, jutting his beak forward. “There. Standing by the maquette.”

Felspethe’s eyes jumped back to a point they had just slid over, a small roped-off alcove which featured a terracotta statue of a lithe elven figure in clothes a century out of fashion, its face a near match for Felspethe’s own. And sure enough, there was Captain Urielle Auburn, in the smart pinstripe suit that functioned as her uniform nowadays. And, as always, her enruned rifle Killfire was neatly slung over her back, in a well-maintained but obviously military shoulder sheath. The captain’s eyes were boring a whole across the club, though Felspethe didn’t bother to see what she was looking at yet.

Flespethe’s heart fluttered a little, which was almost as annoying as not being able to spot Auburn on her own. She wanted to be annoyed about the rifle, but couldn’t generate any heat behind the feeling. The Annwyn Avalon forbade weapons, but she knew perfectly well a quarter of her patrons concealed some derringer or stiletto. And Auburn could likely flash a badge, or a note from the mayor, and insist on bringing Killfire in anyway.

But most police would have brought something more subtle. It was just so like Urielle to insist on being obvious about it. A smile crept onto the corner of Felspethe’s lips, and it took conscious effort to suppress it.

“Do we know why she’s here?”

Again, Valgrn pointed with his beak, the line of his gesture crossing the steely gaze of Captain Auburn at the location of one of her VIP tables, where a circle of patrons in suits that each cost more than her monthly payroll sat and laughed loudly. The largest of the group was Beula “Breakbone” Jotkin, an ogreblooded uruk famous for being able to punch through brick. No one in the club would want to trade blows with the big enforcer… except Auburn, of course.

But the greater threat was a small man sitting next to Breakbone, and almost certainly paying for her meal. Pleasantly plump, balding and gray-haired, Fodrick Freeburner was the unquestioned head of the Weefolk Beneficent Society… known on the streets as the Halfling Mob. He was an almost cherublike figure, with sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks, who played “Little Father Christmas” in the city’s Yule parade every year.

He was also, Felspethe knew, a merciless criminal mastermind, and a potent necromancer.

She found her mouth suddenly quite dry. If Auburn was here for Freeburner…

“What can you see in the farther branches, my knight?”

As she stroked Valgrn’s feathers, his eyes went from glossy to flat black, as he looked beyond where she could see.

His voice was barely a whisper. “Captain Auburn hunts a killer. She believes it to be Aussker Crackkettle, a minor numbers-runner for Freeburner. Freeburner has kept Crackkettle hidden. She is here to remind him she has gone to war. True war. And that if she does so again, it will not go well for him.”

“And here, tonight?” Felspethe held her breath.

“Captain Auburn will begin no war in your lands. But if Freeburner senses advantage, he may unleash Breakbone upon the captain.”

Valgrn’s eyes regained their normal gleam.

“It is unlikely Freeburner would risk it. But not impossible.”

Felspethe knew the future was too shadowy to ever be sure of anything, and Valgrn had certainly earned her trust with his predictions. But she needed to push the chance of a street war breaking out here, tonight, well into the “impossible” category. And to do that, she needed to make Freeburner wonder if she and her Court would side with him, or Urielle, should blood be spilled. But at the same time, she had to do so in such a way he didn’t perceive it as a threat. She couldn’t operate without his tacit approval.

But she also could not allow Auburn to fight alone. Not again.

“The Captain’s unit in the War, the Stormguard. What was their color song?”

Vagrn’s beak could not smile. Yet, the humor was clear on his face.

March of Cambreadth. Shall I signal the stage chief to ready for you to perform?”

Felspethe allowed the smile this time. “Indeed. One song, to honor the war hero among us. No one could blame me for that, could they?”

She glanced down again, and was startled to see Urielle looking up at her. She should be invisible here in her balcony, but their eyes locked. Urielle nodded once. And… was that a hint of a smile of her own ?”

Felspethe’s heart pounded but she kept enough composure to simply nod in return, and let her smile bloom to its full glory. Urielle’s eyes widened briefly, and then she looked away quickly.

Felspethe felt the emotions that fueled her mortal form more than food, air, or lifeblood boiling within her. Rather than fight them down, she began to let them coil, where she could access them as needed. This song, this one rare song from the owner of the Annwyn Avalon, would be enough to make anyone considering crossing her pause.

And if it didn’t? Well, Felspethe was sure Urilee Auburn and Killfire would not let her and her court fight alone.

OwenPulpFantasy-ElfSinger-01

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Thoughts on Introductory Game Fiction vs game Tie-In Fiction

You can set the tone for an RPG, from an entire game system to a single adventure, with bits of short fiction. The purpose of this fiction isn’t really the same as fiction that exists only for its own sake. You need to introduce a world and show some of the ways it can be used, as much as entertain with prose.

That’s subtle different from game tie-in fiction. God tie-in fiction does work entirely on its own, and may even take liberties with what game rules could handle in order to present a story set in the same world as a game. It’s a balancing act, but the best tie-in fiction tends to be a good story first, and a faithful representation of a game later. (And this is fair – lots of games made as tie-in to fiction are imperfect representations of those fictional worlds. When you change the format, you accept some alteration in the details.)

For example, I’ve been experimenting with what fiction set in the Really Wild West would look like. I’ve done short introduction fiction for some of the RWW pieces, but am thinking I might take a different approach if I wanted to do my own tie-in fiction.

I haven’t had time to write a complete Really Wild West long-form story, but I have written the first scene of one.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE RUSTY

The air was dense with smoke and ash, burning Skaff’s throat as he sucked desperately through the bandanna held to his mouth. His eyes watered but he dared not shut them,  glaring deep into the smoke as he ran. The clouds of thick gray ash and cinders were painful, burning his cheeks and hands, but it was infinitely preferable to the oily black vapor that would surely be crawling through the town’s streets by now. Choking, even burning, was a less fearful fate than the horrors he had seen visited on those who had been exposed even briefly to the black gas.

A loud roar, part steam horn and part animal howl, bellowed through town. Even over the screaming of panicked citizens he could not see through the conflagration, the roar was clear and chilling. He felt the need to run from that sound as quickly as possible, but it seemed to come from all directions at once. As its echoes faded, a similar sound rang in the distance. He was unsure how far away the source of the more remote roar could be—a mile?—less?—but he knew it was not far enough. The distant roar seemed to come primarily from the east and so he turned west, the direction only discernible because the low setting sun made one section of smoke glow more than the rest.

A woman crashed into him, running in blind panic, and clawed at his coat. She was tall and thin, with the fine features and sharp ears of an elf, but her face showed none of the serenity Skaff associated with the European clade. Before he could react to her at all, though he knew not if he hoped to aid the woman or shove her away, the elven interloper cried out and dashed out of sight into the smoke. She left a wet sensation on Skaff’s shirt, which he briefly hoped was water, perhaps a result of the woman trying to protect herself from the flames. But the strong smell of iron, wafting up even through smoke and bandana, told him the truth. He was covered in another person’s blood, soaked through her clothing to thoroughly that one impact had splashed it on him. It was a sure sign black gas was nearby. That woman, though running, was already dead. She just had the worst parts of experiencing her end yet to come.

Skaff tried to angle his retreat to move both westward, and away from the direction he thought the unfortunate blood-cover woman had come from. He could no longer see clearly from his left eye, and the stinging in his right forced him to close it even as he desperately fought to keep looking for deadly vapors. Shapes in the ash were vague, and he could only guess at their clades. A human, one of the insectile chivvin, the jerky motions of an automaton. A figure that was a centaur, or a mounted rider, thundered past. Suddenly, in a flash of crimson light and wave of heat, the horselike figure burst into flames, turning to charcoal before it could even fall to the ground.

And then, the dull glow of dusk was blocked from above.

The shape concealing the sun was vast, looming far above him. Even through the smoke its basic form was obvious, three long legs stretching up from the ground supporting a huge disk which writhed with undulating tentacles. Screams echoed down from the top of the shape, and Skaff stopped dead in his tracks. Hot drops of red fell on his face, like hellish rain, and he could taste that they were blood. One of the massive tripod legs lifted and swung forward, smashing some unseen building of brick and glass in the process. A stone struck Skaff, driving him to the dusty street, and the sky further darkened as the leg fell toward him.

Skaff woke screaming.

All around him it was dark, and for a long panicked moment he didn’t know where he was. Instinctively he scrambled backwards, fighting some wet shape that enwrapped him, tangling him and holding him tightly. Then he was falling. He thought he was falling from a great height, but he dropped just a short distance onto a hard, cold floor.

It was the chill air, as he dragged it into his aching throat, that made him realize he wasn’t in the smoke anymore. He wasn’t in that town. The tripod hadn’t crushed him, by the narrowest margin.

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Fossil. (One)

To call it evil would be to utterly misunderstand its entire existence, though it had been called evil many times over the heartbeat of one or another species’ rise. But those species were never considered when it took form. They had not yet existed, and would not exist for 60 million years after it’s origin was forgotten.

Concepts like good and evil were foreign to it, as they had been foreign to those who called it forth, those who ruled the surface of a very different kind of world, though it was what became our world. They has stood tall in the certainty that their 100,000 years of ascendance would be eternal, and had been as wrong as every collective that believed it before them.

It functioned. That was all it was ever to do, just function, and through functioning prove that thought had gone into it. That thought had existed. Not thought as any mammal brain would produce, or even recognize, but thought nonetheless. Nothing else was enough to memorialize those who had seen the need for a memorial to their meaningless aberration from lifelessness and wild. They called it forth to prove that they had once called things, that the idea of calling into the night had come before, and were satisfied they had crafted the perfect monument to their own immortality.

Then, like every other spark of order or sapience that had even arisen, they were extinguished. Erased so totally that even if the surface of the Earth had not churned over and crushed their edifice to dust over tens of millions of uncounted years, there would be no proof to betray their scar in the timeline of thoughtlessness. Nothing was left of them, who were so different that they could not conceive of man, and man would never conceive of them.

Nothing but the fossil.

And all it could do was function.

Not well. Not as it once had. Nothing it did was in any way what had been planned for it. But it had been planned by creatures more alien than even those on other worlds. Entities who had no concept of anything a mammal could recognize as culture, or art, or philosophy. They made their monument to be magnificent in their sight, but they saw a different world, in different colors, and had no care for what it might do once they were gone.

The monument, the fossil, still functioned, And it would be fair, from the perspective of frail, floundering human minds to call that function evil. Not by intent, or manufacture. But because it was never even vaguely predicted to ever interact with anything like humans, and thus everything it did would be antithetical to human rationality.

It could have destroyed the world, but that was not its function. It could have made men gods, or revealed the secrets of the hidden dark energy binding the universe and accelerating galaxies away from one another, but that was not its function. Divorced from any context native to its creation, its function could no longer be said to be rational, for the rationality of the apes briefly reshaping the world with things born of their dreams was different from the closest equivalent of rationality to those of the things that had brought it forth.

Its function was at best, an approximation of what had been expected of it when it was made nearly eternal. But even if it had been aware of how far from its first conception its new actions were, it would not have cared. It would just have functioned.

On October 28th, 1987, in Grange, Oklahoma, that function was, by human standards, horrific and maddening.

Game Masters, Chapter One

One. Those Above.

Maise Delores tapped the ‘record’ light hovering midair in front of her, making sure her host saw her do it. She could have set the device to record with just a though, but that would’ve been a violation of her streaming site’s official privacy policy. She almost never did that.

She smiled in a friendly manner, but didn’t really think it was necessary. Her host, Winton Classen, was famously among the calmest men in the public eye.

“Thank you for agreeing to an interview, Mr. Classen. My producer and your PR people will put together all the introductions and pleasantries, so we can skip right to the meat of what people want to know. Are you ready for that?”

Winton gave an easy smile in return, no less practiced or perfect than her own.

“Of course, Ms. Delores. I’m delighted to proceed however you feel is best. You’re the tastemaker, after all.”

“Thank you. All right, let’s get right into it. Your company offers vacations to the masses using ‘manufactured reality.’ So the difference between the neural virtual reality we’re all familiar with and manufactured reality is…?”

Winton’s voice broke into the easy, regular rhythm of someone who had practiced saying something a hundred times. “Manufactured reality is literally adjusting the reality you, personally, are experiencing. You can see, hear, even taste and feel an entirely new world we create for your entertainment. And you can do so entirely by yourself, or with a group of family, friends, co co-workers.”

Maise nodded, as much to show Winton she wanted to interject something as to indicate she understood. “Okay, but how do you do that? How is it possible for someone to experience a different reality other than broadcasting electrical impulses into their brain, the way modern VR parlors do?”

Winton’s smile grew in a way Maise thought looked a bit predatory. “VR is just as you say, an illusion of senses sent to your brain. But you only experience what the VR system is programmed for you to experience. It’s no more than a game, or a movie.

“Manufactured reality actually creates a new set of physical laws, which act and react to whatever you do within that reality. We set up those rules, but don’t control the outcome of how you interact with them.”

Maise switched her smile from “friendly” to “slightly bemused,” one of her trademarked moves. “How does that work? At a layman’s level, I mean?”

Winton spoke energetically, his hands moving to punctuate specific words. “We’ve known that perception influences reality since the old double-slit experiments of the early 2000s. It took time for that to eb well-excepted, but the sciences of quantum attunement and quantum frequency grew out of that. In short, at it’s most basic level, reality is just a state of energy, and conscious minds can impact the form that energy takes. Because we are all at the same quantum frequency, we all experience the same reality, on a macro-scale.

But it is possible to adjust that quantum frequency, temporarily, attuning a person and their perception to a new energy state. With the right equipment, such as our extreme comfortable q-couches, your entire body can be placed slightly out of attunement with the reality we all perceive around us, and attuned with a manufactured reality, created by a q-bit cogitator that can emulate a new set of physical laws. That create the framework of a new energy state that an individual can perceive as real.

“Once the framework of a manufactured reality is set up, a visitor’s quantum frequency is attuned, through entanglement, to a master oscillation which serves as a common reference point. Everyone attuned to the same oscillation experiences one, shared, manufactured reality we design and oversee, but do not control. When something happens in VR, it’s part of a script. When it happens in our manufactured reality, it’s because of cause-and-effect beyond anyone’s control or ability to predict.”

Maise jumped on that. “So, it’s real, not artificial experiences? Then why are people’s bodies still here, sitting in high-tech sofas? If you manufacture a new reality, why are they still present in our reality?”

Winton looked unsurprised. “We keep the quantum amplitude low enough to only impact each individual’s experience of the manufactured reality. It isn’t some naturally occurring alternate universe, though we now know those exist. It is a framework of reality, built to be real enough to enjoy and have largely-consistent rules, but not real enough to impact our perception of guest’s bodies. So as soon as their quantum attunement stops being maintained, they snap back to our perception of them, no worse for wear.”

“But to the guests, their experiences are entirely real-feeling?”

Winton allowed his smile to fade to a friendly grin. The kind of grin your grandfather had just before telling you a bad joke. “Only within the rules of the manufactured realities they visit. We keep some sensations, such as taste, touch, and smell, at full strength. But we have adjusted each manufactured reality to have different expressions of pain, for example. So while being stabbed in the manufactured HeroLand reality hurts, it hurts like a bruise or cramp. Typical sport-activity level pain. Nothing traumatic, for obvious reasons. And we ensure that the bandwidth of the quantum amplitude is taken up with enough other feedback that even the most horrific experiences in our manufactured realities are perceived more like watching them in a movie, rather than experiencing them. We make worlds better than real – nothing too bad is capable of happening within them.

Maise knew there was no chance of catching Winton off-guard, but there were certain questions her fanbase expected her to ask. “And no one can get stuck in a manufactured reality? I understand there were some incidents during early human trials.”

Winton choose to look more somber. “When the technology was young and the applications being explored were all military, yes there were cases where it was not possible to detune a subject from their manufactured reality without bringing back the physical effects of their experiences. And some people were allowed to experience manufactured realities for much longer than current best practices dictate. But our systems literally can’t do either of those things.” The big smile returned.  “Our quantum cores can’t generate manufactured worlds with the amplitude needed to overwrite physical reality, and our transmitters overheat after 40 continuous hours, well short of the 150-hour duration that has been shown to potentially cause physiological distress. We built systems that break before they can put anyone in actual danger.”

Maise had one shot at getting a good sound bite, and she took it. “But the system could, theoretically, be repurposed to create more dangerous manufactured realities?”

Winton laughed. “In the same way you could strap a jet engine to a ferris wheel to make it less safe, yes. But no one in their right mind would do such a thing, and it would take hundreds of millions to create such a thing in any case. Guests to any of our Manufactured Marvels sites have nothing to worry about.”

Maise was prepared to push the point—less because she thought Winton actually ran secret off-the-books manufactured deathsport reality, but more because such conspiracy theories were good for clicks and views—but the magnate lifted a finger to forestall her as she took in a breath.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Dolores.” There was no humor in Winton’s expression now, and Maise could just barely see a tiny flashing red light in the corner of his right pupil. “I’m afraid one of those ‘unexpected emergencies’ my staff must have warned you might crop up has, in fact, raised it’s ugly head. Could we have my staff arrange for a virtual interview to answer any more questions? We have, in fact, had an in-person interview now, so your claim of an exclusive remains legally valid.”

Maise smiled and stood, putting out a hand as she did so. “Of course, Mr. Classen. I appreciate you making any time at all for me.”

Winton stood and clasped her hand firmly. A tiny series of hums Maise felt in the bone of her skull, inaudible to anyone else even if they were adjacent to her, confirmed what she suspected. Winton was receiving a stream of wireless data. Her bootjack system probably couldn’t record it, and even if it managed to she’d likely never break the encryption. But even just knowing how much data he was getting could help her figure out what part of his vast empire was under threat serious enough for hum to cut HER short, in person.

His voice remained eminently calm was he walked her to the door of his office. “Perhaps we can make it up to you/ Allow you to run a stream from one of our Manufactured Marvel facilities?”

Now Maise was surprised. “I… was under the impression that was never allowed?”

“Not while guests are present—privacy concerns and such, of course. But we often have previews for VIPs before we open a facility to the public, I would imagine we could let you stream from one of those before anyone else was allowed to use it.”

“That would be lovely.” Maise let real excitement leak into her voice. “I can guarantee that would get fifty million live views.”

Winton’s very-practiced smile returned. “With you as the streamer, I’m sure it will. My staff will contact you to set something up.”

And then Maise was in the waiting room again, and Winton has smoothly closed the door, blocking her access to whatever emergency had his attention.

Winton Classen tensed his jaw in exactly the way needed to bring up his personal HUD, and a list of options popped into his view, though the ‘URGENT’ light flashing in his peripheral vision remained bright and obvious. He focused his vision on “Lockdown,” and as that option was picked heard the hum of antispying devices turning his office into the next-best thing to espionage-proof.

Not that he believed someone couldn’t break those protections, if they really wanted to. Winton just wanted to make sure such an effort would be so expensive no one would ever bother.

Winton moved past the cozy sitting area he and Ms. Dolores had been at, where he interviewed people he wanted to put at ease, to sit in the massive leather chair behind his immense oak desk. Where he interviewed people he wanted to frighten. With a wave of his hand he brought a section of the wall to light and the image of Cory Mai, his chief of operations, took form on it.

“Who is it, and how badly did they screw up?” Winton’s voice was terse, but not angry. If Cory thought he needed to be interrupted, he assumed she was right. He trusted her judgment.

Her face was calm, but the slightest crinkle by her left eye worried him more than most people would have if they’d been spitting in rage.

“It’s the Morgan brothers. Both of them, at once, I’ll note. And they screwed it about as badly as possible.”

Winton signed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Can we get them out alive?”

Cory shook her head. “I’m not sure we can get them out at all. They’re Gamma-6.”

“What?!” Winton rarely lost his reserve, and was immediately annoyed. If anyone but Cory was claiming that. “Okay, Cory. Explain to me why that’s not impossible. My last briefing said Gamma-4 is still as deep as even DARPA has gotten. And we only recently proved Gamma-5 as even theoretically possible. How the hell did a couple of rich idiots get themselves attuned more deeply than any other manufactured reality system in the world.”

Cory visibly shrugged. “We don’t know. David Morgan is a hell of a quantum engineer, even if he’s refused to ever do much with his talent. We’ve just gotten on-site, and it’s obvious he’s made extensive modifications to his oscillator. And as far as we can tell, he hasn’t documented any of it. We’re analyzing it now, but we have to do that while it’s running, which complicates things. We can’t shut it down without losing both Morgans, given the state of their quantum signatures, and David may be the only person who has never managed a G-6 attunement.”

Winton released the bridge of his nose, and let his mind float for a minute. Cory knew he was thinking, but also knew she wouldn’t interrupt him just by giving him more facts.

“Their overwatch team got worried 12 hours ago, when the Morgan’s bodies began to show sign of severe trauma. They don’t let their overwatch monitor of record their manufactured experiences, but there is a tandem rig for each of them. Two security experts settled in and got attuned, with a 5-minute timer. Both came back into native attunement with enough trauma on their bodies to die within seconds. The Morgan’s chief of staff freaked out, ignored house policy, and called me directly. It took time to get here with a team…”

“You’re there, yourself, in person?” Winton interrupted.

“I am,” Cory confirmed. “The Morgans are huge donors and investors in many of our concerns, and we supplied them with the original private oscillator they’ve since modified. Given their influence, and that we already had two dead, I wanted to assess the situation directly.”

Winton waved a hand to indicate he understood. It was an unusual step, but Cory had always proven to have good reason to take unusual steps.

“The Morgan’s oscillation system shows them at Gamma-4, but I wanted to confirm that, so I had our people do an independent sampling. When that came in at G-7, I had them run it again. And again. But it turns out the Morgan’s system simply isn’t set up to show any attunement deeper than Gamma-4, and our results are consistent. I can’t tell you how they managed it, but I can tell you what David Morgan thought he’d done.”

Winton raised an eyebrow, an affectation he’d developed as a child but also an effective way to let people know they had his attention.

“His diary entries are clear.” Cory’s voice was carefully neutral. Unjudgmental. “He thought he’d found an actual alternate reality, which just happened to have magic and dragons and evil tyrants.”

Winton’s eyebrow stayed elevated. “Do you believe that?”

“I…” Cory rarely paused. She was silent for a full two seconds. Then:

“I don’t believe it. But I can’t disprove it either. And whatever they’ve done, it’s going to radically change some dearly held belief of our experts. So as ridiculous as that sounds, I’m not ruling it out of the list of possibilities, though I’m not basing decisions on it, either.”

Winton nodded to himself. That kind of risk-management, and willingness to accept facts over her own view of what ought to be true, was a big part of why he trusted her judgement. “So…,” he let the word linger for a moment. “”What do you recommend?”

“Now Cory didn’t hesitate.” “We need to send a team in after them. If nothing else, we need to talk to David Morgan, even if we can’t extract him alive. I already have new attunement couches being set up. The Morgans only designed their system for the two of them and the two emergency tandem rigs, but the quantum oscillator has the same standard 32-output connections as our standard models. Even so, I don’t think we can afford to send more than 12 people – there’s a limited about of power available, and while the Morgans’ couches are normal, I don’t know what might happen if we overload their oscillator’s output. It looks like the system can handle 12 more without any issue, but after that it might start throttling back the among of energy used for each couch, and since I don’t know how they got to Gamma-7, I don’t know if reducing total power available might impact it.

“As for who to send, obviously we have a number of qualified teams for most of this. But the manufactured reality the Morgans are in was… custom. It’s not based on any of our Manufactured Marvel settings, or any of the common tropes we have explored and trained in for possible setting expansion later. That means we don’t have any internal setting experts. I recommend we hire some from… unorthodox… sources.”

Winton nodded. “Approved. What is the setting based on, and where are you going to get experts?”

Cory sighed. “It’s something called the Grimdarque Roleplaying Game. It’s a paper=and-pencil tabletop game, not computer or VR, with origins in the 1980s. And… there’s a fan convention… “

“Game Masters” is an experiment in serialized fiction. It is supported only by contributions to my Patreon. if you want to read more of the story, go support my Patreon and let me know!

The Orders of Scholomance

“I stick my arm in the ArchGauntlet, and it BRANDS me with the mark of the Scholastic Order I’m assigned to?”

“Yes, just above the inside of your wrist, though there are procedures for those missing a left arm.”

“Doesn’t that seem… insane? To ask a teenage to let a magic gauntlet brand them forever?”

“Mr. Fletcher, you are gaining access to the Scholomance. You will be taught by, among other instructors, devils, trolls, and even the dead themselves. Vlad Tepes was a student. We will give you the power to turn men into ash.

“This is the least insane thing we require. If you cannot accept your order’s Mark, you have no business here.”

“Fair enough. How do I leave?”

“Though the chapel. In a coffin. We pay for the funeral ourselves.”

“… Ah. So I just shove my arm in, then?”

“Normally there’s a ceremony, but we’ll forego it, seeing as we’re already mid-term.”

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Short Order Heroes. 1. On The Clock.

Deputy Jensen Jackson was not particularly important. He knew that.

He was simply too young to be important. Or, at least, too young for someone from his social circles and economic circumstance to be important. That was fine. That was how the world worked.

But he did WORK for people who were important. Old Sheriff McCarter, of course, but “Mac” McCarter had stopped trying to elevate his own status, or those who worked for him, long before Deputy Jackson came along. Assuming, of course, he had ever made such efforts.

Deputy Jackson did assume that.

But Old Mac simply spent too much time hanging out with unimportant people to be a ticket to betterment. Oh, sure, being trusted by people on both side of the tracks — as well as townies, ranchers, drillers, hunters, natives, and even truckers — was useful when it came to policing. Deputy Jackson assumed that was why Mayor Gauge put up with Old Mac — he kept things quiet. And, it meant Mayor Gauge never had to worry about the sheriff looking to move into his job. Old Mac just ran in the wrong circles for that.

Mayor Bill Gauge very much ran in the right circles. When it came to being important in the town of Virtue, Oklahoma, Mayor Gauge defined the right circles.

So if the mayor called up and said “Jensen, my fellow… ” and it pleased Deputy Jackson that the mayor always called him ‘Jensen,’ “… I am having some folks over at the Boomer Barn, and I’d sure like if you were there to keep an eye on things.” Well then, Deputy Jackson would be there, keeping an eye on things.

He was not, in any formal sense, “on duty” when he stood near the mayor and his associates at the Boomer Barn. He was in uniform and thus, under Old Mac’s rules, couldn’t get a drink even though the Barn’s owner,  Amos Lauren, would happily have given the deputy a free glass like he did for Mayor Gauge and whoever was sitting with the mayor. At least, Deputy Jackson was sure Amos would slide him a liquor-by-the-wink (as Apache County was dry) if he was out of uniform while keeping an eye on things for the mayor.

It had never come up.

Mostly, he just stood a bit away from the bar, in his tan and brown uniform, with his belt and holster and badge, between most of the Boomer Bar’s main room, and the leathertop table in the back corner where Mayor Gauge talked to folks and got things done. It was unofficial, of course, but efficient. No rules of order, no minutes of each meeting, no snoops, no party officers, at least unless the mayor invited them.

The government, people in Virtue said, was in town hall. Solutions came from the leathertop.

The mayor normally told Deputy Jackson who to expect so he could wave them to the leathertop, as Jackson knew everyone in town and most everyone important in the county. If anyone not on the list wandered up, the deputy stared at them until they got skittish and wondered away. If they seemed important enough that the mayor might want to talk to them even if they weren’t on the list, Jackson cleared his throat to get the mayor’s attention.

That was keeping an eye on things.

As a result, Deputy Jackson was surprised when Peg Shaw walked into the Boomer Barn, wearing her waitressing uniform and apron, kicking red dust off her boots, and then marched straight toward him. He was even more surprised she had a big, white cloth sheath hanging from her apron, with a knife stuck in it. His surprise grew only slightly more when he realized she was carrying a shotgun.

Shotguns were more common in Virtue than 12-inch-long knives.

She wasn’t pointing the gun at anyone, and she seemed calm enough. And Peg had been a law-abiding citizen her entire life, 32 years in town. There were stories that her mother had been a bit nuts, had maybe used grandpa Shaw’s tractor to run over a whole heard of razorbacks in ’31, but whenever the question had come up Old Mac always said that was, after all, not illegal

And while Peg was mostly a waitress at the “Ranch 66” diner by the highway, she had been known to step up and cook if the regular staff got sick, or had to go help family who lost a home in a tornado. Her family were ranchers and butchers going way back, so it was no shock she could cook. And, he recalled, when he had seen her running the Ranch 66’s grill once, she had been sporting that same cloth sheath and knife.

So Deputy Jackson could envision some odd scenarios where she needed to run an errand over to the Boomer Barn, and just happened to have a foot-long knife and a shotgun when she did them. And, honestly, those scenarios seemed more likely than Peg Shaw meaning to harm anyone at the local dance and social hall, so he didn’t feel the need to grab his gun or yell orders.

When it was clear that she was headed toward the leathertop, he decided his plan was simply to stare at her until she went away. Whatever she thought she needed from the mayor or his guests, Peg Shaw clearly was not important enough to skip the list.

That plan worked fine, right up to the moment Peg walked up to him, and matched his gaze.

“Peg,” he said casually, to remind her that even though she was a few years his senior and they weren’t friends, he had the position to use her given name.

“Jensen,” she replied even more coolly. Deputy Jackson had no idea what that was supposed to remind him of, but he suddenly felt like he had in elementary school, when Mrs. Floyd has asked him what 11 times 13 was, and he hadn’t known, even though he was supposed to know by then.

Her gaze became uncomfortable. If she found his stare in any way disconcerting, she wasn’t showing any sign of it. His sureness in her unimportance wavered. She also, he realized, had a book under one arm. It was a ragged, uneven thing with what seemed to be magazine pages and newspaper clippings and loose typed pages, all stuck hodge-podge between it’s covers. There were tabbed pages as well, and he could just read three of them, with tabs marked “breakfast,” and “desserts” and “therianthropes.”

It was, of course, rude to stare at a woman for this long. And it would be rude to suggest she go back out, or that she shouldn’t be wandering around with a big knife and shotgun. That was the only reason Deputy Jackson turned away from her gaze and pointedly cleared his throat at Mayor Gauge.

The mayor looked up, annoyed. His eyes flickered at Jackson, and then over to Peg Shaw. And then, to the deputy’s shock, the mayor looked concerned.

“Peg Shaw. You on the clock?”

Jackson’s eyes bounced back and forth between the mayor and Peg, and he felt his jaw relax a bit.

Peg’s voice was still cool. “I am, mayor. I need a minute.”

“It’s not a great time, Peg.” The mayor waved at the five men sitting at the leathertop with him. The most important of those was Bruce Shane, one of the wealthiest ranchers in the tri-county area. While most of the other men present seems as perplexed as the deputy (though none of them had either the annoyance or disdain Jackson would have expected from such a circumstance), Shane’s expression was as grim and serious as the mayor’s.

“Sorry, mayor. It can’t wait. Not unless Mr. Shane thinks he has cattle to spare. There’s already a truck rig missing, and it’s got to be belly coolers…”

The mayor held up a hand, which forestalled Peg finishing the description of whatever couldn’t wait.

“Gentlemen,” the mayor’s voice was calm, “forgive me, but a civil servant’s first duty must be to his constituency. We can finish this discussion another time. Bruce, can you stay?”

Peg walked past Jackson without any further invitation, and all the men not named Bruce stood from their chairs around the leathertop, and walked away without any grumbling.

“Jensen?”

Deputy Jackson was, as always, thrilled the mayor called him by his last name, and even more thrilled to be included in anything important enough to interrupt the major’s normal plans. He almost started to walk toward the table.

“Go get Old Mac, will you? Let him know there’s a Shaw Problem, and that Peg is here.”

The deputy swung his leg, which had been about to carry him toward the leathertop, in an arc he was sure looked natural and intended as he began walking toward the door. He heard a thump behind him, and the rustling of pages.

Peg’s voice followed. “There are signs, which ‘Nan Micah made note of back in ’04 here on her rules for boiling poke salad…”

Jensen hurried a bit, to go get Old Mac.

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