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Fiction K23 Side Story

K23 Side Story: Sandworm Rodeo

Yes, this was an actual story!

This story is what spawned that cover!

 

Payol Chincrusher was going to die. The orc was dehydrated and standing in 110-degree heat a few hundred yards from the Meran Ocean, a vast body of water which bordered the Alamaro Wastes. He stumbled over the flat burning sand and collapsed.

This was what happened when you screwed over the Mol Borang, a large hijacking ring that stole millions of credits worth of Barrenlands ore every year. He snitched on them after his bosses refused to give him a fair share, letting the powers that be know when a major heist was planned. Dozens of Mol Borang were killed. In return, the Mol Borang dumped him in the Wastes to die, a far more insidious death than just shooting him.

As his consciousness began to fade, he noticed something odd. There were dozens of eye tentacles poking up a few inches above the sand in a long line parallel to the shore. Payol instantly knew what they belonged to: Brac’tai, the amphibious round tentacle things that spawned in Elemchi’s waterways and then drifted around the world, wherever the ocean currents would take them. A bunch always ended up in New Delta, working for Ashram-Uriah but many never did.

Despite where they were, these Brac’tai were very much alive, as every eye was focused squarely on him.

He was saved.

Brac’tai were living water filters, able to survive in all but the most polluted waterways, their bodies filtering everything but necessary nutrients. Unfortunately for most city-states, using Brac’tai to filter their water was impractical and they would need millions to make any serious difference.

“Help me,” Payol moaned.

A sandy tentacle came out of the ground, wrapped around Payol, and a brac’tai pulled itself up so that its large gaping mouth was flat with the ground, becoming a goblet of cool water, which the brac’tai sponged in. This would be highly embarrassing if anyone saw him, but life was life. He drank.

Then Payol notice the sand that shifted upwards with the brac’tai was wet. This made sense being so close to the water that he could hear the drone of the ocean. Being buried in the sand must have let them gather and conserve water while their skin let them breathe. Still, what they were doing here was somewhat of a mystery. There was nothing here.

The answer came when the ground began to shake and everyone, Bac’tai and orc alike, began to rise out of the sand to massive cheers. The Brac’tai had attached themselves to bumps on the skin of the Alamaro’s sole natural inhabitant: sandworms. Sandworms were hundreds of feet long and slid over and beneath the sand, living off microbes in the sand. They were what made the Alamaro Wastes uninhabitable everywhere but the City of Sands. This was due to the sandworms being unable to pass through rock, a fact which also made sure the worms stayed out of the rest of Hominia.

As the worm rose, the Brac’tai that had saved Payol turned around, and Parol held on for dear life.

He saw that they were towards the front of the worm, where its large gaping mouth was located. Its mouth contained several teeth, which loosened the packed sand at deeper depths for easier digestion. The ingested sand would travel through the worm’s giant stomach and would be expelled out the animal‘s rear end. While they weren’t carnivorous creatures, standing in a worm’s way meant you’d be swallowed, digested and expelled.

The sandworm, once it had surfaced, tilted itself upwards and then slammed back down, to even louder cheers.

Payol began to rock as the worm contracted and relaxed, pulling itself along the ground, the bumps on its flesh giving it traction on the fine sand. The Brac’tai began to slap the worm’s rough skin, causing it to move faster. The rocking turned into a constant vibration as it accelerated.

The Brac’tai then pulled at once to the right and the sandworm turned inland. The wind was now beginning to rush against Payol’s face as the sandworm reached speeds so fast the front of the worm lifted off the sand as it traveled.

The Brac’tai bounced and the sandworm dived into the sand. Payol shut his eyes and held his breath as the sand tore his soaked clothes off his body. His thick orc hide stayed intact, clutching the cool slimy Brac’tai even tighter.

The Brac’tai leaned back and the sandworm rushed up and launched into the air. At the apex the sandworm turned down. For a split-second, Payol was weightless, floating in the air. A rush went to his head.

He began to cry out in joy with the Brac’tai as the worm dived back into the sand, and then launch again.

Up and down, up and down they went, over and over again in an exhilarating ride. How long this lasted he didn’t know, but the ride eventually ended and the worm sank into the sand far enough that Payol was back on the sand.

The City of Sands glistened in the afternoon sun, the worm as close as it would go.

Payol patted the Brac’tai. “Thank you.” They all chirped.  Payol stood up and walked a few feet. Then the sandworm began to rise back up as the brac’tai waved goodbye.

The sand began to burn and Payol dashed towards civilization, food and clothes. The sandworm turned around, taking the Brac’tai back towards the ocean. They would probably just soak up more water and go for another ride or two before heading back into the oceans, departing for other ports of call.

As much Payol wanted to stay with them, he had other things to do, like deal with the Mog Boral and maybe start a business sending tours on sandworm rides.

As he reached the City, an enormous metal box, Payol dismissed the latter idea.

The expense from lost clothes would probably put him out of business.

Fiction K23 Side Story

K23 Side Story: Finality

Every time the clockwork gear clicked in the clock on the mantel along the wall in his study, Alvar Tanner’s heart skipped a beat and his trepidation rose.

14:25:37.

14:25:38.

14:25:39.

His study was silent. He had sent his family away. He wanted to be alone.

14:25:44.

14:25:45.

14:25:46.

The plush armchair he sat in was no longer comforting. His clothes were soaked with sweat.

14:25:58.

14:25:59.

14:26:00.

Four more minutes!

The seconds were counting up to 14:30:00, when he would reach one hundred years and a day…when his time would finally come to an end. He was in great shape at one hundred, looking like he was in his early forties.

That was all thanks to the arcane age-extending treatments he’d paid through the nose for. Every year since his late-twenties, a mage would say a few incantations, inject Alvar with some concoctions and Alvar would physically age at a fifth of his normal rate, starting from the moment of the treatment. Regardless of when one started the treatment, they’d always die at the same age: one hundred years and a day. At that moment, one would suddenly look their age then promptly die. And if they missed a treatment, the years they‘d “skipped“ would instantly catch up with them.

14:26:55.

14:26:56.

14:26:57.

Most who underwent the treatments until a hundred simply sedated themselves so they died in their sleep. Alvar couldn’t sleep. Most underwent the treatments to remain in good health until the end. Alvar underwent the treatments because he feared death. He was terrified of losing all that he had.

14:27:30.

14:27:31.

14:27:32.

Alvar was rich, the owner of a successful aircraft manufacturer called Ansala. He lived in a huge luxury apartment filled with things gathered from his travels over the four continents. He had been married to the love of his life for seventy years, though he had lost her when she hit a hundred and a day a few months before. He had four children, eight grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren.

14:28:00.

14:28:01.

14:28:02.

A Uthiran acquaintance named Baroglong who was pushing eight-hundred told Alvar he was lucky. There was a reason all Uthirans eventually went mad. It was the only way they could deal with the time. His acquaintance was obsessive-compulsive, nearly eating Alvar when he moved a chair out of place in the Uthiran’s warehouse den. Alvar didn’t care, he still wanted to live for a thousand years.

14:28:59.

14:29:00.

14:29:01.

Less than a minute to go. There was nothing anyone could do. The most advanced medical technology in the world would not able to extend his life. Any more treatments were pointless.

14:29:35.

14:29:36.

14:29:37.

His time was up. He could do nothing but reluctantly give in. He held up a small mirror and looked at himself.

14:29:58.

15:29:59.

14:30:00!

The clock chimed on the mantel and continued clicking away, but Alvar didn’t hear it. Alvar had gone deaf. He could no longer see himself; he’d went blind.

His hair fell out. His teeth rotted. His skin wrinkled and sagged. His bones went brittle. He took one last wheezing breath and his heart stopped…

But that was not the end, not yet. His soul had one stop to make on its journey to oblivion. It was a limbo of sorts where all the souls of the sentient went, a place where Thagnar the Dead stripped souls of their attachments to their previous life. It was these attachments which would keep them whole. The souls of plants, insects, microbes and the like skipped this step, as they formed no attachments; most were not even aware they were ever alive at all.

The experience in that limbo was different for each soul, mirroring the life they had lived. For Alvar, he was sitting exactly where he was, still in his forties, but with one small difference. His wife, Osana, stood in front of him looking radiant and beautiful in her prime.

She walked to him and took his hand. “It’ll be ok, Alvar, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Death comes to all things in time. It ‘s the way of the universe.”

“But I didn’t want to go. It’s not fair!” He pulled his hand away.

She bent down and took his head in her heads, forcing him to stare into her sparkling brown eyes. “I didn’t want to die either, but I accepted it and slept through the end. Thagnar allowed me to stay here and take the final steps into nothingness with you.”

He pushed her back. “You’re not Osana! The last thing she did before she took the pills was saying her final goodbyes, leaving no lingering regrets!”

Osana transformed into Thagnar the Dead, a hooded figure with skeletal hands. All one could see of his face was glowing red eyes. “Osana was easy,” the deity said in a deep baritone. “She split apart with little effort.”

Alvar crossed his legs and arms and looked away. “You’re evil!”

Thagnar laughed. “I am not evil. I am necessary, While Illwyn can always form new souls from the infinite energy, without me and the end I bring, life is not worth living. Let me show you something.”

Alvar and the chair found themselves in a massive cavern with a large opening to the outside on a wall and a brook running through it. In the center of the cavern was a humongous blue Uthiran, at least a hundred feet long, curled up on the ground. Its eyes were glazed over. Its mouth hung open, a pool of drool forming on the ground. Occasionally an electric spark traveled over its scales and sent twitches through its wings and tail.

“We are on Uthira, mere moments after you died. No one here can notice your presence as you are now simply divine energy. That Uthiran lying there, named Imsomon, is twenty-five hundred years old, older than New Delta itself. Look at him,” Thagnar pointed a bony finger, “He’s catatonic. The mental stress of seeing empires rise and fall and mountains erode into hills has left his mind fractured and broken. He spends every day sitting in that very spot, staring off into space, growing ever larger and more powerful even though most of him will never move again under his own power.”

Another blue Uthiran two-thirds Imsomon’s size slowly walked in carrying a torn carcass of something. “Dinner, father,” she said to him in Dragon with a soft tone. She put the carcass down, tore off a hunk of meat and slowly chewed it. She pried Imsomon’s mouth open a little further and spit the meat inside. Imsomon swallowed.

“You are watching a daughter’s love for her father, a love that over the millennia-and-a-half of her life has become an obsession. All Thaxia does is care for her catatonic father: Feeding him regurgitated meat; giving him water from the brook; cleaning his orifices and removing his waste. She feeds from the same carcass, drinks from the same water, lives in the same cave. Her identity is his identity.”

“But why?” Alvar asked. “I thought Uthirans stopped dealing with their parents completely after a few centuries.”

“For many that is true; but not for all. Thaxia was the strongest of her brood, the one Imsomon was proud of the most. He took her under his wing and molded her into a strong and powerful dragon even as his mental state deteriorated. She never moved far, and when he finally went completely catatonic a millennia ago—“

“You can’t be serious!” Alvar screamed.

Thaxia began collecting water for him in her jaw.

“It is true,” Thagnar replied. “Imsomon has been laying here and Thaxia has been caring for him in the exact same way for the last three-hundred sixty-five thousand days… give or take a thousand or two.”

Thaxia was holding her father’s jaw up as she poured water down his throat.

Thagnar continued, “When he dies, she will die as well. Her purpose for living this long will be gone.”

Alvar put his head in his hands. If he could cry he would. “Stop this! I don’t want to see it anymore!”

Thangar waved his hand and Alvar’s face turned to look at the Uthirans. Thaxia walked back to the brook to collect more water.

“No. You must that learn that the longer you live beyond your time, the more of a relic and a burden you become. They have both lived long beyond their time, stuck in an endless cycle of repetition because there is nothing else. But do not worry, I have shown you them because that seemingly infinite cycle of days is not infinite after all.”

Thaxia came back with a second mouthful, but let it splash on the ground when she felt no breath. Imsomom’s body was limp. His eyes were closed. There were no more sparks. Thaxia sniffed and nudged her father a few times. She let out a pathetic roar and collapsed next to him. Her breathing slowed, and then stopped.

The cavern vanished and Alvar stood in a black void with Thagnar in front of him. The deity extended his hand. “So now do you understand why all things must come to an end?”

Alvar nodded. “Yes, I do. My life ended when it was still very good. I am glad that I have lived a long and fulfilling existence. My time has passed.”

He took Thagnar’s hand.

In an instant Alvar Tanner ceased to exist. His soul was decimated, his existence no more. His soul’s energy was now in Illwyn’s care. She would form it into a completely new soul which would give life to someone yet to be born.

Fiction K23 Side Story

K23 Side Story: Tell the Big Girls to Shove It

The follow story contains frank discussions of tampon usage. Reader discretion is advised.

—-

Matro Barkley didn’t choose feminine hygiene, feminine hygiene choose him. The various choices and events that had led him to be the CEO of Temple Products, which specialized in feminine hygiene products, was ultimately less important than the fact that he was good at his job.

After taking huge shares of the market for products aimed at women of seven out of the eight hominid races, it was time he conquered the last untapped and most challenging market: female ogres.

There were two problems with selling to them. First, most existing pads and tampons were too puny for ogres notoriously monstrous periods. But teaming up with Cybrix Technologies and Biogenomics, Temple had a developed line of tampons and pads called Big Girl, which was made out of materials routinely used to soak up Deltan sludge. While other hominids couldn’t use Big Girl without getting toxic shock syndrome, even trolls, it was perfect for ogres. The second problem was a little harder to overcome, as most ogres were dumb as rocks. Selling them anything was difficult, selling them intimate products was nearly insurmountable as they never grasped the point of half the stuff they were being sold.

To help solve this, he turned to his vice presidents of development and marketing, two human women named Calida Reine and Lola Mchugh. Calida had gotten her PHD in product design creating a moldable pad, unmarketable and uncomfortable, but it was ingenious enough for Matro to snatch her up. Lola was a marketing veteran could find a way to sell just about anything if given the time and the resources.

One morning, Matro sat with the women in a brightly lit, pastel colored conference room eager to hear the results of the extensive product testing they had done. Matro sat on one side of the table, the two women sat on the other.

“The pads are fine and ready for market,” Lola said. “The tampons, however, presented a problem.” She took off her glasses and stared right at him in her matter-of-fact style. “Almost all of the testers were too dumb to understand the instructions.”

Matro winced slightly. “Go on.”

Calida reached down into her bag sitting on the floor next to her. She brought up a Big Girl Tampon box, which featured a smiling ogre on the front. She then brought out the instructions insert and read it: “’Hold the applicator at the grip location with your thumb and middle finger. Remember to keep your pointer finger away from the applicator. With the removal string hanging down, insert the applicator into your vaginal opening at a slight upward angle—‘ Too complicated with too many steps. We went back and figured out the tampons are sturdy enough not to need an applicator. Therefore, in the second batch of samples, we removed the applicator from the box and condensed the instructions to one sentence. Every tester in the second batch used them correctly.”

“I understand not needing the applicators, but how could you still write tampon instructions in one sentence?” Matro asked.

Calida handed him a second sheet. Matro read it, and sweat started forming on his forehead. He crumpled it. “I’m canceling the product and will take the loss.”

“But Matro,” Lola said, “It works, they’ll buy it and you’ll make tons of money. Who cares what the instructions read?”

“I’m not selling a product with  instructions that read,“ he un-crumpled the sheet and cleared his throat, ”’Shove the tampon up your cunt when blood comes out.’” Matro wadded the paper up and tossed it. ”I’ll be the laughing stock of the industry.”

“Our competitors will shut up once they see the sales,” Lola said. “Besides, the instructions are a blunt way of saying what women already do.” Lola and Calida exchanged glances.

“Why not go home and ask your wife and daughters what they do with their tampons,” Calida added, “and then make a decision.”

Matro remembered his home life and said, “My daughters would tell me…” he groaned. “Never mind.” He stood up. “Great work, I’m glad I have you two around.”

Matro now respected ogres. They didn’t dance around the obvious with technical language and jargon. They only understood the blunt truth. His competitors were all too considerate, and that was why no one had tapped the market before. Matro was going to make huge amounts of money being shameless, if just this time.

—-

Read this and sixteen brand new short stories in Sandworm Rodeo!

K23 Side Story

K23 Side Story: 36 Hours in Gruck

36 Hours in Gruck

 

The following is the journal written on a screen found next to the half-eaten corpse of Teolian diplomatic aide Reitherl Durndavel.

 

5/22 17:22

 

Arrived in Gruck on the once-a-day shuttle from New Delta. High Mage Fillion wants me to report on the current state of Gruck for possible reopening of diplomatic channels, a routine affair that happens every few years. Kurwin is an idiot for even sending me. I don’t have to go to Gruck to know that the answer is still no. But I have a job to do and I’ll do it. So I’ll spend the next day and a half in Gruck and take the 5/24 morning shuttle back to New Delta…if I live that long.

I’d love to stay in the shuttleport, but it offers no amenities of any kind and the guards clear it and lock it down at 18:00.

 

5/22 19:30

 

Quickly found my guide waiting by the exit. He’s a goblin shaman named Nugri. Nice fellow, very smart, not your usual goblin. Told me to summon on rags instead of my robes, makes me less of a target. He led me into Gruck proper.

Gruck is a disgusting, filth ridden sewer, as usual. The swamps of the Ogunlands don’t stop at the Gruck city limits, they flow right through. Everything and everyone is covered in mud. Most dwellings are animal skin tents or crude stick huts. I even saw some ogres not bothering with dwellings at all and just living out in the open air.

I saw one ogre beat another ogre unconscious for a piece of meat. I asked Nugri if the perpetrator will be brought to justice. He said no. The ogres didn’t have a justice system. The goblins used shamanism as a means of distributing justice, but they weren’t about to impose order on beasts twice their size.

I also saw my first ogre female. One really doesn’t get a sense of how hideous they are until you see one fornicating with a male in full view. She was on top, her mud-adorned rolls of flab jiggling as she ground against her mate, her sharpened tusks glistening with sweat and drool.  Nugri said that despite being “cauldrons of blubber,” females could still rip me apart.  He added that when a male rips your head off, it’s one quick clean jerk…but when a female rips your head off, it takes a few tugs, making your death all the more agonizing.

He led me into a goblin section, which was surprisingly less disgusting, if only because the goblins go to the bathroom in designated channels where the water moves the sewage away from the area. Disease is still rampant, however.

Saw a goblin with cholera. There hasn’t been a case of that in Teolos in a few millennia. Poor fellow, nothing I could do.

Nugri lives in a one room stick hut with his mate and four kids. It’s cramped, it’s dirty, but with no economy to speak of here, there’s no way to get the materials to make a better dwelling.

I’m currently waiting for dinner of smelly bread and ham to be prepared by Nugri’s mate. Everyone lives with their dinner, hogs and chickens run free, crops growing right outside. Predators run free too. I saw an alligator lounging around not far from here. Hopefully it won’t come after me.

 

5/22 21:00

 

Dinner was pretty bad but it was food. Hopefully the inn I’m staying at nearby with have some tastier treats. Somehow I doubt it.

I asked Nugri why everyone didn’t seem to be starving to death. He replied that there were goblins starving to death, they didn’t just live in this section of Gruck. He could take to me see them if I wanted to. I declined.

I followed up with questions about the predators. He and his mate looked sad. That particular alligator I had seen nearby had been there for years and had ate one of his children the previous year. He didn’t try to kill it because another one would take its place. No real point to it.

Have to stop writing now. Nugri is going to take me to the inn.

 

5/23 02:04

 

I can’t sleep. This isn’t a real inn, it’s a bunch of crappy tents with a crude fence around it and a fire pit in the middle. There’s no mattress, no pillows, only a ratty blanket and no floor. It’s hot, I’m covered in mud, flies are buzzing me and there’s no shower in sight. I was told to just shit where I stood; at least I had the decency to go behind a tree.  I could magically wash myself and summon an outhouse, but I’d just get caked up again in ten minutes and chances are some constipated ogre would make the outhouse usable only once.

Outside the tent right now, I can hear faraway screams as a goblin gets devoured by something. Much closer I can hear the groans and moans of yet another pair of ogres fornicating in public. That term is relative, naturally, because there doesn’t seem to be much privacy in Gruck.

At least they had roasted pig, which tasted better than the slop served at Nugri’s hovel. They also had beer, which tasted like riding dragon piss, but it wasn’t potentially toxic like the water.

I ate my food with the only other guest staying there, a Cybrix salesman from New Delta named Alberto. Like my superiors, every couple of years Cybrix Techonologies sends people to Gruck to see if they’re in a state worth dealing with, such as selling much-needed technology like water filtration systems.

Alberto had been there for two days already and looked like one of the natives with the mud caked to every part of his body. He told me nobody here had any money, everyone either bartered or just took what they needed. He was headed back to New Delta in the morning to tell his superiors a firm “not now, not ever!” He was so relieved to leave he was almost giddy.

I wish I was heading back, but I still have so many hours to go.

 

5/23 08:30

 

Slept terribly. Breakfast of more roast pig. An ogre is coming to show me around the ogre parts, this should be interesting…

 

5/23 10:00

 

My ogre guide is Grogg the Bright, the younger brother of the late Trogg the Genius, famous for being the world’s smartest ogre. Grogg seemed as intelligent as his brother, though this was never proven since Grogg never saw much point in moving out of Gruck. Grogg said that he was entertaining an offer from Academics Incorporated to become a professor at New Delta University. Apparently, Trogg’s departure and subsequent death helped the department because it meant New Delta University had to go looking for professors, which they didn’t really do under Trogg’s tenure. They had already one professor, Trogg’s troll female replacement, and were courting at least two others besides Grogg. Grogg’s niece, Gamie the Wave, had already decided she wanted to be an Ogre Studies major and would probably become a professor herself in a few years.

I then changed the subject to Grogg’s relationship with Trogg. Grogg said that while Trogg was in Gruck quite frequently they weren’t close. The reason was that Trogg believed his less intelligent peers survived out of sheer brute force. Take that out and they were not fit to survive. Trogg had created Ogre Studies in order to create an ogre culture where none had existed.

Grogg saw things differently. While their family was rare among ogres because of their intelligence that didn’t mean they were superior, just different.  After all, if they were superior, then evolution would’ve selected their intelligence to be common among ogres. Obviously, it had not.

5/23 14:00

 

Saw my first ogre children. They were… monstrous. Ogre newborns weighed thirty pounds, male or female. Seven years old girls were five-foot-five, as tall as I am; boys were six feet tall. Ogre play consists running around and hitting thing with sticks, which was what the adults did as well.

Saw the ogres’ food source: log pens filled with pigs, chickens and giant toads. They were communal property as ogres just took for themselves and kept predators and goblins away. The goblins who attempted to take from the pens were starving. They had been shunned – mostly those who disobeyed the shamans or harmed others.

This was not what I expected and will bring it up when I meet with Nurgi later.

After that, we went to the closest thing Gruck has to a government, an ogre warlord named Bor the King. Bor lived in a large circular hut made of mud, and animal skin and bone. He sat on a throne of bone with a crown of bone, wielding a bone scepter.

Bor didn’t do anything at all. He wasn’t even a figurehead in almost all respects. He and the previous warlords were simply there so Gruck could be considered a city-state, since they had to have a government.

When I showed up, we quickly left because Bor was drunk and babbled incoherently on the throne. Grogg assured me that he wasn’t always like that. I wasn’t entirely convinced.

We just finished a lunch of grilled giant toad. Not bad….

 

5/23 17:40

 

After I finished writing the last journal entry Grogg took me to the Temple of Thagnar. Grogg took his leave there as he had to dig up his screen out of the mud underneath his tent and contact NDU for more contract negotiations.

The temple was maintained by a group of mixed-gender troll priests. It was the most ornate structure in Gruck. It was made of imported stone and had electricity and water filtration. They made you take a shower and wash off the mud before you entered. I was shocked.

Unfortunately, despite how nice the temple was, the ogres needed to be reminded to use it, otherwise they wouldn’t. Grogg said before he left that ogres didn’t see the point. Doing so didn’t give them food, drink or sex. Why Thagnar would choose to patronize a race that didn’t care to engage him is beyond anyone…but deities are mysterious entities.

The main patrons of the temple were goblins since shamen regularly studied and practiced there. The trolls even let them keep their parchment scrolls in the temple library for safekeeping.

It was there that I found Nurgi again. He was training a group of girls, one of them being a daughter of his I had met the previous evening. The rest were other girls that had come to Nurgi after a dream told them to.

They were all sitting perfectly still, attuning their bodies to transmit and receive messages from Ulax, the All-Seeing, the foundation of shamanism. Nurgi said they would be like that for a while, so we had some time to talk.

The training of girls was a brand new phenomenon, thanks to Eluna, the only full-fledged female shaman alive and the last of the Te line.  Eluna was well known in Gruck, primarily because it was the current shamen who ran her out of town on a shuttle after her father died.  Nurgi expressed regret, stating that at the time shamen would rather let an entire shamanistic line go extinct than let a female practice. After another shaman shared what Eluna’s experiences were like, everyone quickly changed their minds and now shamanism has a real chance of reviving.

I asked if he thought Eluna would train more to carry on her line. Nurgi assumed so, but since he didn’t know her personally he couldn’t say for sure.

I then asked about the starving goblins and why he didn’t mention they were criminals. He said it was because I never asked why they were starving.

The girls came out of trances and Nurgi asked what they saw. The each said that Ulax showed them random vision of people and places. They described these scenes in extreme detail, including my apartment, right down to the blue and red sofa with flower patterns sitting in front of a tapestry showing a unicorn. These girls really were future shamen.

Nurgi praised them and they went back into another trance.

 

5/23 22:00

 

Nurgi and the girls left about 18:00. Spent the rest of the evening guests of the trolls at the temple learning about Thagnar worship. Contrary to what I thought, Thagnar worship is surprisingly bright, putting a focus on this world and the pleasures in it because they’re gone once we die. There was a joke among the priests that orgies were a religious ritual. I didn’t ask if they engaged in orgies and I honestly did not want to know.

I now, however, think that while ogres don’t actively worship Thagnar, the constant drinking and fornicating I saw was the Ogres honoring Thagnar even if it wasn’t official.

A troll priest brought me back to the inn. I would’ve loved to stay at the temple but the priests allowed no overnight guests in order to avoid setting a bad precedent.

Grogg messaged me an hour ago and said he’ll take me to the shuttle in the morning instead of Nurgi as he’s going to New Delta himself, having reached a deal this afternoon.

I’ll finish up and give my recommendation then.

 

That was the end of the journal entries. Around 04:30 on the morning of 5/24, an alligator snuck into Reitherl’s tent while he was sleeping and ate everything but his legs. Grogg the Bright took the screen to New Delta, where he gave it the Teolian Embassy. Upon receiving it, Teolos once again decided to ignore Gruck for the time being.

Hominia Map

Check out the rest of the K23 Side Stories and K23 novellas

K23 Side Story

K23 Side Story: The Kobolds and the Cubes

Alba Mendez led his fleet of trucks along a barely visible road in the Kobold Steppes, the highland plain at the southern end of the Cromag Range. It was the early morning and the kobolds now occupying the land he wanted would still be sedentary, so it would be easy to find them and give them their eviction notice.

Up ahead, he could see a large mound in the road. “There’s an ant hill up ahead,” he said to his driver. The human nodded and took a long circular route around through the grass, which the others followed. Last thing they would want to deal with was a swarm of angry giant ants.

Despite its reputation as cold and desolate, the Kobold Steppes most of the year was the opposite, full of tall grasses and populated with various fauna, including foxes, antelope, buffalo,  gryphons, giant insects and various types of oozes. The dominant intelligent specie was the kobold; large, bipedal and highly intelligent grey wolves. Most led a nomadic life, though many lived in Tirkvah, the only permanent kobold settlement, which revolved around their biggest export, cooked gelatinous cube gel. It was nutritious, delicious and a beloved dessert all around Hominia.

Gelatinous cubes were the only ooze that had been domesticated.  Starting in the third month of the year, several groups of gel-herding kobolds would drive a single cube via fire behind the buffalo and sheep nomads. As the cube ate the herd’s waste, it would grow and split and so in the eleventh month the gel nomads would be driving thousands of cubes per group. The groups would bring the cubes into Tirkvah, where in the winter months, the cubes would be killed in giant kilns. Once dead, the gel became loose and runny. The gel would be bottled and sold in large markets where various hominid buyers would pay top credit for it.

It was an ancient way of life that was hadn’t changed since long before the start of recorded history. In prehistoric times, the kobolds simply kept the gel for themselves. Now, most was exported, and afforded the kobolds relative luxury. Tents became alcohol-powered trailers and torches became flame-throwers.

And where there was wealth, there were greedy people looking to steal it, like Alba Mendez, representing a group of wealthy New Deltan investors who wanted to mass market cooked cube gel. His plan was simple. First, he would evict the kobolds from their native lands. Then they would fence in the area and farm a stationary herd of buffalo and just send the cubes behind the herd and continually kill of the cubes to keep them manageable. This idea was so obvious; he was shocked the kobolds never tried it. While Alba would have loved to just send a bunch of cubes to the more accessible Deltan plains, due to the soil and climate the cubes would  die within a day or two and the gel would be inedible. They had to be farmed on the Steppes.

Finally, Alba had the kobold group in sight. As he suspected, the small caravan was stationary, a dozen trailers circled in front of a massive herd of a few hundred cubes in a large flattened area. The cubes were all clear, silent and just shimmered in the early morning air. The cubes were of various sizes, depending on how many other cubes a cube ended up absorbing, the average was about four feet to a side. While some worried about eating shit-fed gel, the truth was the cubes would eat anything, including unlucky kobolds, and all would be digested within hours, even the bacteria. The only thing the cubes didn’t eat was grass, which they simply flattened as they moved over it. The ecosystem relied on this.

Alba had his trucks form a semi-circle, pinning the kobolds against the herd. Alba then put on his wide brim hat and beige jacket and stepped out of his truck, slinging a laser rifle over his back. The rest of his crew were a mixture of ogres, dwarves and humans, all hardy, all armed to the teeth with guns and grenades.

Alba looked around and spotted the kobold males running through the cube herds on all fours with the flame throwers strapped to their back, doing a quick count of the herd. The females and the pups were in the trailers. Pregnant females or those with pups rode in the trailers when on the move, while non-mothering females also tended to the herd while not doing household chores. Right then, the females were cleaning up after a breakfast of dried buffalo and lamb meat as leftovers, solid waste and other garbage were being tossed out to the herd, with the lucky cubes getting an early meal.

Alba stepped forward and whistled. Doors and windows opened and females and pups peered out.  The males among the cubes came forth. When all the kobolds were looking at him, Alba said, “This is our land and our cube herd now. Get back in your trailers and leave or we’ll be forced to open fire.”

The kobolds laughed, which sounded like quick, rapid howling.

The largest kobold, the alpha male, stood up and walked over on two legs. His bumpy grey fur was streaked with silver. His face was scarred from years of hardship and danger.

“IF you want our property,” he said, “you need to only pass a simple test.” Kobolds spoke in barks, growls and howls, but could understand hominids and hominids could understand them.

“And what test is that?”

The alpha howled. Another male drove towards Alba a tiny cube, one foot to a side, with small controlled jets of flame from his thrower. The male shot the flame at a steep angle, hitting the dirt directly behind the cube, sending it forward. A female walked out of a trailer with a lit torch.

“See that boulder over there?” The alpha pointed southwest to a large boulder sticking out of the grass. “Drive the cube over there and bring it back. If you can do so, the herd is yours.”

While the ogres in his group might fall for this if they could understand the bipedal wolves, Alba wasn’t that stupid. Alba raised his arm and his group leveled their guns at the kobolds. “I don’t like being tricked.”

“No trick,” the alpha said. “This is how pups learn to control the cubes. If you do not know how to control one small cube, then you stand no chance of driving a herd of much larger cubes.”

The kobold did have a point. “I’ll take your challenge.” Alba dropped his rifle and took the torch. The kobolds and the hominids stepped back, leaving just him and the mindless but living gel.

Alba had read up on cube herding before he came. First, one never, ever touched a cube for any reason at all. If you did, it would suck them in and devour them. While the cube he had to take to the bolder was too small to eat his entire body, it could eat his hand off. Second, the cube would always move in the exact opposite direction of the flame. Third, one must control the flame with finesse, or it would light the grassland on fire, especially during the dry months.

Alba swung his torch low to the ground. The cube sprung into the air, rotated over his head and landed behind him with a nice loud splat. Maybe he didn’t do it right.

Alba bent down and slowly pushed the torch forward. The cube slid to the left and circled around his body.

The kobolds broke out in laughter. “Now do you understand?” The alpha said.

Alba groaned. “I’m new at this, give me a minute.”

Alba bent down again. This time he blew into the flame, sending it billowing out. The cube went the bolder. He continued blowing the cube forward, even into the tall grass. Eventually, he made it to the boulder. The herd would be his in no time.

But then he heard screaming and turned around. The herd had congealed into a humongous cube at least fifty feet high. His men turned and ran in terror. The cube spilled in an arc over the trailers and kobolds and landed directly on top of them and the trucks, doubling in volume as the gel enveloped Alba’s entire entourage.

His men flailed in the goo, but quickly went still and started to float. Everything inside the living gel would slowly disintegrate in full view.

Alba tossed the torch against the bolder, which the boulder enveloped. The boulder wasn’t a rock at all, but a mass of brown pudding ooze. The ooze shot through the air and surrounded Alba, crushing him to death. Then the ooze began to devour Alba’s remains.

The small cube returned to the kobolds and joined the massive cube.

The kobolds howled and danced in victory and would enjoy a nice day of rest while the cube ate its prey and then split apart back into smaller cubes.

Hominids who tried to steal the cubes always fell victim in the same way. The cube to boulder trick had worked for millennia as the hominids never learned. This was because the hominids never respected the cubes, treating them simply as a commodity, not a living creature to be respected and cared for. The kobolds might have killed most of the cubes at the end of the year, but it was the way to keep the environment alive.

Without someone to tend the cubes, the most powerful of the oozes, the Steppes would become a lifeless wasteland in a matter of a few years at most, with even the grass being devoured. The greedy hominids always claimed they wouldn’t let that happen, keep the environment healthy, but the toxic sludge fed by trash and the dead at the bottom of the New Deltan towers proved otherwise. The kobolds never visited New Delta for that reason.

But the kobolds didn’t direct the cubes to kill the greedy; the cubes did in on their own. The cubes might not have had a brain like other creatures did, but they weren’t stupid. They benefited from the symbiotic relationship as much as the kobolds did. They somehow knew that if they killed the environment, they would die along with it.

Alba Mendez wasn’t the first greedy hominid to die, nor would he be the last.

The circle of life would continue without him.

Other Random Stories

Death by Slots

Final Story in Death by Trilogy. First is Death by Snood second is Death By Sudoku. Written in June 2006.

“Go ahead, Mister Duncan… pull the lever.”

FBI Special Agent Charles Duncan stared at the Lucky Sevens slot machine as the Puzzle Bomber looked intently at him.

It had finally come to this. They were standing in an old chemical factory, on a grated walkway, near a giant vat of acid, fifteen feet above which was hanging the bound-and-gagged form of Marlene Davis, Charles’s co-worker and now love interest.

It had been several months since the Puzzle Bomber had trapped Charles in an abandoned toy factory and tortured him with a giant Sudoku game. There, Charles had managed to confront his nemesis face-to-face, but the Bomber had escaped.

In the intervening months, he had tried to find the Bomber, since his real identity was known, but the Bomber proved as elusive as ever and seemed to be laying low,  as  he usually did.  Surprisingly, however, the Bomber (real name Mark Watkins) had slipped to the back of his mind, as he took up a romance with Marlene, a co-worker who had helped him on a Bomber case before being assigned elsewhere.

Then, the previous night, he had gotten a call from the Bomber, saying that he had kidnapped Marlene from her apartment, that he was holding her hostage, and that Charles had to come to the factory alone. Suddenly all the rage, all the determination that had spurred Charles to find his nemesis returned, and there they were.

Charles scowled. “What’s the trick this time?”

The Bomber nodded. “No trick. Simply pull the lever, and we’ll decide your lover’s fate.”

Charles drew his gun and pointed it at the Bomber. “There’s no payout sign anywhere on the machine. How do I know you won’t just make up the odds?”

“Have I ever done anything like that?” The Bomber extracted a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to Charles.

Charles put his gun away and looked at it. As with all slot machines, there was always a house edge. The most common payout, three cherries, meant both Marlene and Charles would die; three lemons meant just Marlene would die. Three bells meant Marlene would drop a foot and Charles could spin again. Three bars meant Marlene would go free, but so would the Bomber. Finally, three lucky sevens, the most uncommon, meant Marlene would go free and the Bomber would turn himself in. No payout meant Charles would spin again.

Odds like this made Charles’s adrenaline rush. Games and puzzles in which the outcome netted real-world consequences. The next game, the next rush… that was what had driven Charles for fifteen years. The Bomber wanted to finish their little mind-game, Charles knew it, and so the Bomber had picked a game of pure chance to taunt him with his girlfriend’s life on the line.

Charles looked up at Marlene. She stared down at him, with fear in her eyes. He took a deep breath, reached out, took the knob in his fist, and pulled the lever. The reels began to spin. Two cherries put him on edge, but a bell made him sigh relief.

“Again,” the Bomber said.

Charles pulled. Three bells. The mechanical winch rumbled; Marlene let out a muffled shriek as she lowered a foot. She was now fourteen feet above the acid.

“Again,” the Bomber said.

Three bells. Thirteen feet.

Again.”

Three bells. Twelve feet.

Charles pulled out his gun again. “You rigged the machine!”

The Bomber sighed. “I haven’t rigged the machine at all.”

Charles squinted at what he could see of the reels, and then he realized the order of the payouts on the sheet did not correspond to the reels. There were mostly bells on them.

Rage filled Charles. The Bomber played by the rules, all right – his rules. Rules designed to madden, and throw you off. There was a twisted genius in the insanity.

“Pull the lever, Mr. Duncan,” the Bomber said.

Charles pulled. One seven. A second seven. The reel slowed; he could tell it would stop one symbol past the seven. He remembered something Marlene said a few months back, after the toy factory incident: “It doesn’t hurt to cheat!”

Charles fired a shot into the machine, forcing the machine to stop the reel on the third seven. The slot machine buzzed and whirred; the winch moved Marlene out from over the acid and began to lower her to the floor.

“You cheated!” The Bomber jumped up and down in anger.

“I know I did. And it’s about time.”

The Bomber backed up along the walkway. “I’m not going to turn myself in! I won’t! You cheated!

Charles pulled the safety back. “And you don’t? All these years you fudged the rules to suit your own ends. Either you win, or if you lose, you still win. Why can’t we play one game by my rules?”

“Because I’m the master and you are the player!” The Bomber seemed to palm something. “The game’s not over till I say it is!”

Charles pulled the trigger.

The Puzzle Bomber fell over, dead.

“Game Over!”

An anti-climatic end for sure, but strangely, kind of fitting. Charles had always fantasized that the Bomber would die at the end of a climatic bare-knuckled brawl inside some strange game of his, but in the end, the Bomber had died simply and cleanly with a gunshot to the forehead. How ironic.

Charles pocketed the throwing star in the Bomber’s hand, and then shut his eyelids.  He’d call in the boys to pick up the corpse soon.

Charles then walked down off the walkway and untied Marlene. She immediately hugged him tightly. “Now that he’s dead,” she whispered, “let’s get married and take a honeymoon in Las Vegas.”

Charles chuckled. “Still as funny as ever… but I think I’ll stay away from games for now. I’ve had enough to last a lifetime.” He kissed her. “Let me call the office and then we’ll go home.”

The game was now finished but, while there should a have been a hole in his life where the Bomber was, there was only peace. Now he would marry Marlene, settle down and father a child or two – his rightful reward for a game well played.

The Bomber would fade away into history, brought up in criminal justice classes once in a while, but still games would always be played, as they were indeed serious business, but not too serious, not ever again.

___

I ever reset and revisit this story, it’ll only be in the form of an Interactive Fiction, as it should be!

Other Random Stories

Death by Sudoku

This is the second of the Death by Trilogy, written in February 2006. The first is Death by Snood, third is Death by Slots.

Special agent Charles Duncan awoke to find himself in a chair in a small square room with concrete walls and flooring. In front of him was a table upon which was placed laptop with a cable running into a wall, a sandwich and a bottle of water.

His head was pounding, so he took the bottle and started to gulp it when a soft, soothing voice said, “I wouldn’t waste it, Mr. Duncan, because that’s all you’re going to get.”

Charles spit some of it back into the bottle and coughed. He started to remember what happened.

He had gotten an anonymous tip as to the whereabouts of the Puzzle Bomber, the crazed genius who held the world hostage via sadistic games, whom he had been chasing for fourteen years. The Bomber had lain quiet since he hooked a game of snood up to a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles the spring before.

The tip, given by a distorted voice who he now knew was the Bomber himself, told him to go an abandoned toy factory on the outskirts of Baltimore. Although his colleagues had suggested back-up, he insisted to go alone. The Bomber was going to be his catch, and his alone. He was walking through an old assembly line when he was hit from behind and blacked out.

Maybe he should have accepted backup.

Charles looked around the room but saw nothing except a door and a small camera and speaker in one corner of the ceiling. He felt his coat pocket and found that his badge and gun were gone.

“Who are you?” Charles asked.

“You know who I am, Mr. Duncan.”

“The Puzzle Bomber?”

“The one and only,” The Bomber said.

Charles stood. “You’ve made a mistake revealing yourself.”

The bomber chuckled. “I have made many mistakes in my life, but when it comes to games, I don’t make mistakes.”
”You have crawled out of the shadows,” Charles called.

“Look around, Mr. Duncan. I’m not the one stuck in a room with only a little food and water and in order to leave, must solve the puzzle on the laptop. There is no time limit, no bombs if you fail. You can try as many times as you like, you just stay here till you do.”

Charles sat back down and clicked the laptop on. The screen showed a grid of nine squares divided into nine little squares. In a few of the little squares, there were numbers. He recognized it as a Sudoku puzzle, the latest fad in puzzles.

A book of Sudoku was on the bestsellers list. Every newspaper had one a day… Charles was also a fan of it. In order to win, in each large square, each little square must have one through nine, non-repeating. To complicate things, each column and row must have one through nine, non-repeating.

“The will be easy,” Charles said.

“Oh really?”

“Yes.”

He cracked his knuckles and within ten minutes, the puzzle was solved. He heard the door unlock.

Charles laughed. “It was too easy.”

“I guess it was, Mr. Duncan,” the Bomber said.

Charles ate the sandwich, which was peanut butter and jelly, and finished the water. He brushed himself off and triumphantly strode through the door into the next room, where his heart sunk to his toes.

This room was much larger than last. On the floor was a Sudoku grid with some numbers filled in. Placed on the wall were nine sets of plastic ones through nines. There were two doors out of this room.

“You bastard,” Charles yelled. “You said I could leave!”

“I never said that you’d be done if you won, Mr. Duncan. I only said that you could leave that particular room. Now, solve this puzzle.”

He grumbled and started to walk over towards the wall of numbers, but he stopped. How many games would he have to play?

“Why are you doing this?” Charles ripped off his coat and flung it across the room.

“Because you wanted me to, Mr. Duncan.” Charles clenched his teeth and fists. “Why are you mad Mr. Duncan? I know you’ve wanted to have a showdown with me for years, man to man, a test of wits, just like in thrillers, Mr. Duncan.”

“Fuck you,” Charles muttered.

The Bomber laughed. “I’ve been watching you, Mr. Duncan. I’ve watched your life spiral downward as I’ve consumed your every waking moment. Your wife divorced you because you spent more time playing games than playing with her in bed. You do nothing else except train yourself to play my puzzles, beat me for the last time, but I’m always one step ahead of you. You live for the next puzzle I present and nothing else.

I remember the rage in you when your partner failed to triple-A Legend of the Max by one arrow and the Dance, Dance, Revolution machine exploded, taking him with it. I know that when that hick solved the game of Snood last spring, you weren’t satisfied because I was still at large.

So here we are: you and me in a giant game of Sudoku. This is what you wanted, have always wanted, so don’t be mad at me for giving you what you want, Mr. Duncan.”

Charles slowly looked up at the place the voice was coming from. “Who are you?” Charles yelled.

Despite the Bomber getting inside his head, Charles knew very little about who he actually was, other than being a very smart male. The Bomber always had always stayed hidden in plain sight, always placing his puzzles in public areas, but no one remembering to have seen him.

“Why does it matter, Mr. Duncan?” the Bomber replied. “To me, it’s not about recognition; otherwise, I’d have left little clues to my identity at the scenes. To me, this is about discovery the true nature of games and puzzles… You know, I’ve changed my mind, we’re not going to play this game.” A door to Charles’s left unlocked.

Charles turned and just looked at door dumbfounded. The Bomber has never shut off a puzzle in the middle of it.

“Go ahead, Mr. Duncan, go through. Don’t worry; there is a puzzle on the other side. However, I should say its different kind of puzzle.”

Charles muttered under his breath as he slowly walked through the unlocked doorway.

The next room was a small rectangle. In front of him were three doors, painted red, blue and green.

Charles flailed his arms around. “What the hell is this? You’ve lost your touch, Bomber.”

“Have I? I created this in the instance you didn’t want to play the giant Sudoku puzzle, which I figured you would have. A pity, really, because the other door was the exit. In fact that puzzle was even easier than the one you actually solved.” The Bomber had not lost his touch.

Charles turned around to see the he came in through slam shut and lock. He slowly turned back to the three doors.

The Bomber continued, “Here you have a choice, Mr. Duncan. One door leads to the exit. Another door leads to a game of minesweeper with real mines and the final door leads to where I am.” Charles scratched his head. “But to complicate things, I’ll tell you which door leads where. The red door leads to Minesweeper, the blue door is the exit and the green door leads to me. I don’t lie, so which one will you choose? Will you leave to face me another day? Will you play another one of my games? Or will you finally find out who I am? Choose wisely.”

Charles thought hard, this was not an easy choice. He loved the games and the trill, the Bomber was right, he decided. Charles was also tired and wanted to leave. The Puzzle Bomber, though, was there and just beyond the green door. Despite not having is didn’t have his gun, backup, or even handcuff, the green door beckoned. He would finally meet his rival.

Charles opened the green door and stepped through into a dusty stair case, the door locked as it shut. He slowly walked up and into a large room.

In the center of it was a chess table with two chairs. Shelves lined the walls filled with puzzles and games of various types. Sitting in back at a large computer console, was a short, stout, man in his late forties. He was wearing a lab coat with a flower in it and glasses. He spun around, stood and motioned to the chess table.

“Let us play,” the Bomber said.

Charles nodded and sat down across from the Bomber.

“You are white,” the Bomber said. “Begin.”

Charles said nothing and moved his King’s pawn out two squares.

After a few minutes of playing in silence, the Bomber spoke, “I love chess. I think it’s the perfect game.” He moved, Charles moved. “Two sides of equal pieces. The rules are simple, each piece moves in a particular way. The Knight moves in an L shape. The bishop moves diagonally. The pawn moves one or two spaces to start; then one space along the column; and diagonally to capture. But yet, with-in its simple elegance is an endless complexity that I love.” The Bomber moved.

Charles moved a knight, and then stared directly at the Bomber. “Why do you do this? How do you even get the money for to do the things you do?”

“My family owned this factory and made a fair bit of money when they sold out to a conglomerate. I was an only child and inherited millions. I have it invested well and it’s more than enough to pay for this hobby.” The bomber moved.

Charles slammed his fist down, the pieces jumped off the table. “How is this a hobby? How is holding people hostage, setting up sadistic games a hobby?”

The Bomber adjusted his glasses. “I’m sorry; to me this isn’t a hobby. But to most people games are a hobby, a diversion. I want to make people treat then as more than just a diversion. Oh, by the way, that last move was check mate.”

“What?” Charles looked down at the board. Check mate.

He screamed, knocked the table over, grabbed and started to choke the bomber. “I’ll kill you!”

“Go ahead,” the Bomber wheezed, “Kill me, and your life will be empty.” He kicked Charles in the balls. “You need me.”

Charles stumbled back. The Bomber’s flower squirted water into Charles’s eye and he tripped over his chair and was stunned.

The Bomber ran over to the shelf. “From now on, you will follow my rules or pay the consequences, Mr. Duncan. Good day.”

He pulled something and the shelf rotated around, and the Bomber was gone. Charles stood and flung stuff off the shelf, but nothing seemed to make it move.

The Bomber, who was in his grasp, had escaped. Charles found his gun and badge on a shelf, and pressed a button on the console that unlocked all the doors. He would bring agents over here to search this place completely tomorrow.

He walked out of the factory to his car to find another agent had arrived, a woman in a familiar black pants suit that he had not seen in months.

“Marlene?” Charles said. “I though you worked in Los Angeles.” Charles had worked with her on the Snood case.

“I did,” she said, “but I transferred out here last week. I didn’t have time to say hello. Some agents told me you went here alone, I decided to follow. Anyway, what happened in there? You look exhausted.”

He turned back around to look at the factory. “I faced down The Puzzle Bomber in his hideout. He’s as insane as you’d expect.”

“Where is he?” Marlene asked.

“I don’t know. He escaped.”

Marlene put her hands on her hips. “I didn’t see anyone drive out of here.”

“I’m sure he’s smart enough to figure out a way to get out unnoticed. He has many times before.”

“Well if you decide to go off to play his games again, take me with you.”

Charles closed his eyes and nodded. “Thanks, but I have enough information about him now to track him down myself. Besides, this is a game for me to play alone. I’ll keep playing till I win”

“That may be so,” Marlene smiled, “but it can’t hurt to cheat.”

Other Random Stories

Death By Snood

This is a short story I wrote for the one creative writing class I ever took in 2005, hence many of you may not know what Snood was as its popularity has faded. This was also before my writing style matured, so its wordier than usual. There are two sequels to this, Death by Sudoku and  Death by Slots,

Bobbi Sue Jenkins sat in her non-air-conditioned living room in her small house in Gurley, Alabama, playing Snood. The scalp beneath her dirty blond hair itched, and her pants stuck to her legs. She swatted a fly and took another drink of her Diet Coke before continuing.

Gurley was a small town: nothing more than a gas station, a few stores, and lots and lots of farmland. Bobbi Sue was born and raised in Gurley. She had an abusive father who routinely beat her mother, ran off with a waitress when she was seven, and returned after a few years claiming he had found God. She dropped out of school at sixteen and married a local boy named Harry who worked as a mechanic. It was a shotgun wedding since he had impregnated her in the back of a pick-up. Harry worked while she took care of the kids and the small, badly battered house.

Their fourteen-year-old daughter Mildred was in constant danger of following in her mother’s footsteps because all the local boys kept trying to screw her, but Bobbi Sue kept a close eye on her and took no dirt. Their seven-year-old son Ricky liked to run around with the BB gun Harry had given him for Christmas one year and shoot squirrels and chipmunks. Their four-year-old daughter Evelyn was too young to go to school so she spent her days riding her tricycle around the badly-mowed lawn and playing with hand-me-down dolls in hand-me-down dresses.

Bobbi Sue had discovered Snood by accident, one afternoon two years earlier. It was one of the few games she could play on her ancient computer that Harry got for cheap at a yard sale. It was immediately addicting, and gave her a release from her miserable life. She was not going anywhere, and her good looks had faded into cellulite and stretch marks years before. Despite her efforts it wouldn’t be long before Mildred was impregnated by boys who grew up like Ricky, and the cycle would repeat for Evelyn as well. Harry would often go out and come home piss drunk after a night of hard drinking, and hit her in a drunken rage. Bobbi Sue loved him when he was sober, but when drunk, Harry was an unbearable monster.

“Darlin’, I promise you that we will do better in life and move out of this stinking town,” he would often say to her, but it would never come. The money that they would need to move always went towards his expensive bar tab.

Long ago, she had stopped going to church and praying to a God who did not seem to care about her or her family. She looked at her neighbors and wondered why they kept going, because their lives had not improved.

So she sat in her hot living room, flinging colored boxes upon colored boxes all day long. She hoped being the 3rd top scorer would get her somewhere, but it seemed to all be in vain.

A few hours earlier, FBI Special Agent Charles Duncan pulled up to the makeshift checkpoint outside the entrance to an underground parking garage, beneath the Century Plaza Towers in Los Angeles. He flashed his badge and drove down to the fourth level. The parking lot was near-empty except for the camp of FBI agents and Bomb Squad personnel surrounding a large U-Haul moving van. The coffee he had on the plane was wearing off and he would need to re-caffeinate himself soon: he had a long day ahead of him, and it was only 9 AM PST. He looked in the mirror, adjusted his tie, patted down his brown mustache, and got out of his rented black sedan. A young female agent with jet black hair and a matching pant suit spotted him and ran over.

“Are you the agent from the Washington Bureau we’ve been waiting for?”

“Yes I am. I’m Charles Duncan,” and he flashed his badge.

“I’m Marlene Davis with the Los Angeles Field Office, nice to meet you.” They shook hands.

“What do you have? The chief called me at 10 last night and said that I would be on the next flight out to Los Angeles because this involved the Puzzle Bomber.”

“I think you have to take a look at this.”

The Puzzle Bomber was a notorious criminal mastermind. He would place bombs where the solution would be to play his games or puzzles that were near unbeatable. Some of the smartest minds in the world had died at his hand, and yet no one knew who or where he was. Some people who had seen him said he wore joke glasses or was dressed up as a scientist. All Charles knew was that he was a crazed genius and a very dangerous man.

Charles had first heard of the Puzzle Bomber in 1992, when as a young agent, he and his partner were sent to a stadium where the Puzzle Bomber had set up a Nintendo playing Battletoads. In order to disarm the bomb, one had to beat the game on one life and no continues, a feat considered impossible. They had to fly in developers from England to do it.

Then a few years later, Charles lost his partner when he failed to triple-A “the Legend of Max”, the hardest song on a rigged Dance Dance Revolution machine. Ever since, Charles burned with a passion to personally catch and kill the Puzzle Bomber, no matter what the cost.

Charles and Marlene walked over the moving van and looked in the back. Inside was a foldout card table with a laptop on it. The laptop was attached to a large metal cylinder: a nuclear bomb.

“Can I take a look?”

“Sure, but be careful.”

He climbed up and looked at the laptop.

On the screen was a game. At the top of the screen were various rows of colored boxes. In the middle of the screen was a thick yellow line. On the bottom there was an arrow and next to it was another colored box. He pressed the arrow keys left and right and the arrow moved. He was about to press the spacebar when Marlene interrupted from outside the van.

“Don’t press the fire key; we only have one try left, then the bomb will explode. The game starts when you press that spacebar.”

Charles turned around.

“What?”

“We only have one try left. Our agents used up the other two.”

Charles walked out.

“All right, I won’t. What is the game?”

“It’s where you shoot the box on the bottom to the corresponding box on the top, removing both boxes from play. The game is won when all the boxes are removed. You lose when the boxes hit the line – “

“I can guess that, but what’s it called?”

“Commercial names include Bust-a-move and Snood; it’s a pretty popular puzzle game type. My sister is addicted to Snood.”

Charles scratched his mustache.

“Well, can we get her to beat the game?”

“I never said she was very good at it. She loses as often as she wins.”

“Can we disable the bomb? I was once able to disconnect a bomb from a mahjong board without blowing it up.”

“No, the bomb has a trigger in it that is wired to go off if the laptop disconnects. We also are working against the laptop’s battery, which will explode the bomb if it runs out of charge.”

“How much time do we have left?”

“It’s a special extra-long lasting battery, so we have about twelve hours.”

“Is there a box of wires?”

“No, it’s all one solid piece.”

“Well, I guess we will have to play the game, then, or millions will die. I remember once when the Puzzle Bomber wired a bomb to a chessboard and set it to go off if white won in a match between Garry Kasparov and Michael Prusikin at the U.S Open in 2002. Kasparov was white.”

‘Wow, what happened?” Marlene asked.

“We set up Deep Blue for a rematch and it kicked Kasparov’s ass, fortunately. Unfortunately for us, we may not have that option here. Do we have anyone who is good enough to beat it?”

“No, the two agents who play got their butts kicked here. We contacted the people who make Snood, and they gave us a list of the top scorers in the world. Mike, come here and bring the score list.”

A large man walked over carrying a sheet of paper.

“Tell him what you found,” Marlene said.

“Well,” Mike began, “the top scorer lives in Sweden, the second top scorer lives in Singapore. The third scorer is a woman named Bobbi Sue Jenkins and she lives in a backwater town in Alabama.”

“Good, tell the office in Mobile to get their asses out there and pick her up and fly her out here pronto, we have no time to lose.”

Back in Gurley, Evelyn ran onto the porch and into the living room.

“Ma, Ma, vans are pulling up the drive way!”

“What in blazes – “ Bobbi Sue jumped up and ran outside.

Two black vans with FBI painted on the side were rolling up the driveway.

“I told your sister not to hang around those fucking meth dealers. Go inside.”

Bobbi Sue ran inside and pulled the loaded shotgun off the mantle piece, then ran on the porch and watched as the van stopped in front.

A black man in a suit and sunglasses got out and stood at the foot of the porch.

“Are you Bobbi Sue Jenkins?”

“Yeah, I am. What do you want?”

“I’m Special Agent Edward Jackson with the Mobile Branch of the FBI. We need you to come with us,” and he flashed his badge.

She pointed her gun. Other agents near the van put their hands in their jackets.

“I didn’t do anything, ya hear! If this is about those drug dealers who hang out with my daughter, the police know about ‘em.”
“Put the gun down, you’re not in trouble and neither is anyone you know. We need your help.”

She lowered her gun.

“What? What would the FBI want with a hick woman like me?”

“I know this sounds strange, but we need your Snood-playing abilities. Millions of lives depend on it.”

“Well, you don’t hear that every day. What’s in it for me?”
“Service to your country and a nice fat reward,” Edward said.

“How much?”

“Thirty million. We would pay you a lot less, but the importance of your service warrants it in this case.”

“Well now, that sounds like a sweet deal, but what am I gonna do with my family?”

“We have already notified your husband and the schools your kids attend.”

“What about my youngest daughter who is sitting in the house? Where is she gonna go?

Edward motioned and a teenage girl got out of the van. Bobbi Sue recognized her as Toby from down the street.

“Hiya Mrs. Jenkins,” Toby said.

“This girl said she babysat for you before.”

“She sure did. Are you gonna watch her real good ‘till Harry gits home?”

“I will,” Toby said.

“Evelyn!” Bobbi Sue screamed into the house.

Evelyn came out onto the porch.

“You gonna go with Toby now, momma needs to do somethin’ important by herself.”

“Yes momma,” Evelyn said.

Bobbi Sue kissed her and then Evelyn jumped off the porch, and she and Toby walked off down the street toward Toby’s house.

“Well, now that everything’s set, let me change into somethin’ better.”

“Ten minutes,” Edward said, “We don’t have much time to waste.”

Bobbi Sue ran into the house, took a quick shower, threw on her best dress, put on makeup and ran out, all in ten minutes.

She got into the back of one of the vans and they pulled out. Edward sat in the back with her.

“So, what’s happenin’ that you need someone to play Snood to save lives?”

Edward explained to her about the Puzzle Bomber and the bomb connected to Snood.

Eventually, they pulled into a local airfield where a private jet was waiting.

“I’m staying here, an agent will meet you in Los Angeles,” Edward said.

“Wow, I never flew before. Good day.”

Bobbi Sue got out and walked onto the jet and into the small passenger area. There were only a few leather seats, a cooler with drinks and snacks, and a screen up at the front for movies.
“We’ll be on our way immediately, the clock is ticking and it’s a three-hour flight,” the pilot said.

She sat down and buckled up, and the plane taxied to the runway. Bobbi Sue gripped the armrests tightly as the plane took off.

Charles Duncan leaned on his sedan, waiting for the plane to land at a local airfield. It was now late afternoon and there was not much time left, two hours at most. He was not sure if this woman would be able to save them, but he really did not have much choice now. Marlene offered to drive but he said no, this was a pickup he could do himself. He knew Los Angeles from when he stationed there a few years before. The FBI had evacuated the surrounding streets, but trying to evacuate the entire city would have been a logistical nightmare, so they decided against it, therefore the traffic would be bad.

The plane landed and the hatch opened. Bobbi Sue got out and looked around, bewildered at the strange surroundings. Charles walked up.

“Are you Mrs. Jenkins?”

“Yeah, I am.”

“I’m Charles Duncan, special agent with the FBI, and in charge of hunting down the Puzzle Bomber. Please come this way, it’s a forty-minute drive to the towers and traffic is bad.”

They got in the car. Charles put a siren on the dashboard, and they drove off.

On the way, Bobbi Sue looked out the window, marveling at the skyscrapers and the large amount of people.

“This is a neat place. I’ll have to come back someday –  I never traveled outside my town.”

“Los Angeles is a great city; however, it may be gone in a few hours thanks to the Puzzle Bomber.”

“I’ll try my best,” Bobbi Sue said.

“Well, I’m sorry to say this, but you need to be perfect, otherwise, we’re all dead.”

Bobbi Sue put her hand to her chest to find her heart was pounding.

“It’s a lot of pressure to put on a woman so quick, ya know?” Bobbi Sue said.

“I wish it could be different, but it can’t. I wish I had something better to tell you.”

“It’s all right; my life’s not worth much anyway,” Bobbi Sue muttered.

They squealed into the parking lot and slid into a spot behind the camp. Charles opened the door for Bobbi Sue.

“This way,” Charles said, and they walked to the truck and got in the back.

A tarp was now over the entrance and a light, folding chair and bottle of water had been put inside.

“Everything should be self-explanatory to you: arrow keys to move, space to fire.”

“I think I got it.”

“Don’t let us down, it’s on Armageddon level,” and he left, leaving her alone.

Bobbi Sue sat down in the chair, wiped her brow and took a slip of water. Her heart was pounding and her mind raced. She closed her eyes and counted to ten. Then she decided to pray. If there was a god, now was the time to ask for his guidance.

“Oh Lord,” she prayed aloud, “Please help me win this game and save this city and all its inhabitants. Amen!”

Bobbi Sue took a deep breath and started to play.

Her heart pounded and her sweaty finger worked as her mind concentrated. The outside world ceased to exist. At first it was easy for her, erasing row after row of colored blocks, but then the block ceiling started to collapse and she got a bad series of blocks which pushed her farther up to the line. It finally came down to four blocks stacked two by two with only two rows to the yellow line: two green on the top, and a red and a blue block on the bottom.

She got a green box and eliminated the green from the board. The she got a red block and knocked it into place eliminating red, but there was another red block in the queue. She put it next to the blue as it went down to one line (Blue Red)! Another blue next to the other blue eliminated the pair, but there was another one in the queue. She pushed next it to the red (Red Blue), then another blue, then another blue then another red, then a final blue. The board was now clear.

The screen went blank, and then white letters proclaimed “Bomb has been disarmed.” The laptop turned off.  Bobbi Sue had saved Los Angeles.

Bobbi Sue shut the laptop, sat back and sighed. A wave of relief washed over her body and she took a drink of water. Then she got up and looked out of the truck. Everyone was completely silent and staring at her.

After a few awkward seconds, Bobbi Sue yelled, “Hey y’all; the bomb’s been disarmed!”

The room erupted into cheers. She got down and shook Charles’s hand.

“I know you could do it!”

Then she saw Marlene handing her a cell phone.

“It’s the governor.”

Bobbi Sue put the phone to her ear.

“Mrs. Jenkins?”

“Yeah?”

“This is governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and, on behalf on the citizens of the State of California, I would like to thank you for your brave service today in saving the great city of Los Angeles.”

“How come you couldn’t do this? I’ve seen you do this in movies.”

“I was just acting, but you; you are a real heroine.”

“Thanks, Arn –  I mean, Governor Schwarzenegger.”

Marlene took the phone, and a cameraman and reporter ran up.

“Mrs. Jenkins, this is Tanya Santos with Channel 7 news, what was it like saving the city?”

“Intense.”

“I’m sure. Do you have anything you would like to say?”

“I’d like to say hello to my husband Harry and my children Mildred, Ricky and Evelyn.”

“That’s enough; I’ll be willing to issue an official statement later,” Charles said and shooed them off.

“Now, where’s some dinner, I’m hungry and tired.”

“We’ll get you dinner, but I have President Bush on the other line,” Marlene said.

Later, Charles Duncan slowly sipped his beer on the red-eye back to D.C. He would get a few days off, then go back to work. He was disappointed that the Puzzle Bomber was still out there, planning his next move. There would be more games and puzzles in the future, Charles could be sure of that; but one day he would see the Puzzle Bomber brought to justice. Today though, Los Angeles had been saved, and it had been done by an unlikely heroine. He could at least celebrate that.

—-

A van pulled into Bobbi Sue’s driveway in the dead of night. The house was dark except for the living room and porch. Harry stood on the porch, holding a bottle of whiskey. Bobbi Sue exited the van and it pulled away. Harry walked off the porch in a drunken swagger.

“Hey darlin’, I saw you on TV saving LA,” Harry slur said with a drunken slur.

Bobbi Sue grabbed the whiskey bottle and smashed it on the ground. Harry’s face turned red.

“What did ya do that f’r, woman?!” Harry screamed. He pulled back his fist, ready to punch her. Bobbi Sue grabbed his face and pulled him forward. Harry went limp in her grasp.

“I made thirty million dollars today and the money is sittin’ in an account under my name. If you ever hit me again, ever, your ass will be sitting on the street without me or the kids because I don’t need ya money anymore. I love you but I’m not gonna stand here and watch you piss away our life by gettin’ drunk every night and hittin’ me. I’m your wife, not a punchin’ bag, and you’re gonna treat me like your wife from this second forward.

We’re rich now, and you’re gonna act like the gentleman, father and husband I know you can be, and you can start by stoppin’ drinkin’. We’re gonna make something of ourselves and if you don’t wanna, you can pack your bags and leave, because I’m taking the kids out of this shit town to let them grow up right! Ya hear?”

“That sounds great, my darlin’,” Harry squeaked, the blood drained from his face.

Bobbi Sue let go and Harry stumbled back.

“Now git in the house. I’ll repeat what I said in the morning if ya happen to be too drunk to remember.”

Harry scurried inside. Bobbi Sue stood there for a minute, then she wiped the tears from her eyes and went inside.

Finally, her life would start to change for the better.

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