Ficlet Challenges Archive: October - December 2021
- 05 Feb 2022
- 49 Reads
The phrase prompt this month is … A DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT
And for the second challenge:
It’s Spooky Season - I wonder what mysterious things are happening to our favourite characters?
Vila staggered down the corridor. Vila reflected that this was unfair. He was walking rather normally, for the state he was in, but the walls kept bumping into him. It wasn't his fault. They had all agreed on raiding that Federation ship carrying stolen antiquities from a dozen different worlds.
Tarrant got the currency he wanted. Avon got the components he wanted, Dayna got the guns she wanted, and Cally claimed some old Auron artifact. Vila took a crate labeled Genuine Kentucky... something or other. It was a dark amber liquid, and it was even better than Adrenaline and Soma.
Vila saw a blurry image at the end of the corridor. Well, to be fair every image he saw was blurry, but this one was also shimmering. He squinted,
"Oh, hello, Cally."
Cally stood stiffly holing the ancient Auron artifact. In a decidedly non Cally voice she, or someone using her mouth, said,
"The spirit of The Lost speaks through me.”
"That's nice," he tried to say, though it sounded more like, "Thas niis."
Vila attempted to stand straight as he said,
"The spirit of... The spirit of...." He squinted at the label on the bottle he was holding, "The spirit of Jack Daniels speaks through me."
“But that makes no sense! No sense at all! How could that possibly have happened? And you’re quite, quite, QUITE sure about this, Avon?”
“Absolutely certain. Vila’s turned into an American.”
Blake was visibly perplexed.
“Well that’s highly inconvenient… And it could have some unfortunate ramifications. Some VERY unfortunate ramifications. He’ll be wanting the fourth of July off for starters.”
“And Thanksgiving!” interjected Jenna.
“What – the whole of it?” Blake wasn’t impressed. The full gravity of the situation was gradually starting to dawn on him. “I’m not impressed”, he muttered, “The full gravity of the situation is gradually starting to dawn on me.”
“That’s not even the worst of it,” Gan piped up, “Pound to a penny he’ll start using a load of weird phrases the rest of us won’t be able to understand. Before you know it, everything’ll be ‘copy that, big dog’, ‘my bad’ and ‘wassup, muthas’…”
“Plus he’ll start using too few letters to spell ‘colour’ and ‘labour’,” added Cally helpfully. “‘Medal’ will become a verb, he’ll forget ‘maths’ is plural, call his trousers ‘pants’ (highly likely to lead to a series of embarrassing misunderstandings) and refer to 13-part TV series as ‘seasons’…”
“This really won’t do!” Blake sputtered tetchily, “It really won’t do at all! He’ll even lose that anally retentive reserve and crippling inability to emote openly that makes us lot so endearing… He’ll think we all know the Queen, can’t cook, have terrible teeth and love a bit of opera. Worst of all, everyone we meet will automatically reckon he’s VASTLY COOLER than the rest of us…”
“Speak for yourself…” sneered Avon.
“Sshh…” Cally interjected urgently, “Here’s comes Vila now… Act normal, Blake…”
“That’s a high-risk option in ANY situation…” muttered Avon.
“Heyyyyyy! Blake! Avon! Doods! Heyyyyyy! My MAIN…men!”
“God help me….” winced Avon, “Vila, I don’t know what’s happened to you and I really couldn’t give a flying fig. But let’s get one thing straight. I am not, never was and am never, ever likely to be a ‘dude’ or your ‘mainman’. And why are you wearing those ridiculous cowboy boots? You look like Billy Ray Cyrus’s batman. Take them off immediately, you complete sponge!”
“No dice, bro’! I can’t go for that. NO. CAN. DO. Ca-PISH?”
“Well maybe I can incentivise you. Intravenous soma, half an hour a day for the next fortnight. What do you say to that?”
“No deal! Much as I’m Jonesing for a soma, you’re a day late and a dollar short. I’ve TOTALLY embraced my new Stateside persona, it’s doin’ WONDERS for my self-confidence and the fact it irritates the GODDAM HOLY HELL out of YOU, big dog, is just one more tick in the swag column! And I’m changin’ my name to… GRANDMASTER VEE-EYE-ELL-AY MK. Way to go, dooooooooods!”
“Give me strength…” Avon groaned.
“‘MK’? Don’t you mean…. ‘MC’?" Cally asked tentatively.
“Just GOTTA be ‘MK’!” laughed Vila, “Somehow it’ll always remind me of a man I used to be…”
[With apologies to Horizon's US contingent]
(Cygnus Bazza's six-part story 'Out for the Count - a strange tale for Halloween' was too long for the Ficlet Challenges, and has been moved to the Fan Fiction section).
(In case you ever wondered about Vila’s strange behaviour in Powerplay and Dawn.)
(And in case you wonder about the strange interior, visit Lulworth Castle!)
Going out was a Category 4 crime but they didn’t care. They were young, they were adventurous, and they knew how to outwit the sensors.
They also knew about the haunted manor. The rumours of ghosts didn’t discourage the boys and girls. On the contrary, the five of them were out for a night of thrills.
The building was centuries old and completely burnt out. Vila was a little disappointed when they reached the charred remains of the doors. His special skills were not needed. The five could just walk into the hall. Leaves and animal droppings littered the floor. The chill of the night wind entered through empty windows.
The light cones of five torches played over walls and ceiling and uncovered strange sights. The floors of the upper storeys had been made of wood and were completely destroyed by the flames. Doorways opened several yards above the ground, and inaccessible mantlepieces of yawning fireplaces clinged to the walls like swallows’ nests.
They searched the ground floor but found neither ghosts nor anything of value. The place was disappointingly empty.
Then they realised that there was one room they couldn’t access. The doors to what must have been the main dining room were blocked by rubble. Not even the strongest of the boys was able to move them.
It was Vila who found a way into the room: the serving hatch in the kitchen. He tried to climb through but as he didn’t want to plunge into rats or other unpleasent things, he stopped halfway through the hatch and waited for his eyes to adapt. But the dining room was in complete darkness.
Or was it? What was that flicker of light just in front of him? Maybe a reflection of the light from the torches shining through the hatch?
No, it wasn’t. Vila realised that the lights were the flames of candles. But how could this be?
The picture became clearer. Several candleholders illuminated the room. It was a dining room as they had guessed. There was a big wooden table, a dozen of intricately carved chairs and a buffet. The table was covered with a white cloth and set for a festive meal.
The light shone on three people, a woman and two men. They didn’t talk, but the looks passing between them and their body language were telling. Vila could sense the tension in the room. The man who was carving the turkey was obviously the woman’s husband, and the other man her secret lover.
The host deftly wielded the massive carving knife to cut the bird and put a slice of meat on his wife’s plate. Then he seemed to tell an elaborate story. There was no sound but Vila saw the man gesticulating wildly with the knife.
Then he slit the woman’s throat.
Stuck in the hatch, Vila couldn’t move. He wanted to close his eyes but the images burned on his retina and the curtain of his eyelids made the picture even redder than it was. Doomed to watch the gruesome scene unfold, he witnessed the other man jump at the murderer. He saw them fight; he saw the husband going down; he saw the lover crying over the body of his mistress; he saw him beating on the table in his anger and desparation; he saw the candlesticks falling; he saw the man burn; he saw the flames growing larger and larger. The lights became brighter, filled Vila’s vision and threatened to fill the world, and Vila could do nothing but stare at them.
Then there was darkness, and out of the darkness materialised the faces of his friends.
"Are you okay?," Jaliun asked.
Vila looked around. He sat in the kitchen, leaning against the wall. His friends must have pulled him out of the hatch.
"Yes, I’m okay," he lied and stumbled to his feet.
Nothing was okay. When he closed his eyes, he still saw the terrible scene and he knew that he would never forget it. The bright lights lingered in his mind.
He would never be able to turn his gaze away from bright lights.
’500 credits’, the travel agent said.
He looked rather seedy but that was to be expected. After all, no respectable agent would have agreed to sell an interstellar passage to a 15 year old boy without the parents’ consent. The youngster displayed a surprisingly masculine face for his age and obviously was from an Alpha family, which made his wish to leave Earth on a scruffy free trader even more suspicious.
"Don’t play games with me," he answered in a menacing tone, "The fare for passage on the Ruby Gnome was 400 credits."
"That’s right," the agent said, "But the Ruby Gnome already sailed yesterday. Next ship due is the Orion in three days for 500 credits."
The boy stared at the man not knowing what to do. Damn his bad luck! He couldn’t wait for another three days even if he had the money. 450 credits was all he had managed to steal from his father’s purse before he left home, and in three days time there would be even less money left. After all, he had to eat.
What else was there to do? He had always been a bully but the last time he picked on another boy at school he had gone too far. His family was influential but so was the family of the victim of his cruel prank. Escaping to one of the colonies was the only way he could flee punishment and public humiliation.
"Make up your mind," the travel agent growled "There are other people waiting."
No-one was waiting in the small office but the young man was in no position to argue. So he just turned and left the room.
Back on the mall of the spaceport, he looked around hoping to find some place to hide and to earn money for a passage on the Orion.
What caught his eye instead was the recruitment agency of the Federation military. The armed forces – why not? He hesitated for a moment, then walked straight over to the office. It looked very different from the shoddy hole in the wall where the travel agent resided.
The officer behind the desk welcomed him and gave him a long talk about the advantages of being a soldier. The boy didn’t really listen. His decision was already made. When the officer handed him the recruitment form, he filled it in without a second thought, proudly writing his name in the respective field: TRAVIS.
(Over the word limit, but I'm not the only one.
Exploring 'An hour late and a dollar short' - in the sense of something that didn't match up to the expectation - along with an attempt at a traditional B7 ending.)
The designer stood back to survey his creation. It shone with a soft inner light, he decided, more than satisfied. He could almost hear the comments it would evoke from his admiring public. This would be his greatest achievement to date: a triumph.
It had taken all his ingenuity to obtain passes, and Avon ought to be impressed, Vila felt. Events like this didn't happen often, and were definitely 'invitation only'. Why his friend - well, colleague - would want to attend was beyond him, which was why he'd acquired two passes. If Avon thought something was worth his time, Vila wanted to be there to....be there, sort of thing. Especially when the other attendees were likely to posess both cash and jewellery, having drunk just enough to make them less wary than usual. He wouldn't bother telling Avon, though, just tag along in the background.
Set-up caused the usual panic. Scenes of chaos in the dressing-rooms; tantrums; last-minute alterations; repairs...all of it exacerbated by the knowledge that the audience was already arriving. It took a cool head to watch as his creation was readied, but the designer knew that this - THIS was HIS night.
"How long will it take?" Tarrant demanded, "Only, we had planned to be at - "
"Don't worry," Avon snarled, "You'll make the rendezvous. Put me down."
He vanished in the teleport glow. Tarrant, wishing he'd thought of a telling reply, hurried back to the flight deck. He didn't notice the figure waiting in the shadows.
"Orac?" whispered Vila, "I'm ready. Teleport!"
The foyer was filling. There were few tables with space, the rest being occupied by wealthy Alphas in full regalia. The champagne flowed and the noise of chatter rose. Delta servers in faceless uniforms hurried from table to table, replenishing as they went.
His dark, silver-embellished suit blending in well, Avon found a corner with a view of the entrance, collected a glass and waited. It wasn't long before the inner doors opened. As the foyer emptied towards them, he joined the rush.
The collection was undeniably a success. The designer basked in the praise. He saw prospective buyers eyeing each other nervously, desperate for the franchise. As the models paraded along the catwalk, a dark figure on the balcony above drew a small blaster.
"Don't spoil it," a voice hissed in her ear. Servalan turned, as did the blaster.
"Avon, how good of you to come," she whispered, "I wasn't sure fashion was your field." They were both aware of a ripple of cheering - the final piece had appeared. The designer was standing, accepting the applause.
"I didn't come for the show," Avon replied quietly, "But I knew you would."
"And you don't have a gun," she pointed out, keeping hers trained on him, "My fault, I'm afraid. I had everyone scanned at the door."
"Yes, I noticed. Everyone except the hostess," he grinned, "Neatly done. Who is your target?"
Servalan gestured towards the last dress. It was stunningly beautiful. Its jewel-encrusted bodice sparkled in the spotlights. Avon couldn't see the problem.
"A dress?" he asked, frowning.
"The fool never understood me," she answered grimly, then turned to fire a single, perfectly aimed pulse. It hit the designer between the eyes and he slumped to the floor, amid general horrified confusion. Avon stared: it could so easily have been him. Still might be, unless...
"Nice try, Madam President," he muttered, ignoring the screams, "So I take the gun from you, and you pin that mess on me? Not this time. But I'd be interested to know what crime he committed."
"Oh, no, Avon," she smiled, casually dropping the murder weapon into the struggling mass below, "A lack of co-operation works both ways. You didn't bite, so I won't tell. Those scans will have ruined your teleport bracelet, by the way. I've already alerted my guards."
There were shouts nearby. A Delta ran towards them. Avon tensed, but the man pulled his hood off.
"Catch!" Vila yelled, throwing him a teleport bracelet, "I fused the lock, but that won't keep them long."
Servalan sighed as the teleport outline faded. The risk was exhilarating. He'd gone, but as long as she continued to use herself as the bait, she knew Avon would return.
The others were already preparing for the rendezvous when Avon and Vila reappeared.
"Another close call?" Soolin asked, seeing Vila's guilty look, "Was it worth it?"
The thief nodded, emptying his pockets. They stared at his haul.
"Just keeping my hand in," he shrugged, "Plus the usual daring rescue. Always carry a spare bracelet, I say."
"Thankyou," said Avon, when they were alone, "How did you avoid her scan?"
"Luck, really. Deltas weren't allowed into the hall," Vila answered, then seeing Avon's frown asked, "What's the matter?"
"She wouldn't say why she shot him."
"Easy," Vila replied, "You saw the dress, didn't you?"
"It was fantastic. So why kill its creator?"
"It was pink."
Avon thought for a moment, then began to laugh.
Dayna was usually in her element when in close combat like this; but not this time. She was sure he- she was reasonably certain it was a he- was dead, but it did not feel like a victory. She was shaking, gripping the wall next to her for support.
“Thanks,” said Vila from where he was crouched into the settee, in a similar state of shock. He was still eyeing the gun that had, moments ago, been pointed right between his eyes, before being kicked out of the assailant’s grip by Dayna.
“Even by your standards, that was impressive,” remarked Tarrant, relaxing out of his pugilistic pose. They were all midway through their collective sigh of relief when Avon’s leather-clad figure flashed into the doorway, ready to fire. They all tensed up again.
“It’s all over, Avon,” said Tarrant quickly. Avon appeared not to sigh in relief and holstered his weapon as he entered the room. His usually graceful gait was rudely interrupted by something on the floor that tripped him. He lurched forward and landed straight in Tarrant’s arms. He straightened up with an impressive air of trying to pretend that hadn’t just happened. He turned to see what had tripped him and his mouth opened in surprise. There was nothing there.
Tarrant knelt cautiously near the invisible figure and patted around for it. He found the rapidly cooling hand and went to feel for the pulse, but Dayna’s surprised exclamation stopped him. It was faint, like thin smoke, but gradually an outline of the assailant was beginning to appear. There was now a hint of a colour to his fingertips.
Soolin appeared in the doorway, surveying the scene.
“So you’ve met the third occupant of the base, then.”
Vila’s mouth fell open,
“You knew he was here? He just came in here and accused us of trying to steal his life’s work. He threatened to kill us all if we didn’t get off his base right now. Have you ever been threatened by a gun hanging in mid-air?” His voice was turning squeaky with indignation. “Why didn’t you tell us you had an invisible maniac with a gun? He thought we were intruders, why didn’t you tell him about us??”
Soolin shrugged. “I couldn’t find him.”
"His name was Marvel,” Soolin began, “He was a scientist. He came to us five years ago. He needed space for his experiments.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t go the same way as Dorian’s other associates,” said Avon. The others shuddered. “I assume he cut Dorian in?” Soolin nodded.
“Yes, It was just the sort of thing that appealed to Dorian. Marvel was working on an experiment started by a man called Griffin. He had inherited his notes- they look a couple of centuries old at least, and they’re written in code. Marvel inherited them, and he’s spent years decoding them.
They were instructions for a process to make a man invisible.”
“How?” asked Tarrant, “I thought that was impossible.”
“I think it involved changing the way light affected it. We can only see things because they either absorb or reflect light. Griffin’s process stopped matter from either absorbing or reflecting all light waves. The problem was, once he’d found out the process worked, he realised being invisible had its own set of problems. Only his body was invisible, his clothing wasn’t; so he could only achieve true invisibility when he was completely naked. He was always cold. Marvel said he was a fool for not doing it to his clothes, too.”
“Does it work on inanimate objects?”
“Yes. The first thing he tried it on was a piece of fabric. But he didn’t think about his clothes until it was too late. When Marvel recreated his work, he made sure he had clothes to wear, too.”
“Imagine losing an invisible sock in the wash...” mused Vila.
“He wanted to complete Griffin’s work, by finding a way to reverse the process. He thought he’d got it, so he made himself invisible so he could test it. But the antidote didn’t work. He hasn’t been the same since. He’d stay shut away for days, and when we did see him he was always angry, unpredictable. He became completely obsessed, he’d have killed his own mother if she’d threatened to stand in his way,” She looked uneasily around the room, “That happened to Dorian too. I’m starting to think it’s this place. Something about it turns you insane if you stay too long.”
“I’ve never believed that superstitious nonsense,” said Tarrant stoutly, “If you think you can scare us away it’s not going to work.” Soolin ignored him.
Dayna turned back to the outline of the body on the floor. It was much clearer now,
“He never found the way to reverse the process, did he?”
“No.” They could now make out the blood pooling on his chest where Dayna had stabbed him.
“On the contrary,” said Avon, “I think he just has.”
(It’s that time of year again and the Amusement Park from Hell is back in business. This time, it delivers the news in person!!!
A two parter incorporating both prompts.
Lurena is very busy at the mo so a piccie may arrive later!!)
It was Vila who saw it first.
A strange figure standing on the Scorpio’s flight deck.
“I tell you, it was there.”
“A figure?” Tarrant asked, “I think you’ve had too much…”
“I was not drunk.”
“All right Vila, this figure. What was it? A ghost from the past?” Dayna mused.
“I don’t know. As soon as I saw it, I ran. It was just standing there.”
“And where did you see this figure?” Avon asked. He’d been listening, but his interest was more focussed on Orac.
“I told you, on the Flight Deck.”
“And what did this figure look like?”
“I didn’t want to look too closely…”
“I’ve seen it to,” Soolin murmured, “but I didn’t want to say anything.”
“Why not?” Tarrant demanded, “If there is someone else on this base we need to know about it.”
“Because it’s not an actual person. It’s an entity for want of a better word.”
“An entity?” Avon said in a bored tone.
“Yes,” Soolin replied, slowly turning to face him, “And it looks just like you.”
Vila was curled up on his bunk, dreaming a dream that only he could.
Maybe it was Dorian’s wine? Now why did that name flash into his warm, befuddled mind? He shivered.
He had seen Dorian die.
He had seen his death throes and what had become of his body. Had Dorian come back from the dead to haunt him? Vila hoped not, besides, the cellar had been sealed off…hadn’t it?
Then he heard it.
A familiar voice…and he froze.
Avon, too, had heard the familiar voice and he was now facing the owner of that voice…at least its holographic image.
“What do you want?” he asked.
*Why, you of course. We have unfinished business. Your plan to destroy us failed*
“So it seems.”
Vila nervously peered round the corner of the corridor and was horrified to see the holographic image of the Ring Master from the Amusement Park.
*And here is the man who made it all possible. Roll up! Roll up! You’ll be pleased to know that the park is open and new ‘customers’ are on their way*
“Why me?” Soolin asked.
*Because he trusts your judgement*
Soolin smiled to herself. That was so strange to hear those words coming from the image of the man who claimed to only trust himself.
“Avon will want to know how you managed to track us to our base.”
*It took a great effort, but this so called Amusement Park needs to be destroyed before the killing starts again*
“Won’t others follow you?”
*Your computer, Orac, is, as we speak, attempting to stop those others who wish you harm*
“And you don’t?”
The image that was Avon smiled, *Would I be talking to you if I did?*
“Why don’t you tell him yourself?”
*The rules are very strict about that, I cannot meet him face to face*
*Please, you must warn him*
“I’ll try my best.”
What’s a Dollar Between Friends?
“What the hell is it doing here?” Avon demanded.
Orac was silent. .
*I merely followed my erstwhile colleague* the being who called itself the Ring Master replied.
Avon stared at the hologram now walking around the crew room.
*The one who fashions himself after you. He came to warn you.*
“About what?” Tarrant asked, keeping a safe distance.
*The Amusement Park has reopened for business at the behest of your Commissioner Sleer. She has promised us more guests and we have promised her…you, Avon.*
“That’s very noble of you. And the others?”
*A mere sideshow. You and the Park have unfinished business.*
“A sideshow?” declared Vila.
Avon cast a sidelong glance at him, and Vila fell silent, clutching his glass and hoping that he would soon wake up from this nightmare.
“So our last visit was not successful?”
*Indeed not. You were a day late and a dollar short.*
“And what is that supposed to mean?” Dayna asked.
*It’s a very ancient idiom or saying. One of our most recent guests was a great intellectual. His knowledge of your first calendar history was most extencive.*
“And you killed him.” Avon said.
*An intellect like that is dangerous to the Federation. And in reply to your question it means that your attempt to destroy the Amusement Park was taken too late and was too feeble to be of any use. In other words, you failed.*
“And you came all this way to inform us of that fact. Why should we care?”
*After all, Avon it was you and your colleagues who reactivated the Funfair, so therefore, you are responsible for the deaths of not just that intellectual but also of those many others sent to us by the Federation. You owe them…*
Avon was silent. He knew who was waiting for him back in that so called Fun Fair.
Or at least a version of Blake: fashioned from not just his memories but that of the others.
And then the Ring Master vanished.
The others were looking at him now. Waiting to hear his decision.
It was Soolin who answered their silent question.
“You have to go back and finish the job. It’s very simple.”
“To you maybe,” Avon replied.
“Actually, it was you…at least the hologram of you who said so.”
“So why didn’t it see fit to tell me itself?”
“Something about rules. Anyway, hopefully, by now, Orac has come up with the solution as to how to destroy that so called Amusement Park.”
+I have. The presence of both Holograms has allowed me to access the computer that controls the entire edifice and also to stop any further visitations.+
“Oh good,” Vila murmured.
“And your conclusion?”
+All in good time. It would not do to alert that computer of any future dealings.+
Vila took a sip of his drink, “I have a question.”
“And what would that be?” Tarrant asked.
Vila sighed, “What’s a dollar?”
Nov 2021 Ficlet Challenges by PURPLECLERIC
The phrase prompt this month is ... A Cold Fish
And for the second challenge:
Our favourite characters have found a reason to be truly thankful - I wonder what it is?
Warily Blake nibbled at his sake nigiri.
"‘The fish is cold!" he complained.
"It’s called sushi," he explained, "It’s meant to be cold."
"Do you think I could ask them to heat it up?" Blake asked.
Avon rolled his eyes. Why did he have to go to a restaurant with unsophisticated folk! He would have loved to get out of here immediately but they had to keep a low profile. Their contact could arrive any minute and they had to avoid anything that might make them look suspicious.
Other people didn’t have such scruples. Voices grew loud at the next table where a guy in the uniform of a mining ship was seated. Given his rank insignia, we couldn’t have been more than a chicken soup dispensing machine repair man. Nonetheless he talked down to the waiter with the arrogance of an admiral.
Then suddenly the chef burst into the room, wielding a viscious looking meat cleaver, shouting abuse at the technician and hacking at the table. The waiter bravely stood in his way.
"No, Mongo!" he cried, "Never kill a guest!"
Another waiter came to help, and together they managed to shove the chef back into the kitchen.
When the waiter returned, Avon beckoned to him and asked,
"What was all that about?"
"That bloke demanded that we heat up his gazpacho soup," the man explained, "Which of course went against the cook’s professional ethics. He is very sensitive in these matters."
They waiter vanished. Blake looked at the table with the fresh marks of the meat cleaver and said,
"On the other hand, I could just eat it as it is."
Watching her computer screen, she nodded in satisfaction as the deposit landed in her personal account,
“That’s more than I expected.”
“The deal was half down," he replied, "Half when the Federation was kicked off Helotirx forever, with a bonus for achieving that aim in less than a solar month.”
“That’s what I like about you," she said, "You are effective, and profitable.”
“I’m glad you finally came around to my way of thinking." He raised his glass in a makeshift toast, "We’ll overthrow the Federation, and get rich doing it.”
She raised her own glass in acknowledgment,
“You remind me of someone we both know,” she paused, “Actually, you remind me of two someone’s we both know, as if they were gene spliced or had a child.”
“What a revolting thought," he frowned, "Anyway, working with me is more profitable.”
“That’s not why I’m here.”
“My charming personality?” he suggested. She grunted,
“Don’t make me laugh.”
“Because I win?” he ventured.
“Because we win! What’s next?”
Her voice fell,
“We tried that once before.”
“They tried it once before," he answered, "We are better, but it will require a large shipment of arms.”
She raised her chin in pride,
“My new ship can handle three times the cargo, and still outrun pursuit ships.”
“It will also require more troops," he hesitated, "It’s time we brought Avalon in.”
“Does she have any contact with Blake or Avon?”
“Not that I know of. Why?”
“I Have to maintain my cover.”
“From Blake and Avon?” He pondered for a moment, “You mentioned your new ship. What happened to your old ship?”
“I set it on a preprogrammed course with a time delayed auto destruct.”
“Seems a waste.”
“As I expected, it took out an entire squadron of gunships." She shrugged, "My parting gift to you know who.”
“So, he thinks you’re dead? Seems harsh.”
“The whole galaxy thinks I am dead, "she replied, "Thus, I am free. Free of the Federation’s most wanted list, and free to work with you and Avalon. I am thankful for my freedom.”
“So am I. Here’s to freedom, Jenna.”
“Here’s to freedom, Del.”
The mission had been a total failure. They had lost their weapons and even their bracelets, and now they were on their way to the prearranged emergency pickup place where Tarrant would hopefully be waiting with the ship. For security reasons, it was situated in the middle of nowhere, which meant that they had to walk across half of nowhere to get there. It was autumn, and they were feeling cold and miserable. The way led across farmland with only a few houses scattered over several square miles. The sun was sinking, and the cold crept through their clothes. Their feet were aching and their stomachs growling but Avon kept them going.
When they walked along a hedge near one of the houses, they suddenly became aware of a distinct smell in the air. It was smoke, but it didn’t have the acrid taste of a fire. Instead, it conveyed a feeling of warmth and cosiness and even a pleasing aroma.
When Avon peeked over the hedge, he saw five shapes huddled around the embers of a fire. They were small, children maybe, and he could hear them laughing and chatting and see them eating.
Food and the warmth of a dying fire! That was exactly what they needed. Besides, these were the innocent children of farmers; they wouldn’t betray them to the Federation.
There was a gap in the hedge, and when Avon passed through, the others followed him without a second thought and approached the children.
Three of them were of primary school age, the two others teenagers, obviously supervising their younger siblings, cousins or neighbours. When they heard the footsteps, they looked up rather warily, but seeing four exhausted people dragging themselves over the field dispelled their fears. One of them even waved invitingly to the newcomers.
“You got lost?” the teenage girl asked.
“Not really,” Avon answered, “But we somewhat underestimated the distance to our destination. A little break would be much appreciated. May we sit down?”
The children nodded, obviously more curious than afraid. With a heavy sigh, Vila slumped to the ground, followed by Dayna and Soolin. Avon hesitated for a moment but finally squatted down as well.
“Some potatoes?” the girl asked.
“We’ve got enough to share," the teenage boy said. He bent forward to dig the potatoes out of the hot ashes. The skin was charred and hot to the touch, but nonetheless he managed to pass them to the other children and the guests. A knife went round and everyone cut open their potatoes, and then the two teenagers passed a butter jar and a small bowl of salt. They even prepared the potato for the youngest of the children.
Then the feast began, and a feast it was despite its frugality. Ah, the flavour of potatoes baked in hot ashes; the taste of warm food after an exhausting hike; the sensation of numb limbs warming up; the comforting calm of the dying day; the soothing quietness of the countryside at dusk; the glowing warmth of company in solitude!
It made them sleepy. Soolin actually dozed off, leaning on Avon.
“Do you still have long to go?” the girl asked.
“To Buttercup Hill," Avon lied. It was about the right distance but the wrong direction. Not even the company of children could make him careless.
“That’s a long way,” the boy said, “If you don’t mind you can sleep in the barn.”
Looking at the drowsy faces of his companions, Avon couldn’t refuse the offer.
The floor of the barn was strewn with hay. Vila and Soolin collapsed immediately. Dayna at least managed to stretch out comfortably but was also soon asleep.
Avon turned to the teenagers.
“Thank you," he said, and he had never been more honest in his life. Thankful they were indeed. Not only for the welcome break, the food and the shelter. A look at the relaxed and dreamy faces of Soolin and Vila showed him what it really was for which they had to be grateful: for bringing back the memories of a childhood where their adult sorrows had been far away.
“Vila,” said Avon wearily. Nothing.
“Vila.” The hulk of bedding stirred and made an incoherent but very reluctant complaint. Avon tried one more time.
“Vila, if you don’t wake up I’ll drag you into the shower and switch the cold water on.” An angry noise in response. Avon pulled back the covers in the most threatening way he could manage. “Come on, we need you at the teleport.” Vila rolled out of them, complete with a hot-water bottle, dark red pyjamas and a bright red nose.
“Do it yourself,” he moaned, “If you’re feelig strog edough to drag be around there can’t be buch wrong with you.”
Avon bit his tongue. He would have loved to give in, just this once: stop trying to be so superhuman, just throw it all to hell, flop onto the bed beside Vila and bewail how lousy he was feeling. His aching muscles and the pressure behind his eyes made his ears throb painfully, and he hadn’t slept well the last two nights, even by his standards. But the habit of needing to appear superior to everybody in every possible way was too ingrained to break, and in these circumstances too humiliating.
Vila pauses and sat very still for a second.
“Have we stobbed?” he asked.
“Yes, we’ve stopped.”
“The planet Buutz. It was colonised centuries ago by a group of pharmacists and chemists to explore the medical properties of the organic life on the surface. They have the only known means of curing us.”
“They can cure us?” Vila’s bloodshot eyes lit up for a moment, then his face darkened, “I’m not goig down there. I’m in no fit state for an away bission, look at be-“
“You surprise me,” said Avon drily, “As Cally and Gan are still able to walk and talk, we three shall teleport down. You operate the teleport. Do you think you can push yourself to the limit enough to pull a lever and press a button?”
Two hours later, Gan and Cally were in the kitchen. Gan lifted the lid on the large pan of sautéed onions and garlic and stirred it. Cally was expertly filleting the third of the fish they had just acquired. Its flesh was a poisonous shade of yellow; she finished and slid it from the chopping board into the pan with her knife.
“I’m glad I can’t smell it,” he said, good-naturedly. Cally smiled at him weakly.
“It’s an Auron saying that the if the medicine tastes sweet, it won’t work.”
“I doubt this will taste sweet,” Gan replied with a chuckle, “I’ve never seen anything as ugly as this.” He grimaced at the remains of the fish, lying in a wet, gruesome heap on the side. Its eyes bulged and its downturned, toothy mouth leered at him. He turned away abruptly and sneezed twice, so violently he doubled over and groaned.
“I suppose we should all be grateful that there is actually a cure for this. Centuries ago they had to just let it run its course.” she stirred the pan’s contents and added some stock, “All the same... maybe you should put some strong flavours in to mask it.” Gan nodded and rummaged about on the shelf for the dried chillies and ginger. Cally tried to blow her nose again but to no avail,
“On the bright side, it does still work even if it’s cooked. The woman on the stall said the indigenous inhabitants used to eat it raw.”
“Yes, and all of it. Scales, eyes, guts... she said it’s most effective raw. Are you sure you don’t want to try it that way?” Teasingly, she lifted the hideous, prehistoric-looking gargoyle fish head and hovered it provocatively close to Gan’s face. He swatted it away. Cally went to tip the pile of yellow, glistening detritus into the bin, but then paused and nudged Gan.
“Shall we tell Vila?” she muttered naughtily. The thought of his appalled face sent them both into fits of wicked sniggers until karmic justice intervened and Cally’s laughter dissolved into a coughing fit.
“Vila,” said Avon. There was no response.
“Come on, Vila, get up.” The bedclothes groaned. “My threat from yesterday still stands.”
“No,” grumbled a voice, “It hasn’t worked. I think I feel worse. I thought soup was supposed to help with colds...”
Avon had had enough. With a curt nod to Gan, standing silently and sneezelessly beside him, he turned on his heel and went into the bathroom. There was a sound of rushing cold water. Gan hauled back the covers and bent to drag Vila out. One look at him and Vila scrambled upright and threw up his arm.
“All right, all right!” he cried, “It was worth a try...”
"Just remember Avon, it takes a village to raise an--"
“For those we are about to deceive, may we be truly thankful…”
EPISODE 1: CARDINAL ERROR
CNN news anchor: Got some big breaking news for you – let’s head straight to our religious affairs correspondent Mike Odd, our man on the spot, on the steps of St Peter’s basilica in Rome…
Mike Odd: Thanks, Jan! Looks like we’re finally there! Five months after the mysterious demise of Pope Sixtus the Seventh, who of course assumed the papacy just four months after the mysterious demise of Pope Fifthtus the Sixth – and after a three-week conclave described by sources as ‘fractious’ – we’ve had a tip-off that the college of cardinals have agreed on a compromise candidate. A candidate who can heal the bitter wounds and paper over the papal cracks opened up by this turbulent year. No white smoke, of course, because for this conclave, as with the previous two, the ballot papers have been made from eco-friendly, recyclable, compostable, biodegradable, ocean-friendly, pro-dolphin, pro-cetacean, pro-coral seaweed-based paper-substitute manufactured right here in Vatican City under the brand name Paper Sea…
CNN news anchor: Gotta say, Mike, what with the number of ballots they’ve held during this conclave and the number of conclaves they’ve held these past few months, well – whoever’s running THAT racket must be RAKING it in…
The world over, the new Pope’s flock – all 1,300,000,000 of them – give heartfelt thanks. Or, to be precise, 1,299,999,999 of them do. Because someone isn’t very happy. Not very happy at all….
“Habemus Papam… We have a Pope!”
The words he’d always wanted to hear. But words he’d never wanted to have to say himself. Yet here he was, standing at the microphone on the basilica’s central balcony – its Renaissance majesty, for once, utterly lost on him – announcing the news to the delirium-drowsy thousands packed into Bernini’s majestic square below him.
“How could my cretinous colleagues POSSIBLY think I’d make a divisive Pope?” Cardinal Avon mused as he spoke those words. How indeed. And how many Popes would he have to arrange to be dispatched in mysterious circumstances before the college of cardinals finally turned to him to steer the holy ship through the murky waters of an uncertain future? Even the healthy profits from his discreet new paper-manufacturing business couldn’t blot out the pain of being passed over for the highest office for the third time in a year. Though, he had to admit, securing the concession to provide the ballot papers for the conclaves HAD been a highly profitable masterstroke. (All part of the appeal of propelling those hopeless popes on their way to the pearly gates, of course…)
And as Cardinal Avon turned to look at the man who’d edged him out for the top job, disdain blended with disappointment and disgust to forge an even more acute determination. A determination to not be denied, to win the new Pope’s confidence, to dupe and deceive him into extending trust – and then to find a prompt opportunity to send him to a much-earlier-than-planned one-to-one meeting with his maker. (Or should that be a one-to-three meeting?)
Avon turned back to the microphone. “Habemus Papam…” he repeated. “Cardinal Restal...!”
Frenzy gripped the churning crowd and even Cardinal Avon’s amplified voice could barely make itself heard as he spoke the name by which the new pontiff would be known to the world – and to history: “Papa Vila Primus – Vila Primo – Vila the First!”
* * *
“Take a seat, Cardinal Blake.”
“Thank you, Sister Jenna.”
The cardinal closed the door behind him, took off his biretta and flicked it nonchalantly towards the wooden hat stand in the corner of the office, where it obediently settled on an obliging hook.
“I’ll cut to the chase,” Sister Jenna began, as Blake seated himself in the chair across the desk, swishing his flowing red cassock over his crossed legs, then fiddling with his gold crucifix chain. “A little bird tells me Cardinal Avon’s going for the hat-trick. He got away with bumping off Fifthtus the Sixth and Sixtus the Seventh, and now he’s set his sights on Vila the First. For the good of the Holy Church, Cardinal, WE SIMPLY HAVE TO STOP HIM! It's our TOP priority here at the Papal Investigation Service...”
“Easier said than done. And to be fair, Avon does have his uses. If I need someone to mend my laptop, for instance…”
“PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER, CARDINAL!” roared Sister Jenna, slamming the flat of her hand on the desk.
“Sorry, Chief…just saying…” a visibly chastened Blake replied, “But Avon’s a wily fox. We’ll never find a way of snaring him. We’ll need a miracle!”
“Have faith, Cardinal…” Sister Jenna averred, her composure regained, a smile crossing her lips, “Miracles are so…MEDIEVAL. No, we just need to deploy our God-given guile and cunning to trick him into making a mistake. Yes, let’s apply a little imagination here. Or, to put it another way, let’s try a little…”
Blake mirrored Sister Jenna’s smile, upgrading it to a broad grin as he completed her sentence:
Next time: Money for Old Pope
(Cygnus Bazza's collection of ficlets on the theme of 'A Cold Fish' were too long for the Ficlet Challenge and have been moved to the Fan Fiction Section)
‘You’re lucky to be alive.’ That is what he said to me. ‘That was a bad crash, and if I hadn’t seen it and pulled you out . . .’
Fine. So I was meant to be grateful, was I, that this passing stranger had seen my flyer crash, and had fought his way through the flames to rescue me? Grateful that, for the second time in my life, I owed my survival to the goodwill of someone I didn’t even know? Well, my gratitude was not so easily bought. No-one plunges into a burning flyer to save a stranger. No-one, least of all on Gauda Prime, sees a flyer crash and runs towards it. No-one, except someone who stands to gain. And what he stood to gain was sitting on the chair beside the bed. ORAC. Broken – and that was where I was lucky.
It took me some time to work that out. In my defence, my injuries were considerable - a broken leg, two broken ribs and some bad burns - and I spent most of those first days asleep. During this time my rescuer – Cressemy was the name he gave me – had hidden me and had brought in a doctor. A good man, he said, who wouldn’t tell anyone. I did not ask why he should not.
I was in an upstairs room, small and lit by a skylight. Loud voices came up from below. ‘My bar,’ Cressemy had said, arriving with my dinner, although I had not asked him. It was busy with Federation troops, he went on – they had been conducting a search, but had not found my room, which was apparently hidden behind a store-room, and were now relaxing. He gave me a searching look. I said nothing. He helped me to sit up and put the tray where I could reach it, then continued.
"‘We’ve had some excitement here in the last few days. They’ve killed Roj Blake, the outlaw. They’re celebrating."
"Really." I did not make it a question.
"Yes. Roj Blake, Soolin Rasmussen, Vila Restal, Del Tarrant, Dayna Mellanby – a lot of big names. Only one they haven’t found yet is Kerr Avon. He got away, but was badly wounded, so he won’t have got far. Only a matter of time before some farmer finds the body, I reckon." He gave me another look.
"‘Good," I said, emphatically, and was pleased to see that he looked shocked, "Good riddance to them all. People like that just make life harder for the law-abiding citizen. Well done the Federation."
"Oh quite." And he retreated.
Left alone, I considered what he had told me. I was surprised to find that I felt very little grief for my former colleagues. What I had said in defiance turned out to be what I felt – good riddance to them all! I, it seemed, had been as badly duped by Blake as any of them – duped into thinking of myself as a rebel leader, into plotting against the Federation. Ridiculous! That idea had died with the squalid bounty hunter I had shot, with the pathetic fools who had followed first him, then me. Blake had not lived up to their wretched ideals – he had been about to betray us to the Federation, after all. They had not survived their gullibility – and I, supposedly so much more intelligent, so much less easily deceived, had almost died with them. Well, no more of that nonsense.
The first thing I had to do was to get well. The second was to escape. I concentrated on the first, and, as I did so, tried to work out what Cressemy wanted. He clearly wasn’t going to hand me in. Blackmail? My help in some ill-conceived rebellion? He made no suggestions indicative of either. Almost as soon as I regained consciousness, I had seen ORAC sitting by my bed, and I began to wonder. I asked Cressemy about it.
That? That was some sort of computer, he said. It had been in the flyer with me. I had asked him to go back for it and he had. It appeared to be broken, but – although he didn’t profess to be an expert on computers – he thought that it could be repaired.
So he expected me to believe that, did he? No-one goes into a burning flyer to save a stranger – no-one at all then goes back to get that stranger’s computer. ORAC had clearly been the attraction all along. He had got it out, had found it broken, and, unable to repair it himself, had saved me to do it. Well, I had seen through his charade of altruism. I would use him as he was using me. I would get better and I would leave – but without repairing ORAC first.
The days passed. I slept, and ate, and slept, and gradually began to recover. Soon I could sit up without too much pain. A while longer, and I could stand up with assistance – then without it – then I could limp slowly across the floor. Eventually I was able to make my way down to the bar when it was closed. Cressemy continued to care for me without asking for anything – without even saying much. In the wider world things progressed too. Blake’s death set off a rebellion, inevitably, but it was crushed, and the Federation continued its pacification programme. Well, that was always going to happen. It meant nothing to me.
One day when I came downstairs Cressemy put my dinner in front of me, then sat down.
"I reckon you’ll be leaving us soon then, Chevron?" (I had given my name as Dal Chevron, an alias I had used before.)
"Yes," I said, "I think this leg’s healing well enough. If you can manage to get me passage offworld, I won’t trespass on your hospitality any longer."
"I thought you might say that. They’ve started flights to Hildebrandt’s World now, and I can get you a ticket. I've got a friend who works in security - he'll see they let you through. Say in three weeks’ time? From there you can go almost anywhere." He smiled, "The benefits of being in the Federation – regular connections to civilization."
"You’ll enjoy that. Quite a change from playing host to Blake – even if you didn’t know who he was."
He gave me a strange look.
"Oh, I knew who he was all right," he said: then he got up and left, as if I wasn’t worth speaking to any more.
He bought me the ticket though, and arranged for a flyer to take me to Gauda Prime’s new spaceport. Before I left I thanked him for his care.
"Don’t mention it," he said, "Oh, one last thing – you might like these." And he handed me the tarial cells I needed to repair ORAC.
"I was exploring that ship the rebels crashed, a few weeks ago. It had a surprisingly sophisticated computer – broken beyond repair of course, but these seem to be OK, and they’ll make your machine" – he gestured at ORAC, hidden in a small trunk "– as good as new. When you want to repair it, that is." For the last time, he smiled. I was stunned.
"Why?" I asked.
"I knew the Rasmussens. She was a nice kid. Well goodbye then, Chevron. I shouldn’t imagine we’ll meet again."
So I had misjudged him, I thought, as the flyer took me to the spaceport. He had done it all out of the goodness of his heart – that, and a sentimental regard for Soolin. Well, more fool him. I would send him the price of my ticket as soon as I had the money, with a generous addition to cover my food and board. Then we would be quit. And I would settle down and concentrate on becoming rich – which with my brains and a computer of ORAC’s calibre would be child’s play – and I would never again need to be thankful to anyone for anything.
It was Soolin’s voice, but what was she doing in his quarters?
He opened one eye. She came into focus and behind her was the sky.
“What the….How did I get out here?”
Soolin smiled that smile of hers.
“I was about to ask you the same question. Well?”
He propped himself up on one elbow and surveyed the area.
No-one else was around to see this rather embarrassing moment.
“You know,” Soolin continued, watching him get to his feet, “You could catch your death out here, lying on that cold, wet grass.”
“Thank you for the advice.”
“So, what are you doing out here, Avon?”
He averted his gaze,
“I wish I knew.”
“So what delights await us today, Vila?” Tarrant asked.
“How about poached fish?”
“You know how to do that?” Dayna asked incredibly.
“Orac has a vast recipe base, you know. He can tell me.”
“So what gave you the idea to go out fishing this morning?”
“Oh, something gave me the idea.” He laid the one solitary cold fish on the equally cold slab.
“Is that it? One fish, between us all?” Tarrant enquired.
“You may jest, but that took a lot of work, especially as I don’t have a proper fishing rod or pole.”
“So what exactly was it that made you decide to go fishing?” said Soolin joining in the conversation.
“Oh, you know, just something out on the surface. Reminded me of a cold fish, just lying there…Where is Avon by the way?”
“Gone to get changed, before he catches a chill.”
In the crew room, Vila was deciding what wine to have with his fish. Dayna was in the kitchen preparing the fish, Once Orac had detailed the exact procedure, Vila had baulked at the idea of gutting the fish.
“So you just decided to go fishing out of the kindness of your heart did you?” Avon was standing in the doorway, “It wasn’t anything to do with seeing something out there?”
“Well now you mention it. By the way, lying on that cold, damp grass like that, you could catch your death….”
“So I’ve been told. You could have woken me up.”
“You looked so peaceful. I didn’t want to disturb you… this time.”
“Oh yes. You were out there yesterday, but I thought, best to mind my own business”.
“So why, exactly, have you taken to sleeping out in the cold, night air? I’m all for healthy living, but outside, under the stars. Why?”
“Does it matter?”
“Maybe not to you. But what if you do catch your death…?”
“Why this sudden interest in my well being?”
“Because it affects all of us,” Soolin replied, walking into the crew room, “And it seems that Orac has noticed this problem too. Besides, I’m not fond of finding a cold fish on the kitchen work top.”
“It seems to have solved the problem. We have a little trip ahead of us.”
Vila could smell the burning as his one solitary catch went up in flames, “What a good idea,” he said, “And maybe we could find a proper fish shop.”
Having a Good Time
“Where are we going, Tarrant?” Avon asked tersely.
“It had better be worth it.”
“According to Orac, it will be.”
Avon stared in disbelief at the neon sign.
“Bed-e-byes Dreamland! Are you out of your mind?”
“I’m not, but you’ll find that you will be far happier after visiting this establishment...”
Vila mumbled something along the lines of, “Not likely.”
The small service robot greeted them all, and once Tarrant had explained the problem with regards to Avon not sleeping at all well and ending up outside on the cold, wet grass, it was only too eager to assist in getting a nice new mattress selected for the not very pleased man standing in front of it with an icy glare on his face.
Vila found a mattress and tried it for bounciness.
“Hey, Dayna, Soolin, why don’t you….”
“Don’t even think about it,” Dayna warned.
“Not if you value your life, anyway,” responded Soolin.
Mattresses selected, Vila, Dayna and Soolin found their way to the next establishment that Orac had advised them about on this spaceport.
“Ye Olde Harry Ramsdens?” Dayna asked.
“No idea,” replied Villa, “But Orac says they do the best Fish and Chips in this quadrant. Let’s go find out.”
On the terrace, facing the setting sun, each with a portion of freshly fried fish and chips neatly wrapped in newspaper and with a glass of wine, the trio relaxed and basked in the warm breeze.
“I could get used to this,” Vila said.
The two girls agreed, sipping their wine.
Tarrant appeared, his own portion clasped in his hand.
“Be thankful for small mercies,” he declared, seating himself next to Dayna.
“Avon not with you?” Soolin asked.
“Afraid not. It took 4 of those robots to transfer him and the mattress to the Scorpio.”
“Was he complaining?”
“No, fast asleep the whole time. You know, those mattresses of Dorian’s were well past their sell by date. No wonder Avon was grumpy.”
“He’s not going to be too pleased about us wasting time here. Just wait until he wakes up,” Vila moaned.
“That could be some time, I think.”
“Orac is playing some soothing lullabies.”
Soolin and Dayna almost choked on their wine.
“You know, there will be fireworks when he does wake up,” Soolin warned.
“Speaking of which,” Vila interrupted, “I think the display is about to start and we’ve got ringside seats.”
A rocket shot up to the sky and exploded in a myriad of white and gold stars.
From below the terrace came the sound of excited voices, all marvelling at the beautiful light display above their heads.
And in amongst that crowd, one man turned his face towards the dazzling lights, grateful for the chance to relax and enjoy himself.
Avon just hoped that Orac wouldn’t inform the others about his duplicity, as he took a sip of his wine and smiled.
Link to image
Dec 2021 Ficlet Challenge by PURPLECLERIC
As is customary by now, there is no ficlet challenge for December - instead channel all of your vast creative talents to the Advent Calendar.
But if you need a prompt to prime the pump, here's the final phrase of the year... Read 'em and Weep
C'mon - it's B7 - you weren't expecting something cheery, were you? (of course, they could be tears of laughter)
On a personal note, although I haven't contributed much more than the prompts, I have really enjoyed all of your contributions. The diversity, the thought provoking takes and the humour are a great pleasure to read. If you are in agreement, i would love to continue these next year.
Here's wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful New