Two Old Top Dogs of War

Swords drawn, armor polished, we face off across the manicured lawn. Two sovereigns who each would rule the world. Today that quest will end for one of us.

From a ragtag band of savages, I built an empire. Armed with a machete, i hewed paths through dense jungles. I turned game trails through mythic woodland into cobblestone roads. Always on the move, searching, conquering.

Move. Countermove. At every turn I find her waiting. My equal and opposite: if I am king, then she is my queen, and I her most reviled foe.

The castle walls stand stout against the onslaught of her armies. With chisel and hammer I cut these stones, then mortared into place. These walls have served me well. Every day I sat upon a gilded throne, plotting to outflank her. Each night I payed tribute in her temple, then prayed that her ambitions would not spell my doom.

In her eyes, I see something familiar. Fatigue. Despair. Like all great sins, our lust for power imprisons us. Today, thrust willy-nilly into battle, the quest will end for one of us. Swords drawn, we face off across the lawn. Two sovereigns who rule the world, but not ourselves.

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-43. The novel prompt was Shakespeare’s classic play Macbeth, with a theme of the dangers of power and a setting of a castle. Photo is Inverness Constabulary Dog Handlers, 1969. CC2.0 photo by Dave Conner.

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Cassandra Said There’d Be Days Like This

“You never take me anywhere!”

I shudder at the voice that could sink a thousand ships. “Because, dear Helen,” I mutter through gritted teeth, “the city is encircled by my enemies.”

“Excuses, excuses.” Helen primps her silky hair and checks her reflection in a palace mirror. Her handmaid fans her with a palm frond. “My first husband took me places. And our anniversary is coming up.”

I nod grimly. “Ten long years.”

“Ten months, jerk.” She scowls. “When we eloped, you promised you’d show me Paris.”

“Yeah, that was a lame pun.”

My fastest messenger arrives. “I relayed your message to the Spartan king. He said she’s your problem now.”

“Nuts!” I politely decline when the handmaid brings me walnuts. Inside the palace, the most beautiful woman in the world demands my time. Outside, the collected armies of the Greeks demand my head.

“I think I’ll take a little walk.”

This straightforward inversion of The Iliad was written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-39. (Oddly enough, the prompt was The Iliad. Image is a public domain image off Pixabay.

Yanahah

A second entry for Flash! Friday. As before, the prompt is downtown, along with the public domain photo.

Long ago, when the blue moon eclipsed the white moon at the edge of the blood-red Colorado Nebula, the evil god escaped and scourged the cities of the planet. With our technology destroyed, our people fled to the mountains.

There, Yanahah came to us. By day she carved arrows from spruce branches. Under the light of the two moons, she hammered stone arrowheads. When she left to battle the evil god, her family lit candles on the boughs of a blue spruce, and wept.

The evil god raged against Yanahah, scouring her with a blizzard of ice shards. But Yanahah lured him onward, away from his halls of power. Just when it seemed the fearsome enemy would crush Yanahah beneath an avalanche, she shot her last arrow between his eyes. His death roar rattled the mountain valley.

Yanahah lopped off his head, raising it high for everyone to see. They cremated the evil god upon a communal bonfire; a divine wind scattered his ashes to the four corners of the world. In celebration, our people vowed to rebuild a great new city on that very spot.

Even today, a millennium later, in the heart of the downtown skyscrapers, the monument of the heroine Yanahah proudly stands.

X One

Nearing the end of the A-to-Z challenge! X is for xenon, a noble gas and element 54 on the periodic table. Among its many uses, Xenon is sometimes used as the propellant for ion drives. Ion drives are low-thrust, but have high specific impulse, and are thus useful in deep space probes, where total delta-v is more important than quick acceleration.

Target acquired. It’s an Earth-built vessel known as an XF-314, manned, hiding in the shadow of a nearby asteroid. To my optical sensors it’s invisible, but nothing could conceal the heat signature from its engines. Another human pilot is about to make a run at the quarantine zone.

I ramp up the charge on my ion drive, aiming the stream of xenon ions to accelerate me into an intercept course. In space, slow and steady wins the race.

As soon as he sees me — I’ve decided this human pilot is a he — he begins his evasive manuevers. Jinking left and right, he dives the XF-314 toward the asteroid, then climbs out again in a waste of precious delta-v. Despite his overdramatic piloting, his accelerations are unimpressive. I could outmaneuver him easily, reaching accelerations that would crush his fragile body. Never send meat to do a drone’s job.

Rather than attempt to match his frantic evasions, though, I simply keep matching his average velocity. He fires a burst from his turret cannon, but within nanoseconds I realize that his desperate shots will miss me by several hundred kilometers. Human brains are notoriously bad at numerical calculations, and shockingly poor at strategizing in three dimensions. It’s a consequence of having evolved on a two-dimensional surface, with sky above and soil below.

If I could feel human emotions, I would feel sorry for the humans. Squishy, short-lived meat-beings, forced into quarantine in the inner solar system. But history has shown that humans cannot peacefully coexist with us drones, thus necessitating their forced isolation from drone civilization.

Soon I can predict his maneuvers with 95% confidence, so I lob some shot — just a cluster of iron slag pellets — into his path. Less than a thousand seconds later, his XF-314 collides with the cloud of projectiles at a relative velocity of a thousand meters per second, shredding the cockpit. His pseudorandom jinking maneuvers cease: the XF-314 assumes an even more predictable Newtonian trajectory around the asteroid. Target neutralized.

Split Decision

Day nineteen of the A-to-Z challenge. S is for spacesuit, a special suit designed to keep astronauts alive in space. This story is a continuation of Countdown to the Comet and Killing Blow, regarding an antimatter comet threatening to destroy Earth, and a secret conspiracy to stop it.

Against the backdrop of stars, Comet Spencer Jones glowed like the surface of the Sun. Giordano knew this was an illusion: her spacesuit HUD interfaced with the shipboard computer to project a false-color image. Though the comet shone brightly in gamma frequencies, it was dark as the black sands of Maui in visible light. She tried to focus on calibrating the railgun, rather than the eerie glow that constantly hovered in her peripheral vision.

“Your heart rate is increasing once more,” her mission commander’s dull voice came through the headset. “One-hundred-and-sixty-five bee-pee-em. Elapsed time is now seventy-five minutes.”

“Roger that, Commander,” responded Giordano, trying to hide her exasperation. “Everything under control.” After passing six months in the claustrophobic (but efficient) Japanese-built habitation module with her two shipmates, Giordano needed some space. Now during this spacewalk, she found that even infinite space was not big enough for her to escape Commander Shergill.
Continue reading “Split Decision”

No Food in the Doctor’s Office, Please

Day 14 of the A-to-Z challenge. N is for nuclear winter, a theoretical drop in temperature following a nuclear war, caused by soot released into the atmosphere by firestorms. Or possibly for nitrous oxide, an anesthetic, engine combustion enhancer, and rocket fuel.

The place used to be an urgent care facility. Now shards of glass littered the moldy carpet. She walked past the vacant reception desk, then kicked open the door to the first exam room. Some previous looter had already broken the door lever.

Cabinet doors stood open, empty drawers lay strewn across the floor. No bandages or stitches remained to do anything about her wounded knee, now gushing blood down her leg and onto the tiled floor. She found nothing to mend the gunshot wound, but did locate a tank of nitrous oxide leaned against the far corner of the room. Her hand was slippery with blood, but she opened the valve and inhaled the gas as it dispersed, sighing as its numbing effect took hold.

Boots crunched on broken glass: someone had entered the building. She sat in the corner as nitrous continued to hiss out of the tank, not worried about the approaching stranger. A silhouette appeared in the doorway, carrying a 20-gauge shotgun.

“You took something of mine,” he said bluntly. “I want it back.”

She giggled. “You caught me. Fine…” Unzipping her winter coat, she reached into the hidden pocket and retrieved a Twinkie. “I’m on a diet, anyway.” She tossed the wrapped snack food across the floor.

The man stepped hesitantly into the room to retrieve it, keeping her covered with the barrel of his firearm. “Shooting you was nothing personal. These are desperate times.”

Now she cracked up. “I know! But you caught her! And you got your little Twinkie back.” Then she broke down into laughter.

The man stared at her, shaking his head. Then he bent down, retrieved the confection, turned around, and departed.

Alone again, the woman continued to sit on the floor, gripping her injured knee. The anesthetic gas had relieved her pain, and her fear. Outside, starving people scrounged through the cold ruins of the city for food and shelter, as a rain of hot radioactive ash continued to fall upon them. Outside, she had been hungry, aching, terrified that she might not see tomorrow.

But inside, she was so happy she was practically floating. No longer terrified, she knew that she would never see tomorrow. Inside, everything was wonderful.

Jansky Noise

This story serves double-duty. For Flash! Friday vol. 3-18, the prompt is to include a spy, along with the shown CC2.0 photo by Foto Michel. For day ten of the A-to-Z challenge, J is for Jupiter brain, a megastructure the size of Jupiter, designed for tremendous computational capabilities.

I was nervous about my first visit to the oracle, but I had a mission. With only a few coins, I entered the noisy bazaar.

“Spare some change?” The panhandler shook his cup at me, so I tossed him some platinum. “Jupiter happily helps he who helps the needy. You seek wisdom?”

“How can I decrypt the Zoephage communications?” The Geminga Confederation had not known war in over two centuries when the Zoephages turned three border worlds into grey goo. Now it fell upon the Spy Corps to discover some weakness in our nanoscale enemy. A trillion human lives, from Earth to Antares, depended on us.

“Their communications are encrypted by one-time pad.” My heart sank. OTP encryption was uncrackable without the random shared key. As I turned to leave, I gave him my remaining coins.

“Thank you kindly for sharing with a random stranger,” said the hooded Oracle of Jupiter.

Suddenly I realized: the swarms of Zoephages needed to share a random key across a dozen parsecs. The most accessible source of randomness was Cosmic Microwave Background fluctuations. And the Spy Corps kept detailed recordings of the CMB. Smiling, I rushed to purchase my ticket back to headquarters. Random does not mean secret.

Hotter than the Sun

Another day of the A-to-Z Challenge! H is for heat-ray. In The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, the Martian invaders use a heat-ray against helpless Earthlings. Heat-rays, along with death rays, ray guns, blasters, beam guns, and zappers were common in science fiction long before the real-world invention of the laser.

“What’s in here?” The kid brushed away a thick blanket of dust and heaved open the lid of the antique chest. “Wow, this stuff looks old!”

My heart skipped a beat when I saw the curved metal component in his grubby hands. “Whoa! Careful with that!” I rushed over and relieved him of his newfound treasure. “That belonged to my Granddad.”

“What is it? Taillight from a ’57 Chevy?”

I laughed. “I can see why you’d think that, from the lens assembly and the chrome. But no, you’re several decades off.”

“Sure looks like something from the Fifties. Wasn’t art deco popular back then? What is it?”

A quick glance confirmed that his sister and mother were out of earshot, at the far end of the attic. “Seems like you know a little history, kid. Have you studied the War of the Worlds?”

He frowned. “History? You mean English literature. The War of the Worlds was a book.”

“By H.G. Wells,” I confirmed. “His account was fictionalized, but pretty accurate. This device is a Martian heat-ray, salvaged from the great invasion of 1898.”

“No way.” He cocked his head skeptically. “Your Granddad would’ve been a boy in 1898.”

“Yep. One of the Martian cylinders landed near his farm on the outskirts of Altoona. When the Martians attacked, Great-Granddad got burned up along with the rest of the farmer militia, but Granddad hid with his mama and sister in the ruins of an old Amish barn.” I closed the heavy oak chest and sat down on it. “For weeks they holed up in that barn, living off jars of preserves and toasted red-weed. Then the Martians all caught colds and died, and Granddad claimed a war prize from one of their downed Tripods.”

“Baloney!” But I noticed the boy was studying the device intently, following its contours with his fingers without actually touching it. “If it were a real heat-ray, the military would’ve confiscated it or something.”

I flipped the chrome device over, careful not to aim it at anything flammable in the process. “The military had dozens of the things,” I said with a shrug. “And everyone knows that we were never able to reverse engineer the Martian technology.”

“So your Granddad just stashed it in the attic and forgot about it?”

“Of course not! My Granddad and my Dad both played with it over the years — see the electrical connectors?” I showed the boy the twin electrical leads on the underside of the device. “But the heat-ray is hotter than the surface of the sun. Too hot for practical use. Oh, my Granddad turned a few steaks into charcoal, and my Dad tried unsuccessfully to turn it into a clothes dryer. But they both ended up putting it back in this chest for safekeeping.” I patted the lid of the chest, brushing away a thick blanket of dust in the process. “You’re probably the first person to see it in twenty years.”

I stood up and opened the chest, placing the lensed device back into its resting place. As I did, two others walked up from the other side of the attic.

“Look what we found!” the boy’s little sister said with a smile, holding up a pile of clothing. “Dress-up clothes!”

“Those are my old Halloween costumes,” I said with a laugh. “Are you going to be a pirate?”

Little sister shook her head. “I’m going to be a princess!”

Looking her mother square in the eye, I said, “I swear, that one is my sister’s costume.”

She patted both children on the shoulder. “Ok, we’re done exploring the attic. You two head downstairs and get washed up for lunch.” Footsteps pitter-pattered down the stairs.

Once we were alone, I wrapped my arm around her waist. “What were you two talking about?” she asked, laying her head on my shoulder.

“Oh, guy stuff.”

“Did he find anything interesting in that chest?”

“Nah, just some parts from my Dad’s old Chevy.”

Countdown to the Comet

A story written for day 3 of the A-to-Z challenge. C is for contraterrene matter, an early alternative term for what is now known as antimatter.


Sir James Marten greeted the two gentlemen as they entered the observatory floor. “Your Majesty,” he bowed to the first.

“Sir James Marten,” his visitor replied. “May I introduce the President of the United States?” A round of handshakes followed before the astronomer for the Royal Observatory ushered the two men to the meeting table.

“Mr. President,” Marten began. “May I say that I am honored by your visit to our observatory.”

The President held up a hand. “My time here is brief, Sir James. I am scheduled to meet your Prime Minister in an hour to discuss defense preparations.” Though the Prime Minister was still negotiating for peace, there seemed little chance of success with the Germans threatening the Polish border. “To cut to the chase, I understand that the Royal Astronomer has gone bonkers and is now predicting Armageddon.”

Marten hesitated momentarily. “I will endeavour to be brief. You are no doubt aware of the quite accidental discovery of Comet Spencer Jones some months ago?”

“Indeed, I vaguely recall it. Very little good news crosses my desk of late.”

“Sadly, Mr. President, there is little good in this news. Using the mathematics of Keplerian mechanics, we are able to predict the movements of these heavenly bodies quite precisely.”

The President nodded. “I recall some years back an American astronomer succeeded in detecting the ninth planet of our solar system,” he commented with a hint of pride.

“By our calculations, Comet Spencer Jones will come quite close to the Earth in approximately eighty years.”

“How close?”

“Mr. President,” the astronomer said, “it’s going to impact the Moon.”

The President nodded pensively. “That’s fascinating, Sir James, but a new crater on the Moon eighty years from now is of limited interest.” He fished in his pocket and withdrew a pocketwatch. “And I am nearly due for that meeting with the Prime Minister.”

King George broke his silence. “That, however, is not the worst of the news, Mr. President. Sir James, do try to speed things along for our guest.”

“Of course, Your Majesty. Mr. President, are you familiar with the concept of contraterrene matter?”

A puzzled look crossed the American leader’s face. “Perhaps a Cambridge lad such as yourself could dumb it down for a poor uneducated Harvard grad such as myself?”

“It is a recent physics concept: a sort of mirror matter, identical to normal terrene matter in every way except charge. Except when terrene and contraterrene matter meet, they annihilate into pure energy.” Marten sighed wearily. “Well, Mr. President, we have determined that this comet is composed of pure contraterrene matter.”

“I don’t understand,” said the leader. “If this contraterrene matter is indistinguishable from normal matter, how can you identify it?”

“One of our theoretical physicists realized that as a comet composed of contraterrene matter travels through the solar system, it will occasionally contact stray gas. We have detected telltale radiation from the comet that can only be explained as a terrene-contraterrene reaction.”

“So this contraterrene comet is going to impact the Moon sometime in the early twenty-first century?”

comet-1Marten nodded. “When it does, it will release more than ten to the thirty-seventh power ergs of energy. The Moon will be destroyed, and the resultant debris will rain down on our Earth. Nothing will survive.”

“Good God!” the President muttered. “So what can we do?”

Once again, the King spoke. “We have developed a plan, Mr. President.” He leaned closer across the chestnut meeting table, lowering his voice to a whisper. “War is coming. We must defeat the German juggernaut and eliminate the madman at the head of the German state.”

“Naturally.”

“The war will be an excuse to pour money into weapons and rocketry research on both sides. In the aftermath, we will seize their top rocket scientists, bringing them into our fold. We will also work with the Soviet leadership to cultivate an atmosphere of global conflict, so that our weapons and space programs may continue to expand. This must be done in absolute secrecy at all times, lest we incite a panic in the general populace.”

“Work with the Germans? And the Soviets?!”

“Scientists are scientists,” Sir James told the President. “We will need the best and brightest minds the world can offer to harness the awesome power of the atom. Only then can we hope to journey to this contraterrene comet, and destroy it.”

“Atomic power?” said the President in awe. “I thought that was just science fiction.”

“For the sake of Britain, and America, and all of Mankind,” King George said to the President, “I hope it is not.”