Voting for Short Story Contest (148) Theme: "Acceptance" We have three excellent entries in this contest. No excuses, everyone should be voting in this one! The winner will be revealed in two weeks and the winner thread will be stickied until the next contest's winner is crowned. No more entries are allowed in this contest. Entries are listed in the poll in the order I received them. Voting will end Sunday the 26th of January 2014 ~1745 (5:45pm) Pacific Time to give everyone a chance to read the stories. I encourage authors to vote. It is acceptable to vote for yourself, but I encourage you to vote honestly. In the name of good sportsmanship only vote for yourself if you have read all the other stories and given them your honest evaluation. Consider how the author has responded to the theme, as well as the quality of the writing and overall impression of the story in making your decision. __________________________________________________ Strike two [3004 words] The man was woken up rather abruptly by the image of the ground trying to crush him. Or he was the one falling towards it. It was confusing. He didn’t have time to shield his face with his arms or the common sense to stifle his scream and close his mouth. The water in the puddle was frightfully cold and the mud in it tasted of decomposing vegetal matter. With great difficulty, he got up on all four shaky limbs and spat out the disgusting murky water. He didn’t feel well at all. His first attempt at standing upright was a total failure, and he promptly fell back down, on his back this time. The sight above dislodged some of his memories, bringing them back as though through a thick fog. About three meters above his head, an open ovoid construct lay suspended, held fast by the web like branches of the trees. Further completing the egg-like appearance of the thing was a series of translucent milky bands which hung from its innards. To the foggy mind of the man they looked like tendrils of egg white frozen mid flow. “Seat. Belts,” he croaked. His throat was parched and painful. To top that off, a migraine was pounding the insides of his head into mush. “Capsule,” came the next word unbidden. “Planetary insertion. Pod.” The last word seemed to have kicked his mind into a higher gear. It kind of made sense now. The shakiness in his limbs, the nausea and the migraine, were all due to something called hypersleep. Piece by piece, his mind cobbled together the story of what must have happened. Partly by logic, but mostly by flying in a series of concepts from a nebulous place beyond the fog that shrouded his consciousness, he tried to figure it out. He was definitely on an alien planet, judging by the blue sun peeking through the foliage. He had arrived via capsule, which meant that the ship had either evacuated him in an emergency, or, more worryingly, couldn’t be buggered to land. A summary inspection of his thin, plain clothes told him this was definitely not a planned incursion. So did the fact that he didn’t have any kind of equipment. The image of a gun came unbidden to his mind, and he felt it was important to have one. He looked around, but there was no sign of one, either on the ground or in the capsule above. What happened next completed the puzzle. “Shit,” he whispered. The creamy white surface of the capsule had begun to flake and blacken. It peeled and fell off in large swaths, turning into long trails of ash and soot midway to the ground. The descent had been planned, but not in a good way. They were dumping him here. The man didn’t remember yet who they were or what he had done to deserve it, but he knew it’ll come back to him eventually. The sounds above snapped him back into the then and there. The greatly diminished mass of the pod had begun to slip through the branches and would crush him if he didn’t move. A burst of adrenaline defeated the weakness in his muscles as he scrambled out of the puddle. The capsule fell shortly afterwards, spattering his back with cold mud. He glanced back and saw the thing had collapsed in on itself on impact, becoming a black mound of dust. He stared at it for quite a while, trying to think of what he should do next. “Hey!” The voice made him scramble to his feet, his fists instinctively at the ready. His knees weren’t shaking anymore, a sign that the hypersleep aftershock had all but disappeared. He felt more like his old self. Strong, fast, and in his mind, nigh indestructible. He had a strong sensation that he had been some kind of a soldier before this, but the details were still hazy. After a moment’s thought, he lowered his hands and tried to appear as non-threatening as possible. The voice had been female and not in the least malicious. “Come out,” he said gently. “I… I won’t hurt you.” A young woman’s face appeared out from behind a bush. She was reasonably pretty, if one didn’t take into account the muddy smudges and the general patina of dust covering her face. She was definitely human, but he had trouble accurately discerning her race. The blonde hair and the shape of her green eyes marked her as being of Earth descent. However, the pointy ears told him she’d come from Chimeria, the planet of the gene manipulators. To make this confusing mess worse, the scars on her neck, which he had initially taken to be just lines of dirt, were the vestigial remains of gills, like the hydro adapted men from the ocean planet Sapphire had. A true puzzle, if there ever was one. “Whatcha name, guy?” she said, eyeing him worriedly. Luckily, she spoke a mongrel dialect of Erthein, his native language. “Lukelen Mackinley” he said. Well, that settled another thing. He remembered his own name. “From Earth.” “Dat far ‘way?” she asked, the words shooting out in such a rapid-fire way that he had to pause a second to decipher the question. “Well,” he replied finally, “I have no idea what planet this is, but speaking from our human perspective, it’s inconceivably distant.” She looked at him blankly. He smiled when he realized how ridiculous that must have sounded to the ears of an almost feral human being like her. “Yes, it’s very far away,” he added hastily, stifling a grimace. “What’s your name, anyway?” “Nob’dy give me any,” she replied shyly. “Folks call me how they like. So I picked one of those. I’m Gilly.” “Well,” he replied with a smile, “it’s nice to meet you, Gilly.” They stared at each other, neither of them really sure what to say next. Lukelen sure as hell was at a loss over how to relate to this girl. Beyond the exchange of names, what else did the two have in common? If you’d open a cosmic geography manual at the barbaric planets section, chances were that you’d find a picture of a girl just like Gilly, dirty and dressed in crude fur clothes. He, on the other hand, came from Earth, who’d been one of the bastions of civilization for millennia. Images came to his head, of kilometer high skyscrapers and prodigious numbers of aircars zipping between them like bees around a hive. “To tell you the truth, Gilly,” he continued before the silence got even more awkward, “I don’t know what to do next. I’ve been dumped here by my… friends, and I have no idea why yet. Could you help me?” She said nothing for a while longer, content to stare at him from head to toe. He couldn’t blame her. Although she looked young, her eyes were old, like they’d seen one bad thing too many. The crow’s feet and the mouth set in a permanent frown were signs of the hardships she’d had to endure. “You hungry?” she said. Lukelen nodded slowly. She motioned for him to follow and disappeared back in the forest thicket. *** Gilly’s abode was a teepee covered with sown together furs, not far from where he’d crash landed. The inside was stuffy and it smelled profusely of smoke. They shared some sort of rodent like creature roasted on a stick and washed it down with funky tasting water from a tattered skin. He pondered briefly about how clean it was or if it had been boiled first, but then promptly decided that he’d rather not know. The matter would be settled soon enough if he got sick. After the meal, Gilly threw him a couple of furs and pointed to the tent’s exit. He wanted to sleep inside, but he got out without arguing. He’d have been suspicious too. The following morning she started showing him a few things about foraging and surviving in the forest. Lukelen welcomed the physical activity involved, as it served to warm him up a bit. The night had been cold and the furs didn’t quite cover him well enough. To top it all off, the moment he started a little fire, a sleepy looking Gilly had stormed out of the tent and stomped it out, calling him a fool. Again, he didn’t argue. She must have had her reasons. They were tracking an animal that Gilly had called pig fox, and Lukelen was feeling introspective. Some additional parts of his memory had returned, but he was still no closer to figuring out why he was here. “Can I ask you a question, Gilly?” he said. She raised an eyebrow and nodded. “You didn’t seem all that surprised when you found me. I thought you’d be more scared.” “Woudja have been?” she replied. “Yeah, I would have been terrified.” “Then yer stupid,” she said, matter-of-factly. “People like you fall from the sky all the time.” “Really? Just like me?” “Some have black skin, some white. Some have pointy ears, slitted eyes like a leopard or holes in they necks. But all are like you. Stupid, always talking nonsense and helpless like a baby.” “I think I’m far from helpless,” scoffed Lukelen. “Oh sure,” she snapped back with a ferocity that stopped him in his tracks. “Ye all can kill other men really easy and really good. That’s all ye know to do. But one week in the forest alone and you’d starve.” He didn’t reply, because her words flooded his mind with images. Thousands of hours of melee combat simulations. The feel of the heavy armor on his shoulders. The weight of a rifle in his hands. He rubbed his hands together and felt the sword calluses in his palms. He traced a finger over the scar in his right eye socket. A memento of the idiot’s cut he’d received when he’d fired his first sniper rifle. He was a soldier of Earth and this was a disciplinary battalion planet. But he still didn’t know what he’d done to be sent here. Lukelen didn’t say much else for the rest of the day. It was close to dark and they were back at the camp. After a lengthy track, they managed to capture the pig fox, and Gilly was now busy skinning it. He was watching her intently, but not what her hands were doing. It all made sense now. She was the offspring of who knows how many generations of convicts. Modern stellar societies considered themselves too sophisticated for the death penalty, so they established penal colonies on empty planets like this. Thinking from his new perspective, he couldn’t help but notice the irony. They didn’t kill their prisoners, but they sure as hell loved to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to kill each other every day in their senseless wars. A cry from the forest pulled him out of his reverie. It took him a while to realize that there had been words in it, but they weren’t spoken in Erthein, but Chimertic. “Oy, bitch!” called the yet unseen man. “You home? We’ve come a calling!” “Remember us, honey?” said another, deeper voice. Lukelen shot Gilly a concerned look. He expected here to be scared, or at least surprised, but she was neither. She just looked sad. She put down the skinning knife and the fox carcass, and headed for the tent, her head bowed and her shoulders drooping. “Gilly, what’s happening?” he asked, the concern obvious in his voice. “Who are they? What do they want?” “It don’t matter,” she said weakly. “If I let them do what they want, they go ‘way. It’s bad if I fight back. Worse if I run. You run. Hide.” She went inside without another word. Lukelen was at a loss for a moment. He stared at the tent, unsure what to do. There was a rustle behind him and he whirled around. Two men had emerged from the thicket and were measuring him from head to toe. They had the pointy ears of the Chimerics and their bodies showed the genetic alterations which the Gene lords had bestowed upon them. They were undoubtedly stronger than him, but his training had taught him that ability counted more. And somehow, he knew that few had more ability than he did. He christened the strangers Tall and Ugly. “What’s this, then?” grunted Tall. “Did our little girl find herself another john?” “Well, it doesn’t matter, boyo,” continued Ugly with a nasty smile. “We’re here, so you’d better scram, asshole. We’ve got some business to take care of.” “Like hell you are, you Chimeric pieces of shit,” spat Lukelen. “Get out of here and you might yet live. Now!” The two shot each other a glance, and as if on cue, produced a dagger each. They were crude, made out of chipped flint and bound to primitive wooden handles with strips of leather. He wanted to laugh. There was no way a blade like that could do him any kind of serious damage. He advanced towards them with a grin. They shouted and rushed him. Lukelen dodged Tall and caught Ugly’s wrist, the stone blade halting a few centimeters from his chest. He twisted the hand and heard a satisfying crunch. He pushed Ugly away with a kick in the stomach and caught the falling knife with his other hand. Now armed, he whirled around to see Tall’s knife in mid arc towards his back. He ducked the strike, and stabbed the man underneath the chin. The blade punched through the skin and embedded itself deep in his cranium. He turned around to see what Ugly was up to. His smile was cut short when the left side of his face exploded with pain. He fell flat on his back. He’d been hit with a rock. He groped for Tall’s fallen weapon, but Ugly was faster. The dagger bit into Lukelen’s stomach, but the adrenaline kept him from feeling it much. From experience, he knew that a gut wound was not lethal, so he kept on fighting. He punched Ugly until his knuckles were raw. In a last ditch attempt, the man hit him in the already broken jaw, blinding him with pain. An instant later, when Lukelen came to, his enemy had already fled. He fell back on his back, catching his breath. “Ye idiot!” shouted Gilly. “What?” he said nonplussed. He honestly thought she would be more grateful. “I think I’ve saved you.” The words came out a little mangled. Lukelen’s tongue could feel a little bone fragment jutting out from the inside of his jaw. No matter, he knew it would be healed in a few hours. It still hurt like hell, though, worse than it had ever hurt before. “Ye, but more will come next time,” replied Gilly with exasperation. The next words were spoken in a sadder tone. “And now ye die. Like an idiot.” He laughed softly and got up. He gripped the handle of the knife still stuck in his belly. “I think you’ll find that I’m slightly harder to kill than that.” He pulled the knife out abruptly and Gilly screamed, her eyes wide as she watched the wound. Lukelen looked down as well, still more annoyed than worried. His shirt and trousers were turning black as they were soaking with blood. Holy crap, he thought. He had expected a little bleeding, but the implants underneath his skin should have plugged the wound long ago. Then the last of the adrenaline wore off and the pain started in earnest. Lukelen collapsed face first in the dust. “That’s what ye all say,” whispered Gilly softly to herself. “Then ye die. Like idiots.” *** When Lukelen woke up again he was lying on his back in Gilly’s teepee. He was covered in furs and he was very hot. The right side of his face was swollen and his stomach felt bloated and distended. Everything hurt. The bastards! They had taken away his soldier’s implants, and now he was just a regular human. He was going to die. He could hear a girl’s bloodcurdling screams outside. When he tried to get up, he was abruptly pushed back down. A face appeared in his field of vision, which he identified as Ugly’s. “Well, well,” the man said. “Sit your ass down, Prince Charming. You and I are gonna have some fun. I hear it does wonders for one’s health.” Shortly after, his screams joined Gilly’s. He died before she did. *** To his surprise, he woke up yet again. Even more bafflingly, nothing hurt. Above him was a metal ceiling, painted surgically white. He was still on his battalion’s ship. Metal clasps let go of his arms and legs and the chair he was standing on gave him a sharp shove to get him on his feet. He looked back at the simulation machine and everything came back. “This concludes the disciplinary simulation two for subject Mckinley, Lukelen, Lieutenant,” said the machine’s metallic voice. ”This is the last simulation you are entitled to. Your next offense will be punished by actual physical deportation to a detention planet. In the future, avoid insubordination. Have a nice day.” He exited the room. Just outside was a desk and behind it, a short toadish man was busy writing something on a piece of paper. Lukelen recognized him as the battalion’s sim expert. Upon seeing him, a malicious smile grew on the man’s face. “Did you like that one, Mckinley? I programmed it especially for you.” “Go fuck yourself, ghoul,” he replied serenely as he took back his rifle and sidearm. Heading back to his barracks, Lukelen knew he should be angry, shocked or at least sad. But he felt none of these. He had come to terms with the harsh reality after his first simulation. This was the life of a soldier in Earth’s army. ______________________________________________________ The Dibble [1,518 words] Cedric shuffled about, restlessly hovering over his throne. “Hildegard, my sweet, I am tired and I am bored.” “My dearest, lately, you have spent all of your time staring into the gloomy, infinite void. How did life become so uninteresting?” “I have not been so miserable since eternity began. I wish that existence was brighter and more exciting than it is, my darling.” “I am your soul mate, but even I, the magnificent, all-powerful Hildegard, do not know what to do, oh precious one.” An entity drifted into view and hung back in front of the dais. “Ah, Theodoric, my eminent, all-knowing adviser, with all of your infinite wisdom, tell me what I can do to overcome the tedium and dullness of my being.” “How about a game of Asteroids, your grace?” “I’ve played that game endlessly. I am getting carpal tunnel syndrome.” “Perhaps a fireworks display would please the exalted Cedric.” “That’s a wonderful idea, oh clever one. I want something spectacular, an enormous, impressive exhibition that ephemeral entities will remember for all time.” Hildegard asked, “Who do we know that can bring Cedric’s magnificent concept to life?” “Why, Elyard, of course,” said Theodoric. Cedric laughed heartily. “Elyard, the dibble? Surely, you jest. I have misgivings about him. I am not sure that he has the ectoplasm to carry out such a mission.” Hildegard nodded. “I agree with Cedric. Elyard’s head is full of visions, and he spends far too much time contemplating the infinite. He is just a bumbler. Besides, we have not accepted him as a high entity.” “No, I won’t agree to your recommendation, Theodoric,” said Cedric. “Find me another specter, someone suitable for this gargantuan undertaking.” “Sire, there is no other. You have banished Celedor, the only pyrotechnic expert in the entire void. Now, there is only the dibble.” “Oh, yes, I forgot.” He moaned. “What else can I do? Very well, give the task to the dibble.” “I will summon Elyard and give him your instructions, oh boundless one.” Theodoric floated away. “Hildegard, my love, I do not want to go along with counsel’s advice, but I have no choice.” “Has Elyard ever set off a fireworks display, my cherished one?” “Not that I know of, my beloved, the only thing that I have ever seen him do is shoot off his mouth.” * * * Greetings, Theodoric, the esteemed and cognizant, do you have news?” “Yes, oh lofty one, Elyard has put together plans and seeks an audience with your greatness.” “Bring him here, oh wisest of advice-givers.” Elyard soared before Cedric and remained just beyond reach of the throne. “Your magnificence, I come before Cedric with plans for a pyrotechnic presentation.” “Show me your scroll. Yes, I see, it looks interesting. Is the matter-antimatter mix exact?” “Most assuredly, my calculations were precise to the nth degree.” “They must be correct. I remember the mess we had to clean up the last time we had a fireworks show. We sterilized and sanitized for ages, and I was forced to banish what’s-his-name to the vast emptiness. If you tip the matter-antimatter balance one way or the other, we will have a massive cleanup job, and I will hold you responsible.” “Sire, I am a master of the art of physics. It will be a magnificent exhibition such as you have never seen or will likely see again. When the spectacle ends, nothing will be left except for bland radiation.” “I’m not convinced that you’re right for this business, dibble, but I will gamble on you. If you screw up, however, there will be Hell to pay. Do I make myself clear?” “I understand, oh splendid one. What reward will I receive if I am successful?” “If you pull this off, dibble, if you come up with the most dazzling of pyrotechnic extravaganzas, I will recommend you for acceptance into the Order of the Most High.” “The Most High? Oh, thank you, glorious one!” He paused. “I have one final question, what name will you give this grandest of all shows?” Cedric deliberated for a moment. “Oh, I know… no, no, that’s not it… wait, yes! We will call it The Big Bang. Indeed, everyone will remember that.” “Yes, sire… um, that is very original.” * * * Time passed, and Theodoric escorted Elyard before the sovereign. “Who is he?” asked Cedric. “This is Elyard, my lord.” “The dibble? He has been gone for eons. Has he completed the job?” Theodoric held up a tiny box. Hildegard soared above the object. “Open it.” She peeked into the dark interior. “Hmm, I see nothing.” Cedric took the little container from her. “Why, the thing is empty. Is this some sort of prank?” “No, your majesty,” said Elyard, “I have condensed matter and antimatter to an infinitely small point. I call it a singularity.” Reddened, inflamed with anger, Cedric flung lightning bolts into the murky beyond. “I, Cedric the magnificent, will have you expelled, cast out from the realm!” “No, oh enraged one, you must not,” pleaded Theodoric. “You must have faith in Elyard. He is but a dibble, but he is all we have.” Hildegard interceded. “Let Elyard go ahead with his plans, my dear. If he succeeds, you will be known for eternity, your name written into psalms.” Cedric glided forward until he was face-to-face with Elyard. In a low-pitched voice that echoed in the stillness, he said, “Very well, but if you fail, dibble, I will exile you to the emptiness for all time.” * * * At the arranged time, ethereal entities anxiously hung on to one another, watching, waiting for the show to begin. Finally, the moment arrived, and Elyard released the singularity. It shined like nothing they had ever seen. It expanded rapidly, filling the void with light. Its glorious beauty warmed the cockles of their hearts. After the initial expansion, the energy cooled into enormous, homogeneous clouds. They were more immense and grander than anyone could have imagined. The evanescent beings reached out and touched the glow, gathering particles and flinging them at one another, reveling and frolicking in the vast radiance. Cedric summoned the dibble. “You did something wrong, Elyard. There should have been nothing left.” “Yes, your majesty, I am sorry, I didn’t get the matter-antimatter mix quite right.” “Well, what do we do now?” “The cavorting and dancing of the entities will impart angular momentum. Who knows what can happen?” Cedric glared at his adviser. “Theodoric, I should never have accepted your advice.” “Oh, great one, we have never seen anything like this. Let it all cool down and observe what happens. Perhaps some good will come of it.” As the mists cooled, clumps of dark matter began to contract, and within them gas formed enormous, vibrant spiral and elliptical shapes. “What do you call these things, Elyard?” asked Cedric. “They are galaxies, oh observant one.” Hildegard said, “They’re cute, colorful, and surprisingly inspirational.” “But, how will you clean it up, dibble?” asked Cedric. “By my calculations, angular momentum will cause the particles to coalesce into black holes. Everything will disappear, and the boundless realm will return to normal.” Awestruck, they watched one galaxy while a chasm formed in its center, swirling and twirling. Gas whirled around at incredible speed until it approached the event horizon. All light that touched it did not reflect back but disappeared as if by magic. Gas falling into the abyss formed an accretion disk, which blazed spectacularly. “It’s the brightest and most colorful object I have ever seen, dibble, but I want to see more.” Hydrogen and helium orbiting the black hole combined into magnificent, luminous spheres of plasma, many of which joined into dazzling binary pairs and clusters. “These are stars, your highness,” said Elyard. “I am beginning to like this. The void is no longer lackluster. It brings joy to my heart.” “Look about you, Cedric, my sweet,” said Hildegard. “There are billions of these galaxies and within them countless stars. There is nothing that exists that is grander than this. It is a testament to your greatness, oh boundless one.” “Oh, Hildegard, I am so pleased. I have never seen anything so splendid, so gorgeous.” Cedric turned to Elyard. “Even though your calculations were a bit off, dibble, I applaud your vision, your artistry, and I am delighted with the outcome.” * * * Scores of entities congregated, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Cedric and Hildegard floated over the dais. Elyard, escorted by Theodoric, proceeded to the front and ascended to his rightful place. Cedric handed him a golden scepter, and Elyard humbly accepted. “Formless beings, remember this occasion,” said Cedric. “Elyard, the dibble, is an acknowledged and respected ephemeral entity. From this moment on,” he declared, “he is an esteemed member of the Order of The Most High.” The congregation joyously cheered and shouted. At that instant, a mist obscured their view of the newly-created universe. Miraculously, the cloud opened, revealing a single bright star, its rays illuminating the celebrants. Elyard, joyful beyond measure, turned toward the jubilant multitude and exultantly raised his scepter. ___________________________________________________ Acceptance.  30 minutes. This, the time I have given to me; less than required, but more than enough. It ticks by, unheeded by my simple struggle. Soft, gentle seconds fall awkwardly, mimicking the words that stumble from my toughened fingertips, turned callous by a watchful world. Tough, yes. Signs of work, leisure turned toil in that quest for success, every moment beating brighter as my heart yearns. Not a victory, perhaps never, but persistence. The hunger growls deep inside, quenched only by those hallowed hours, drenched in sweat and dusted with chalk as I do battle, body straining to overcome the odds. We were made for this, made for the challenge. Our bodies crafted, forged even - if one believes in such things. Some would question, asking, endless questions that echo through the crowd; How might we be as we are, so purposeful, so pure? How might we be these things, be these bastions of life without an order to existence? I do not need to argue, not anymore. I do not need their words of repetition, damning statements filled with fear as they wish their fate on others. It hurts. Realisation is a terrible thing, and we wonder all too deeply. This, I think, brain addled by weariness, is the reason. Only at the end of the rough river will you find the smooth stones. Wait, I was somewhere. Funny how these things can slip away from you, late at night. Time, yes, that was the thing. I blink, eyes stinging from bright, uniform light against a dark backdrop. My point was somewhere back there, if I look for it. Ah, yes. We were made for more than we are taught. All of you, you will know this; bright minds amongst the subterfuge. We still strive, though some may not see it. Just as this glorious machine we have built to keep us safe will protect us, so it will numb us. It presses us, trying to mould the shape it thinks we need, the shape that we have made it see. It only sees what we see, after all. The struggle has changed for better, or worse; any judgement we make can be analysed, a box ticked, a result processed. This, we know. I clasp my hands, shivering. Is this what I thought it would be? I don’t know. How could I? I haven’t thought of that yet. The temperature drops, well, of course it will. Listen to that wind howling, it is the tip of the iceberg. Here I lie, cocooned in processed comfort. New manufacturing techniques, they say. Only 4.7 billion years in the making. Trees outside my shelter rustle, the few survivors in this field of steel. Somewhere, somehow, they yearn for more. Saddened, but not for long. Clinging to the skin of this delicate organism, billions of tons of sap pump like life blood, bringing me another sweet, unappreciated breath. I feel my cells ripple in unison as we move, each one an essential part. I worry, sometimes, that they will turn mutiny. Oh. 30 minutes. Time is such a fickle thing, no matter how much I try to harness it. I view my work, critical eye turned soft by sentiment. Less than expected, more than necessary. Can I accept that?