Flash Fiction: “White Prince, Black Prince”

Hard rain’s gonna fall.

This is a sequel to “Chasing The Guy Fantastic” and “C.A.T.

White Prince, Black Prince, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 923

The rain was falling hard over the streets of Baltimore, making every step Holly took a treacherous one.  But she had to keep running.  Had to keep moving.  No time to look back.  Look back and you’re dead.

Dead like Ray, she sobbed inside her head.

That brought her to her knees.  Holly let out an anguished cry and hugged herself against the rain.  She didn’t care what the water might do to her data lenses.  Let them burn out.  What good was she now without her partner?

Ray Farr had been everything she needed to get by: her guardian, her government liaison, her link to the outside world.  She’d still be a reclusive Net-surfer if not for him.  And now his body was lying in a ditch ten miles south, riddled with bullet holes.

“Get moving,” he’d told her.  “I love—”  And that was the last thing he said before the front of his head exploded.

Holly couldn’t bring herself to move.  She wanted to die.  She could access data from any point in the US, but she couldn’t bring herself to do anything but run and cry like a lost little girl.

That’s all I am.  Those fucking feds never let me grow up.

Seven years of online detective work.  Seven years of keyword searches and file reconstruction for the Department of Justice.  All from the comfort of a subsidized apartment on Constitution Avenue.  Over a thousand cases and no social life apart from her middle-aged legal guardian.

It would be easy to text back to Washington.  DOJ Priority One.  Please help.  Currently located at corner of…

Easy, but futile.  Holly couldn’t go back.  No–she wouldn’t go back.

The rain had begun to soften up.  Holly awkwardly got onto her feet and took in her surroundings.  She was outside a closed-up bakery on West Lombard.  A Net scan through her glasses gave her more to work with.  Franklin Square Park was less than a mile west.  If she hurried, she might be able to find somewhere to camp for the night.  A hotel room would be better, but she needed to stay anonymous, even if it meant squatting on public property.

She took a few steps in that direction, but stopped when she felt a pair of gloved hands grab her from behind.

One of the hands clamped over her mouth, stifling her scream, and she felt hot breath on her ear as her abductor whispered, “Gotcha, girl.  One more sound outta you and you’re dead, got it?”

Holly could only nod, petrified in his grip.  She knew this man.  He was the blond gunman who’d put a bullet through Ray’s head.  He and his gang.  Maybe they were CIA or part of some private military group.  Holly didn’t know or care which.  They were trained to be lethal and they wanted her alive.  Nothing else mattered.

She heard a deep-throated growl and closed her eyes.  But the brute didn’t do a thing except scream.  His hands let go and she fell to the ground, trembling in terror.

Holly couldn’t believe her eyes.  She lifted up her glasses just to be sure it wasn’t a sim.

An orange tiger had appeared from out of nowhere and was currently ripping out the man’s throat in its massive jaws.  It looked up from his still-twitching body and licked its lips.  There was an intelligence behind those eyes.

Holly gasped when she heard a soft chime.  She grabbed her datapad from her pocket and read the screen.

It was a Quicknote.  From the tiger.

You’re welcome, Miss.

Footsteps trod the pavement behind her.  Holly turned around and saw a tall man in a frock coat with silky black hair.  He knelt down and offered his hand.

“Sorry if we scared you,” said Clark Michael Hill.  “We’ve been tracking you for two miles now.  Unfortunately, so was that guy, or I’d have dispatched him sooner.”

The tiger was purring as it walked over to Holly’s side.  To her surprise it didn’t bite her.  Just nudged her with its head.

“Holly, meet Hu Lin.  He’s a Cerebrally Augmented Tiger, formerly in the service of the Detroit Police.”  Clark helped her onto her feet and gave her his coat for protection from the drizzle.  “We’ve been partners ever since that time you almost cornered me in Jefferson County.”

For a moment, Holly stood there in silence.  Then, when Clark’s words finally registered in her head, she leaned into his chest and whispered, “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why are they doing this?  Why are you helping me?”

Clark’s hand lifted her chin up.  He favored Holly with a sympathetic smile.  “I don’t know why they’re after you.  But just because we’re professional rivals doesn’t mean we can’t help each other now and then.  No need for us to get political like them.”

The way Clark said political made it sound like a curse word.  Holly wanted to ask what was political about armed thugs kidnapping her, but she couldn’t bring herself to argue.  She didn’t care.  She was exhausted.  She wanted to go home, even though she never could.

“I need a place to stay,” she whispered, fighting back more tears.  “Just for tonight.”

“For as long you want,” Clark replied.  He turned and nodded to Hu Lin.  The tiger growled and moved to stand by his side.

Then Holly buried her face into the chest of her archenemy as he snapped his fingers.  In a flash, his teleport beacon activated and they disappeared without a trace.

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Flash Fiction: “Chasing The Guy Fantastic”

Every Holmes needs a Moriarty, and every teleportation story needs someone to abuse the hell out of it.  Two birds, meet one stone.

This is a sequel to “The Joy of Deduction.”

Chasing The Guy Fantastic, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 860

The Einstein-Rosen Bridge was originally designed to eliminate travel and shipping issues for the human race.  But no one could have foreseen the rise of those annoying vagabonds who insisted on abusing the traversable wormhole network for fun and profit.

They were called light-chasers.  And there was no light-chaser more notorious than Clark Hill.

On Wednesday, June 11, he dropped out of the sky in the middle of a press conference by the Mayor of Los Angeles.  Hill was wearing data-capture gloves; he managed to pull the mayor’s speech right out of the teleprompter and disappear in a flash.

He was even brash enough to let the press see how he did it.  Light-chasers would jury-rig their own ERB beacons, disguising them as phones, datapads, jewelry, even hats and scarves.

Clark Hill was classier than the rest.  His beacon was disguised as an antique pocket watch, which matched his Neo-Victorian frock coat.  And being a very clever kid, he was never one to be seen walking the street dressed like that.  That was the whole advantage of modern teleporters: total discretion and crimes carried out with impunity.

For weeks afterward, the LAPD was flooded with calls about people being spotted with Hill’s pocket watch.  The handful of Neo-Victorians living in LA weren’t treated too fairly either, being accused of harboring the prankster.  The whole crime was creating a strange kind of public hysteria about light-chasers and ERB travel.

In other words, it was just the sort of thing to bring the case to our attention.

“Okay, I think I’ve got it.”  Holly was lying on her stomach on the carpet, staring down at her disassembled pocket watch through pink-tinted glasses.  “He removed most of the gears in the watch and replaced them with a circular circuitry pattern and the Einstein-Rosen matrix where the mainspring would be.  But here’s the interesting bit—you won’t believe it, Ray, honestly!”

“Try me,” I said, looking down at her work from the armchair.

“Okay.”  The girl detective was twitching with excitement.  “He set it all up to work just like a pocket watch!  Most light-chasers activate the matrices in their beacons with an prearranged algorithm.  But Hill didn’t do that.  He uses the winding mechanism to set up the resonance.  When it releases, he slips in and out of the Bridge!”  She slapped the floor as she laughed.  “I mean, how cool is that?”

“Pretty cool.”  When I glanced down at the Quicknote my boss had sent, I frowned.  Only two more hours until the President’s address was due to air.  “So what does that tell you about Hill’s next move?”

“Oh, I don’t have a clue.  How about you?”

“Holly!”

“What?”  My young charge looked up at me with curious eyes.  “I read the FBI profile.  It’s nothing substantial.  Loves pranks and being flashy, never stays in the same place twice.  He’s like a ghost.  Not really very interesting on paper.”  Then she flashed a terrible grin.  “But his handiwork gives me shivers.”

I was going to tell her that it wasn’t the most appropriate attitude for this case, but I didn’t have the time.  My jaw dropped when I saw a blue light shimmering in the air over Holly’s head.  She looked up and gasped.

I barely had time to grab Holly away before the blue light exploded and a well-dressed gentleman appeared in our living room.  He was swinging a pocket watch from a chain on his belt, then smiled as the watch landed in his gloved hand.

“Seven-oh-five, on the dot.”  Clark Hill bowed.  “Pleasure to finally meet you, Miss Holly.  So nice to meet a fan.”

Holly squealed with delight.  “Oh my God, oh my God!  It’s really you!”

I pushed her behind me as I stood up.  Unfortunately, I was an inch shorter than Hill, so I doubt I was very intimidating.  “You’ve a lot to answer for, Mr. Hill.  Why don’t you let me have that?”  I held out my hand, motioning to the pocket watch.

“What, this thing?”  Hill tossed it to me with a smirk.  “By all means, Mr. Farr.  Oh, and here.  Take my card while you’re at it.”

He handed me a Neo-Victorian calling card.  On the front, printed in flowery black font, was the name Clark Michael Hill, followed by Professional Prankster and Rogue Extraordinaire.

“Looking forward to working with you!” I looked up just in time to see Hill suddenly vanish in a violent spray of light.  I threw down the card, furious at how late I’d been.

Holly gasped.  “No way!  It wasn’t the watch!”  She held up the trinket, cradling it lovingly in her palm.  “The beacon’s disguised as something else!  Good old misdirection!  Ray, do you know what this means?”

“Yes,” I said grimly.  “It means we’ve got less than two hours before we can stop him from—”

“No!”  She jumped up and down like a kid on Christmas—and for her, it might as well have been.  “It means I’ve got my first archenemy!  I’ve always wanted one of those!”

I shook my head.  This was going to be a very long and difficult chase.

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Flash Fiction: “The Joy of Deduction”

Girls do, in fact, just want to have fun.  But not all girls are into shopping and romantic comedies.  Some like reading through lines of code and weeding out spyware on a Friday night.

Enjoy!

The Joy of Deduction, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 695

“Bored again!” my roommate hollered.  I walked into the den to find her upside down in her chair, kicking her bare feet in the air.  If not for her utterly serious expression, Holly would’ve seemed like an overexcited pink-haired child.

“Already?” I asked.

Holly barked out a laugh.  “God, yes!  That was too easy!  It was Bernadette from the jewelry department.  She palmed the thumb drive when her coworkers weren’t looking.  And she’s not visiting relatives in Scotland either.  She’s vacationing in Indonesia.”  She picked up her datapad from the floor and ran her fingers over the screen impatiently.  “So what’s next?”

Though I gave her a smile, I was sighing inside.  It wasn’t the easiest thing being her handler, but the Justice Department insisted she was an invaluable resource, saving them so much time and money.  But it was either this or go back to being a D.C. desk jockey.

“Come on, Ray!”  Holly stretched her legs up and down, forward and backward.  “What’s next?”

I checked my pocket tablet for any updates.  Then I tapped it against her pad and waited for the soft chime of a data transfer.  Holly grinned and scanned the tablet screen voraciously.

“Aha!” she called out.  “A network intrusion in Des Moines.  Possible cyber attack by Iran.  Hmm… no.  The bug came off an Iranian server, but that code doesn’t scan.  And why go after a high school?  Tehran would hit a military target or someone on Wall Street.”

“Maybe someone bounced off an Iranian server as a distraction?” I suggested.  As I leaned on the doorframe, I looked over Holly’s room.  It never got cleaned or organized.  The poor girl had no sense for domestic living.  She’d been picking apart antivirals and malware since age six.  And what government official or teacher was going to correct such a high-powered intellect on neatness?  My own attempts had fared about as well.

At least she’d stopped drinking milk straight from the carton.

“Hey, I think you’re onto something,” said Holly.  “Iran’s a distraction.  So it could be a local suspect.”  In a none-too-graceful move, she rolled herself off the chair and lay on her stomach while she tapped at her datapad.  “Yeah… that’s more like it.  It’s a homemade spybot.  Very simple, except for the foreign tag.  Writes a database injection to steal from the student records.  Probably looking at a teenage soap opera.”

“Cheerleader breaks a geek’s heart, geek wants revenge?”

“Bingo!”

I looked down at my pocket tablet and tapped in a Quicknote to my boss Kramer at the DOJ.  Bot’s not Iranian.  Just Iowan.  Details to follow.

Holly, meanwhile, was rolling on the floor with an ecstatic grin.  “And… got ’em!  Marcus Green, junior-year.  Kicked out of Computer Club for bad conduct.  Suspended for improper use of student-access software.  Social profiles show a high frequency of posts tagged with the name Brittany Bergstrom, a cheerleader in his chemistry class.”

When she stopped reading from her tablet, I cleared my throat.  “And what about Iran?”

“Huh?  Oh, yeah.  Frequent search results for Iranian networks.  A few public edits to a wiki page about digital security in the Middle East.  Pretty solid case, so far.”

I smiled.  “That’s good for now.  We’ll look into it soon.”

Holly smiled, but not in a happy way.  “Soon.  They always say ‘Soon,’ but they never mean it.”

“Who says that?”

In a little-girl voice, she answered, “Everyone.”

My heart fell for her.  I knelt down onto the carpet as she stared into her datapad, tapping idly at the screen.

“Forget what they say,” I advised her.  “You like what you’re doing, don’t you?”

She nodded without looking up.

I shrugged.  “Then who cares?  They don’t see what we’re seeing.  We know how to get the job done and that’s all that matters.”  Since she was sensitive about being touched, I reached down and patted a spot the floor next to her.  “Come on, Holly.  Let’s wrap this case up and then we’ll go get ice cream.”

Holly’s head snapped up, flashing the biggest grin ever.  “Yay!  More fuel for the fire!  You’re the best, Ray!”

“Right back at you, gamer girl.”

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When Cyberpunk Meets Noir: Penny Arcade’s Automata

Penny Arcade is the webcomic, That Which Came Before All Others, and the likes of which we may never see again.  Although its references and humor may only apply to the gaming subculture, the satire and eloquence of writer Jerry Holkins and animator Mike Krahulik that rivals much of what you might find channel-surfing these days.

Last year, and again this year, the creators behind Penny Arcade decided to host a few out-of-the-box strips.  One of them was a series called Automata.  And lo! the Rhapsodist looked upon it and thought it good.

Automata is a brief webcomic strip set within  a world where film noir detectives meet sci-fi androids, where “Prohibition” refers to artificial intelligence rather than alcohol, and where futuristic automatons blend seamlessly with the classic melodies and fashions of the Roaring Twenties.  Our main characters are Regal, a hard-bitten private eye, and Carl, his robot counterpart.  In the first Automata strip, they attempt to solve a series of murders regarding club singers, while in its recent successor strip, Blood and Oil, we see how their partnership began and read a little more into just how these sentient machines are treated in the alternate 1920s.

The whole thing is just well-written.  It has the dark atmosphere you’d expect from a noir piece, but its issues are from the twenty-first century and beyond.  The dialogue between Regal and Carl is an excellent blend of dry cynicism and synthetic vocal patterns (with just a hint of some deeper humanity).  And though the stories are short, they’ll leave a strong impact and leave you wanting more and more.

You can read the first panel of Automata below and the rest of the series here.  Its second series, Blood and Oil, can be found here.  Penny Arcade can be enjoyed here.

Copyright © 2009 by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins

Bibliography: Holkins, Jerry.  Krahulik, Mike.  “Automata.”  Penny Arcade.  June 12 – August 10, 2009.  July 23, 2010 – August 2, 2010.  http://www.penny-arcade.com