Flash Fiction: “Charlotte the Savior”

Many thanks to the awesome crew at Write It Up! Burbank for helping me come up with this little tale of sci-fi San Francisco and unfortunate birthdays.

Charlotte the Savior, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 676

Overhead, the skies were thick and gray with an oppressive fog. Flying cars mingled with high-res camera drones in the skies of Neo-San Francisco. And hiding out in Aisle Twenty-Three of a drug store on Fremont was Lance Martin, whose life was more or less over.

He was roused from his nervous breakdown by a sultry voice, which asked, “Sorry to bother you, but can you give me a ride? My car’s—”

Lance looked up at the stunning redhead standing behind him. She tugged at the hem of her little black dress and gave him a surprised frown.

“Oh, hey,” she exclaimed. “I recognize you. You’re tonight’s birthday boy.”

“God help me,” said Lance, “I am.”

His colleagues at Fields Insurance had arranged it all—without his consent. After discovering that his twenty-first birthday was imminent, they’d slapped him with a friendly ultimatum: to join them at the Bow and Arrow, a prestigious bar in South of Market, and drink no less than twenty-one shots. Their boss Davy had even chosen the most expensive tequila that he could afford for the occasion: Alma de Perrito.

“Well now,” the redhead continued, “shouldn’t you be on your way? You’re the bar’s guest of honor.” Her green eyes sparkled. “I’ll be singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you, lucky boy.”

“I can’t…” Lance quivered. “I can’t do it.”

“Why not?”

He swallowed. “’Cause I’ll get sick. I’ll embarrass myself. And everyone there can smell blood in the water. You know Carl Jackson wants my cubicle? After tonight, he’ll get it for sure…”

Lance continued to ramble on in this way, totally oblivious to what the jazz singer was doing. Not until he found a bottle of ice-cold, ionized water being dumped on his head.

Coughing and sputtering, Lance glared at the woman. She grinned back sheepishly.

“Sorry, but I didn’t think you’d ever stop.” She then flashed her wrist chrono at him. “Also, if we don’t hurry, we’re gonna be late.”

“But there’s no way I can—”

“Hey. Listen to me.” The redhead crouched beside him. “What’s your name?”

“Uh, Lance.”

“Well, Lance, I’m Charlotte. And if you help me make one quick purchase here—and you pay for our airtaxi fare to the Bow and Arrow—I’ll get you through this ordeal.” A mischievous light gleamed in those soft green eyes of hers. “Sound good?”

Half an hour later, Lance stood at the head of a long table. It was dark inside the Bow and Arrow, with only flickering white lamp globes to illuminate the eager faces of his coworkers and the handful of regular patrons behind them. From the nearby stage, Charlotte winked at him. Then, as she adjusted her floating microphone, she began to croon, “Happy birthday… to you….

Lance stared down the row of tequila shots arrayed before him. The team from Fields Insurance held their breath in anticipation.

He let out a long breath and then took a shot.

And then another. And another.

Soon, he tore along the table at a frightening pace. Alcohol flooded his veins, and yet he chugged without pause. His coworkers, as well as some of the other bar patrons, cheered and whooped for joy.

As he flipped over the last shot glass, the entire bar burst into applause. At almost the same time, the jazz singer finished her performance on a lingering final note. Lance grinned and took a bow.

Then, while everyone was still cheering, he slipped over to the stage and caught Charlotte’s eye.

“Thank you,” Lance shouted over the din.

She laughed and leaned over to him. “Don’t thank me just yet. That antiemetic pill you took should be wearing off any second now.”

As she spoke, her words became real. Lance smiled openly, which in no way reflected the sudden lurching somersault that his stomach had just performed.

“Then remind me to buy you a drink,” Lance replied. Fighting back a gurgle in his throat, he was barely able to add, “And tell the bar staff I’m truly sorry for what I’m about to do to their men’s room.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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High School Hacking: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Copyright © 2008 by Cory Doctorow.
Copyright © 2008 by Cory Doctorow.

One of the things that keeps me optimistic about modern literature is how well or creatively twenty-first century life is depicted.  William Gibson was able to translate plots and characters from his cyberpunk Sprawl Trilogy to his present-day Bigend Books.  And Cory Doctorow gives modern life a more cyberpunk feel in his Young Adult novel Little Brother.

Marcus Yallow is a high school student who spends half his time online and tinkering with electronics–like the kind that let school administrators track his whereabouts.  But when he and his friends get caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing and mysteriously detained by the Department of Homeland Security, Marcus soon becomes a rebel for the sake of defending privacy and other civil liberties.  What follows is an electronic war between the youth of San Francisco and the DHS, waged with protest groups, computer cryptology, and activist file sharing.

As far as Marcus goes, he’s a decent teenage character.  However, because he has a strong penchant for disobeying authority–which is bad news when it comes to Homeland Security–he does at times seem a bit self-destructive to me.  I don’t exactly hate him for it; I can feel the same tension in other Doctorow characters like Felix Tremont and Jules, whose big ideas eventually cause them to crash and burn.  His friends all seem like typical high school geeks, though I did wonder a little about his love interest Ange.  While she’s incredibly smart, strong, and sexy, at first I kept thinking she was too good to be true and possibly another trap for Marcus.  But I’d never complain about having more strong female geeks in fiction.

It’s almost a little hard to believe this novel counts as a Young Adult story, being so heavy on issues like censorship, domestic surveillance, teenage sexuality, patriotism, and political activism.  But at the same time, the characters are fairly straightforward and easy to identify with.  The writing itself flows pretty well, except for one or two walls of expository text about P2P networks and security countermeasures.  It does help that those chunks of text feel consistent with the protagonist’s voice, as he wants to be noted for how clever he is in bucking the System.

This feels like a story I should enjoy more, but I find myself too often thinking about how obvious the exposition, the drama, and Cory Doctorow’s political views are throughout the narrative.  It’s not a bad story, just too strong and dystopian for my taste.  But I think it’s great that a Young Adult novel shows geeks in a more positive light and gives serious social issues their due.

Little Brother is available for purchase from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  It is also available for a free download from Cory Doctorow’s website and as a serial on DailyLit.  The official sequel, Homeland, is due to be published later this year.

Bibliography: Doctorow, Cory.  Little Brother.  New York: Tor Books, 2008.

Heroes, Villains, And Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures: Jeff Smith’s Bone

Illustrations copyright © 2004 Jeff Smith. BONE is a registered trademark of Jeff Smith.

When I was on vacation last month, I went to my favorite city, San Francisco.  And while I was there, I visited the Cartoon Art Museum, where they had all sorts of comic strips and cartoonists on display.  And among them was some work by the award-winning artist Jeff Smith, best known for his self-published comic series, Bone.

So how to describe this graphic novel series?  Well, take the epic writing style of J.R.R. Tolkien with the playful imagination of Walt Disney and you have something like this story.

It follows the trail of a funny little white creature called Fone Bone, who’s trying to stick close to his cousins, Smiley and Phoney, as they attempt just about every get-rich-quick scheme they can think of.  Complicating this is his encounter with a beautiful young farm girl named Thorn, her gruff but kindly grandmother, and a Great Red Dragon.  Further complicating his travels are the vicious rat creatures led by Kingdok and the Hooded One, and an ancient conflict between mortals, rat creatures, and dragons–upon which hangs the fate of the entire world.

I have to admit that I first found out about this series while reading a few strips of it from the Disney Adventures magazine when I was a kid.  But it wasn’t until later that I realized just how epic a work this story was, that there was more than the possible romance between Bone and Thorn or the Great Cow Race that Grandma Rose and the Bones get into.  It really goes back and forth with humor and adventure, playing up the short-sighted or urbane nature of the Bones against the epic medieval attitudes of their various allies and adversaries.

This is a delightful read for all ages, with its Tolkienesque drama, dogged optimism, and never-ending humor.

Bibliography: Smith, Jeff.  Bone.  Self-published series.  Published by Image Comics, Issues No. 21 – 27.  1991 – 2004.