Dragon Problems

There was a hoarse roar and a puff of flame, which swirled and flickered into a glowing thread in the air. A hacking sound followed, hitting the hot dry air and hurting Sylvia’s ears. She sat and waited, and then Anna emerged from the cave. She was coughing, waving the smoke from her face and holding the side of her face. When she peeled her hand away there was a blotch of blistered pink skin, and Sylvia gasped and frowned. Every time Anna went to confront the dragons, something like this happened. Anna looked up and smiled, in a tired resigned sort of way.

Dragon

Photo credit: Wikipedia

“Stop, dear,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt so much, and the poor thing didn’t mean it.” Anna sighed and sat back, crossing her legs and leaning to peer at the cave’s entrance. It was quiet for now, a dark hollow with the occasional faint glow.

Sylvia crooked her eyebrows at her friend. “What, he just spat fire at your face without realizing?”

Anna glared at her, crossing her arms and then wincing. Her tone was soft, though, when she said, “No, it just wasn’t his fault. The whole litter’s colicky, and I swear I don’t know how to make them feel any better.” There was a loud scraping sound from inside the cave, and both women flinched. “Poor sad little beasties,” Anna said. “I hate to see them in pain.”

“I hate to see you in pain!” said Sylvia. “You’re going to really hurt yourself one of these days.”

“Oh hush. They’re harmless mostly, and now they’re just sick. Don’t be a snob.” Anna’s voice was scolding, but she smiled. Her hair was slightly singed too, Sylvia noticed.

There was another scrape and flourish of fire that billowed from the cave, and both Sylvia and Anna started back again. “I’d better go in again.” Anna stood and dusted off her skirt. “Why don’t you come in with me? I’ll make sure I aim them away from you, dear, and you’ll be surprised how they’ve grown in just a couple of months.” Sylvia shrugged.

They stood, and Anna grabbed Sylvia’s hand, who followed her reluctantly into the cave. They both ducked their heads at the entrance, and shuffled together into a room in the back. It was warm and small, and full of dragons. Anna went in first, sinking down at once into the pile of scaly small creatures that writhed up to surround her. She wound her arms through the swarm and scratched a bony little head, which closed slotted eyes and purred.

Sylvia hung back, watching. Anna picked one of the dragons up with both hands, holding it out to her friend. It was red and shiny, whipping its tail from side to side. It thrust its head forward toward Sylvia, who jumped. “Shhh,” said Anna, her voice low and comforting. “She just wants a pet, go on, put her hand on her head.” Sylvia reached forward, timid, and laid her palm on the bumpy brow of the little monster. It wriggled and crooned, starting to rumble. Sylvia rubbed its head and pulled her hand back, and the dragon swooped back to Anna’s side. It mostly fell, shrunken wings barely keeping it aloft, and then nestled into her.

Sylvia folded herself on the floor to watch Anna cuddle and play with the beasts. She tensed and shivered with the spurts of flame and hisses, but those were infrequent. They spent the afternoon that way, quietly together with the dragons.

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A Writer’s Block Conspiracy Theory

“Something’s strange about this,” she said. Mike only glanced up for a moment at the sound of her voice, lowered to library volume. Natalie was curled in the corner with her computer heating her thighs and a niggling sense of discontent worrying at her mind. “Really,” she insisted. “There’s something odd going on every time I try to write.”

Lenovo ThinkPad X200s

Lenovo ThinkPad X200s (Photo credit: Ronald HN Tan)

Mike sighed and shut his laptop. “Have you written anything?” Natalie turned her screen so he could see the glowing white page, blank and pure and hopelessly frustrating. He leaned back and opened his computer again, and said, “Well what do you want me to do about? Just write something already.”

“No,” she said. “That’s the thing. I’ve been trying to and I can’t. I wrote an idea down during class, but I open up Letters and it’s just gone. Vanished. I can talk okay and I can scribble something in my notebook, but as soon as the damn program’s up on my computer my thoughts just scramble and, I don’t know, I feel like I’m losing all the inspiration or ideas or whatever that I might ever have had to begin with.”

Mike frowned. “Okay,” he said. “Let me see. You know what, close it and I’m going to do some research. I’ll meet you here tonight, okay? You go take a nap or something, you look totally drained.”

Natalie nodded and gathered her things. When she said goodbye to Mike he was already absorbed in the computer on his lap, tapping and clicking furiously. He was a rather gifted hacker, she knew, and eventually he would worm his way into something interesting, if not helpful.

She did take a nap, and woke up feeling refreshed. When she left her dorm the sun had dropped beneath the horizon, leaving the sky a pallid grey and the campus doused in blue shadow. She stopped for a sandwich and then found Mike in the library, still in the same chair. He didn’t look up when she walked toward him, only tearing his gaze from the screen when she gently shook his shoulder. He said, “Hey, Natalie. I found something.”

She raised her eyebrows at him, suddenly dubious. “Yeah? Anything useful?”

Mike grinned. “Yep. Very. Look – ” He pulled her over beside him so that she could peer over his shoulder at a bewildering array of windows and tabs piled atop one another. “I got into the email of one of the project designers of the word processing programs. Namely Letters, of course. Look at this.” He double-clicked a file entitled ‘The WriterBlock® Project,’ which sprang open at the second page.

Mike began to read. “This project shall be kept in confidence between the committee assigned to dealing with the COMPANY’s Inspiration® program. The specifics of the effect of the word processor LETTERS shall be discussed here and kept strictly confidential.” There was a space at the bottom of the page here for a signature, and Mike scrolled past it to the middle of the next page and kept reading, his voice tight and controlled. “LETTERS is designed to implement the WriterBlock® method, in which the blank page induces a sudden and severe lack of enthusiasm, inspiration, and original thought in the mind of the participant or USER. The USER will therefore lose any and all motivation and ideas, necessitating his/her concentration and the prolonged use of the LETTERS program. The LETTERS program will then, by implementing the WriterBlock® technique, begin to siphon the USER’s creative energies through the computer, using wireless internet to carry those energies back to the COMPANY HQ, where it will be used in further projects. These energies become the property of the COMPANY. This technique and its use are highly classified, as is the entirety of the WriterBlock® project.” Mike stopped reading and looked up at Natalie, his eyes glowing with excitement. She stared back at him, struggling with a vague sense of horror and disgust.

“They do this on purpose?” Her voices sounded high and too loud to her own ears. A guy sitting across the aisle of shelves glanced up and scowled at the two of them, so she continued more quietly. “I can’t believe it. I mean, it doesn’t even make sense.”

“There’s more,” said Mike. “I could read you about loads of other stuff. This is a really developed project that seems to have started with the first computers. There’s tons of documents about it once you find the right people. I mean, for a company that’s so sure it wants all this crap to be secret, its executives and people never seem to clear out their inboxes.”

Natalie nodded, numb. She sank into the other chair and pulled out her computer, ignoring Mike starting to talk again across from her. He seemed very excited about all this. Letters was still up on her screen, and she raised her eyes to the white page. As Mike chattered, she let her fingers rest on the keyboard. She stared blankly forward, the unease and anger that clamored in her mind slowly fading away to nothing.

The Dragon Slayers

“It was horrible!” Seth’s voice was high and wavering, jumping to scrape against the ceiling before thinning and fading. “It was huge, and, and, it was giant, and oh god it had so many legs! I was scared.”

Danielle crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. “It wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t even that big.” Her voice was loud, even in the bustling cafeteria. Jenna smirked, next to her.

Seth glared at both of them. “It was a monster. Don’t make it sound like it was nothing.” He ripped a bite from his sandwich, as if to emphasize his words.

Mark jumped in. “So tell me the story from the beginning, guys. I mean, who did something about it?”

Danielle’s grin spread across her face. “Me. I grabbed it and threw it out the window.” She took another dainty bite of ice cream, pursing her mouth, clearly enjoying her role as hero. She was the one known to battle the frights amongst the friends, despite her airs.

“You threw a monster out the window? By yourself?” Mark was skeptical. He looked from Danielle’s eyes rolling at Jenna to Seth’s tense stiff expression, and scooped another spoonful of rice into his mouth.

“Well,” Danielle relented, “It wasn’t that huge, I guess. But Seth was plenty scared, useless hiding in the corner. Even then, though, it was pretty scary. It was lucky Eric and Jenna were there. It took three of us to kill the bastard.”

Mark’s eyebrows quirked up. He was clearly impressed. “Three, huh?”

Danielle said, “Yeah! We sort of took turns hitting at it. It had, like, a million legs.”

Seth’s frown deepened, and he shoved the spoon into his mouth again. While he glowered at the corner of the table, Mark’s mouth quirked into a smile. “Not a spider, though?” Mark said.

Danielle rolled her eyes again, but Seth leaned forward and gripped the edge of the table. “No, though. It wasn’t a spider. Spiders I can do –kind of,” he added when Danielle snorted. “This was a goddamn centipede.”

Ever After, Anyway

In the land of make-believe:

Gabe’s hair gleams golden in the sunlight, and his eyes just seem to snag the light and spin it until you’re dizzy and blinded and stumbling. Goddamned goody-two-shoes. Though, of course, he’s rather more godblessed and, being an angel and all, I don’t think he wears shoes. Wings are always like that, though. Even Pegasus has a stick up his ass. Figuratively speaking again, of course. They get flying and feathers and suddenly they think they’re above you. That one literally too, I guess, since they are. I haven’t even seen Gabe for maybe a century, but I know that he’s friends with Rose. She talks about him every once in a while, and now of course they’re getting on great.

I don’t, of course, know why she even hangs out with him. He’s bloody boring from what I can tell, bland as the healthiest of foods. Good, of course, just uninteresting. Rose has a thing for the perfect ones though – that’s why she even fell for the prince in the first place, naturally. Chiseled jaw and a sword, skin scratched by the thorns and breathing heavy. It took her a while to figure out the rest of it – not that I’m complaining. Being perfect suits me when I have the inclination to be charming. To be Charming, that is.

Gabe is still talking to Rose, and she’s listening all aglow. She is awfully beautiful. Hence the nickname, though nowadays she doesn’t need a whole lot of sleep. She gets by on five, six hours a night. I figure she got it all out of her system at once and now she’s impatient just dreaming. The wing’s telling her something about Red and the wolf boy, or at least that’s what it seems. He just said, “No, now they’re back together.” Rose is all agape, making those concerned clucking noises that need to accompany love conversations.

“But I thought they were done for good,” she says. Gabe shakes his head, shrugging. “Oh well,” says Rose. “I guess they’re well suited. But honestly, she should either give up the business with her grandmother or give him up. I mean, if she keeps nagging him about it they’re only going to do the same thing over and over again.”

“Well,” Gabe says, “that’s what they’ve been doing so far. They’ve broken up, I think, sixty-three times now? Someone’s counting and that’s the tally I heard. In my opinion that’s why they even work together at all.”

Rose frowns, skin creasing in a familiar scowl. “You think? Red always seems so innocent to me. Like Cindy, really. They both seem to think that everything’s going to be just fine all the time, no problems anywhere. Nothing ever goes wrong for them, and when it does they forgive. Look at Cindy’s godawful family, and how Red keeps taking the wolf back. They want it all to end up okay.”

The angel bursts out into laughter, golden peals of it chiming and drifting through the summer air. “You tales and your happily ever after. Of course they think it’ll all be okay. So it is written, no?”

Rose is glaring now. She’s touchy on the storybook stuff. I tune out again, threading my fingers through her hair and tangling my hand in the ringlets. They’re only going to have the same argument again. I swear, it’s like listening to the mice squeak all indignantly about the farmer’s wife. They can’t get over the grievances that happened hundreds of years ago. I try to avoid such things.

Anyway, I have other stuff to do this afternoon. I’m still supposed to show up at Cindy’s tonight, and apparently Baba Yaga’s cooking again. That, and the gingerbread witch is bringing dessert, and I do love Gretel-flavored cookies. Okay, so that’s a bad joke, but it always gets a laugh anyway. I think if it weren’t for her baking nobody would even talk to the old hag. At least there will be some good people, though. The Minotaur will be bumbling about, crashing into things – he has trouble finding his way anywhere, mostly. And Br’er and Loki always make for an entertaining time.

Maybe Rose just spends time with Gabe for the gossip. I stand up, my hand still cupped around her head. It does help to have an omniscient pal in the sky, I suppose. There’s something funny outside the window, and I walk over to look. The light’s all blue and shadowy, though it’s still early. Look at that, Thumbelina’s sitting right on my windowsill. Tom’s with her, not sure why – they broke up forever ago. Something about size not mattering. She’s beckoning though, so I lean my head down to hear her squeaky little voice.

“Hey,” she calls. “You’d better come help. Rip’s asleep in Sher’s house, she’s telling stories, and that moron giant is angry at Jack again. Nothing too serious, maybe, but it’s sort of chaos there. Want to come sort it out?”

Finally, I think, something useful to do with my day. I grab my bag of tricks – I borrowed it from Jack and “forgot” to give it back – and kiss Rose goodbye, startling her out of an impassioned speech about something or other. I wave to Gabe and dash out. I do love a good thorny problem to hack through, every once in a while. Just like old days.

An Alien Anthropologist

Erts’as-to was reading the entry again. This was the sort of thing that made him reconsider his study of the world cultures concentration. On the one hand, world cultures were so fascinating, but on the other four they were alternately disturbing, horrifying, upsetting, and incomprehensible. For instance, halfway through the article –

“The predominant life-form on this planet appears to be a relatively small organism with several appendages that lives a parasitic existence. There are numerous variations in race or species of this organism, many involving wings. They are prey to several other species, and several of the hosts use appendages to forcibly beat the organisms until dead.”

That was certainly horrifying, though in a twisted way Erts’as-to could understand it. Even worse, though, was this:

“This planet is covered with the excretions and creations of another species, of an average size relative to all other species on the planet. They, like the flying population, have a separate entry in this encyclopedia to more fully describe some of their more idiosyncratic customs and behaviors, several of which include meshing plant fibers to wrap around their bodies, applying gelatinous animal matter to their outer organs, using planetary matter to build structures from which they sometimes jump and which they often use mechanisms to deconstruct, and spending large quantities of time holding, touching, and looking at small earth-matter items that change colors and create designs. This species, like most others, appears to be sentient, but according to the researcher nur’Emtome ‘This species populating the planet has adopted a particularly twisted strain of consciousness. Their manner of thinking – and despite appearances, it is thinking – is both complex and contradictory.” More of nur’Emtome’s work can be read in the essay “The Species that Invented the iPod,” available in several popular galaxies.”

The study of such things fascinated Erts’as-to but were also bewildering. Try as Erts’as-to might, it still seemed impossible to properly imagine such a race. They were simply too strange, too different, and Erts’as-to was left with too many questions.

Why did they use so many types of matter for so many things? What was the meaning of the sounds they made, especially the ones scratched onto planet-matter and used over and over? What was the importance of the plant and animal matter attached to their bodies? Why did some of them appear to feed and house other species, from the flying ones to larger flying ones in cages to things with four foot-appendages who made a lot of noise? What the ertamel was an iPod?