Saturday, April 21, 2012

Oliver's Eurovision 2012 Drinking Game

After having finished my 30 Day Writing Challenge I have decided it was about time I got around to this...

Following up on the, frankly scary, success of the 2009 and 2010 Eurovision song contest drinking games – and after having taken a year off to allow my liver to vaguely recover – I am back with Oliver’s Eurovision 2012 Drinking Game.

As with previous years, some of the rules are slightly UK-centric so, if you intend to play this in another country, just ignore rules 1 and 22 and knock back two shots before you get started.

Now, a word of warning; this game is based upon the consumption of strong alcohol. I cannot, therefore, be held responsible for your health (or lack of) if you stringently follow the rules of my game and drink yourself into oblivion. Play this game at your own risk…

1. A shot glass for every person playing (probably best to have a couple of spares in case people get overexcited).

2. The national drink of Azerbaijan is, apparently, black tea – which is not generally a beverage associated with drinking games – so I would instead recommend that you switch to your favourite spirit of choice. I recommend you go with a decent vodka and am of the opinion that, if in any doubt, go with Stolichnaya...

The rules are very simple. You take a sip of your chosen spirit if:

1) Engelbert Humperdinck is mentioned. Drink an entire shot if he is referred to as The Hump.

2) Either of the hosts attempts to sing.

3) Either host pretends to be surprised at something said or done by the other host in what is clearly a well-rehearsed piece of improvisation.

4) Either of the hosts loses track of their autocue or messes up their timing.

5) The video shown before an act contains shots of people in traditional Azerbaijani costume. Drink a shot if anyone is seen doing one of the many traditional Azerbaijani dances. Frankly, there are far too many of them to list here so, if people are gyrating around in a semi-controlled fashion while music plays, take the shot.

6) You see Azerbaijan’s national animal, the Karabakh horse. Drink two shots if it’s a person dressed in a horse costume.

7) The song has the word ‘love’ in the title.

8) You are not entirely sure whether the singer is man who looks like a woman, or a woman who looks like a man.

9) A country is represented by a singer from somewhere else in the world. Drink an entire shot if a country is represented by what seems to be a random person (or persons) scooped up off the streets and then pushed out on stage.

10) The act involves people on stage banging large drums or industrial objects acting as large drums.

11) An item of clothing is removed on stage. Drink an entire shot if it is removed by someone else.

12) The act is bald. Drink an entire shot if they are also female.

13) The act possesses a large moustache.

14) The act is dressed in leather. Drink an entire shot if they are dressed in leather and have a large moustache.

15) If you hear a language used other than that of the nation who is singing (for example, French words in a song by Malta). One sip per language. If in doubt, take a sip.

16) You recognise the song immediately as being a blatant rip off of a previous winner of Eurovision.

17) The song is an ode to world peace. Drink three shots immediately if there are any children on stage at any time during the song.

18) There are dancers on stage who, by their movements, appear never to have heard the song before tonight.

19) People are pretending to play instruments on stage.

20) Every time there is an awkward silence and/or miscommunication between the hosts and the people reading out the votes. Drink an entire shot if the votes get mixed up.

21) Every time one of the people reading out the results of a country’s voting attempts to secure their 15 seconds of fame by babbling on incoherently and generally delaying things and winding a few hundred million people up.

22) Every time it’s "Royaume-Uni? Nil point!". Drink a shot each time, at the end of a voting round, the UK is in last place.

23) Every time a country gives top marks to someone for geographic, political or ethnic reasons.

24) If there is any alcohol left once the show is finished and you’re physically capable of coordinating the movement of alcohol from the bottle to your mouth.

And, if you'd like a printable version of these rules then you can find one HERE (don't say I never do anything nice for you!).

Thursday, April 19, 2012

30 Day Writing Challenge - 30 Days of Writing. Done!

Thirty days of writing. Thirty challenges. 31,118 words. And now it's over and I get a chance to go back and reread some of what I wrote at last...

In doing so, I realised that it might be a tad tedious to have to cycle through the various days without knowing what they are all about and so decided to create this page, which provides a brief summary of each day (and a link) enabling anyone who reads this to have a little more information to hand in picking and choosing which of the writing challenges they want to look at.

Ernest Hemingway said the first draft of everything is shit, so the fact that the vast majority of the challenges in here represent the first draft of whatever I wrote means you may have to forgive a certain lack of refinement in what follows. My usual process throughout was to have a general idea for what I was going to write on a particular theme and then sit with my laptop, bashing aggressively against the keyboard, until I'd concluded and then fight to resist my natural urge to reread and edit and rewrite. I did this because I can sometimes find it difficult, when working on my novel, not to want to go back and revise the chapter I've finished the previous day - and I think it's likely far healthier to get into the mindset of ploughing on and writing the full story before you go back and revise it.

So, without further ado, here are all thirty of the challenges.

Day 1 - A Place that you love
For this challenge, I chose to write a short piece about a childhood haunt of mine 'The Hill'... [read more]

Day 2 - Facing The Fear
I decided, for Day 2, to head straight off into SF territory and write a short piece detailing a mysterious assignment for Alana Dshae, as she is whisked off to the furthest reaches of the galaxy to meet with an ancient alien race. [read more]

Day 3 - A genre you've never written in before
I've always held a fondness for Westerns but had never attempted to write anything even remotely close to one; so for this challenge I wrote the story of a group of killers, led by a man called Six Finger Bob, heading into the town of Desolation on the hunt for a man called Danny Ringo... [read more]

Day 4 - Dialogue only, please
I decided to use the challenge of today to flesh out some of the characters from Day 3's short story and provide a slightly ironic, and hopefully comedic, insight into the minds of the Little Jake and Slim Decker... [read more]

Day 5 - Inspired by your favourite song
After considering writing a piece of fantasy, I decided to make Day 5 an honest evaluation of how Stevie Ray Vaughan's version of Little Wing makes me feel. [read more]

Day 6 - Second person coffee
Writing in the second person is always fun and, once you're writing in this perspective, it's very hard to resist the lure of noir. Of course, there had to be some comedy in there as well as your morning coffee is somewhat spoiled by the arrival of The Mob... [read more]

Day 7 - A day in the life of your favourite comic book character
I decided to use this challenges as an opportunity to take a slightly alternative look at a much beloved comic book character... [read more]

Day 8 - A place that exists only in your mind
For today's challenge I visited a place that exists only in my mind; the hugely mechanised city of Trinity that crawls slowly city-wise on its path around the globe. This is a small excerpt from the first draft of my current novel. [read more]

Day 9 - El Diablo
This one kind of got away from me - or, rather, I ran out of time to finish it - and so there is only a tiny snippet of a very strange story that I intended to feature a Mexican drug lord and a Lovecraftian sub-text... [read more]

Day 10 - The Interview
After a few days of being (relatively) serious, I abandoned myself to the comic and wrote a short fantasy piece about the interview of a potential minion by a Dark Lord. [read more]

Day 11 - A Point in History
A short SF piece detailing the machinations of Alfred J Pollock, a scientist of dubious repute, who hoped to use his newly fashioned time machine to return to the past and enslave civilization... [read more]

Day 12 - Your passion
My passion is writing. So, I write about writing. Very meta. [read more]

Day 13 - The place I grew up
A slightly rose tinted view of the town of Halesowen, where I spent my formative years. [read more]

Day 14 - In the style of a favourite writer
A couple of possibilities suggested themselves but I decided to embark upon a short homage to the SF of Iain M Banks... [read more]

Day 15 - The road goes ever on
For some reason, I found this one of the hardest challenges to actually get an idea for but when I did I fashioned a short story that features a car trip, a powerful sense of deja vu and a realisation that all might not quite what it seems. [read more]

Day 16 - How an event from yesterday could have gone
This is, quite possibly, the silliest day out of all 30. I'll say nothing else. [read more]

Day 17 - The Ocean
A different tone entirely to the previous day, this challenge details the diary of a mariner stranded in the middle of the Atlantic... [read more]

Day 18 - The taste of your favourite meal
I don't want to give anything away about this; but it begins with a serial killer following a young woman as she exists a bar...[read more]

Day 19 - The day of randomness
Today's challenge involved heading to wikipedia and using their random page link to find the subject of your day's challenge. I got Pedro Aznar, a musician and so fashioned this short story about an encounter on a Rio beach. [read more]

Day 20 - A place you want to visit
An opportunity to reveal my desire to follow in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong! [read more]

Day 21 - Night
This offered me an opportunity to slip briefly into horror fiction as a man is assailed in his house by deadly visitors... [read more]

Day 22 - Standing at the precipice
A man stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon and has to decide whether he believes enough to jump. [read more]

Day 23 - First person blind date
This turned out to be almost as silly as Day 16 as it considers the perils of extra-terrestrial blind dating... [read more]

Day 24 - The City
A short piece that is derived from a fantasy world that I've had knocking around my imagination for many years. [read more]

Day 25 - A Poem
Today I created a SF sonnet... [read more]

Day 26 - Something you witnessed today
A short story that touches upon the more invasively dystopian possibilities afforded by the advances in augmented reality technology... [read more]

Day 27 - A snippet from a novel you want to write
This is a snippet from a novel I am writing - part of the same novel as seen in Day 8 - as we are introduced to Militza Tio; warrior,  member of the Shield Guard and soon-to-be renegade. [read more]

Day 28 - Second person bank robbery
From the perspective of you, an undercover FBI agent, waiting for a notorious gang to rob a bank... [read more]

Day 29 - Blue Powder
A chance encounter in a Parisian bistro allows the tale of the legendary Count of Saint Germain to be told. [read more]

Day 30 - The End
Best read after having read Day 29's story, this takes us to the very end of the Universe... [read more]

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

30 Day Writing Challenge - Day 30

Today's challenge is, rather appropriately, simply called The End.

I tried to think of something epically final and hope, despite the few small liberties I've taken in places with regard to the science, that I managed it. It works better if you read yesterday's story as well (and that's not just me trying to get you to read more of my writing, honest!).

The End

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
                    T.S. Eliot (1925)

This is the way the Universe ends
This is the final stanza of a work that stretches back trillions of years but there is to be no soaring crescendo, no dramatic conclusion; the Universe ends in silence, it ends in frigid, midnight blackness in which all light and life is slowly squeezed from it and then finally extinguished.

The end was, paradoxically, signalled by one of the most colossal periods of rebirth; as galaxies collided, celestial masses drawn irreparably together and ripped irreparably apart by unforgiving gravity; shock waves of interstellar gases colliding and giving birth to a swathe of new stars. But the seeds of the end were being sown even as new suns were born; gravity coaxing galaxies into vast ellipses that are gradually eroded of their ability to form new stars. After rebirth, the Universe becomes barren.

Then there is only the waiting as the stars slowly begin to die. The smaller stars, like the Sun, puff up their chests and expand into red giants as their end time approaches but it is little more than dying throes as they slowly collapse back in upon themselves to become white dwarves and then, as they cool, black dwarves. For slightly larger stars, the end sees them collapse in upon themselves, their matter compressed so tightly that they become neutron stars. And for the largest stars, the end is even more violent; collapsing upon themselves with such brutal force that they rip a black hole in space-time and begin to devour everything that draws close enough to them.

And finally, the black holes and the dead stars are all that remain. Darkness reigns absolute, the temperature hovering precariously above absolute zero, as the Universe is starkly reduced to little more than a scattering of cosmological objects.

But the black holes are still alive. They roam and coalesce, forming ever larger tears in the fabric of reality. Perhaps there is somewhere in the Universe safe from their appetite but I find it difficult to imagine as they approach my final resting place.

I have waited so very long for this moment, to hear the Universe play out its last notes in the hope that they might finally be an end to my own work.

I have had many names, too many to remember. But, as, I feel the tangible tug of gravity that presages my joining with the singularity that lies beyond the event horizon, there is only one name that I can hold on to.

And so, I wonder if this will finally be the release I’ve craved. If the Count of Saint Germain can finally have his end.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

30 Day Writing Challenge - Day 29

Despite a heavy workload, I found time this evening to work on Day 29's challenge - Blue Powder. The very open ended nature of the title led me off in a rather curious direction...

Blue Powder

I sat in the window of the bistro and watched the early morning mist rising off the Seine.

I left my Ipad on the blue and white checked tablecloth in front of me and admired the view as a flotilla of tiny boats pottered up the river, their bows pushing against the fog as if it were a tangible thing. Ever since I had found this place, I had spent my mornings here soaking up the Parisian atmosphere. The coffee they served was thick and black and possessed a slightly acrid taste that I found perfectly balanced their delightful pastries.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said a voice to my right.

I looked up to see a middle-aged man with dark hair and a cream blazer taking his seat on the table adjacent to me.

“Paris in the morning,” he said, with a somewhat wistful smile, “There is just something magical about it, don’t you agree?”

“I love it,” I admitted.

“Ah, you’re English,” he said, “Based upon your accent, I would guess from somewhere near Wolverhampton?“

“Spot on, actually,” I said, feeling slightly nonplussed. I liked to believe that all traces of my childhood accent had long since been cleansed from my voice by my many years of moving around the UK. “And you?”

“Me? Oh, I’m from all over,” he said, beckoning the waitress over and ordering ‘his usual’ before turning back to face me. “Truth is, I’ve moved around so much that I don’t really feel like anywhere is my home these days.”

“I guess I know how that is.”

“So what brings you to Paris?”

“I’m here working.”

“Ah, such a shame to have to spend one’s time working in such a beautiful city…”

“Well I’m doing some freelance work; installing a network for a company. It’s going to take a couple of weeks so I get to hang out and enjoy Paris quite a bit.”

“Wonderful,” he said with a beaming smile, “Personally, I never can resist coming back to Paris.”

“You don’t live here, then?”

“Once, long ago, I did” he said, again smiling “But now, I am just a tourist.”


“Oh yes. I admire the wonderful history that the whole place is steeped in. Everywhere in Paris has history; why, even this humble bistro has its own little footnote.”

“Oh?” I replied, feeling genuinely curious. I always found old cities amazing in that respect; to be able to walk streets that had been walked for centuries before me, to see places that had been unchanged for centuries.

“Have you ever heard,” said the man, leaning in towards me almost conspiratorially, “of the Count of St. Germain?”

The name rang a vague bell but it tinkled away so quietly in the recesses of my brain that I couldn’t dredge up any details.

“Rings a bell, but I can’t quite place it.”

“Do you have time for me to tell you his story?”

Technically, I knew I didn’t have time; I had a meeting in a couple of hours and I’d need to get back to my hotel and pick up a few things before then. But, for some reason, I found myself saying “Sure, I’ve got time.”

The man smiled broadly.

“That’s marvellous. I was beginning to worry that the art of listening had rather gone the way of the dodo.”

“So who was this Count of St. Germain?”

“Well, two hundred and fifty years or so ago, he was very much the celebrity in European high society. An accomplished musician and courtier, an alchemist and an adventurer; this was his very favourite bistro in all of Paris.”

I looked around at the plain furnishings and found it hard to believe that, two hundred and fifty years ago, this was a place favoured by the elite.


“Right here,” said the man, his eyes twinkling. “And it was here in this very bistro that he told a tale that would eventually give rise to a legend. It was right in this very part of the room that he revealed to two of his closest companions that he was immortal.”

I laughed. “And did they believe him?”

“Well, of course, not at first. At first they thought, like you do now, that he was a charlatan or perhaps mad. But he told them a story of how, as a boy, he had been an assistant to a great alchemist in the times of Ancient Egypt and that this alchemist had, after communing with the Egyptian god Thoth, developed an elixir capable of extending the life of a man indefinitely.”

The waitress brought over his coffee and a croque-monsieur and he stopped to thank her in what was, to my ears at least, flawless French before turning back to me. Despite myself, I found myself drawn into his story as his voice and manner were incredibly charismatic.

“The alchemist intended to present the elixir to the Pharaoh but the Count, or whatever his name was then, stole the elixir in the dead of night. One pinch of this blue powder was said to be enough to preserve a man’s life for fifty years but the boy knew nothing of this and he ate mouthfuls of the powder, despite the way it tasted foul and burnt his lips and tongue. Delirious and in pain, he wandered way into the desert for weeks but the elixir had changed him irreparably; even without water or food he lived on. And as the weeks became years, and the years became decades, he realised that he was aging so slowly that it was as if the rest of the world were turning a hundred times faster for everyone else.”

He sipped at his coffee.

“And as the decades turned to centuries he began to appreciate the folly of his actions. He could not stay in one place or he would be burned as a witch; he could not love, for anything he loved would eventually die before his eyes. What he had originally thought would be a blessing turned out to be a curse, and so he wandered the world and sought refuge in learning. He became a virtuoso musician, he became a playwright, he became a lothario and a magician and, eventually, he became himself an alchemist so that he could unravel the mysteries of that which had given him this endless life.”

The man sighed.

“But it was no use. While he could create a substance that appeared similar, the blue powder that the Count created was far less potent. It could keep a man young for twenty years but its power was finite, it was nothing more than a poor facsimile. And so, as the centuries became millennia he sought death. But death would not come to him. He threw himself from a ship into the sea but found that he could not drown. And, while he could feel pain, he would eventually heal from even the most grievous of wounds.  One time he even allowed himself to be burnt at the stake, only to awaken the next morning as if nothing had happened to him. There was no escape. And so he accepted his fate and found amusement in moving constantly, in finding new people even if the places themselves seemed old to him.”

“That is a cool story,” I said, “but I still don’t understand how he convinced them he was immortal?”

“Oh, he allowed them to sample the elixir he had himself created. While twenty years to him was as a drop to the ocean, to them it was a tremendous bounty.”

“But surely it can’t have worked?”

"Do you know what the average lifespan of a man in the 18th century was?”

I shrugged. “Fifty?”

“The average man in the 18th century died at thirty five.”


“And yet, one of his companions in the bistro that night, Prince Charles of Hesse Kassel would go on to live to the ripe old age of ninety one.”

“A coincidence, surely?”

“Perhaps,” nodded the man, “but it was Prince Charles who also supposedly buried the Count when he died in 1784. There are those who believe that Prince Charles enabled the Count to move onso that his youthfulness would not be detected. And there, it would seem that the story of the Count ends.”

“It is a great story,” I said with a smile. “And you tell it well.”

He held his hands up in mock protest “It is far too early in the morning to tell the story well; but I hope that it was at least something interesting to know about this place.”

I looked again at the bistro, wondering how much of the story was true and whether the mysterious Count had indeed sat close to where I was now having my breakfast all those centuries ago. I was interrupted from my thoughts by my phone ringing and fished it from my pocket to see that my boss was calling.

“Sorry,” I said to the man, “duty calls.”

“Of course,” he said, “In fact, I must shortly be off. But, it was a pleasure.”

I smiled and stood up so that I could walk to the other side of the room and take the call in private. Then spent a few minutes half listening as my boss prattled on about how he wanted to make sure that people couldn’t use the internet on the work network and I studied the engravings that hung on the wall. They were mainly French figures that I’d never heard of but I stopped at the fifth one and found myself staring.

“Are you listening to me?” said my boss.

“Got to call you back.” I said and thumbed the red button to end the call.

The engraving showed a dark haired man dressed in decorative coat and waistcoat; a tiny plaque at the bottom was inscribed with Count Saint Germain. There was, however, no mistaking the fact that the man in the engraving was the very same as the one I had just sat next to.

I spun round but the table where the man had been sitting was empty.

A flash of thoughts ran through my head. This had to be some kind of practical joke, was my first thought. Whatever was the French equivalent of Candid Camera and as soon as I reacted, a host was going to come in and poke fun at me. But that didn’t seem possible; no one could have foreseen that I would choose to go to the other side of the room.

“The man that was sitting here,” I asked the waitress, “do you know him?”

“He comes here on and off for many years,” shrugged the waitress.

I felt suddenly dizzy and sat back down at my seat. Clearly just a coincidence, I told myself, just a silly coincidence. But, as I picked up my Ipad I noticed that two things were tucked beneath it.

The first was a short note. It read: Thank you for sparing the time to listen to my story. Sharing it is one of the few pleasures that I have left so please accept this as a token of my esteem. C.S.G.

The second was a small glass vial containing blue powder.

No more than a pinch.

Friday, April 13, 2012

30 Day Writing Challenge - Day 28

I know, I know, I've been awfully slack of late. I have my excuses, but I won't bore you with them...

Nevertheless, here is today's challenge - Second person bank robbery. A bit rough and ready, I typed this flat out in one sitting and I'm throwing it online without even rereading or checking for continuity errors or typos. A piece of fresh writing, bloody and still steaming...

The Robbery

The four men in balaclavas walk into the bank with almost military efficiency; three of them immediately fan out across the bank’s foyer and remove Heckler & Koch MP5s from beneath their coats while the fourth barricades the door behind them.

                “Everyone face down, on the ground with your hands on your head.” says the largest of the men, his voice precise and free of any noticeable accent. “This is a robbery.”

                The manager looks at you, his eyes wide, as he finally realises that this is really happening to him and you are forced to stare back at him hard to stop him from betraying you. You might be dressed as a bank teller, but the bank manager knows that you’re actually an undercover FBI agent.

                “If anyone tries to hit an alarm, they die. If anyone tries to make a phone call, they die.” intones the man calmly. “If anyone tries anything stupid, they die.”

He scans the room, watching as people get to their knees and then down on to their bellies, furtively glancing at each other as they do so. You wait as long as you can before following suit; lying face down on the floor and clasping your hands behind your head, angling it slightly to one side so that you can surreptitiously watch what the men are doing.

“Remember people, this is the bank’s money,” says the man as he walks around the room, “No one needs to die for someone else’s money.”

You feel your heart hammering hard in your chest, each beat so loud in your ears that it seems like the whole room must hear it. This is the moment where your plan lives or dies; if this goes the way you planned it then no one will get hurt today. If it goes wrong, then things could get messy.

Two hours earlier this morning, you and your three-man team had sat down with the bank manager and briefed him on the intel you had obtained about today’s raid. The gang, you had explained, were ex-military and ruthless; on the bank jobs that went smoothly they left everyone alive, but when things went badly, they left no survivors. It was, therefore, vital, that no one tried to engage them while they were inside the bank.

The plan was simple; the gang were to be allowed to carry out the robbery as they had planned. There were to be no heroics, no attempts to trip silent alarms and summon the police; the gang would take the money from the vault with no problems. But, what they didn’t know, was that the bank notes would be marked with the latest in FBI technology; micro transmitters that would enable the gang to be tracked back to their hideout where an enhanced FBI SWAT team could move in and arrest them without endangering the lives of innocents. You were disguised as a bank teller while two other members of your team were disguised as customers and the final member had replaced the bank’s security guard.

The leader of the group strides up and down the room while his three companions keep point, their guns covering the mass of bodies on the bank floor. Finally, he stops and prods the bank manager between the shoulder blades with the barrel of his gun.

“You’re the manager. I’m going to need you to come with me.”

The manager slowly gets up, looking down at the ground as he does his best to avoid the man’s eyes.

“Time check.” barks the man to his colleagues.

“10.29,” replies the man to his left.

The leader stares the bank manager in the face. He has ice blue eyes.

“What time does the time lock deactivate?”

“Ten thirty,” mumbles the manager, holding his gaze steadfast to the floor.

“Then let’s go.”

He drags the manager across the foyer and out through the back offices, away from your line of sight and you cross your fingers that he can hold it together long enough for them to open the vault and take the money. If the manager goes to pieces now, it is difficult to see how this could end well.

You count out a minute in your head, exchanging looks with one of your team who is face down on the other side of the foyer in amongst a group of real customers, before the man finally emerges from the back of the bank with a broad smile.

“It’s open. Bring the bags.”

One man joins him, leaving only two men to guard the foyer. If anyone has the idea to play at being a hero, it would be around about now. Replacing the security guard with one of your team had been essential, security guards often dream of being heroes and earning acclaim. There could be no loose cannons today. The men keep their weapons trained on the room and no one so much as stirs.

Another minute gone and the two men re-emerge, each now weighted down with two bulging black canvas bags. They drop the bags in the middle of the floor and wait while one of the men who had, until now, remained behind dashes out back. You know that they are going for the security camera footage; pulling all the hard drives that store the bank’s imagery and taking them with them. The manager was pleased when you told him that you’d installed a set of FBI mini-cameras that would capture everything regardless.

And with that, and with only four minutes having passed since the gang first walked into the bank, the men are gone. There is a squeal of rubber against asphalt as their getaway vehicle speeds away from the scene and then the room suddenly explodes in a hubbub of crying women and panicked voices.  Your voice and the FBI badge silences the room as you thank everyone for helping to ensure that a dangerous gang can be brought to justice.

The gang are heading south, you tell the manager and you need to make sure that you keep in range of the transmitters. You tell him that he did a great job and he seems pleased; feeling good about himself as he forgets just how scared he was in the moment. The follow-up team will be with them in ten to fifteen minutes; they’ll want to interview everyone and run a full forensic sweep. Until then, it’s vital that no one leaves the building and the manager is more than happy to take charge again, ordering people to take a seat as his confidence returns. You thank him one last time and then head out to your car with the team.

You take out your cell phone as you drive away from the bank.

“It all went to plan.”

“It certainly did.”

“See you in an hour.”

You flick the cell phone closed, lean back in your seat and smile.

In twenty minutes time, when no follow up team has arrived at the bank, the manager will begin to get worried. When it reaches half an hour, he’ll contact someone higher up in his organisation. Things will start unravelling around about then; it won’t be long before the FBI are contacted and it is determined that there was no undercover FBI team operating at the bank today. In an hour’s time, they’ll realise that they’ve just been comprehensively played.

But, by then, you and the money are going to be a long way away…

Friday, April 06, 2012

30 Day Writing Challenge - Day 27

I've missed a few days due to being busy but had opportunity to catch up a little today by having two posts in one day. Today's challenge - a snippet from a novel you want to write - gave me a chance to revisit the same world that we met in the challenge from Day 8 as they are both excerpts from the first draft of a novel I am currently working on...


Militza Tio knew she had, at best, eight hours before her unwitting part in all of this came to light; eight hours before the trail of scattered fragments and loose clues led them, inevitably, to come for her.

            She stood and stared out of the small slit window of her quarters; her vantage point giving her a good view of the eastern quarter of Top Side, its sprawling and chaotic landscape of houses and shacks, bars and warehouses, market stalls and bazaars spreading across the grey metal skin of Trinity and haphazardly piling up against the soaring heights of The Spinnacles, like fungus growing against tree trunks. The cityscape was bustling with life and activity, even at this early hour, but she looked over and beyond it, instead taking in the sun as it began to peek its way over the hills on the distant horizon, a ruddy orange ball obscured by the morning mist. She knew that Trinity would have reached those hills by tomorrow morning, would already be grinding its way through the muddy valleys that lay beyond. And, if she wanted to live, she must be long gone by then.

For the second time that morning, she picked up and read the handwritten note that had been left on her pillow; its meaning was unequivocal. She had been betrayed, utterly.

She had woken briefly in the night when he left their bed, but she had been too tired and her head too dulled by the wine she had drank at the party to wake up properly and so he had hushed her with a kiss and she had let her head again find the pillow and slept on for another hour, maybe two, before finally stirring as dawn began to break grey outside her window. The bed beside her had been empty; the sheets still bore his impression, were still fresh with his scent, but she had known immediately that something was wrong. She had felt a sudden anxious coldness that caused her skin to prickle with goosebumps even before she had noticed the ivory note that he had left for her on the pillow.

She had looked at it. A small paper square, a piece of folded paper upon which he had written her name in black ink. Frowning, she had reached across the bed and plucked it with her fingers and opened it to read the message within.

There is something you need to know it began and she had only reached the second sentence before she let the paper slip absently from her fingers and slid, naked, from between the bed sheets and walked to the bathroom. She padded barefoot across the cold metal floor and looked inside. There was some small part of her that clung to the belief that he was going to be standing there when she opened the door, that she would find him standing there and awkwardly shaving himself in the small mirror on the wall as he had done each morning for the three months that they had lived together, that she would meet his jade eyes in the mirror and sneak up behind him, slip her arms beneath his and encircle his chest, hold him pressed tight to her and tell him about the strangest dream that she had just woken from. But it was empty, and she could cling to the belief no longer.

She had returned to stand by the bed and read the note from start to finish. It ended with I hope you can find it in your heart to, one day, forgive me.

She had stood there, frozen beside the bed, for a few minutes, the note clasped tightly in her hand as she tried to make sense of the thick knot of emotions that had instantly gathered in her stomach; the pain, the anger, the disappointment, the fear; all curled up and bound together in a tangled mess. A few minutes of confusion and doubt, a few minutes of wanting to believe that what she was reading couldn’t possibly be true, and then her training kicked in and her instincts took full control of the situation.

            Placing the note back on the pillow, she had dressed swiftly but calmly; picking out a beige cotton shirt and a pair of green trousers with utility pouches that would be suitable for travelling before lacing up her black leather boots and fastening a black sword belt at her waist. She then moved to the set of wooden drawers beside her bed and opened the lower drawer, pulling out a set of rough brown fabric robes, a fadwar, from its place beneath a folded blanket.  The fadwar was a common sight in Trinity, it was a nondescript robe worn by any number of traders and merchants and was large enough that she could simply slip it over the top of her other clothes. She found the robes uncomfortable, the coarse material scratching at her exposed skin whenever she moved, but she knew that wearing it would allow her to more easily blend in with the crowds and its hood would serve to hide her colourfully braided hair which would otherwise easily identify her.

Gathering her belongings had proved to be easy, she owned very little that she truly cared for but was still surprised to find that her entire life here in Trinity could be so rapidly condensed into a single shoulder bag. She gathered two fresh sets of clothes and stuffed them into the bottom of the bag before opening the upper drawer and examining its contents; finally taking a black firesteel, a bundle of folded maps, a small brass compass, a hunting knife and a green box that contained some basic medical aid. There were a few additional items that she would have liked to have gathered from the general supplies area; some tinder, some candles, a sleeping bag; but she knew that to do so would likely raise awkward questions and arouse unwanted suspicions with the guards in charge of the provisions. No, she had decided, it was better that she make do with what she had and minimise the risk of discovery than have her escape attempt end before it had even begun.

 While packing had been a relatively simple task, following her instincts without question and making the commitment to run was proving to be more difficult; there was a large part of her that wanted to stay and face down the gathering storm; that wanted to try to prove her innocence and preserve her honour; but she knew, logically, that this could not happen. They would discover the evidence and they would assume she was somehow complicit in all of this; they would come for her and they would take her inability to meaningfully answer their questions not as innocence, but as obstinacy. Then they would work hard to extract the truths they would be certain that she possessed and, by the time that they realised that she truly knew nothing, it would be far too late for her.

Militza knew that Aron Tarvis would not let whatever feelings he held for her impinge, in any way, upon the duty that he was sworn to perform; the same man who had treated her as something close to a daughter during these last seven years would take little pleasure, but have no qualms, in doing whatever it might take to loosen her tongue. He was honour bound to serve the interests of the Regent and the City and she understood that there was nothing more important to him than the blood oath which he had sworn upon entering the Shield Guard. It was the same blood oath that she was now about to break and it made her ache to think of how disappointed he would be in her, how disappointed they would all be, when everything finally came to light. But she knew that their disappointment could not be the equal of her life.

She had delayed looking through the other set of drawers, the ones that lay on his side of the bed, but finally opened them and poured over the contents. A pair of trousers and some socks, a bracelet, a blue fountain pen and a bottle of black ink; she wondered whether he had composed the letter while she slept or whether he had written it the day before while she had been too busy getting ready to notice. She wondered whether, as they had looked into each other’s eyes only twelve hours earlier, he had already written the letter that he knew would break her heart.

There were no clues waiting for her in the few possessions that he had left behind, nothing that might suggest where had gone. She had expected nothing less from a man who had so seamlessly slipped beneath her radar, a man who had fooled her into believing that he loved her and failed to arouse even the slightest of suspicions until the moment he disappeared, like a ghost, from her life.

And so, for the second time that morning, she picked up and read the note, as if in the hope that doing so would change the words on the page. But of course it did not. The message of betrayal remained the same and she committed the message’s contents to her memory, searing every single word deep into her brain, before crumpling the ivory paper into a tight ball and bringing it to the flame of the solitary candle that burned in her room.

The edge of the paper curled and charred brown for a moment before finally taking light. Militza held it between her thumb and forefinger, fire licking painfully hot and yellow at her flesh, until the paper was nothing more than a blackened ball and the skin of her fingers and thumb was red. She welcomed the pain, even in the knowledge that it was temporary and that her body would have repaired the damage to it within minutes; she welcomed anything that, even briefly, loosened the hold that the pain in her heart had over her. Finally, she closed her fist tight around the remains of the paper, opening her hand to allow a shower of black ashes to spill to the floor.

 The final item remaining for her to take was the sword in its scabbard. It was held, horizontally, between two clasps on the wall; dull grey and absent of any kind of markings or ornamentation. There had been a time, when she was much younger, that she had hated how mundane the Shield Guard looked in their plain armour and drab swords; one of her earliest memories had been of seeing Baron Caruthers arriving in Trinity with a retinue of his personal guard, clad in ornate silver armour embossed with the sigil of the City of Ironcloud, and she had felt sure that this was how soldiers should look. But, over time, she had come to appreciate that aesthetics did nothing to sharpen a dull sword or to strengthen one’s armour against a foe. In combat, purpose was everything.

            She walked across the room and took the scabbard and sword from its fixture on the wall; the feel of it in her hand so natural, so light and well balanced, that it sometimes felt that she was only truly whole in those moments when she was holding it. In a way, she supposed, it was her, or she was it.

Militza hefted the fadwar in folds up around her waist with one hand and, with the other, slipped the sword and its scabbard into its place on her belt, tightening its mounting and then letting the robes fall back into place. She examined herself as best she could without a mirror; the outline of the sword seemed to be well disguised by the flow of the material but she was certain that it would be easily spotted by a trained eye. It would be vital that she avoided as many trained eyes as possible.

Being separated from her blade like this felt unnatural to her; she felt almost naked at the thought of her sword lying beneath this layer of fabric, so near yet out of her reach. With a soft sigh to herself, she rummaged in her bag and removed the hunting knife, using its tip to make a small incision in the material of the fadwar a few inches above her right hip. If things should go badly she would, at least, have some way to get access to her sword.

She took one last look at her room, at the bed still unmade, and fought back the hot flood of anger that tried to well up inside her. This had been her room for the last three years, their room for the last three months, and she was being forced to leave it all behind.  She had to leave everything behind; every person she knew or cared about, every place she was familiar with, all needed to be excised from her life if she was to survive. She put the anger away, compartmentalised her feelings as she had been taught to; she couldn’t afford to waste even a moment on a pointless outpouring of emotion; if she wanted to get out of Trinity alive then she needed to make every single second count.

She had been betrayed by Jude Anstra. She had been betrayed by the man she loved, betrayed the very morning after she had celebrated her wedding to him. She was being forced to desert the city that had meant everything to her, forced to dishonour herself and bring shame upon the Shield Guard and those in it that she would have counted as friends. All that was left to her now was to find the trail that he would have left, to find it and follow it. She must flee Trinity and its Caravan, must abandon its protection and follow that trail, wherever it might take her. 

And when Militza Tio found Jude Anstra, she would make sure that he paid for his betrayal in blood.

30 Day Writing Challenge - Day 26

Inspired by the Google's Project Glass, I decided to come up with a rather dystopian vision of where this technology might eventually lead us. Took a few liberties in the telling but, there again, taking of liberties was very much a recurring theme...

Something You Witnessed Today

The man in the grey suit sat on the park bench with a black briefcase at his side. The fingers of his right hand drummed on his knee as he turned his head back and forth to scan the path either side of him.  After a few minutes, a man in jeans and a black t-shirt walked casually along the path from the east side of the park and sat down on the far end of the bench. He opened a lunch box and extracted a cheese and ham sandwich, which he placed on the bench beside him.

“You look nervous, Tony.” he said, not looking at the man in the grey suit. “You need to try and relax.”

Tony Denton looked anything but relaxed. He continued to gaze around him, adjusting his glasses with one finger, his forehead lightly dappled with sweat.

“I’m trying.”

“Tony, there is nothing to be worried about. We’re just two guys having lunch in the park.”

“If they find out what you had me do-“

“Hush, Tony.” said the man quietly, but there was steel in his voice. “We talked about this. They’re not going to find out.”

“Is any of this even legal?”

             Sam Waxley turned to look at the man at the opposite end of the bench and smiled; it was his broadest, teeth-baring, gotta-love-him smile that he only pulled out for the hardest of hard sells. “Tony, Tony, Tony,” he said, still smiling, “when you can be economical with the truth and creative with the interpretation of amendment rights, anything can be legal.”

                “I don’t know,” said Tony, removing a white handkerchief from his breast pocket and mopping his brow. “I mean, if this gets out-”

                “It won’t get out.”

                “But if it does, the press is going to have a field day-“

                “Tony,” said Sam firmly, “only a handful of people know about this. Try to focus on what we’re going to achieve.”

                “You already sold me on what this can mean. Something like this, maybe it would have been the difference in what happened with my brother-“

“Exactly, you’re getting a chance to help make sure that no one else has to go through what you’ve gone through.”

“It’s just…well, you know I’ve got to make sure I cover my ass on this.”

             “Your ass is bullet proof, Tony.”

              “And my name definitely isn’t going to end up on a document somewhere?”

               “There are no documents. This is all strictly need-to-know and off the books.”

                “But it’s been sanctioned by someone, right?”

                “Unofficially, yes, this has clearance all the way from the top. Officially, the powers-that-be have plausible deniability.”

                Tony fiddled absently with his wedding ring. “Look, I cloaked the apps and leeched off enough bandwidth to provide you with the data you need but there’s still a small chance that someone could discover this if they did a full audit of our systems.”

                “We’re aware of the risks; but we have contingency plans in place.”

                “I think I need to know more about them if I’m going to go through with this.”

                “Tony, the less you know the better.”

                “Look, I’m trusting you on this-“

                “I figured the fifteen million dollars we’re about to wire into off-shore accounts for you would buy us quite a bit of trust, Tony.”

                “I trust you,” said Tony, looking at Sam pleadingly. “It’s just; well, I need to know what happens if something goes wrong.”

                “There are certain fragments in the code” explained Sam, “Identifiable fragements, but entirely false fragments. They’ll implicate Chinese hackers and we’ll sweep up a suitable Chinese national, or naturalised Chinese from Zerrenium and then hold them under the Patriot Act. We can hold onto them as long as we like – problem solved…”

                “Ok,” said Tony, nodding to himself. “That would work, I guess.”

                “I’m glad you’re satisfied. Now I’m going to need you to demonstrate that this is all working before I authorise the transfer.”

                Tony looked around the empty park nervously.

                “If anyone finds I smuggled these out a week before the launch-”

                “Just show me.”

                Tony placed the briefcase on his lap, fiddled with the combination lock and then snapped it open. Inside, among various papers, was a smaller black case. He opened the small case carefully to reveal an interior that was lined with honeycombed foam and, at its centre, a small pair of lightweight glasses.  He took them out gently and passed them to Sam.

                “The Zerrenium Aug-Vision.”

                “Nice,” said Sam, turning them over in his hand. “So this is what’s got Apple and Google running scared.”

                “The technology in these is way ahead of anything either of those two are going to be able to bring to the market for at least a year.”

                Sam slid a finger across the power-on indicator and a small green light appeared on the frame. “And these are ready to go?”

                “It’s running right now.”

                Sam slipped the glasses on and watched the augmented reality overlay offer up a range of display data. If these were his own glasses then they’d be calibrating to his individual user preferences, learning what it was that he was most interested in.

“And there’s no way of a user being able to determine the data we’re gathering?”

“No way; all the processing is done on The Cloud, so there’s no kind of performance drop for the user at all.”

Sam glanced along the bench at Tony for the briefest of seconds and then removed a black cell phone from the pocket of his jeans and thumbed a number on speed dial.

                It rang twice before being picked up.

                “This is Sam Waxley. ID 54 Alpha 6 Echo. Is this line secure?”

                “We’re secure. Go.”

                “Item has been evaluated. What do you have?”

                “Full thirty eight point face recognition, matching the target. GPS data and positional data on all other units has been acquired.”

                Sam smiled honestly for the first time that day.

                “Excellent. I’ll be back soon. Waxley out.”

                He clicked the cell phone off and placed it back in his pocket before offering the glasses back to Tony.

                “The money is being wired to your accounts right now. You’ll have access to it within half an hour.”

                “And we won’t talk again?”

                “No, Tony. We won’t ever see each other again after today.”

                “It was nice doing business with you.” said Tony, getting up and offering his hand out for Sam to shake before realising how this would look to anybody who happened to be watching them. He blushed crimson. “Sorry.”

                “Just go, Tony. Go keep your head down for a while and then start enjoying your money.”

                Tony nodded, picked up his briefcase and scurried quickly away down the path towards the park exit. Sam sat back and closed his eyes, savouring the moment. Zerrenium’s latest gadget was all set to be a game changer, destined to be the must-have item for everyone wanting to keep pace with the latest technology. And, now, the NSA had a back door into everything.

                The idea had come to him when he first saw the prototype demoed; the Aug-Tech used a front facing camera and he had immediately realised that if it were somehow possible to run a background app that utilised the feed from every single pair of glasses out there, then it could a spy network of unparalleled power. Everything ever user saw could be evaluated without them even realising it.

                Terrorism was the big sell, of course. That’s how he’d hooked Washington and it was also how he’d found a sympathetic insider in the shape of Tony Denton. Of course, he didn’t tell Washington that his plans were a lot bigger than hunting down the limited number of targets on the terrorist wanted list; and he didn’t think that Tony would have been entirely pleased to learn that his brother – killed in a car bomb on a synagogue six months earlier – had actually been killed by a CIA field team working on his specific orders. Armed with a fierce desire to do something, anything, to avenge his brother’s death, Sam had found Tony to be satisfyingly pliable when it came to undermining his employer’s systems.

                In reality, the glasses would track everyone. Every single person identified would have their image compared, via an algorithm he didn’t pretend to understand, to a national database that held photos that had been scavenged everywhere from the Motor Vehicles Commission to Facebook. Once the glasses became common place, they would be able to form a map of the comings and goings of countless millions and it would ensure that the NSA knew who was meeting who and where. It wouldn’t just be terrorists; it would be activists and protestors, lawyers and charity workers; it would be anyone who might not just be entirely true blue American. They could cross-reference the data against GPS, could match up data received with real-time CCTV or drone footage, they could even track a target using multiple Aug-Tech devices. It was Big Brother come to life and it would operate in silence, in the shadows, in background collating and learning.

But Sam Waxley already dreamed of a day when the existence of the system could be made public, when people wouldn’t just accept this type of monitoring but would actually relish it. All it would take, he knew, was for something to outrage the population enough; something that would make 9/11 pale in comparison, and Americans would be ready to give up what little remaining liberties they had; which was, of course ironic, the giving up of freedom in the name of protecting freedom.

                There would be dissenters, of course, he knew that; but, by then, they’d have already identified all the likely opposition and they would have made plans to deal with them. And then Americans would feel it was their civic duty to be part of the network. Why, he even had a slogan in mind.

                “Something you witnessed today,” he whispered to the empty park, with a hint of a smile, “Can save America tomorrow."