Campfire Stories

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The other kids grew quiet as Johnny returned from the forest. He was getting tired of that. He got along with them all right most of the time, at least as well as he ever did with kids his own age. But every time Miss Tokar’s name even came up, they all started staring like he’d grown a second head.

He sat down near the fire like nothing had happened. “You should have come, Kim,” he said to the girl across from him. “Miss Tokar showed me all kinds of interesting plants. You would have liked it.”

Kim stared at the fire and muttered something about maybe next time.

One of the other volunteers, Mr. Stevens, came by with marshmallows and s’more fixings. As kids argued over the best spots near the fire, burned marshmallows, and generally acted like kids, they forgot all about Miss Tokar’s herb-finding trip and how they should be afraid of Johnny.

“Let’s tell scary stories!” Ryan said.

“Don’t!” Cindy protested. She was easy to frighten. But everyone else agreed it was a great idea.

“I’ll go first,” Ryan announced. “This story happened in this very forest.”

Johnny thought that seemed a bit silly. These stories were all made-up. Some kids made up stories on the spot, and other kids repeated ones they’d heard before, but some kid had made those up, too; none of them were really real. If there’d really been an axe murderer who’s ghost cut the heads off of any kid who got lost, as Ryan insisted, there’d be investigations and stuff. Certainly their parents wouldn’t be letting them on this camping trip if headless bodies kept showing up.

The rest of the kids squealed in delighted terror, though. Well, except for Cindy, who was covering her ears.

Then Eric told his story. It, too, allegedly happened here. Really, Johnny thought, if all these ghosts were all in the same forest, they’d be too busy bickering to actually kill any children. Eric’s story involved a prospector, which was dumb, since they were in Michigan, which never had any gold rush or anything. But Johnny didn’t bother telling Eric that.

Instead he stared into the fire, trying to think of what to do when it was his turn. He’d never heard a scary story worth remembering, so he’d have to make one up. Obviously, he couldn’t claim that it happened “in this very forest”, since he was still the new kid. He could always say it happened where he used to live in Pittsburgh, but what would happen there? Would a ghost haunt a steel mill? Johnny didn’t see why not. It seemed like there was plenty mischief a ghost could cause in a place like that, but he didn’t think that’d go over well. It felt like it didn’t count as a scary story if it didn’t happen in a forest.

He started to see shapes in the fire. A branch on one of the logs stuck up, and it almost looked like there was a woman tied to it, burning. No, he thought, a moment later, she wasn’t tied to it, she was dancing around it. Smaller flames joined in, dancing in a circle around her, almost, but never quite, taking shape.

The woman grew taller and taller, and the crackling wood almost sounded like laughter for a moment. Then the fire leapt up, burning so bright, it hurt Johnny’s eyes.

He blinked the spots from his eyes, and the campfire was just a campfire again.

All the kids were staring at him, their faces pale. He could vaguely hear Mr. Stevens trying to calm down a crying Cindy at the volunteers’ table.

“What?” he asked. “Is it my turn?”

“No!” Eric said, quickly. “I mean, that was… where did you hear that? It didn’t really happen, did it?” He looked around at the dark woods surrounding them nervously.

Johnny frowned. He hadn’t said anything. Were they playing a joke on him? It seemed unlikely. Ryan honestly looked terrified, and Johnny didn’t think he would be willing to swallow his pride like that for a joke, or that he was a good enough actor to pull it off, for that matter.

“All right,” Mr. Stevens said, as the volunteers all swept down on them, “time for bed. Everyone to your tents.”

Johnny was grateful for the distraction and quickly headed towards the tent he was sharing with Eric. As he passed Miss Tokar, she met his eyes with a curious expression, then smiled, her teeth gleaming in the firelight.

“Did that really happen?” Kim asked, falling in beside him.

He shrugged, not wanting to admit he had no idea what was going on. “You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.” And without giving her a chance to reply, he turned down the path to the boys’ tents.

Prompt: Camping

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Hey, I actually did it on time this week!

I’m starting Camp NaNoWriMo next week, so this probably be the last prompt until August. Also, this week’s prompt is camping!

Good luck and good writing!

Solution Race

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The timer rang, and Eileen turned the box on its side. An eclectic arrange of toys and small devices spilled out. She paused, processing them.

The parameters for this contest were vague. The items needed to be “solved,” but it was up to the robots to determine what that meant. Luke had said that was the real test here. Her ability to put those solutions into effect was just a metric.

She identified one item as a Rubik’s Cube. Six sides, nine squares to a side. Nine squares of six different colors. It would be trivial to figure out even if it wasn’t already in her database.

The sub-process only took a few milliseconds to calculate. She committed each side to memory. She let the process take over her hands as she looked at the other objects.

A chime went off and people cheered. Eileen looked up at the scoreboard. A white dot had appeared next to Atlas’s name. She turned to face the partition that separated her from him.

It was a waste of processing. The purpose of the partitions was to prevent robots from imitating the progress of others.

She had finished the cube, so she put it aside. None of the other items were in her database, so she grabbed the nearest one to study.

Four buttons in the standard four colors made a circle around the middle. Green meant go. She pressed that one, but nothing happened. She worked in a clockwise circle. The small device made no response.

There was another chime. Pandora had a dot next to her name now. It took Eileen a moment to process that she didn’t have a dot. She dropped the device and picked up the Rubik’s cube again.

Her sub-process had been sloppy, and stopped one step short. Some people laughed as she made the last rotation to complete the puzzle. This time, there was a chime, and she looked up again. Now she had a dot, but so did most of the other robots, and both Atlas and Pandora had two dots now.

She examined the device again. There was a switch on the bottom. She flipped that, and the buttons lit up. She pressed the green one again, and the yellow button across from it lit up with a beep. She ran through several dozen meanings for green and yellow before settling on traffic lights. Next came red.

She pressed the button, and it made a harsh buzz and all the lights flickered. Eileen recognized that meant she had made a mistake.

She pressed the green button again. This time the blue button lit up. That was to the right of the green button, and the yellow button was to the right of that.

Wrong again.

More chimes came. She should move on to a different object. She wasn’t certain why she didn’t.

This time, when she hit the green button, it lit up again. She pressed it one more time, and the green button followed by the blue button lit up. Pressing those two buttons got the sequence to repeat itself with a third button added on—green again.

She smiled, understanding now. Each of the buttons had a different tone, too, so she sub-processed this to her left hand. She took a few extra milliseconds to double-check it. Then she reached for the next object: a box filled with plastic polygons.

“And Buzz has completed the challenge!” Jordan Day announced. Eileen looked up at the scoreboard. Buzz’s name had changed to a gold color with sparkles rendered across it. Six dots were next to it. Atlas and Pandora were both at four. Six robots had three dots and two robots were still at two. Only Eileen was at one.

She confirmed that her sub-process hadn’t made any errors, then dumped the box out in front of her. Getting higher than eight place at this point was statistically unlikely, but she wouldn’t let herself come in last.

Prompt: Falling Behind

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I’m trying to get into a regular habit again. So this week’s prompt is to write about someone falling behind.

Good luck and good writing!

Team John Henry

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A young man sat, not quite looking at the camera. He wore a dress shirt, stark white against his dark skin, but it clearly didn’t fit very well. About half a second in, he jumped.

“Oh, right,” he said, now focused on his theoretical audience. “Hi, KickStarter. My name is Steve Jones. And this is John Henry 2.0.” The camera moved with a jerk until a computer monitor could be seen next to Steve. A rendered human face was on it. It had rather generic looking features, and a low resolution. “Say hi, John.”

“Hello, Rebecca,” a harsh, automated voice said. The face moved about half a second too late.

“Not to her, to the audience. This is going up on the internet.”

“I understand. Hello, Mr. or Ms. Internet. It is nice to meet you.”

Steve smiled, but it was a little pained. “John here is a fully operational AI system. But, as you can see, he’s not very smart.”

“Hey!” the robotic voice said, and the face displayed frowned.

“It’s not your fault, John,” Steve said.

“I know. It’s yours.”

Steve let out an embarrassed laugh. “As you can also see, he does have a functional personality matrix. None of this was scripted. All John needs is a systems upgrade. Better processors, more RAM, that kind of thing.” He paused.

“And a body,” a woman’s voice said, barely audible in the video.

“Right! A body. You see, we want to enter Michael in the Prometheus Challenge. Only we couldn’t find a sponsor. But we’ve spoken to a manufacturer, and they can build John Henry’s body in plenty of time to meet the entry deadline. So… um, well, we need money, obviously, or I wouldn’t be making this video. It’s going to cost two million dollars, but obviously the more we get, the better. If we can get enough, we can use better materials and stuff. There should be a chart on the KickStarter page. And anything left over will be used for maintenance and stuff…”

He pulled at his collar. “What else… oh, right. Prizes, or pledges, I guess. John, can you tell them about the pledges?”

“Of course. At the lower levels, we have Team John Henry bumper stickers and patches.” His face faded away, revealing a stylized logo of a hammer smashing an old-fashioned steam engine. Then the face reappeared. “I don’t know what those are, but Steve told me to show them to you. Rebecca likes them, too, so they must be good. Higher pledges include invitations to Prometheus Challenge events as guests of Team John Henry, a personal visit from me, once I have a body, and even three honorary membership positions on Team John Henry. The highest pledge will let you decide what my face will look like. I would like to recommend David Tennant.”

Steve gave a mildly annoyed look over the camera. “So, there we are. This is a long shot, but we want to prove that innovation belongs to the people of the world, not just the megacorporations. Say good-night, John.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t have a body yet.”

“It doesn’t…” Steve took a breath. “I’ll explain it to you later.” He made a slashing gesture across his throat, and the video stopped.

 

“Probably should have done more than one take,” Jack said, a grin on his face.

“It’d do more harm than good,” Luke said. “Every take they do, John would be more rigid in his responses. They needed to make sure it was clear that he’s actually an intelligence.”

“Can we help him?” Eileen asked.

“You know he’d be your competition,” Luke told her.

“Yeah, but he seems sweet. Ooh! If we give them enough money, we’ll get to meet him!”

“If he’s in the Prometheus Challenge, you’ll meet him anyway.”

“Can we get a Team John Henry bumper sticker then?”

“You can’t…” Luke started, then turned to his brother. “I don’t have time to explain it. You handle it, Jack.”

Prompt: Crowd Funding

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This week’s prompt is crowd funding. Kickstarter, Indiegogo, whatever site you prefer.

Good luck and good writing!

The Sword in the Street

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Again, these are characters from a potential project of mine, called Anti-Villains.


The rain began to fall, drumming light beats on her helmet. She walked to the edge of the alleyway where they had been lurking. She’d had a clear line of sight on their target, but now, she could barely see the café across the street.

“Ryuujin is nearby,” the Knight of Avalon told the Squire. This was going to complicate things.

“It could just be rain,” Squire said, giving the Knight the kind of look only a daughter can manage. “The forecast’s been calling for rain all week.”

The Knight loosed Excalibur in its sheath, a feat only she and her daughter could do. “I can feel it. This is the Murasame’s work. Do I need to speak to the Lady about your water magic?”

The Squire rolled her eyes and waved a hand above her head, muttering some words in Gaelic. The water parted above her, raindrops sheering off to avoid hitting her. “My water magic’s fine. It just doesn’t let me tell the difference between regular rain and magic sword rain. Maybe I should talk to the Lady about you.”

The Knight frowned beneath her helmet. There was no denying that her daughter took to magic in a way she had never managed. The only spell she could reliably cast was to use water to communicate, and even then, she had to set the other side up in advance.

She wasn’t about to admit that to her daughter, though. Teenagers were insufferable know-it-alls, and Paula was worse than most.

“Learn to tell the difference yourself, then,” she said. “It could save your life. Don’t you agree, Ryuujin?”

“There is wisdom in her words,” a heavily accented voice said from behind them. The Knight couldn’t help but smile to herself when her daughter jumped. She turned at a more sedate pace. She didn’t draw Excalibur, but kept her hand on its hilt.

Ryuujin stood in the middle of the alleyway. Like always, he looked as if he’d just wandered out of an old samurai movie, dressed in kimono and hakama. The white silk clung to his skin, and blotches of color could be seen, the magic dragon tattoos he was named for. He held his katana, the Murasama, lightly on one side. The naked steel hummed slightly, as it absorbed the raindrops striking it.

“Are we going to do this again?” the Knight asked him.

“You could always stand aside,” Ryuujin replied. “I have never wished to cross swords with you.”

“Nor I with you, but I won’t let you kill men in my city.”

“They are not worthy of your protection.” He turned to the Squire. “Do you know the man you are protecting? Do you know what he has done?”

The teenage superhero stood up tall and tried to sound confident. “H-he works for the Yakuza. He’s been shaking down merchants in the area.”

Ryuujin shook his head. “That is what he is doing now. Do you know what he has done?” When it became clear that she had no answer, he went on. “In Japan, he was a murderer. He was known as Osoi Shi, the Slow Death, because of the way he would draw out his victim’s suffering. Are you willing to die protecting such a man?”

The Squire glanced back at her mother, and the Knight knew she had better intervene. “We’re not here to protect him. We’re here to stop him. But I won’t let you execute him without a trial.”

“Enough,” Ryuujin said, “we’ve had this conversation before. He will arrive here soon. I suggest we settle the matter before then.” He sheathed his sword, and the rain slowed to a drizzle. He tapped the tattoo above his heart, and it glowed beneath the damp fabric, an echo of a roar carrying across the alleyway.

The Knight nodded, and handed Excalibur to her daughter.

They both stared at each other for a moment. Then, acting upon some unseen cue, both warriors leapt at each other.

It was a fight they’d had many times before. Ryuujin was better at unarmed combat, but her armor limited what techniques he could use effectively against her. She was the stronger of the two, her armor enhancing her muscles, but the dragon tattoo he had activated put him in her weight class, and he was nimble enough to dodge most of her blows.

Ryuujin had just leapt up on to a fire escape to evade the dumpster she had kicked on him, when shouts of Japanese drifted down the alley. Risking a quick glance back, she saw Osoi Shi climbing in to an armor plated hummer.

“You cannot protect him forever,” Ryuujin spat. He walked away before the Knight of Avalon could remind him — again — that she had been there to arrest him, not protect him. Ryuujin had prevented that just as much as she had prevented his murder.

Except the hummer was still there. The engine roared and the tires squealed, but it didn’t move.

“What’s going on?” she asked the Squire, as she approached the teenager’s hiding spot.

The Squire shrugged. “You were still fighting Ryuujin, and he’s got too many guys with him for me to fight on my own, so I snuck into his car and stuck Excalibur through the floor and into the road. Asphalt counts as stone, so unless he’s got Queen Elizabeth with him, he’s gonna have to walk.”

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