Hey, we had a quarterfinal no-show! It’s tradition.

I’ve been working on getting a job in Minnesota with most of my time away from work this week, so the delay was a necessary evil. Of course, if I’d known that there was one nonsub and that the stories weren’t particularly long, I probably would have jammed this in.

Anyway, let’s get to the…ahem…second Pepper challenge.

erik sunshine

Luann made a stupid face and dropped her cell phone after turning the corner into the muzzle of a large handgun. This was not the dirty Chinese spa she’d been expecting.

Before she could exhale the initial gasp, she sharply inhaled again upon seeing her husband behind the gunman. He was being roughly held in an armlock with a gun to his own temple as well. A third gunman stood nearby, clutching a small automatic weapon strapped around his torso.

She began to cough violently, having took in too much air.

“Who. Are. You?” the welcoming gunman demanded. He menacing pressed the steel of the gun into the side of her head more firmly with each word. Luann, still recovering from the coughing fit and the abrupt change of circumstance, also had no idea what to say. To be sure, she didn’t really know what she would find after she had trailed her husband here, but it certainly hadn’t been this.

“She’s my wife, Tenzin,” her husband announced.

“Your wife?” Tenzin asked, not removing the barrel from Luann’s head.

“George!” Luann squeaked. “What’s going on?”

“You see,” George replied, “I’ve been investigating—”

“INVESTIGATING!?” all three gunman shouted, turning to George.

Capitalizing on the break in their concentration, in a swift motion, George broke the hold and grabbed the gun from the third gunman. He strategically yanked it so the strap wrapped itself around the assailant’s neck, then pulled harder, using momentum to fling him into the guard that had been holding him.

Continuing the motion of his own momentum, George brought the gun to his side, flicked the safety, and peppered all three gunmen with bullets by way of a measured parabola of automatic weapons fire.

Before they could complete their various death gurgles, George was approaching Luann and speaking in the same measured tones that he approached conversations about living room color schemes.

“Now, um, dear, you see, this has been an undercover operation of sorts—”

“GEORGE!” Luann screamed, “What is happening?”

She’d thought all this time that there had been another woman. Or at least that he paying for something on the side. But this? In a way, this was so much worse. There was no other woman. This wasn’t a matter of her being less desirable to him. He didn’t have some coed on the side; a fear she’d harbored to the point of madness due to his assumed occupation of economics professor. She could at least understand that. Her dress size had certainly increased with her age, after all.

But, no, there was no other woman, or women. That meant that being some sleazy cop, pretending to be a skeezy drug dealer or whatever was more important to him than her and her feelings.

As she was about to launch into a set of grievances, three sharp looking young men with sunglasses and sharper haircuts burst through a door behind them. Luann gasped again.

“Sir!” one said, addressing George.

Luann’s confusion deepened. This didn’t seem like a local operation. She stared around bug-eyed trying to grasp the events at hand. If this was as big as it seemed, it would certainly go a longer way towards explaining the strange excuses and repeated long nights at work.

“I think we’ve walked into a trap!”

Another of the young men pressed a firearm of some sort into George’s hands, though it didn’t look like any kind that Luann had ever seen.

She tilted her head quizzically and asked, “George, what’s tha—”

Her query was cut off by a large explosion in a nearby antechamber. All of the men instinctively raised their weapons in its direction.

Before the dust settled, a host of creatures that Luann had never come remotely close to manifesting in her imagination issued forth, and a din horrific beyond the grasp of her human ears accompanied it.

The battle that followed, with its lights and death and destruction brought Luann to the brink of sanity. In the end, in the midst of the smoldering surroundings, George alone stood, panting at a heavy but measured pace.

Despite her hysteria, Luann felt an immense love and pride for her husband. He was protecting the human race from the terrors that lurk throughout the galaxy! She ran to him, and he turned and caught her in his arms.

“Oh, George!” she cooed, and pulled him into a deep kiss.

George, after a moment, reached his arm around her and pulled her in as well. Through a duct under his tongue, he splashed a significant spray of strong , corrosive acid. Normally his species would do this over the outer skin as they were rarely was so intimate with their targets.

Once incapacitated, he began to feed on his compromised wife. He’d have to begin the tedious search for a new one immediately.

K: Wow. That is…all over the place. The wife seems like an overly passive device here; there was a lot of room for tension in the initial scene that never came about, and I’m not surprised there was no future for the wife because she was treated as such an afterthought, despite her mind being the one manifested by the narration. The final twist to kill his wife is also kind of insulting. He’s been with her for years, we learn, but he somehow has this little feeling for her? I guess that’s possible, but it’s not the most dynamic dramatic choice. BRONZE

CW: Well. Even before this twist ending, I was thinking this was much too rushed. I kind of skimmed through the ending before I even realized what I just read and then reread it. This story felt like you took an entire idea for a novel and compressed it into however many words this was. – BRONZE

Matt Novak

“I’m getting a Separation.”
There was no question in Trio’s tone. There was no question in his use of the pronoun. The table was set, steam rising in dramatic wisps from the plates that would be served first to the Alphas, and then, when suitable for digestion, to the Betas. We had hurried home that day to prepare the meal, playing the dutiful role as Quadrio had always preferred. Now he said nothing, his eyes downcast, focused on the reflective glaze which covered the wood table. Tradition dictated his silence, and he, of course, obeyed.

We consulted each other briefly. We had questions, of course. How long had this been in the works? When did Quadrio first know? What would this mean for us? Finally, we settled on a response that demonstrated the empathy that was expected of us.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Trio answered. “Relieved, actually. This has been a long time coming.”
“And you?” we asked Quadrio.
He nodded deeply, and smiled, but we could see the sadness in his eyes.
“He understands,” Trio answered for him. “We’ve thought about it for a while. I’ll always love him, in my own way, but I haven’t been happy for a long time. I need someone more…”
He trailed off, and we were caught by surprise when it was Quadrio who finished his sentence.
“Right,” agreed Trio. “And Sola? Dua? Are you okay?”
Still stunned, we nodded.
“Good. I know this is sudden, but the Separation will happen tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” we asked, astonished at the speed. Separations took planning. They required surgeons. They required new symbionts.
“There are matches waiting,” Trio explained, answering the most pressing question, “For both of us. If we delay, who knows how long it will be. We would have told you sooner, but… the opportunity came so quickly.”
This, of course, was true. It had been true for ages, and it was still true now. Ever since the Reforms, wait times for Second Joinings had continued to decrease, but many pairings could go months before finding acceptable symbiont replacements.
“What time tomorrow?” we asked.
“We go in the morning. Early. I’m sorry we couldn’t give you more warning. The two of you can have the bedroom to yourselves tonight, and we’ll be gone when you get up.”

We spent the rest of the evening in silence, until, just before we retired to bed, Quadrio spoke up again.
“I am sorry I could not be the partner Trio required. I tried to be more flexible. More modern. But I am not that person. I feel the traditions deeply. And I am sorry. I am sorry to Trio. And I am sorry that my inability to harmonize with Trio means that we are incompatible with both of you.”

That night, as we lay in bed, alone, we cried.
“We will miss them,” we said.
“We will still have Trio. But it won’t be the same.”
“We will miss Quadrio. Our Quadrio. The new Quadrio will be…”
“We don’t know how he will be.”
We burst into tears at this realization. The whole situation was beyond our control. Trio was the one who made the decision. It was their – no, his – decision alone, and it would change everything for us.
“We know Quadrio is too stubborn.”
“Too traditional,” we agreed.
“But we love that tradition too. It keeps us grounded.”
“And with Trio’s love of the new…” we trailed off. We thought we had found balance. But Trio didn’t want balance. He wanted compatibility. We couldn’t blame him. Quadrio was a lot of work, we knew that. But we worried about who Trio would be returning with. It was his Separation, so he would return, with his choice of a new Quadrio. Like our Quadrio, we were bound by his choice. And so we worried. We worried about that Trio’s search for his own compatibility would destroy the compatibility we had found with them.
That night, as we cried, as we felt so alone, we had never felt more together.

The next day we woke to the sound of the door closing, and we watched from the front window as the two of them left for the Separation. We could see the sorrow written on both of their faces, even, maybe especially, Trio’s. The day flew with surprising quickness, as we kept busy, our minds flitting from the tasks at hand to the changes that were inevitably coming to our life. We talked again of the new Quadrio. We speculated how he might be. How he might change Trio for the better. We grew excited.

The home was clean, a meal prepared, when finally the door opened. Trio stood tall before the threshold, a look on his face we could not read.
He announced, in a voice not quite triumphant, “Meet your new Quadrio.”
Then, peaking from behind him, where he had previously been shielded, we saw the familiar figure emerge.
“Quadrio?” we asked with astonishment. There he was, the symbiont partner we had wed all those years ago.
With relief and anxiety we embraced our husbands, welcomed them both back home, then stood with perplexed expression.
“It is good to have you home. Both of you. But we don’t… we don’t understand.”
“Our new matches decided to give it another chance,” explained Quadrio
“So we will too,” finished Trio.
“Are you alright?” we asked.

“I,” Trio started, then, caught himself. He smiled at Quadrio. “We are.”
“We aren’t better,” added his partner, “But we will try.”

K: There was so much exposition and world-building here that I was surprised to see such a Hallmark ending. That’s refreshing around here, yes, but it was jarring as well at the end of this story. I like the world built here and don’t know if this was rushed, or whether ideas didn’t develop further, but with infinite words to work with, I guess I wanted to be able to digest the world’s rules and bridge the gap with either backstory or tension a little more before being thrust into the seemingly sudden ending. SILVER

CW: Well this is certainly different. The simplistic use of names at least made it easy to track who was who, so thanks for that. I had difficulty, however, truly feeling for any involved here, probably because I was trying to figure out what this would look like. It was good world building but could perhaps have been a little longer to provide some more background. – SILVER

John Wreisner

They started talking in earnest about advanced care directives shortly after his sixtieth birthday. It was an uncomfortable discussion, to be sure, usually prompted by nothing more than too many glasses of wine or an especially treacly commercial about life insurance. They both agreed they’d like as many options as possible. Medical science was advancing. What was once the property of miracle was common-place. They had grandchildren, a summer home, careers that neither of them wanted to retire from- just yet.
He was a neurologist and she, a botanist. Together they had traveled the world, speaking at symposiums and interdisciplinary conferences. They made an intimidating team standing at the lectern- rough wool, eyeglasses heliographing under klieg lights, projecting their voices in unison, a mellifluous duet interspersed with personal asides that revealed them to be what they seemed: a pair of aging academics in love.
One night, after dinner, they began an outline of their advanced care directives. Nothing notarized, no formality- just bullet points on a Steno-pad. They laughed a few nervous, mortal laughs and locked the pages inside a bureau. Life moved forward at an amiable pace.

Towards the end of summer, they noticed a wasps nest increasing ever so slowly, metastasizing from the soffit and facia onto the roof itself. Despite an allergy to them, the dutiful husband mounted the ladder with a broom in hand to dislodge the nest. Fifteen or twenty steps up the ladder, afraid of heights, looking up- always up, to disallow his lizard cortex from registering fear, he hyper extended a leg through the rungs and began a slow, almost choreographed fall.

Intense pressure. Then black. Then blinding light. Then his wife standing over him, removing the cap from his life-saving epinephrine auto-injector. Then- the ambulance. More blackness.

When he woke, in was in partial darkness. Vague shapes were suggested by the lights of various monitors, including one attached to a respirator. “This is odd” he thought. “I’m conscious- I’ve no need for intubation! How long have I been out?” He reached for the tape criss-crossing his lips, and his arms did not obey. Thoughtfully he willed his arms to move. They were sodden, useless. He tried to lift his head to see if he’s been restrained. Nothing. He tried to scream, but no sound came. He could look, and that was all. He stared at the door until the shift change. A portly male nurse with a sparse goatee walked into his room and began making notations on his chart. The beeping from his heart monitor grew more staccato, more insistent. “Life your head, your hands” he demanded of his insensate form. Nothing. He blinked wildly. He cried. The nurse smoothed his hair and pursed his lips with pained helplessness. He left the room, hanging the clipboard back at the foot of the bed.
Days went by. People filed in and out of his room- his wife, doctors, interns, well- wishers from the University. Hushed conversations were had in the corridor- conversations no one knew he could hear.

“It appears to be cerebromedullospinal disconnestion- “Locked-in state” in other words. He’s probably partially aware.”
“Could have been damage to the brain stem from the fall, perhaps anaphylaxis after the wasp sting- the irony is, he’s probably the only professional in this building with enough clinical experience to diagnose himself.”
“…generally speaking most patients in this condition die within four months…”
“Go speak with him. Hold his hand. Tell him anything you want to tell him. You’ve got a abominably difficult decision to make.”
He knew he was not partially aware. He was fully aware. If he could just wiggle a finger, or a toe- make a noise, gasp, cry out..
He tried Morse code. …—… dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot. Blinking furiously, S.O.S. Help me. I’m in here. After three or four days his eyes were too tired to continue.
“It’s probably nystagmus.” He heard them tell his wife. “Not uncommon in people with traumatic brain injuries.”
Weeks passed, then months. He stopped trying to communicate. He had fitful dreams around the clock and could no longer tell when he was actually awake.
Early one morning, or it could have been evening for all he knew- the light was always a diffuse beige coming through the one window, his wife pulled a chair alongside his bed. The feet produced a squeak that would have made him clench his jaw if he’d been able.
‘My devoted, brilliant husband. Too brilliant, perhaps. Brilliant enough to father four children with me- one of whom jumped from the roof of a tire factory and another who finds her only solace in the cheapest vodka she can afford. Brilliant enough to disregard any of my own opportunities for career advancement in pursuit of your own. “What would the faculty say?” The faculty would say you were growing weak. Boring. The faculty would suggest that you were an emotionally unavailable, at times abusive man, whose wife’s career had eclipsed his own. A man who depended on jointly offered papers with his wife to keep his tenure. A drowning man.”
He kept his eyes closed.
“I knew if I brought you here- to your own teaching hospital, you’d have only the best care. All the opportunities to live through- this. Just like you wanted.” She motioned at the phalanxes of machinery cocooning him. “I knew also, that I would be allowed unfettered access to you. Day or night. The grieving wife of a respected physician and educator. But you weren’t counting on my big brain, were you? You never gave me enough credit, you know”
Wake up. Sit up. Move your fucking arms. Find the call button. She’s going to kill you. He started to cry.
“I’m not going to pull the proverbial plug, darling. I’m going to continue to be the doting wife- visiting you multiple times a day” She lifted her purse onto her lap, unzipping it- “And giving you these little doses of my home remedy.” An epinephrine syringe glowed dully.
“Do you remember when you forbade me from going abroad to study anomosperum species in South America? And do you remember why? You told me it would look unprofessional if you arrived at your awards banquet “unescorted.” It would hint of marital trouble. So I stayed. But I studied nevertheless. Many of the anomosperum species flourish quite well in the greenhouse you so graciously built me. And most of them contain curare. All the myths you’ve heard about “wild savages with their poisoned arrows” are true. This is what it feels like to be dinner. Only instead of falling from a tree to be eaten by some tribesmen, you fell off a ladder. And you’re going to eat yourself.”
He willed the nurse into the room. He stared at her, wild eyed. Saliva loosened the tape around his mouth.
“I want you to stay right here, my darling. I want you to lay right here, in this very spot, and consider whether or not you’d stop poisoning me with a virtually undetectable paralytic if I stood in the way of your career. I think you wouldn’t. But I’ve always believed in you, love. If any man can find a way out of this, it’s you. Tell me when you’re ready to play the understudy, and we’ll get you right on out of here. It will be a miracle- a wonderful comeback article in the Lancet. You’ll be hailed a hero- a hero perhaps too troubled by his ordeal to do anything but retire. You rest, and think.”

She rose and shut off the lamp beside his bed. In the dark, he thought he could hear himself begging.

K: It’s a favorite criticism of mine to point out that people don’t say aloud these grand schemes that they’re thinking. On the other hand, this is your tension builder, and the character has very little to lose my telling a person with locked-in syndrome. It could be more conversational and realistic, but all the same, this was the tightest prose and story of the week by far, and I can forgive the questionable spoken lines given how interested I was in the outcome. GOLD

CW: Well she’s a bitch. God damn. I did not think this was the direction we were going here and I was pleasantly surprised. This twist was done well. There was still perhaps a bit more exposition than I’d prefer, but this was definitely the best of the bunch. – GOLD


He refused to let her study abroad. How is HE not the bitch, Colin? Well, no matter. The scores here are pretty easy to parse, so it will be John Wreisner and Matt Novak joining Sarah Wreisner and Beau in the semifinals. Well, the winner will be able to say they slayed a pretty nice field, so there’s that.

For the next challenge, let’s do the Shawn Ashley challenge and I’ll immediately start worrying about how these stories will go. For this challenge, there must be at least one character that is shockingly cruel. Whether this character gets his comeuppance or not is up to you (they usually don’t in Shawn’s stories, which is why she terrifies me so). There will be no word limit.

After that, the final two will duke it out once more. Why do I extend it past the final four? Why not just award the winner of this one? I don’t know, but tradition dictates that this is the way it is.

The next one is due next Thursday at 7pm Central. That’s an early deadline, but I’m trying to avoid overlap with these stupid little online games that’ll be playing at that time. See you then, Prosers.