You’re listening to Little Wonders, our thematic flash fiction collections. This episode we bring you A Little Laughter.
by James Vachowski
Fog fades away. Darkness lifts. I struggle to find my feet as vision returns. The room is empty. Signs of a struggle.
Off and running with no control of my body as I fly on a path towards revenge. An unseen hand guides my movements. Of course I know who took her. Who else could it be but Ryoku? Damn him! If only we had left when he first made his threats…but this is no time to dwell on the past.
Rushing forward, unable to turn back.
Through flat, muted ears, I can almost hear the timer that ticks down the seconds we have left.
My steel jaw clenches as I will the fury down into my tightened fists. Rage funnels through them as I pummel wave after wave of Ryoku’s goons, henchmen, thugs, and anyone else foolish enough to stand in my way.
Down the stairs.
Through the alley.
Over the barbed wire fence, ducking a pair of rabid junkyard dogs.
Forward still, rushing onward towards my love, and vengeance.
From nowhere, a street-scraping tuner skids to the curb! The thick subwoofers within blast out a bass line that shakes the entire block. Four huge thugs emerge from the tiny lowrider.
They’re all holding bats.
I defend myself to no avail. Each time I knock down one Yakuza, another regains his footing. Finally, as I tire from their relentless blows, the thickest of them sneaks up behind me and swings for the fences.
The Louisville Slugger connects. Solidly. With the back of my head.
Dazed, I fall to the cold street.
The gang shuffles about my still body. They mock me with a menacing dance.
The world dims to a gray haze. Through my pixelated, pain-streaked field of vision, I spot the timer which counts down the scant seconds I have to live.
A single cryptic word flashes beneath the numbers:
I strain my ears once more, listening for my lifeline. The familiar sound of clinking quarters should come any second.
It does not.
I begin to worry.
Damn it, move your ass, kid!
The flat boots of the Yakuza make no sound as the goons pace around me. The only sound comes from a pair of oversized hightop sneakers as they race across the concrete floor, sprinting towards the change machine.
I hear the machine hum as it spins the kid’s dollar bill along its rollers.
With an angry whirr, the beast spits the wrinkled bill back out.
A crumpling sound. The child uses the palm of his hand to flatten the dollar bill against his pants leg. He inserts it once more.
The bill catches within.
The ambient soundtrack of the video arcade melts away to silence. The sirens, the bells, the buzzers, they disappear as I strain to hear one single, joyful noise. And then, as if by some divine miracle, I hear it. The beautiful tinkling echo of four quarters bouncing off each other as they drop down into the change dish.
The bells of angels would make no sweeter sound.
The child plods back towards me, each lethargic step causing me more pain than the concussion.
His skinny fingers fidget as they race to stuff the four quarters into my machine.
The coins hang for a split second before finally falling.
Come on, damn it!
The fourth coin sticks. It misses the stop latch, drops down hard into the change slot, then bounces up. And out. And across the floor.
The massive Yakuza leader spots the kid’s fumble and smiles. Pure evil shines in his eyes.
The last quarter rolls to a stop, mere feet away.
Underneath the sneaker of another kid.
A bigger one.
“Time’s up, twerp” the pimply teenager says with a sneer. He reaches down to claim the coin as his own. “Let someone else have a turn!”
As the younger boy holds out an empty palm in a desperate plea for mercy, I know my fight is lost.
The Yakuza sense this as well. They resume their victory shuffle, quicker now, moving with monstrous leers of triumph plastered over their two-dimensional faces. Lunging, the boy throws himself against his tormentor. His pasty hands flail in a series of wild slaps. The blows find their mark, but do no harm.
The dim light fades faster now.
I think of her.
Of how I failed her.
Of how she is doomed to remain in Ryoku’s evil clutches.
Death envelops me quickly as a cocoon of darkness fills the screen. In one last show of impotent anger, I clench my fists and fix a hard stare at the child who’d been working my controller.
The kid doesn’t notice.
He’s doubled over beneath the bully’s freckled, scabby arm, sniveling and gasping for air. His breaths come in short, high-pitched wheezes.
I use my final, dying breath to curse the child’s ineptitude.
Man up and defend yourself, you hopeless little turd! For the love of Christ, it’s just a chokehold! Drive your elbow into his solar plexus, then snap his neck and walk away!
But the boy cannot hear me.
The screen goes black.
Fog fades away. Darkness lifts. I struggle to find my feet as vision returns. The room is empty. Signs of a struggle.
The Girl with the Piccolo
by Charity Tahmaseb
No one thinks about the empty note casings after the nightly revelry. Someone has to pick them up, right? That I spent four grueling years at the Acoustic Academy at Stormy Point for the privilege is something I try not to think about.
True, it takes only a breath or two to chase the notes into my sack. Still, patrolling the DMZ (Disharmonious Zone) feels anti-climactic. I didn’t sign up for this. But now, with the sun nearly cresting the horizon, I can’t say what I did sign up for.
I holster the piccolo and continue the patrol. When I first enlisted, I wanted something shiny, something big and brassy, a trumpet or a trombone, or–if I dared to dream–the saxophone. (Really, who doesn’t want the sax?) The supply sergeant gave me a once over and puttered around her inventory on grizzled wings.
“Here you go, sweetie,” she said, dropping a piccolo into my outstretched hands.
My own wings sputtered and I sank to the ground in disbelief.
“None of that,” the supply sergeant barked. “Remember, everyone underestimates the girl with the piccolo. Don’t let them.”
Perhaps I have. Let them, that is. This might explain why that piccolo and I now do border patrol.
Through my viewfinder, I scan the tree line on the other side of the DMZ. I catch sight of my enemy counterpart. She is a brilliant pink, where I am midnight blue. Her wings drip with glitter. Mine spark with stardust. I wonder how she can breathe a single note through her piccolo with all that tinsel in the air.
Through the lens, I see her eyebrows furrow. When her viewfinder is level with mine, I stick out my tongue. This, sadly, is the highlight of my evening.
I near the border, my bag overflowing with spent notes. I swipe the residue from a tuba casing. The tubas are so wasteful. I can fuel my piccolo for a week on what they leave behind. Across the way, the pink fairy dips and swoops; I suspect she’s doing the same thing I am.
A shift in the air makes the fine hairs on my wings stand on end. I shoot skyward just as a full marching band crowds the path alongside the meadow. Stardust fills the air. I could reach out and pluck notes as they float past me. I might. Except. This particular band? Doesn’t include a piccolo player. Underestimated? Try forgotten. Typical. They can play on without me.
I turn to fly away when the stench of rotted nectar hits me. I blink back tears. The aroma clogs the back of my throat. The players are drunk, spoiling for battle, and a wing’s breadth away from the DMZ. From above, I watch the band weave along the path, each rousing measure inching them closer to treaty violation. I cast a look for the security forces. Certainly someone is on the way.
Or not. I blow a few quick notes into my piccolo, an alert that may not reach its intended recipients, at least, not in time. Frantic, I peer through my viewfinder. The stricken face of my counterpart stares back at me, a hand on her own piccolo. A few breaths and she will bring in her own band–and they will not be drunk. They will be deadly, armed with wing-piercing notes. They will tear across the meadow, swoop into the DMZ, reigniting the Fairy Wars.
All on my watch.
I pull out my piccolo. Next, I take a quick peep through my viewfinder to make sure my pink counterpart is watching. She is. I mimic holding a baby, of rocking it to sleep in my arms. Certainly this movement is universal. Pink fairies come from somewhere, yes? I peer through my viewfinder again. Nothing but a pair of pink fuzzy eyebrows, drawn into a frown.
I rock my imaginary baby again, then hold up my piccolo. I run my fingers across it while holding my breath–one false note will bring my plan crumbling down. I check my viewfinder again. One of those pink eyebrows is raised. In question? Understanding? This time, I waltz with my imaginary baby before checking the viewfinder.
I hope her smile means what I think it does. I hope this isn’t a ruse. Without her help, I will be tried for treason, assuming, of course, I survive the ensuing battle.
I hold up a hand for the countdown … three … two … one. Fairies have many lullabies, but only one in three quarters time. When pitched just right it sooths the most colicky baby, sends mortals into a deep sleep. As for drunken fairies …
Her piccolo plays counterpoint to mine. At first, my comrades show no sign of stopping their rampage. In fact, the tuba player bursts through the ranks, intent for the DMZ and the meadow beyond.
Before he can reach the DMZ, his pace flags. The tuba slips from his grip. His wings falter. By the time both are on the ground, he’s snoring. The rest of the band drops off, in twos and threes, notes scattered everywhere. My own notes, and those of the pink fairy, play in the sky, creating an iridescent lavender that prolongs the night.
At last I need a breath–and so does she. I alight on the tuba. From this vantage point, I can peer across the meadow. Through my viewfinder, I study my enemy counterpart. How many times has she fogged my view with pink glitter? How many times have I stuck out my tongue? This time, before she can look away, I salute. Then, I shoot skyward. Someone else can clean up all these notes. After all this time, I realize what the supply sergeant meant.
Never underestimate the girl with the piccolo.
That goes for both of us.
Some Assembly Required
by Terry Mirll
CONGRATULATIONS on your purchase of your Easy-Time® Space-o-Matic Build-It-Yourself Time Machine. Easy-Time® Corporation is proud of its product line, offering quality space-time quantum manipulation equipment for home, school, or office. We’re sure you will have hours and hours of fun using this device, once you have followed our simple, easy-to-understand instructions. (But remember: Careful not to kill Grandpa! Ha-ha!)
WARNING: BE SURE TO READ, UNDERSTAND, AND FOLLOW ALL INSTRUCTIONS IN ASSEMBLING THIS DEVICE. ANY DEVIATION FROM THESE INSTRUCTIONS MAY CAUSE YOUR EASY-TIME® SPACE-O-MATIC BUILD-IT-YOURSELF TIME MACHINE TO MISFUCTION AND THUS MAY HAVE UNFORTUNATE OR OTHERWISE UNDESIRABLE CONSEQUENCES. EASY-TIME® CORPORATION ACCEPTS NO RESPONSIBILITY AND ASSUMES NO LIABILITY IN SUCH MATTERS, IN WHICH OCCURANCE THE WARRANTY SHALL BE CONSIDERED NULL AND VOID.
Tools Needed for Assembly (Not Included):
- Adjustable frequency electro-spanner
- Fixed frequency electro-spanner (1041 Hz)
- Twenty-four “C” clamps
- Ball-peen hammer
Step 1: Ensure all piece parts have been included. These consist of: One packet of short rivets, vertical stabilizer, horizontal stabilizer, frame (pieces A-L), temporal flux modulator, circuit board, windshield/headlight array (available on Deluxe Model only), Easy-Time® Ultra-Comfort adjustable seat.
Note: By international agreement, temporal flux modulators vary according to region. You must ensure that the temporal flux modulator issued to you is coded for the correct region in which you live. Please see the cross-reference guide included in your purchase packet, or access www.whatsmytemporalfluxmodulatorregion.com for pertinent information. Use of an incorrectly-coded temporal flux modulator can have catastrophic results, including (but not limited to): creation of alternate realities, inescapable time-loop paradoxes, infinite combinatorial inflation of cosmological constants rendering the universe incapable of admitting human life, and drowsiness.
Step 2: Frame assembly.
Using the twenty-four “C” clamps, arrange the twelve frame pieces to form the machine’s outer skeleton by carefully clamping the clamps at either end of each individual frame piece. Long pieces A-D form the sides; E-L form the top and bottom (see schematic diagram at the head of these instructions). At this point, get a friend to help you. As you tighten the clamps, ask the friend to tap the frame carefully with the ball-peen hammer at any point lacking proper alignment. (A crisp ninety degrees at all joints is highly recommended.) Once the frame is stabilized, dismiss the friend and affix the pieces using the short rivets. Remove the clamps.
Step 3: Installing the Horizontal Stabilizer.
Slide the support brackets (A-D) of the horizontal stabilizer onto the alignment grooves of the lower sides of the frame. Using the adjustable-frequency electro-spanner, remove the hardware at the bottom of the horizontal stabilizer and adjust the primary and secondary input/output transducers for a +/- 0.2 percent variance. At this stage, precise calibration is a must. When this is accomplished, CAREFULLY re-insert the hardware and reattach, making sure not to cross-compartmentalize the field ambit so as to avoid creating any instances of temporal skip. In temporal dynamics, effect can precede cause, and is thus oftentimes easily overlooked. (Look for anything that seems suddenly out of place, like a sudden lsat-farging mstfrp. A skip is usually quite brief, so stay alert!
Step 4: Installing the Vertical Stabilizer.
As in Step 3, slide the stabilizer into its support grooves, first removing the hardware (using ONLY the fixed frequency electro-spanner!) and tuning to EXACTLY 1041 Hz. Again, be very careful. Unlike the horizontal stabilizer, an improperly-installed vertical stabilizer can play havoc with cosmological constants affecting universal probabilities, thus creating a cascade of alternate realities that may phase in and out of existence, which, yea, shall most surely vex the Dark Lord, long His unholy reign! Sacrifice a small goat, and reinstall the hardware.
Step 5: Installing the temporal flux modulator.
Note: This is the most crucial step in the assembly process. Great care must be taken not to warp or bend external components or allow electronic surge to damage critically delicate internal components.
First, thoroughly wash and dry your hands. With a coarse brush, scrub under your nails with hot, soapy water. It is highly recommended before proceeding with this step to shave your hands and give them a good scouring with a piece of steel wool or pumice stone. Rinse your hands in an ice bath that has been chilled to at least thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit (for Heaven’s sake NOT Celsius!) and examine them under a magnifying glass. Only when you’re certain that your hands are clear of all foreign contaminants should you proceed.
Pick up the temporal flux modulator along its outer edges using only your fingertips and GENTLY insert it in the brackets along the upper half of the vertical stabilizer. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, ensure that the edge labeled “A” extends along the length of the horizontal stabilizer at precisely one inch (2.5 centimeters if you live in Canada or Europe). If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, ensure that the “A” edge is inserted in a ninety-degree counterclockwise configuration. If you live on the equator, please return your Easy-Time® Space-o-Matic Build-It-Yourself Time Machine to the store where you purchased it and ask for a prompt, cheerful refund. (Receipt required.)
Step 6: Installing the circuit board.
Before proceeding with this step, it is highly recommended you take a moment to recover from Step 5. Have a good, stiff drink. (Easy-Time® Corporation offers an award-winning assortment of single- and double-malt whiskey blends, so bottom’s up!)
Carefully clip the circuit board securely between the temporal flux modulator and horizontal stabilizer. Inspect all contact points for fit and placement. If desired, you may test all contacts using a standard electromagnetomitron capacitor variance meter. (NOT RECOMMENDED EXCEPT FOR LEVEL VI CERTIFIED TECHNICIANS!)
Step 7: Installing the Easy-Time® Ultra-Comfort Adjustable Seat.
The seat goes on top.
CONGRATULATIONS! YOUR EASY-TIME® SPACE-O-MATIC BUILD-IT-YOURSELF TIME MACHINE IS READY FOR USE!
Trouble operating your time machine? Here’s a quick list of common problems and solutions:
Problem: The device won’t operate.
Check the power supply. The temporal flux modulator operates on a standard hearing aid battery, located at the base of the modulator. (See the above comments concerning applicable region. Your region will determine the size and voltage of the battery required.) CAUTION: For extended periods of time travel, it is highly recommended you carry a spare battery, otherwise you may find yourself stranded in some technologically backward (and physically uncomfortable) period in history. If you find yourself temporally marooned, you will need to find a way to leave us a message so that we can send assistance. Be creative. One user’s solution, for example, resulted in a very interesting series of cave paintings in Lascaux.
Problem: I find myself materializing into empty space, and very nearly suffocate before returning to the present.
Please remember that in time travel, you’re not only going to a moment in time but a place in three-dimensional space (which is why we call it a space-time continuum). If, for instance, you wish to travel to ancient Rome to watch the chariot races, you should also calculate where Rome actually was on the desired date, figuring in variables such as continental drift, the Earth’s rotation, its travel around the sun, the rotation of the Milky Way, and the expansion factor of “hot” Big Bang cosmology. A slide rule or school calculator is helpful.
Problem: Wherever I go, no one speaks English.
You’ve gone back in time more than five hundred years. The machine is functioning properly.
Problem: Whatever date I program, the machine takes me to April 20, 1979, and I end up watching Jimmy Carter getting attacked by a rabbit.
We told you to wash those hands.
Your Easy-Time® Space-o-Matic Build-It-Yourself Time Machine is now ready for use. We hope it gives you many hours of fun and adventure. Please use our product responsibly.
CAUTION: In the unlikely event of probability breakdown, the user will notice intermittent outa along ng continuum as we know it. If this happens, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD THE USER
D QU ¬
├ → OTHERWISE, THE SPACE-TIME CONTINUUM ITSELF WILL BEGIN TO UNRAVEL, RESULTING IN TOTAL ANNIH
About the Authors
Award-winning author Terry L. Mirll has written three novels, a novelette, and numerous short stories as well as non-fiction articles. Most recently, his short story Astrafugia took first place in science fiction for Writer’s Digest magazine’s Ninth Annual Popular Fiction Awards. A native Texan, he currently lives in Oklahoma with his wife and three daughters.
Hi, my name is James and for everyone out there who’s been considerate enough to advise me not to quit my day job, don’t worry– I haven’t. I currently work as a security manager for an independent traveling circus, where I strive to ensure that your next ride on the Cyclone is in full compliance with most, if not all, applicable state safety regulations.
When I’m not living my dream of seeing the great people of this great country from the parking lots of local shopping malls and Moose lodges, I write fiction.
By day, Charity is a Minneapolis-based writer of technical documentation. By night, she pens fiction, mostly fantasy and young adult fiction. Her published works include The Geek Girl’s Guide to Cheerleading, which was a YALSA 2012 Popular Paperback pick in the Get Your Geek On category.
About the Narrators
Fiona “Princess Scientist” Van Verth is a princess and scientist who exists.
John is an infectious diseases physician in Baltimore who splits his time between treating horrors such as syphilis, and molding the next generation of doctors, while repeatedly washing his hands in between. When not herding his five cats or going fanboy over the space endeavors of his wife Moon Ranger Laura, John infectious various podcast and radio projects with his voice. He is the Chief Medical Officer and Bad Doctor in Residence at his personal blog, where he consults and ruminates over all manner of things at Saint Nickanuck.
Dave Robison is a storyteller who has been captivated by tales and legends his entire life.
He’s contributed vocal fabulousity to dozens of audio drama and fiction productions for EscapePod, Pseudopod, Cast of Wonders, and Podcastle, as well as The Drabblecast, StarShipSofa, Tales to Terrify. He has narrated several audio books for Tantor Media, J. Daniel Sawyer, Scott Roche, and John Meirau and appeared in audio dramas by Jay Smith and Bryan Lincoln.
As a child, he wrote Curious George and Paddington Bear fan fiction to the indulgent delight of his family. He was drawn to the immersive storytelling of live theater at an early age, participating in community workshops and school productions, a passion that continued through high school and college. He was also drawn to role-playing games which led to a deep appreciation of speculative fiction, cutting his genre teeth on Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, and JRR Tolkien.
He attended the University of Michigan, majoring in Theater and Dance but transferred to the University of Wyoming when tuition costs got too expensive. Securing his Theater degree, Dave pursued a degree in Graphic Design and, in the years that followed, worked at dinner theaters, design studios, and ran a used bookstore. When he was hired teach computer classes at New Horizons Computer Learning Center, it began a decade-long exploration of programming, education, and web development.
In 2012, Dave launched The Roundtable Podcast with friend and colleague Brion Humphrey. The podcast gave writers the opportunity to brainstorm their story ideas with established authors and editors like Lou Anders, Cat Rambo, Kameron Hurley, and Hugh Howey. The unique format combined with Dave’s over-the-top delivery and enthusiasm earned the podcast a small but dedicated following.
In 2015, Dave formed Wonderthing Studios, LLC and brought the Roundtable Podcast under its banner. The studio is the launching point for several creative endeavors including Vex Mosaic, a monthly review of essays inspired by speculative fiction media, and Manifest, a board game combining the positional strategy of chess with the fantastical diversity of Magic: The Gathering.
In 2016, Dave was honored to be invited to help lead The Ed Greenwood Group (TEGG) as its Vice-President assisting in the initialization of the diverse processes required to execute a massive shared world collaborative storytelling publishing venture. Later that year, he was appointed Executive producer of Onder Media Group (OMG) overseeing the development of multiple media channels that celebrate speculative fiction culture in all its forms and facets.
In 2017, Dave released Archivos, a story mapping and presentation tool, through Wonderthing Studios.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.