This is a short story I wrote in late 2009. If you think the beginning is poorly written fantasy, don’t be fooled — that’s deliberate. Anyway, here we go. Story, by A. Segal.

“No! This cannot be! I am … the BLACK ENCHANTER! … I cannot … be … defeated …”

“It’s over, you fiend!” cried Ryu, the ninja monk. “Only true friendship, compassion, and love can command the power of the Seven Shards.”

Ryu looked at his friend, the white wizard Gandor, for encouragement. Gandor nodded back. United by a common purpose, the adventuring party had traveled the world searching for the Seven Shards of Solana. The quest had been long. It had been difficult. And even now, with the Black Enchanter seemingly cowed and broken, Ryu was not certain his labors had reached their true conclusion. The Dark One was all but melting before them. And yet, thought Ryu, it was all too easy. The fight had been so much simpler than he had imagined it would be…

Without warning, the men felt a tremor from the earth below. Ryu looked down at the shaking stone floor, then up at the painted ceiling. The huge, overhead fresco depicted the Black Enchanter standing atop the world’s highest mountain, holding the planet in his hand and laughing. Now, the globe in the painting seemed somehow to be growing, blocking out the Enchanter. Was this proof of the Seven Shards’ power? Had the Earth Mother already started to reject the evildoer’s influence? Or was the ceiling…

“Collapsing!” cried Ryu. With lightning speed, he ran over to his compatriot Aleksei. Just in time, Ryu pushed the Swordsman of Justice clear of the falling rock.

As fast as they could, Gandor, Ryu, Aleksei, and the fire mage Ignado ran from the crumbling fortress. As they neared the front gates and safety, they heard a shrill voice echoing behind them.

“This… isn’t… over…!” the Enchanter shrieked. “I… shall… return!”

“Well, THAT’S more than a little cliche. And could they have been any less subtle about the sequel?” Gene put down the game controller, and flexed his hands. After maybe 40 hours of gameplay, Search for the Seven Shards (from the legendary Quantum Programming) had ended in a completely realistic cutscene. Everything from the floor shaking, to the smell of mold in the bad guy’s castle had been reproduced. Gene didn’t know much about the technology behind it. He did know a thing or two about gaming, though. As good as the holosystem was, the game mechanics had been nothing special. The standard ATTACK, MAGIC, RUN options as always. When would game makers learn? A 4096-bit holomatrix is no substitute for quality gameplay.

Then again, he mused, it would be pretty hard for even Quantum Programming to top the groundbreaking Wolfenstein 5D. Classic stuff.

Captain Gene Meteor had gotten the game for his 13th birthday. Well, it was his 13th birthday in Vendaxian years; he was 28 by Earth measurements. The King of Vendaxia had offered him the gaming technology for saving his daughter from the Zybor beasts. She had been quite attractive, for a Vendaxian. Instead of the game, he should have asked for her hand in marriage. But Gene Meteor had no interest in making a lifetime commitment to a single planet. So, he and his intrepid crew traveled the cosmos, acting as ambassadors for the Galactic Exploration League. There wasn’t much to explore in this sector, though, and there were precious few diversions on such a small craft. The games helped to pass the time.

Captain Meteor walked out of the Gaming Chamber, and headed down the starship corridor towards his quarters. The game hadn’t been very good, but he had enjoyed it anyway. He had liked the story of the noble adventurers, and their quest for justice. It made him forget the dullness of his current assignment, and he was a little sorry it had ended. “What will become of our heroes now?” wondered Captain Meteor.

Lost in thought, he nearly collided with one of the new hands from Planet Anna. “Sorry,” the captain apologized. The alien saluted with her fin.

Meteor’s ship had left Planet Anna ten Earth weeks ago, and that was the last they had seen of civilization. Gene’s first officer had told the aliens stories of how they saved the Denebian homeworld, and how they had fought off the evil Wormlings who had been attacking the Vega system. Inspired, several young aliens had signed up to join Captain Meteor’s crew. He felt bad, now. The first officer had neglected to mention the expanses of pure nothingness that separated these planets from each other.

Not that the stories weren’t true. They were. Captain Meteor and his crew really had fought off the Wormlings and all that. They had been responding to an urgent distress call from Vega Prime. Unprepared for the power of the Wormling mothership, Captain Meteor had been taken prisoner by the Worm Queen. But thanks to his wits, daring, and his trusty LaseRifle, Meteor escaped the fiends’ captivity, sabotaged their crystal engine, and teleported to safety moments before the mothership exploded. Then 4 Wormling fighters showed up, and the battle began again.

Even now, Gene remembered the thrill of that melee like it was a Venusian minute ago. He could practically still taste the fear in his throat. As if zazer blasts were rocking the ship, Gene felt a little unsteady on his feet. They had pushed their little starship to the limit, barely avoiding a Wormling Death Ray. He could even hear the alarm klaxons going off as the Wormling warship chased them all the way to… Wait a moment, were those real alarm bells? Captain Meteor slapped himself out of his trance. “Searing sunspots! It must be the evil Toxans!” This was no game. “If we don’t want to fall victim to those slugs’ insidious mind probes, we’ve got to keep them off the ship!” The captain raced back towards the bridge, praying that his crew had gotten the shields up in time.

Suddenly, the screen went white. There was a general “BOOOO!” from the assembled prisoners, as the projector motored on with no film. Paulo looked up at the projection booth, where poor Cross Eye was fumbling with the reels, trying to change the film without ruining it. Cross Eye knew less about film than the White Sox knew about pitching. Eighth out of eighth in the league. Sheesh.

Captain Meteor and the Creatures of Doom showed no sign of coming back to life. Cross Eye shut down the projector, and the effect was like a bomb going off. All around Paulo, people stood up, kicked, screamed, and swore. Combined with the overwhelming summer heat, Paulo had a sudden vision of hell. He crossed himself. He was the only person still sitting. Paulo’s parole hearing was in less than a month, and it was all he needed now to get thrown back in the slammer for another five years.

They put Paulo behind bars in 1926. He forgot why. Course, Paulo’s last name was Cardito, and he knew a guy who knew a guy who worked for Al Capone. That was plenty reason for cops who needed to look busy. If Paulo could get out of prison, he could leave the state and start over. Another five years in this place, and he’d lose his mind, if not his life.

The violence in the maximum security prison was really getting out of hand these days. The warden had been hiring five new guards a day, and what good did it do? There was only one thing that could keep the inmates in line: Movie Night. Everyone had been looking forward to this Captain Meteor picture for weeks. All the warden had to do was mention taking away Movie Night, and even the most hardened crooks in the joint got as polite as choir boys. Movie Night was the inmates’ one release from prison life. For an hour or two, it was like they were free men, out for a night on the town with the boys. Some people even swore that an indoor breeze would blow on Movie Night, relieving the heat, like black magic. And heaven help you if you talked during the film. Paulo’s buddy, Cheater, once sneezed during a Marie Mosquini picture. They broke his nose in so many places, it ended up looking like a pig’s snout.

Now, it seemed like movie night was going to be called off, after all. The roomful of hardened convicts was not taking it well. Guards tried to calm the place down, as shouts of “Where’s the movie?” and “Bring back Captain Meteor!” echoed throughout the tiny prison cinema. More men in uniforms rushed in to quell the riot. The officers tried to herd people back into their cells, but the furious crowd was having none of it. In the chaos, one of the inmates let out a war cry. “Movie or Death!” Paulo couldn’t see who’d shouted it, but now everyone was taking up arms. “Movie or Death! Movie or Death!” One of the guards fired a shot, but never had time to see what it hit. Someone threw a chair at his head, and he was out cold. The other guards started to back off. These new guys were fresh off the street themselves. All they wanted was food for their folks. Nobody was going to die for the Illinois State Corrections Department tonight. The rioters started spilling out of the little room, and into the rest of the compound. More gunshots. More shouting. A crash – someone must have broken a door.

Paulo stood up and stretched. It looked like he might be getting out a bit earlier than planned.

“You really shouldn’t read pulp fiction like that, miss.”

The young woman looked up, startled. She had been sitting in the overheated little waiting room for so long, she had almost forgotten where she was. “Oh,” was all she could manage. She looked up at the man-shaped silhouette in the doorway. Standing there, at the entrance to the smoky office, was the person she had come all the way to Manhattan to see.

“Trust me, it’s trash,” said the man, walking over. Smiling gently at her, he extended a hand. “Chase Coen, Private Detective. You must be my four o’clock. Miss…?”

“Oh!” she sputtered again, blushing slightly as he helped her out of the easy chair. “Um, uh, Ruby. I mean, my name’s Ruby. Ruby Rhodes.”

“Charmed to meet you, Miss Rhodes. Come on into my office.”

Ruby followed the detective into the cramped office, which was rank with the smell of tobacco. She thought she recognized the brand. It was the same one her brother smoked. She hated her brother.

Chase Coen closed the office door behind him, then turned to regard his client. His first impression was that this was her very first crisis, and she was afraid of doing something wrong. She looked unsure, like maybe she’d gone to the wrong place. Her dark eyes, big soft cheeks, and light brown hair gave Coen the impression of a squirrel who’d lost her acorns. She could have been more than 27, Chase guessed, but he highly doubted it. She was skinny as a lamp post, and paler than she ought to have been.

It was a good idea to schedule this one at the end of the day. Today’s cases had all been the same old jobs. Paying same-old-jobs, sure. But if Chase heard “Find out if my lover is cheating on me” one more time, he’d be ready to close up shop, call his mother, and tell her she was right. Better he should have been a doctor.

This dame, though. She was gonna be different. He could just by looking at her — this girl brought real trouble. The sort of trouble he lived for. “Now, then,” he began, sitting behind his desk. “What can I do for you, Miss Rhodes?”

“Oh,” she explained. “It’s my husband, Max.” Chase thought he’d be sick. “The judge sent him to prison two months ago. I know he’s innocent, though! I mean! I was with him that whole night, he just couldn’t have done it! But we couldn’t afford a lawyer in time for the court hearing. And the public defender was a joke. Max got a life sentence faster than you could say ‘fair trial.'”

Chase Coen’s fists unclenched. He was right, this was a case! And it explained something else, too. “Is that why you were reading that dime novel? Big Trouble in the Big House, right? Read it myself, just last year.”

“Really?” said the girl. “I’d think a big-shot private eye like you wouldn’t have the time.”

The detective laughed. “Lady, let me tell you. Busy and working ain’t the same thing. I’ve got maybe 15 angry broads in and out of here a day, whining about their old man seeing someone, wanting me to get them some dirty photos as evidence. I’m working, but I sure as heck ain’t busy. I’ll find the time to read whatever you put in front of me. Now, give me one case like yours, one real challenge. Maybe it’s the only case I’ll get all week. I’ll be so busy trying to crack it, I wouldn’t have time to take Marilyn Monroe to the pictures.” He lit a cigar. “Besides, that book was one heck of a read.”

“Is prison life really like that?” Ruby asked, frightened squirrel eyes glued to him. “It sounds…”


“I was going to say ‘terrible.'”

Chase Coen laughed again. “Well, it’s not terribly interesting, I can tell you that. I was on the inside once. Assault charge. It was only a few months, but I can tell you. Worst thing about prison life? Boring as boiled beans. Now then, Miss Rhodes, lets talk about busting your husband out of the clink.”

He read over the words on his laptop. Was that the way noir detectives talked? He wasn’t sure. Probably he should find some source material and check it out.

Aaron hit the save button on the top of the screen, and checked the word count. 2,330 words so far. It was good to keep track, not there was a length requirement or anything. Not that anybody was going to read his little detective story, most likely. He didn’t even have a title for it, beyond story.txt. It was just another of a thousand projects Aaron had started, and would probably never finish. Like that time he tried to design a new trading card game, or his aborted attempt to teach his graphing calculator Latin. Aaron chuckled to himself at this thought — it was the calculator that got him into grad school in the first place. He pulled out his cell and looked at the time. Gah, 12:53 already? Almost time for class. What fun.

Drumming his fingers on his office desk, Aaron waited for his laptop to power down. It was a beauty of a machine, but he would always have a special place in his heart for the TI-89 Titanium graphing calculator. It, too, had been one of his personal projects. When he first got it in high school, Aaron discovered the simple programming language it had built in. It turned out to be good for passing the time in boring classes. In pre-calculus, Aaron started by writing a simple guessing game. He soon advanced to programming Blackjack and Video Poker. Finally, to make tolerable the 90-minute economics lectures in college, he got to complex games like Mille Bournes and Monopoly.

He put his laptop in the main section of his backpack, and reflexively felt the side pocket. Yep, the calculator was still there. His first programming love, it started Aaron on the path he had followed (so far) to the computer science graduate program at Brown. Aaron locked the office door behind him (why did his officemates always forget to do that?) and started ambling to class. Grad school was treating Aaron well. He loved being there, and Providence had a lot to offer. He had a lot of work, too, what with the Robot Soccer tournament coming up, and the Sudoku/Mastermind solvers due next week. So it wasn’t quite clear to the grad student why he had been wasting time writing detective stories. Procrastination was understandable back when he was an undergrad, and he had boring problem sets for Econ to do. Now, though, the work was right up his alley. He should be blasting through this stuff.

Aaron rounded the stairs to the 4th floor, and was stopped by a fellow student whose name he had forgotten. Definitely he was from one of Aaron’s classes, but he couldn’t recall which. They exchanged the usual pleasantries, griped about how busy they were (supposed to be, thought Aaron sheepishly) and continued on their way.

He must have a motivational problem, he decided. The rest of the department was swamped with homework and studying and research, and here was Aaron, sitting around like an out-of-work code monkey. He got to the classroom, and picked a desk near the front. The story would join his other projects in the Recycle Bin. Aaron had already ruined it. Private eyes were gritty, crime-fighting anti-heroes. Ennui in a detective story? Unacceptable. Aaron didn’t even like the word “ennui”. Sounded angsty, or emo, or French.

Idly, Aaron watched the professor prepare his slides for lecture. The student’s mind was already adrift. Maybe when the current batch of work was done, he could try writing a program that could beat him in Stratego. Now that would be something.

The clock struck one. The professor opened his mouth.

With a start, Ryu woke up. Some kind of crash had come from the inn’s common room downstairs. Nothing to be worried about, from the sound of it. Just another party.

He rolled over. It had not been two sunrises since Ryu had dealt the killing blow to the Black Enchanter, and already the common people had forgotten him. All they cared about was cheering for Gandor and Ignado, the wizards. Wizards got all the attention.

The ninja tried to remember the dream he had been having. The vision was gone now, but he remembered there being a young student, in a magical academy of some kind. It had been filled with wonders like running water, light without candles, and warm weather even in the chill of late autumn.

Bizarre. The fight must have drained Ryu worse than he thought. He turned over again, and kept trying to put aside the ruckus of the festival below. He was forbidden by the Code of the Ninja to join his friends in the frivolity, but it would soon be over anyway. The kingdom would sing the adventurers’ praises for a month, maybe two. Then they would forget their saviors, as assuredly as they had forgotten the Enchanter himself, and how he once been a hero, too. Of course, that was before his fall into Darkness.

Something man-sized thumped loudly on the floor below. ‘Twas probably Aleksei. He was the sort to drink to excess, forgetting both past and future. Which was the bleaker? Gandor could probably find employment as a healer, a job he would find lucrative if not challenging. But with the threat to the kingdom removed, what use had anyone of a ninja from a faraway clan, a master of fire lore, and a lone swordsman with a lust for ale? Ryu supposed he could go back to his clan in the mountains, where he would be expected to train new recruits. He knew this would never satisfy him; Ryu had the spirit of a warrior, not a teacher. But at least there was food there.

The fire mage Ignado and the Aleksei the swordsman had no such path. Heroes they might be today. Ere long, their rewards would turn into gifts, would turn into alms. Possibly they might find some gainful employment, but it seemed unlikely. The only real hope for them (and for himself, Ryu realized) would be some impending new danger. Then the people would remember, then people would call upon their talents once again. And the adventurers would stand, ready to defend decent people from whoever, or whatever, threatened to plunge the land into darkness.

Though really, anything would be more fun than the nothing that awaited them.

Thinking of the Black Enchanter’s last words, Ryu fell back asleep, half-dreading and half-hoping the threat would come true.


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