ZORK Owner’s Manual

The latest terribleminds flashfiction challenge was a throwback to those old-school ‘interactive fiction’ video games. You know the ones: ‘PICK UP KEY’ … the key is too far away. ‘WALK TOWARDS KEY’… you fall into a hole.

Anyhow, the challenge was to grab a randomised inventory list and turn them into a story. The items in my inventory were:  a gold coin, a platinum bar, a key, a tool chest, Emergency Oxygen Gear, a shim, a ZORK owner’s manual.

The result is a somewhat meta story that doesn’t really stray too far from the source material and will probably only make sense if you’re familiar with the grand-daddy of interactive fiction games: Zork. Apologies to infocomm.

ZORK Owner’s Manual

“What the fuck is a zork?” Sanjay Chopra crossed his arms and leaned back on the metal chair. It creaked under his weight, and a shower of rust fell from it. At some point he would have to get a new chair. And a new desk. His was made from a couple of filing cabinets with a sheet of metal — pockmarked with rust — balanced on top. A metal shim had been wedged under one leg to keep it from listing.

“Insufficient data,” the robot said. The most expensive piece of equipment he owned, this robot, and the most frustrating. It could dig like a motherfucker though, and so far had not broken any of the 20th century debris that it had helped bring to the surface.

Sanjay looked again at the ragged remains of a cover from what had once been a hardback book. The title, spelled out in that long dead language ‘English’, read simply: ZORK Owner’s Manual.

“It could have been a car. They were big on cars back then.”

“I have a record of every known car model ever produced,” the robot said. “It was not a car.”

“So you know everything, but you don’t know what a zork is. Maybe you translated it wrong.”

“It’s a four letter word,” the robot flashed its lights angrily. “You are the archeologist, I am merely a repository for every piece of information we’ve already discovered about life before the Stupendous War. They owned cars by the millions. Cars have not been difficult to learn about. As you well know, Chopra-saab.”

“You are a passive-aggressive little bundle of wires and circuits,” Sanjay heaved himself up from the desk and reached for his protective suit and oxygen mask. More expensive equipment, but without them he would die. Strapped to his belt was a sharp knife. He’d not needed to use it yet, but there were too many stories of mutated monsters out there — ants the size of people, dogs that ran on two legs — for him to ever leave his tent without it. “Let’s head out to the site and see if we can find anything that might shed some light on this little mystery.”

He had constructed his camp near the site, not enjoying long walks. The second he stepped outside the tent — a reinforced steel structure with massive air filters and radiation shielding — the winds started buffeting at him. Screeching, directionless, they pulled him one way and then another. He could see only a few feet in front of him, thanks to the swirling dust and the heavy smoke layer that turned the sky a dingy orange-black. Frost glittered and sparkled underfoot as he walked towards the dig.

The robot followed behind him, its densely packed squat body unaffected by the winds.

They had first dug into the frozen soil a week ago, after the robot had reported traces of metal below. Since then they had cleared the remains of what had once been houses. Only bits of wall remained, tracing out the shape of rooms. A bit of broken off pipe and a smashed cistern had told Sanjay where the bathroom had been. Some melted, misshapen lumps of plastic might have once been kitchen appliances. The metal the robot had detected had been radiators, also melted and twisted. Sanjay had carefully hauled the metal out of the dig and packed it away in the tent. The Collective paid for scrap metal, it was the material from which their civilisation had been built.

There were few possessions left, most of the houses had been raided by the surviving populations: anything that could burn had been burned, anything that could be eaten had been eaten.

Scattered around the perimeter of the house, Sanjay had discovered three empty tin cans. A quick analysis from the robot, and it had told him they had contained: a soft fruit known as peaches, flavoured pre-cooked beans in a sweet tomato sauce, and a kind of pudding made from rice, milk and sugar.

He had eaten his reconstituted cockroach and algae meal pack that night speculating all the time what those ancient foods might have tasted like.

Now, however, he was on a mission. He was determined to find out what a zork was. The Collective would pay good money for new information. If a zork turned out to be important, he might even make enough money to refit his entire office. He allowed himself to dream of it: a desk with a special place for his pens.

“Robot,” Sanjay said as he surveyed the site. “I’ve got a good feeling about this ‘zork’ thing. We don’t leave until we know what it was.”

“You’re the boss,” the robot said.

Two hours of digging and dusting, and Sanjay leaned back on his heels and noticed the tiny, thread-like shape on the horizon. He stared at it, a sick feeling in his belly. Already it swelled in size as it came closer; a twister.

“Fuck.” Sanjay grabbed his tool chest and yelled at the robot to follow him. He raced towards the camp and started to dismantle the tent and throw it onto his conveyor. A quick look back over his shoulder, however, and he abandoned everything except the robot, hustling it aboard the vehicle. The twister had already reached three times the size, the winds picking up around him.

“Come on, come on.” Sanjay jammed the ignition key in and set the conveyor to its top speed. They rumbled away from the site on fat treads. Sanjay clutched the steering wheel tightly to stop his hands from shaking. The wind tore at them, trying to tip them, but the conveyor had been built like a tank; all thick metal and sloping surfaces.

Even a conveyor couldn’t stand up to a twister though. Glancing behind him, Sanjay could see the forks of lightening flickering within the great spiralling body of the twister. The earth screamed beneath it, yawing and shifting, torn upwards and flung aside as the twister fed.

Bits of his tent were flung past him, rolling along the ground. The conveyors Emergency Oxygen Kit ripped clear of its straps and went flying backwards, into the gaping maw of wind behind him.

“Shit, shit shit shit shit shit shitshitshit” Sanjay yammered as he leaned on the accelerator. The soil shifted and rumbled beneath them, the conveyor almost tipping over.

“Move at a forty-five degree angle,” the robot buzzed. “To the west. The twister’s course should take it beside us on the east. With luck we may survive.”

Sanjay jerked the steering wheel to the left and the conveyor’s treads screeched to obey. The wind sucked at them greedily. Sanjay gritted his teeth and willed the conveyor to stay attached to the ground. Something slammed into the dashboard next to his gloved hand. Glancing down, Sanjay saw a gold coin half buried in the metal. The conveyor moaned as its treads started to lift off the ground.

“I will not die here!” Sanjay shouted. The conveyor bumped back to the ground. Sanjay glanced to his side, saw that the twister had drawn level with them but was angling off in the other direction. He was so focused on tracking it, that he never even saw the building emerging from the soil until the conveyor slammed into it. Sanjay catapulted over the handlebars and slammed against a brick wall. He slid down it, thankful for the protective helmet and suit he wore and collapsed in a heap at the foot of the wall. There, he waited for the storm to die down.

An hour later, the sky was a flat, hazy orange and the dust had dropped. The land had been reconfigured by the twister, Sanjay had no idea which direction he’d travelled from. The tread marks of the conveyor had all been blown smooth, and the conveyor itself smashed beyond the limits of his portable tool kit. His tent, survival gear and salvage was gone: buried somewhere in the wasteland around him.

“We are a seventeen day walk from the nearest Collective outpost,” the robot announced. It shook itself, dust showering from its sides. “My battery will not last that long.”

“I won’t last that long.” Sanjay sucked on the nozzle at the side of his helmet that led to his water canister. He looked over the conveyor, pulling the gold coin free from the dashboard and examining it. At one point there had been a portrait of a person in profile, but it had worn away so that Sanjay could not tell who it was meant to be. He stuffed the coin into a pocket and turned to the building.

It was one of those rare buildings that had survived the war relatively unscathed. Only the top story was visible, the rest buried in sand. A blown out window stood at elbow height. At one point it had been painted white, flecks of paint peeled away from the brick.

“Might as well take shelter in here for the night,” Sanjay said. “Work out what to do in the morning.”

He stepped into the building through the window, the robot following him. Sanjay flicked on his helmet torch. It flickered over white walls and came to rest on a sword and a lantern, both gleaming as if new. Sanjay blinked at them, stunned by such an anachronistic detail.

He tracked the light across the floor and up onto the wall. Plastic letters had been stuck to the peeling paintwork. Sanjay blinked as he read them. “Zork? Does that say Zork?”

“Affirmative,” the robot said.

“What the fuck is this place?” Sanjay moved towards the door and stepped out into a hallway. A couple of bags had been dropped halfway along, and Sanjay kicked one of them open. A pile of plastic blocks fell out, each one stamped with the words ‘platinum bar’.

“This is some weird shit.”

The robot, a few steps behind him, did not reply.

Sanjay opened the other sack and discovered a lunchbox, the food long since rotted away, and a withered root of some kind.

The hallway led to a flight of metal stairs. Sanjay descended them, drawn to the lower levels of the building as if by instinct. He’d always been a digger, had always believed the greatest treasures were the ones you had to extract from the soil.

Cockroaches scuttled over the walls, away from the light of his torch. Sanjay kept descending the stairs until they expelled him into a stone basement. There were no windows down here, and the floor had only a thin layer of dust.

Sanjay shone his light around. No furniture, but in the very centre of the room there was a round trapdoor.

“It might be another group of survivors.” Sanjay rushed towards it, examined the seal. Groups turned up every now and then. Often just a small interbred family, with hollow bones and white skin and no idea of how many generations had passed. Sometimes, however, they found another group, with equipment, skills and a different culture. Sanjay couldn’t even imagine how much he’d get paid if he found a group like that.

“There is writing on the wall,” the robot said. “It reads: the wise traveller bewares the Grue.”

“Zork? Grue? I’m starting to think we’re about to discover something pretty major.” Sanjay hooked his fingers under he trapdoor and prised it open. His helmet torch penetrated only a few feet into the inky darkness below, enough to see the rusty ladder that led downwards.

Sanjay looked up at the robot. “Coming?”

“I don’t like this.” The robot whirred. “I hope you’re right and there is another group of survivors down there.”

“What other explanation could there be?” Sanjay grinned at the robot.

The two of them descended into the darkness.

Other stories inspired by randomised inventories

Great Acting by antipelican. A funny story about a drunk actor on a path to learning some life lessons (maybe).

Never Swindle a Swindler by D.J. Davis. Swashbuckling thievery pretty much always amuses me. There’s a great sense of a bigger world as well.

 

The lure of The End

Here’s the thing about the apocalypse: it makes you free.

Here’s the thing about zombies: all you have to worry about is the zombies.

In this shitty world, this world overflowing with food that people can’t afford to buy, this world overflowing with medicine and kids dying of dirty water, this world that houses dolls that cost as much as some people earn in a month – well, there’s a whole bunch to worry about.

Here’s the thing about the end of civilisation: who the fuck wants civilisation.

Give me the zombies and I’ll sharpen my axe. Give me the werewolves and I’ll polish my silver. Give me the monsters in the dark and I will light the campfire.

But I can’t kill the grinding necessity of earning enough to rent a patch of someone else’s land to rest. The office politics and the boring meetings. The car repairs and the traffic at 9.30am. Matching socks and fear of failure. The restless urge to chuck it in, to go where the water meets the land and the sky. The endless circle of conversation: how’re you? I’m good, how’re you? I’m good, how’re you? I’m good, how’re you? I’m good.

My eyes are buggered, and my shoulders are hunched, and the flickering world beyond the screen is always just beyond reach and the world on this side is so desperately mundane. Text alerts from your bank to let you know you’ve dropped below a certain limit. Spam in your inbox. Meme’s of cats and doge. Kicking up the dry dust of arguments long since parched of meaning.

The photographs of starving children come through your mailbox, and petitions clamour for attention and the Government sells out another group of people and the Daily Mail sings of blood and fury.

Here’s the thing about the end of the world: clean slate.

Man of the hour

This story was written for the terribleminds flash-fiction challenge. The aim was to smash two sub-genres together and somehow come up with a story out of the messy remains. My genres (randomly generated) were: Sci-Fi Humor/Satire and Superhero. (Many thanks to Burning-liquid for the image of the planet.)

Man of the Hour

His cape glittered in the light thrown off by the fire. To the screams of the crowd, the Golden Hawk smashed through a window of the burning school. A gout of flame exploded out behind him. Someone in the crowd fainted, whilst others quickly made bets on how many of the children the Hawk would rescue. The worst odds were on none, but those who bet the Hawk would manage to save all twenty were also playing a risky game.Ambulance sirens wailed and throbbed. Mrs Jones, wrapped in a dressing gown and wearing fuzzy cat slippers, launched into a long monologue about each of the children trapped inside — focused mainly on their predisposition to take her bin and move it halfway down the street on bin day.

Then, to gasps of wonder, the Golden Hawk reappeared. Children clung to his arms, his legs, his torso, like scorpion babies clutching their mother. His cape fluttered over them.

Bookies groaned as they counted the number of children, but started to pay out. Winners grinned and praised the Hawk. Paramedics rushed to get oxygen masks on the children. The Golden Hawk saluted as the photographers rushed to get their shot, then gently lifted the last child, kissed it on the top of its head and passed it to a reporter. Before anyone could ask any questions, the Hawk leapt into the air and zig-zagged away.


“I’m telling you,” Chambers said. “The reporters don’t give a damn how that fire took hold. All they are talking about is the same old, same old. Who is the Hawk? Where does he come from? Where does he go? What if he turns into a super-villain? They don’t care about the financial situation of the school, and how come it ended up with exposed wires and plywood so old it was turning into dust.”

The Prime Minister opened a bottle of incredibly expensive water and sniffed it dubiously. “I do wish we would hurry up and arrive at this Alpha Centuri 95-whatever it is.”

“Another twenty five years yet,” Chambers said. “And in the meantime, the deficit must be kept down. You know that, with all due respect.”

“Of course, of course,” sighed the Prime Minister. He carefully poured the bottled water into the cat bowl on his desk. Jessie, his Russian Blue, jumped onto the table and started to lap the water. “The bloody deficit. I just don’t understand why we had to sell off the whole of England to make a repayment on it.”

“We owed twenty-five trillion pounds to the Chinese,” Chambers said. “And they cashed their IOU.”

“Yes, but I thought one of those, you know, African countries owed us a pretty penny or too.”

“The previous government,” Chambers said. He poured himself a glass of port. “You know that too, sir, with all due respect.”

The Prime Minister brushed down his suit. “The Hawk won’t satisfy them forever,” he said. “We need to get something else in there. The Sentinel has been asking difficult questions again.”

“You didn’t answer them, did you?” Chambers said, horrified.

“Of course not,” the Prime Minister said. He scratched Jessie on the head, and watched her eyes crinkle up. “But all those children died when they reached the hospital. Some mix-up with the paperwork or something. They ended up going in for a heart bypass, and then half of them caught some kind of super-bug and the other half starved to death. We need more nurses, Chambers!”

“Well, if you’d bloody privatised it when I told you to, it wouldn’t be our problem, would it?”

“They public wouldn’t go for it,” the Prime Minister stood up and paced uneasily. “Look, Chambers, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking…”

“Bad for your health, sir,” Chambers said with a frown.

“Well, here’s the thing. If we sold off England to pay our debt to the Chinese, how come the Chinese still had to head off to Xerion Han 45-whatever it was?”

“Oh,” Chambers said. “Because the Chinese owed three hundred trillion to the Japanese.”

“But the Japanese are on their way to—”

“Delta Five, yes, I know. You have to understand, sir, that the debt situation on Earth had become very complex.”

“All I want to know is…”

“Hmm?”

“Who exactly is left on Earth?”


Ricardo Brandon threw his champagne glass at the wall.

“No, no, no!” he said. “I want England to be a hedge maze, get it right! The biggest hedge maze in the world! And I want lions in it, real lions mind you. Not ones made out of bushes.” He glowered at the map in front of him. “America… you might as well leave Las Vegas alone. Good memories. But get rid of the other cities. Actually, build me a palace in New York. We can go there on the weekends.”

The butler bowed and hurried out to make sure the servants were aware. With a staff of five hundred, it was difficult to co-ordinate people across the whole of Bandon’s vast estate, but the butler couldn’t help feeling pleased. Thanks to his position, he’d been able to stay on Earth when almost ten billion people had been evicted.

Brandon sat down in his leather chair and stared gloomily out of the window. He’d won. He was the richest man in the world. In fact he was one of the only men in the world.

Then he brightened up. He had an outpost in Alpha Centuri 957, and had set up a Real Estate company there. He phoned them now.”

“Hey Brian, how’s it going? Just wanted to check up on the profits.”

“Great news sir,” Brian replied. “Profits are up 12%!”

Let us talk of androids and wondering chambers

I’ve been busy the last few months–publishing a book. Yikes! But I finally got back onto the flash-fiction challenge. This week at terribleminds the challenge is to start a story with the sentence “The noticed android walks past a wondering chamber.” Here’s my result:

The noticed android walks past a wondering chamber. The people inside the chamber lie twisted haphazardly amongst the cushions, blowing smoke rings and mumbling to themselves. The man that has noticed the android, however, sits up with a straight back and clear eyes. The android pauses.

“Come here,” the man says.

The android moves into the room, stepping carefully over the sprawled body of a woman. Her mouth is open and she snores heavily.

“Do you have a name?” The man squints at the android, his brows furrowing. The android considers the question.

“My serial number is NX/5733456.”

“Nix. Tell me, are you alive or dead?”
Continue reading Let us talk of androids and wondering chambers

Ninety-Nine Dreams

Written for the Corporate Abuse Flash Fiction Challenge at terribleminds.

We lost.

That’s the wisdom I have for you. We lost. No surprise, when you look at history. Technology, wealth, education, privilege—what chance did mere numbers have against that? We sent wave after wave of people against them, to die futile deaths on the spikes of their citadel. The world burned, furious, fast. The world burned and turned to ash.

The corporations flexed their muscles—military weapons, economic chaos, the morale-sapping reality of poverty—and we conceded. Governments collapsed. The corporations, bloated, putrid, triumphant, took over the running of the world.

Work shifted to where it was cheapest. Wages bottomed out; a desperate man would work for a handful of bread. The corporations offered a deal: work for us and in return we will shelter you and feed you. We moved from camp to camp, making gadgets, luxury yachts, beautiful things that sold to other corporate CEOs. We worked on vast farms, feeding cows too weak to stand, who remained upright only because they were supported by the four walls that surrounded them.

Occasionally, from a distance, we would see a sleek car pass by the walls of the camp, the windows tinted black, and we imagined a warm little bubble, stinking of champagne, in which a rich man and his wife giggled together.

I had managed to acquire a book, stolen from a publishing house at which I had worked for a short time. Real books had become rare, those that could afford to read chose e-books, churned out by a writer-farm, a group of desperate word-smiths that typed-typed-typed for endless hours.

The few paper books that remained were works of art, full of colourful pictures and clever typesetting. This book I had was no exception. The insides were filled with bright drawings, of a man clad in black skin-tight clothes leaping from buildings. At first, I admired the art, but later his masked visage started to haunt my dreams. For freedom. That is what he said, whenever he rescued a child, or defeated a comically flamboyant villain. For freedom! I read it many times, looking at the pictures of the mansion in which the black-clad hero lived and wondering what it would be like to have a bathtub and a bed.

I tried to teach my daughter to read it, but she was more animal than little girl. She picked fruit with ferocious intensity, and nearly always claimed the ‘pickers prize’, a hunk of bread filled with dripping steak. She treated me with contempt, which was fair enough—we were all worthy of contempt, living in that pit.

But I read that book again and again.

One day, I upended the family and went hunting for work in the textiles industry. It was not a favoured industry—working there invariably led to asbestosis and other lung diseases. My daughter wept as she worked the giant looms, her tears streaking a white trail down dusty cheeks. She hated the fetid air and gloom of the factory, and longed for the open orchards where she had been prized.

My wife accepted the move with dumb resignation. She worked less and less these days, and ate less as a result. I tried to give her my portion, but she just stared at it. Her ribs stood out on her white skin, and her eyes were sunken and bloodshot. I tried to ignore her, and focus on my plan.

Difficult to steal from the company, as armed guards—they ate for every stolen item they found and confiscated, so were diligent to the point of fraud—searched us hourly. I gave them obvious wins and took what I really wanted over the course of many weeks.

My wife stopped going to work. She lay on the iron bunk that passed as a bed, and stared at the pockmarked steel of the bed above. Her fingers twitched against her stomach like skitterish spiders. My daughter, still two years from independence, ran away. I wished her well, but I had little hope she would survive long. The best fruit-pickers were children, adults got slower and slower. Her skills would not last.

I worked on my secret project after dark, when everyone else slept the exhausted sleep of workers that had worked eighteen hour shifts. I could barely see, working by moonlight and touch, and the costume was a ragged mockery of the one from the bright pages of the book. I loved it all the same, though the fabric sagged about my spindly limbs and stretched across the swollen paunch of my belly. Even so, the cloak furled and swished most satisfyingly.

On the night my wife finally died, her face a skull, her body shrunk to little more than bones and skin, I cut a drawing from the comic, a close-up rendering of a red rose, and folded it into her long fingers.

We lost. That’s the wisdom I have for you. Yet here I am, ignoring my own wisdom, running into the black night to start again. Taking up the fight, armed with nothing but a dream plucked from the pages of a brightly coloured book. Oh, but what a dream!