I don’t normally write flash fiction. I have a lot of trouble squeezing my brain into the small box constraining short stories and struggle to come up with a beginning, middle, climax and end, all within a very tiny word count.
But today Steph Sinkhorn posted a piece of flash fiction she did for a flash fiction challenge hosted by Chuck Wendig. He provides three lists of prompts and you’re supposed to use some means of randomization to pick one from each and write a 1000-word-or-less short story from it.
After reading Steph’s piece (which you should, too; I enjoyed it), I popped over and had a look at the challenge, and decided to see what my prompts would be. One of the commenters left a link to a randomizer he’d quickly created using these lists and posted on his site. This is what it gave me:
And then I just couldn’t resist. I mean, it was such a natural combination. So here’s my piece of flash fiction, coming in at 998 words.
Charles Wendall – better known to his two friends as Chuck and familiarly to the world as The Fuse (which he liked to pretend was short for ‘Fusion’ but was actually a reference to his regrettably short patience) – stood in front of pump number four at the small independent gas station. He could feel the eyes of a couple dozen police and another hundred curious civilians resting uncomfortably on his back from where they waited, protected, across the street. The sun was just creeping over the edge of the roof, and he had to stand at an awkward angle to shade the touchscreen so he could see. The back of his neck was starting to burn.
“Could you go over the rules again?” Charles asked. He had often found that this worked with villains, and while they reiterated their stipulations he bought himself a few extra seconds to think. He wasn’t sure a few extra seconds was going to be enough in this situation, but he would take what he could get.
“It is really quite simple,” the disembodied voice said from the pump’s speaker, right above the little button that read (a little ironically, Charles felt) ‘press here for help’. “You get one turn. I have abducted Watson. If you checkmate me, I will let Watson go, and self-destruct. If you don’t, then Watson dies. Or you die and Watson and I take over your government, I haven’t decided.”
“Yeah, I got that part,” Charles said, scratching his head as he looked down at the checkerboard on the screen. “I meant the rules for how all the pieces move.”
“Oh, those,” the voice said. And promptly launched into a long explanation of the rules of chess. That was the thing about supercomputers, they were so easily distracted by logics.
Which was just as well, because Charles had no idea which bloody move to make. They didn’t cover chess in superhero school, even though, with the increasing frequency of villainous AIs, you’d think a basic knowledge would come in useful now and then. Challenge the computer to a game and you bought yourself a bit of time. The problem was the professors hadn’t had to save the world in years, cooped up in their stuffy academic offices, and they really didn’t know how powerful computers had become. This ended up being rather unfortunate for the students.
His gaze drifted to the small brick building on the other side of the pumps, where the AI claimed to be housed. It would be so much easier if he were Mr. Metal or The Stupendous Colossus. He could just bust his way through the wall, rescue Watson, bash in the supercomputer, and be done with it. But Mr. Metal was downtown negotiating with some guy he’d ticked off last year (Charles was sort of on the villain’s side in that one; Mr. Metal could be a bit of a prick when his ego flared up), and The Stupendous Colossus was having a bad day and no one wanted to get close enough to ask him to take the job.
Charles’ own power – the mysterious ability to make two things stick fast like glue – really wasn’t very useful in the situation, but as no one else was available, here he was. This had been happening distressingly often of late.
“The bishop can only move diagonally,” the computer continued. Charles wondered how many times he could get it to repeat the rules before it clued in to what he was doing. He studied the chessboard on the screen. If he was a betting man, which he wasn’t, but if he was, he’d bet there wasn’t actually a move that would checkmate the computer. He had learned that villains didn’t usually work like that, and had several embarrassing stories to prove it. The one where the bad guy had challenged him to a game of hide and seek was the worst; he’d spent fifteen minutes looking for the villain before he clued in the guy had left. He didn’t feel inclined to believe a supercomputer would be any different.
“And those are the rules,” the computer wrapped up. “Are you ready to take your turn?”
“Not really,” Charles admitted. “I don’t suppose I could have someone else stand in for me?”
“No,” the computer said. “The police have designated you their proxy.”
Charles suspected the police probably wouldn’t be interested in stepping in, anyway. The whole advantage of having superheroes was that it gave them a legitimate excuse to not have to go deal with the problem themselves. If it worked, the world was saved and all was cool. If it didn’t, their asses were safe and it gave them a handy scapegoat. Either way, they didn’t have to do any work. Bloody cops. Bloody Mr. Metal and his stupid ego. Bloody Stupendous Colossus and his temper tantrums.
For that matter, bloody supercomputers and their superiority complexes.
“You know, actually,” Charles said, “I’m getting kinda tired of this crap.”
“I don’t understand,” the computer said.
“It’s pretty obvious there’s no right move.” Charles kicked the pump. “And you do know that no one really cares what happens to Watson, right? It’s a bloody personal computer on steroids. D-4 to F-5, and then I’m coming in there to meld your CPU fan to your–”
“Actually, the correct answer was B-3 to E-6. I’m sorry.”
Across the street, the spectators recoiled from the explosion.
Sergeant Walker straightened with a sigh, hitching up his trousers. “Guess that went about as well as expected.”
“Shame about The Fuse,” the deputy said. “Suppose it was just a matter of time, though.”
“Suppose it was,” the sergeant said. “When did Mr. Metal say he could be here?”
“Two hours. But he’s demanding overtime.”
The sergeant shrugged. “Pay him. I’m done with backup plans.”
They stood a moment in silence, watching the dark smoke coil up into the sky.
“Feel like a coffee?”
“Yeah, sure, why not.”