Friday Fragmentary Fiction: Tense

Oily Jack and I watched as Melissa Mordechai strolled about the library, brandy in one hand, idly examining the shelves.

“Did I ever tell you about the first time I met her?” I asked.

“No,” Jack replied as Melissa took a heroic swig of brandy.

“It was two years ago, when Dr. Mordechai made that assault using his new batch of clockwork badgers,” I said, then continued with the harrowing tale as I sightlessly watched Melissa’s explorations of our inner sanctum.

We were hard-pressed to stem the tide of metallic badgers, given how difficult they were to hit, and we suffered many a grim injury to ankle and foot. The battle took place mainly at the eastern wall, and perhaps the only saving grace in that battle was that the badgers found themselves unable to effectively exploit our difficulties by encircling us–their stubby legs made rapid redeployment impractical.

I paused in my narrative, and the sight of Melissa Mordechai casually topping off her snifter with brandy made me tremble in rage.

“That’s not how you use a snifter,” I said. “She’s filling it to the brim.”

“There, there,” Jack said, patting my shoulder. “Go on with your story.”

The badgers came on implacably, heedless of their losses, a clockwork wave that washed across the formerly picturesque groomed lawn to the east of the university complex and up the wall, barely slowing. Our brave band fought them back, however, firing their lasers without letup (admittedly, less difficult than it would have been with old-style weapons, given the lack of recoil). None was more heroic than Dr. Hendershot, a professor of applied linguistic mathematics who had risen to be one of the leaders of our desperate defense. Now he held a position over the eastern gate, the most critical of defense points, rallying our people by standing with icy calm, as if completely unconcerned by the threat of badgers.

I broke off again to see that Melissa had found her way unerringly to our small section of seventeenth-century meteorological erotica and was browsing the well-thumbed copy of On Fyne and Peculiar Uses of Cyclic Winds. I shook my head and continued by grim tale.

It was then that I first clapped eyes on Melissa Mordechai, standing near her father, far back from the main battle and surrounded by an honor guard of enormous badgers. Even at the great distance, she was a striking figure, clad in a silver jumpsuit, hair whipping in the breeze, with the the Hellburner Mk 4 that she was famous for even then at her hip. I admit that I stared overlong at the sight, neglecting my badger-shooting duties, and I blame myself, at least in part, for what happened next.

Before I knew what was happening, Melissa had produced some sort of rifle.

I paused in my narrative to estimate Melissa’s height against the shelves she stood near, seeing that her head was just below Dangers of Over-stimulation Due to Helotropic Effects, with its distinctive sunburst on the spine.

The weapon she held had to be over eight feet long, given how far over her head it stood when rested on the ground, but sadly it was not so grounded for long. In an eyeblink, she’d crouched and rested it on a nearby, particularly large, badger. I realized too late what was about to happen, and I’d just turned to warn Dr. Hendershot when she fired. Perhaps no matter what I had done I couldn’t have prevented his death–plasma bolts travel at just a bit under the speed of light, after all–but then perhaps had I not been so distracted I could have acted soon enough.

“In any event,” I concluded, “I was too late and Dr. Hendershot fell. It was only through good fortune that we managed to hold the gate even after the death of the brave hero.” I clenched my fists as Melissa, across the room chuckled at something in the book she read. “If only I’d known the Mordechais had obtained long-range plasma weapons. By thunder, if I had one in my hands now …”

“There now,” Jack said. “As you recall, Hendershot was drilled right through the chest, so he was a good candidate for Dr. Bumberton’s new toy.”

“Not the memory playback device!” I exclaimed.

“The same,” Jack said. “We thought it best to conceal the results, given the distaste many around her have for it, and what we found, but perhaps I should tell you.”

He cleared his throat and began the narrative.

The badgers are unassuming creatures, the sort of things that look more suited to reading and rejecting short story submissions than attacking a fortified university. But these badgers, despite what looks like an eerie intelligence in many ways (for badgers), are driven only to attack and kill on Dr. Mordechai’s orders–they have no other impulse or desire. And that mindless spark drives them into our laser fire, ignoring what loses they take.

Jack looked up. “It really was spooky, the sense of immediacy a fella gets when he clamps the memory storage device to his noggin.” He shook his head.

Dr. Hendershot makes his way to the eastern gate, pushing his way past several of the university’s defenders who were clearly feeling less than fully-committed to the fight.

“Stand fast, lads!” he shouts. “You there, Smith! Take some men to the western gate!”

“Now hang on,” I said. “Why would he send men to the west gate. Surely an erudite man like Dr. Hendershot had noted the shortness of the badger legs, and therefore their lack of flanking speed.”

“Just hold on and let me finish my tale,” Jack said. “It will all be clear.”

Hendershot springs to the top of the gatehouse, firing his laser pistol in the general direction of the clockwork badgers. Off in the distance, he can barely see Dr. Mordechai and his honor guard directing the assault. He waves his arms, making a gesture known to several primitive tribes (and of course, to Dr. Mordechai, who had spent so much time in Borneo) to be extremely insulting. He had to carry on for several seconds before seeing an answering gesture from Dr. Mordechai.

“I’d forgotten about that,” I exclaimed. I glowered over at Melissa Mordechai, who was unsteadily climbing a ladder to reach the volume we thought best to keep away from youngsters, half-full snifter still in one hand. “No doubt she saw it as well, and it was what attracted her fire.”

Jack held up a hand.

Hendershot glances down and confirms that his pre-arranged signal has been understood, and Dr. Mordechai has thrown his reserves into a massive charge straight at the sturdy gates. Now is the time. He reaches for the lever that will throw open the gate and invite the badgers to slaughter. Everyone below will be killed,and he will be a rich man by the end of the day. There is a flash of light.

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