Twisting and Turning: an update

Hello again. Sorry to abandon the WordPress community for the last couple of months. I knew May and June were going to be busy, but I guess I didn’t realize just how busy! Here’s a quick summary of what’s been going on here before I get into a real post. I’ve promised myself to get some real content flowing again now that my extra-curricular commitments are winding down.

I know I mentioned that I’m coaching soccer and t-ball this year, and it has been a crazy, frustrating, rewarding experience. I’m glad it’s (almost) over now, but I think I’ll sign up to do it again next year unless I have a scheduling conflict. That’s getting harder to predict, though.

I’ve had a bit of a shake up with my career as a writer-for-hire. I’ve done some freelance work over the last seven years or so, and I had a pretty sweet contract that kept me afloat. The industry I work in has been suffering a bit of a slump lately, though, and I’ve been hit twice now with major losses to that contract and it’s gotten to the point now where I need to branch out into something new.

The good news is, the timing is ripe for a project that combines many of my skills and interests, and while I have a lot of work ahead of me, I think I’m going to be able to turn the collapse of one contract into a huge new opportunity. I’ve got some meetings lined up over the summer, and I’ll be crunching some numbers and trying to drum up the financial backing I need to get started. So I’m in that excited/terrified stage of starting a new company where I waver between seeing all the potential, positive and negative, and not knowing where I’ll land. I’m choosing to stay positive, though. I’ll share more as I can!

I haven’t done much in the way of fiction writing over the last two months, as I’ve barely had time to sit down let alone put together a coherent thought. I pretty much crash as soon as I get the kids to sleep these days. However, I have been doing a lot of reading in my spare moments. I can still enjoy other people’s stories when I’m totally drained.

I have been studying some short story writers and hopefully absorbing some of their brilliance. I’ve finished: Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson, Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, The Garden Party and other stories by Katherine Mansfield, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver, First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan, and The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami. I’m halfway through The Paper Menagerie and other stories by Ken Liu. Eventually, I might put together some thoughts on each of these. I really don’t think there’s a bad book in the bunch, but it’s a pretty eclectic collection of styles, so maybe not for everyone.

Otherwise, I’ve still been waiting to hear back about the third round of NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. A cash prize would be a welcome surprise at this point in career limbo, so keep your fingers crossed for me! I’ll let you know as soon as they announce the winners, even if I don’t make the cut.

July will be an exciting month for me as a writer. I’ve got the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge to look forward to, as well as two opportunities to travel (locally) and do some photo journalism projects, both of which will tie into my BIG SECRET PROJECT. As well as the aforementioned business meetings…

I’ll try to stay a bit more active here, though, as I miss the connection with other writers and people who feel my pain. Check in in the comments section if you’re still out there and reading!

Assignment #1: 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Competition

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Our assignments for the first round of this year’s NYC Midnight Short Story competition arrived at midnight EST last night. I was violently ill earlier in the evening, and was blissfully asleep when they were posted. But it was the first thing I looked at when I woke up this morning (now feeling totally fine, thankfully). I just thought I share my assignment with you, since I thought it was funny. It will definitely push me to write something different than I otherwise would, which is the whole point, really. Even if it does seem a bit *ahem* cheesy *ahem*.

Genre: a Fairy Tale
Subject: Superhuman
Character: a cheese maker
Words: 2500

We have eight days to submit the first story (considerably longer than the 48 hours they give you for the Flash Fiction competition!) and I aim to get my first draft done this weekend so I have lots of time for revisions.

I think my story last year could have placed better if I’d had my first draft done earlier and had time to apply all the suggestions my writing groups gave me! You can read that one here if you want to: Flash Fiction Friday: “Tongue Tied” by S.C. Jensen. I am still going to do those revisions, though, and include the resulting work in the short story collection I plan to release this year. You know what, I’m feeling a bit inspired after reading this piece by Matthew Whiteside over at Seeking Purpose Today, so let’s give that a solid deadline. I plan to release it in September! <– Hold me to it, folks!

Anyway, I thought you all might get a kick out of this assignment. I wonder if I’ll be able to pull it off in my usual style–festering, my husband calls it. Are any of my fellow writers inspired by this prompt? Feel free to join me and post your own versions (link in the comments if you do!)

I’ll share what I come up with in 7 days, 11 hours, and 10 minutes. Stay tuned!

Temporary Tales #1

There was a story draft here, once. But I’m currently reworking it in order to submit to some magazines. Thank you to everyone for your feedback!

989 Words

This piece was inspired by the January prompt “Flower” at BlogBattle! Thank you so much to Simon from Planet Simon for the suggestion to try this challenge as well as the others I’ve got going this month. I had a lot of fun with it. Can you tell? What did you think? As always, thanks for reading!

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2018

Hello everyone! Sorry for the long delay between posts. I’ve been busy this summer. Some of it was even with writing! I’ll update more on that later. For now, I’m getting geared up for Round Two in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. We just received our scores and feedback on Round One, so I thought I’d share with you. My assignment was:

Genre – Mystery
Location – a skywalk
Object – a syringe
Word count – 1000 max

I placed #9 out of about 30 people in my category and will be taking 7 points with me as I go into Round Two tomorrow night. The feedback I received from the judges will follow the story. Please have a read and let me know what you think in the comments!

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“Via Ferrata” by S.C. Jensen

 

Amy startled awake. Shards of glass pressed against her cheek and she stiffened, terrified to move. No. Not glass. Cool air, thick with earthiness, permeated her senses. Rock. Sharp Rock.

Her fingers scrabbled against gravel. Amy tried to push herself off the ground. A shockwave burst behind her eyes in kaleidoscopic spirals of pain. She couldn’t think where she was; it was as if something has plucked her out of her normal life and dropped her in a hole.

Crevasse.

It came to her suddenly, like turning on a switch. Mount Tribute, Sam’s new-hobby-enthusiasm, the Skywalker Club. Had she fallen on a skywalk? The rungs of the via ferrata had looked like they were rotten with rust in places, but Sam had been certain everything was safe. You’re just being negative again. Why are you such a wet blanket all the time? Can’t you at least try to have fun?

Am I having fun yet, she wondered, bitterly.

“Sam?” Amy’s voice rasped. Her tongue filled her mouth like a lump of dry dirt. She swallowed and tried again. “Sam!”

No reply. Water trickled somewhere; the gentle susurrus made her throat ache desperately. How long had she been down there? Where was Sam? Probably gone for help already. He’d get her out of there. It was only a matter of time.

Amy peered into the darkness around her, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the thin, grey light at the bottom of the fissure. Pain screamed in her skull as she craned her neck to look upward. A crack of blue sky teased just at the edge of her vision. Then it disappeared in an explosion of black spots. Amy closed her eyes against a wave of nausea.

She wiggled her right arm underneath her chest for leverage and pushed hard against the rocky surface. Jolts of searing pain shot from her head down the left side of her body. Her left arm didn’t move at all. Amy rolled herself onto her back and slowly, excruciatingly, managed to sit up.

It figured she was the one stuck at the bottom of a hole. She hadn’t wanted to come on this trip in the first place. Sam insisted and, as always, got his way. It would build trust, he’d said. Bring them closer as a couple, he’d said. Why couldn’t they build trust at the symphony?

Amy needed water. And drugs. Insulin. When was her last injection? Was there ibuprofen in her first aid kit? Better yet, there was Morphine. It’s just a precaution. You never know. If she had her backpack she could find something. A jacket, too. Her whole body trembled. It was cold, and she was going into shock.

Why didn’t she have her backpack? Had it come off when she fell? That didn’t seem likely. She always had the chest and hip belts fastened. She hated when the weight of her bag shifted, pulling her this way and that. As if she didn’t already feel off-balance up there.

God dammit, Sam! This was the last time she’d give in to one of his schemes. She should have just gotten on the plane. New job, new city, new life.

Sam was livid when she’d told him.

But after he cooled off, he’d begged her to stay. Just one more month, he’d said. They’d join the Skywalkers. Do something epic together. Remember why they fell in love, he’d said. You’re always so quick to quit. Don’t the last five years mean anything to you? You can’t always just run away from your problems, Amy. Sometimes you have to stand up and face them. She’d heard it all before.

The guilt won out. It always did. He was right, wasn’t he? Sam tried so hard to make things work. When is the last time you thought about anyone but yourself? Not since her diagnosis, she could admit that much. Diabetes wasn’t fatal, but it made Amy consider the brevity of life. Was this how she wanted to spend hers? Was Sam who she wanted to spend it with?

A shaft of sunlight pierced the surrounding pitch so suddenly it startled her. The hot, white midday sun hovered directly over the mouth of the crevasse. Amy stared at it dumbly. Midday. When had she fallen? Morning?

She still couldn’t picture the accident. The last thing she remembered was dinner the night before. Sam helped with her injection; she was still squeamish about the needles, but it was something she’d have to get used to. You don’t have to be such a baby about it. Poor Amy. You’re lucky I’m here to take care of you. Didn’t think of that when you applied for new job without telling me, did you? Did you even consider how I felt? No. Of course not—

A flash of metal glinted at Amy from the darkness. Her backpack? The memory of Sam’s voice cut off sharply. How had her bag landed so far from where she had? Amy half-crawled, half-dragged her way towards it, desperate for water and something to eat. She needed to check her sugars. Oblivious to the pain in her arm and head, Amy pulled the bag toward her.

It was lighter than it should be.

No water bottle. No protein bars. No trail mix. A sweater, at least. She draped it over her shoulders, trying not to move her left arm too much. Where was the first-aid kit? Amy’s fingers scraped against the rough canvas of the kit bag and relief surged through her. There! But when she tore open the Velcro fastener, her heart stopped.

Her insulin wasn’t there. One disposable syringe, opened, lay at the bottom of the kit. Two empty vials clinked together. Morphine. You never know.

She remembered struggling against him, limbs leaden—

You want to be rid of me? Fine. You’ll never see me again.

—the impossible vertigo as he rolled her closer to the edge.

Have a good trip.

You never know. You just never know.

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Genre Definition as per competition guidelines:

Mystery

A story that frequently involves a mysterious death or a crime to be solved, though not always. The main character is often a detective who must consider a small group of suspects–each of whom must have a reasonable motive and opportunity for committing the crime. The detective eventually cracks the code by logical deduction from clues presented to the reader or filmgoer. Common elements: overt clues, hidden evidence, inference gaps, suspense, foreshadowing, red herrings. Mystery books include Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  Mystery films include Clue (1985) and The Usual Suspects (1995).

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY 

{1597}  I liked Amy’s philosophy of life and how this diagnosis caused her to reexamine it. I thought you did a good job of portraying that process in her, and how it affected her relationship. I liked the way you interwove the past and the present.

{1771}  I enjoyed your emotional story. Very engaging. Good job!

{1837}  Amy’s disoriented sensations and memories throughout add a nice air of mystery. She has an interesting balance of panic and reflection as she pieces together what happened. Sam is a wonderfully despicable character and his dialogue is dripping with attitude and a very specific personality.

 

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK 

{1597}  One issue with this story as it is currently written is that I think it gives too much away, too soon. It’s clear from early on in the story that Sam pushed her. I think you need to lessen her sense that this hike was all Sam’s idea. I would also cut out the paragraph about building trust, as I think it gives too much away.

{1771}  I liked the premise of your story. But I would say it was a little unbelievable to me. The morphine was a little over the top for me.

{1837}  That final reveal of Sam’s plan is dark and dynamic. Is there any more to explore as her memory of his betrayal comes back? Any sensory details or emotion?

“The Midwife” by S.C. Jensen: NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

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The results are in for round three of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction challenge. After scoring first in round one and third in round two, I was feeling pretty confident about round three. I was a little nervous, because I knew competition would be stiff. But the assignment that I received was right up my alley with Genre: Thriller–Location: a radio tower–Object: ice skates. The piece I wrote was my favourite of the three, by far. It was the most “me.” I was totally in my element.

And guess what?

I didn’t even place in the top half of my group! That’s right. Not even an honourable mentions, when I was pretty sure that I had one of those coveted top four spots in the bag, haha.

We don’t get to read the other entries, but they did post the synopses of the top eight pieces for each group. I’m not entirely sure where I went wrong. Based on the synopses of the higher scoring pieces, I may have been slightly off genre. Or perhaps I didn’t do anything wrong, and the competition was just that much steeper in round three.

Either way, I still had a blast with this challenge. Now I get to enjoy a bit of a break before the NYC Short Story Challenge starts in January 2018. I thought I’d share my not-so-winning piece with you here, as I still quite like it. Let me know what you think! Where would you like to see me go with this character? What improvements would you make? (UPDATE: Judges feedback below the story!).

Here is the NYC Midnight’s genre definition for Thriller:

Thriller

A fast-paced, gripping, plot-centered story that invokes an emotional thrill by mixing intense fear and excitement. Usually the protagonist is in danger from the outset. These fast-paced stories typically involve major threats to the main character and/or wider society and the attempts to prevent something from occurring. Common elements: faster pace, action scenes, plot twists, prominent villain, “ticking clock” timing. Thriller books include Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Thriller films include Se7en (1995), Mission: Impossible (1996) , and Black Swan (2010).

“The Midwife” by S.C. Jensen
Words: 977

“Kneel.” A voice grated in Ev’s ear like rusted metal. The man dug his boot into the back of her knee and forced her to the ground. A guttural scream penetrated the heavy wooden door before her, low and barking. A woman. The flesh at her wrists tore as Ev fought against her restraints.

Cold, hard metal pressed against the base of her skull. “Don’t make me shoot you.”

“If you kill me, she’s going to die.”

“She’s going to die anyway.” The man’s mouth twisted into a jagged-toothed sneer. “It’s the whelp we want.”

He kept his pistol trained on her and unlocked the door. Ev stared past the man at the scene beyond. Blood. Too much blood. Another scream rose up from the fathoms, rising and cresting to crash against the woman’s body. She shook with it.

A priest in dark robes bent his head to speak with the soldier. His eyes met Ev’s, piercing. He nodded. The soldier hauled her to her feet and shoved her inside. The sweltering air stank of shit and iron and sweat. Beads of moisture oozed out of Ev’s skin and burned her eyes.

“Untie her.” The robed man turned his gaze back to the tortured woman, his face relaxed into a subtle smile. Ev wanted to grind his face into the blood-soaked mattress and watch him suffocate. The soldier wrenched her shoulders in their sockets and cut the rope. Another wail from the woman filled the room.

“It’s time.” An ancient looking radio transceiver blinked on the wall behind the man. “You know why you’re here.”

“I need my kit.” Ev rolled her sleeves up to her elbows and rubbed her wrists. Sweat prickled Ev’s neck and rolled between her shoulder blades. Prisoner or not, she had a job to do. “Some water.”

“You need a knife.” The priest indicated a tray next to the bed. Three makeshift blades flickered in the orange light from the woodstove on the back wall. Dirty white leather wrapped around the stainless steel shafts. This wasn’t a delivery room; it was a butchery. One blade had what appeared to be tiny teeth at the tip. A wave of nostalgia flooded through Ev. She wondered if the woman enjoyed skating as a child, before the black robes came. Before the war.

“I’m not doing surgery with a shiv.”

“No.” The priest blinked. “You’re not doing surgery.”

The woman rocked on her hands and knees. The crimson stain on the back of her dress spread like the petals of a gruesome flower. Her screams gave way to a primal growl that tore out of her body like it could carry the baby with it. She was in traction.

“I’m sorry,” Ev said. The woman groaned on, unhearing. Bile burned the back of Ev’s throat when she grasped the grimy leather hilt of the longest blade. Ev motioned to the soldier. “Hold her down.”

The priest nodded and the soldier strode to the head of the bed. He flipped the woman onto her back and put his weight into her body, muscles tensed. The woman’s eyes lolled in their sockets, the surrounding flesh so pale it tinged green. If she died before delivery, the child might, too.

Ev slipped the knife into the woman’s dress and tore the fabric away from her bulging stomach. A lump protruded from one side, above her hip bone. The baby’s head. It’s a mercy, she told herself. Ev pressed the skate blade against the woman’s abdomen and closed her eyes.

“Forgive me.”

Ev plunged the knife into the woman’s womb, braced herself against the bed, and tugged downward. The woman’s body convulsed and she writhed against the soldier. A gurgle escaped her throat and her eyes bulged. Blood and amniotic fluid surged out of the wound, and the last of the woman’s life went with it.

Ev reached inside the cavity. Her fingers found an arm or a leg. She wrapped her hand around the baby’s body and pulled. Hot and wet and screaming the baby came into the world and Ev’s heart nearly burst. She ripped the woman’s dress away from her breasts and placed the baby on her still-warm chest. The infant rooted and latched.

“My daughter.” The priest’s voice cut through Ev’s relief. Acid burned her esophagus and she shuddered.

The soldier relaxed his grip but she stopped him with a word. “No. We’re not finished yet.”

He paused, and that was enough. Ev gripped her blade tightly and slashed upward. The soldier’s throat opened with a hissing spray of more blood. Ev spun and drove the knife into his side. Despite his armour, the blade slid into his flesh more easily than it had the woman’s. She wrenched the blade free and stabbed him again.

The priest shouted and lunged for the transceiver. He wasn’t fast enough. Ev aimed the dead soldier’s pistol at his back. “Don’t fucking move.”

She placed a sodden blanket over the infant and stepped around the bed. She kept the gun on the robed man and grabbed the toothed blade from the table. The man stared at her, wild-eyed. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “Patch me in.”

The man fumbled with the transceiver, flipping switches with trembling hands. Static filled the air in place of the woman’s screams. He held the mouthpiece toward her and pressed the call button.

“Mobile Tactical Surgical Hospital zero zero one,” Ev said. “This is Unit Seven. Do you copy?”

“Mitch one here, Unit Seven,” a voice crackled on the other end. “We copy.”

“The women are being held under the radio tower,” Ev said. “Proceed with caution.”

“Roger that, moving in,” the MTSH operator said. “What took you so long, Seven?”

Ev pulled the trigger and the priest crumpled at her feet. She picked up the receiver and said, “I had to deliver a baby.”

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So there you have it! Let me know what you think!

UPDATE: Here is the feedback I received from the judges. Looks like there were some issues with clarity, and they felt that the “ice skate” usage was too vague. We also wondered (though the judges didn’t mention it) if this was crossing over into the Horror genre by definition, which may also have affected my score.

”The Midwife” by Sarah Jensen –   WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1795}  This religious takeover in the minds of writers today seems to be a recurring theme. Thankfully each look at this supremacy is different, but still, it’s very interesting to note. I love the conflict within Ev while she’s forced in to do this work and has to sacrifice the woman to save the baby and give her time to kill the men and deliver her message.

{1651}  The story feels high stakes with many suspenseful moment.

{1689}  I love how Ev’s actions reveal her inner character. The reveal that the pregnant mother so meaningless to the priest and the soldier is equally maddening and chilling. Ev’s swift action to save mother—and child indirectly—is breath-taking.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{1795}  When describing the blades, I would actually mention that one of them is a skating blade. When you talk about the one with tiny teeth at the tip and then talk about skating, we think you’re still talking about that particular blade. But then suddenly Ev is cutting the woman open with a skating blade, and then later grabs the toothed blade to threaten the priest. A bit more clarity with regards to what and where the blades are might clear this up.

{1651}  There’s some spots I don’t understand. Did they kidnap Seven to deliver a baby and if so, how does her team know she’s there? How can Seven hold a knife and hold a pistol while breastfeeding a baby? Why didn’t she try to save the mother?

{1689}  Pull back at some point and give us some context. I don’t think that will undermine Ev’s identity or role. But we do need a better sense of what this is all about so that we are not distracted by trying to figure it out.

Looks a bit like judge 1651 wasn’t a fan, haha. Oh well, live and learn. I still like the piece.

Here’s the definition of Horror, as well, to give you some perspective:

Horror

A story intended to provoke an emotional, psychological, or physical fear response in the audience. Horror stories frequently contain supernatural elements, though not always, and the central menace may serve as a metaphor for the fears of society. Common elements: eerie atmosphere, morbid themes, heightened suspense, focus on death and evil, uncanny situations and persons. Horror books include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stephen King’s It. Horror films include The Exorcist (1973) and Poltergeist (1982).

 

 

 

Flash Fiction Friday: “Hagfire” by S.C. Jensen

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The lineup to get into Hominids spilled into the street and curled back onto itself, a coil of black, twitching entrails. The hopeful clubbers huddled together in the cold-air burn, shifting and twisting impatiently as they waited for their turn. The shadowy tower at the core loomed above them; throbbing bass shook the blackened windows. Outside, the queue pulsed in response. Half-clothed and shuffling, dancers let the music move them closer to the centre. Hominids was always worth the wait.

“We’re not getting in.” Min blew smoke through her cupped fists. The streams jettisoned between her fingers in thick tendrils. She leaned into Viki to take another drag. “Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck.” Skanky smelling puffs of air burst above their heads as she cursed.

“We’ll get in.” Viki pulled Min’s icy, bare arms into a tight hug. “I told you we’ll get in. And when we’re in, I’m buying.”

“I need it, Vik.” Min’s body shivered. It wasn’t the cold that shook her. “I shouldn’t have waited this long. I thought I was chill. I’m not fucking chill.”

“Yeah. I know, benni.” The skin around Viki’s drug port crawled up her arm. She kept checking to make sure it wasn’t really moving. “The skad is blacker than I thought it would be.”

“So black.” Min rubbed her arm against the faux-leather straps on her bondage dress, itching. They had planned on hitting the 80s floor. Min loved the goth lounge, Bauhaus Bitch. Synth keyboards blaring and boys in dripping eyeliner. Viki didn’t mind as long as Min still came home with her. “No going back, say?”

“No going back.”

The line-up lurched and shifted closer to the doors as another group of hopefuls were turned away. This better work. Viki’s neck twitched like horseflesh. The bugs were at her now.  Hominids towered upward, a shadow against the starlit sky above them. Green tinged auroras danced with them, flickering in the magnetosphere. Min watched the lights, rocking on her heels. Viki held her close.

The meatsacks at the door thumbed away a group of neon bedazzled ravers ahead of them to a chorus of cursing. They stumbled their way to some other club in the strip, lighting up the night with pink and yellow glowsticks and shooting ecstasy mocks. They’d find a home. Rave-play was all-benni this year. Viki stepped up to take their place on the chopping block, Min tucked under her arm protectively. She flicked the butt of her joint into the gutter.

“Bauhaus is at capacity,” the meat on the left said and made to shove them off.

“Fuck. Knew it.” Min stiffened against her.

“Not Bauhaus,” Viki said. She caught him by the eyeball and held him there. “Hagfire.”

“Where’d a tart like you hear a word like that?” The meat smirked at his partner. “What do you want with Hagfire?”

“None of your fucking business.” Viki snapped her eyes to the other guy. He appraised her, silently. “But we’ve got business.”

An arm shot out from the quiet one.

“Hey!” Fat sausage fingers closed on Viki’s forearm like a vice. She pulled back, but it was like trying to move stone. “What the fuck?”

“Just a civvy?” The man’s voice was low and soft, gentle almost. He inspected the drug port at her wrist, a hack civilian job, but it did the trick. His eyes lingered at the raw, scarlet line inching away from the tube and up her arm.

“Not a fucking soldier, say.”

“How long since she hit?” The meat nodded at Min. She still rocked on her heels and stared at the northern lights, fading fast. Viki felt the fear creeping in. The oh-shit-we-went-too-far fear. Edge-of-the-abyss fear. Blackest skad.

“Night before last.”

“Benni.” He dropped her arm and stood back in his shadow. “Let them in.”

“You know where you’re going?” Other meat pushed open the heavy metal door. Behind them, the crowd stirred. Whispered.

“All-benni.” I think. Viki pulled Min through the door and into the pitch beyond. “You still with me?”

“I’m here.” Min’s voice vibrated, half-pitched and off-kilter. “Where are we?”

Not good.

Viki didn’t bother to reply. She twined her fingers into Min’s and led her into the belly of Hominids. The main floor was always dark and always deserted. Above them, each floor was dedicated to a decade in pop music history. It was kitsch and superficial and wildly popular, the heart of the city. She and Min had worked their way through every floor, every room. Getting in the elevator was like time travel.

Vik wished they were going up.

The only lights on main floor were on the elevator wall. They danced along the chicklet markers that topped each set of doors, blinking and shifting across the floors, ‘M’ through twenty. Five lifts moved constantly, but the sixth lift was lights out. It always was, as long as Viki had been coming to Hominids. A maintenance elevator, she had assumed. The only one with an extra marker. ‘B.’

“I’m cold, benni.” Min tucked into her, eyelids drooping. The port-arm still rubbed against her dress, faster now. It was like all Min’s life and vitality were being pulled into that limb. It flipped and twitched and made Viki’s skin crawl in sympathy.

I’m not that far behind her.

Viki pushed the unlit arrow on the dead lift. Down. Downdowndowndowndown. She watched the lights flitting above the other five elevators. Still nothing on hers. C’mon. All-benni. Work, say?

The doors rocketed open, shakily, like the thing was rusty. The shuddering sound made Viki’s guts lurch, but she stepped inside and pulled Min in with her. The doors hammered closed, shutting off what little light had spilled in from the elevator lounge. The lift was pitched.

Viki blinked away the amoebas that floated in her eyes. Her eyes adjusted and one of the floaters solidified. A soft, green chicklet of light. Phosphorescent green. ‘B’ for benni. All-benni. She pushed the button with a hangnailed finger.

Nothing happened.

Viki jammed it again. And again. Counting. Onetwothreefourfive. Onetwothreefourfive. Fucksake. Work, say? Onetwothreefourfive.

“Easy, say?” A voice crackled overhead. “You chill?”

“Yeah.” Viki talked to the ceiling. “Yeah. I’m chill. For now. But my friend—”

“You’re in the wrong lift, benni.”

“Hag—” Viki’s voice caught and cracked. She coughed and spat. “Hagfire. Please.”

Silence.

“We can pay. I can pay. I have cash.”

Silence.

“She’s not chill, say? She’s not chill and I’m blacking. Fucking Hagfire. Benni, please.”

Silence.

Viki’s stomach hit her throat. The lift dropped so fast she thought they were crashing. But the doors shuddered open and someone grabbed her by the wrist again. Min was wrenched from her grasp. A woman with a cigarette stuck to her lip grinned at her.

“Civvys, yeah?” She checked Min’s pupils and pressed at the now-raw drug port in her twitching arm.

“Yeah.” Viki winced. Min didn’t even register.

“When did you hit?”

“Thirty hours, maybe.”

The woman whistled.

“Who keyed you? Who locked you up?”

“We were chill.” Viki’s arm was doing the twitch thing now, too. The bug were under her skin now. Picking at her.

“All-benni, say? Thirty fucking hours?”

“I have cash.”

The woman turned on her heel and walked down the concrete hallway. Lights buzzed and flickered on the walls. Their yellow glow made the woman’s skin golden brown and her white sleeveless top dirty. Min trailed behind the woman, a sleepwalker. Viki followed, her eyes taking in the narrow waist and muscled back and heavy steps.

Militia, then.

The edge-of-the-abyss fear was back. Viki was teetering, vertigo slamming in her chest like a heart. The woman led them into a room full of people and Viki fell off the edge. Panic kicked her in the ribs and pumped her lungs. The room was full of other women, hard glassy eyes blinking at the newcomers. White tanks and brown slacks and black boots. They sat or sprawled across the ragged chairs and sofas that made up the waiting room. Waiting for what?

“These your freshies, Banks?” A blonde buzz-cut head lifted up. Red lips flashed.

“Shit. I thought you were dead, say?” Viki recognized the woman who’d given them the hit in Bauhaus Bitch two nights ago. Her cold blue eyes knocked over Min and landed on Viki. “You still chill?”

“Black fucking skad, benni. I’m blacking.”

“You’d better be. That one’s gone.” Banks stood up and kicked the boots of the woman next to her. “Hit her before she gets ugly.”

“Round two?”

Banks nodded the other woman led Min into another room.

“Where are you taking her?”

“She’ll be okay.”

“I want to go with her.”

“Do you, say?” Banks held out a vial of crystalline red fluid. Hagfire, she had called it that night. All-benni. Cutting-edge high. And the edge was cutting, alright. Viki felt it in her guts like a knife. She forgot Min. Banks pulled her hand away. “Most people don’t make it past twenty-four hours before they’re knocking on our door.”

“I have cash. Three hundred. For both of us.”

“Thirty fucking hours later, you waltz in. Still chill.”

“Not for long, benni. Please.” Viki thrust the green roll of twenties at the woman.

“Keep your money, say.”

“I need a fucking hit.” Hit’ echoed off the concrete walls. Viki winced. The soldiers were watching her. Blink. Her arm twitched and she rubbed it into her side to kill the bugs.

“You don’t know how true that is, benni.” Banks grabbed her arm and jammed her thumb against the port, opening the little mouth to her veins. Viki ribcage hummed. She couldn’t tear her eyes off the vial as Banks gave her the hit. Half a hit. A fraction of a hit. Just enough that the bugs dropped off her flesh and she could pull herself out of the abyss, back to the safety of the edge.

“Where’s Min?” Banks dropped Viki’s arm and stepped aside. Viki stepped a little closer to the edge. She pushed her way through the women and into the doorway Min had been taken to.

The room had six beds. Four of them were empty. One had the sheet pulled up and over, like a shroud.

One had Min. Pink froth frosted her black painted lips. Her dark green eyeliner left trails where it ran and pooled in her ears.

“Min? Benni?” Viki fell to her knees next to the cot. The fingers on Min’s right hand were sticky and red. A ragged hole in her wrist was all that was left of the drug port. But the blood wasn’t pumping anymore. “No going back, say?”

“No going back.” Banks spoke from the doorway.

“Fuck you!” Viki reeled on the woman. “What the fuck did you do to her?”

“Me, say? I didn’t do anything to her. What did you do?”

“What is this skad? She’s dead. She’s fucking dead, say?”

“The ones who make it to Hagfire are already dead, benni.” Banks wrapped a strong arm around Viki’s shoulders and picked her up off the floor. The shockwave hit her before the heat as the drug fired into her veins. “Right now, it’s the only thing keeping you alive.”

“Why?” Viki could barely move her lips to form the word. She drifted away from the edge, floating above the abyss, invincible.

“Because desperate people make good soldiers.” Banks half-dragged, half-carried Viki back out to the main room. “And we are in desperate need of good soldiers.”

Banks spun Viki into the small, dark-skinned woman who had led Min to the infirmary. Viki blinked her eyes and wrapped her arms around the bundle of clothes the woman pressed to her chest. She watched herself from a distance, feeling full and empty.

“All-benni, girls,” Banks shouted. “Say hello to the new recruit.”

The women stomped their feet in unison and pounded her on the back as Viki float-walked to the back of the room, following her keeper.

“Hagfire!” They shouted when she made it out the other side. “Hagfire!”

“Hagfire,” Viki said, with them. The word fell from her lips and plummeted into the abyss.