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Staring Into the Abyss · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
Concrete Masks
Somebody once said Comedy is tragedy plus time. Sounds about right. Can't really remember who it was who said it, but that's not important. If I looked it up it would probably be Poe, or Lincoln, or Odin. Not really worth the effort.

As I observed the chunk of meat stuck on the wall I thought that my life would probably be a killer joke in a century or two. It's a good reason to record this stuff. Would be a shame if the future generations lost this comedy gold. Those little shits should see what I had been through.

It was truly marvelous how the piece of meat had managed to stick there for so long. Three hours had to be some kind of record. I now was kinda curious how long it could stay there.

I took a step back and said, "Hey, City."

A nearby pipe began to vibrate and the voice of City answered. "Yes, detective Barrows?"

Damn, had she a sexy voice. One could fall in love with her. A lot of people did, poor bastards. I knew better, I had known her enough to not fall for it. I had seen her dark side for too long. "When will you clean up here?"

"I will start the moment the scene has been recorded."

Who was I kidding? I was one of the miserable losers that she had seduced. Did being aware of it improve my situation or did it simply mean that I was too desperate to do something about it?

I decided I would think about that another time, possibly with something strong to drink. There were more pressing issues at the moment, like the fact that I would never satisfy my curiosity about that little piece of organic matter clinging so stubbornly to the wall.

Well, that and the three victims in the alley behind me.

Ah, from the sound of it Rubberduck had finished adding the contents of his own stomach to the local decor. I glanced over my shoulder and saw him cleaning his mouth with a tissue-paper.

Seemed like I had another couple of minutes before he was ready. I turned to the wall again. "City, this scene is very important. Can you delay the cleaning up till we close the case? Or at least until this thing falls down."

"I fail to see why I should do that."

"It's very important. You know, I have to feel the scene to do my job."

"Detective, this request is completely unreasonable."

I turned to the entrance of the alley where a camera was floating. I pouted and said, "Pretty please?"

I heard her sigh. That was usually a good sign. It meant I would have what I wanted. It may have been petty, but small victories are what carries one through the day. "I will keep the scene intact, detective."

I knew it. "You are a sweetie."

"I know."

I turned around and went to Rubberduck. I pulled out a bottle of antiemetics and handed it over to him.

He looked at the bottle then at me, then he frowned. It was adorable. "Detective, you could have given them to me before."

"You could have brought your own. But don't worry, I'm not holding that against you. Throwing up builds character." And it weeds out too, but that was better left unsaid. I pulled out a paper bag from my other coat pocket and offered it to him. "Candy?"

He shook his head, then swallowed two pills.

I shrugged. "Suit yourself." I fished out a red candy, threw it in the air and caught it with my mouth. I liked red, it had always been my favorite. It had even improved when they decided to drop the act about giving the flavor some kind of relation to fruits and accepted that red candies tasted like red candies. Facing the truth sometimes was the best thing to do.

There was a click and City said, "Recording complete. You can access the core of the scene now."

"Thank you, City." I swiveled on my heels and took a step toward the mess in the alley. Dozens of small cameras, spectrometers and other assorted instrumentation I couldn’t even name flew away. "Now, Rubberduck, time to earn whatever they pay you."

He stepped to my side. "My name is Gjokaj, detective."

"We'll see if it is." I surveyed the alley. "You know, I kinda understand why you felt a bit uneasy."

The city had a lot of faces. She changed often and she changed fast. Newer blocks were warm, clean and really boring. Old streets tended to be often nicely renovated and had a bit more life. The one were we standing in was from the rebellious teenager phase, the one nobody wanted really to talk about. Naked concrete walls rose for fifteen stories. Wires and pipes in thick bundles connected buildings housing automated factories. The pavement was made out of plastic tiles that allowed easy access to the hidden bowels of the City and probably needed some urgent maintenance. There was no trash around, but that was usual for the poorer blocks. Here nothing stayed unrecycled for long. Dirt and grime, on the other hand, was abundant and coated everything. And then there was the crime-scene.

In the middle of the alley, far enough from each exit so that nobody would notice anything, somebody had painted ground and walls using blood and guts. You could see the enthusiasm that had gone into it by looking at the spots of body fluids on the third story of the buildings. The silver threads of artificial nervous systems surfaced here and there. I doubted they could be recovered. The piece of meat that had fascinated me was a small part of the carnage in front of me. I could vaguely recognize three bodies, and at least two of them were humanoid. Couldn't be really sure about the third one.

The worst part was the smell. Probably. I hadn't really been able to smell anything in four years. A Little side effect of a batch of bad designer drugs. I sooner or later should have it fixed, but at the moment I was thankful that I had only to see the stuff. Weird how you can get used to images of gore faster than to the smell.

I put the bag back in my pocket and clapped my hands together. "Well, Rubberduck, lemme see how you would manage this mess."

He stood straighter and said, "City, did you see what happened here?"

"Officer Gjokaj, did you see what happened during your last bowel movement?"

I chuckled. "Nice try, I can admire trying the easy way first, but if the City sees it happen they don't call us. At all."

"I am aware of that, but the protocol still requires us to ask." He looked at me. "Should we return to the department to examine the recording?"

"Not yet." I scratched my chin. "You have to get a feeling for it. Tell me what we know about the victims."

"Feel it?"

"You'll get it, sooner or later. Now, about the victims, what do we know about them?"

He seemed baffled. "You have access to the files too, Miss."

This would be fun. "Yeah, I know. I also call you Rubberduck till you prove otherwise, so tell me what we know. The abridged version at least."

Rubberduck got the thousand-mile stare of people accessing their retina projections. "Very well. The victims were three IP Citizens: Lovecraft, Moorcock, and Shelley."

"Never heard of them." I started to slowly walk around, being careful to not step on bits of citizen.

"Old IPs. Were made self-aware during the first wave of Awakening." A brief pause. "It seemed they were at the center of controversies regarding the personhood of Fictional Characters. Appeared in front of the Senate even."

"Oh, that." That was the reason I had never heard of them. I had gone to great lengths to avoid the whole thing. Raging idiocy gave me headaches and senate hearings were usually the pinnacles of pain-inducing, moronic argumentations. "Who'll inherit their rights?"

"Nobody. They were already public domain when they became sapient. It was the reason they were in the first wave."

Something was bothering me. The blood should have pooled, instead, it was only coating the pavement. "Are there any big projects involving those IPs on the horizon?"

Rubberduck took a few seconds before he answered. "Nothing. Currently, all the major entertainment players are developing fresh concepts. Most of the valuable IPs have acquired personhood status and are self-managing. Working with them implies extra-costs."

"Means we can probably exclude Disney's hit squads. Those are usually a headache. Carry on." No tracks leaving a bloody trail that got away from the scene. They had probably used some flying device to disembowel the guys. I looked upwards.

"Some financial problems. Seems they had problems finding a niche in the the current economic situation. A couple of years ago they have been the poster-children both for the Universal Rights movement and, for opposite reasons, for a large cadre of bio-chauvinist think-thanks." I could hear him almost spit out the last word.

There were cameras both on the streets and on the roofs of the buildings. "Bio-chauvinist? Do I hear some opinions there?"

He went stiff. "No, detective. I simply summarized the conflict. You asked for the abridged version." It was almost too easy to prod him. He wouldn't survive for long if he reacted this way to the smallest accusations. Internal affairs would love him. He continued, "I hope I didn't offend you, but the term bio-chauvinism was correct here. Many of the groups I intended are—"

"Would you notice a blood-covered, saw-wielding, flying drone?" I would tease him later, and in the meanwhile, I could leave him steam a bit in doubt.

He blinked. "I think so."

"Yeah, me too. City, you didn't see something flying out of here, right?"

"I may not see everything, but the cameras around here work." She seemed almost offended by the insinuation.

"I had to ask, you know, for the protocol." I walked in the middle of the massacre. "They don't look like they exploded, right?" I didn't see any burn wounds, nor was there shrapnel in the floor or the walls. The bodies laid in different positions. No central origin for the wounds could be recognized. "I'm pretty sure we can rule out suicide. No, somebody went personal on this poor losers and then disappeared."

Rubberduck got glassy eyes again. He was reading more of the dossiers. "They were recently involved in a lawsuit regarding reproductive rights of non-biological intelligence. Specifically, regarding the current limitations about spawning, forking, recombination, and non-humanoid body types. It was class action to relax the standing regulations and allow IP Citizens access to official structures. They lost but it reignited the discussion about the issues. Do you think the murder was politically motivated?"

I stared at the pavement. Something irked me. "City, were there any claims about this?"

"No, detective."

"Rubberduck, were this three at the head of the class action? Or were they at least some figureheads?"

"No, they weren’t. I see some activism, but nothing out of the norm." He briefly paused. "It seems they reduced their engagement in the last years. Although they stayed together after the first wave and the senate hearings."

The panels, that was it. I waved to Rubberduck, gesturing him to come here. "I think I found something. You have some gloves, right?"

"I can go to the car and grab them."

"Nah, not necessary. You can wash your hands later." I bowed forward. There it was, a hair-thin fissure. "City recorded the scene. You can't really damage anything." I looked up to him. He had become paler. I sighed and said, "You should also take another pill."

He shook his head and stepped forward. When he arrived at my side I pointed at the panel and said, "Lift that up. And believe me, you need this. You'll see a lot of worse shit in your time here, so get used to getting your hands dirty." I stood up and stepped back.

I had to admit I was a bit surprised, Rubberduck was really reaching down to the panel. I would maybe have to promote him to having a name. He pulled a knife out his pocket and stuck the blade in the fissure. The panels were pretty solid but light. They still used them in construction, as far as I knew, only they disguised them nowadays.

Gjokaj was sweating. I had some doubts it was because of physical exertion, and I feared for a moment that I had pushed him too much. At the end he removed the panel, leaving a three feet per side large hole on the floor. Below I could see a data-access terminal to the high-speed infrastructure of the City and a ladder disappearing into the darkness below. Blood had dripped down, which explained why it hadn't accumulated, and there were prints on the pegs. A couple of cables hung limply from the terminal, and there was a hijacker still connected to it.

I patted my partner on the shoulder and asked, "City, can you feel this particular terminal?"

"No, I can't. Maintenance will be there in three minutes."

I heard a splat and looked up. The piece of meat had fallen from the wall. "The first question we should have asked should have been why here?"

I sipped my coffee looking through my report. I would have liked something stronger, but the rules regarding alcohol on the job were still horribly limiting. One would think we would be better in this day and age, but nope, couldn't have that.

I closed the file and turned to Gjokaj. "So did they find him?"

"Yes, once we told them what to look for the traces became evident. Poor kid was in the sewers and munching on rats. Rats filed a criminal complaint, but considering the boy is six hours old it shouldn't stick. He has been taken to the hospital. They had to sedate him and there will probably be some psychosurgery, but they should be able to heal the damages. Can't have four hundred fifty pounds of panicking child biting the doctors."

I smiled. "Poor little bastard. But I see you are having the right attitude to it. Maybe we can make a cop out of you."

Gjokaj rolled his eyes. "There will be a legal mess. As far as I know he's the first Sapient-born story coming from a three-way IP recombination, but personhood is practically certain."

"Nice, but not our problem." He huffed and looked away. I had a rule about not worrying about newbies, or at least about letting them working out their issues themselves and with the department consultants. But then, truth be told, I always sucked at following rules. "You don't look happy. We solved your first case, cheer up!"

He stayed silent for almost a minute. "I fear that this will fuel opposition to a reform of reproductive rights. We kinda need that."

"Maybe. maybe not. I'm only sure that it will pull the morons out from the woodwork." Yeah, politics, won't touch that for all the optimistic new partners of the world. I finished my coffee. "City was a bit pissed that they stole processing power. Stopped doing her sexy voice at me, which is a shame. There will probably be a security upgrade soon, so don't rely too much on the metro. Man, I really hope it won't come out from our budget." I stood up, walked to Gjokaj and patted him on the shoulder. "You did well."

"I didn't do anything."

"You saw one of the faces of the City and you are still here. It's a beginning."
« Prev   18   Next »
#1 ·
· · >>Orbiting_kettle
I quite like this. I like the way you characterised the nameless protagonist, and found the political side interesting, if a little obscure.

Only thing I would say is that it could have been longer. I felt there was more to the world which I would have been interested to see explained, as it was, I would have liked to have known the exact time period, and a bit more about IP's.

Dialogue was fast and punchy, internal monologue helped to capture the scene, and pacing was well done.

Would read further if it were expanded.


Ps. Mark Twain said that quote.
#2 ·
· · >>Orbiting_kettle
I agree with Haiku up there, this could really use an extension.

As a small vignette about a day in the life of cybercops, it does quite alright, but there is so much more to be explored here. And I don't mean just the universe you've created (although, yeah, that too) but the case itself. A more in-depth view of the investigation wouls have been much more satisfying to read. Instead we get another lead and we jump to the debriefing, explaining what happened.

I feel that robs the story of an ending with more impact, but I otherwise loved the setting and the characters.
#3 ·
· · >>horizon >>Orbiting_kettle
I want to take a moment to talk about this story’s hook. I’m not sure how anyone else felt about this, but I was pretty much sold on this one by the word Odin. It wonderfully introduces the idea that something strange is going on with authorship in this world, whilst at the same time being such an unexpected change of the formula that one can’t help being curious.

Likewise, this story had phenomenal world-building, and it builds a wonderfully unique world. There’s a lot that could be done with this world, and this story served as a pretty wonderful introduction that really does leave me itching to read more. Honestly, author, if you expanded this universe into a series of shorts (or even something longer), I would gladly devour it.

However, I did feel that this entry was let down by a number of incredibly clunky phrasings and strange word-orders (“I sooner or later should have it fixed” is a particularly awkward example) that I found to be particularly jarring. It might just be me, but that kind of phrasing stands out and dampens the impact of a piece—it’s not too difficult to tidy up, but there were enough instances of things like this to hurt my enjoyment of the story. (While we’re on the subject of technical issues, you may want to make sure you focus on comma splices when you’re editing, because I spotted quite a number of those.)

There’s an awful lot of promise in this piece. I adore the ideas, here, and I think that a bit of tidying up and editing will make this into something quite remarkable. I really did enjoy this one, and I hope I get a chance to see it (and anything else you care to do with this universe) when it’s had a little polish.


Almost There
#4 ·
· · >>MrNumbers >>Orbiting_kettle
Hmm. This is some odd neo-noir all right. (Maybe. I'm not even sure exactly what that means, but I'm going to pretend I do. :P )

Anyways, the opening felt a bit... jerky? Like, we kept getting these kinda-blunt statements, in what seemed like an attempt to build the mood, but they sorta seemed to be pointing in different directions or introducing too much new information, which made it a little difficult to follow.

I felt like the 'talking heads' section veered a bit on the info-dumpy side. The background you build through that exposition is pretty interesting, but it doesn't feel very organic to me. I'm not entirely sure what would help with that, but it felt rather dry to me.

The ending does tie things together and give resolutions, which is nice. It doesn't really hit very hard, but the conflicts introduced here aren't extremely strong either, so that's understandable.

On the whole, I think this mostly gets by on worldbuilding and atmosphere. That's alright, but I wish the actual plot was a bit stronger, the conflict (either with Rubberduck or the City or the mystery) a bit more aggressive.

It could use a whip-round with a proofreader. There weren't any really consistent mistakes, but several small ones stood out to me. The city was 'they' at one point, a capital letter in the middle of a sentence, all small stuff.

But, as much as I've said here about things that felt a bit off to me, there's definitely some interesting ideas on display here. Not only that, but this is a whole story arc, and I appreciate that.

Pretty good on the whole, even if the details could use some work.

Oh, I meant to ask; is 'rubberduck' a reference to that 'trying to get the feel' thing, or is it just random? Because the only place I've heard that used as a descriptor is for antennas; the basic, low-gain antennas that most wifi routers ship with are sometimes called 'rubber ducks' because they don't really give much advantage to the radio.
#5 ·
· · >>Orbiting_kettle
When she started talking to the city, I immediately thought of Eyes Without a Face, and I admit my interest shot up. Then it got to entirely unexpected levels of weirdness and my attention was firmly rooted. In terms of concept, I loved it. I'll be voicing the words of others and say that I'd have loved to have seen this fleshed out into something bigger. There's so much that could be done with this idea, why stop now?

It needs some proofing and perhaps the delivery could be... I want to say 'streamlined', but that's not the right word. But I think, had the author moved for something longer, we could have gotten all the same information and more in a more flowing manner. But with great atmosphere and curious ideas, I must say this one lands high on my list.
#6 ·
I love love love the atmosphere in this, it hits future noir quite well. Solid concept and execution overall, and it manages to avoid too much infodumping (although there's still some). Great characterization, I'd absolutely read more of Barrows' adventures.

I wish there was more in this one to read, in fact! The resolution feels rushed. The cops just figure out one clue and find one thing, and then suddenly the case is done and we're in debriefing. Could've drawn the trail out a little more, it feels like a second portion here is missing, or cut due to time constraints.

I also can't decide whether the story pays too much attention to the setting, or too little. There's an awful lot of information, and most of it is tangential at best. That's to be expected to some extent in a detective story, though. There should be some red herrings and a sea to pick clues out of! But the points that end up most crucial to the case, the whats and hows of physical IP existence and reproduction, are also the very points I remain most confused about.

How would I improve this? Extend it to a second scene where our heroes try to track down the new IP, and work with care on information delivery. General polish and proofing. S'about it really.

Overall very good. Thank you, more like this please!
#7 ·
· · >>Orbiting_kettle
I personally found the introduction too abrasive, without anything to really give an interesting hook to the protagonist. I didn't get a feel for their personality even by the end beyond 'archetypal gritty noir gumshoe' which is... fine? Fine, but a missed opportunity when he's the main authorial voice through the whole thing.

The writing seriously needs a proofreader to whip through it, as well, as others have said, and I found myself just skimming or outright skipping some of the denser paragraphs. The idea behind it is genuinely interesting, the setting, but I'm honestly wondering if there wouldn't be a better scene, better characters to explore it with.

As an idea, as a concept, this is very strong. As a story, none of the interesting information you present leads to anything or impacts anything, which undermines what interest I would have in it.

Basically, you've got a really strong What and Where here, but need to do a lot more with the Who and Why to improve this.
#8 ·
· · >>Not_A_Hat

Addendum: When you're frustrated or having a problem with something, it's been said that explaining your problem to a rubber duck helps you reach the correct answer, even though the duck itself isn't actually contributing.

Example comic.
#9 ·
>>MrNumbers Huh, I hadn't heard that one before, but it makes more sense than my interpretation.

Thanks for the link!
#10 · 1
· · >>horizon >>Orbiting_kettle
Well, that was some great world-building. There's huge potential here for expansion.

But, uh, the actual story? In my head it went something like this:

1. Great worldbuilding.

2. Watson tells us the backstory.

3. Watson explains the, uh, current story.

4. Holmes discovers a clue.

5. [Scene break, during which the rising action, climax and denouement occur off-camera]

6. Resolution and fin.

So, yeah, change parts 2 and 3 to actual narrative, show all the stuff that occurs during the scene break, and add some significant moral choices, and this story is a winner.
#11 ·
· · >>Orbiting_kettle
Little to add to the above. I'm with >>Cold in Gardez, that the scene break covers a great deal of ground that I'm sure the author intended to include before the deadline swung in, and that as such, the final scene is peremptory and unsatisfying. But this is bursting with character and tone and intriguing ideas. Even unfinished as it is, it took a credible swing at my top 5 and didn't fall far short. Get out there and expand this, author.

Tier: Strong
#12 ·
· · >>Orbiting_kettle
Good character work and some bouncy dialogue, but I seem to be in the minority in that I found the world building landed pretty hard on its face. You throw a lot of admittedly interesting ideas out, but none of them really gel into an actually cohesive idea, leaving me with very little in the way of an actual grounding to invest in.

I also kinda feel it doesn't help that we start digging into the weird until like... a third into the story? At this point I've already started to build some expectations only to have them uncomfortably scythed out from under me and be presented with something -significantly- stranger. Like, this stuff should have been presented much earlier in the narrative, especially since it is apparently core to the plot. There's a similar problem with the little "Miss" later in the story. I really should not be sideswiped and have to recast a first person narrator that deep into the story. :p

The shift on using Rubberduck's name is really abrupt considering it is preceded by a "maybe I should upgrade him to having a name."
#13 · 1
Time to look back at my story and its reception during this round.

I wrote Concrete Masks damn near the deadline, in about three hours and followed up with just a couple of passages of editing. It shows. Lesson learned this time, some stories require more time than others.

A lot of ideas I had fell to the tyranny of time (which, let me reiterate, was my fault). Barrows originally should have been an artificial personality working for the police. She was archetypal because that is what she should have been, an idea of cop solving crimes. I wanted to tell a bit more about what IP Citizens were, why there was a problem with their reproductive rights, the ethical problem of creating non-humanoid descendants and a hint about the body-shop (new and litteral meaning here) that had created the body hosting the child.

Regarding the low stakes, that was kinda intended. The inspiration came from a collection of short stories by an Italian writer, Loriano Macchiavelli, about his character Sarti Antonio, a mediocre detective in Bologna. These stories were non-mysteries in which the cases were solved through sophisticated investigative techniques like asking the neighbors or looking through the archives. The focus was the story of the victim, of the murder or simply how Sarti related to them. They were splendid.

I clearly didn't manage to capture this magic, and in hindsight the reasons are obvious. I'm not Loriano Macchiavelli, the setting was too unfamiliar as to resonate with readers the right way, the characters were new and without any kind of previous emotional investment attached to them. There are a couple more, among them a certain lack of focus, but that's the gist of it.

Regarding the things people liked, I'm flattered that the world-building went over so well. Now I'll only have to work on making decently structured short-stories.

>>Zaid Val'Roa
I'm seriously thinking about extending this. Let's see if I can transform those intentions into something concrete.

However, I did feel that this entry was let down by a number of incredibly clunky phrasings and strange word-orders ("I sooner or later should have it fixed" is a particularly awkward example) that I found to be particularly jarring. It might just be me, but that kind of phrasing stands out and dampens the impact of a piece---it’s not too difficult to tidy up, but there were enough instances of things like this to hurt my enjoyment of the story. (While we’re on the subject of technical issues, you may want to make sure you focus on comma splices when you’re editing, because I spotted quite a number of those.)

Damn, I was sure I had at least a couple of those issues down by now.

Mr.Numbers got the Rubberduck reference right. I was pretty sure it was a bit more common knowledge, but I was wrong, which means it probably will have to go in a future revision.

The cutting of the fact that Barrows was an archetype, and not metaphorically speaking, was probably one of the most damaging omissions.

>>Cold in Gardez
If you take this story, but you know, make it better then it will be good. Jokes aside, I agree completely with you. I really didn't have the foundations for the non-mystery I was trying to go for, so I will have to develop the story in a more classic way. Maybe not necessarily by changing the nature of the case, but certainly by showing what's happening without the cheap cut to the end.

The shift in the name was admittedly too abrupt. I kind of want to keep the turning up of weirdness the further we go into the story, but you are right that I should have hinted at it sooner.

As usual, thank you all for the time you took to read and review this story. It has been extremely useful and I'm grateful for it.