GWJ Writer’s Throwdown: February 2013


Esprit de Corps

The autumn rain drummed heavily on the tin roof of the abandoned farmhouse. Inside, four soldiers sat around a battered wooden table playing poker. Alvarez studied his hand for a moment, then stood up and threw his cards on the table. “This is bullshit” he said.

Edwards grinned and leaned back in his chair. “That bad, huh? I guess Lady Luck’s not on your side tonight.”

Alvarez scowled. “I’m not talking about the hand, I’m talking about our whole situation: the mission, those assholes back at the lab, everything. It’s all bullshit.”

Over in the corner of the room, Grant’s headless body sat up from his bedroll. His arms fumbled around blindly for a moment, then picked up his head and fitted it into the metal collar around his neck. “Will you idiots keep it down?” he said, “Some of us are trying to get our beauty sleep.”

Edwards snorted. “Grant, you could sleep from now to judgment day and you’d still be the ugliest sonofabitch I ever saw.”

“Guess you never looked in a mirror, then.”

“Shut it, your two!” said Fredrickson. He put down his cards and turned to face Alvarez. “Alvarez, what the hell are you talking about?”

Alvarez began pacing back and forth. “It’s just… I never signed on for any of this. Sure, I enlisted and everything, but then I wake up in a lab with a detachable head? They study us for a few weeks, then they stick us in a squad and send us off on some secret mission? Why should I trust these assholes after everything that’s happened? Are we really fighting for the good guys here?”

Fredrickson gave him a disgusted look. “You think we’re the bad guys? You know who we’re up against. You’ve heard what goes on in those camps. You think we’re worse than them? You’re outta your goddamn mind.”

Alvarez stopped pacing and spread his arms wide. “Are we really so much better? Experimenting on our own soldiers? Turning them into headless freaks?”

“That’s as maybe” said Behr, looking up from his cards, “but at least we’re alive. Last I remember before the lab, I was lying in a trench with a bullet in my gut. From what I heard, you all have similar stories. Weren’t for those experiments, we’d be worm food by now. Now I get another chance to go home to my wife and kids after all this is over.”

“If they still want you” said Grant. “My old lady can’t even look at me no more. Says I give her the creeps.”

“You always had that effect on the ladies, Grant” said Edwards, “only difference is now you have a better excuse.”

“All I know is I’m tired of it” said Alvarez. “I’m tired of being a soldier, and I’m sure as hell tired of being a damn lab rat. I’m done.”

A loud thud reverberated through the room as Sergeant Wilkes closed his book and stood up from a tattered armchair over by the fireplace. His voice was barely above a whisper when he spoke. “Care to elaborate on that, private?”

“The way I see it” said Alvarez, “I done my duty already. Behr’s right: all of us shoulda died already, and the army can’t ask more of a man than that. Anyone says otherwise can kiss my ass. I’m outta here.” He turned and began walking toward the door.

“Restrain that man!” Wilkes snapped, raising his voice.

Behr and Fredrickson jumped up from the table and each grabbed one of Alvarez’s arms. Alvarez glared at them and tried to pull his arms free, but they held him fast. “Let me go!” He shouted.

Footsteps sounded from the second floor, and a moment later Davis came down the stairs to investigate the source of the noise, with Simmons close behind him. Davis paused at the bottom step and surveyed the scene, his gaze lingering on the struggling Alvarez. “What the hell is going on down here?” He asked.

Taking advantage of the distraction, Alvarez managed to pull free of his captors and lunged towards Wilkes. Wilkes swung a fist at him, and Alvarez’s head was knocked free of its collar. As the swearing head of Alvarez bounced across the wooden floor, his body continued to grapple with Wilkes. Wilkes managed to shove his assailant back, but when the two men separated Alvarez was holding the revolver he had taken from Wilkes’ belt. Alvarez’s headless body raised the gun, blindly seeking Wilkes. Before he could fire, he was tackled from the side by Behr. Both men staggered back towards the door, fighting for control of the gun..

The gun went off. Behr gasped and collapsed to the floor. In the stunned silence that followed, Alvarez’s body opened the door and sprinted outside.

Davis knelt down beside Behr. “Is he dead?”.

“No way” said Grant, “those guys back in the lab said bullets can’t kill us no more. Said we was immortal.”

“He’s not moving” said Edwards, “he looks pretty dead to me.”

Simmons crossed himself and muttered a brief prayer..

Grant became visibly agitated. “This is some bullshit” he said, “you think a guy lives through getting his head cut off, but one little bullet kills him? No way. I ain’t buying it.”

“It’s true” said Wilkes. “He’s dead.” He turned and stared at Alvarez’s head where it lay under the table. “You killed him.”

Fredrickson reached under the table and grabbed the head by the hair and lifted it up to his face. “We’ve got you now, you traitorous piece of shit. What’s your body gonna do out there without no head?”

Alvarez’s head smirked. “So what are you gonna do, shoot me?”

“I’m strongly considering it” said Fredrickson.

Wilkes shook his head. “It wouldn’t work.”

“What do you mean, Sarge? It sure as hell worked on Behr.” said Grant.

Wilkes sighed. “You were right before, Grant. Ordinary bullets won’t kill us.”

“Ordinary bullets? So what the hell kind of bullets will kill us?” Edwards said.


“Silver bullets? We ain’t werewolves, Sarge. Why silver?”

“I don’t know!” shouted Wilkes. “Those boys in the lab said something about it disrupting whatever it is keeps us alive. Gave me the gun in case something ever went wrong.”

“In case you haven’t noticed” said Davis, “something did go wrong. Those magic bullets of yours only made things worse.”

“So what now?” said Edwards.

“We capture Alvarez” said Wilkes. “We bury Behr. We wait for Able to return from recon, then we continue the mission.”

Fredrickson dropped the head of Alvarez on the table and gestured towards it. “I think we can scratch item #1 off that list.”

“The rest of him is still out there” said Edwards, “and he’s got the gun.”

“With five more bullets” Wilkes added.

Grant shrugged. “Do we care? He ain’t got no head!”

Wilkes nodded. “He’s still a potential threat, and a valuable military asset. We can’t let him fall into enemy hands. Fredrickson, Davis: go get Tan and McDougall. I want the four of you outside looking for Alvarez. Be careful: he may be deaf and blind out there, but it only takes one bullet. Don’t take any unnecessary risks.” The two men nodded and headed up the stairs to wake their sleeping squadmates. Wilkes continued: “Edwards, Grant, Simmons, you stay here with me. Alvarez will probably try to take his head back, so arm yourselves and watch the doors and windows. You can’t kill him, but a well-placed shot could disable him long enough to take the gun back.”

Edwards nodded towards the head on the table. “You know he can still see and hear us, right? Won’t that be a problem?”

“Good point.” Wilkes walked over to the kitchen counter, and rummaged around in the cabinets until he found a dusty old potato sack. He returned to the table, picked up the head, and stuffed it into the sack. Muffled profanity emanated from the sack for several moments, then it grew quiet. “Problem solved” said Wilkes.

The men retrieved their weapons and took up defensive positions covering the kitchen window and the front and rear doors. Moments later Fredrickson, Davis, Tan, and McDougall came down the stairs and headed out into the night. Minutes passed in tense silence.

“Hey Sarge” said Edwards, “why didn’t you tell us about those silver bullets before now? Seems like an important bit of information.”

“I was instructed to keep it a secret. Need-to-know only.”

Grant laughed bitterly. “I don’t know ‘bout you, but anything can kill me is at the top of my list of things I need to fuckin’ know.”

“Watch your tone, Private.”

Grant stood up from where he had been crouching beside the kitchen counter. “You know what? I’m tired of watching my damn tone. If you ain’t had those bullets, none of this would never have happened. Why’d they give you those things anyhow? They don’t think they can trust us?”

“Of course they don’t!” Wilkes shouted. “Alvarez notwithstanding, they have no way of knowing what any of us might become. The don’t even fucking know what we are now!”

“Uh, Sarge?” said Edwards. “Shouldn’t they know? I mean, they made us like this.”

“Not on purpose they didn’t! You think they meant to invent the headless infantryman? They needed heads for one of their rituals, so they borrowed some off some dead soldiers. Something went wrong, and they wound up with us instead of whatever they were trying to conjure up.”

Stunned silence filled the room. Grant spoke next, in a shocked whisper. “We… we was dead?”

“God save us” said Simmons.

“I always thought we was just wounded real bad. You know, like this was the only way they could save us or something” said Grant.

Simmons shuddered. “We are abominations. Revenants. We are all of us damned.”

Edwards shrugged. “What’s the big deal? A guy’s heart stops, people say he’s dead. Start it back up, he’s alive again. The way I see it, this is no different. It just took a little longer to bring us back is all.”

“We have defied God’s will” said Simmons. “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die.”

“So maybe it’s just not our time yet.” Edwards said, “God’s a patient guy, he can wait a little longer to collect our souls.”

“I’M A DAMN ZOMBIE?” shouted Grant.

“Settle down, Private! We’ll deal with this later” said Wilkes.

Grant slammed his fist against the countertop. “No, goddamnit! Let’s deal with this-” A loud bang interrupted his outburst. The kitchen window shattered, and Grant gasped and clutched his left arm. Several men could be heard shouting outside the window, punctuated by two more gunshots.

Edwards ran over to Grant, who was leaning heavily against the counter and gasping in pain. “Grant! You okay?”

“Fucker winged me” said Grant, through gritted teeth. Edwards gently rolled up Grant’s sleeve to expose the wound. The bullet had pierced his upper bicep, but there was no blood. The edges of the wound were strangely blackened, like charred meat.

“What the hell is this?” said Edwards. “I thought those bullets were just supposed to kill us?”

Wilkes shrugged. “I thought so too. Maybe it still needs to hit something vital.”

Grant’s knees buckled and he slid to the floor. “Whatever the fuck’s happening” he gasped, “it hurts real bad. My whole arm’s on fire.”

“Literally” said Edwards. The blackened area around the wound had started to spread, and a small tendril of smoke curled out of the hole.

Simmons bowed his head and began a muttered prayer.

“So what the fuck do we do?” Edwards said, his face creased with worry.

Wilkes shook his head. “I don’t know. There’s no blood, so a bandage won’t help. I don’t know what else we can do.”

Grant moaned. Edwards grabbed his right hand and held it tight. “You hang in there, you ugly sonofabitch. You already died once.”

Grant’s eyelids drooped. “Think I’ll stay dead this time” he whispered. “Man comes back, they send him right back to the front. I’m tired.” His head slumped forward.

Edwards let go of Grant’s lifeless hand, and stood back up. He wiped his face on his sleeve, then turned around to face the others. Before he could say anything, the rear door slammed open, revealing McDougall. “Fredrickson’s down” he said, “we followed the sound of the gun and found him lurking by the window. He fired two more shots at us, one went wide but Fredrickson took the other one right in the chest. Dead before he hit the ground. He ran off into the woods after, Davis and Tan are still chasing him. Is everyone in here-” he stopped short when he saw Edwards’ face, then looked past him at Grant. “Oh.”

Tan and Davis came jogging up behind McDougall. “Fucker gave us the slip” said Tan, “for a headless guy he sure can run. What’s the situation?”

“Two casualties” said McDougall. “Fredrickson and Grant.”

“Three hits, one miss” said Davis. “Two rounds left.”

“Should we go back out after him?” said Tan.

“Fuck that” said Edwards. He grabbed the bag off the table and dumped Alvarez’s head onto the floor, then kicked it as hard as he could. The head rebounded off the nearest wall, and Alvarez screamed. Edwards walked over to the head and knelt down. “Listen up, asshole. Maybe I can’t kill you, but I can make you wish I did.” He slammed the palm of his hand down on Alvarez’s face, prompting another scream. “We all know you ain’t going nowhere without your precious head. Come back now, or I’ll start getting creative.”

“Edwards, wait” said Wilkes. “We don’t torture people.”

“Except he’s not a fucking person, is he?” Edwards shouted. “He’s a goddamn mistake! All of us are! That’s why they gave you the gun, isn’t it? In case any of us freaks got out of control. Alvarez did, and now maybe I’m out of control too. All I know is I’m not letting this fucker run free after what he did.” Edwards picked up the head, and carried it over to the kitchen counter. He set the head down, then opened a drawer and pulled out large, rusty knife.

Suddenly, a dark shape burst through the broken window and crashed into Edwards, knocking him to the floor. The headless body of Alvarez straddled Edwards and lifted the revolver towards him, but Edwards managed to grab his right hand and slam it backward into the kitchen cabinet. The gun tumbled free from Alvarez’s hand and bounced across the floor.

“Grab the gun!” shouted Edwards, struggling to restrain Alvarez. McDougall rushed into the room and picked up the revolver. He fired one shot at Alvarez, but the headless body jerked sideways and the bullet punched a hole in the wooden cabinet. The second shot took Alvarez clean through the chest. His body jerked and went limp, and the head on the counter uttered one last startled gasp. Everyone in the room breathed a sigh of relief, and Edwards pushed the lifeless body off of himself and stood up.

“Thank God that’s finally over” said Davis.

“Not entirely” said Edwards, staring intently at Sergeant Wilkes. “We need to discuss a few things.”

Wilkes screamed unintelligible threats through the rag stuffed in his mouth. Edwards stopped digging and leaned on his shovel. “I’m sorry it’s got to be this way, Sarge.” He sighed. “Alvarez was an asshole, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. I refuse to serve a coutry that’s willing to experiment on its own soldiers and then put them down like rabid dogs when they step out of line. I died for my country once, but I ain’t gonna do it again. I really wish you could have seen things our way.” Edwards shoved the Sergeant’s body forward with his foot, and it rolled down into the hole. He picked up the shovel and began pushing dirt in on top of Wilkes. The hole was halfway full before his muffled screams were finally silenced.

When the job was done, Edwards dropped the shovel and walked back to where Davis, Tan, and McDougall were waiting at the rear of the house. “Ready to go?” he asked.

“What about Simmons?” said Tan.

McDougall snorted. “He’s still inside, trying to smooth things over with God.”

“Leave him” said Edwards. “Someone ought to stay behind for when Able gets back, those boys deserve to know what happened.”

The other three nodded, and then the four men turned and walked off into the night.

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GWJ Writer’s Throwdown: January 2013

Contact Protocol

“Biologist, report.”

“We have performed a thorough examination of the specimen, Commander. We have observed its behaviour and tested its response to external stimuli. We have dissected it and tasted its molecules. We have learned many things about this species, but we will need to compare our findings against data from other individuals before we can complete our evaluation.”

“Your initial findings?”

“Much of the organism’s biology is quite unsophisticated. Its dominant sensory organs are limited to extremely narrow bands of electromagnetic radiation and atmospheric pressure oscillations. It also possesses two rudimentary organs for detecting specific molecular compounds, but these senses are similarly limited and require the organism to physically ingest a molecule in order to detect it, which severely hinders its ability to identify harmful materials.” The Biologist paused for a moment to consult her notes, and then continued. “Despite these perceptive limitations, the specimen’s somatosensory capabilities are surprisingly well-developed: proprioception falls within expected norms and the organism’s exterior covering is equipped to sense both temperature and pressure. In addition, the organism exhibits a strong electrochemical response to any stimulus that inflicts physical injury.”

The Commander shifted in his seat and there was a subtle change to his pheromone excretions, signaling amusement. “It seems appropriate that creatures with such limited senses would be well-adapted to bumping into things. Please, continue.”

The Biologist delivered the rest her report, describing the organism’s physical characteristics in great detail. As this went on, the meeting’s third participant felt his attention begin to wander – he had already carefully reviewed the Biologist’s findings as part of his own mission preparations, and her dry delivery did little to hold his interest.

“Contact Specialist, report.”

The Contact Specialist snapped back to attention. “Ready to embark on your order, Commander, the meatsuit is prepared and I have selected a suitable landing site.”

“Excellent, then we are ready to proceed. Good fortune, Contact Specialist, we eagerly await your first status update.”

There was something about this particular customer that made Carlos very uncomfortable. The man sitting alone looked normal enough–well-dressed, average height, greying hair, slightly overweight–but every so often he looked up from his menu and stared at Carlos with a weird intensity that made his skin crawl. At first, he thought the man was checking him out; Carlos was flattered, but uninterested. However, as more time passed he became convinced that this wasn’t a look of attraction. It was oddly clinical, like an entomologist studying some new species of insect. After what seemed like hours, the man put down his menu and Carlos forced a smile and walked over to the table. “Sir, are you ready to order?”

The man stared at him a moment longer, then nodded his head. “Yes,” he said, “I would like to try everything.”

“Communications link established.”

“Excellent. What is your status, Contact Specialist?”

“No surprises so far, Commander. Most of my observations match our remote assessment: they are still quite primitive, both culturally and technologically. They can be quite creative, but their artistic expression is necessarily constrained by the limited range of their senses. They have made some effort to augment these capabilities with technology, but these devices are rudimentary and mainly restricted to scientific research.”

“Disappointing, but not unexpected. Anything else?”

“We originally observed that these creatures display very little biological variation, but this isn’t entirely true. Most individuals do conform to the same set of physical features: four major limbs, two light-sensitive organs, and so on. However, there is a tremendous amount of variation in minor details such as the size, shape, and coloration of these features. As such, it is not nearly as difficult as we assumed it would be to tell one individual apart from another. It is really quite fascinating, as there appears to be no inherent advantage to most of these variations. In fact, sometimes they can actually be detrimental to the individual in question.”

“Very curious indeed, perhaps we can yet learn something from these creatures. Continue your observations, Contact Specialist, we will speak again soon.”

“Acknowledged, Commander. Contact Specialist out.”

Alice stood in the hotel room beside the bed and gave her customer an appraising glance. “It’s two hundred for an hour, cash up front. Weird shit costs extra.”

The middle-aged man closed the door behind him and turned to face her. “I have no desire to engage in sexual intercourse” he said, “I merely wish to taste you.”

Alice rolled her eyes. Why do I get all the friggin’ weirdos? After a moment’s hesitation, she shrugged. “Two fifty.”


Alice took off her clothes and lay on the bed. The man instructed her to remain still, and then proceeded to explore every inch of her body with hands, nose and tongue. When his hour was up he rose from the bed, thanked her for her time, and left the room. After the door clicked shut behind him, Alice got up and began collecting her clothes. “Well that was weird.”

“Welcome back, Contact Specialist. Are you prepared to deliver your final report?”

“I am ready, Commander. In my previous report, I mentioned that the creatures of this world display an extraordinarily high degree of phenotypic variation. After further observation, I have discovered the source of this phenomenon: these creatures are the result of the most unusual evolutionary process I have ever seen.”

“Can you elaborate?”

“The organism in question has no mechanism for controlled gene transfer between individuals. Any new genetic traits can only be gradually introduced into the gene pool via reproduction.”

“Inefficient, but hardly novel. We have encountered other species that operate in a similar manner.”

“Yes, but these creatures also exercise no control over which traits they pass on to their offspring. A male will supply a female with millions of packets of genetic data, and each individual packet will contain an arbitrary subset of the male’s genetic structure. Of these millions, only one will combine with a similarly random subset of the female’s genes, and this combination will define the inherited genetic traits of the resulting offspring.”

“But that’s absurd! How can any evolutionary progress result from such a flawed reproductive strategy?”

“Slowly, over thousands or even millions of generations. Given a sufficiently long period of time, beneficial traits will eventually be propagated throughout the species by granting individuals with these traits a greater statistical likelihood of successful reproduction.”

“This is unbelievable. These creatures are born of pure genetic chaos. It’s remarkable that they have reached even their current level of biological development.”

“Had I not seen it for myself, I would never have believed it myself. The evidence is there, however, preserved within the genes of each individual. Biologist, I believe you mentioned in your report that large segments of the specimen’s genetic structure appeared to serve no purpose?”

“Yes. It is still a matter of some confusion.” said the Biologist.

“Those genes may be useless now, but they were not always so. It’s difficult to tell from a single specimen, but in a larger context it becomes clear that each individual carries within it a partial genetic record of its entire evolutionary history. These useless, dormant genes may have once defined an important trait for some distant ancestor. Examine enough specimens and you could likely derive a genetic snapshot of the species at any point in time.”

The Commander released a sharp odor, indicating a mixture of confusion and surprise. “But… why? Surely these dormant genes offer no advantage. Why persist so much old data?”

“I don’t know, but I suspect it is simply an artifact of their unpredictable reproductive process. These creatures are incredibly inefficient and unlikely, and yet the longer I observed them the more I became fascinated with them. In their own strange way they are… beautiful.”

“How so?”

“Let me give an example: in most styles of music on this world, there is a concept of improvisation, wherein a musician spontaneously creates a new melody or alters an existing one during a musical performance. The improvised melody will be different in every performance, but it will almost always adhere to a specific progression of chords, rhythm, or some other quality defined by a pre-existing musical composition. In other cases the improvised melody might simply be intended to convey some less tangible quality, such as a range of emotions.”

“I am familiar with the concept, Contact Specialist. It is not unique to this world.”

“Of course, Commander. I mention it because the genetic variation present in every individual is in many ways similar to an improvised performance. Each individual’s genetic signature is a unique composition derived from its parents, and yet it is still conforms to the broad criteria that define the species, much as a musical solo can be a unique melody while still conforming to some underlying chord progression. Similarly, much as an improvised solo might incorporate elements from other melodies, each individual’s genetic composition contains elements from long-dead ancestors. Looking at the species as a whole, I cannot help but view it as a vast, ever-changing biochemical orchestra of dazzling scope and complexity.”

“That’s all very interesting, Contact Specialist, but how does it affect our course of action with this species? What is your recommendation?”

“I’m conflicted, Commander. In many ways I see no advantage in pursuing further contact with these organisms. We have nothing to gain from them technologically, and they have no surplus goods or materials valuable enough to warrant a trade agreement. Even cultural exchange would be hindered by their limited senses; most of our cultural works would be incomprehensible or even imperceptible to them, and their own range of cultural expression is so limited that I cannot expect there would be any strong demand for it. Under other circumstances, I would recommend that we abandon this world until they have achieved a much greater degree of technological or biological complexity. In this specific instance, however, I find these creatures far too fascinating to ignore. At the very least, perhaps our artists and philosophers will find new inspiration in the chaotic complexity underlying these seemingly simplistic animals. Therefore, my recommendation is that we dispatch a second expedition, with artists and poets in place of biologists and contact specialists. Our own training has ill-equipped us to assess the true value of this world.”

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GWJ Writer’s Throwdown: Aug 2012


“What’s up with the binoculars? You stalking the neighbours or something?”

“Surveillance. He’s up to something.”

“Mr. Lonsdale? He’s like the least suspicious dude on the planet. All he does is water his garden and talk to people about the weather.”

“He left the house twice today.”

“So? Leaving the house is a thing that normal people do sometimes. You spent the entire day inside staring at the neighbours through binoculars. Mr. L isn’t the weird one here.”

“You don’t get it. He left the house twice. As in he left once, and then left again a while later without ever re-entering the house.”

“You probably just didn’t see him come back. Maybe you were in the bathroom or something.”

“No. I was watching the whole time.”

“Maybe he went in through the back door.”

“Not unless he cut through the Robertsons’ yard and climbed the fence, if he came from the road I would have seen him.”

“Ok, so how do you know he didn’t climb the fence?”

“He’s in his eighties, and that fence is probably three meters tall.”

“He could have used a ladder.”

“You’re saying a frail old man cut through his neighbours’ yard and used a ladder to climb over the fence instead of just walking down his own driveway and going in the front door. And I’m the weird one.”

“You have a better explanation?”




“You actually think Mr. Lonsdale is secretly cloning himself. The guy can’t even set the time on his microwave, he asks Dad to do it every time there’s a power outage.”

“It’s either clones or he has a secret tunnel under the house.”

“Clones and secret tunnels. You’re insane. I’m going to make dinner. What do you want?”

“Hot dogs.”

“We’re out of hot dogs.”

“Go to the store. Buy more hot dogs.”

“I’m not buying any more hot dogs! They’re the only thing you eat. You’re going to get, like, butthole poisoning or something.”

“That’s not a real thing. Anyways hot dogs aren’t really made from pig buttholes, Dad just says that to gross us out. I looked it up.”

“Whatever. We’re not having hot dogs again, with or without buttholes. I’m going to thaw out some of the salmon in the freezer.”

“I’m allergic to seafood.”

“For the last time, you don’t have a seafood allergy. The only reason you threw up that time is because you ate way too much shrimp cocktail at Aunt Carol’s wedding reception.”

“I still don’t want salmon, it’s weird. Fish aren’t supposed to be pink inside.”

“I’m cooking it anyway. If you want something different you can pry yourself away from the window and make it yourself.”

“Fine, but if I barf again it’s your fault.”

“I can live with that.”

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GWJ Fortnightly Writer Throwdown #1

Kill 10 Rats

“Greetings, noble warrior! My cellar has been overrun by rats, and they threaten to consume all of our food stores. If you kill ten of them, I will happily reward you with a loaf of bread.”

The armored hero reined in his warhorse and raised the visor on his gleaming steel helm. He stared down at the scruffy villager who had just addressed him from the side of the road. “You want me to kill what?”



“Yes, ten of them. They’re in my cellar.” The villager grinned up at him hopefully.

The hero sighed. “You know who I am, right? The Reborn Champion? From the prophecy? On a quest to save the Nine Kingdoms? I’m a little busy at the moment.”

“They’re eating everything! If someone doesn’t stop them soon, we won’t have enough food to survive the winter!”

“That’s awful, but if I don’t fulfil this prophecy by defeating the Shadow Lords and re-sealing the Black Gate of Eternal Sorrow, you won’t even survive to next Tuesday. I don’t have time for–ugh, fine, tell me about these rats.”

“They’re very big rats!”

The hero narrowed his eyes. “How big, exactly? The last time I agreed to help with some ‘big rats’, they turned out to be the biggest damn rats anyone has ever seen. I’m pretty sure one of them was actually a horse in a rat costume. Are we talking about slightly-larger-than-normal rats, or horrible giant monster rats?”

“Er, the second one.”

“And what was the reward again?”

“This delicious bread!” The villager produced a loaf from inside his grubby tunic and held it up proudly.

“I kill ten giant rats, and you give me a loaf of bread. You do know there’s a baker down the road who sells bread for five copper pieces, right?”

“It’s very nice bread! My wife made it!”

The hero lost his composure. “I don’t care if it’s the best damn bread in all of Gladebrookshire! I don’t need bread, I need money and equipment! I know saving the world isn’t supposed to be all fun and games, but nobody told me it was going to be so bloody expensive! Do you know how much it costs to repair an enchanted sword forged within the molten heart of a giant magma wurm? Do you know how much I spend on magical scrolls and potions? If I stopped to help every damn charity case between here and the Obsidian Fortress of Woe, I’d be broke! If I run out of money for repairs I’ll probably wind up fighting the Infinite Undying Legions in the nude, wielding a rusty machete! Do you want that? Do you want me to fail, and see the world plunged into a thousand years of darkness and torment?”

The villager grinned sheepishly and looked down at his feet. “Well, er… no, but what am I going to do about these rats?”

The hero sighed once more and dismounted. “Fine” he said, unsheathing his glowing sword, “I’ll kill the damn rats.” He began walking towards the cellar, then stopped and turned to face the villager once more. “But that bread” he growled, “had better be REALLY good.”

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