Glad to be rid of the muck - thoughts on the Flash Fiction 40 contest

Well, what shall I say about it? After reading some of the very good stories there, I'm not surprised I didn't win. I'm disappointed that I didn't place, but not terribly surprised at that, either. The scores were going against me, and while that was not the determining factor, I think it was probably a decent indicator of what holds appeal to the current readership.

Heh, listen to me. I used the phrase "current readership".

Anyway, I've been rather surprised at how deeply invested some of the EU folks got. They were just so very anxious about the outcome! Also, there was lots of bitterness, anger, snarkiness that kept popping up. It was more a case of a few individuals being unpleasant and whiny than a case of a groundswell of popular revolt.

Why am I so relaxed about this? First, I'd written my entry prior to the contest, and entered it on a lark. I didn't write a piece especially for the contest in which I could have invested more energy and hope. I edited my 1017 word piece down to 999 words. In general, recycled pieces will command less of our hearts. The first flush of pride at them becomes dulled as they get reworked for one purpose or another.

Secondly, that particular piece was originally intended as a bit of cathartic therapy. Writing it was like cleaning out the greasetrap of my soul and making a little sculpture out of the accumulated filth. I felt a lot better after I wrote it, and was content to toss it into the midden. However, in putting it up in the EU contest, it gave me the chance to see if anyone else would see the emotion I poured into it, would recognize what that piece meant to me, and how hard I had to work to get it out of my system.

The answer is either that the emotion wasn't apparent or that it *was* apparent but was disagreeable. Actually, it's far more probable that the emotion had nothing to do with it, and there were just problems with the plot, character, setting, etc., etc.

Regardless, I'm going to let it all go. I never really intended that piece for publication or distribution any wider than this blog. Over on EU, I had 50+ people read it and vote on it. Their collective assessment was that it was OK - not great, but not terrible, either.

Right now, at this stage of the game, I can live with that.

Besides, the big win for me is in my introduction to a community of writers over at EU. They seem like a decent bunch, and I look forward to becoming more a part of the place.

Writing as a worthwhile activity

Sometimes I wonder if what I'm trying to do as a writer is worth it. To be honest, I'm not really sure what I'm trying to do. Express myself? Make you laugh? Make you cry? Reveal some truths? Tell a story? Get famous? Prove that I'm not just a pretty face? All of the above? Some other motive that lurks beneath?

I have much to think about.

Tears flow when they want to

Went to see "Up" today. There was a point in the movie when a man, 60+ years old, left the movie theater in tears. The emotional impact of what was going on in the film was just too much for him to take. He was back after a few minutes, after he had composed himself.

There was another point in the movie when a child, ~5 years old, also left the movie theater in tears. The emotional impact of what was going on in the film was just too much for her to take. She was back after a few minutes, after she had composed herself. (In this case, her father took her out of the theater and brought her back in. He was audibly comforting her during the rest of the movie.)

Frankly, I don't think that any of the other animation studios need bother release anything for the rest of the year. The Best Picture is already locked up.

Falling out of love

I was aware of baseball when I was a really little kid, but I wasn't a big fan. Neither of my parents were, so it wasn't something that I learned at my father's knee, or that came in with mother's milk.

(Notice that doubly cliched preceding sentence. It's important. Stay with me here, OK?)

By the time I was 11 or so, I started to pay attention. Through early and mid-teens, it was critical. The standings were everything, and the race against our division opposition more important than my GPA. For college, I moved to the city of our most ardent rival team. I went to games when my boys were in for a series, and cheered for The Other Team in the midst of equally ardent locals.

I was supported in this by the crowd of folks that would drive the 5 hours from my hometown. The rivalry was that important, but it was always respectful. No beer and batteries thrown at people wearing the wrong colors, just friendly competition to outshout each other. A win was exciting, a loss was disappointing. As it should be.

In my early twenties, I remained a fan. Devoted, loyal, ardent, attentive. Captivated.

I stopped being a fan when the strike of 1994 resulted in the cancellation of the World Series. I turned my back on the game I'd loved, because it didn't love me back.

Now, I have a hard time reading the comments and blogs of devoted baseball fans and aficionados without thinking deeply about what it means to love, ardently, hopelessly, senselessly.

What is love, anyway?

Fortunately, I am a complete ignoramus

I submitted a story for the NPR three minute fiction contest, to be judged by James Wood. Fortunately, before I did so, I did not read this review of his new book, How Fiction Works. Had I done so, I think I would have had more qualms about submitting my work for his review.

In all likelihood, I need only worry about his opinion of the first nine words, since that's probably all it will take for him to make his decision. Nevertheless, Mr. Wood, if you're reading this, I'd appreciate any comments you might have on the piece. If you respond here, I promise not to clutter up the in-box of the New Yorker with anything for at least another year.


On blocked followers - ask Miss Manners

Twitter is new enough that the rules of social interaction are still being worked out. I'm a bit puzzled by something. Perhaps this has already been addressed by cultural cross-talk from the societal norms of Facebook. I wouldn't know, since I'm not on Facebook. There may be well-developed politesse for this already. If so, would someone please enlighten me?

I don't auto-follow back on Twitter. When I follow someone, it's with the expectation that I'll see some value in what they tweet - humor, insight, interesting links, good fiction, conversation, etc. Some people have followed me, then unfollowed when I didn't follow back right away.

So, what do you do when someone follows you on Twitter, but they have protected their updates? I can't tell what sort of a person they are. It strikes me as strange to ask someone if I can follow them when they followed me first. Without being able to see their tweets, how can I know if they are the sort of person whom I would wish to follow? I can check their website, or do some background Googling, but that seems like a lot of effort.

It's a puzzlement, and so far, I've been simply sticking to a no-follow policy for folks on whom I have no information, or for whom I haven't been able to put together a decent picture.

Transparency in the FlashFiction40 contest

As noted in the comments on the previous thread, the FF40 has been a very instructive process. Usually, you submit your work to a contest, magazine, etc., and you hear nothing at all. Nothing, nothing, nothing until you get a response. No opportunity to see how the scores evolve, how you rate vs. others, or how close or disparate the ratings are.

So many stories are separated by tenths or hundredths of a point. In the end, Maria will take these numbers into account, but will make the final decision based on her own judgment. It's good to be the Pit Boss.

FWIW, I don't think that there is very much sandbagging going on. That strikes me as pretty far outside the scope of professionalism. Even if there are a few knuckleheads in the judging pool, their unsupportable rankings will be overwhelmed by the wisdom of the crowd, which in turn will be trumped by the only vote that matters, that of the Editor Unleashed.

This has been good times, regardless, and I've learned enough that I feel it was a very worthwhile endeavor.

But I still want to win, so if you haven't done so, go read my story and vote, OK?

100,000 words down, 100,000 to go

I've been reading and voting in the FlashFiction40 competition. So far, I've read about half of the stories. At ~1000 per, that means I've read and evaluated 100K.

No wonder agents and editors reject so many, and so easily. I'm trying to limit myself to reading no more than 15 or so at a time, but even so, I'm getting impatient with mediocre or even poor writing. I can easily see how wading through a slush pile means 15% "maybe", 60% "no", 30% "hell no!", and 5% "yes!" (at most).

Unless somebody threw in a piece of junk as a lark, each of these represent a story that the author really thought was pretty good. So many of them don't strike me that way. When I hit one that makes me stop and savor the writing, I feel like I've hit a root beer barrel in a pile of anise candies.

Full disclosure: with 41 reviews, my story is ranked at a 2.7 at the moment. That's "average", guys, but only if you give me the option of rounding up. Not "good", not "excellent", or "heartbreaking, profound, moving, insightful, tremendous, sharp, etc., etc."

"Almost average." Ah, well. Opening yourself up for public judgment requires a thick skin. Reading and considering all of the different styles of writing in the flash format has been educational, to say the least.

Does anyone else have a dog in this fight? Care to share any thoughts about it?


I'm generally pretty bad at the whole "look at me, look at me" thing. Since I posted the exhortation to vote, and a tweet about the FlashFiction40 contest, asking for votes, I've gotten a couple of dozen votes.

Many of the stories seem to be floating to an average ranging from 2.5-3.5, with only fractional separations between. My own average is somewhere around 2.8 at the moment, just under "Average". How's that for a reality check?

With a large pool of judges, individual tastes will cancel each other out. There are some quite good stories, which I'm ranking high. There are also some rather bad stories which I'm ranking low. A best thing a judge can do is to make the best call possible. You have a responsibility to call the BS on the bad ones as well as call out BINGO on the good ones.

It is still early in the judging, and I know I shouldn't get too wrapped up in this for my own story. Unlike other contests, this is one where you get to see the competition in all its detail. There were some very good stories here, better than mine to be honest. Being in a position of hoping for a slot in the second tier is probably good for building up those ego-calluses.

Two thoughts war in my mind here. First, if I had but world enough and time, coyness in self-promotion would be no crime. I would wait forever for someone to notice my work while I sit demurely in by the wall looking intelligent and thoughtful. However, that's a mistake, as no one else will take an interest in your work unless you tell them about it.

Second, though, is that the push to self-promotion is a terrible mistake if your work isn't really ready for prime time yet. Sending it out prematurely will do nothing good for your career. Even when you are at the utterly unknown stage of publishing that equates to "Tony who?", it's still a good idea to think about your reputation, or the reputation you hope to one day have.

Try to turn out quality work from Day One, and you won't have anything to apologize for later on.

Ah, impatience, the ruin of many a half-cured pot! Drawn from the kiln too soon, set to cool too quickly, 'tis crack'd through - 'twill ne'er hold but a thimbleful, and that but poorly.

Vote For Me

Voting is now open in the Editor Unleashed Flash Fiction 40 Contest. Log in, read my entry entitled "Sunlight On The Plaza Below" and give it as many stars as you think it deserves... like, say, five.

Tell all your friends to do the same! Shill! Shill! Shill!

4 eyeballs per day

How many people visit this blog? Few enough that my own visits skew the numbers dramatically. I'm still working on how to exclude my own activity from Google Analytics.

Over the past month, 52 different people (not counting me) have stopped by around 65 times. Total pageviews are around 140. The most popular content is (in order) the index page for the blog, Rosetta, Home Cure, and the playlist.

When I actively promote something, readership goes up. When I don't, few people see it. This will come as a revelation to no one. Right now, I'd prefer to err on the side of discretion and have 2 or 3 readers a day than go gonzo with links to my blog when the content may not be worth the shilling.

These numbers doesn't bother me too much, since I'm not really about numbers at this point. I don't wish to be seen as one of those people who mutter to themselves in a quiet corner. Still, there are some things I post which I don't necessarily expect much response. Other things are more of an active engagement.

I can always find a quiet corner of a room somewhere to mutter in. This is more like a quiet street corner.

With this kind of power, I will rule a very small world

I'm testing the "blog via e.mail" function. Quick, somebody reply with
the title of your favorite Depeche Mode song.

Sent from Gmail for mobile |

Forget Asimov's "Three Laws". It's Heinlein's "Five Rules" that are immutable.
My Blog:
My Twitter: @TonyNoland
My Space: Euclidian

No ego here, really.

I'm back from a trip to sunny southern California. Lots of fun, though cooler that I would have expected. I tried some kind of berry-based protein smoothie with a dost of antioxidants. Tasty, although I suspect it's not that much healthier than a Snickers bar.

I had no meaningful web access, and I couldn't remember how to post blog entries from my mobile phone. I've since refreshed my memory on this, so the NEXT time I go out of town, I will be able to blog as well as tweet. This will come as a great comfort to all of the people who read this blog.

How many would that be? Thanks to the power of Google Analytics, I keep track of how many people read this blog. It is a number which would keep even the most self-assured narcissist humble.

Care to guess? Go ahead, guess. In fact, the number is so low, that I'll write a bit of nanofic for each and every person who responds here with a guess as to how many visitors I got in the last month. I won't even ask that you get the number right.

One last thing: I've been getting a lot of very useful comments on "Home Cure" over at the Editor Unleashed critique forum. It's a good community, worth checking out for any writer. I'm looking forward to the comments on the story I submitted to the Flash Fiction 40 contest.

A few thoughts about "Rosetta" and "Home Cure"

First of all, I'd like to thank @meika for his enthusiastic (and gratis) plot suggestions for Rosetta. They're helpfully denoted with the #giveplot hashtag. I'll reprint them here, as they appeared on June 02, 2009 in the Twitterstream:

you've "killed off" the underling too early, suggest no status update in the lab for Dr Carlov

kidnap & chase plot, Dr Carlov makes off with macguffin, once he gets to it, lab lit for 1/3 story

DrCarlov is genius, works it out using special macguffin 2, 1/3 story thriller and last 1/3 space op

make Dr Carlov not-a-bloke? (the last tip is extra but it's yours now, it's free too)

Secondly, what was going on inside my head when I got stuck? There were a million ways that this story could go forward. I actually had an notion, but it was dull and uninspired. The idea of making the down-trodden underling into an unexpected villain is a plot twist that didn't occur to me. I had a mental image of how this story was set up, and when it ran into a corner, I couldn't shake off the preconceptions I'd brought to it. I was too rigid.

The idea of making him a closeted transvestite woman in addition to an underhanded secret evil genius... well, in short, why didn't I think of that?

Part of the issue here is being too wrapped up in the management of the forest, and not giving the trees room to grow. Too much big picture, not enough let-it-happen.

It's OK to make mistakes. It's better if you learn from them.

About "Home Cure"... based in part on the comments on that story, and based in part on how I feel about that piece, I've submitted this to the Editor Unleashed critiques page. Let's see how well it stands up the the harsh light of day, shall we?

I'm also going to leave my entry in the Flash Fiction 40 competition up after the judging, as an opportunity for critiques.

Rosetta: The Object in Question


By Tony Noland

"Sir, you may keep your glasses, but I'll need you to turn out your pockets, please. Your Blackberry, wristwatch and other personal effects will be returned to you upon your exit from the lab."

Captain Grossman paused before complying. He looked at the staff sergeant behind the desk, an unusually senior NCO to be manning a guard post. Grossman had already come through two security checkpoints upstairs, each with a metal detector. He glanced at the two cameras on the anteroom's ceiling, then at the corporal with the M-16 who stood by the second door.

Carlov, the scientist who was acting as Grossman's escort said, "It's standard security, Captain. With cameras and recorders being built into just about everything these days, we don't allow any outside artifacts in the lab."

Grossman's eyebrow twitched upwards at the word 'artifacts', but said, "I understand, Doctor. Sorry, Sergeant, I was just considering your security measures for this entrance. Or at least the ones I can see." He began to place his belongings on the table.

"Of course, sir," the sergeant said. "If I could also please have your pen, sir? Thank you. Sir, your answers to the following questions will be recorded. Please state your name and rank."

He spoke clearly and without hesitation. "Grossman, David K. Captain, United States Army."

"Captain Grossman, failure to comply with security protocols for this facility may result in loss of rank, salary, medical benefits and retirement benefits, or other penalties specified in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, up to and including imprisonment and/or execution. Captain Grossman, with the exception of rank insignia, have you removed and surrendered all non-clothing items from your person?"

"I have."

"Thank you, sir. Captain Grossman, are you carrying any devices, objects or other means, electronic or non-electronic, by which information, electronic or non-electronic, could be gathered and/or recorded?"

"I am not."

"Thank you, sir." The sergeant collected Grossman's items and put them into a large manila envelope. She sealed the envelope and had him print and sign his name across the flap. She looked up at one of the cameras and said, "Captain Grossman and Doctor Carlov are ready to enter the hallway."

The second door made a deep, metallic clunking sound, then opened slowly. The corporal stepped aside to let them enter, his eyes tracking the two man as they passed through. Grossman was surprised to see that the door did not lead to another room, but to a long, featureless hallway that sloped downward. The sound of the door closing behind them reverberated off the tile and painted concrete, adding to the echoing sounds of their steps.

After a moment, Grossman said, "Doctor, how much farther is the actual lab? I'm anxious to see the object for myself."

Doctor Carlov said, "I think this containment hallway is the last security hurdle before we reach to door to the lab complex."

"You think? Don't you know?"

The scientist pursed his lips and his face reddened slightly. "I haven't been in the actual lab to see it. Dr. Cheung is the lead scientist on this project, and he's been quite adamant about minimizing the personnel authorized to go in. I'm cleared to discuss it, and to try to make sense of it, but I'm not cleared to see it for myself. I'm hopeful that since I was sent to collect you up at the front desk, that they'll let me in as an errand boy where they wouldn't let me in as a materials scientist. I have to say, it's very frustrating to try to conduct research when I can't even see what I'm working on."

"Yes, I imagine it must be," said Grossman.

"I've been analyzing the data from the gamma spectrometers and the atomic force microscopes. The technicians are able to run the machine operations protocols just as I told them to, so the data is of reasonable quality. Obviously it would be better if I in there were doing it myself, but that can't be helped, I suppose. When we need fresh pictures or want to change the experimental setups, we tell them what we want and they send out the resulting data."

"How many people are on your team, Doctor?"

"I'm one of a couple of dozen scientists working on this. Materials scientists, chemists, linguists, cryptographers, even a microbiologist, although he's not been very busy. Ah, I guess I should clarify that it's not exactly my team, per se, although I am among the most experienced members. There are also a few representatives of the military who work with us." His tone suggested that he did not appreciate their assistance.

Grossman seemed not to notice the implied slight. He said, "Microbiologist? Recovering anything seems like a stretch, although I suppose viral particles may still be viable. The briefing I got said that this was quite old. Ancient, even."

"Ancient? Oh, my yes. Yes, the object is in fact 2.25 billion years old." Carlov sounded smug at knowing the exact figure. He saw that Grossman registered no reaction to his pronouncement. A slightly petulant, lecturing note came into his voice. "The elemental slugs hidden under the gold weren't hard to find once we started X-raying. The mild background radioactivity gave them away. We were able to determine the age of the object precisely by comparing the isotopic profiles of the different slugs. It was a simple matter to back-calculate to determine when they were put in place."

"Very good, Doctor," said Grossman. "I'm happy to see that the data is firming up nicely. The most recent information I had was between 2 and 3.5 billion. I understand some of the last hopes of the linguists died with the preliminary figures. What does this new figure suggest for the origins and purpose of the object? Those are the central questions, after all. What new insights have you gained?"

Carlov did not respond immediately. "Well..." he said after a long pause, "whoever built this thing installed a rather clever sort of clock for us to work with. The short-half life elements plus the more slowly decaying ones means that the clock would give a reasonably accurate reading of elapsed time from construction for any stretch of time from a few weeks to around eight billion years. That implies that althought they wanted us to understand it, they must not have had any clear idea of when it would be found and studied. It can be viewed as a message in a bottle, as it were. Except..." Carlov's voice trailed off.

The men walked on in silence. The increased precision of knowing exactly how old it was did not materially change the fundamental impossibility of the object. No one knew where it could have come from, or even how it could exist at all. Carlov shrugged as they approached at a featureless steel door at the end of the long hallway. The two men looked at the screen set flush into the wall next to the doorway.

After a pause, a man's voice came from the speaker beneath the screen. "Please stand clear of the door." With a noise like an approaching elevator, the door rose in its frame, leaving the doorway clear.

The voice said, "Thank you, Doctor Carlov, you may return to your duties. Captain Grossman, please step forward." Grossman did so without looking to see how Carlov was taking the dismissal. He was three measured steps into the room when the door began to descend behind him. He turned in time to meet Carlov's scowl before the scientist was cut off from view. The heavy blast door settled into its slot and was silent. Grossman turned again, facing the conventional door to his right. It opened and a short, thin Asian man stepped in to smile and offer his hand.

"Captain Grossman," the man said, "how very nice to see you. Do please come this way. The lab is right through here. Or would you prefer a cup of coffee first?"

"Thank you, Dr. Cheung, perhaps later. I'm quite anxious to reach the lab. The reports I've read have given me a fascinating picture of what we're dealing with. Frankly, all philosophical concerns aside, it's my job to determine if there are grounds for us to regard this as a threat." He held up a hand as the scientist began to object. "I know, Doctor, I know. The object seems completely inactive, and there doesn't appear to be any sort of mechanism present. Still, there are some key people in D.C. who are already worried about advanced technologies that we wouldn't necessarily be able to recognize AS technologies. A tightly nested collection of nanotech devices would be almost indistinguishable from a solid block of silicon, even if created with our own level of capabilities. The threat would only become evident when they activate. Some of the wilder threat possibilities make that look pedestrian. If the worry over these potential threats is needless, then I'd like to get at the truth of the matter and put those people at ease. I'll be able to make a better judgment when I see the object."

Cheung nodded, but did not respond. Grossman was not surprised. He had read the strenuously worded memo Cheung had written to object to this oversight visit. Grossman did not share Cheung's opinion that a hands-on site visit would serve no purpose. In Grossman's experience, that was the only way a proper inspection could be conducted. Summary reports, teleconferences and e.mails were all well and good, but there was nothing like the white glove treatment to find out what was really going on. Even granted the extraordinary nature of the object, progress in understadning it had been slow, and Grossman had been tasked with finding out why.

"By the way, Doctor," said Grossman, as they moved through the outer labs, "your associate Dr. Carlov seemed like an odd choice for a tour guide. It seems like rubbing his nose in his lack of clearance would cause you some grief."

The scientist smiled. "Only temporarily. Alexei is a clever scientist, but he's a pain in the neck because he won't recognize the need for compartmentalization. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to invite him in to give his status update to you personally, and to do it here in the lab. That should take care of his grousing. He'll go back to his own lab rather over-puffed, but he'll work twice as hard at earning another look at the object. It should also inspire the rest of his team to burn a little more midnight oil, too."

Cheung led them to a door adorned with two laser-printed pictures - one of the Rosetta Stone, and one of a set of glyphs arranged in a grid. Grossman glanced at the picture of the Stone, then peered more closely at the glyphs. He turned to Cheung and said, "Linear A? I'm surprised at your lack of faith, Doctor."

"Not lack of faith, Captain. Just a reminder of the importance of luck in any endeavor such as this. The Rosetta Stone was instantly comprehensible, and gave us the key to almost everything we know about the Egyptians. In contrast, it took more than fifty years to decipher the Linear B alphabet, and Linear A is still a mystery to us after more than a hundred years."

"We've got a lot more text to work with here than they did in either of those cases. Each of the seven spirals has at a distinct set of least a hundred thousand characters. That's seven different languages to work on."

"Very true, but the Crete and Egypt of the ancient world were on Earth, and populated by humans. That forces some fundamental commonalities in the frame of reference which we don't necessarily have here." He opened the door and ushered Grossman in.

The room was chilly and brightly lit. On a large table in the middle was a metallic hemisphere, almost 27 cm in diameter. The body was a grayish metal, pitted and scratched, but unadorned. The flat surface was flawless, gleaming gold, ornately etched. A complex scrollwork covered the periphery. A ring of six circles were arranged in an evenly spacing around a central circle, slightly larger than the outer six.

As Grossman approached the object, each of the circles shimmered very slightly with a rainbow iridescence. He stopped, then slowly moved his head back and forth, observing the effect.

“The effect is a lot more striking in person than it is in the videos,” he said.
Cheung nodded. “The diamond coating is almost six millimeters thick. The etched lines of text in each of the spirals are only 9 microns high. Between the diffraction grating effect of the etchings and the prismatic effect of the diamond, it is rather eye-catching.

“Actually,” he continued, “that’s an important clue. It’s unlikely that such an effect was an unintended byproduct of the object’s construction. Aside from being, well, beautiful, an observer who understands anything about optics would find this object fascinating. Therefore, any culture, of almost any stage of scientific development, would have held onto this object for future generations to admire and eventually study. Moreover, the rainbow effect also tells us that they used approximately the same wavelengths of light to see that we do. So, they orbited a star similar to our own. That, coupled with the chemistry of the gold-chromium alloy used in the decorative scrollwork suggests water-based, oxygen breathing organisms."

Grossman did not respond. He was staring at the object.

Home Cure

"Home Cure"
by Tony Noland

Blue skies and sunlight meant pain and death. When the mud between the trenches dried enough to walk on, they would be ordered up and out. They always went across on the second sunny day. If they waited until the third, the ground would be firm enough for one of Jerry's armoured autos to drive forward to meet them. The best days were days like today - moderately cool, with just enough drizzle to keep the mud wet and just enough breeze to make gas cannisters too chancey.

Dennis MacDonald lifted his helmet off of a femur that was sticking out of the wall of the forward trench. He stepped onto the stack of ammunition boxes and joined Thomas Glover at the number five machine gun nest.

"Mornin', Tom," he said. "Beautiful day."

Glover looked up at the gray sky and nodded. "True enough, Denny, true enough. Be sunny tomorrow, though." He blinked the rain out of his eyes, then lowered his gaze again to the mists over the mud.

"Don't be glum, chum. War'll be over any day now. Just need a bit of luck is all." MacDonald smiled at his mess mate.

"Damn you and your bit of luck," Glover replied evenly. He looked at what MacDonald was carrying and said, "I'm all topped up in the jacket. You makin' tea?"

"Aye. Leaves at the ready and plenty for all." MacDonald carefully set both of his large, empty canteens on the crate next to him. He leaned forward and closed the feed valves on the cooling jacket around the barrel. "It's decent China black. No lemon nor biscuits, I'm afraid."

"Just tea for me, thanks. Last night's stew was not a good 'un."

MacDonald nodded. It was all well and good for the lying old tars and swabbies to tell stories of rat puddings cooked onboard ships in the old navy. For last night's mess, James Witherfield had tried to make a stew from the filthy little buggars. It had made them all sick at both ends for hours afterwards. Long into the night, as they all were groaning and shitting, they discussed the matter. Were ship rats cleaner than trench rats, or were good British rats cleaner than these whorish French rats? They'd not come to a conclusion.

"Going to give warning?" Glover asked.

"Seems the civil thing to do." MacDonald cleared his throat and called out in a paradeground voice, "Hoy! Jerry! I say, Jerry there!"

After a moment, a thin voice could just be heard shouting back from the other side. "Ja? Was willst du, Engländer?"

MacDonald bellowed back, "I'm making tea! Just making tea! You savvy, Jerry? Tea!"

The mist was quiet. Then, "Verdammt ist, eine teekanne, arschloch!"

Glover chuckled softly. "Fuckin' Jerrys. Maybe he'd like we should pop round to the bakers for a tray of tarts, too?"

"Oh, it never hurts to be polite, Tom. A run of 200 rounds should be the thing. Do remember to aim low, eh? Manners is the foundation of society, after all." MacDonald smiled again as he put his fingers in his ears.

"Good manners above all," Glover replied. He closed the flaps on his earmuffs and gripped the handles of the machine gun to angle it slightly downward.

An explosive roar ripped from the gun. A long belt flew in the right hand side. The tinkling of empty shells and shell clips into the canvas receiving bag joined the thudding of lead into the mud fifty yards ahead. For more than a minute it went on. The sudden silence when Glover took his finger off the trigger was jarring.

MacDonald held his large canteen up to the exit hose on the water jacket. He opened the exit valve and let a stream of scalding water flow into the first canteen, then repeated the procedure with the second. When MacDonald finished, Glover was ready with the large can of reserve cooling water. He put the end of the exit hose into the can, then squeezed the rubber hand pump a few times to force the water up into the jacket. The barrel made angry little popping sounds as the cool water refilled the jacket and circulated around it. From across the field, a brief string of curses was rained upon them; neither man could hear them.

MacDonald took out a large mug from his coat pocket and filled it with hot tea from the first canteen. He passed it to Glover, who took it with a nodded thanks before he returned his eyes to the field.

Under the stink of cordite, mud and latrine, MacDonald thought he could just smell the tea. He climbed back down into the trench. It was going to be a nice day.