#FridayFlash: Pot of Gold

WAIT: Don't read this one yet. Read the REVISED version. Then come back and read this one, and see how I incorporated the comments into the revision.

#FridayFlash: Pot of Gold

by Tony Noland

Captain Charlton absently thanked the deck steward and took a careful sip at the straw before he stuck the fresh mug of coffee to the side of his console. Floating out there in the silence, a quarter of a million miles away from the Barack Hussein Obama, the alien device was charging up; the telemetry said whatever it was supposed to do, it would happen soon. Hence the mug. Nothing helped calm down a nervous bridge crew like seeing the old man drink a cup of coffee. His crew was the best, but waiting was hard on young men.

They'd sent the signal more than an hour ago, in the exact sequence specified by the pictoglyphs on the original signpost artifacts. There was no way to know how long it would take for a response from the device, the one somebody had dubbed the pot of gold. It was clearly waking up, but it wasn't clear what would happen when it did. The pictoglyphs instructions had been incomprehensible on that point. Whatever it was, it was drawing a lot of power from somewhere. The readings on screens all over the bridge were starting to blink red. Charlton detached his mug from the velcro and sipped at his coffee, making a point to slurp audibly.

It had only taken a few years to decipher the signposts after they'd been discovered floating out at the Sun-Earth LaGrange points. They were inert, with no internal mechanisms even on a nano scale. They were just hollow dodecahedral blocks of diamond-coated titanium, with thousand of glyphs etched into the twelve faces - references to universal physical constants, mathematical relationships and astronomical data from the solar system.

The signposts were almost a million years old, and had been parked in a stable orbit that would be a natural stopping point for any technological culture that happened to develop on Earth. They were clearly a calling card, and they had used universal language to say that something even better and more wonderful awaited among the Trojan asteroids at the hindward Sun-Jupiter LaGrange point. It had even given the instructions on how to activate it, the radio frequencies and codes to use.

And so here we are, the Captain thought. Waiting for it to wake up. At that moment, his central control panel started to flash. He replaced his mug so it wouldn't float away.


"I see it, Lieutenant."

The pot of gold device was glowing bright blue and then a long line of sparkling plasma shot from it, zipping outward until it was more than two miles long. The line vibrated like a trace on some enormous EKG, then split along its length and opened up. Where there had been a line there was now a circle, a huge glowing disc.

And through the disc flew a fleet of spaceships. Ugly, bulbous things, spiked with gun turrets and missile launch tubes. Through the radio static, a blast of noise came from the ships, flooding the entire radio spectrum. The whining howl repeated three times before the translators kicked in.

"- claim this system for the Chiorran Empire! Your civilization now belongs to his Highness Emperor Urchtrekkk-ahn! You will live as slaves of the Empire or die as enemies of the Empire! We claim this system for the Chiorran Empire! Your civilization now belongs -"

"Turn that off, Lieutenant."

"Yes sir! We're being scanned, sir! Orders, sir?"

"Stand by."

Captain Charlton's finger rested next to the red button on his console. He waited.

The Chiorran slaver fleet emerged and immediately turned to form ranks. As they did so, the engines of first one ship, then another, then all, flared brightly as they began to tumble and twist out of control. Two of the larger ships, caught in the grip of forces far more powerful than even their titanic drive units could overcome, crashed into each other and were torn to pieces. One by one, every ship that came through stalled, tumbled and fell into crushing destruction.

The translators couldn't keep up with the rapidly shifting shrieks and howls being transmitted.

After 30 minutes, it was over. There was nothing left of the fleet of would-be slavers and conquerors. Every ship had disappeared into the crushing depths below.



"It would appear they expected us to activate the device out among the asteroids instead of hauling in back here into a low orbit above Jupiter first."

"Sir, yes sir!"

"Send the missiles back through that gate or portal or whatever it is. Alternate conventional one hundred megaton warheads with thirty megaton fast neutron warheads, at one minute intervals. Follow up every tenth salvo with reconnaissance drones. Tell the marines to deploy immediately. Use a fast drop to get down there and get through. I want a beachhead secured on the other side."

"Yes sir!"

Charlton sipped his coffee.

"Oh, and somebody tell the diplomatic attache to stand down. We won't be needing him for a few days. At least."

Comments and constructive criticisms welcome. Other #FridayFlash pieces can be found here


  1. Screw peace, unload the lazers on em! Damn Tony. Is there anything you CAN'T do? With excruciating pain besides. WHY oh WHY are you not published yet?

    The dialogue was shiny and precise, the coffee. Oh thank goodness there is coffee in space.

    Fantastic sir. Get that rest. :)

  2. Well you literally blew me away with this one.

    I need to get me a hernia or whatever it is you have. This is damn good.

    Off to drink some java, to catch up... Peace, Linda

  3. Lasers? The missiles are more effective.

    Fun ride and nice space descriptions; Lagrange points, Jupiter. I see it well.
    -David G Shrock

  4. Hey Tony. Thought I'd take a crack at feedback this week. Hope the below is useful. I like the story but think the writing is off in the beginning in a way that doesn't serve the piece. Descriptions are clearer and move quicker by the middle (and definitely the end) of the piece. I'll try to explain, first by looking at the opening sentence.

    "Captain Charlton absently* thanked the deck* steward and took a careful* sip at the straw before he stuck the fresh* mug of coffee to the side of his console."

    I tend to be a minimalist editor, so you may not have any use for my feedback. I starred descriptors in the quote. What of these do we need? If he's sipping carefully then he's probably not paying much attention to the steward, so we don't need him to thank the steward "absently;" where he's the steward of doesn't matter as he essentially ceases to be a sentence later, and the clue that he's on deck doesn't help us figure out they're on a ship because we already know it, if not by the "console" then certainly by the second sentence; and if the steward just brought it, we know the coffee is "fresh." Only "careful" is an evocative descriptor, and it may not be necessary. The sentence also chokes up on itself because clauses modify other clauses; the Captain thanks a man and does another thing before doing a third thing, so there are two actions we try to put into a timeline, then the information that a third happens next. We also have to imagine the captain, the steward, the straw, the mug and the console in addition to the three actions. That prevents anything from standing out, no single clear picture or action emerging from the sentence, and a feeling of trivia. This is by no means an attempt to slam your writing: you're a heck of a writer, you know what you're doing and most of the story isn't like this. It's mostly the first three paragraphs. It's a more awkward introduction than any other part of the piece.

    There is also a little trouble with passive voice that lasts a little longer, including the 8th paragraph where "The pot of gold device was glowing bright blue" could be "The pot of gold device glowed bright blue". But for most of the piece your writing is totally sufficient and serves a neat a premise: we're in space and there's this cool object. What are the signposts? What do they do? What's the pot of gold? It's interesting and fun stuff, but the prose at the beginning gets in the way in a fashion the rest of the story really doesn't.

    This issue of clunky prose is exacerbated in the first three paragraphs because I want to know what they're doing and what the "pot of gold" is. I buy the importance of coffee, it's cute and sets a character tone, but once that's done I want to get into things a bit faster because their matter is clearly pressing. You introduce the pot of gold without saying who named it (just somebody) and without describing what it looks like or what it "waking up" would be like. We don't even have a description of the pot's shape by the time you tell us it starts glowing blue and spitting plasma. You could describe the device in the second paragraph right after its introduction to help us grasp just how weird a thing it is we're dealing with.

    Aside from a little passive voice, I think the whole piece clicks along very well from the middle on. I already mentioned that the coffee detail is great for their characters and the pot of gold itself is neat. Once I broke through the that early part, I wanted to know what it would do and where things were going. I'll echo Carrie that I enjoy your desire to write so many different genres of fiction. It's one of my favorite qualities in a writer, and one I try to follow myself.

    Cheers Tony!

  5. Ah, Carrie & David, I'm glad you liked it! Damned aliens... they always underestimate how suspicious and violent we can be. Humans didn't just fall off the turnip wagon, you know. As to why I'm not published yet? Well, as John noted in his thoughtful and spot-on critique, I still have a bit of a prolixity problem when it comes to descriptors.

    Thanks for the comment, Linda! I can't say I recommend a hernia as muse-bait - the price you pay for the inspiration is a bit high.

  6. John--Come to my blog anytime. I'd love to be slaughtered so eloquently.

  7. John: I really appreciate the depth and thoughtful nature of your critique, so I want to set aside my response in a separate comment.

    I'm guessing that you feel the same way I do about critiquing. Really bad stories aren't worth the effort of a full crit, since there are fundamental structural flaws. Merely lousy stories might be worth the effort, depending on how amenable the author is to objective discussion.

    Good stories require the longest crits. In the 90-10 rule, that last 10% is the hardest; discussions of how to get that last 10% are necessarily more involved. I take long, thoughtful critiques as a complement, not just to the story (which you think is worth improving), but also to me as a writer (who you think is *also* worth improving).

    I'm glad the piece worked for you overall. You are absolutely right about the clunky start. I was trying to convey that they'd been on station for a while, that everyone was tense, that a lot was going on, etc. The way it came out, I was trying to do too much in one sentence, and it ended up tripping over itself with all the descriptors.

    I rewrote the opening many times, trying to balance enough description to provide a frame of reference, but be obscure enough to intrigue and hook the reader. More time in revision with a fresh read would have helped the piece.

    I guess since I got so specific as to describe the signposts so clearly, I could have at least described the shape of the pot of gold device, and mention that it had been named by a Pollyanna politician. Fortunately for Earth, most of our leaders are hard-eyed cynics.

    Swapping around genres is a great challenge for me, and it's something I recommend for any writer. Making a believable sci-fi piece this week was fun.

    Thanks again, John. Cheers!

  8. Oh man, I thought we were all gonna die, and then, huzzah! We live to fight again another day! Great story Tony!

  9. I, too, thought they were goners!

    But I've seen enough movies where there's always a surprise kick-arse move that saves the day. You did not disappoint with the retaliatory blow!

    I also agree with anyone here who is relieved that coffee still hits the spot.

  10. Loved Wiswell's crit. He's right on. And your response to that shows your professionalism, Tony. That's one reason I keep coming back.

    The main thing I like about the story is the turnabout. Made me wonder what might have happened in, say, Africa 150+ years ago when the slavers showed up and the natives nabbed them instead. Good futuristic sci-fi makes you think things like that.

  11. Naming a ship the "Barrack Hussein Obama" was one of those details that propelled me forward (and made me giggle).

    Ah, to cut thru like John Wiswell. I reread the first few paragraphs a couple times, trying to keep track of what was happening and almost got lost. The action in the middle though grabbed me, and the idea behind the story was original and exciting.

    I think John W should stop writing his own works and come help the rest of us improve. Just saying.

  12. Tony - way to shoulder the load and you won't find a better tutor than the wiz. I'm coming off some public crit of late that at first had me redfaced and then i realised it too like this was spot on so I take it with a sobering thank you. we all do others favors by sharing input - better work is all our goals i'm sure.

    Your tale per usual enjoyable and like others am very glad to know there is coffee in space

  13. I was a tad worried at first because there is a lot of exposition up front... but as soon as I hit "And so here we are, the Captain thought..." the story really picked up.

    What I enjoyed most was the Captain's personality. You did a good job of showing us who he was with his brief dialog. He's the kind of guy who doesn't waste words and has no problem staying calm in a crisis.

  14. Great ride Tony! I agree with Scott - it's the Captain's personality,and voice, that really makes this piece. Good job.

  15. Loved the last paragraph. Humans really would rather fight first. They picked the wrong planet. :)

  16. You caught my attention with "Barack" and I was curious to see where that was going. I'm not at my sharpest today but I really enjoyed this. I appreciate the critiques because they help us all.

    All in all, I kept thinking, I want to be on that ship. Get me out of here! I'm ready to go exploring and you gave me a glimpse.

  17. Tony, another very entertaining story. I love your creativity and the way your story flows. I may not have the expertise that John Wisell might have, but I think you write to please the reader, which is the way you should write. I loved it!

    Sounds like you are having hernia problems. Have you had the surgery, yet? Mine was Jan. 12, 2006. No picnic!

  18. Wow. You produced all this in one day!

    I enjoyed the story. Then I enjoyed the comments. John's critique was lucid and your response was mature. I like this - it's good for us all. Things that made me laugh:

    "...the telemetry said whatever it was supposed to do."

    "Charlton detached his mug from the velcro..."

    "Send the missiles back through that gate or portal or whatever it is..."

    This is the kind of captain I hope we have at the helm when the Chiorrans arrive!

  19. This was amazing! so many details about their weapons and fighting.

    I loved the Obama reference and the final line, "diplomatic attache" not needed!

    go get 'em!

  20. What a fantastic Scalzi-esque story. I love the twist of opening the Pot of Gold near Jupiter's Gravity well. Although it obviously would've sucked if it was full of peaceful gifts of technological prosperity:-)

  21. Tony, you're positively welcome. I concur with Mr. Posey and Mr. Solender that your reception is the mark of a mature and professional writer. I get sweaty palms when my work is critiqued, which is one reason I was hesitant to leave you so much feedback. But you do ask for it at the end of every #fridayflash every week, so I wanted to give it the time at least one of these Fridays. I'm glad it sounds like you found this useful.

    Peggy's comment is most flattering. Personally, I think I have a lot left to develop in my own writing. I can only offer detailed feedback because I scrutinize myself so often (and yet I still miss so much). I've been trying to leave very detailed feedback for one person per #fridayflash, since this is a community of writers, but the brainpower and spare time is so hard to come by, especially when you're trying to finish your own stuff! Maybe I'll try out Miss Cleavenger's place next week.

    Cheers all! This #fridayflash is a wonderful community.

  22. I've been off-line for most of the day, guys, so I've been unable to thank you all for reading and for the great comments.

    Here's a really, really simple mission statement for me as a writer: I will always try to keep you coming back for more.

    So, for John, Jeff, Michael, Skycycler and everyone else who has ever been on the receiving end or the delivering end a detailed critique, I salute your commitment to your craft. You cannot get better if you don't know what you're doing poorly. And the goal is to get better, right?

  23. Descriptive and action packed. I'm impressed with the breadth of your writing abilities. This is completely different than your last two but also well done.

  24. Wow, great input from Wiswell. Detailed and thoughtful. Anyone should feel welcome receiving clear, professional critique. Often editing our own work is a challenge, and another eye helps a great deal.

    I agree with passive voice comment, one area that irks me. Too much passive weakens the paragraph. Be bold. While beginning may be clunky, the middle makes up for it.
    -David G Shrock

  25. NUKE'EM!!!
    Good stuff Tony, you appear to be giving the hernia the finger!

    And I too am in awe of Mr Wiswell's critiqueing skills (and of course inclination).

  26. The smallest of gestures means the most. Loved the line about waiting being hard for young men. Well done, sir!


  27. Good SF is hard to come by, so I'm discovering. This one was loaded with cool stuff, although I thought a bit derivative of Stargate. But then they're a bit derivative of Star Trek, etc.

    One thing that did pull me up a bit is why the crew was all-male?

    I loved that the mothership was named after Obama - nice touch!

  28. I like that you can write with such versatility. I enjoyed the story, it was interesting and fun to read!

  29. I loved the last line. There's your pay-off. I am such a gag-whore.

    Didn't 100% agree with JW's comments but I agreed about 80% and mainly on the important stuff.

  30. Hi, guys, thanks for the Saturday reads & comments!

    I haven't done a sci-fi in a while, so I thought it was time to refresh those skills a bit. I can recommend working outside your comfort zone - it builds your chops.

    Lily: yeah, I was thinking of Stargate (the silly movie, not the silly TV shows) a bit. Hard to do this kind of story without the context of the billion previous doorway to another world scenarios, going right back to Alice and the looking glass.

    Anton: and you know, that was just an afterthought. I wrote the piece, and the ending was too anticlimactic. It needed some kind of a punch. I thought it might be nice to indicate that the humans had actually considered the possibility that they might have to deploy diplomats instead of nukes. 8-)

  31. I love a good turn of the tables. hehe Well done! Amazing work.


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