This past weekend, my family and I attended our first Balticon. We all had a terrific time; this convention goes high on our list of “not to be missed” cons (a more detailed tale of our adventures will follow in the next day or two). My first event of the weekend, at 2 pm on Saturday, was moderating a panel/writing event called “A Cthulhu Out of the Hat.” Here is the description from the program booklet:
A Cthulhu Out of the Hat
Writing Prompts for the Deranged, panelists and audience write
science fiction stories based on the items pulled out of a hat.
Panelists will read their stories at the end, audience members
will share their resulting stories at 11 PM on Sunday (Salon B).
(M): Andrew Fox, (S): Larry A. Reclusado, Gabe Fremuth, Cindy
Young-Turner, Hildy Silverman, Brandon (Brand) Gamblin
The ground rules laid out for me looked pretty sketchy – did the stories need to center around the worlds of H. P. Lovecraft, or could they be any sort of SF or fantasy? Where did the objects come from, the audience or the moderator? How many objects would each participant have to choose from?
Well, that was okay; I never mind making up my own rules. Before the gang and I left our house Saturday morning to head for Baltimore, I grabbed a Food Lion plastic bag and scooped five handfuls of the boys’ toys (and pieces of toys) from our living room table (which has become an extension of their toy box). I decided I’d have each participant (including me) choose three objects at random, then spend twenty-five minutes writing a science fiction or fantasy story featuring at least two of the three items. I’d invite audience members to write stories either utilizing any of the trios of items selected by the panelists or mixing and matching from any of the items pulled out of the bag.
Even though I didn’t require it, the majority of the panelists and participating audience members opted to give their stories a Lovecraftian tint. Three of my fellow panelists completed their stories within the twenty-five minute time limit and presented their stories; the fourth managed to reach his final line a few minutes before we had to vacate the premises, so he had just enough time to read it out loud.
I was the tortoise among this pack of hares. I still had about a third of my story to write at the time I sounded the buzzer and the first panelist began reading aloud, so I cannot claim to have written the following story in twenty-five minutes (forty minutes is closer to the truth). My three objects were: a quart-sized Ziplock bag with the number 9 written on it with magic marker; a small plastic flute; and a pair of plastic construction disks that fitted together sort of like a snowflake.
The Bag of Nine
Simon Pasquali, apprentice mage, had reached the day of his graduation. His Mage Superior, Master Onion – spelled like the vegetable, but pronounced On-YONE – handed him the Bag of Power. This bag contained nine potential magic talismans, one of which would have to serve Simon as his primary source of power for the remainder of his magical career.
“Choose wisely, apprentice,” Master Onion said. “You may only choose one item, and you may not go back on your choice. I am not permitted to tell you beforehand what abilities each of these objects may give you. In fact, I myself do not fully know. Some of them may grant awesome power which you will be able to use to serve humanity well. Others may corrupt your soul and urge you toward evil. Still others may offer you little whatsoever in the way of magical resources. However, know this – there is one object of power in this bag of nine which will allow you to properly and safely use all and each of the other eight. Choosing this talisman will permit you to become the mightiest mage of us all.”
Simon felt a trembling which reached all the way from his jaw through the pit of his stomach and down to the soles of his feet. He knew the next sixty or seventy years of his life depended upon the choice he would make today.
The first object he drew forth from the bag was an ordinary-looking coin. The second was a magnifying glass. The third was a tiny toy flute. The fourth was a dagger with a hilt of finely engraved gold. The fifth was a wheel of six inches in diameter, pierced by an axle made of iron. The sixth was a dragonfly caught in a chunk of amber. The seventh was a hat made of plain, rough cloth. The eighth was a marble made of glass which contained a double helix made from a mysterious substance which Simon could not identify. And the final potential talisman, the ninth, was a snowflake which did not melt.
Simon spread these nine objects before him on the Table of Choosing. Which to select? It seemed easiest to rule out certain items first. The coin – wouldn’t unlimited wealth, if that was what this promised, corrupt him? The same for the dagger – it promised to draw him into a life of ceaseless violence. The dragonfly in amber frightened him; its magic might cause the dragonfly to escape the amber and grow to tremendous size, perhaps to devour him.
The other objects seemed less obviously threatening, and offered potential magicks of great appeal or practicality. The unmelting snowflake seemed to offer the promise of control of the weather. The wheel might enable him to travel effortlessly. He could think of no possible downside to the hat – at the least, it would protect him from the elements, and it might even offer the ability to change his appearance or identity. The magnifying glass would ensure he would never be without a fire, and it might expand a small, meager meal, all that he could afford, into a banquet whenever his stomach demanded.
The marble fascinated him. But he had no notion what the double helix contained within it might mean. And the flute? It was a child’s toy.
“Choose, apprentice,” Master Onion commanded.
As if drawn by a powerful will not its own, his hand lingered above the marble.
“Choose!” Master Onion thundered.
Suddenly afraid of being overpowered by a force he neither understood nor felt a sympathy for, Simon pulled his hand away from the marble and grabbed the flute.
Master Onion looked upon his former apprentice pityingly. “Now you are apprentice no longer,” he said. “You have chosen the one tool you will depend upon for the remainder of your life. The talisman you have chosen is lacking in native power, but it is a seductive companion, one which will make great demands on your time and patience.”
“The marble would have given me command of all the talismans, wouldn’t it have?” Simon asked.
“Yes, it would have,” the Master said.
“Then I am glad I did not select it,” Simon said. “One man should not hold so much concentrated power.”
“I must tell you now,” Master Onion said, “the flute holds very little magic of its own. Any magic which flows forth from it will have to come from you.”
“I will learn to play it,” Simon answered, feeling his confidence grow. “A man who can make music is a man who can earn friends through the gift of pleasure. And a man who can make friends that way exercises the most potent magic of all.”