He was the first to arrive, too, which only made things worse. As he waited for Esther to answer the door, he hoped that she might also have been derelict. No such luck, though. Hardly had she taken his coat when she pressed a sheaf of paper into his hand. He glanced at the title. "That Sinking Feeling," it read.
Not another humor piece, he groaned to himself. Domestic humor by the look of it. Still, he made sure to be engrossed in reading it by the time Esther came back downstairs. When she asked him what he had brought, he mumbled something about waiting till everyone was here. He hoped that his rudeness in not giving her something in return would be excused by his excessive attention to her story, even though he hadn't actually managed to read more than the first paragraph, over and over again....
The doorbell rang, and Sarge sighed in relief as he anticipated the arrival of someone else to divert Esther's attention. It was Dulcia, as he could probably have guessed; she was the only other member who ever arrived early. And looking as good as ever, he thought as his gaze flicked upward briefly.
Stop that, he thought to himself. Joy certainly wouldn't approve of thoughts like that. Gritting his teeth silently, he forced himself to actually read Esther's story.
Thankfully, it was short, and he tried not to show his relief too visibly as he picked up Dulcia's story, with a smile and a nod in her direction. She had just started on Esther's, but she acknowledged his smile with one of her own. He swallowed and cast his eyes down. "In Defense of Glory," he read. Another tale in the chronicle of General Salazar, no doubt, featuring the reappearance of the beautiful guerrilla leader Esmeralda Diaz, and another tempestuous love scene. He hated having to read these while Dulcia was in the room, because she was always watching him to find out what his reaction to that scene was. Which was probably patently obvious.
After he finished the story he pulled out his clipboard and made a show of taking down notes on the two stories, mostly to avoid further interrogation about his own story. Bunch of two-bit hacks, he thought to himself. Not a decent writer in the bunch. Except for me, of course, and I'm not going to bring anything for these amateurs to savage. Besides, "Hell Toupee" needed revision, and "Black Fire of Hope" was giving him trouble in the middle again. And "Benedict In Purgatory" was going nowhere at all. No, certainly nothing he could have gotten ready in time.
Horatio and Danielle came in together, as always. Had they done another collaboration, perhaps? No, two stories, they were handing out two of them. He didn't know why they bothered; their stories always looked completely the same even when they wrote them separately. Both had the same overdone poetic style, with no complete sentences and no grammatical structure, let alone punctuation and capitalization. Just a bunch of mildly interesting images in nothing resembling chronological order, if there was a plot at all. He smiled as he took them, and set them to one side without even looking at the titles as he continued to comment on Dulcia's story, industriously flipping pages and studying sentences and underlining things in pencil.
Grant arrived a few minutes later. Another chapter of his novel, probably. This would make it about 500 pages, with no sign of a conclusion in sight, what with three independent godlike alien races squabbling over the fate of existence, and the human race holding the key to it all, of course. If they could stop squabbling themselves.... Still, he set it on top of Horatio's and Danielle's stories, since it was infinitely more readable.
He looked at his watch. Now, in another twenty minutes or so, Blake would come in, having been inevitably delayed by something. Everyone else was chatting companionably, about the trivialities that made up their lives. Occasionally one of them would glance his way, wondering about his lack of an offering but being too polite to mention it. He busied himself with the other stories. Oh, god, Grant's put in a fourth godlike race. More ancient than the others. The source of the ruins on Mars. And Iapetus.
He struggled through Danielle's and was halfway through Horatio's when he heard the doorbell. This is it, he thought.
There were a chorus of hellos as Blake entered, grinning. He handed out copies of his story--another plot-coupon sword-swinging barbarian epic, no doubt. He picked up the pile of offerings that had been left for him, and scanned them quickly. Then his gaze fixed piercingly on Sarge's. "Nothing from you, Sargent?"
His throat suddenly gone dry, Sarge found himself unable to reply to the tone of threat in Blake's voice. He opened and closed his mouth to no effect, conscious of the pitying gazes of the others on him. Especially Dulcia's.
"How many does this make now, Sargent? Three? Such a shame. You remember Doris? Did you ever wonder what happened to her? After her three omissions" His grin was openly predatory now. "The verdict from the Cult?"
Sarge closed his eyes. He didn't want to see the verdict; he could feel the downturned thumbs of his jury. But who would exact the penalty? Surely not...
"Dulcia? Would you do the honors?"
He hardly heard Dulcia's delighted response as he was led off to the door to the cellar that Esther never used.
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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey / firstname.lastname@example.org