Short Story: The Light of Her Phone

This short story was written in response to a prompt on Reddit‘s /r/WritingPrompts subreddit. This particular prompt is an image prompt; I’ve borrowed my title from the title of that post, and the original image is included and linked below. Credit to DeviantArt user TomTC (Tommy Chandra) for the image, and to Redditor /u/Syraphia for the prompt. I’ve posted this story on Reddit in response to the prompt, as well.

I’ve opted to set this story in a larger fantasy world on which I’ve been working. Consequently, there’s a bit at the end that may sound like an infodump; I try to avoid that as much as possible, but as this piece is tied into that larger world, I found it necessary to include some of that linking information here. Still, I hope this story is enjoyable. Thanks for reading!

paranormal_girl__practice__by_tomtc-dbnclwe

Paranormal Girl (practice sketch) by TomTC

It was only when the sun set that she began to worry. Rather, she assumed the sun had set; it was getting dark, but the patches of sky that she could see were hazy and grey, and no glowing orb was visible. At any rate, the trees obscured her view.

Her name was Olive Parker, and she was thirteen years old. She’d been wandering for several hours. She didn’t know how she had come to this rather strange place; she only knew it had happened suddenly. One second she was stepping out her own front door; the next, she felt a strange tugging sensation throughout her body, and suddenly she was here, under these ashy grey trees. That was strange enough, and troublesome—to put it mildly!—but she had recovered quickly enough, and started walking. There were paths through the trees; she had found herself on one upon arriving. Surely they must lead somewhere.

Surely not, it seemed now. For the hundredth time, she pulled her cell phone from her pocket, and checked its GPS. As every time before, it searched the skies for a signal, and then came up blank. NO SATELLITE DETECTED. How could that be? There were always satellites in the sky, right?

She paused and looked around. The woods were dark now, and the light of her cell phone didn’t help her night vision. She pointed it toward the ground. In the dimness around her—there! Was that movement? Yes. Something… it was gone, whatever it was. Nothing too large; maybe a rabbit?

She resumed walking, using the cell phone’s screen to illuminate the ground at her feet. The roots of the trees didn’t seem to encroach on the paths, but one couldn’t be too careful. At the rate she was going, if she tripped, she’d cut herself, and get an infection and die, all before she got out of these woods. Well, that was a morbid thought. Anything, though, to divert her mind from one small but frightening truth:

There hadn’t been any wildlife around during the day.

Something dashed through the undergrowth to her left. She whirled toward it, bringing the phone up, but saw nothing. The light didn’t penetrate far into the trees anyway. She kept walking.

The woods at night were scary enough if vacant. No thirteen-year-old would ever want to admit that, but anyone would feel it. Worry turned to anxiety. She picked up the pace, though she still had no idea where she was going.

A sound brought her up short, and she froze in place. No; two sounds. Something was moving, pacing her, on the left; and something else was to her right—and moving closer.

Olive had reached the end of her endurance. She broke and ran. The light from her phone swung wildly as her arms pumped in counterpoint with her legs. The creatures on either side exploded through the brush, passing her and weaving—were they going to cut her off? She changed directions, darting down a side path to the right, heading downhill now. Ahead, she could see the faint glimmer of water—a pond, maybe? She crashed toward it.

Something huge and dark leaped onto the path ahead of her. She screamed, and darted left; she felt the wind of its massive paw swipe past her face, just missing. She blundered through the undergrowth, branches tearing at her clothes. Another creature appeared before her, all eyes and teeth; she spun to the right and ran toward the pond again, breaking out onto another path.

Ahead she could see the water, and an old wooden jetty that tilted out into the center. Something in the back of her mind registered that the water level was down from its original level; the jetty sat at an odd angle. A few feet from its end was a long, muddy rock that ordinarily (she guessed) would have been underwater. With the jetty, it made a passage across the narrow waist of the pond; she’d be able to run straight across with only a couple of hops.

She broke into the clearing around the pond and raced onto the jetty, feet thumping on the old, rotting wood. She risked a glance back as the two creatures burst out behind her; one was tall and wolfish, with matted fur and freakishly long limbs; the other was stumpy and reptilian, but with abnormally powerful legs and too many teeth and eyes. Both skidded and came up short at the water’s edge; neither seemed willing to risk the jetty, as they split and started around the sides of the pond at a run.

Olive leaped onto the rock, nearly falling into the water. She raced across and leaped onto the opposite bank, and glanced left at the reptilian creature—just in time to see the woods on that side fill with fire, engulfing the creature. The light dazzled her, but she could hear it howling in pain as it caught fire and burned. The source of the flames couldn’t be seen—what could cause that outburst? A flamethrower? Where was this place?! She scrambled up the hill away from the water.

The wolf creature bounded after her—and still there was nowhere to go, no place of safety. She could hear it getting closer, panting and growling. Any second now…

She raised the brightness on the phone screen as high as it would go. If only this one had a flashlight setting… At the last second, she spun and thrust it toward the creature’s face. The sudden brightness stunned it, and it stopped short and yowled in pain, clawing at its face. While it stood there, she turned and ran again. She made a dozen paces before it shook off the pain and came after her.

That trick wouldn’t work again. She wouldn’t get away this time. She could feel it closing the gap: nine paces. Eight. Seven…

Something—no, someone—caught her and shoved her past. She stumbled and nearly fell as the man wrenched the phone from her hand. There was no time to scream; she only managed to look back. She saw the light from the phone blossom in the man’s hand, illuminating his form; he wore a dark cloak with the hood up, but he glanced back just long enough to reveal his face, which was set in determination—but very human. Then her attention jerked back to the phone, for it was growing.

In the man’s hand, the phone expanded, blooming out as new panels unfolded from it. It became a shield of metal, glass, and plastic, pointing toward the onrushing creature. Then, it exploded with light, catching the monster in a beam of sunlike brilliance that spilled out to light the forest all around. The creature yowled and twisted, caught in the light as in a net; and its fur began to smoke. Its thrashings grew more intense; and then, finally, it burst into flames. When the light faded, and the creature’s remains fell to the ground, little remained besides charred bones.

Olive stood, dumbfounded, thinking only that she was glad to be alive. And then, the man turned to her.

“You’ve had a terrible night, haven’t you?” he said.

***

It was never easy to have one’s world expanded—and so much the more, when it was being doubled. The man walked Olive out of the woods, joined along the way by a woman in roughspun clothes, leather boots, and red gauntlets that covered her forearms and hands but left her fingers bare. “I’m Alric,” he explained, “and this is Joanna.” Then they had proceeded to upset everything she knew about the world.

When learning that she had arrived under such mysterious circumstances, Alric had explained that the Earth she knew was only one of two worlds. The forest in which they walked existed in its twin, which he called the Drylands. He explained that the two were very similar, but that some things—like the land around her home, and this forest—didn’t match up exactly. Stranger still, some people—but only from Earth, never from the Drylands—had the ability to pass between the two worlds. “That’s what you’ve done, it seems,” he said.

When Olive asked how they knew to find her, he grew chagrined. “We didn’t,” he said. “That was an accident, though a lucky one. We were on a mission.”

“A mission?”

Joanna took up the story. “We were sent to capture a rogue Zoomancer.”

While Earth produced the magic to travel between worlds, she said, the Drylands produced a different power. The Five Magicks, she said, existed in a scattering of the population, and in different proportions. By far the most common was the power that she herself wielded: Pyromancy, the mastery of fire. It was she who had set the reptilian creature alight; and she had stayed behind afterward to keep the forest from burning. As a result, she hadn’t been on hand to stop the wolf creature. There was Enviromancy, those who could control plant life and the weather; they were still common, but tended to die young, as their powers would spiral upward in strength until they became impossible to control. There were Psychomancers, the rarest form of all; these incredibly rare men and women could control the minds of those around them, and were almost universally to be feared, as their power corrupted them. Then there were Zoomancers, those who controlled and manipulated life. Not as rare as Psychomancers, but far less common that Enviromancers, these mages had the power to change and control living creatures, creating wonders…or abominations. This Zoomancer had gone a bit crazy with power, and had begun to attack the surrounding towns; and so they had been sent to deal with him. He had yet to be caught, but they were close now. It was his creatures that had chased Olive in the forest.

“But what about the fifth magic?” Olive said. “That’s you, isn’t it?” she said to Alric.

He nodded. “My magic is called Technomancy. Not long ago, there were thought to be only four magicks. Technomancy was discovered by a man we call the Engineer; or rather, rediscovered, as it was lost long ago. He taught it to many of us with the aptitude, and we teach others. It is the power to work with machinery; to understand it instinctively, and change it, and use it for our purposes. Like when I took the thing you carry—a telephone, I think it is called?—and changed it into a weapon to burn the abomination.” He smiled. “It’s a good thing you had it in your hand. My powers need something to work with—I can’t create machines from thin air. I expected some machines in the Zoomancer’s stronghold, but I wasn’t expecting to need to carry any on our journey. Without your machine, I would have been left to face the monster with knives only.”

They had reached the edge of the forest; and now they stepped out onto a track of beaten dirt. Above, the clouds had broken, and a nearly-full moon cast a silvery light. “So, what do I do now?” Olive said. “Can you get me home?”

The duo exchanged a look. “No, we can’t,” Joanna said. “If we had the power to travel between the worlds, we could take you home. But, only people born in your world can possess that power.”

“But, you can get yourself there,” Alric said. “This may have been your first time, but the fact that you got here means you have the ability.” He paused. “I don’t know how to walk you through it. I only know you have to intend to go. Perhaps think about it.”

“Like Dorothy,” Olive said. Seeing their blank looks, she added, “The Wizard of Oz? ‘There’s no place like home, there’s no place like…’ Never mind. Anyway, I’ll try.” She looked at each of them in turn. “Will you stick around until I see if it works?”

“Of course,” Joanna said. Olive nodded, and—thinking it would help her concentration—closed her eyes.

After a moment she looked up. “What if I come back here? What if I can’t help it?”

“Then you’ll be able to go home again,” Alric said. “Each time will make it easier. And if you are here and in need of help, head for the town of Ashdale, in that direction,” he said, pointing down the road. “Anyone there can point you to us, and we’ll help you.”

“But you should try not to come back,” Joanna added soberly. “This world is not a safe place for those who can travel between the worlds. Not now, anyway.” She exchanged a grim look with Alric.

Olive, for her part, let that go; and a moment later, she winked out of existence.

***

“Do you think she’ll listen?” Alric said. “That she’ll stay in her world?”

“No,” Joanna said as they started back into the forest. “They never do, especially when they’re young.”

“And you know this because you’ve met so many travelers?”

“No!” she said. “I mean, only one before this girl. But I hear it’s that way.” She grew serious. “Alric, if she comes back, and is captured, they’ll kill her. You’ve heard the rumors.”

“I know,” he said. “Joanna…we saved her life. We’re responsible for her now. If she comes back… we have to try to protect her. And you know the trouble that might cause.”

“I know.” There was nothing more to say after that; and they each walked alone with their thoughts.

***

Olive arrived, disoriented again, on a bare patch of paved street. It took a moment to get her bearings; and then she realized she was about three miles from home. Her parents would be worried sick…

She stopped in the light of a streetlamp and pulled out her phone. Alric had changed it back so thoroughly that she could almost believe none of it had happened. Still, here it was, nearly midnight… and a quick check of her GPS confirmed her location. She was most definitely back on Earth.

Strange as this excursion was, it was over now. Time to bite the bullet… taking a moment to compose what she hoped would be a believable story about getting lost, she dialed her mother’s number to ask to be picked up. As it rang, by the light of her phone, she started to walk.

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Reading Challenge Check-In: September 2017

How’s your reading?

Given that I consider myself a writer, naturally I hope that you consider yourself a reader. After all, here you are, reading this post—and I hope that one day I’ll have books available, which you will also want to read. Reading was a controversial topic in my house, and it can be a controversial topic at large, as well; my parents have always been avid readers, and instilled the habit into their children at a very young age—but at the same time, there was always pressure to “put that damn book down and go out and play!” Eh, well, you can’t win them all, I suppose.

So, let’s check in. How’s it going this year? In my case, I use Goodreads’ Reading Challenge feature each year. In January, you set a reading goal for yourself; throughout the year, as you finish each book, you add it to your read bookshelf, and the site adds it to your total for the challenge. I like the flexibility; I get to set the goal myself. Last year, I set my target at 30 books; but what I found was that I rationalized my time away with this goal, which for me is a little on the low end. I found myself rushing at the end of the year to meet the goal. This year, I thought (and still think) I could do better; and so I raised the goal to 50 books. So far, I’ve read 36. The site is not perfect, and gets the occasional glitch; right now my list is missing one book, but duplicating another, for reasons unknown. You have to ensure that your book includes both a start date and an end date (which you can change manually if necessary), or else it won’t show in your challenge; also, though I haven’t confirmed it, I suspect that the start and end dates must be different.

Books 8

Tracking my reading this way reveals some things about my reading habits. I’m strongly canted toward fiction, as I suspect most people are; I only have two non-fiction books in my list so far, which is unusually low for me. My preferred genres are science-fiction, fantasy, and crime. Thanks to my ongoing review project over at The Time Lord Archives, I have a large number of Doctor Who novels and short story collections in my list (no surprise there). I’m working in more classics; and when I say classics, I mean not only literary classics, but also classics within my preferred genres. I’ve dabbled in horror, action, comedy, and paranormal stories, but stayed away from romance this year (a genre I do occasionally read, but not often). I also tried out a few audiobooks this year, which is mostly a new thing for me.  It’s revealing, and it makes me want to spread out my interests and become a bit more well-rounded.

To that end, I’ll wrap up with a new challenge. Of course we aren’t at the beginning of the year; to which I say this: 1) I will probably repost this and other challenges near the beginning of 2018; 2.) Flexibility is key in any challenge; and 3) you can start anytime you like—52 weeks make a year, regardless of when you start, right? This challenge is designed to stretch your horizons, not simply by changing up the genre of your chosen books, but by changing the sources. What follows is a list of 52 categories (or 51, actually; you can take the last week off as a reward for your perseverance!). You can play in two ways. Easy mode: Every time you finish a book, check off every category that applies to it. Hard mode: Even if a book fits multiple categories, only check off one category per book (for a total of 51 books). If 51 books sounds like too much for you, split the list in half (a book every two weeks) and choose the 26 categories you like most, or make it a two-year challenge. It’s your call! (One last note: To give credit where it’s due, I must say that this list did not originate with me. Credit goes to Redditor /u/tbughi1, and you can read the original listing here.)

Where relevant, I’ve included the books that I’ve read for each category. Feel free to share yours in the comments!

  • 1. Read a book originally published in a language you do not know. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russian)
  • 2. Read a book by an author born in the same country or state as you. Snapshot, by Brandon Sanderson (country, USA; I haven’t read anything by a West Virginian this year.)
  • 3. Read a book from the Horror genre. At The Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft.
  • 4. Read a Romance and/or Erotica book
  • 5. Read a book written before 1950. The Stranger, by Albert Camus (1942).
  • 6. Read a book written by a man. Ringworld, Larry Niven.
  • 7. Read a book written by a woman. Six of Swords, Carole Nelson Douglas.
  • 8. Read a book in the Science Fiction genre. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein.
  • 9. Read a book in the Fantasy genre. Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erickson.
  • 10. Read a book labelled as Young Adult.
  • 11. Read a nonfiction book. The Mind Robber: Black Archive #7 by Andrew Hickey.
  • 12. Read a book with a contemporary setting.
  • 13. Read a book written after 1949. Early Autumn, Robert B. Parker.
  • 14. Read a book published this year
  • 15. Read a popular book, with at least 1 million ratings on any one website. (I’m finding that 1 million is an ambitious number; feel free to scale down if necessary.)
  • 16. Read an unknown book, with no more than 100 ratings on any one website.
  • 17. Read a book that was turned into a movie.
  • 18. Finish a series. The Ringworld Throne, Larry Niven, wrapped up the Ringworld series.
  • 19. Read a History book, fiction or nonfiction. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson (still reading it).
  • 20. Read a short story, one with less than 5,000 words. The Nine Billion Names of God, Arthur C. Clarke.
  • 21. Read a short book, one between 5,000 and 100,000 words. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov (89,280 words, according to one site I saw; still reading it).
  • 22. Read a long book, one between 100,000 and 250,000 words. A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (200,00 approximately, best estimate I could find; still reading it).
  • 23. Read an epic book, one with over 250,000 words.
  • 24. Read a self-published book.
  • 25. Read an indie book, where the publisher is a small or niche house and not one of the top 6 publishers. Seasons of War, Declan May, ed. (Chinbeard Books).
  • 26. Read a book published under one of the Big 6 publishing houses. MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, Richard Hooker (Published by William Morrow Paperbacks, which is an imprint of HarperCollins, one of the Big 6. I should note that it’s more correctly the Big 5 now, as Penguin and Random House merged on July 1, 2013.)
  • 27. Read a Biography, whether normal, Auto, or Memoir.
  • 28. Read a book labeled as a Best-Seller from this year.
  • 29. Read a book about Politics and/or Religion.
  • 30. Listen to an Audiobook. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde.
  • 31. Read a book on paper. Doctor Who: Love and War, Paul Cornell.
  • 32. Read a book that was, or currently is, banned by a government. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (previously banned in Ireland and India, challenged often elsewhere).
  • 33. Read a book in the Thriller or Suspense genre. It’s a loose definition of thriller, maybe, but The Four Legendary Kingdoms, Matthew Reilly.
  • 34. Read a Mystery book. What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw, Agatha Christie.
  • 35. Read a book labeled as Dystopian.
  • 36. Read a debut book from this year.
  • 37. Read a book by or featuring a character that is LGBT. Looking for Rachel Wallace, Robert B. Parker.
  • 38. Read a book in the Paranormal genre. The Omega Factor, Jack Gerson.
  • 39. Read a book with pictures in it. Popular Crime, Bill James.
  • 40. Read a book for the second time.
  • 41. Read a book that’s been on your to read-list for more than a year.
  • 42. Read a book that features animals.
  • 43. Read a book where the main character goes on a journey. The Eight Doctors, Terrance Dicks.
  • 44. Read a book where a stranger comes to town. Edgedancer, Brandon Sanderson (published as part of Arcanum Unbounded).
  • 45. Read a book labelled as a Satire or Allegory.
  • 46. Read a book from the Self-Help, Health, Travel, or Guide category.
  • 47. Read a collection of poetry.
  • 48. Read the first book in a series. Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, Marc Platt, the Doctor Who New Adventures series. (I had to cheat a little and go back to the last weeks of 2016–I have a few others, but I’ve already listed them).
  • 49. Read a book that won a literary award.
  • 50. Read a book set in your country.
  • 51. Read a book not set in your country, but exists today.
  • 52. Combining all the letters of all the titles of all the books you’ve read this year, complete the alphabet.

 

Happy reading!

Subplots and Sidequests

For some time now I’ve had a writing project stewing on the back burner. It’s a fantasy novel that I hope to make into a series.  Right now, I have the first two chapters complete, plus a basic plot outline, and—most relevant to my topic today—a chunk of the worldbuilding that has to undergird the story if I want to make it a series.  I’ll talk more about this project as it progresses, but that won’t be today; likewise, I’ll talk more on other occasions about worldbuilding and what it entails.

In the meantime, I have a problem. This story, or perhaps series, is trying to expand!  It wants to become a network of related stories, not necessarily in a linear series.  Most likely you’re familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  That shared universe encompasses the movie-based exploits of an A-list of superheroes; the television exploits of the B-list and supporting characters; and even some comic books (which is ironic, as it all started as an adaptation of comic books that are explicitly NOT part of the MCU—isn’t multiverse fiction fun?).  It has a dozen or more character threads weaving in and out from each other, and that’s just the main characters.  It’s a grand project, and for the most part it’s been both ambitious and successful—so much so that Hollywood has collectively decided that this is the wave of the future, and every film you see these days seems to be the seeds of a proposed (and far less likely to succeed) shared universe.  My story would very much like to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it grows up—and that’s a problem.

You see, I haven’t earned it. Marvel certainly has; you may call it cheating a bit, but they’ve earned it with decades of “shared universe” comic book stories. Then, they’ve earned it again with the execution of the MCU onscreen.  How did they do it?  I wasn’t around for the beginnings of their comic book empire (though I am old enough to remember when comic books weren’t cool—I was a bit of a comic book nerd back in junior high and high school, at a time when you could very much get beaten up for it).  I do recall the beginning of the MCU, however: they started with just a few central characters—Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and a little later, Thor.  They put the effort into building those characters long before they put them decisively on a team together.  They gave us substance before they tried to capitalize on its existence.  Every so often, an individual story in the MCU may flop, but when it happens, no one looks at the concept as a whole and says “This is stupid”—because they’ve labored to prove that it isn’t stupid.  It works, even if a minor cog in the machine breaks.

marvel

Pictured: Subplots!!!

Chris Brecheen over at Writing About Writing has spoken extensively about “earning it”, so much so that it’s become a bit of a catchphrase. I’m indebted to him for it, because that phrase sums up something I’d been trying to explain to myself for a long time: you can do anything in your writing as long as you earn it.  When Chris says it, he’s usually talking about reusing established tropes, or breaking one of the “rules” of writing.  Here, I’m going to apply it to the expansion of your story—the subplots and sidequests that we all love to create.

(You might take issue with my use of the MCU as an example. “But,” I hear you say, “the MCU is a collection of major plots, not subplots!” Not so, I reply.  The MCU, as well as any incarnation of the Marvel universe, has room for any plot—but they haven’t opted to INCLUDE just any plot.  Right now, and throughout the next foreseeable phase of the production, they do in fact have an overarching plot, that of the Infinity War.  Everything else is supporting that in some way.  Where it goes after that is anybody’s guess—but for now, EVERY individual character movie and EVERY television series is supporting the Infinity War super-plot.  In essence, it’s subplots everywhere.)

I can’t let my project devolve into subplots that expand the universe, because I haven’t yet earned the right for that universe to even exist. I haven’t finished the first book.  I haven’t yet strung the cord on which the subplots must hang.  Nor do I think that a single book will be sufficient to do so; I expect this to be a series, and so I believe I’ll need multiple entries in place, possibly the entire series, before I can expand on this universe.  Marvel was able to do so from the beginning of the MCU because it had a rich history of comic books—these characters and events were known, at least in a large niche market.  They had a foundation in place.  I don’t have that, and I can’t get by with growing multiple parallel stories at once.  I still have to put in the work on the first one.

“But,” I hear you say again (boy, you’re all so vocal today!), “I’m not trying to write a series! I just want to write one book!” My friend, this is just as applicable to you; and for evidence, I turn to the video gaming world.

I’ve recently been playing Fallout 3 (shut up, I’m never up to date in the gaming world).  It’s a great post-apocalyptic game, with a good, suspenseful plot and a well-developed world.  It even benefits some from its history, being the third canonical game in the series; however I’m going to discount that history for the moment, because this game is the only one so far to take place within its particular setting—other games take place in other parts of the former USA.  I’ve discovered, though, that I get sidetracked from the main plot by the sidequests.    It started small—disarm this bomb in Megaton (a major town)!  Excellent!  Did that within minutes of arriving, got a little achievement trophy.  But what now?  You need me to go find and eliminate the source of these mutated giant ants?  O….kayyy….I’ve got time.  Wait, now what? You want me to go run a simulation of the Battle of Anchorage?!  Well, I guess… Oh, look, here’s an entirely new city to explore and liberate in the ruins of Pittsburgh!  Fantastic!  …Wait, what was I doing again?  Main quest? What main quest?

Fallout 3

Pictured: Sidequests!!!

I get distracted, and then I lose motivation, and then the game never gets finished. Fallout 3 has approximately a million sidequests and achievements, and most are interesting enough to keep you going—but you lose sight of the goal.  The same thing can happen in our writing, even if we’re only writing one volume.  We can include so much that we lose focus.  The readers won’t follow along; and we may not even finish writing it.  There are tricks we can use; an outline, for example, will help us stay on track.  We can better reach the goal if we, you know, know what it is and how we plan to get there.  But, mostly, it takes determination to stay on target.  If you know that introducing this new character or setting will send your story off on some wild, unnecessary tangent, then don’t introduce it.  Save it for when you’ve earned that extra story.  For now, keep earning it by keeping your plot on track.

We’re a lot more forgiving of sidequests and subplots in video games. There are a lot of reasons for that; we’ve come to expect them, for one, and games are so expensive that we feel we have to get our money out of them (by racking up a certain number of hours).  Games are less linear, and tend to have in-game features (such as checkpoints and quest markers) to pull us back on track.  Books have none of those, and as such we have to work harder at trimming out the unnecessary and keeping our stories on track and cohesive.

Does that mean we can never have a subplot or sidequest? Absolutely not! There’s still room for my novella about my principal technomage discovering his own powers two decades before the main story begins.  Just, not yet.  I haven’t earned it yet.  On the way to earning it—or any other sidequest or subplot—we should ask ourselves a few questions.  First, does it distract from the main story? A good subplot or sidequest won’t distract the reader from the main story, even while it may seem to put it on hold.  The main story should still be present in the reader’s mind (and usually this will result in a sense of some urgency to get back to it!).  Second, does it support the main story?  It may not be integral, but it should contribute something to the main story.  Third, why should the reader care?  You still have to earn the reader’s interest via good characterization, good plot, and good writing (which we’ll talk more about in later posts).  Just because your characters are “visiting” this subplot from the main plot, doesn’t mean they will be interesting here!

I’ve given examples from television, film, and video games; let me wrap up with a literary example. Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth fantasy series is the story of the struggle to liberate the magic-wielding New World (a relatively small continent) from invasion and oppression by the much larger Old World, which is led by a cult that wants to see magic eliminated from the world.  It’s the story of Richard Rahl and Kahlan Amnell, the leaders of the New World, in their fight against Jagang, a powerful telepath of sorts who leads the Old World.  Most of the books in the series take place in the New World; but right in the middle of the series, it veers off into a “sidequest” (as I’m calling it) into the Old World, when Richard is kidnapped by one of Jagang’s agents.  She takes him to Jagang’s capital, far from anyplace he knows, and he becomes a slave there.  The events of that story, in which he seeks his own liberation and the ideological liberation of those around him, have little to do directly with the fight for the New World.  However, they pass my three tests above: the presence of agents of Jagang is a constant reminder of the main plot; Richard’s actions here will eventually, several books later, serve to undermine Jagang’s power base (thus supporting the main plot); and the characters and their actions are compelling and emotionally intense.  The result is Faith of the Fallen, which is in my opinion the best and most powerful book in the series—and Goodkind earned every bit of it.

Faith of the Fallen

That’s how it’s done, and that’s how you earn your subplots and sidequests. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some earning to do.

You can find Chris Brecheen and Writing About Writing at the link in the text above, or on Facebook.

Short Story: Chasing Humanity

A few years ago, Big Finish Productions–which produces the many wonderful Doctor Who and other audio dramas I review over at The Time Lord Archives–unexpectedly lost one of its own to illness: Paul Spragg, a man who wore enough hats that just giving him a proper title is all but impossible.  In tribute to him, Big Finish conducts an annual competition in which participants contribute short stories in the classic era of Doctor Who (that is, between the First Doctor and the Eighth Doctor’s appearance in The Night of the Doctor).  The winning entry is then produced as a “Short Trip” audio drama.  (For a great example, you can download last year’s winning entry, Joshua Wanisko’s Forever Fallen, here.)  I didn’t become aware of the contest in time to participate last year; but this year I made a submission, and…

…I didn’t win.  Oh well.  There were hundreds of entries, so that’s no surprise.  Still, I was surprised to have received a response; the contest rules make it clear that there will be no correspondence (unless, of course, you’re the winner).  I’ve jokingly said that it’s the most polite rejection letter I’ve ever received.  There’s some truth to that, though–and as the letter indicated, the story was well received.

At any rate, the winner has not been announced yet, so I can’t shed any light on that.  You’ll find out at the same time I do, if you’re interested in Big Finish’s work (which I highly recommend).  What I can do is post my entry here, for your reading pleasure (I hope!).  I’ve also posted it on The Time Lord Archives.  This Third Doctor story is titled Chasing Humanity, and takes place during season nine of the classic television series, between The Sea Devils and The Mutants.  (I feel I should mention that the Third Doctor was a rare choice among the entries; according to Big Finish, most entries were for the Seventh and Eighth Doctors, with only a scattering of the others.)  For those who keep track of such things, it’s about 5700 words in this draft.

Third Doctor and Jo Grant

Chasing Humanity

It was only a hotel lobby; but from the way the Doctor looked at it, one would think it was a battlefield. His lips were a thin line, and his eyes, though alert as ever, were narrowed. Jo Grant caught the look, and took his arm. “Come on, Doctor, it’s not that bad. At least try to enjoy yourself!” She paused and looked around. “I should think this symposium would be your type of thing. What was it the Brigadier said?” She lowered her voice and assumed a haughty accent. “It’s the peak of military technology at stake here, Doctor! Who better to send than you, my scientific advisor?”

The Doctor arched an eyebrow at her. “Very talented, Jo. You’ve missed your calling; it’s a pity you were born too late for vaudeville.” His scowl deepened, and he started into the room, drawing her in his wake.

Jo sniffed. “Well then. If that’s the way you’re going to be, perhaps the Brigadier was right. He also said that it would do you good to get out and, you know, interact with people. Spend a little less time in the laboratory.”

“The Brigadier employs me specifically for what I do in the laboratory.” He steered her around the worst of the crowd.

“Yes, and that’s exactly why we’re here. You have a lecture to make regarding that work.” Specifically, he was to speak on the progress made in the field of emotional manipulation in the wake of last year’s tragedy at Stangmoor Prison. The lecture was to concern the efficacy of suppression of emotions in battlefield soldiers. However, that was tomorrow night; and Jo wasn’t sure how she was going to make it through the next twenty-four hours with the Doctor.

“Yes, well…” the Doctor muttered. “I suppose we’ll have some dinner, then. Where is Sergeant Benton?”

“He’s checking in with security and discussing the security arrangements for the symposium. Doctor, this is unlike you–you already knew where he was. Won’t you at least try to relax?”

The Doctor, of course, did no such thing. At dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, he became increasingly more dour, and even grew short with the waitstaff. The situation was not helped by an encounter with one nervous waitress; glancing around as she crossed the room, she failed to see the Doctor, and stumbled, dumping a tray of canapes into his lap. Fortunately, there was no great mess; but the Doctor’s unkind glare sent the mortified waitress scurrying back to the kitchens the moment the wreckage was collected.

The Doctor’s mood brightened, however, when they were joined by a short, bearded man in a tweed jacket. “Doctor! So good to see you here! I was quite surprised to see your name on the agenda–care if I join you?”

“Absolutely! Come, sit down!” Suddenly the Doctor was effusive. “Geoffrey, this is my assistant, Miss Jo Grant. Jo, this is Doctor Geoffrey Chambers. Geoffrey is a geologist with Oxford. We met some time ago, when he took a temporary assignment with UNIT in the wake of Project Inferno.”

“Yes, quite interesting, it was,” Chambers said. “I understand that Ms. Shaw has returned to Cambridge since then? A pity; I was hoping to see her here. Ah, well, we can’t have it all, I suppose… Miss Grant, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance! I will say, if you can keep up with this man, you are an extraordinary individual. So tell me, Doctor, what can we look forward to from your presentation?”

***

In the kitchen, the waitress dropped her tray into a dish bin, and ran out the back door to the alley behind the hotel, ignoring the shouts of the head chef. Shaking, she leaned against the wall, catching her breath. That had been a close call; and she began to wonder, not for the first time, if she could really make this work. Humans were never quite what she expected… still, there was little to be done about it, and less in the way of options. She lifted the hem of her blouse, exposing a square, yellow box on a tight belt around her waist. She regarded the box, which had a thin crack across its surface; she made a minute adjustment to a slide switch on the top, and then covered it again. Setting her nerves, she returned to the kitchen.

***

Jo was beginning to think that not even the chatty Doctor Chambers could lift the Doctor’s spirits for long. As dinner progressed, his scowl, and its attendant rudeness, returned; until finally Jo kicked him beneath the table. “Doctor!” she hissed. “Show a little dignity, please!”

The Doctor set down his napkin and pushed back from the table. “Jo, my dear, I am the very image of dignity. It’s this function that is undignified by its very nature!” He stood up. “Geoffrey, it’s been a pleasure, and I hope to catch up with you again during our stay. In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me…”

Whatever Chambers might have said was interrupted by an odd sight: the waitress who had dropped her tray came running out of the kitchen and past their table, heading for the door. “Well,” Jo commented, “at least I’M not the only one having a bad night.”

***

The chef met the waitress as she came in the door. “I’m so sorry,” she murmured, “I don’t know what happened to me out there, but it won’t happen again, I swear.”

“Just see that it doesn’t,” he said. “We are not some diner on the corner, you know. We have a reputation to maintain! I’ll not have you making us all look foolish, and especially in front of these military types. If we weren’t in the middle of this conference, you would be out the door already! Do you understand?”

She nodded and started to walk away. He scowled and grabbed her hand. “Don’t walk away when I’m talking to you! You still have work to do!”

She yanked back her hand. “No, I don’t. It’s six o’clock, and my shift is over. Just leave me alone!” She turned and ran out into the dining room; as the door swung shut, the chef saw her narrowly miss bumping into the same man on whom she had dumped the canapes. Scowling again, he shook his fist in her direction… and then winced. He opened his hand, and saw that the palm was red and covered in blisters. Now, how had that happened?

***

Sergeant Benton was no happier than Jo to share the Doctor’s company; but as the lone representative of UNIT’s armed service, the role of bodyguard fell to him. Not, of course, that there should be a need for a bodyguard here; but UNIT was not in the habit of taking chances. The trio sat in the audience of a lecture on new techniques in small arms production, as near the exit as the Doctor could manage. The Doctor spent the bulk of the lecture muttering irritated remarks about the subject matter, while Benton and Jo exchanged longsuffering looks behind his back. Only when the Doctor’s comments began to draw the attention of others in the audience was Benton able to get him to subside.

“Sergeant Benton, if we must endure this interminable lecture, we should at least be treated to accurate interpretations of the data!” the Doctor insisted, not for the first time. “If I wanted to engage in half-baked theories, I would find a coffee shop and take up the social sciences. This is supposed to be a scientific symposium!”

“Doctor, please,” Benton said, and raised a hand to forestall interruption. “Your mind might be centuries ahead of us mere mortals, but bear with us while we get there. You’ll have your chance tomorrow night, won’t you?” The Doctor gave him a withering look, but Benton pressed on. “People are starting to stare. The Brigadier won’t be happy with me if I let you get yourself ejected from a seminar. So, please, settle down and just… be in the audience, alright?”

The Doctor drew in a long breath, gave a half-hearted smile, and then nodded. “You’re right, Sergeant, of course. I will attempt to…rein in my temper. Such as it–” He stopped, and cocked his head. “Hmm?”

“What?” Jo spoke up from his other side.

“Shh.” He raised a finger. “Listen.”

Behind them, two security guards stood at the door, one to each side. Over the low drone of the lecture, voices could be heard from their walkie-talkies. “There’s something going on in the kitchens,” Benton murmured for Jo’s benefit. “They’re being cautious about what they say, but it sounds serious.” At that moment, one of the guards turned and rushed out the door.

“Well,” Jo said, “I hope everything will be alri–oh, no,” she said. Benton pulled his gaze back from the door, and saw what Jo was seeing: a speculative look of interest on the Doctor’s face. “No, Doctor! It’s not our problem!”

“Jo is right, Doctor,” Benton said. “Let security handle it, whatever it is.”

“Handle what?” the Doctor said. “I, for one,” he said, standing up, “could do with a bit of refreshment. Care to join me?” He pushed past Jo and strode out the door. Jo and Benton exchanged looks of resignation, and followed.

***

A circle of the conference’s security guards stood near the ovens in the kitchen. A second circle–more of an arc, really–surrounded them, composed of the kitchen staff, and a third arc –the wait staff– stood near the opposite walls. The atmosphere was one of confusion, dismay, and distress. The Doctor strode in as though he owned the place, cape flaring dramatically, and slipped deftly through the outer arcs to the inner circle. “Gentleman,” he said, “what do we know so far?”

As one, the guards looked at him incredulously; and then something curious happened, something which Jo was coming to regard as standard procedure for the Doctor: as one, they nodded, and began to explain. She had seen this happen on several occasions, and it never ceased to amaze her; the Doctor would step into a situation armed with nothing but an air of confidence, and people simply… accepted him, as though he belonged there. It was not new, but it remained exceptional.

One guard took the lead. “This is,” he said, gesturing down at the body on the floor, “or rather, it was, the head chef, a Mister Richard Farley. He was perfectly fine, as far as anyone can tell, right up to the moment he fell out on this spot. No one saw anything, and nothing strange has been reported. One of the other chefs made some attempt to revive him, but there was nothing to be done.”

“A heart attack?” Jo suggested.

The guard was about to answer, but the Doctor beat him to it. “No, I don’t think so.” He knelt down and turned the body over.

Jo gave an involuntary gasp. “But… he’s… he’s burned!” Every visible inch of skin was covered in mottled red burns.

“Yes,” the Doctor murmured. “Third degree burns, at that. But there’s something curious about it. Sergeant, what do you notice about this man’s condition?”

Benton knelt down beside him to examine the body. He frowned at the extent of the damage– and then his eyes widened. “His clothes aren’t charred. These burns are fresh, and some of them have to have bled, but–”

“Yes,” the Doctor agreed. “If he had these burns prior to his shift, well, he wouldn’t be here. And he wasn’t dressed after the burns, either; if he had been, there would be much more in the way of bloodstains. No, he was wearing these clothes when it happened– but they aren’t burned at all.” He straightened and returned to the guard. “And you say that no one saw this happen?”

“That’s right,” the guard said. “He’d been working, giving orders, just like always; and then suddenly, he was dead on the floor.” He shrugged. “We assumed it was an equipment accident.”

“An equipment–” Benton began, and then stopped. “There’s no way that this could have been the result of any of the equipment in this kitchen.”

“Then what do you think it was?” the guard said. His tone had gone cool. “Listen, this hotel is full of representatives from every military and scientific establishment in Europe. We will not allow any kind of scandal to interrupt the conference. In a few days, we can go back and revisit the situation, but for now, this is an accident. And that is what we’re going to tell the police when they arrive.”

The Doctor gave him an even stare. “I see.” At that moment a commotion could be heard in the lobby. “Well, then, we’ll leave you to it. It sounds like they’re arriving now. Jo, Sergeant, come along.” He turned and strode out through the dining room, carefully taking the entrance furthest from the incoming policemen.

“Are we just going to let it go?” Jo said, tugging him to a halt in the corridor. “Doctor! You know that was no accident!”

“Of course it wasn’t,” the Doctor agreed. “The question is, what was it?”

“Well…” She faltered. “I don’t know. But you have an idea, don’t you?”

“Not yet,” he said. “But there is a detail we’ve overlooked. Or rather, we didn’t have time to address it. Come and see.” He led them back toward the dining room, stopping in the doorway. From here, there was a clear view into the section of kitchen where the waitstaff still stood, now gathered in a huddle. “Look at them. Do you notice anything strange about them?”

Jo got it this time. “They’re all red in the face! Like they were–”

“Sunburned, yes,” the Doctor said. “But it’s late, and the sun has been down for a few hours. And why would all of the staff, who don’t come and go together, have the same burns? Except, of course, for the head chef, who certainly got the worst of it. No,” the Doctor declared, “there’s more at work here, and I want to know what it is.”

***

The next morning’s breakfast brought no answers; but it provided more questions. “The kitchen staff is short this morning,” Jo said as she joined the Doctor and Benton at the table. “Four workers called in. Doctor, what do you make of that?”

“I’m not ready to make assumptions yet,” the Doctor replied. “Though I suspect–”

“Doctor,” Benton interrupted. “People get sick all the time. Maybe it’s a virus. We should probably wash our hands once in awhile, but I don’t see how this could connect to what happened last night. Or even more likely, they just called in because of the trauma.” He glanced at Jo, who shrugged.

“It makes sense to me,” she said. “Though I trust the Doctor’s hunches, when he has them.”

“Well, it’s not going to matter this morning,” Benton said before the Doctor could recover the conversation. “Doctor, you’re due to participate in a panel discussion in ten minutes. Look, I know you aren’t happy about it, but the Brigadier said–”

“No, no, it’s quite alright,” the Doctor said. “I’m looking forward to it, actually. Besides, the tedium will give me time to mull over our situation.” He smiled at them, and got up and left the table.

“Was that sarcasm?” Benton said. “Or was he being serious?”

Jo tossed her napkin onto the table. “Oh, who can tell with him?”

***

An hour into the panel discussion, Jo struggled to stay awake. She found these events more difficult than the lectures; at least those gave interesting new information. This was just debate, and she could get her fill of that in the UNIT offices. The Doctor seemed to be enjoying his part; but here in the audience, the heat and the droning were making her drowsy. Finally, she whispered to Benton and excused herself, and headed for the washroom to freshen up.

***

In the kitchen, the waitress’s hands shook as she listened to her coworkers talking about the death of the head chef. It simply wasn’t going to work, she feared. If the local authorities turned their investigative eyes on this place, soon enough they would begin to look into the staff, and then… well, her cover was good enough to get her the job, but she doubted it would stand up to real scrutiny. Perhaps it was time to move on.

The problem was that she would need a new form. It would be best to change now, before slipping out of the hotel; if anyone saw one of the staff leaving when she should be working, they might become suspicious, and she wanted no trail to lead to her. She might not have committed a crime, but she certainly would be a person of interest. That presented a problem, however; it had taken her weeks to prepare this form, using composite features from several individuals. There was no time for that now; she would have to simply copy someone. Well, there was no time like the present–even her world had that cliché–and so she excused herself and headed to the washroom.

***

The washroom door opened as Jo reached for it on her way out. “Oh, sorry,” she said, “I didn’t see you there–” The rest of her words were cut off. The door closed on the sounds of a brief struggle, and then there was silence.

***

Doctor Geoffrey Chambers stepped out of a conference room and into the lobby. If only there had been time to say goodbye to his friend, the Doctor…ah, but here was an answer! “Oh, Miss Grant, it’s so good to see you!” he called out, and stopped the young woman with a touch. She gave him a glance that, had he noticed it, would have been taken as bewilderment; but she stopped. He paid no mind, and kept talking. “I was hoping to say goodbye to the Doctor, but I see from the schedule that he’s occupied at the moment. I wonder if you could convey my greetings to him? You see, I have to leave early– my daughter is, well, expecting– I received a call that the baby is on the way… she’ll be expecting me at the hospital eventually, you see–”

The young woman was caught off guard by the torrent of speech, but she managed a nod. “I’ll– I’ll let him know, yes.”

He gave her an effusive smile, and then unexpectedly embraced her. “Splendid!” Abruptly, he realized what he was doing, and pulled back. “Oh… er… well, you must forgive me and my scattered brain today. It’s been quite the pleasure to meet you, Miss Grant! Do take care of the Doctor, please. Ah, if you’ll excuse me, I must gather my things.” He turned and made his way to the elevators.

Jo gave the man a final, long look, and then turned to complete her own exit. She made it ten paces before she was interrupted again, this time by the Doctor and Benton as they exited the panel discussion. “Ah, Jo, there you are!” Benton said. “Ready for lunch?”

“Lunch? Oh… I, ah…” she stammered, but the Doctor took her arm. “Oh, well, that won’t be… necessary…” she trailed off as he started toward the dining room.

“Nonsense, Jo,” he said, “we’ll all do better with a good meal. And then we can begin to look into last night’s events.” At his side, Jo stiffened, but he didn’t seem to notice. She glanced away, but Benton was on her other side. There was nothing for it but to go along.

Jo said little during the meal, and only picked at her food. Finally the Doctor stood up, and Benton followed suit; Jo did likewise. At the door of the dining room, the Doctor stopped her. “Jo, are you feeling alright? You look unwell.”

A way out! Suppressing a smile of relief, Jo glanced up at him and quickly shook her head. “I– I think I’d better go lie down. Headache,” she added by way of apology.

“Oh, alright,” Benton said, “We’ll take a look around and try to piece together what we can about last night–” Jo gave him a startled look before she could stop herself–”but first, we’ll walk you to your room. Right, Doctor?”

“Oh, no, that won’t be–”

“Absolutely, Sergeant!” the Doctor overrode her. “Truth be told, Jo, I must admit I was rather rude to you last night. If you’ll allow me, I’ll make it up to you in courtesy now.” He was already starting toward the elevators. Irritated, she followed, with Benton bringing up the rear.

***

The Doctor and Benton saw Jo into her room, and heard the lock click before turning away. “She’s acting odd, isn’t she?” Benton said as they made their way down the hall.

“Quite. But she isn’t the only one acting strangely in this hotel… nevertheless, she should feel better after a nap.” They rounded the corner toward the elevators. “I would think– eh, what’s this?”

Ahead, a small crowd consisting of the concierge, two security guards, and a housekeeper had gathered around an open door. A third guard poked his head out of the doorway as the Doctor and Benton approached. “Call for a doctor!” he instructed the concierge.

“I’m a doctor,” the Doctor interjected as they reached the crowd. “What’s going on?” The concierge gave him an odd look–too much good fortune, perhaps, that a doctor would already be on hand–but he allowed them in. “The front desk received a call from this room, asking for help,” he said. “He sounded as though he was in pain.”

“Indeed he was,” the Doctor said as he knelt. There, on the floor, lay Doctor Geoffrey Chambers, who was covered head to foot in severe burns, burns which left his suit and tie untouched. Unlike the unfortunate head chef, he was still breathing.

“Geoffrey,” the Doctor said gently, then more forcefully: “Doctor Chambers! Can you hear me?”

Chambers’ eyes opened, revealing bloodshot whites and darting irises. “D-Doctor? Is that you? Oh, what’s happened to me?”

“Lie still, Geoffrey. We’ll get an ambulance.” He motioned to the concierge, who nodded and went for the room phone. “Geoffrey, I need you to tell me what happened to you. How did you get these burns?”

“They… they just… erupted, all over me. Very quick. So… painful. Doctor, I… I’m dying. And my… grandchild… I won’t see…”

The man was slipping away. “Geoffrey,” the Doctor said, “who have you seen in the last hour? Who did you see last?”

Chambers looked puzzled. “Why… the last… it was your lovely assistant, Miss… Miss Grant.” He exhaled then, a final breath that lasted too long, and was gone.

The Doctor exchanged a dark look with Benton. “The ambulance can see to Doctor Chambers. Sergeant, I think we’d better get back to Jo. Come on!” They leaped to their feet and ran from the room, leaving the startled staff behind.

“What’s going on, Doctor?” Benton said as they ran. “And why Jo?”

“Because,” the Doctor said as they reached Jo’s door, “I fear Miss Grant is not herself at the moment. Listen, I don’t have time to explain it now; we’ll save it for later.” He pulled a short, silver rod–his sonic screwdriver–from his pocket, and aimed its circular head at the door. The screwdriver buzzed, and the lock clicked open. Benton threw the door open, and they burst inside.

Jo was nowhere to be seen. The window on the far side of the room stood open, curtains blowing in the breeze from the alley below. They ran to the window and leaned out. Two window ledges over, a fire escape snaked down the back of the building; Jo Grant was making her way down the iron stairs. Already she was nearly at the bottom. “Sergeant Benton,” the Doctor said, “go downstairs and find Jo, the real Jo. If I’m right, you’ll find her somewhere in the building, unconscious. I’ll retrieve the imposter. Go!” Not waiting for an answer, he climbed out the window.

***

Benton searched the lower floors with military efficiency. Storerooms, offices, conference rooms, lecture hall– all proved empty. He stopped by the front desk, fists on his hips, and looked around, pondering. If she was nowhere to be found down here, that meant searching the guest rooms… which would take time and manpower that he didn’t have. There had to be something he’d overlooked.

A thought occurred to him. Deliberately, he set aside his own thoughts, and tried to put himself in Jo’s shoes. She had to have been taken during the panel discussion, when she left the room… where would she have gone? When he realized the obvious answer, he kicked himself, and then turned and ran for the ladies’ room. Fifteen seconds later, in a locked stall at the back, he found a very disgruntled Jo Grant, wearing a waitress uniform and just beginning to awaken. Her face, he noticed, was red with what appeared to be a sunburn.

***

By the time the Doctor reached the bottom of the fire escape, the woman who wore Jo’s face had reached the open end of the alley. He pounded after her, calling out Jo’s name– for he didn’t know what else to call her– but to no avail. She gave him a single look, and turned left onto the crowded sidewalk.

He was in better shape than his appearance would suggest, and he narrowed the gap; but it wasn’t going to be enough. Soon she would reach a more crowded public plaza ahead, and there he would lose her. He poured on as much speed as he could muster– and then skidded to a halt. Just ahead of her, a fire hydrant stood on the sidewalk. It was a dirty trick, perhaps, but any port in a storm…

At the carefully-aimed buzzing of the sonic screwdriver, the cap popped off of the hydrant; and then, as the woman passed, the valve spun. A torrent of water knocked her from her feet, leaving her dazed in the street.

The Doctor caught up as she began to pick herself up. He shut off the water, and turned his attention to her… and saw that ripples were spreading across her skin, like waves in a pond. “Careful now,” he said, “let me help you.” He pulled off his cape and draped it over her, careful not to touch her directly, and then helped her to her feet. “Come on, let’s get you back to the hotel.”

“No!” She started to pull away, but his grip on her arm through the cape stopped her.

“My dear,” he said, “I assure you I am not trying to harm you–but in a matter of moments, everyone on this street will see you in your true form. I can’t say I know what that will be, but I suggest you may want to prevent that outcome. If you’ll come with me, I can help you.”

She looked as though she still intended to bolt– until another ripple ran across her form. Finally she nodded, and started walking with him.

***

The ripples were coming faster as the Doctor and the woman entered the lobby. Benton and Jo waited in chairs near the dining room; they leaped to their feet as the bedraggled duo entered. “Doctor!” Jo shouted. “What– What’s going on here? Who is she?”

“Patience, Jo, we haven’t time to talk just yet. If the two of you will come with me…” Still leading the soaked imposter, he escorted them into the kitchen, and quickly sent the staff out. “A minute or two, that’s all I need,” he said, “and you can all get back to work.”

When they were alone, the Doctor stepped back from the woman. “Jo, Sergeant Benton, allow me to introduce Lorana Sitel, of the Charidzi people. Lorana, you should turn it off now, I think. You’re safe here.” The woman nodded, and reached to a box hanging from her– or rather, Jo’s– belt. Her form rippled again, and changed, flowing like water from head to foot. Where a perfect duplicate of Jo Grant had stood, there was now a much taller figure, taller than Benton or the Doctor, slender and willowy, with a high forehead and a bald skull. Her skin glinted in shades of blue and silver, and– most strikingly– she had four eyes, two on each side of her face, each pair aligned vertically. Her fingers were long and bore more joints than human fingers, but had no nails. She still wore Jo’s clothes, but ill-fittingly on her long frame.

“A… shapeshifter?” Benton murmured.

“Quite. Lorana, would you care to explain why you’re here on Earth? If it isn’t too painful, please,” he added gently.

She nodded. “My planet is a lot like your Earth. We have some technology that exceeds yours, but culturally, we’re not that different.” Her voice–which was similar to that she had used in her waitress form, but with a reedy lilt–became wistful. “I am nothing special. On my planet, I was perfectly happy. I was… what would you call it… a travel agent? I arranged holidays for people. I had a husband, and two children. My life was quiet.” She paused. “And then, my family were lost. They were coming to visit me for a meal one day while I worked, and their vehicle lost control and struck another. The other driver survived… my family did not. I was suddenly alone.”

“The Charidzi,” the Doctor said, “have an empathic power. They sense the emotions of others. It’s not as invasive as telepathy, but it can still be overwhelming at times. It may sound strange, but as a result, sympathy is not a strong trait for the Charidzi. After all, it’s hard to be sympathetic when you feel every pain, every awkwardness, every moment of judgment.”

“I couldn’t take it,” Lorana said. “I couldn’t stand watching them all look at me, and feel the things they were feeling, and not be able to stop it. So, I left. I scheduled a trip for myself, to several planets. And when I reached yours, I decided it would be a good place to disappear.”

“But, what about the deaths?” Jo said.

“The Charidzi are not biological shapeshifters,” the Doctor said. “It is not a natural ability, but a technological one. It takes advantages of some unique genetic traits, and allows them to change form.” He indicated the device Lorana still held. “The power source of that device emits an unusual form of radiation, which also is found in the light of the Charidzi sun. The Charidzi are quite immune to its effects; their bodies soak it up without harm. Humans are not so fortunate. And as you can see, Lorana’s device is damaged. She was not aware of the risk, of course; it’s quite harmless to her Charidzi DNA, even in human form. Unfortunately, she’s been emitting a low dose of radiation to everyone around her.”

“The sunburned faces,” Jo said.

“Yes, Jo, including your own. But this type of radiation can be communicated through touch, as well, assuming the one doing the touching has absorbed enough of it. Lorana, I am going to guess that you touched the head chef last night, didn’t you?”

“He touched me,” she said. “He grabbed my hand after I dropped my tray on you. I’m… I’m sorry about that.”

“No matter there,” the Doctor said. “Unfortunately you had no way to know what would happen to him. Nor did you know what would happen to Professor Chambers. I am going to guess that he accosted you when you were trying to get away. And the reason you were fleeing is because you feared suspicion in the wake of the first death. Am I right so far?” She nodded.

“I didn’t know,” she murmured. “I never meant to hurt anyone. I came here to not be hurt. When I’m in human form, my empathic sense is dulled. It seemed safe.”

“And so it is.” The Doctor straightened. “The question, though, is what to do with you now? We can’t have you running around exposing people to radiation. As it turns out, I too am not of this world; and I imagine my people could get you home. But that would be to return you to veritable torture. A dilemma, eh?”

“Doctor,” Jo said. “There could be another way.”

***

Jo and Benton sat in the audience, listening to the Doctor’s lecture. “What do you think, Jo?” Benton said quietly. “Did we make the right choice? More importantly, I suppose: Did Lorana?”

Jo gave it a moment’s thought. “I think she did. And I think we did too.”

“Well,” Benton said, “now that the Doctor repaired her transformation device, she won’t have to worry about hurting anyone. On the other hand, I suppose she’ll have to learn to be human.”

“Well, she was already on her way to that,” Jo said. “Besides, that’s not such a bad goal, is it? To be human?”

“Not at all.” Benton pointed to the stage. “When do you think our resident alien will understand that?”

“Sergeant Benton,” Jo said, “if there is one thing the Doctor will never be, it is human.” She said it with a smile, though.

Onstage, the Doctor was beginning to wrap up his presentation. “While the research indicates that full emotional suppression is possible,” he said, “I feel obligated to recommend against its use, in soldiers, or in any other profession. In addition to the long-term risks that I’ve already noted, I’ll simply say in conclusion that emotions are a vital part of what makes a person human. Of course too much, in the wrong place and time, can be a hazard–as some of you may well know.” For a moment, he caught Jo’s eye. “We must of course have every aspect of ourselves in its proper context. But, regardless of the effect on our performance, to eliminate our emotions would make us something less than we are– and far less than what we should be.”

In the audience, Jo turned to Benton with a smile. “Maybe,” she said, “he’s learning something after all.”

Third Doctor party

Short Story: Of Conversations and Consequences; or, How Buster and Rachel Reached an Accommodation

I know, I know; nothing for five months, and then two posts in one afternoon?! Preposterous!  Well, it wasn’t planned that way.  In the course of cleaning up some pages today, I discovered that one story was supposed to be posted months ago, but somehow never made it to the blog.  Can’t let that stand; and so, rounding out my Buster and Marley trilogy of short stories, I give you Of Conversations and Consequences; or, How Buster and Rachel Reached an Accommodation. (You can read the previous entries here and here, and see Buster’s first appearance, sans Marley, here.)

 

“…And, bazinga! Cookies, caught!” Marley said as she scooped up the package of Oreos from the floor.  Buster, the golden retriever, leaped down from the kitchen chair that was situated against the counter, and sniffed the package, inhaling chocolate goodness.  “Buster,” Marley said as she plopped her three-year-old body on the floor, “we have this down to an art.  We make a great team.”  She handed the dog a cookie, and he wolfed it down.

“What,” he said between bites, “do you mean, we?  I’m the one doing all the—“

“Ah-HA!” Dog and toddler froze at the same time.  “Caught you!”  Marley’s mother, Rachel, strode into the room and grabbed the pack of cookies.  “Did you two really think you were going to get away with this again?”

“Be cool,” Marley whispered to the dog, “she only knows about the cookies, I think—“

“I knew this dog could talk!” Rachel announced.

“Busted,” the dog said, and gave the doggie version of a shrug.

***

Rachel sat in the kitchen chair, elbows on knees, looking down at the dog. Buster, for his part, managed to look sheepish.  Marley, much to her indignation, was two rooms away in the living room, behind a baby gate.  Rachel could hear her harrumphing loudly every few seconds.

“Alright, talk,” she said to Buster. “It’s no use acting like you don’t know how.  I’ve caught you doing it more than once.”

“And I was counting on you fainting every time,” Buster muttered.

“Hey! That was just once.  Give me some credit!”

“Twice,” Buster corrected.

“Hey—alright, fine, twice. I can’t believe I’m arguing with a dog.”  She shook her head.  “Well, go on!”

“What would you like me to say?”

She sputtered a bit. “W-well,” she said, “explain!  Explain you!  Where did you come from, how did you learn to talk, why are you different?!”

“And why,” Buster said, raising his head, “would you assume I’m different?”

“Because you are! I never heard another dog talk before.”

He gave her an even stare. “Did you ever try listening before?”

She stared back, and laughed. “This is crazy. I must be crazy.  Dogs don’t talk!”  She paused.  “Except you, obviously.”

“Well,” Buster observed, “maybe you humans just aren’t good conversationalists. “

“Oh, really?”

“Really. Or maybe we know what kind of reaction we’ll get.  You know, my last owner tried to take me to the pound when he heard me.  And it was completely unfair; all I did was try to help him out.  Poor guy couldn’t handle it.”

She sighed. “I know how he felt.”

Buster made his doggy shrug again. “Can’t be helped, I suppose.  So what are you going to do?  You know, we could just carry on as we have.  It’s a good deal—you get a dog, I get a home, Marley gets a companion—“

“And that’s another thing!” she interrupted. “You talked to Marley, but not to me?  How can a three-year-old possibly be better conversation than an adult?  Or for that matter, how can a three-year-old keep a secret like this?!”

“I can hear you!” Marley yelled, her little voice full of indignation.  Rachel ignored her.

“Well,” Buster retorted, “maybe I’m not the only one getting misjudged around here. That little girl is a smart cookie.  And we all know how good cookies are,” he reflected.

Rachel sat for a long moment, staring at him; then she threw her hands up. “Okay, this is silly. You’re a talking dog.  You’re some kind of scientific wonder or something.  I should turn you over to some government lab or something.  They’d probably even pay me for it!”  She jumped up and moved to the kitchen table, where a laptop computer sat.

Buster stood up, alarmed. “Uh…wait, you don’t really wanna…well, haven’t you ever seen E.T.?!  You know what the government does with things it doesn’t understand, right?  Hold on a minute!”

“Can’t hear you, I’m Googling!” she announced from behind the screen.

Buster gave her another look, then ran into the dining room. Marley lay sprawled melodramatically on the floor on the other side of the baby gate at the far end of the room.  “Marley!  Get up!”

Marley turned her head without sitting up, and arched an eyebrow at him. “Oh, well, if it isn’t my old friend Buster.  Buster the betrayer!  Talking to my mom without me!”  She turned her head away.

“Marley, don’t be silly. I didn’t have a choice, I’m just as much the victim here as you are!”  She ignored him.  “Alright, look, I’m sorry, but we have a problem!  Your mom wants to send me off to some lab somewhere!  You have to help me!”

“Oh, sure!” she declared.  “Just run off to some nice lab without me, where you can eat all the cookies by yourself!  Never mind me, your best friend, sitting here alone with no dog and no cookies!  I see how it is!”

Marley!” he said.  “It’s not a good thing!  If I go, I’ll never see you again, and there won’t be any cookies, either!  You have to help me!”

Finally, that got her attention. She rolled over again, sat up, and gave him a considering look.  “No cookies?” she said at last.

“No cookies,” he said, putting as much solemnity as possible into his voice.

“That’s not fair! We have to stop her!”  She climbed to her feet.  “But how?”

“I…um…hmm. I don’t know…oh, why does opportunity never knock when you need it?”  He was interrupted by a two-note ringing.

“Sometimes it rings the doorbell?” Marley said, and the dog barked a laugh.

“I’m coming!” Rachel called out from the kitchen. She passed by the dining room on her way to the front door, and the duo heard it click open.  “Hi, can I help you?”

Buster listened a moment to the conversation that followed. “Sounds like a door-to-door salesman.”

“Is that a thing?” Marley said.

“It used to be. Apparently in this fictional universe it still is,” Buster remarked.

“What?”

“Nothing.   Something something fourth wall.  He sounds pushy.”  It was true; the salesman seemed to be building up a head of steam, and Rachel seemed to be having difficulty getting rid of him.

“Is he selling brushes? That’s a cliché,” Marley declared.

“Yes it is. Hey, we can use this!  Step back.”  Marley moved out of the way, and Buster jumped the gate in a single, neat leap.  “Okay, first I need you to get me out the back door.  Can you do that?”

Marley nodded, and ran to the door. “If mom knew I could do this, she’d be mad,’ she announced; then, nimbly, she twisted the lock switch on the door, grabbed the knob, and pulled the door open.  “Okay, what now?”

“Just don’t let me get locked out. And when the salesman stops talking, you make a distraction in here.”

“How?”

“I don’t know…break something!”

She put her hands on her hips. “Buster…I like the way you think.”

“Not surprising. You like plans that might involve getting injured.  Remember jumping out of the swing and onto me?  Anyway.  Be ready!”  He darted out the door.

***

“Oh, no, I really don’t need—“ Rachel was trying to say, but the salesman wasn’t giving her an opportunity.

“That’s the problem with these situations,” he interrupted, “you never know when the need will arise. It’s better to be prepared than to be caught off guard, isn’t that right?”  She had that weary look that told him she was almost ready; he prepared to close the deal. “So how about—“

“Hey!” a voice yelled from the direction of the street. “You kids get away from that car!  I mean it!”  The salesman spun around, searching for the voice, but saw only a golden retriever in the yard, facing toward his car.  Looking over his shoulder, Rachel’s eyes widened.

“That’s right!” the voice shouted again. “Oh, you think you were smart, hiding on the street side.  But you get caught letting the air out of those tires, and you’ll be sorry!  You better run!”

Alarmed, the salesman turned back to Rachel. “Ah, excuse me just a minute.  I need to check on that…I’ll be right back.”

At that moment, there was a crash from the living room, and the sound of glass breaking. Rachel’s head whipped around.  “Marley!” She turned back.  “Maybe another time.  I need to go check on my daughter.  That sounded…not good.”  Abruptly she slammed the door; the salesman heard the lock click into place.  Without any time to think about it further, the salesman turned and ran for his car.  In his haste, he didn’t notice that the dog had gone.

***

“I can’t believe you two set this up,” Rachel muttered, still pacing in the living room. The broken vase had been cleared away; now Buster and Marley sat on the floor in front of her in equally contrite poses.  Rachel stopped pacing abruptly and looked down at them.  “Couldn’t you have made a plan that didn’t involve breaking things?”

“We didn’t have much to work with,” Buster replied. “Or much time.”

“We saved you, Mom!” Marley announced.

Rachel broke into a grin, and scooped the child up into a hug. “Yes, you did, baby.  You saved me from wasting a lot of money on something pretty dumb.  Thank you.”  Then she eyed Buster.  “And you,” she said.  “I guess I owe you some thanks, too.”

“Well,” he said, “about that…you could let me stay here.  I would accept that form of gratitude with no questions asked.”

She set Marley down, and sat down on the sofa. “No, I…I don’t think so.  You’re a talking dog!  How weird is that?”

“Only as weird as you want it to be. I don’t talk to just anyone, you know. “

“But—“

“After all,” he interrupted, “we’ve done just fine so far, haven’t we?”

She gave it a moment’s thought. “I suppose we have.”

“Please, Mom?” Marley said from the floor.

She glanced from one to the other, then back. “Alright! Alright!  I can resist one set of puppy-dog eyes, but not two.  Buster, you can stay.”  Marley clapped, and the dog dipped his head in acknowledgment.  “But!  No getting anyone in trouble.  If people found out about this, I wouldn’t be able to stop something bad from happening.  Got it?”

“Absolutely,” the dog declared. “I know where the boundaries are.”

“Then it’s agreed. “ She stood up to leave the room.  “Well, I need to make dinner.  Try to behave.”

As soon as Rachel’s back was turned, Marley dug into her pocket. “We should celebrate!”  She pulled out two Oreos, confiscated from the pack earlier.  She stuck one in her mouth, and held the other out to Buster…only to have it snatched away.

“And just because you think I don’t see it,” Rachel announced, “doesn’t mean I don’t know about all those cookies you keep stealing! Chocolate is bad for dogs.  Have this instead.”  She dropped a dog biscuit on the floor.  Buster gave her an indignant look, sighed, and flopped down to gnaw on the biscuit.

“I think I liked it better before she knew,” he grumbled.

“Can’t win ‘em all,” Marley said, and took another bite of her cookie.

Short Story: Performance Review

Lately I’ve been giving the lion’s share of my time and energy to the Time Lord Archives, my Doctor Who-themed blog.  As a result, things have been looking pretty dead around here this year, and that’s unfortunate.  Still, I haven’t forgotten this blog or those who follow it; and so, here’s a new short story.  This story, Performance Review, comes courtesy of a writing prompt from Reddit’s /r/WritingPrompts subreddit (although I haven’t posted the story there–it’s exclusively here for now!).  The prompt in question, submitted by user Mistah_Blue, reads: “It’s common knowledge that lab accidents sometimes result in superpowers.  You’re repeatedly trying to engineer lab accidents in order to gain them. Much to your disappointment however, all your accidents just result in monumental scientific discoveries.”  Happy reading!

Superhero

Artist unknown.  Picture borrowed without permission from the website of consulting firm Travois.

 

“John,” the man in the lab coat and tie said, “you know why I’ve called you here, don’t you?”

The man across the desk was younger by a good fifteen years, and his lab coat was considerably more rumpled. He slumped in his chair and gave a half-hearted nod.  “Yessir, Dr. Corbin.  My performance review.”

The older gave him an impassive look, and then glanced down at the floor beside his chair. “That’s right…the dreaded annual review!  Now, don’t be intimidated.” From the floor, he picked up an absurdly large and overstuffed file folder, and set it on the desk.  It made a disconcerting thump, and John jumped in his chair a little.  “Let’s get started, shall we?” He opened the file and perused the top page.  “Now you joined us last year—well, of course—from one of our subsidiary internship programs.  Very high marks, as I recall.  But you’ve, ah, had an eventful year! Why don’t you tell me a little about it?”

John remained sullen and silent. After a moment, Dr. Corbin looked back down at the file, then back up.  “John, I want you to understand that I’m not here to make you nervous.  Your work here isn’t in jeopardy—in fact, your performance has been spectacular beyond anyone’s expectations.  It’s remarkable, really.  You have nothing to worry about.”  He paused and pushed his glasses up on his nose.  “What I want to talk about is how this happened.  Your review is excellent, so we can get that out of the way.  I really want to hear your take on your experiences here.  Fair enough?”

John nodded again, and finally looked up. “What do you want to know?”

That seemed to be the cue for which Corbin was waiting. He flipped a few pages in the folder, and then planted his index finger on an entry.  “Well, alright.  Let’s start with the fusion incident.  This happened, I believe, about a month after you joined us.  What happened there?”

“The experiment failed,” John muttered.

“Failed?” Corbin seemed shocked. “What do you mean?”

John sighed. “It was like this, sir.  Do you remember Jeremy DuPont?”

Corbin nodded. “The so-called Atom Man.  He actually interned in the same program as you, a few years earlier, though he went on to a different employer before his…accident.”

“Right. Anyway, sir, as you know, all of his research notes were famously lost in the lab fire that sparked his new, um, career.  Well, I thought that I could reconstruct his research.  There were certain markers in his statements about the work that led me to a certain path of study—“

“Wait a minute,” Corbin said. “Are you saying you intended to repeat the experiments that turned Jeremy DuPont into…” He trailed off.

“…A superhero,” John said.

“Yes, that.”

“Yessir.”

Corbin gave him an even gaze. “You are aware of the phrase ‘lab accident,’ aren’t you?”

“Yes. I’m aware that it was an accident that gave Atom—that gave Jeremy his unusual abilities.  But I thought that the process could be standardized, and made safe.  Imagine it, sir! The ability to create superpowers on demand!  To give people the ability to—“

“—The ability to fly, but also to constantly emit lethal levels of radiation, such that one can’t have anything approximating a normal life?”

John dropped his gaze. “Nobody’s perfect, sir.”

“No, I suppose not.” He returned to the file for a moment. “At any rate, there WAS a lab accident during your research.”

“Yes. But the experiment was a failure, like I said.”

“A failure? Because it didn’t make you into a new Atom Man?” John shrugged. Dr. Corbin looked incredulously at him.  “John, your accident gave us a stable process for cold nuclear fusion!  That’s one of the greatest and most sought after discoveries of this century.  It’s already revolutionizing the energy industry!”  Seeing that John was unmoved, he sighed.  “Alright, let’s move on.  Tell me about…” He flipped a few more pages.  “The variable-mass experiment.”

“Alright. I had been reading up on the work of Dr. Emilia Nox.  A few years ago she experimented with mass variability through particle acceleration—quantum mass variability, she called it.  She was making very good progress with it, until…well, I suppose you know.”

“A lab accident,” Dr. Corbin said. “Yes, I remember.”

“Right,” John said. “Well, I thought I could expand on her work by incorporating some of the equations about dark matter.  It’s not as though we had access to any, since no one even knew if it really existed, but we know enough about its properties in a mathematical sense.  I figured that I could incorporate some of those equations and overcome some of her hurdles.”

A suspicious look had dawned on Corbin’s face. “Those hurdles you mentioned…those wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that her unfortunate lab accident gave her the power to turn invisible, would they?”

“I’m not sure I’d call it unfortunate, sir. And besides, it’s more to do with her ability to change her mass at will.  That makes her quite a threat to criminals, you know.”

Corbin glanced at the ceiling in a longsuffering gesture. “Superpowers again.  Well, anyway, your calculations must not have worked out as expected, because you encountered the same accident as Dr. Nox—or should I call her by her chosen name, Doctor Night?”

“She’d probably like that, sir. I’ve met her; she seems like a great person.  And anyway, yes, but it was also a failure.”

Corbin consulted his file. “That failure, as you say, resulted in a new, lab-reproducible, commercially-feasible method for not only detecting dark matter, but isolating samples for use.  As I understand it, as soon as the trial phases clear, that discovery alone stands to make you a very rich man, John.  I’m not sure how it’s a failure.”

Again, John shrugged. “It’s a nice accomplishment, but it wasn’t my goal, sir.”

“A nice acc…oh, never mind. Let’s go on.”

“If you insist, sir.”

“Well, that covers your first two months with us. In your third month…” He searched the file.  “Ah!  You switched your focus from physics to artificial intelligence.  It’s good to see a multidisciplinarian! What prompted the change?”

“Well, sir, I thought that since I’d had a few noteworthy failures already, I must be doing something wrong. I figured that if I could set up a workable AI, it could help me with monitoring and troubleshooting on my other goals.  The problem with current-generation AI, as you know, is that it inevitably goes rogue in some way.  There’s that famous case of the chatbot that turned into a neo-Nazi, and those security robots that killed themselves…and that’s just what we’ve seen on a small scale.  Large-scare AI could easily try to take over, so we don’t dare risk it.  Well, I thought I might get around that by keeping a human element in the system.  I wanted the AI to be dependent on a human brain, not for its processing power, but for its existence.  If a human is in the loop, he or she can shut down the AI with a thought if anything starts to go wrong.  So, I started looking at brain-computer interfaces.”

“It’s a novel approach,” Corbin admitted. “What made you think of that?”

“I, uh…well, sir, do you recall a situation where a microprocessor array blew up in a lab assistant’s face? This would have been a Microsoft project, about ten years ago.”

Corbin thought for a moment. “Ten years ago…ten years…oh, yes, I do recall it, it was a very…wait a minute.” He sat up straighter and shot a look at John.  “You’re talking about Technoman!  The processors penetrated the tech’s brain, and gave him the ability to interact with electronic systems by thought alone.  He calls himself Technoman now, and fights cybercrime, right?”

“That would be the one, sir. Anyway, I thought that if I could implant the processors rather than have it happen by accident—“

“But there was an accident.  A processor array did explode, and you were struck by a flying processor.  I remember it now.  You were out on medical leave for a few weeks.” He arched an eyebrow.  “No Technoman?”

“No Technoman, sir. Even though the processor couldn’t be removed.” He scratched at his temple.  “It still itches.”

“But this was a success for you as well,” Corbin said. “When the lab was burning, your AI made the leap to the local mainframe and took charge of the fire suppression system, ensuring that you lived.  It saved your life; and when questioned later, it expressed loyalty to you.  Examination of its code revealed elements that were clearly not designed, but that in hindsight render it both safe and loyal to humanity—elements that could only have come from its brief contact with your brain.  You advanced the science of artificial intelligence by at least two decades.  I suppose you’re going to call that a failure?”

“Yes sir.”

Why?”

“I needed that AI for a lab assistant. But now it’s so busy being examined and studied that I can never get access to it for my work!”

Corbin sat back, unsure how to proceed. Finally he spoke.  “John…I think that you and this company may have different goals.”

John looked up, alarmed. “Sir!  That’s not true.  You’re not…terminating me, are you?”

“Oh, no, not that.” Corbin shook his head.  “John, we’re a research institution here.  We innovate.  We make discoveries.  Usually those discoveries are incremental, because that’s how science works—well, except in your case.  But you, John…I really think you’re just here to get superpowers.”

John’s face turned red. “Sir, I—“

“No need to defend yourself,” Corbin said. “It’s reasonable enough.  We live in a day when there’s an established history of lab accidents granting powers to individuals.  And it’s a good thing too—with most superheroes having a scientific background, they’re more likely to use their powers responsibly, don’t you think?”

He leaned back and put his hands on the desk. “Your goal is noble, John, but it conflicts with ours.  And I have to admit, I’m conflicted about it, because while you’re causing what is frankly an obscene number of accidents, your results are amazing.  Here, look.”  Flipping through the file, he stopped at section after section.  “May of last year, the monofilament situation.  You wanted a way to strengthen your own skeletal structure with carbon monofilaments; what you got—after blowing up the extrusion chamber—was a brand-new method for structuring the atoms in monofilaments, increasing the tensile strength by a factor of a thousand.  June: One of the technicians says that you mentioned wanting the ability to teleport.  Your experiment put you in the hospital overnight, but it gave us the ability to carry out quantum teleportation on the macro scale, albeit only on small objects—but still, that’s unheard of!  July: You wanted to be able to fly, so you worked on manipulation of energy fields in localized areas.  We lost eighty thousand dollars of lab equipment on that one, but we can now generate stable force fields!  Shall I go on?”

“No sir,” John said.

Corbin shook his head. “John, do you understand what all of this means?”

At last, John sat up straight, even defiantly. His face was red, and there were tears in his eyes.  “Yes! It means that none of my theories were true! I haven’t been able to complete a single experiment all year, and besides, I’ve caused lab accidents every single time!”

Corbin gazed at him, and a smile twitched up the corners of his mouth. “No, John,” he said quietly.  “It means you don’t need to look for superpowers.  You already have one.”

That was not what John expected to hear. “I…what?”

“Yes. John, you’re the luckiest man in the world.”  He held up a finger.  “Think about it.  First, you survive accident after accident with little more than a few superficial injuries.  And on the one occasion when your injuries were serious, you survived something that would have killed anyone else.  Moreover, everyone else present for any of these accidents has survived, so clearly your luck is communicable to those around you.  And last of all, you’ve had an unbroken string of amazing scientific discoveries, all quite by accident! Now, what would you call that if not superpowered luck?”

John was silent for a long minute. “Well, when you put it that way,” he said at last.

“I do.” Corbin sat back.  “Now get back to work.”

John’s jaw fell open. “So…you’re not going to fire me?”

“I said that earlier, didn’t I? I’m not going to fire you.  In fact, I’m authorizing a raise.  HR will get with you about the details.  Now, go do some experiments.  Just,” he added, “do them in a different building, will you?”

Timewalkerauthor’s Quick Start Guide to Publication

The other day, I was asked by a family member to help out an acquaintance.  It seems this gentleman is an aspiring author, and he was looking for advice on how to proceed toward publication.  Excellent question!  Although I haven’t made the leap to professional publishing myself as yet, I have worked through the process, and looked into it, and the basics are fairly simple.  I put together a sort of quick-start guide for him, and now I’m posting it here, in slightly modified form.

Two things:  First, this guide is by no means exhaustive or authoritative.  There are people out there who are far more qualified than me to make these recommendations, and you can find any number of blogs that specialize in this sort of advice, with varying degrees of depth.  This is simply a starting point.  Nothing will substitute for your own research, but I appreciate you coming here for a first look!  Second, when I prepared this post, I had very little information as to what the acquaintance for whom I prepared it was looking for, or what he was writing.  Therefore I’ve broadened the scope a bit; this post covers more than just traditional or paid publishing.  As a result, there should be something here for everyone.  Let’s get started!

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Photo borrowed from blog.oxforddictionaries.com

 

 

What type of publishing are you interested in?

“Publishing” is an inclusive term, and doesn’t just mean traditional, print-book, royalty-earning publishing.  There are lots of types and levels to this.  Here are the broad options:

Blogging:  You’ll want a site you can regularly update with new posts as you see fit, which is just yours (not any other contributors unless you choose to have them).  Can be based around an interest, or be general purpose.    Some sites that offer blog hosting for free are:

  • Blogger.com (formerly BlogSpot)—this one is big and versatile and is owned by Google.
  • WordPress.com—I use this one, and you’re looking at it right now. Allows multiple blogs under one email address (most of these do that, but it’s worth noting). WordPress is the granddaddy of blogging sites; it’s big and well-established, (17% of all websites are WordPress sites!) doesn’t often have bugs, has a ton of themes available. Easy to use. WordPress.com is free, and if you ever reach the point where you are doing well and making money on it and want to host it yourself, WordPress.org is the paid service that does that. But really, .com is usually sufficient.
  • LiveJournal.com—getting a bit outdated, but still popular. Has a free and a paid version. One useful feature is it allows video uploading on the free version, which WordPress does not (unless you pay a premium fee).
  • Tumblr.com—Tends to be more visual than literary. Has a comment reply system similar to Reddit. I, for one, found that it isn’t very useful for posting stories and text as opposed to pictures, but you may disagree. Very popular, but a lot of people make fun of it.
  • Blog.com—considered to be a little more professional, but not too much. Tends to have a lot of features that cost premium fees, but otherwise not bad.
  • Weebly.com—comparable to WordPress as far as utility and features. I have a friend who uses it and really likes it. I don’t know much about it personally, though.
  • Penzu.com—I really don’t know anything about this one. Unlimited storage, though, which is very rare.
  • Squarespace.com—Very easy to use, allegedly (haven’t tried it myself). I hear good things, but I don’t know much about it.
  • Svbtle.com—No, that’s not a misspelling, or at least, it’s intentionally misspelled. I don’t know anything about it really, but I hear it’s kind of minimalist.

Blogs don’t generate much money unless you are really successful.  Most platforms have ad services that can monetize your site, but they’ll have rules about how it works.  Just something to look into.

 

Fanfiction or original fiction (without pay):  If you just want to get an audience for your fiction, and aren’t trying to make any money, this may be what you need.  Fanfiction.net is for fanfiction, with a huge variety of categories.  It’s been several years since I used it, but it doesn’t seem to have changed much, though they do have a fairly active administration team.  It’s very hands-off as far as moderation; they might remove something if it’s unrelated to the category it’s posted in, but it’s unlikely they’ll tamper with anything otherwise.  That also means they rarely remove nasty comments, though.  You sort of take what you get.  I’ve found the community to be mostly supportive, though.  When I last used it, their html markup was pretty primitive, but it seems to play well with text from most word processing programs.  If you are writing original fiction, there’s a sister site called fictionpress.com, which works identically to fanfiction.net.

 

Self-publishing:  If you have original fiction (NOT fanfiction) that you want to self-publish, far and away the easiest way to do it is through Amazon.  They have multiple programs for it.  You can publish print books through their createspace.com service (usually these books are print-on-demand, where they are only printed and shipped when someone orders a copy).  Ebooks are through Kindle Direct Publishing at kdp.amazon.com, and are only on the Kindle format; there are plenty of options to check out.  Audiobooks are through their acx.com service.  Truth be told, it’s hard to earn a lot of money through Amazon publishing, at least on Kindle, but it’s a foot in the door, and if it sells well it can also be useful for making the jump to traditional publishing if you choose to.  Other companies that do self-publishing are out there, like xlibris.com and bookbaby.com, but they usually require some cost up front—they’re legitimate enough, but not free.  Bookbaby is especially interesting, in that you can also get single copies for your own library for a fee.  However, with any of these services, I should warn you that one major cost that is probably unavoidable is the fee for an ISBN number.  This is necessary for print publishing if you want to make money, and it runs upwards of $100 for a book.  Most traditional publishers incorporate the cost of the number into their fees, which come out of book sales, so you don’t pay up front; but self-publishing isn’t like that. Your self-publishing company may have a feature for handling the purchase of the number, but you will still be paying the fee.  If you must purchase it separately, without the assistance of a publishing company, you can do so at isbn.org, the website of administering organization Bowker, the only authorized source of ISBNs.  (I have heard that other agencies will sell numbers as well, but it’s a scam, selling invalid numbers.  I have not encountered this personally, however.)

 

Traditional Publishing:  The old-fashioned and time-honored way, in which you publish through a publishing house.  There is way more than I can say here about this, because it’s a deep and well-argued subject; but, here are a few basics.  It’s generally better to start by getting an agent rather than approaching publishers yourself.  First, make your manuscript as good as you think it can be; there are tons of online resources for this (I recommend Brandon Sanderson’s Writing Excuses podcast, which is available for free at the linked website, or for free on iTunes).  Then, get yourself an up-to-date copy of Writer’s Market.  They have a  website (which is where that link will take you), but I’ve found it’s not nearly as easy-to-use or informative as the print book, which comes out every year (and can be ordered from the same site, as well as from various retailers).  It is filled with current listings for agents, publishers, magazines, journals, etc.  Pick out agents that you think may be promising, and then check that agency’s website.  ALWAYS MAKE AN EFFORT TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS FOR SUBMISSIONS THAT THEY LIST ON THEIR SITES, and ALWAYS TRY TO CHOOSE AGENTS THAT SELECT THE TYPE OF MATERIAL YOU WRITE.  Agents have a lot of control over what they accept.  Look up some resources on how to write query letters and plot summaries, and send some out (but make sure you do it the way each agent wants it—they’re each a little different).  Proceed from there based on what you hear back.  Don’t get discouraged!  Finding an agent is usually the hardest and lengthiest part of the project—it’s a hurdle I haven’t overcome yet myself.  Once you have one, they will assist you with getting the book revised and edited, and sold to a publisher.

 

Miscellaneous:  In between all these levels of publishing, you’ll find any number of specialty sites, like Wattpad.com for example.  It’s really a matter of what you want.  Also, if you are publishing SHORT fiction, there are many options that are not available to novels.  You can submit unsolicited short stories to many magazines—just google “Magazines that publish [whatever genre, i.e. science fiction, horror, romance, etc.]” and see what comes up, or check the magazine section of Writer’s Market.  Make sure you read the submission guidelines.  You can also submit short work to contests—Writer’s Digest, a companion publication/website to Writer’s Market, keeps a list of these every year, including a few of their own.  Most contests pay a little, some pay a lot, and nearly all of them including some sort of publishing of your story as a part of their prize packages.  Even if contests don’t pay much, contest winners look good on résumés.

 

One last thing to think about:  What software are you using to do your writing?  That’s assuming you’re not writing longhand or on a typewriter.  Those forms of writing are perfectly respectable—I was writing longhand long before I owned a computer—but they’re very difficult to submit for publishing nowadays.  There are a lot of choices for word processing, and they are not all created equal.  Some are better for writers, though most are at least okay.

  • Microsoft Word/Microsoft Office. The current standard for word processing. Word comes as part of Microsoft Office, which can be bought outright for a significant cost (over $100, varies based on which package you want) or can be “rented” via the online Office 365 version, starting at $69.99 a year. I love Word, and prefer it, but expensive is expensive.
  • Apache OpenOffice—free, available online. Very similar to Microsoft Office, and produces documents that are mostly compatible with Office. More streamlined than Office in some ways.
  • LibreOffice—I don’t know a lot about this one, but I hear it’s good, and comparable to OpenOffice or Microsoft Office. Also free and available online.
  • Google Docs—Google is really a package deal these days. Getting a Gmail address gives you all their services for free. Docs is the word processor, and it’s decent, intuitive, and autosaves frequently. Drive is the storage system, a cloud-based free storage. There are also other apps which are comparable to Office’s other features. The only downside is that the Drive storage space is shared by everything, so if you save every email you ever got, you’re going to eat it up quickly.
  • Scrivener—this software was created especially for writers. It costs, and it is definitely NOT intuitive—there’s a learning curve. But it cannot be beat for usefulness. It sorts your outlines, support materials, research, parts of your documents, etc., and has tools to edit, assemble, and export your completed documents. It has so many features, I can’t begin to describe them, and its exported documents are compatible with several other programs. It’s about $50 usually, but frequently goes on sale as low as 50% or 75% off. I really recommend it, but I admit that I haven’t used it a lot yet myself—I haven’t had it long enough to do a lot yet.
  • One more thing: If you have trouble plotting a story, check out storylinecreator.com. Storyline Creator is exactly what it says—a program for creating and plotting the storyline of your material. Based on what you put in, it shows you the progression of every character through the story and how they interact with each other. There are subscription options as low as about three dollars a month, but to just buy the offline version outright is about $22.00 right now.

I’m not getting paid to advocate any of these options, or even asked to do it.  They’re all things I’ve tried on my own, and in the case of Office, Scrivener, and Storyline Creator, I bought them myself, and found them to be useful.  But there are plenty of free options, as I mentioned, and more out there than even I know of, and they work just fine.

 

I hope this is helpful.  Writing is such a satisfying thing when it works out, and getting published—even if it’s for free—is awesome.  Happy writing!

Upcoming Change on the Blog

Announcement Time:  For over a year now, I’ve been posting mostly Doctor Who-related items here.  This project started thanks to Reddit’s /r/Gallifrey subreddit, of which I have since become a moderator.  Often I would browse that site and see posts in which fellow fans would rewatch classic or new series episodes–or sometimes entire seasons–and review them, giving their own thoughts.  I learned a lot about the series, which has been one of my favorites since childhood; and finally, I decided to conduct my own rewatch, and begin posting my own reviews.  I posted them, of course, on /r/Gallifrey; but I also decided to cross-post them here, where I can expand a bit, adding things such as photos and links to streaming sites that carry the episodes.  Such things don’t work well on the subreddit, but they belong here.

It’s grown into quite the project, as I’ve sought to expand into other media (beyond the television series), with the ultimate aim of covering, well, everything–or at least, everything I can get my hands on.  Doctor Who is a franchise that spans more than five decades, with entries in television, the big screen, prose of all types, comics, audio dramas–even stage plays, which are mostly available now as audio recordings.  It’s more than a world; it’s an entire universe, or better yet, a multiverse, with incarnations as diverse as those of the Doctor himself.  I am unashamedly a fan of the series, and cataloguing it this way is a labor of love for me.

However, with the expansion of that project, it’s become clear that it’s more than this blog is set up to handle.  This blog was created several years ago as a place to showcase and discuss my own writing–fiction, that is–in anticipation of eventual publication.  While the publication efforts have been put on hold due to changes in my family situation, they haven’t been abandoned completely; and I still intend this blog to be used for that purpose.  Already I’ve separated its content once, removing posts that relate to family, beliefs, and personal matters, and relocating them to another blog, Thoughts of a Formerly Dead Man.  (To be precise, they haven’t been removed from this blog, but I did stop adding such posts, allocating new posts of that type to the other site.)  Now, it’s time to do the same with Doctor Who.

To that end, I’m announcing a new home for my Doctor Who reviews and discussion.  You can find it at The Time Lord Archives (http://www.timelordarchives.wordpress.com); I will be adding a link to that site to this blog’s link section.  The content I’ve already posted here will remain available here, and has also been exported to the new site, so that everything will be available in one place.  You’ll find that that site has been organized by type of media, a feature I had wanted to implement here, but never fully realized.  For the past week, I’ve been adding new posts to both sites; but effective yesterday, new Doctor Who material will only be added to the new site.

I maintain no illusions about the reach of this blog.  I am a small person doing small things for a small audience; and at this point in my life, I’m fine with that.  Eventually I do hope to devote more time and energy to original material, and to publication; it’s to that end that I’m maintaining this blog after the split.  Still, I do have followers here, and I appreciate all of you; and I owe you openness about my plans.  You can expect that the number of posts here will drop back to the level I was maintaining prior to beginning the Doctor Who project, for now at least.  If you joined this blog BECAUSE of the Doctor Who material, and you want to continue receiving the reviews, PLEASE consider following the new blog!  At the moment, I haven’t done much to publicize it, so there are few (if any) followers over there as yet.  Don’t let that deter you; the content will be the same as it was here, just in a new location.  The fact is, I’ll keep doing this regardless of followers, because it’s a labor of love for me, and because I’d like that site to be a resource available to fans of the series.  But it’s certainly good to know that I have a regular audience, no matter how small.

Thank you to everyone who’s followed along…and, happy reading! ~Timewalkerauthor

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: Trouble In Paradise

We’re back, with another Doctor Who audio drama review! We’re continuing our look at the eleven-volume Fiftieth Anniversary series, Destiny of the Doctor, produced by Big Finish in conjunction with AudioGO. Today we’re listening to the Sixth Doctor’s contribution to the series:  Trouble in Paradise, read by Nicola Bryant and Cameron Stewart, and written by Nev Fountain. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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This episode differs from its predecessors right from the start. Rather than finding it incidentally and later, we get an appearance by the Eleventh Doctor right at the outset, as he uses the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits and viewscreen to contact the Sixth Doctor and Peri Brown. He makes it clear that he is a future incarnation of the Doctor (with Peri at first reflecting that he is what she would expect from the Doctor’s son, if he had one), and compliments his previous self; and then he makes a request. He wants the Sixth Doctor to obtain an omniparadox, a most dangerous item. After he leaves, the Sixth Doctor explains that an omniparadox is a sort of power cell, created by the conflict between two versions of time, much as nuclear power is created by smashing atoms together. The omniparadox, however, possesses energies that, if misapplied, can destroy the universe.

The Doctor constructs a device to track the signal of an omniparadox; it does so by mimicking the signal to create a resonance. Tracking, they land aboard a ship—not a spaceship, but a sailing ship—and find the paradox hovering above the TARDIS. However, they are quickly captured by a most unlikely man and his crew, and find that they are in the presence of the famed Christopher Columbus, aboard the Santa Maria; and he has just sighted land. He assumes they are natives of the island he has discovered, and that they have somehow come aboard to worship the invading Europeans. (The fact that he can converse with them without trouble seems to be lost on him.) The misunderstandings are interrupted, however, when it is revealed that a man on board is dying—and claims to have seen the devil.

Unfortunately, Peri has seen it too, albeit briefly. The Doctor gives her the TARDIS key to fetch a medical kit; and en route, she sees a demonic creature in the shadows for a moment. The Doctor determines that the man is dying of tuberculosis; he has the ability to cure him, but refuses to do so, as introducing modern medicine to the year 1492 could be disastrous. Enraged at him, Peri runs off through the hold where the TARDIS is parked, stopping only to throw the key at the Doctor.

Moments later, we find that Peri—intending to just stand at the prow and think—has fallen overboard. The Doctor panics, and tries to enter the TARDIS to save her, but cannot find the key. He is diverted, however, when he sees that the omniparadox is now gone; and shortly thereafter, the universe begins to unravel, violently. The Doctor realizes that something has caused the paradox to be removed, which means that the Eleventh Doctor’s mission in the future will fail, bringing about this destruction; but he stabilizes the situation briefly with his tracking unit, using its false signal to “trick” the universe into stability. It will not last, however, and he has about an hour before things fall apart. Columbus, having had his beliefs challenged repeatedly, now believes the Doctor is a wizard, and orders him to find the key and fix the situation; if he does not do so in twenty minutes, Columbus will cut off his hands, a punishment that history attests he used often on the native populations.

Peri, meanwhile, is not dead. She finds herself washed up on the shore—and is immediately captured by natives who are under the control of a monster. The monster is the devilish figure she saw; it confronts her, and reveals itself to be the Herd Leader of the Bovine race, a race of intelligent buffalo. Once they ruled the continent, and the primitive humans worshipped them; but then the herd leader was trapped in ice. Without its mind, the herd regressed into common buffalo, and were hunted to extinction. In the future, when the herd leader thawed out, he found he had no herd to lead. Adopting time travel technology which had since been developed by humans, he traveled back to conduct experiments which would save his people. He believes that Peri and the Doctor were sent to stop him.

The Doctor determines that a goat in the hold has eaten the key. However, he retains a psychic connection to it; and he is able to telepathically connect it to the TARDIS despite the goat (and much to the goat’s alarm) and get the door to unlock. With Columbus in tow, he determines that Peri is alive, and travels to her location; unknown to him, Columbus—now convinced the Doctor is a superior explorer—plans to kill him out of jealousy.

Arriving at the Herd Leader’s time machine, they learn its plan. It was the herd leader that led Columbus to the new world—Columbus being an incompetent navigator on his own—in hopes that the Europeans will exterminate the native Americans, thus preventing them from exterminating the Bovine herd. In that way he can return to the future and resume his place as herd leader. They are shocked to see another Herd Leader appear and interrupt, however; or rather, the same one, but older. The second leader says he is from the future, and has come to stop the experiment, because it will be a failure—the Europeans, too, will hunt and control the Bovine. The Doctor uses this opportunity to surreptitiously remove the time element from the machine. Warned by Peri, he dodges out of the way as Columbus tries to kill him with a sword; Columbus misses and destroys the time element by accident. The second herd leader vanishes, being unable to have time-traveled without the machine; the first is forced to flee. After removing the time machine, the Doctor, Peri, and Columbus return to the ship.

Columbus is forced to acknowledge that the Doctor and Peri are not natives after all; this does not change his plans, but he debates recording these events. He sends his men ashore to hunt down and kill the herd leader, convincing them it is not a devil, but an animal. The Doctor sees that the omniparadox has returned, and collects it; he theorizes that it disappeared because of the likelihood of Peri’s death. Without her to warn him of Columbus’s strike, the timeline would have been vastly different; and it was the collision of the timelines of the two herd leaders that created the paradox in the first place. Having a final change of heart, he cures the man with tuberculosis, and then they depart.

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Dating this story is easy; the date is clearly given as October 12, 1492. Dating the point of origin of the herd leader is a little harder; however, as he states he gets his time travel technology from the humans of the future, it is likely at least the 50th century. In fact, I would place it definitively in that century, as time travel exists, but not in the more compact and refined form of a vortex manipulator, which is known to exist by the 51st century; the machine here is apparently bulkier, and involves a time element large enough to be struck with a sword. From the Doctor and Peri’s point of view, this episode must occur prior to the past-time events seen Trial of a Time Lord, part two, Mindwarp, as that episode involves Peri’s death (later overturned, I know, but their travels here are clearly prior to that occasion). I would further suggest that it is at about the midpoint of their time together; Peri is not the frightened child she was for most of their early adventures, but neither is she fully her calm, collected self. Still, it’s hard to be precise.

Continuing the tradition started by Carole Ann Ford in Hunters of Earth, Nicola Bryant proves to be a versatile voice actor, doing an excellent job of catching the Sixth Doctor’s mannerisms and speech habits. Her take on the Eleventh Doctor is not as convincing, though still effective. I had never heard her speak without the affected American accent she uses for Peri; and now, hearing the contrast between her reading voice and Peri’s voice, I realize she’s incredibly skilled at this type of work. It would be very easy to assume that two different voice actors were involved. Cameron Stewart displays similar skill; he voices Columbus and the herd leader, two very different voices.

This story departs from the established structure significantly. In the previous stories, the Eleventh Doctor took advantage of adventures that were already under way for his past incarnations, using those situations to obtain what he needs. Here, he is the reason for this mission in the first place; but given the seriousness of an omniparadox—as an object the Doctor would not ordinarily seek out—I think that’s a fair strategy. We get a bit of the occasionally-recurring theme of whether it’s okay to change history here; Peri is in favor, the Doctor is not, but in the end she gets her way. As it turns out, however, the change they make is minor; he cures the sailor with tuberculosis, but doesn’t leave any indication of how it was done.

This has been my least favorite story in this series so far. Although I like the Sixth Doctor, and his audios are usually very good, I’ve always felt that Peri is the weakest of his companions. Rather, I should say, it isn’t that Peri is weak; it’s that I think she is not a good match with Six. Had she been able to stay with Five, they would have done much better together. Still, none of that is to say that this is a bad story; I think it’s weakened in part by Peri’s presence, and also by having its focus primarily on the larger story arc rather than the local story, but I think neither of those things ruin it completely. As part of this series, it’s still vital, and still worth a listen.

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Next time: We join the Seventh Doctor and Ace on Tarsus Six in Shockwave! See you there.

All stories featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; link to this story’s purchase page is below.  This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Trouble In Paradise

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: The Mutant Phase

With Christmas behind us, we’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Main Range #15, The Mutant Phase, starring the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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At an unknown time in the future, a starship is conducting a survey when it is attacked by a swarm of over a hundred billion strange creatures, flying so tightly that they appear to be a single organism. The ship is knocked off course; its commander, Ganatus, and scientist Ptolem find that they are near–and possibly crashing on–the planet Skaro, home of the Daleks.

Elsewhere–or rather, elsewhen–and aboard the TARDIS, Nyssa repairs the proximity alarm, only for it to go off. The Fifth Doctor tries to evade, but finds that they have been captured by a time corridor in the vortex. They escape by “bouncing off” the corridor; in the process, the Doctor notices a strange ripple in time, a “bump” in the timestream. They land in a cornfield in Kansas. Emerging from the TARDIS, Nyssa is stung by a large wasp, but defers getting any treatment. They are then interrupted by what seems to be a spaceship passing overhead; another soon follows. They find a body in a field, which has been shot; it bears marks of technological implants, which have since be removed. The Doctor determines that the year is 2157 (actually 2158, as it turns out, but who’s counting?), and immediately insists that they leave. Meanwhile, Ptolem and Ganatus are also on Earth–but not in the same time period–and report that the Doctor has been located in 2158. Ptolem advises waiting, however; the Doctor won’t stay long, if history is correct.

Returning to the TARDIS, the Doctor and Nyssa are intercepted by a strange man, one with implants like those that had been removed from the body. The man–or Roboman, rather–calls for backup. A spaceship arrives, and the Doctor recognizes it: It is a Dalek saucer. A Dalek emerges, showing signs of battle damage, but doesn’t recognize the Doctor. They break for the TARDIS and escape; the Doctor tells Nyssa, who didn’t recognize the Daleks, about his history with them–he knows them, but in this time period, they do not yet know him. He previously encountered them on Earth, a few years after 2157, during the end of the Dalek invasion of Earth. But now they have another problem: having dematerialized, they are caught in the time corridor again. They can’t escape via time; but they can alter their spacial coordinates, landing somewhere afield of wherever the corridor takes them–and it’s as well, because wherever they land, there will be Daleks there. No one else has the ability to create these time corridors.

Ganatus reports to the Daleks that the Doctor has not arrived in the right place. The Daleks intend to find him.

Upon landing, the Doctor and Nyssa find themselves underground. They are taken in by two humans, Dolores and Albert, who offhandedly mention the “Thals”, piquing the Doctor’s interest–after all, the Thals are the other race from Skaro, and ancient enemies of the Daleks and their predecessors, the Kaleds. Albert admits the Thals have helped the humans on Earth, of whom there are only a few left; but he doesn’t know much about them, and indeed, they appear to be mostly serving their own interests. However, thirty years prior to this time, there was a disaster on Earth, which led to the depopulation of the planet. Dolores takes the Doctor to see a scientist, Professor Hendryk, while Albert tends Nyssa’s arm.

The Daleks have decided to return to Skaro. However, one of them loses control, and breaks open, revealing that it has further mutated and is now deadly to the other Daleks. The Daleks try to kill it, but Ptolem stops them, and takes it for study, placing it in containment.

Albert slips away briefly, and Nyssa finds him reporting their presence to someone–the Daleks, she assumes. Her arm still untreated, she goes to find the Doctor. The Doctor, meanwhile, meets with Hendryk and compares notes. Hendryk does not know about the Daleks–revealing that their invasion was centuries ago–and shows him one of the mutated creatures, similar to the one being viewed by Ptolem and Ganatus in the future, but dead. He describes how a swarm of them came to Earth and drew all the life out of the planet, but then died suddenly and without any known cause.

On Skaro, a crisis is happening. The numbers of mutated Daleks are increasing rapidly, and they are assaulting the Dalek defenses. Soon they will break through. A squad is dispatched through the time corridor to Earth to claim the Doctor, whose presence has been located.Ptolem and Ganatus are sent with the squad. Nyssa, meanwhile, finds Dolores, who doesn’t comprehend about Albert; but she takes her to the Doctor and Hendryk. They immediately head for the TARDIS. Albert finds them, and turns them over to the Daleks. Albert and Hendryk are killed by the Daleks; the Daleks also kill Dolores and threaten Nyssa, persuading the Doctor to surrender.

Ptolem and Ganatus, it turns out, are Thals, and have allied with the Daleks to eliminate the mutant creatures. They tell the Doctor about the mutants, into which the Daleks are developing; the creatures have the potential to end all life, everywhere. Only on Earth, thirty years ago, did they ever die out, and no one knows why. It’s the Thal base where they are analyzing the captive mutant; and they and the Daleks want the Doctor to help them. However, the creature escapes, destroying the base and everyone in it. The Doctor, Nyssa, Ptolem, Ganatus, and the last few Daleks escape into the TARDIS. The TARDIS, with everyone in it, rides the time corridor to Skaro…

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The Doctor is taken before the Dalek Emperor, who insists on his help. After much debate, he concludes that, as bad as the Daleks are, the mutant creatures are worse; and he agrees to help. Meanwhile, Ptolem examines Nyssa’s arm, and finds a strange thing: Insect eggs in the wound, which share some DNA with the mutant creatures. He extracts them, and treats her wound, and takes the eggs for research. He reaches the same conclusion the Daleks have reached: the mutant phase originated in 2158 on Earth. It spread from the first affected Dalek, because the Daleks routinely undergo genetic extraction, which is used to breed the next generation of Daleks. The Daleks need the Doctor because they lack the power to go back far enough to change the events of 2158.

It is the final moments for Skaro. The creatures are breaking into the Dalek city. The Doctor, Nyssa, Ptolem, and Ganatus flee in the TARDIS, back to 2158, as the Emperor destroys Skaro rather than let it fall to the creatures. Unexpectedly, Ganatus collapses. In flight, the Doctor tries to sleep, and Nyssa does some research. However, Ptolem has a secret–and unknown to him, Ganatus does too…Nyssa determines from records what killed the mutants on Earth, but before she can discuss it with the Doctor, Ganatus awakens, and the cloister bell sounds. The time corridor is collapsing around them…the Doctor breaks them free of the corridor, and lands, and finds that they are in the exact spot where the TARDIS landed the first time, in Kansas, 2158. They watch on the monitor as their earlier selves are accosted by first the Roboman, then the damaged Dalek. The earlier version of the TARDIS had dispersed itself via the Hostile Action Displacement System; realizing their earlier selves are about to walk in on them, the Doctor dematerializes, allowing the earlier TARDIS to return, preserving events. Nyssa explains that a pesticide, GK-50, killed off the creatures in the future. The wasp that stung her had been made aggressive by exposure to genetically modified crops; the same wasps also penetrated the damaged Dalek’s casing, making it patient zero for the mutated DNA. It must be stopped. They go after it; but first, they synthesize some GK-50, although Ptolem doubts it will work this early in the mutation’s history. As they leave, the Doctor and Nyssa feel a temporal distortion–the beginning of a dangerous paradox.

Ganatus grabs the injector of GK-50 and threatens to kill the Doctor with it. He reveals that he is not Ganatus anymore; the Emperor, on Skaro, implanted him with its own memories, essentially making him a copy of the Emperor. He forces the Doctor to track down the damaged Dalek, and thus ensure Dalek survival and victory; the Doctor refuses. They are captured by a patrol, and taken to the local Dalek base.

Ptolem tells Nyssa of his own secret. He has secretly developed a retrovirus that will wipe out all Daleks. If deployed here and now, in two generations no Daleks will exist. Nyssa begs him not to use it; this moment in history is already damaged and fragile, and any major change to history here can destroy everything. He is adamant, however.

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Against all odds, the copied Emperor gets the local Daleks to give him a hearing, and tries to warn them about the Doctor’s future interference with the Dalek Invasion (apparently not aware, however, that this is a later version of the Doctor, and exterminating him here will not prevent the presence of the First Doctor in that future year). However, the Doctor tells him that he is the reason for the paradox that may come to pass; by coming back in time, he will ensure the Daleks get the pesticide too early for it to be of any use, and thus he will doom them, setting his own course. If he had not come, the Daleks would have detected the wasp DNA in the damaged Dalek on their own, and extracted it, thus preventing the rise of the mutated creatures. Ptolem tries to use his retrovirus, but the Emperor makes the first move, destroying the pesticide. A wave of time distortion immediately passes through as the paradox is resolved, and suddenly, Ptolem and the Emperor vanish–events in their proper order would never have caused them to come here, after all. The Doctor and Nyssa escape in the TARDIS.

Safely back in the vortex, and free of the time corridor, the Doctor explains the outcome to Nyssa. He muses that the universe is safe because the Daleks, for once, followed his advice–and maybe that means there’s hope for them.

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This is a noteworthy story, largely because it didn’t originate with Big Finish. Rather, the core story comes from an audio drama of the same title, produced by Audio Visuals, which in many ways was the (admittedly unofficial) predecessor to Big Finish Productions. Nicholas Briggs wrote both versions. It has been adapted to some degree to fit in with the main range–notably, Nyssa mentions the events of The Land of the Dead. This story is also considered to be part of the Dalek Empire arc, the third story in that series. With all of that said, you wouldn’t know there was any difference; it’s done in similar fashion to the preceding audios, and fits well with regard to continuity. As with previous Fifth Doctor/Nyssa audios, it must occur between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity, as Nyssa is the only companion present.

There’s a good deal of obfuscation here with regard to the time periods involved, mostly for the sake of suspense; but it has the effect of making it hard to keep track. Three time periods are actually involved: 2158 (mistakenly cited by the Doctor as 2157, but later corrected), nine years before the events of The Dalek Invasion of Earth; 4253, in which the future scenes on Earth take place, and which occurs thirty years after the sudden death of the mutant phase creature on Earth; and an unidentified point in the further future, in which all the Skaro scenes take place. The story is utterly self-contained, in that its events only occur because the Daleks force the Doctor to become involved, and the events resolve themselves–indeed, vanish completely from history–when the Doctor is removed from the equation at the end. Along the way, we get some good throwbacks to The Dalek Invasion of Earth; the Robomen appear again, and we get a mention of the Dalek plan to drill out the Earth’s core and install a hyperdrive. This story occurs largely in America (accompanied by some truly atrocious Midwestern accents), which makes it clear that the invasion really was worldwide, a fact that one could overlook in Dalek Invasion.

Nyssa is well-played here as always; I like her character, given that she really doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses. I’ve often said that she’s an intellectual match for the Doctor, and she shows it here, in repairing the TARDIS and researching the pesticide. She’s no match for the Doctor’s pride, unfortunately; he’s more than a little patronising to her, refusing to trust her with certain information, and reacting badly to her repairs on the TARDIS. The Doctor is at his most frustrating here, although I don’t mean that as a complaint; it’s vital to the story, in that he’s intentionally concealing information from those who should not have it. It’s clear here that he feels like events are getting away from him–and indeed, they are; it’s only at the last second that things are set right. Otherwise, characterization is not so great here; Hendryk is a Russian caricature, Ganatus is really nobody at all until the Emperor manifests in him, Ptolem is interesting but nothing new, and everyone else…well, mostly they get killed before they can be anything, really. Truly, the most interesting character here is the Dalek Emperor; we learn that he is the same Emperor that ordered the Dalek Invasion of Earth, two thousand years prior, reinforcing the idea that Daleks are very long-lived. He’s also implied to be the same Emperor seen in The Evil of the Daleks, although I am not sure where that story fits into chronology. Most interestingly of all, he deviates from usual Dalek behavior when he accepts the Doctor’s word and destroys the pesticide; it’s a far cry from the Emperor seen in The Parting of the Ways, which believed itself a god. I could get used to this portrayal; I suppose I’ll have to listen to Dalek Empire to continue his story.

Some other references: The Hostile Action Displacement System (HADS) first appeared in The Krotons; strangely, the version seen here is more akin to the Hostile Action Dispersal System seen in NuWho, which cause the TARDIS to disperse into the local area rather than actually relocate. Nyssa refers to Adric’s death, as seen in Earthshock. Strangely, the First Doctor is not directly referenced, but the Doctor mentions him tongue-in-cheek when he comments that he and the Emperor have both had a face-lift.

Overall, it’s a great story, and my only dislike is that it was hard to follow the times and locations involved. Of course, that’s by design; but still, it’s annoying at best. It’s a great additioin to the main range, and sets the groundwork for much of the Dalek Empire series. For fans of the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, it’s a must-listen.

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Next time: On Thursday we’ll continue our look at the Fiftieth Anniversary series, Destiny of the Doctor; and on Monday, we’ll get a look at the Eighth Doctor’s first Main Range appearance in Storm Warning! See you there.

All audio dramas in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; link to this story’s purchase page is below.  This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

The Mutant Phase