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?”

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It’s Five O’clock Somewhere: Classic Doctor Who Rewatch, Season Nineteen

After a short delay, we’re back, with another season of our Classic Doctor Who rewatch! In Season 19, we say hello to Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor, picking up right where we left off after a difficult regeneration. Let’s get started!

Castrovalva 1

He might not be well, but he’s fabulous!

Following on the heels of Logopolis, we open with Castrovalva, the third part of the Master Trilogy. Adric, Tegan, and Nyssa rush the newly-regenerated Doctor back to the TARDIS; but, unbeknownst to them, Adric is captured by the Master and replaced with a duplicate. This duplicate, created from block transfer computations powered by the brain of the real Adric, soon leads the TARDIS to the peaceful—and fake—city of Castrovalva (with a brief detour to the beginning of the universe!). It’s been a difficult regeneration, and the Doctor—while cycling through his previous personalities and choosing a cricket uniform for his usual dress—states that it’s not going as well as previously. (He’s also not pleased with his appearance, despite his youthful looks; “that’s the trouble with regeneration,” he says, “you never quite know what you’re going to get,” or as Ten will later put it, “Regeneration, it’s a lottery.”) He compensates by resting in a newly-revealed part of the TARDIS: the Zero Room, which is cut off from the rest of the universe and thus free of interference. Shortly thereafter, however, in the chaos of “Adric’s” betrayal, the Zero Room is jettisoned, along with a quarter of the TARDIS’s mass. (We know now that it can be regrown, but there’s no indication of that at the time.)

Castrovalva 2

The most peaceful city in the universe. Too bad it isn’t real.

The setting for this serial is still 1981, as far as can be told, except for the detour into the past. We’re still in the middle of a four-story arc that is set on consecutive days, beginning with The Keeper of Traken and ending with Four To Doomsday; the latter states that the date is February 28, 1981, the date of the flight that Tegan was trying to catch when she met the Doctor. I feel bad for her on occasion; she’s sort of the idiot among geniuses here (not that she’s an idiot in general, just by comparison). The concept of Block Transfer Computation is expanded here, as it is used first to create a duplicate of Adric, and second to create the false city of Castrovalva. That city is pitched as one of the most peaceful places in the universe, a sort of natural Zero Room after the one on the TARDIS is lost. In the end, the Master is trapped there as the city collapses in on itself.

Four to doomsday 1

The Urbankans.

Having escaped the Master’s trap, in Four to Doomsday, the Doctor attempts to take Tegan home at her request. He almost gets it right; he gets the date and time correct, but not the location. Instead, the TARDIS materializes on a ship of the Urbankans, long-term galactic travelers with a secret: much like the Cybermen, they have given up organic existence for robotic. The title may reference either four days until the Urbankans reach Earth (and conquer it), or their three previous visits to Earth plus this one. As the Doctor and his friends dodge several attempts to kill them, the Urbankan Monarch’s goal becomes clear: he wants to travel back to the beginning of time and set himself up as God. He intended to salvage Earth’s resources to make the trip, but now, with the TARDIS, he sees an opportunity for a shortcut.

Apparently to Doctor doesn't require a spacesuit?

Apparently to Doctor doesn’t require a spacesuit?

I recall reading (rather than watching) this story as a child; especially I remember the scene where the Doctor uses the cricket ball to propel himself between the ship and the TARDIS in space. It was the first time I had encountered the idea that the laws of motion work differently in zero gravity, and just further propelled my love for spacebound stories. The TARDIS has at some point gone back to using the standard Yale lock keys instead of the more artistic ones created by the Third Doctor. As well, the Doctor states that the TARDIS uses artron energy to operate. While this is not the first occurrence of the term, it is the first use of it by the Doctor, and the first time it is stated to power a TARDIS.

I'd feel bad for Tegan...but which one?

I’d feel bad for Tegan…but which one?

Kinda takes the travelers to Deva Loka, a world being investigated for potential human colonization. Several possibilities have been suggested for the date, between the years 2700 and 3900; it’s not possible to be precise. Nyssa is almost completely absent from this story; framing scenes establish that she’s unwell, and sleeping in the TARDIS. Behind the scenes, the script was submitted prior to the establishment of Nyssa as a companion. The villain here is (are?) the Mara, a snakeline, disembodied, and evil being (or possibly collection of beings; it’s not really clear). It once ruled an empire from the planet Manussa, but was defeated and banished to this world, to the “dark places of the inside”, where it now lurks and awaits a host. Tegan provides that host, but the Mara isn’t particularly attached to her; it uses her only long enough to transfer to Aris of the Kinda tribe. This brief possession, however, creates a link which will be exploited again in next season’s Snakedance. The story draws heavily on Buddhist thought, with several names and concepts transferring over directly.

The Mara, revealed!

The Mara, revealed!

The Mara are repulsed by their own reflections, driving them back to the place from which they came; and so the Doctor defeats them, using a circle of mirrors to trap them. We haven’t seen the last of them, however; but we have seen the last of Deva Loka. Two things about this serial: for one, it contains no interior TARDIS scenes, and is the only fifth Doctor story to do so. For another, it’s a very highly favored story, and with its sequel, Snakedance, is often near the top of ratings lists. I personally enjoyed it, though I don’t find it to be the most exciting story of the season.

Goodbye, old friend.

Goodbye, old friend.

In The Visitation, we say goodbye to one of the Doctor’s most faithful companions: The Sonic Screwdriver! Please contain your weeping. Interestingly, the destruction of the device is very low-key, having little bearing on the story; but it will not be seen again in the classic series, only returning in the 1996 movie and the 2005 revival (spinoff materials aside). John Nathan-Turner was famously unhappy with the device, considering it a narrative crutch, and insisted on its removal from the show.

The Terileptils.

The Terileptils.

This story is Doctor Who’s account of the great fire of London, and as such can be dated fairly precisely, to August-September 1666. The villains, the Terileptils, would have crashed on Earth around the beginning of August; the TARDIS would have landed on September 1, with the story concluding on the night of September 2, the historical beginning of the fire. The Doctor inadvertently causes it, much as with the great fire of Rome in his first incarnation.

Richard Mace!

Richard Mace!

It’s a bit of a low point for the TARDIS crew, as they all seem to be at each other’s throats. Tegan wants to leave and does not want to leave, all at once; the Doctor is unusually abrasive; Adric is whining; and Nyssa is caught in the middle. They are countered in this by the fantastic character of local highwayman Richard Mace, who is, hands down, my favorite guest character of the season; his wit is worthy of Captain Jack Harkness, though with a definite seventeenth-century twist. The Terileptils are also an interesting race; reptilian and brutal, they are quite grim and menacing, and I think it’s unfortunate they’ve never reappeared as a major villain (though they get several references and minor appearances). Another rare occurrence: the Doctor uses a gun…but only as a lockpick, much as the Tenth Doctor will use one to destroy the white point star in The End of Time.

Welcome to Cranleigh!

Welcome to Cranleigh!

We get our only two-parter of the season in Black Orchid; there are only a few such serials in the Fifth Doctor’s time. They will become more common thereafter, but with the caveat that episode length will increase to 45 minutes, making a two-parter the equivalent of a current four-parter. This story is a historical, with no science-fiction elements beyond the TARDIS and crew; however it does not bear on any actual historical events. The date is stated onscreen by the Doctor as June 11, 1925, and the location is Cranleigh, England.

There may be some resemblance...

There may be some resemblance…

The story is a basic murder mystery, in which the Doctor is falsely accused of multiple murders. While it’s a decent story, it almost seems to exist solely to give Peter Davison a chance to show off his cricket skills, something which was mostly lost on me as I have no real grasp of the game. Sarah Sutton takes a page from the previous Doctors’ book and plays two roles here, as Nyssa and as local Ann Talbot; the two characters actually appear together and get along well, and make much of being identical. It’s a decent story, but largely uneventful, and almost feels like a vacation from the larger plots going on around it. Strangely, it’s the highest-rated story of the Davison era.

"Hey, don't look, but I THINK there's a Cyberman in the room..."

“Hey, don’t look, but I THINK there’s a Cyberman in the room…”

I’ve often felt that Earthshock should have been the season finale. In it we see the return of the Cybermen; and in it we see a rare thing indeed: the death of a companion, Adric to be specific. The date is 2526, stated by Adric in part one, and the setting is Earth and a nearby space freighter. Humanity is in its early First Empire period, and is engaged in wars with the Cybermen; however, based on technology levels and the size of the empire in question, I suspect this is not the same series of Cyber-wars depicted in Nightmare in Silver. These Cybermen are the ones I remember from my childhood, and look much different from their predecessors. They don’t seem to be completely free of emotion; they want the Doctor to suffer. They review their past encounters with him; from their point of view, a few should be missing, but that is of course because those encounters are with later Doctors, and haven’t been filmed yet. The Doctor here first uses his sometime-catch phrase, “Brave heart, Tegan!”.

Goodbye, Adric.

Goodbye, Adric.

The Cybermen intend to destroy Earth with a bomb, or, failing that, by crashing an antimatter-powered freighter into it. They succeed, but only after a warp accident sends them back 65 million years; the crash, it is revealed, causes the extinction of the dinosaurs. Adric, working to the last minute to save the ship, is killed in the crash; a final Cyberman attack destroys the console at which he works, thwarting his efforts. His famous last line is “Now I’ll never know if I was right”, which perfectly sums up his character. In honor of his death, the final credits roll over a background of his broken math badge, in total silence.

Heathrow, circa 140 million BC.

Heathrow, circa 140 million BC.

We end where we started in Time Flight, back at Heathrow airport in time for Tegan to catch her flight. Before she can leave, however, the TARDIS crew gets caught up in a mystery involving a missing Concorde jet; the mystery leaves them stranded in 140 million BC. The Doctor refuses to try to rescue Adric from death, referring to the First Law of Time (though not by name)—that is, that you cannot change your personal history. UNIT and the Brigadier get a mention here, as the Doctor uses his UNIT credentials, but they don’t actually appear. Adric also appears, though only as a hallucination; this was done so that he would be included in the credits as reported in Radio Times. The issue in question was released on the same day as part four of Earthshock, and the production crew did not want the surprise spoiled by even a few hours; also it fulfilled Matthew Waterhouse’s contract for the season.

I think we can forgive the Doctor for not seeing through this disguise.  I can't understand why he needed a disguise in the first place, before he knew the Doctor would be there.

I think we can forgive the Doctor for not seeing through this disguise. I can’t understand why he needed a disguise in the first place, before he knew the Doctor would be there.

The villain is the Master, disguised as Kalid; after escaping Castrovalva, he landed on prehistoric Earth with a depowered TARDIS. He intends to use the power of the Xeraphin to escape. The Xeraphin, also stranded on earth, were once a normal race, but later became a gestalt entity with a dangerously split personality; they seek to be restored to normal, and in fact may have accomplished their goal at the end, though it is not clear. At any rate, the Doctor causes the Master’s TARDIS to be diverted to the Xeraphin homeworld, where it is hoped they will exact judgment on him. In the end, Tegan leaves to catch her flight, though it is seen that she is not happy with her decision.

The Fifth Doctor Nyssa Tegan Adric

I was asked last time to speak a little more regarding what I like and dislike with each season. To be honest, I’ve found the Fifth Doctor to be more of an adjustment than I expected; his run so far—and at the time I’m writing this, I’ve already completed season twenty as well—still feels like an interlude between “real” Doctors. That’s unfortunate; I’ve been looking forward to Davison’s run, and I find him to be incredibly likeable. It’s not a criticism of his time as Doctor, I think; instead, it’s just that he’s VERY different from those who came before him. I expect the Sixth Doctor will likewise come as quite a shock. As for companions: I’ve grown to like Nyssa quite a bit. She’s the reliable one, the “right hand man” to the Doctor that Adric was beginning to be for Tom Baker. She’s the only one who’s on his level in both intellect and personality; whenever something goes wrong, she doesn’t complain, she just does what needs to be done. Of course Adric’s death was sad, and I can’t imagine how it was received in first run; but he felt like a child with too much power and not enough maturity. As a preview, even Turlough next season—who is the very definition of power vs. maturity—doesn’t feel as much like that as Adric did. The Master had quite a presence this season, and he’s excellent as always; Anthony Ainley may not be Roger Delgado, but he’s fantastic anyway, exactly what I would expect from the Master at this point. It was nice to get a season of “smaller” plots; there’s no universe-saving going on here, and that’s okay. We’ll deal with universal themes again next season.

Next time: Twentieth Anniversary! See you there.

All episodes can be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.

Castrovalva

Four to Doomsday

Kinda

The Visitation (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Black Orchid

Earthshock (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Time Flight (Parts 1-3, Part 4)

Something Better: Or, I’m Not The Writer I Thought I Was

Let’s be honest: Finding something out the hard way sucks.  It’s even more so when the thing you’re discovering is a truth about yourself.  You can tack on another degree of difficulty when the misconception is one you’ve clung to for most of your life.  And that, friends, is where I am this week.

A few days ago, I completed an online writing course. I like to think I know my craft pretty well (and no, Peanut Gallery, that’s NOT the misconception I’m talking about!), and I like to think I don’t need any further training; but this wasn’t just any class.  It was a Masterclass course with James Patterson.  Yes, THAT James Patterson—bestselling author of Along Came A Spider (Alex Cross Series), The Angel Experiment (Maximum Ride Series), 1st To Die (Women’s Murder Club Series), and a whole lotta others.  It’s pre-recorded, of course, but that doesn’t mean the class was fire-and-forget on his part, because it came with a nice incentive:  entry into a contest in which Mr. Patterson will select a new author with whom to co-author a novel.

My good friend Cyndera, who also participated in the class and the contest, has posted this article about the lesson she learned from the contest, which, to sum up, is this: she doesn’t write suspense.  Suspense, of course, is James Patterson’s bread-and-butter, and the contest entries were to be within that genre.  It isn’t her thing, though, and that’s fine.  I’ve read her work, and it is definitely more sci-fi and young adult.  Within that area, she’s amazing (and talented in a few others, as well).  Suspense, though, doesn’t come easy for her.

I appreciate the honesty that it took to make that statement. Listen, no one wants to admit that they can’t do something, or put another way, that a certain field is just not for them.  It’s hard to do that, but when we can, we’re better for it.

While I didn’t set out to make this a companion piece to that article, I suspect it’s going to sound that way, because I had a similar moment of acceptance during the class. For me, the genres in question aren’t suspense, though; they’re science-fiction and fantasy.  Speculative fiction, some call them together.  I have, at long last, accepted the idea that I just can’t write in those genres.

It’s not that I lack the tools. I have years and years of reading in those areas under my belt, and you can’t help but pick up a sense of the mechanics.  I understand how elements of fantasy—history, epics, magic systems, and so on—work.  I get how to take scientific principles and the basics of technology and work those things into a story.  I know how to project into the future and get an idea of what might be possible.  No, what I lack is inspiration.  I lack the spark of creativity that is necessary to be truly speculative in my fiction—to come up with something that is, if not new, then new enough.  When I write in those genres, I’m just rehashing old ideas.

It wasn’t easy admitting this. Sci-fi and fantasy are my babies.  I love them like life itself, if I may be a little dramatic.  When I’m reading or watching, I get into those worlds like nothing else.  I’m passionately and unashamedly a nerd and a geek, and it shows (though I hope I’m not the stereotypically overbearing type of nerd).  And my earliest works of fiction were science fiction (well, fanfiction, but you get the idea).  Admitting that I’m not good at it stung more than a little.

I should have seen it coming, though. You can see it here on this blog, if you look in the Fanfiction section.  Megaman Legends: The Traitor is ostensibly a story about cyborgs and androids working to destroy the inhumane system that created them, even while they have to defend it from corrupting influences.  In reality, it’s a story about a broken marriage between two very broken people, who have to figure out what they mean to each other even while they re-establish what it means to be human.  Parasite Eve:  The Other is supposed to continue the story from that novel and game series, in which a human’s mitochondria develop sentience and alternately take over or hybridize with their hosts, creating new powers and lifeforms.  My version is about the ability of loyalty and familial love to overcome evil, both internal and external.  Secretly, my science fiction is actually drama!  (My attempts at pure, short science fiction, such as The Sky Is Burning…well, those are just terrible.)

As it turns out, I’m better with other things. Humor, for one.  I like to think that some of my humorous short stories (New Tricks, Storytime Is Hell, Of Cookies and Comprehension, A Fish Story) are pretty good.  I can do a little romance, though little of that makes it onto this site.  A little drama, as I’ve already said.

And—surprise, surprise—suspense. Surprising no one more than myself, I found that I like to write suspense, and I’m fair at it.  (I won’t say “good”; we’ll wait for the contest results to decide that!).  I like keeping the reader guessing.  I like taking average people and putting them in dangerous situations, then seeing what shakes out.  I like writing about criminals and psychopaths and dangerous people with dangerous intentions (not surprising there, given my background in corrections and mental health care).  I like having a search history that would give a homicide detective pause, because let’s face it, this stuff is fascinating, if darkly so.  I WANT to write thrillers that keep you turning pages.  I do have things to learn, and I need the practice.  But this is something I want to do.

So, we’ll see what happens. My contest submission is a rework of an idea that I  started here on this site a long time ago (and subsequently removed; you’ll find the page with an explanatory note, but the text has been removed), called King of Hearts.  I won’t say much about it now (not sure how any outside work will affect the rules of the contest), but I will keep you posted about any news.  Win or lose, it’s a story I intend to write.

And finally, to everyone who participated in the class and the contest: Good luck!  Everyone has come a long way.  I’m looking forward to see where we all go from here.

Short Story: Of Cookies and Comprehension

I’ve written a number of stories for specific people before, including my children and some friends.  It’s not often, though, that someone has asked to be the target inspiration for one of my stories; and so, when presented with a request recently, I had to give it a shot.  The child in this story is based on a friend’s child, who just so happens to love cookies, and coincidentally happens to believe she knows everything (don’t they all?).  She was a prime model for the main character here; and yet that wasn’t the full puzzle.  After some thought, I decided that one of my favorite short story creations–Buster, the talking dog from my earlier story, “New Tricks“–had another story to tell.  This story, “Of Cookies and Comprehension”, is the result, and I hope you’ll have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

retrievers

She broke her concentration long enough to go to the front door.  She may have only been one year old, but she could multitask.

The door wasn’t quite latched, so she worked her fingers around the edge and hauled it open.  The screen door was firmly closed, but the glass was up, and she looked through the bare screen at the golden retriever sitting on the stoop.  It was he that had made the scratching that attracted her.  “Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” the dog said.  “I was walking by, and I smelled bacon…would you care to part with any?  I’m quite hungry…”

“No,” she said.  The oddity of a talking dog didn’t register with her; she was, after all, only one.

“Oh, well then, I suppose I’ll be on my way.  Good day—“

“You can’t have any,” she said, “because we ate it all already.  My mom only made enough for the two of us.”  She paused.  “It was very good.”

“Splendid,” the dog said, “It’s a crime when bacon is no good.  Say, I suppose—“

“But you can have a cookie,” she interrupted.

“Cookies are my next favorite food,” the dog said, smooth as butter, “after bacon of course.”

“You have to help me get the cookies, though,” the girl said.  “My mom is in the shower.”

“Certainly!  Ah, now, if you could just let me in…see, I haven’t any thumbs…”

“No,” the girl said.  “Mom says I’m not supposed to let strangers in the house.”

“Oh, really?” the dog said.  “My name is Buster.  What’s yours?”

“Marley,” she said.

“See?  There.  We’re not strangers anymore!”  That seemed like very sound logic to Marley, and so she obliged the dog by reaching up and flipping the tiny lock switch behind the door handle, and then opened the door.  Buster gave her a nod and a toothy, tongue-filled, doggy grin, and then nosed the door open far enough to slip inside.  He was small for a retriever, but tall enough to lick the little girl’s nose, which he did, and very appreciatively.  She frowned and wrinkled it, then smiled and toddled past the dog, toward the kitchen.

“This way,” Marley said, and the dog padded after her.  “The cookies are on the top shelf.”

“Doesn’t it bother you,” Buster said, “that you’re holding a conversation with a dog?”

“No.  Why?”  She tugged on a kitchen chair, inching it across the floor.

“Oh, no reason.”  Buster nosed the chair from behind, moving it a little faster, and together they edged it toward the cabinets. “Just that my last master thought it was odd.  He got rather worked up about it, actually.”

“But did he listen to you?”  Marley paused and looked at Buster before turning back to the chair.

“Ohh, that he did,” Buster said.  “It didn’t go so well.”

“My mom listens to me, kind of.”  Marley climbed up on the seat of the chair, then looked back.  “But I think she needs her ears checked.  She doesn’t seem to understand what I’m saying.”

“You don’t say,” Buster said.

“Right?  It’s like she only hears babbling.  It’s so annoying.  I have so many cool things to say!  After all, I know everything.  But she doesn’t get it at all.”  She looked down at him.  “One night, I even woke her up to give her my insights into string theory—she keeps the ink pens, you know, so I needed her to write them down—and she just kept shaking her head and saying “no pattycake, no pattycake.”  Sometimes I think her mind may be going soft.”

“So what did you do?”

“What COULD I do?  I played pattycake with her until she fell asleep again.  She seemed to like it.”

“Of course,” the dog said, and put his paws up on the seat to steady it.

“Thanks,” Marley said, and turned back to the cabinet.

“Don’t mention it,” he said.  “So, what is your mother’s name?  I’ll have to introduce myself, I suppose.”

“Mom,” she said.

“Oh…well…yes, but…well, does she have another name?”

She stopped reaching for the door, and gave him a look.  “Mama?”

“Oh, but she should have another…”

“You’re not making any sense,” she said, “why would she need another name?”

“Of course,” the dog said, “just how old did you say you are?”

“I didn’t,” she said, and turned back to the cabinet.  She had the door open in a flash.  “Bazinga!  Cookies, incoming!”  The package sat on the top shelf, one corner stretching tantalizingly over the edge.  “Just…gotta…reach…”

“MARLEY!”  The girl flinched, and so did the dog, who somehow managed to look guilty even while panting. The package of cookies tipped and fell to the countertop, then bounced to the floor.  Buster gave them a longing look, but didn’t move.  The woman in the doorway glared at both of them.  “Just WHAT do you think you’re doing?!”

“We’re busted,” Buster whispered.

“I know!” Marley whispered back.  “What do we do?”

“Don’t look at me,” he whispered, “I’m a dog.”

“I guess I’ll have to talk her out of getting us in trouble,” Marley whispered.  “I’ll give her my most logical and reasoned arguments.  She’ll never be able to resist my rhetorical skills.  Watch!”  She looked up at her mother, who was standing over her now, hands on hips, waiting.

“Well,” the woman said, “what do you have to say for yourself?”

Marley glanced back at Buster one last time for courage.  She turned back to her mother, and gathered her wits about her.  Then she raised a hand, and stretched out a finger, and opened her mouth; and in her best and most authoritative voice, she said…

“Cookie, mama?”

The woman laughed, and bent down to hug the girl.  “You know, if you weren’t so darned cute…”  Then she straightened up, and looked down at the dog, and frowned.  “But where did the dog come from?  And how did he get in?”

Buster dipped his head in a doggy shrug.  “What can I say?  I borrowed your daughter’s thumbs.  She’s very helpful, by the way.”

Marley watched as her mother’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she slipped to the floor in a dead faint.  “See?” she said.  “I TOLD you she doesn’t understand me!”

Short Story: Storytime Is Hell

Lately I seem to be lacking in topical posts.  That’s bad for me; but it’s good for you, readers, as you get more stories this way.  (I hope that’s a good thing, at any rate!)

The story that follows, “Storytime Is Hell”, is another prompt-inspired story, prompted by the good folks over at Reddit’s Writing Prompts community.  The prompt reads “You are reading the grittiest, manliest, most testosterone-filled bedtime story to your daughter. She’s adding in bits.”  I also feel like I should give an acknowledgement to Matthew Reilly’s “Jack West Jr.” trilogy of novels here; the names “Wolf” and “Huntsman”, while fitting perfectly in this story (for reasons that will be obvious) are also the callsigns of his characters, Jack West Jr. and his father and rival, Jack West Sr.  The books are some of my favorites, so credit is definitely due.

And now, an audience participation moment:  Rename this story!  I hate titling stories.  If a title doesn’t present itself during the writing, I find it very hard to come up with one that satisfies me.  So, I’m taking suggestions to rename this one!  If you have an idea that you think is perfect, post it in the comments.  For the winner, I’ll rename the story.  (Not much of a prize, but hey, it works, right?)  Thanks!

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

source unknown

source unknown

“Read this one!” Casey squealed, and pressed the book into my hands. It wasn’t thin, and I tried to switch it for another one, but she pushed my hands back with all her five-year-old strength. “No, Daddy! I said THIS one!” Well, alright. I opened it and leafed through; at least the stories in it were short. I flipped to a random one and sat back on the bed; looking cute as ever, Casey sat back against her pillow, pulled the blanket up over her knees, and folded her hands on them in prim anticipation. Her eyes glowed as she waited for the story to begin.

“Alright,” I said. “Once upon a time, there was a minor Central American country. In this country lay a small jungle, and in that jungle lay a tiny, reinforced compound. In that compound lived an old matriarch, and her granddaughter, Red.”

I paused. “Wait, just what kind of book is this, anyway, Casey?” I flipped it over and read the title. “Roundhouse Kick The Wicked Witch: Manly Fairy Tales For Manly Men. Well, that explains it!” I looked up. “Casey, where did you get this book?”

“Kindergarten!”

“Uh…”

“READ!” she shouted.

“Alright, alright, if you insist.” I flipped it back over. “But you might not like it!”

She giggled. I rolled my eyes, and started again. “Now, unknown to Grandma and Red, their simple life was about to change. For on that very day, their little compound, and their minor country, was about to be invaded by another country’s general. They called him…The Wolf.”

“How big was his army?”

Now the Wolf—I, uh, excuse me?” I looked up. She was still sitting with her fingers laced on her knees, but her eyes were wide, waiting for an answer.

“I said, how big was the Wolf’s army?”

“I, uh…well, it doesn’t really…Casey, it’s a bedtime story, I don’t think—“

“Well, that’s no good. For a minor Central American country, I think you need at least fifty thousand ground troops, plus twenty air support units. And sufficient naval forces to secure the shoreline.” She frowned. “What?”

I opened my mouth a few times before any words would come out. “Did you just—“

She sighed. “Come on, Daddy, I want to hear the rest!”

Yeah, sure. Never mind all that. I resumed. “Now the Wolf came rolling into the country on a wave of blood and bullets…oh my…and no one could stop him. He rolled up to the gate of the little compound, and got out his loudspeaker, and announced to everyone, ‘GRANDMA AND RED! LET ME IN!’ And the compound’s guards shouted ‘NOT BY THE HAIR ON OUR CHINNY CHIN CHINS!’…Hey, I think there’s some plagiarism going on here, not to mention some story confusion…”

“Da-DDY!”

Alright! So the Wolf huffed, and he puffed, and he…oh, come on…and he fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the gates, and the guards scattered everywhere!”

“Hmpf.”

I arched an eyebrow at her. “Hmpf?”

“Shoulda reinforced the gate.”

“Where did you even learn that word?”

“Just saying. Then it would have taken more than an RPG.” She gave me a triumphant look.

“Right…” I cleared my throat. “So the Wolf and his men took charge of the compound, and Grandma and Red found themselves locked in the cellar. But, unknown to the Wolf, the CIA had many connections in this minor country, and they knew they would need to protect their interests. By nightfall, they had their best operative on a plane, and by midnight he was parachuting into the jungle. His codename: The Huntsman.”

“One man?” Casey shouted. “THAT’s the best they can do? One man? How about a slash-and-burn team to clear the area, followed by a four-man squad of Navy SEALS—“

I cut her off with a look. “Are you going to let me read this?” She subsided, but her eyes were still flashing. “Thank you. So the Huntsman parachuted in under cover of darkness, and landed in the jungle. Quickly he made his way to the perimeter, and one by one he subdued the guards, using his knife and his hand-to-hand combat skills. He hid the bodies as he created them, and made his way to the fence. Once there, he used his knife to scrape a dugout beneath the fence, and crawled under.”

“Uh, motion detectors? Ever heard of those? Or vibration sensors on the fence?”

“Casey—“

“Well, it’s like they’re not even TRYING!” she exploded, then subsided, with her arms crossed.

“We’re almost done, if you’ll let me go on.” She nodded glumly. “Alright. Now where was I…oh yeah. The Huntsman made his way to the main house, intending to rescue the hostages before confronting the Wolf. He had no way to know that the hostages were rescuing themselves.” I turned the page. “Grandma knew about the years Red had spent in the local juvenile detention center, but she didn’t know about the recruiter for the CIA that had met her there. She didn’t know about Red’s secret training, or her mission to further America’s interests in the country; and of course she didn’t know about the hidden knife that Red was using right now to cut herself free of her bonds. So, when Red sprang to her feet, she only had time to duck as Red threw the knife over Grandma’s shoulder and took out the one guard on the door. Right between the eyes.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Casey muttered, “he won’t have the keys anyway.”

“Well, I know that, but how did you…?”

“I’m getting sleepy,” she said with a yawn, “can we hurry?”

“Right. So Red cut Grandma free, then began to pick the lock whle Grandma pressed her ear to the door. But the next sound she heard made them stop—for they knew it was the sound of bodies hitting the floor upstairs. The Huntsman had come!” I looked at her; she tapped her fingers on her arm, impatiently waiting. “When the Huntsman popped the lock with a bit of C4, Red burst out and nearly put her knife in him. Only his quick training and martial reflexes saved him, as he caught her arm and disarmed her, and flipped her onto the floor!”

“BOOOO-ring!” Casey announced. “No CIA-trained sleeper operative would have charged through the door without looking!”

I ignored that. “’Well done,’ a voice said behind them. It was the Wolf! He had come down from the second floor during the fight, and now he stood at the foot of the stairs, watching the three of them. ‘I didn’t expect you to escape, but here you are. Grandma, the woman who used to be in charge here. Red, the little girl with the big secret. And you…the Huntsman. My old enemy.’”

“’So you remember,’ the Huntsman said. ‘I thought you would forget.’”

“’I could never forget the man…who murdered my father!’ he shouted. ‘And now, that debt will be repaid! Die, Huntsman!’ And he drew his gun and fired!”

“Oh come on!” She was waving her arms in five-year-old fury. “Body armor, people! He’s wearing body armor!”

“Well, as it turns out,” I said, “you are wrong. Listen. ‘Suddenly, out of nowhere, Grandma leaped in front of the bullet! And as she lay dying a bloody and dramatic death, Red and the Huntsman leaned over her and heard her final words. ‘Huntsman,’ she wheezed, ‘I want you to take my granddaughter far away from here, to someplace safe, where she can have a life.’”

“’I will,’ the Huntsman promised.”

“’And marry her,’ the old woman gasped.”

“’Grandma, I’m eleven!’ Red exclaimed.”

“’Don’t disobey your grandmother, now,’ she said, and then she died. Red and the Huntsman looked at each other.”

“’We’ll talk about this later,’ he said. She nodded. Then he stood up. ‘Wolf,’ he declared, ‘I’ve come to end your suffering once and for all.’”

“’Are you going to give me back my father?’”

“’No,’ the Huntsman said, ‘but I will send you to join him!’”

“What followed was a battle too epic for words. It raged over the compound for a night and a day; and in the end, the Huntsman was victorious. He stood over his fallen foe, watching as the final moments came. ‘You can’t think this is over, Huntsman,’ the Wolf growled. ‘I may die, but someone will avenge me! You’ll never be safe again!”

“The Huntsman pointed his gun at the Wolf. ‘Wrong,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you how this ends.’ He tightened his finger on the trigger. ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ The gunshot was the last sound the Wolf heard.” I lowered the book. “The End.”

“WHAT?” Casey exploded. “That’s IT?? What about the resulting power vacuum and the reestablishment of government? What about the inevitable puppet state? What about the rest of the military? What about the Huntsman and Red? I need to know–!”

“Goodnight, Casey,” I said, and turned off the light and left the room.

I took the book with me. Strange as it was, I didn’t want to leave it with her. In my own bedroom, I took a last look at the cover, and then tossed the book on the nightstand. “That’s what you get,” I said to myself as I turned out the light, “when a military school opens up a preschool.”

[Guest Post] – A Tasty Surprise

Thanks to Cyndera for the following guest post/short story, “A Tasty Surprise”.  A little drama that’s close to home for me…and I’ll get him next time!  (Just keep reading, and pay me no mind here–it’ll all make sense in a minute, I promise.)  ~Timewalkerauthor

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!
***

I came home from work around nine in the evening, plumb tuckered. It was a hard day, as usual, but you gotta do what you gotta do to make a livin’, right? In these parts, it ain’t easy. You gotta be careful wherever you go. “West Virginia, Wild and Wonderful” my rump! I could do without the “Wild”, believe me. “Wild” around here equals snakes and other fellows you don’t want to run into. I had a few close ones in my time … scared the heck out of me.

Well, let me tell you, the last few days were even less fun than usual. It had been raining like crazy, and I could virtually feel webbings grow in-between my toes. Might even have been better at this point than feet, really: the puddles around my house and work kept getting bigger and bigger. Noah had the right idea back then, let me tell you … an arc would have been very convenient at times.

When I got home, I shook the water off my feet and went to see if there was any food. I had just recently moved to a new place, and so far I was pleased: Lots of bites laying around here and there. I really couldn’t complain. So I looked around, as usual, when suddenly one of these huge animals crossed my path that you see roaming everywhere, behaving as if they owned every place you go to. There were three that had chosen my place as their dwelling: this particular one, the biggest and tallest of them, showed up every now and then, sometimes with and sometimes without the other ones —smaller, young ones, maybe. The big one, he can be loud at times (at least I am guessing it’s a he … my knowledge about these critters is quite limited), but the the smaller ones can really give you a headache. They stomp, and scream, and sometimes they get into what looks like fights. Usually, the big one separates them, and growls at them, and then there’s peace for a few minutes.

I am usually good about avoiding dangerous creatures, but earlier today I wasn’t in my best form. I was hungry, hadn’t eaten all day because of some work that needed to get done down at the community center, just by the river, and so I did not pay much attention. Imagine my surprise when suddenly a HUGE foot stood in front of me. I swerved to the right and narrowly avoided being crushed. These things really needed to be restraint somehow.

Look, I have no idea if these things are intelligent or not, but I gave a friendly not and made my way past the giant. I think he said something, but it was all gibberish to me, so I didn’t pay much attention. I found some crumbs in the kitchen and returned back to my place.

While eating, I heard more footsteps, and from the sound of it, it was the younglings. Oh, great, here went my peaceful evening. Somebody should tell these creatures that some of us are working hard every day and deserve some quiet-time. To my surprise though, the giant didn’t yell. He communicated with them in a quiet tone. Well, good for them. I really hate to complain about neighbors. Only calls for trouble, you know?

Later that evening, I left my place again only to find a strange contraption in one of the corners of the room. I looked at it; I had never seen anything like it before. It didn’t really matter though, because in the middle of it was a glorious piece of cheese topped with peanut butter. I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten cheese and peanut butter! I got closer and noticed that the ground of the little contraption was a little sticky. I tested it carefully: One foot, then another, then the third and fourth. Granted, it was a bit hard to walk, but I could reach the cheese with only two more steps. Holding it carefully in my mouth, I made my way back off the sticky stuff, went home again and had a great midnight dinner.

Makes you wonder though … no way those creatures had put it there on purpose, but hey, who cares, right? Food is food. I just hope there’s more tomorrow!

Short Story: Not A Prayer Of A Chance

I am not a team-sports fan.  I have some sympathy for baseball, and I find hockey to be fascinating briefly; but I’m definitely not a follower of either one.  Football (the American variety) and basketball I despise with a passion; years of working as a correctional officer, and witnessing all the mountains of problems that were generated by those sports, pretty much destroyed any chance that I will ever tolerate them.  (I’ll make an exception if, and only if, my children play them.)

Imagine my surprise when I let myself be talked into watching the World Cup this year.  Cyndera, being from Germany, is a huge fan; and her enthusiasm was contagious, so I  gave it a shot.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it exciting! (Any of you who may be into  it, you know what I mean!  Also, to anyone who was rooting for Brazil:  Come see me at my day job, we offer grief counseling.)  I may never be  a follower in the regular season, but it was worth watching, and I plan to do so next time.

The writing prompt for the following story, “Not A Prayer Of A Chance”, came a little late; the Cup had been over for a week or more when I came across it.  Still, it was too good to resist.  It read, “One angel is responsible for screening which prayers get to God. World Cup season is a nightmare because he has to filter out every sports-related prayer.”  I hope you’ll enjoy my take on this prompt.

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

 

This is what you get when google "Soccer Angel".  Google, you so literal.

This is what you get when google “Soccer Angel”. Google, you so literal.

“No, Sariel, we don’t need any more angels in the choir, thank you for asking!”  Gabriel quickened his pace, hurrying down the golden hallway, his robe trailing the floor as his wings brushed the ceiling.

Sariel hurried to keep up.  “Then…how about messenger duty?  Surely there are some humans who could use some revelation!  I work well with others!”  Gabriel gave him a look, then kept going.  “Guardian angel duty?  I’m not picky—you could put me with anyone, even, you know, THAT guy.  You know the one.”  Still no response.  “Substitute seraphim?  Angel of death?  Polish the gold in the streets?  Come on here!”

Gabriel came to a sudden halt at a door that was banded with gold and studded with gems.  He turned to face the other angel.  “Sariel,” he said, “I promise you, we have the perfect job for you.  You’ll love it!”  And he reached a hand out to the side and pushed the door open.

Sariel stepped inside and gave a cautious look around.  Gabriel stepped in behind him.  The room was spacious, but empty except for a desk and chair.  “What will I be doing here?”

“Oh, it’s a simple job.  A very necessary one, too, I should say.  You see, when prayers come in from Earth, of course some of them are just frivolous.  It’s a waste of the Master’s time to have to deal with that, and so…well, we…weed them out.”

Sariel frowned.  “Really?  What do you mean?”

Gabriel smiled.  “Well, we bring the prayers into this room, and we look through them, and we find the ones that are worthwhile, and we pass them on to the Master.  We simply toss out the ones that don’t merit forwarding.  It’s really a simple task, suitable for just one angel.  You’ll be fine.”

Sariel appeared to be confused.  “And what determines if a prayer is not worthwhile?”

“Oh, well, little things.  Look at what it’s asking!  “Heal my sick grandma”—that’s a worthwhile one.  “Let me win the lottery”, or, my personal favorite, “Let my team win this tournament”—those can be tossed.  You understand?”

Sariel nodded.  “I suppose so.  But, I don’t see any prayers—“  He winced as Gabriel stuck two fingers in his mouth and gave a piercing whistle; and then, his jaw dropped, as one angel after another began carrying in large boxes.  Box after box after box, piled high with pages.  “These are the prayers?” he demanded, staring incredulously at Gabriel.

“Yes, well, there do seem to be a lot of them today,” Gabriel said breezily, “but I’m sure you’ll be fine!”  Then he ducked out the door.

Sariel shouted after him, “But what is this all about?  What is going on on Earth to cause so many prayers?!”

He didn’t expect an answer, but got one anyway.  Gabriel’s head appeared around the door frame, narrowly missing an incoming angel with a box.  “World Cup season!” he said, and vanished again.

***

Sariel sat at the desk, fuming, as he worked through the last pages in one of the boxes.  “Let’s see, we have “I need a new car,” followed by a “let my team win this game!”  Urgh.  Then we have a “My puppy has cancer”—aww—and three more “let my team win”.  Then, last of all, five more “Let my team win”!  Aghhhh!”  He tossed the last stack into the air and shoved the box off the other side of the desk, then slumped over it with his chin in his hand.  “Well, THAT was discouraging!       And that was only the first of…” he looked around at the room, now stacked to the ceiling with boxes.  “The first of I have no idea how many boxes!”

He stared around the room, and a thought occurred to him.  “You know, I bet…”  He leaped to his feet and grabbed another box.  He began pulling pages at random, tossing them over his shoulder as soon as he read them.  “Soccer.  Soccer.  World Cup.  Soccer.  Soccer!  Oh, look, here’s a “let me make it til payday”, that’s a good one.  Aaaaaand more soccer!”  In a fit of pique, he threw the box to the floor.  “Okay, THIS has got to stop!”  Grabbing a stack  of pages from another box, he marched out of the room and down the corridor.

The hallways grew more ornate.  Gold became less, well, golden, and more and more clear, until it shone like glass.  Gemstones became larger and more ornate.  More and more angels came and went.  From up ahead, seraphic singing could be heard.  Finally, at the ultimate end of the hallway, he stopped at an enormous, incalculably beautiful double door.  Papers in hand, he pushed it open.

The Master always appeared in the way He chose, tailoring it to the one who was approaching Him.  When Sariel opened the doors, he found himself in another office, one much larger and more ornate than his own, but warm and welcoming.  The Master sat with his back to the door, wearing the appearance of a kindly old man with spectacles; he turned and looked over His shoulder as Sariel entered.  “Come in, Sariel.  What can I do for you?”

Sariel nodded respectfully, and approached—carefully; one wasn’t casual in the Master’s presence.  “Master,” he said, “I have been assigned to screen your incoming prayers.  I wanted to speak with you about the job.”

“I see.”  The Master tipped his spectacles forward and gazed at Sariel over them.  “It seems dull, does it?  Would you like to be reassigned?”

“No, Sir,” Sariel began, “I mean—yes, but I wouldn’t—well.”  He paused and took a breath.  “Sir, it is not that the job is dull, although it is.  I don’t mind serving as you command.  Rather, it’s the magnitude of the job.”  He held out the papers.  “This is but a tiny fraction of what I am facing right now.  I will never keep up.  And I can’t help but think that the load is usually much lighter!”

“Ah.”  The Master frowned.  “What is causing the increase, do you think?”

Sariel blushed, realizing how it must sound.  “Soccer”, he murmured.

The Master frowned again.  “Could you repeat that?  A little louder?”

“Soccer!” Sariel shouted, then jumped at the echo of his own voice.  “Sorry, Sir!”  The Master waved for him to continue.  “Sir, it’s the 2014 World Cup down there, and, and, frankly, we are flooded with sports requests!  And I don’t know how to get through them!”

“If you think this is bad, wait til the Olympics,” the Master muttered.  Then He gave a longsuffering sigh.  “Sariel,” He said, “I’ve watched you.  I know you have a good and loyal heart.  After all, I made it that way, didn’t I?”  Sariel nodded.  “I want you to succeed at this job.  It’s a great privilege, you know.  So, how about I help you out, just this once?”

Sariel gave a grateful smile.  “I would be very thankful, Sir.”

“Alright.”  He made a “give-me” gesture.  Sariel glanced down at the papers in his hand, and hastily stepped forward to hand them off.  “Here’s what I’ll do,” the Master said, and he licked a thumb and began to flip through the pages.  “I’ll pick one of these soccer requests, and I’ll answer it…and when I’m done, no one will be even thinking about praying about the World Cup for a while.”  He flipped through the pages until one caught his eye, and  then pulled it out and showed it to Sariel.  “How’s this one?”

Sariel squinted at it.  “Sir, I don’t read German—“

The Master waved a hand.  “You do now.”

Sariel nodded, and looked again; then his eyes widened.  “Wow!  Uh, yes, sir, that would DEFINITELY do the job!”

“I thought so,” the Master said.  “Why don’t you go take a moment and check it out?  I think you’ll be pleased.”

***

“—THIS IS UNBELIEVABLE!  GERMANY DESTROYS BRAZIL, SEVEN GOALS TO ONE!  FIVE GOALS IN THE FIRST TWENTY-NINE MINUTES!  I CAN’T EVEN DESCRIBE THE NUMBER OF RECORDS THAT HAVE BEEN BROKEN HERE TODAY—“

The man at the bar hit the button on the remote, and the screen went dark, cutting off the commentator.  “Well,” he declared, “that’s that.  Nobody else has a prayer of winning the Cup now!”

***

Sariel sat at his desk, humming to himself.  The mountains of boxes were gone; only a very respectable three boxes remained to be sorted.  All’s well that ends well, he thought to himself—and then the door flew open, and angels carrying boxes came flooding in.  Sariel leaped to his feet, shocked, and then saw another angel walk in, unladen but wearing a sour look.  “Ithuriel?” he said.  “What’s going on?”

“Don’t act like you don’t know, Sariel,” Ithuriel growled.  “You did this, you know.”

“But…but, the Master determined the outcome of the Cup!  All the extraneous prayers sorted themselves!”

“Who said anything about prayers?” Ithuriel said.  “These boxes are full of South American profanity!  Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to need that desk.”

The guardian angel of the Brazilian soccer team...ooh, too soon?

The guardian angel of the Brazilian soccer team…ooh, too soon?

Reblog: All We Need Is Love

I’m running behind with this post–it should have been up days ago–but I was interrupted by some family tragedy:  My father experienced his second heart attack last week.  He survived, but it was a close call; and I foresee some necessary changes in his future.

With that said, I’ll also say this:  Though this post is a reblog, it is not a time-saver or filler material.  The story that follows is by my guest contributor Cyndera, who first posted it on her own blog.  I am glad to have her considerable talents on loan here, but let’s be fair:  I can’t expect to hog all the best material!  For more entries to come, you may consider following her blog; you’ll find writing posts, short stories, essays, and much more!

This story is the first in a possible series titled “Simple Talks”.  I won’t give away the details, but check it out!  This first entry is titled “All We Need Is Love”.

 

“Hey. Hey there. Wake up!”

I slowly opened my eyes, looking around my dim bed room and then at my clock. Eight in the morning on a Saturday. I closed my eyes again.

“Hey, right over here!”

I looked to the left, where my dog Dutch was curled up next to me. He was still snoring.

“No, over here!”

I glanced to the right toward the window. The voice was too close to be outside. I was probably dreaming. I pinched myself.

“Ow! What did you do that for?”

Continue Reading:  “All We Need Is Love”…

Short Story: New Tricks

I have a close friend who suffers from recurrent bouts of depression.  Periodically, to try to lift her spirits, I send humorous emails and short stories to her; I shoot for a laugh, but when we’re talking depression, I’ll settle for a grin or a chuckle!  This story, “New Tricks”, is one of those, my most recent contribution.  She seemed to like it, and I hope you will, too.  (If you would like to read more of the stories I’ve written for her, check  out the “Strange Happenings At Ridgeline Drive” section of this site.)

I’ll make a confession here:  This is not one hundred percent original.  I wrote this story using a two-sentence writing prompt, which, although not one of my regular strategies, is something I highly recommend trying for yourself.  This prompt came from Reddit.com‘s Writing Prompts subreddit, found at www.reddit.com/r/writingprompts.  It simply said, “A man wakes up with the ability to talk to animals. The animals don’t have very nice things to say.

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

 

Jack Jones woke up with the hangover of the century.  It was all downhill from there.

He stumbled out of bed and into the wall, then fell backward onto the bed.  “So that’s what they mean,” he reflected blearily, and a bit painfully, “by getting up on the wrong side of the bed.”  The words, such as they were, came out in a slurring rasp, which suited him fine anyway, as he hadn’t intended to speak aloud at all.  He made up for it all by climbing to his feet again, and immediately tripping over the sheet to sprawl on his face.

“You’re going to hurt yourself,” the dog said from the floor, and resumed licking itself.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Jack said, waving a less-than-coordinated arm haphazardly in the air.  He detached himself from the sheet and made it upright, forgetting at once the half-formed thought that told him he hadn’t brought anyone home with him with whom  to be speaking.  He staggered to the bathroom instead, and made a brief and unproductive attempt at drowning himself in the sink, thinking it would at least end the headache; when that didn’t work, he settled for a splash of mouthwash and a quick hair brushing.

In the kitchen, he dropped a slice of bread into the coffeepot and turned it on, then caught himself about to pour water into the toaster, and pulled the bread back out.  “You want to be careful about that,” the dog said, wagging his tail.  “And by the way, how about some bacon?”

“No, no bacon today, I can’t stomach it,” Jack said, resting his head in his hands on the countertop.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” the dog said.  “I was looking forward to it.”

With the toast and coffee inside him (and more than one slice inside the dog, who looked quite satisfied with himself despite the criminal dearth of bacon), Jack wandered—his navigation really was improving now—wandered back to the bedroom and stuffed himself into some fresh clothes.  He fumbled for his shoes and his wallet, and found his keys hanging from the lampshade, but otherwise made a good show of it.  Seeing that he was in need of some things—not least of all, another six-pack, to take the edge off—he made his way to the back door, nodding to the dog as he went.  “Sorry about the bacon,” he said, and opened the door.

“Don’t mention it,” said the dog, “we’re quite alright.”  Then the door closed.

It was nearly a full five-count before the door crashed open again.  “Do you mean,” Jack said, looking for all the world as though his headache was gone, “that you’ve been TALKING to me?”

The dog, whose name was Buster, dipped his head in a gesture very much like a shrug.  “You seemed to be in a talking mood,” he said.  “It seemed like the thing to do.

“That,” said Jack, “is what I thought.”  Then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he hit the floor.

***

“I, I don’t understand,” Jack said for the fifth time, holding a washcloth full of ice against the lump on his forehead, “I just don’t.  How did this happen?  I mean, why haven’t you been talking all this time, if you knew how?”

“Why haven’t you been listening?”  Buster countered.

“Well, because it’s not really the sort of thing a man does—hey!” he said, catching himself.  “No need to be rude!”

“Pardon,” Buster said.

“Quite alright.  But, but how?  You never did answer my question.”

“Largely because you haven’t given me time to answer,” the dog said.  “You haven’t stopped talking since you woke up.  Really, if I spoke a little more, and you spoke a little less, we might get somewhere.”

“Then, speak!”

“ARF!”  The dog grinned at the utterly dumbfounded look on Jack’s face.  “A little canine humor,” he said.  “Speak?  It’s what you say when you want us to bark?”

“Well, I know that,” Jack said, a little irritated.  “I just didn’t expect…well…well, you still haven’t answered my question!”

“Yes.  That would be because I can’t.”

“But you just said it was because—“

“LARGELY because,” Buster said.  “The smaller reason is because I can’t.”

“Well, why-ever not?!”

“Because I don’t know how it happened,” the dog said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.  “Something in the air?  In the water?  Cosmic radiation?”

Jack grew indignant.  “What does a dog know about cosmic radiation?”

“What do YOU know about cosmic radiation?” the dog said.  Jack opened his mouth to argue, then shut it again, and became red in the face.  “Look, for all I know, it may have been something in your drink last night.  Judging from your state of inebriation when you crawled in through the window—yes, the window, didn’t you wonder how your keys got snagged on the lampshade?—you had quite a bit to drink.”

“Oh, very well, then,” Jack muttered.  Then, a suspicious look stole over his face, and he narrowed his eyes at the dog.  “Say…how do I know I’m not dreaming all this?”

“Oh, please,” the dog said.  “The very fact that I’m here should tell you otherwise.”

“And why is that?”

“Because it’s more of a nightmare than a dream to me, and I won’t stand for that,” the dog said.

Jack bolted to his feet and slammed his hand down on the table.  “Nightmare!  What’s so bad about it here, then?”

“We don’t have the time for that talk.  I have a life expectancy of only twelve years.”

“You’re only two!  I brought you home from the shelter as a pup!”

“Then DEFINITELY not enough time.”

Jack made a supreme effort, and sat back down.  “Are you trying to tell me,” he said, enunciating carefully, “that ten years is not enough time for you to tell me all the things you dislike about living here?”

“I was,” Buster remarked.

“But…?”

“But then I realized the liver cancer was going to get you in nine.  I can smell those things, you know.  You should probably drink a little less, by the way.”

Jack began to sputter.  “I never—!”

“You mean you never AGAIN, if you’re smart,” the dog said.  “But it doesn’t matter, anyway.”

“Why not?!”

“Because you’ll be dead long before that from testicular cancer.  I give you five years at most.”

He drew in a deep breath, and looked at the dog.  “You’re lying.  You can’t really smell those…horrible things.”

“You’re right,” the dog said.  Jack gave triumphant smile.  “I know it by magiiiiiic,” Buster said, drawing out the word, and Jack’s smile dropped into a scowl.

“There’s no such thing as magic,” he said.

“Says the man talking to a dog,” Buster retorted.  “Perhaps it was schizophrenia, not cancer?  I hear that can shorten the life expectancy, too.”

“I’ll shorten YOUR life expectancy!” Jack howled.

“You haven’t the stones for it!” the dog countered.  “Well, unless you count the ones in your kidneys.  Honestly, you must give up the bottle.”

“Stop insulting my health!!”

“Certainly!  Shall we switch over to your love life now, or shall we insult your career prospects first?”

***

“I’m terribly sorry, but I simply can’t keep him,” Jack said, putting on his best apologetic face.  “Landlord’s changed the rules, you know.  No dogs, he says, they stink up the place…we had a few good years, a few QUIET years—“ and he shot the dog a look.  Sitting inside the cage, muzzle in place, Buster still managed a grin with his eyes.

“Yes, yes, well, we understand completely, happens all too often,” the shelter attendant said.  “Of course, there’s a fee…”  Jack paid out the bills, and nodded to the man.

“Right, then,” he said, “I’ll be on my way.”  He turned and walked toward the door, feeling much lighter now that both of his annoyances—the hangover and the dog—were behind him.  The day was much improved already, and looking up.  Why, he was feeling practically charitable…he stopped at an open stand by the door, with a half-dozen kittens at the bottom.  “You know, the new rules don’t ban ALL pets,” he said, and turned back to the attendant.  “How much is the fee for the kittens?”

***

He put the car in fifth gear, and smiled, enjoying the warmth of the sun on his face.  “Glad THAT’S behind me,” he said aloud.  “What a crazy thing!  Talking dogs.  Who would believe it?  I’m not even sure I believe it.  I wonder if maybe I was slipping a little?  Starting to lose my mind?”  He gave a chuckle, and shook his head.

“Maybe,” said a high-pitched voice from the cage in the passenger seat.

“Yes,” said the second kitten.  “After all, talking to yourself, that can’t be a good sign, now, can it?”

They stared at him.  He stared at them.

“Hmm,” the first kitten said a moment later.  “I wonder if he really meant to leave the door open?  And do you think he’ll be coming back?  I rather liked him.  Shame about the drinking though.  That sort of thing will give you a hangover.”