One in a Million: Chapter 5

Ali placed the tile but did not lift his finger from it. He examined Caleb’s face, lifted the tile, placed it again, waited and finally lifted his finger. Caleb’s expression did not change as he placed a worker on it and placed another tile next to it.

“Dammit,” said Ali.

“You made the same mistake last time,” said Caleb.

“Did I?” asked Ali. He pulled a tile from the stack, looked at it, sighed, shrugged and placed it without much thought.

“Much better,” said Caleb, but placed one of his owner worker pieces and another tile anyway.

“How can you tell?” Ali said then tossed his stack of unplayable tiles on the table. “I concede. You are the master of Flatland.”

“Good. I was getting bored,” said Caleb.

Ali started putting the game away. He pursed his lips against his irritated retort, then said, “The aliens are doing something new. There’s a press conference or something on tonight.” Caleb did not respond. “Maybe it’s about the new medicine?”

Caleb grabbed two beers from the refrigerator and brought one to Ali. “I doubt it. It has been released in Europe already.”

“Well, it’s something big enough to preempt the Series. They’re probably going to turn the UN into a one world government or something.”

“I don’t think they care about our politics at all. It’s not like we make troops of chimpanzees get along.”

Ali frowned. “Do you really think that’s how they see us?”

“If we’re lucky. If we aren’t they see us like herds of cattle, or an infestation of termites.”

They sat drinking in silence for a long time.

Chapter 4

Chapter 6

One in a Million: Chapter 4

Caleb moved quickly, securing the cables together with zip ties every few feet and separating out cables as necessary. They were not marked, he simply knew which ones were which. It started as a thick rope of dozens and ended up with a single plug at the end. Along the way each of the workstations was tethered to the network.

“You’re not going to write down which cable goes where?” asked the fat, balding middle manager that hovered entirely too close to Caleb as he worked. “What if I need to do something with them?”

“You won’t,” said Caleb.

“Sure, you say that, but what if you messed it up.”

Caleb clipped the tail off the last zip tie and stood. “I did not,” he said. “And if I did how would it help you for me to write it down? It would still be wrong.”

The man gaped for a moment then said, “Hey, I was just saying. This is my office. I might have to fix–”

“You won’t. You couldn’t anyway. You aren’t smart enough.”

The man’s face flushed. “Wait a second. You can’t talk to me like that. You’re just a contractor.”

Caleb sighed. He knew what he was supposed to do in these situations: apologize, get the work order signed and leave as quickly as possible.

“Yes,” he said, ignoring his own internal advice. “I am a contractor. That means I do not work for you, which is good, because I am not sure I could take eight excruciating hours of your useless micromanaging and inane yammering every day. You are obviously talentless and very probably the cousin, brother in law or nephew of someone far more important than you, otherwise you would be failing at managing a MacDonald’s.” He held the work order out to the exasperated man.

Purple jowls trembling with incredulity, the man signed the work order while muttering something about Caleb’s future on the unemployment line.

Chapter 3

Chapter 5

One in a Million: Chapter 3

Allie flexed her thighs and pulled Caleb deeper into him. He grunted. She grunted. They moved. Moments later, she released him and they were lying side by side, sweaty and out of breath.

“Isn’t it kind of weird that your booty call has the same name as your best friend?” asked Allie. She reached down and started rubbing herself.

“No,” he said. “Why would it be?”

“I don’t know,” she said. She caught her breath then continued, “I think it would be weird is all.” She made a hungry sound.

“It’s not.” Caleb sat up on the edge of the bed and stretched.

“So, aliens,” said Allie. She bit her lower lip.

“Yeah.” Caleb went into the bathroom. He left the door while he pulled off the condom and urinated.

“Think they’ll eat us?” she asked and then came again.

“I don’t think so,” said Caleb. He started collecting his clothes from the floor. “If they were going to do that, why would they be signing trade agreements?”

Allie exhaled. She turned on her side to face him while he dressed. “Does it bother you?”

“The aliens?”

“No, when I get a second after we’re done.”

“No. Why would it?”

“It bothers some people. Guys, I mean.”

“It doesn’t bother me.” He was dressed except for his shoes.

Allie sat up suddenly. “Do you like me, Caleb.”

Caleb considered her. Her skin was the color of mahogany. Her breasts were perfect teardrops. Her hips were narrow but her ass was nicely round. “I like it when we have sex,” he said, then added, “and I don’t find you annoying.”

Allie blinked. “Okay.”

“Okay,” he said and left.

Chapter 2

Chapter 4

One in a Million: Chapter 1

Everyone remembers where they were when the Spiral Hegemony star cruiser first appeared in orbit. It was visible out the window of the International Space Station, and soon the images were beamed to every phone and television across the planet. It happened at 2:06 PM Eastern Standard Time, so most of the Western world was either at work or school, settling in for dinner, or heading out for a night on the town. People would talk about it for years to come, regurgitating the same stories of fear, awe and wonder over and over again, embellished by time and the natural tendency to want to tell a more compelling story than their friends.

Caleb Farnsworth did not remember. In his defense, it was because he was unconscious, because he was drunk, because he had been broken up with, fired and evicted all at once the night before. Free advice: do not start screwing the landlady while working as a menial repairman in the apartment building in which you live.

He woke to the buzzing of his phone. He fumbled with it and denied the call. It buzzed again. He threw it across the dingy apartment. It kept buzzing and he kept ignoring it until he felt more awake than dead. Finally Caleb rolled off the couch and crawled to where his phone lay. He looked at it: 43 missed calls, at least one from pretty much everyone he knew. He opened the messenger and looked at the first text.

ALI: Look out the fucking window!

He did, and he basically shat. By then, the cruiser had sent its fleet of contact vessels to every major city on Earth. These ships looked essentially like large blimps and the underside appeared to be a massive screen. In massive illuminated letters, the screens read — and I shit you not — “We come in peace.”

Chapter 2

A Process Interlude: The 100 Word Story

Here’s the first shot at writing a 100 word story for the Dreamscape Press “100 Worlds” anthology. This is a kind of “Flash Fiction” even more restrictive than NPR’s “Three Minute Fiction” (600 words) or “Flash Fiction Online” with its 1000 word limit.

 

That said, let’s give it a go:

 

———-

 

Juno saw it first, the ten kilometer wide spacecraft. No one can say how long it had been orbit of Jupiter, but it remained for a little over thirteen years. Some sort of continent sized net hung from it, dragging through the upper Jovian atmosphere while smaller object — kilometer wide vessels or probes — made regular trips to the moons, especially Europa.

 

All we could do was watch. We fast tracked designs for future Jovian missions but budgets and science and politics and just plain physics being what they are, none made it in time. There is a rumor that we successfully contacted them. Don’t believe it. It was considered, of course, but the ramifications of its existence alone was enough to stifle any political will to reach out. That, and fear.

 

On August 19, 2029, it left. The last of its probes returned to it. It drew in its net and it moved out of Jovian orbit. We lost sight of it within hours.

 

The thing that is most disconcerting — hell, the thing that is most depressing and even a little hurtful — is that not once in the entire time they were here did they ever once try and contact the Earth.

 

———-

 

That comes in at 186 words, nearly double the intended limit. In order to trim it, I have to discern the key elements of the story and distill it to its essence.

 

“An advanced alien spaceship is detected in orbit of Jupiter engaged in acquiring resources and possibly other activities. It remains for years. We are unable to investigate and unwilling to initiate contact. The aliens ignore us completely before eventually leaving for parts unknown. We are left with the knowledge that we are not alone and the feeling that we wish were had remained ignorant.”

 

Even that seems to long to explain what this story is really about and why I want to write it.

 

“Humankind is so insignificant that either we don’t register as an intelligent speacies, or are not worth investigation even if we do.”

 

I think in order to really underline that insignificance and make it certain to the reader that the aliens intentionally ignored us, humans have to attempt contact. It is conceivable that an alien mining probe could fail to recognize life on a planet millions of miles from its work zone; it is less conceivable that it could fail to notice signals directed at it.

Those things said, with an eye toward slimming it down, here is attempt number two:

 

———-

 

On February 9, 2017 the Jovian probe Juno returned images of a ten-kilometer wide spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter. By the eleventh, the images had been leaked onto the internet and the whole world knew we were not alone. We all watched as the strange vessel skimmed the surface of the gas giant’s atmosphere with what looked like a net thousands of square kilometers in size. We saw the smaller half-kilometer probes or ships travel back and forth between the main ship and the Jovian moons, especially Europa.

 

We fast tracked the next generation Jupiter mission and launched it even while we tried to contact the ship on every frequency. It ignored our probes, our signals and our very existence for over a decade.

 

On June 13, 2029 the craft reeled in its massive net, recalled its probes and drifted out of Jupter’s orbit. Within hours it had moved beyond our ability to detect it. We were left with the absolute knowledge that we were not alone as well as the numbing realization that we did not matter.

 

———-

 

That is hardly better at all: 178 words. Now comes the hard part: I have established what the story is about and twice now wrote it how it “felt” like it should be written; now I have to start trimming out lines of text. Already the story is skimpy, eschewing Character entirely (save for the understood “we” that is intended to make the reader the protagonist) and only invoking Setting in the slimmest way possible (relying entirely on the reader’s knowledge and understanding of Jupiter and its environs). The story is all Plot and a bare bones one at that.

 

The first paragraph of the second try is 88 words — almost the whole story length. Let’s trim that down a bunch:

 

“The images hit the net on February 9, 2017. Taken by the Juno probe,they showed a ten massive alien spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter, apparently skimming the atmosphere for fuel and sending smaller vessels to Europa and the other Jovian moons.”

 

As much as I like a good turn of phrase, I just can’t afford the words to obscure what the ship is doing in descriptions of what that looks like. I have to trust that a science fiction reading audience is going to imagine interesting and fun methods by which aliens might skim the atmosphere and jaunt back and forth between the ship and the moons — not to mention a useful definition of the term “massive” as it relates to extraterrestrial orbital craft. That’s 42 words.

 

The remainder of the story above is 90 words, about a third too long. That’s good, since the bulk of the “story” (such that it is) happens here and trimming is going to be harder. The first thing to do is simplify the language and be more direct.

 

“We launched probes. We broadcast greetings. Nothing. No response at all.” Far more efficient that the above and the brevity helps create a sense of exasperation, I think. That brings the current total up to 53 words. The final paragraph — Act 3, as it were — is 54 words as written above, which means I only have to trim it down a little.

 

“It carried on its work, oblivious to us. Then, on June 16, 2029, it recalled its ships, retracted its skimmer and left Jovian orbit. It was beyond detection within days.” At 30 words, that finishes the plot and leaves 17 words to hammer the point of the story home.

 

“We knew with certainty then we were not alone. But knowing it, we never felt more isolated.”

 

That hits 100 precisely, as well as landing squarely on the point. Here is the final version:

 

———-

 

The images hit the net on February 9, 2017. Taken by the Juno probe,they showed a ten massive alien spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter, apparently skimming the atmosphere for fuel and sending smaller vessels to Europa and the other Jovian moons.

 

We launched probes. We broadcast greetings. Nothing. No response at all. It carried on its work, oblivious to us.

 

Then, on June 16, 2029, it recalled its ships, retracted its skimmer and left Jovian orbit. It was beyond detection within days.

 

We knew with certainty then we were not alone. But knowing it, we never felt more isolated.

 

———-

 

I’ll let this sit for a couple days before I submit it to the anthology, just to be sure I still like it.