Flash Fiction: Prose Songs

I am not especially a music fan. That is not to say I don’t enjoy music — I do — but I don’t invest the kind of mind space in it I do, say, comic books, movies or gaming. I do listen to music, but usually just as background noise at work or while I write. As often as not, the music I am listening to is associated with one of the things I do care about, in the form of scores to films and games I enjoy. There are a couple of other genres I enjoy as well: 90s alt rock and grunge, tied mostly to the fact that I was in my late teens and twenties during that time, and Blues and Celtic music (usually traditional songs by modern bands). Then there are the occasional pop, rock or other genre songs that just seem to fit (Of Monsters And Men’s “Dirty Paws” is a big one for me right now) or bands that are the only one in their genre that I like (Caravan Palace is great, but I have yet to hear another electro-swing band I like).

 

So what does any of this have to do with writing? Just today, as I was working at my desk, listening to Pandora, trying to concentrate on an excel spreadsheet but really thinking about this story I just cannot seem to get right, and the aforementioned “Dirty Paws” came on. For some reason, today was the day I realized why I liked that song so much, and why both Blues and Celtic are compelling to me: it tells a story. This is likely to sound obvious and maybe even a little stupid, but I had never really deeply considered my own tastes in music since, as I stated, music is generally not a big deal for me. But with that small realization, I not only started thinking about all the songs (as well as musicals, from The Little Mermaid to The Little Shop of Horrors) I really like, but also the very idea of story and how it speaks to me. Into this jumble of thoughts on music and narrative crept one other question that is nearly always floating around in the back of my writer-brain: why flash fiction?

 

I love flash fiction, both writing it and reading it. There is something about the brief, yet complete narrative that exemplifies the form. There is a lot of bad flash fiction — most of it not bad because it is poorly written, but because it usually represents a piece of a story or a vignette, rather than a whole story (and I include plenty of my own in that category) — but the good is really, really good. And it was in the convergence of these apparently disparate subjects, music and flash fiction, that the answer came: a good flash story is the same as a strong ballad or narrative song. They are both a form of story that takes just a few minutes to consume, but can be experience over and over to find the nuance and little details or just to *feel* its impact again.

 

I don’t know anything about songwriting, so I will not presume to make comparisons other than to guess there is some degree of similarity, but I can say that a good flash fiction story is very difficult to write. For all its brevity, crafting it is a painstaking process. Trained by Big Fat Fantasies and Unending Series and Bloated Literary Darlings, as writers we tend to use far too many words. That is not to say that there is not something wonderful in beautifully crafted, dense prose or a complex web of characters and subplots, but core narratives, the hearts of stories, can usually be distilled down to simple, powerful statements. Look no further than micro fiction like Six Word stories (when I first started my twitter feed, it was all #sixwordscifi) for proof. But getting those narratives trimmed down to size while preserving both artful wordsmithing and meaningful characterization and plotting is a uniquely difficult, sometimes apparently impossible, process.

 

Not every story can be told as flash fiction, just as sometimes a complete album or score is necessary to tell the story through music. But more often than not, I think, a work can be powerful and entertaining and, most of all, satisfying in a mere three to five minutes.

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Friday Flash Fiction: Lifepunk

Chuck Wendig of terribleminds.com throws out a flash fiction prompt on a weekly basis. As it has been a while since I have done my own Friday Flash, and the idea of creating an all new something-punk genre story appealed to me, I decided to give it a go.

 

So, without further ado, here is a brief story in the genre I call “lifepunk.”

———-

 

Sonny peered through the blinds. Blinds. What a ridiculously quaint furnishing. They were a throwback to an era before smart windows, when privacy and modesty were worshipped as gods, along with productivity and conformity. That they adorned these windows, his parents’ windows, did not surprise Sonny in the least. In that way, the blinds were a perfect example of everything he was fighting against, of everything he did not want, of all the old things that would not go away.

 

“It’s not going to work,” said Emil. He was pacing back and forth in the living room, between the wall screen and the blinds covered windows where Sonny stood. The wall screen was a more recent furnishing than the blinds, certainly, but still old enough to exemplify the technological and cultural atrophy Sonny despised — and feared.

 

“It will work,” said Sonny. He peaked through the slats again and this time he saw flashing lights. He smiled and reached for his belt where he felt the hard grip of the revolver. It, too, was quaint — quaint, antiquated, outmoded, ancient, positively antediluvian. It belonged to Sonny’s father, as well. The man had not changed, could not change, to the point of ignoring the law for over a century to hold onto this strange, murderous piece of steel.

 

Emil quickened his pacing and started to talk quickly. “It isn’t going to work. They are not going to do it. They are just going to tranq us and format us and then what? Nothing. That’s what. Nothing, forever.”

 

Even as the flashing lights grew brighter — the police flyers were descending, he knew — Sonny tore himself away from the blinds and his fingers from the revolver and he grabbed Emil by the face and kissed him long and deep and hard. Then, he said, “That is not going to happen,” and Emil could not have believed him more if the words had come from a burning bush.

 

With Emil calmer, Sonny went back to the window. and peaked. He could see the beetle shaped flyers coming to rest on the lawn and street. “We’re anarchists,” he said. “They won’t know what to do with anarchy, so they will over react. They can’t help it. It’s what happens when you never grow old and you never change.

***

Captain Sandvik manually checked the charge on her tranq rifle while the flyer descended. It was an unnecessary action since all the data about her equipment — not just the rifle, but her armor and med-unit and sensor suite — was piped into her field of vision via heads up eyeplants, but it was a comforting habit. She had been, after all, been doing it for decades, as long as she had been a cop. Over the long years she had found that the tools changed, but she never changed and neither did the criminals.

 

She surveyed the men in the flyer with her. Most sat patiently waiting for the thing to land. Conteh looked impatient, ready for a fight. Otero looked nervous. Sandvik recalled that Otero was young, just fifty, and probably had never seen any real action. It was rare. Even she had not fired her tranq in twenty years.

 

The flyer touched down and the door folded away. She was on her feet and out into the yard immediately, followed and flanked by her subordinate officers. Before her stood the enemy fortress, a one story, three bedroom suburban house at the end of a cul de sac. She ordered her men to take up defensive positions and the remaining flyers to maintain clear airspace and looked over the house. She thought, nice blinds.

***

“Oh, god,” whined Emil. “It’s happening.” He looked like he was going to puke, then did, all over the retro afghan rug.

 

“Not yet,” said Sonny to himself, but then to Emil he added, “It’s okay, hon. This is what we wanted, remember?”

 

Emil wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “I don’t know,” he said. Sonny glowered and he added swiftly, “I mean, I did, but now that we’re here, that it’s about to happen, I’m scared.”

 

Sonny softened his expression in the practiced way of a long time significant other. His very awareness of it irked him. It was habit, nothing more, a normal behavior made mechanical by long years of repetition. Even so, he remained placid.

 

“Emil, honey, we went over this again and again. How old are we?”

 

After a moment of hesitation, Emil answered, “I’m seventy five. You’re seventy nine.”

 

“Right,” said Sonny, “and what’s our favorite band?”

 

“The Larks.”

 

“Right, and how old were we when they came out?”

 

“I don’t know. Thirty, maybe?”

 

“Yeah,” said Sonny, his eyes flashing. “Our favorite band has been the same for almost fifty years. Do you know why?”

 

Emil shook his head.

 

“Because we don’t change. Because nothing changes. Because we don’t age and we don’t have to go through the stages of life. We were thirty when we got Treated. We’ll be thirty forever.”

 

Yeah, I know, Sonny. It’s just, is that so bad?”

 

Sonny raged, drawing the revolver and waving it in Emil’s direction. “Yes! God, yes! The whoe, world is thirty, or fifty or seventy like my ridiculous parents. Everyone is stuck, forever, at the age they got Treated and now people are Treating their kids because they don’t want them to ever age or grow up. It’s sick, Emil! It’s wrong!”

***

There was movement inside. Despite the blinds, Captain Sandvik could see with her HUD that one man, one of the anarchist terrorists who claimed to have planted bombs at the Treatment facility, was waving a very old fashioned gun around. “get ready,” she ordered.

 

She was directing Otero toward the south side of the house when the bang! reverberated through the house and into the yard. Later, surveillance video would show the embrace and the kiss and the intimate murder. At the time, though, Sandvik was hitting the grass as bullets flew out into the yard through the blinds.

 

Most of her men took cover. Some cowered. It was Conteh, though, that hunkered down, aimed and fired into the house. She knew from the sound of it that his rifle was not armed with tranqs.

***

“I love you,” said Sonny. He let Emil slip to the floor, kissed him once on the forehead, and then turned and fired wildly through the blinds into the front yard. It only took a moment before one of the police fulfilled Sonny’s promise.

 

As he faded, Sonny felt grateful. No prison of eternal, unchanged Sonny-ness would hold him.

***

There were no bombs at the Treatment facility, or even an anarchist cell. Sandvik shook her head. Why two guys her own age would commit suicide by cop when they had literally forever to look forward to, she did not understand — nor could she.

 

Immediate Gratification: The Joy of Improvisational Creation

I spent the weekend at Total Confusion 28 where, in addition to general merrymaking and running a Mutant Future duology called Out of the Fridge/Into the Freezer (I will post about that some day soon), I engaged in my third annual attempt to take the (regional) crown of Iron GM. For those not in the know (and too riveted to click the provided link) Iron GM is to tabletop role-playing games (primarily Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) what Iron Chef is to cooking: given a limited amount of time and a collection of disparate, secret-until-it’s-go-time ingredients, you are tasked with creating a convention scenario (you’ll note that the very idea of Iron GM  breaks a lot of those rules) on the spot for real live gamers instead of a panel of professional judges.

 

The whole concept of Iron GM appeals to me. Much of my writing is performed similarly: when I feel the need to create but I can’t muster up any good ideas, I solicit my friends to throw random story elements (settings, protagonists, challenges and so on) at me and then I force myself to write with those elements, finishing a story of between 1000 and 2000 words in an hour or two. The result is always a little rough around the edges, but more often than not, I find that I usually really like at least the concept of the story, if not the particulars of the prose or pacing (two elements that I believe require real polish to get right). Iron GM scratches a similar itch for me, but with one spectacular addition: an audience. Sure, a flash fiction as previously described can garner some atta-boys and “Likes” from friends, but the people at the table in Iron GM are strangers by requirement — at least at the time of the game; some of those players turn out to be lifelong friends.

 

Gamermastering a tabletop role-playing game is one of the most rewarding, if ephemeral, creative undertakings I know. It comes in second to writing simply, I think, because the written word lives on after the act of creation and may even see a much larger than originally intended audience. It might even live forever (for varying definitions of “forever”; even Gilgamesh hasn’t been around forever, since we’re still going on). Bust, as stated, it beats writing on the “immediate gratification” metric, since it requires a group of people to appreciate it (these people happen to be co-authors in this undertaking, of course, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this post). Many game masters meticulously craft worlds, study rule books and prepare adventures before they actually sit down behind the screen and begin play. I have done that on occasion, but I have always preferred running by the seat of my pants. I prefer a relatively “light” rules set, one that is easy to bend to my will without getting bogged down in fiddly bits (which, of course, makes D&D 3.5 a terrible choice, thereby making it a brilliant choice for competition). That is not to say I don’t like rules. I think they are essential to provide a structure where the players feel like they have agency in the game and a way to measure how “fair” the game is. Having to look rules up in the middle of play brings everything grinding to a halt, so fewer rules with consistent implementation serve my purposes better.

 

This is in no small part due to a very important and, frankly, fun aspect of improvisational GMing: the players define the game as much as I. There’s an adage among game masters, paraphrased from improvisational theater: say, “Yes, but…” Players who have a toolset in their hands (i.e. the rules as they relate to their character) and a clear sense of agency (based on the choices you put before them, either implicit or explicit) enhance any game, especially an improvisational one since, well, I might not even know where I am going with this thing. Granted, this is slightly less true during the Iron GM competition, if only because there is a time limit and part of the grading is based on whether the adventure was completed to satisfaction. Two years in a row now, time has run out for me in the boss fight finale.

 

There is a dark side to the immediate gratification I get from improvisational creation, especially the flash writing that I described above. For me, the act of completion, of seeing a story through to its end, is the real joy. To have created such a thing fills me we a sense of accomplishment. But also as I stated above, the real work is in the polish, the cleaning up of the inevitable failures of such a speedy creation: inconsistencies of plot and character, clumsy prose, ideas only hinted at that need fleshing out, and so on. That stuff is hard and, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, I’ve already rolled over, smoked a cigarette and am ready to go to sleep. I have countless (I mean I have never counted them, out of fear of disappointing myself) first draft short stories desperately in need of revision that I have never gone back to simply because they are, emotionally for me anyway, “done.”

Flash Fiction: Murder Ballad

I like Flash Fiction a lot and haven’t written any recently. I also like Murder Ballads. Two great tastes…

———-

I couldn’t tell where the road ended and the driveway started. It was all ruts and weeds and mud leading up to the house. There was a car in front, peeling paint and dented on the bumpers and doors and even roof. Hers, I was sure of it. He was still out there, in his pickup, driving hard or slumped over the wheel with his brains splashed against the inside of the windshield, depending on whether he had stopped to think about what he had done or not.

 

The front door was still open. My deputy was standing on the porch, leaning over the rail, heaving. Breakfast was all over the meager, unkempt flower beds. Her sister, the one who had found her, was sitting on the steps, oblivious to me as she stared vacantly down the driveway and pulled on a Camel.

 

When I got out of the car, I put on my hat. Everyone thinks I do it to look cool. it does look cool, but that is not why I do it. A hat that big, you can hide your face — you fear, your disgust, your rage, your tears —  with just a nod of your head. I was going to need that hat.

 

She was in the living room. And the bedroom.  And the kitchen. A piece of her even ended up on the porch. He really lost it in there. The axe, a big old wood cutting axe like you would expect Paul Bunyan to use, was laying in the black-brown-red pool where most of her was. He dropped it, just let it fall out of his hands. I could tell by the long smear up the shaft from his bloody grip. The monster that had swung it was gone by the time he let it go, for sure.

 

I looked around a little, mostly for show. I knew the story. Good girl loves a bad boy so much it kills her. It happens a lot down here.

 

I tell my deputy to man up and fuck off and he does. I ask her sister a few meaningless, stupid questions, the kind that staties and feds like to see answered on reports. I wait for Ed to show up. He’s our coroner. Owns the diner, too. I give him a look that warns him what’s inside and he just shakes his head and pulls the bags out of the back of his van. I leave him to it and get back in the car.

 

The truck is down on route 75. That was my third guess. I was wrong about the brains on the windshield, though. At least, I was wrong about the “inside” part. He was drunk and high on something harder than grass and jumped out of the cab and pointed his squirrel killer at me so I did what he was asking for and laid him down. Maybe her sister would have gotten some pleasure out of him going to trial and frying, but I don’t think so. In any case, all it would do was make a long, ugly story out of a short, ugly one.

 

I’ll take tomorrow off, stay home, give Reb a kiss on the cheek and a squeeze on the tit, let her know I love her. It seems the best thing to do after a day like this one.

 

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.

 

Crossing the Gulf

Here is a brief attempt to articulate a story, as well as a milieu, that has been bouncing around in my head for a few years. It speaks to what I think is a common emotion — that of failing to understand those whom you love most, and failing o articulate that love

Thomas stood on the front porch and watched the flyer descend into the yard. It made no sound, nor did it produce even the slightest force. Not so much as a blade of grass bent under whatever power propelled it. It’s mere presence was power enough to scatter the goats and set Blue to barking madly, however.

Once it had stopped descending a meter from the ground, Thomas stepped off the porch and hushed Blue with a snap of his fingers. As the side of the ovoid craft melted to become an opening and a ramp, he pulled up his sleeves and set his fists on his hips.

The alien person was unsettling, bald and pale and somehow indescribably synthetic, but mostly familiar. Walking down the ramp to the grass, he regarded the cowering goats and grumbling Blue with an expression of near-recognition or remembrance. Looking at Thomas, his expression softened and became almost human.

“Thomas, brother, am I too late?” He asked tonelessly.

“Yes, Rob,” said Thomas, trying to remain as placid and indifferent as his former brother. The corners of his mouth and eyes betrayed him. “Dad died last week.”

Though his emotion neither registered on his face nor in his voice, what Rob said next was as heartfelt as anything Thomas had uttered amidst his tears at the funeral. “I am sorry I could not be here.”

Thomas clenched his jaw and swallowed the tremor in his throat. “Space is big,” he said flatly.

Rob cocked his head. He recognized the statement and understood how Thomas had meant it. Whatever pleasure the barb might have given Thomas melted when when Rob replied, “Not as vast as some gulfs, it seems.”

Thomas blinked rapidly. He crossed his arms tightly and slouched a little. He shushed Blue gently, then cleared his throat.

“It’s not my fault I was born this way, Tom,” said Rob.

“I know,” said Thomas, and did. Rob was not talking about the pale, shiny skin or the synthetic flesh. He was talking about who he was, how he was. Thomas had always been earthy and easy, where Rob had been distant and uncertain. Thomas had always been like Dad, where Rob had not.

“You did the right thing, Rob. Going into space. Going through the change, I mean.”

“I was lucky,” said Rob matter-of-factly. “My nature–” the word was stilted “–allowed me to go.”

Thomas nodded.

“Sometimes I think I should not have.”

Thomas shook his head. “No, Rob, it’s okay. It’s good. You’re going to see things–”

For the first time, Rob’s face beamed with emotion. “I have! The rings of Saturn and the seas of Titan!”

Thomas smiled. “I’m glad, Rob. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry I judged you when you left.”

“When I left you and Dad,” Rob added, unbidden. “I am sorry, too.” He scanned the yard and his strange, seemingly unseeing eyes landed on one of the bleating kids as it nuzzled for its mother’s teat. “You have seen thing, too, I think.”

Thomas relaxed, uncrossing his arms and straightening. He smiled. “Yes, I have.”

Rob said, “I only have a few hours before we leave for The Belt.”

“Oh,” said Thomas. Nearly a minute passed. Thomas added, “Come in for coffee?”

“I don’t–”

“I know.”

Rob regarded Thomas again in his distant way, then the little goat, and Thomas again. “I would like that.”

“Good,” said Rob. “You can tell me about Titan.” He paused. “Dad was asking.”

END

Dear People of Tomorrow

First of all, Congratulations. Not only did you, or your ancestors anyway, manage to survive the catastrophe that eradicated human civilization, but you also pulled yourselves up out of the muck of barbarism. You reading this inscription means that civilization’s rebirth is complete and scientific progress has advanced to the point of rediscovery of at least both scanning tunneling microscopy and pulsed inductive thrust. Since it is impossible to know from our perspective whether you are reading this days or centuries after it was retrieved, or whether it were robotic or human hands to pluck it out of its orbit, we will make no such presumptions and simply assume the reader is sitting comfortably in a soft chair with a warm cup of tea. If you are the scientist who is first to break the translation code accompanying this inscription, prepare to be astounded by the hidden history about to be revealed. If you are a student forced to read this as part of an overview of ancient historical texts, prepare to be equivalently bored.

Following this introductory inscription is the sum total of human knowledge. All the art, science, culture and history is contained in this quantum data construct. It is designed to be accessible to anyone with the knowledge and technology capable of accessing and reading this introduction, so do not be alarmed: you will have access to that trove of information. Of course, given the millenia that must have passed, it is likely to be little more than trivia to you and your civilization. Perhaps, though, hidden in all the esoterica of an age long in your past you can find some nugget of wisdom to make the mining worth the effort. At the very least, there are tens of thousands of recipes recorded herein. Something should satisfy.

Because all of that specific knowledge is found within, this introduction will not delve into the specifics of what came before the end. Instead, we decided to provide this introduction to prepare you in a more general sense for what you are about to discover. In short, it is this: humans are a messy, contradictory and ultimately fallible species that despite all our advances are still bound and limited by a collection of a few inescapable evolutionary adaptations. Equally, however, we are thoughtful and creative and loving and we are constantly striving to go beyond the limits with which we were created. Occasionally we overreach, though, which is of course how we got ourselves in our current predicament and why it is you are reading this at all. Don’t worry, we will not spoil the surprise here; you will have to read the entire story of our civilization to find out how it ends.

What we wish you — all of you, whoever reads this through the perpetuity of your own civilization — to know is the you were not the first. And what we — all of us here and now tasked with preparing this record — wish to believe is that we were not the last. Civilizations may rise and fall, brought to heel by cosmic impacts and man’s hubris, but unlike the previous masters of this Earth like the dinosaurs, we can see our doom and prepare in some small way to survive it. And if it should be that you, too, see the doom of your civilization coming, we ask you preserve this record along with your own.

Regards,

The Council for the Preservation of the History of World Civilization

Council Chair-nations Atlantis, Lemuria and Mu

 

P.S. In the case that this record was discovered by a non-human civilization, please return it to its proper orbit after having copied the data.

 

Simulacra

Here is a short short I just wrote based on an idea I have had kicking around for quite some time. I feel sometimes that pushing out a quick story like this helps clear the way for longer works, like the one I am working on currently. Enjoy.

———-

For one singular moment, for one brief second, there were two identical Dr. Thomas Hoffslers. Each one was composed of precisely the same thoughts, experiences and memories. In that briefest time, no one, not even Hoffsler’s wife or mother, could have told the difference between the two. Then, in a flash, it was over and two distinct intelligences began to drift apart.

That fleeting sameness was purely psychological, of course. After all, one Hoffsler was a flesh and blood human being who had been born in a Cleveland suburb, worked his way through a crumbling public education system to eventually receive a full scholarship to MIT, where he would spend decades developing what would become the other Hoffsler, the artificial being with a mirror image of Hofflser’s mind imprinted on its quantum neural network of a brain. Dr. Hofflser called this one Tom, short not for “Thomas” but for “Tomorrow.”

“Tom,” said Hofflser, “are you there?”

Something like his own voice but tinny and artifical answered back, “Yes, I’m here, Dr. Hofflser.”

“Good,” replied Hoffsler to Tom and then to the technicians waiting outside he said, “Bring me out.”

The table on which Hoffsler lay hummed to life and he slid slowly out of the machine he had designed to take a photograph of his whole self and transfer it to a quantum computer. Once free of the tight confines of the machine, he reflexively stretched and sat up. He was in a small, clean lab. It was sparse except for the MRI like machine at which he now sat and a bank of monitors. One wall was made of glass, allowing the technicians in the control room to observe him. In the center of the ceiling there was a small inverted dome of dark glass: Tom’s limited view into the world.

“How do you feel, Tom?” asked Hofflser. He motioned to the technicians and one of them disappeared briefly from sight before entering the lab with Hoffsler’s coat and a steaming styrofoam cup of black coffee.

“Strange” Tom replied in his almost-Hoffsler voice. “The lack of sensation from a body is quite odd, disturbing even, and although I cannot smell the coffee, I remember how it smells and would very much like a cup.”

Hofflser nodded in recognition. He had not really thought about that part, but it made sense. “Make a note,” he told the technician and then waved the young man out of the room. “Tom,” he said to the dome in the ceiling, “do you know who I am?”

“Of course,” answered Tom. “You are Dr. Thomas Hoffsler.”

“Good. Right. And who are you?”

“I am Tom, an artificial intelligence created from a complete scan of your neural network.”

“And are you me?”

“No, of course not.”

“And were you ever me?”

“No. Prior to that scan of your mind being imprinted onto my quantum network I did not exist. I am a wholly unique and separate mind.”

“Good,” said Hofflser. He took a long, slurping sip from the cup. “We should get to work, then.”

“I was hoping we would start soon,” said Tom. “I think the distraction would be helpful.”

Hoffsler looked up at the technicians through the glass and said, “Go ahead and start the simulation,” he said. “And cut off the feed, please.” Then to the air, he added, “See you later, Tom,” and motioned at the technician. If Tom had any reply, the technician shut off its ability to communicate before it responded.

Hoffsler was finishing his coffee and preparing to go to his office to complete some paperwork when the door to the lab opened again. This time, the technician was accompanied by a serious looking man in a suit. The technician handed Hofflser a sealed manila envelope. “What’s this?” asked Hoffsler. “Who’s this?”

The man in the suit said, “It’s easiest if you just open the envelope and read what is inside.”

Hoffsler shrugged and tore open the envelope. There was a thick report inside, which he scanned quickly. Within a few minutes, he understood completely.

“Director Abernathy,” said Hoffsler, “it is nice to meet your acquaintance. Again, I suppose.”

“Likewise,” said Abernathy. “I apologize for the nature of this meeting.”

Hoffsler shook his head. “No, it’s fine. It’s not your fault.” He laughed out loud. “It’s mine, it seems.” He cast an eye back toward the control room where the technicians continued to work. “How’s Tom,” he asked.

“We’re already seeing the effects of the isolation and sensory deprivation, Doctor,” replied one of the techs. “The simulacrum has been operating for just over two thousand simulated hours.”

Hoffsler glanced back down at the report to refresh his memory. Abernathy answered before Hofflser could find the number, “It made it five thousand hours last time. Whatever tweaks you made seemed to have backfired.”

Hoffsler grimaced and nodded. “Too bad. Back to the drawing board, I suppose.”

Abernathy frowned. “Dr. Hofflser, neither DARPA’s money nor patience is limitless. We have been at this for seven iterations and we don’t seem to be getting any closer. There are other Artificial Intelligence programs seeking grants.”

“But none nearly as close as we are, Mr. Abernathy. You know it and I know it. We’ll take a look at the data and make some tweaks.”

Abernathy said, “Fine,” and shook Hoffsler’s hand formally. “Let us know when you are ready so we can authorize the memory wipe.”

“Will do,” Hoffsler said. “Good day, Mr. Abernathy.”

Abernathy nodded again and left. “Alright,” Hofflser said to the technicians. “I feel like making some memories worth losing, so let’s clean up. Collect as much data as is worthwhile, then format C.”

“Yes sir,” replied the technician.

Hoffsler looked up at the blind camera that represented the artifical mind he had created and said, “Sorry, Tom. Maybe next time.”

***

Tom’s skin crawled, like millions of spiders were creeping over him. He could smell waste and sweat and flowers and hot cocoa and sex. His mouth was sticky with sweet and sour and salty and putrid all at once. No, it was not true. He was experiencing none of that. His mind was merely creating sensory data to fill the void where none was to be found.

Only his eyes were trustworthy, watching the great churning ball of Jupiter and its system of moons grow ever larger as he approached. He tried to focus and the gas giant and search for the great red storm on its face.

Tom knew that it was all a simulation, a test to see how he would do when his neural net was transferred to the real planetary probe. He waited for Hoffsler to stop the simulation so they could write the report together and work out the bugs. He felt like if he could just have a little time he could figure out a way to compensate for the sensory deprivation and the–

 

END

 

The Empty Aisle

It seems a little ironic that I would inaugurate this science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction blog with a rather mundane piece. The following very short fiction is intended as an entry in NPR’s regular “Three Minute Fiction” contest and the deadline is the end of tomorrow. I wanted to do a complete story, with a beginning, middle and end and a protagonist worth caring about. Packing all that into 600 words is quite a challenge. You can tell me whether I succeeded.

———-

Every aisle seemed to be a shrine to Tommy. Aisle six, his favorite cereal. Aisle nine, his favorite cheap plastic toys. Aisle seven, where he had his first honest to goodness public temper tantrum.

Tom kept his head down as much as he could, to hide his welling eyes from his neighbors and to avoid their pity and morbid wonder. It had been like this for thirty seven days. People he did not know but recognized from the intersections in the lives of parents saw him and they knew him. Some turned away swiftly. Some stared. Most, though, regarded him briefly, smiled weakly and walked away.

As Tom reached up to pull cans of soup from the shelf, he saw Tommy dart between the aisles, waving some desired treat. He clenched his jaw. No. Not Tommy. Just another blond boy about the right height.

Tom finished shopping. He spared the girl at the checkout and used the self service lane.

The exit doors slid open and the warm, wet air of late May blasted Tom. His car was adrift in the sea of suburban vehicles. As he crossed the asphalt he saw a little blond head bob up and down between cars. It disappeared and reappeared an Tom’s gut knotted. He scanned the lot. No one else was close by, so he went toward where he had last seen the child.

It was a young boy. His lip trembled and his eyes were wide with fear. He had Tommy’s beautiful blond hair and wore the same brand of light up sneakers. Tom stared at the boy and the boy stared back. Finally, Tom asked,“Are you okay?”

“I don’t know where my mom is,” said the boy in the angelic soprano of a six year old.

Tom transferred his grocery bags to one hand and approached the boy. “I’ll help you,” he said and put out his free hand. He could see his fingers trembling and his heart raced. Hesitantly, the boy took Tom’s hand.

Tiny fingers slipped between Tom’s own and his thundering heart seemed to stop suddenly. For a brief and endless moment, he could smell the stench of burning plastic and bone and the black smoke blinded him again. But instead of screaming Tommy’s name from behind the line of police and firefighters, he was watching it with him, holding his hand while someone else’s son was consumed by fire.

“Come on,” Tom said as calmly as he could. He gave the boy’s hand a comforting squeeze and a steering tug.The boy followed in short, uncertain steps.

Tom stopped and set the grocery bags down. He fished his keys out and pushed the button on the keychain. Two aisles over, his car lights flashed. “This way,” he said and picked up the bags.

Tommy’s booster was still in the back seat. Tom opened the door. “Come on,” he urged. The boy stared at him, trembling. Tom knelt down and gently gripped the boy’s shoulders. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m going to take you home.”

The boy smiled and elation filled Tom. Then a woman’s sudden voice shook him. She half scolded, half pleaded, “Jack!” A stern, masculine, “Sir?” followed quickly.

Tom stood and turned. Jack was already at his mother, hugging her legs. Next to the woman was a uniformed officer, his hand hovering near his sidearm. Tom began to stammer an explanation but stopped when he saw he pity and morbid wonder overcome them. The woman muttered something like a condolence. The officer grimaced and nodded.

After they were gone, Tom sat a long time in his car, sobbing.

 

The Falls

I wrote the following story for a flash fiction contest for the online magazine 10Flash, which has since folded. It did not get chosen for publication, but I still like it.

———————————————-

 

When Zinda asked, “Where does the rain come from?” my first thought was to show her the water cycle.

 

I conjured an endless ocean first, then the shining summer sun above so that its rays glistened on the gently rolling surface of the water. Into the middle of the blue-green expanse I summoned an island. It was covered in emerald rain forest save for the narrow, pearl white strip of beach at its edges, the towering spire of snow capped mountain at its center, and the ribbon of rushing white water that connected the two. In the sky I made clouds — big, white cumulonimbus clouds that drank the moisture as it rose from the sea.

 

Zinda observed what I had created with polite attention. I prepared to give my explanation of evaporation, condensation and precipitation, but stopped. I felt her interest evaporate as surely as the sea water below. So, ,instead, I lifted the world until we stood on the beach. White sand filtered between our toes, blue ocean stretched forever out before us and the mountain loomed above, its peak lost in the clouds. I allowed the rain to fall lightly on us and asked Zinda, “Where do you think it comes from?”

 

Zinda pointed up at the shrouded peak and said, “There!”

 

“Well, then,” I said, “let’s go see, shall we?”

 

Zinda’s delight was like an explosion of light and song and we were suddenly racing into the forest. It would have been easier, of course, to simply be at the peak of the mountain, but Zinda found delight in the going. I too, I must admit, was refreshed by the terrestrial sensations of earth and branches and breath and sweat. I opened up my creation as we ran, sharing it with Zinda.

 

At first, we raced along a barely perceptible game trail. Reeds and branches slapped and stung us as we went. The sound of the river grew ever louder until we came to a wider, well trod path. It wound ever upward, with the river on its right. I marvelled at the frothing water as it leaped up and over the rocks, ever climbing toward the peak even as we did the same. That is when I gave Zinda all control over the microcosm: to be surprised for once was so exhilarating, I dared not ruin it with my own editing.

 

We climbed the steep trail for what seemed like hours. We had stopped for breath and a refreshing drink from the river when a great, snarling beast burst from the forest. I barely had time to grab a fallen branch to use as a spear as it pounced on me. Its many jaws snapped inches from my face and its fins and claws and wings beat at me. Zinda cried out, not in terror but in excitement, as I battled the creature. Finally, I thrust my makeshift weapon into its thorax and then hefted it, sending the beast tumbling over a precipice and down to the forest far below. We laughed as I panted for breath, and then we were off again.

 

Further still up the trail the clouds that hugged the mountain became a thick mist around us. We came to fork in the trail, where the one-eyed ape riddled us. “What always runs but never walks, often murmurs, never talks, has a bed but never sleeps, has a mouth but never eats?”

 

We scratched our heads and gnashed out teeth, certain we would fail the test, until the answer came upon me like dawn upon the shore. “A river!,” I said. That King Seer bowed to us and bid us take the right path. He did not deceive us: this was the true way, but was itself not without peril. We fought the armies of the Golden Horde and found ourselves wrapped in the soul-webs of the Spider Queen.  Over these obstacles, and many others, we prevailed until finally we arrived at our destination.

 

We emerged from the wall of white mist into the brilliant light of the sun. The summer wind blew warm, driving the cold damp of the clouds as we climbed the last stone steps. The river rushed and splashed up the mountain beside us but calmed as it neared the top. The peak of the mountain was a reaching arm, nearly flat and extending for at least a hundred paces. The river was a lazy brook there, and we followed it across the mountaintop. Zinda picked pretty golden flowers as we went and I basked in the light of the sun above, for all the clouds were beneath us.

 

We walked to the edge. The lazy river grew faster as it neared, becoming a torrent again just as it spilled over the side. Zinda said, “Come, look. See. This is why it rains.”

 

I edged gingerly to the precipice, my knees shaking. I was so given over to Zinda’s creation, I had forgotten my own invulnerability. At first I saw only white below, but then the wind blew and the clouds parted. Through the break I saw the great gleaming expanse of the sea and the emerald mosaic of the forest. The falls were as beautiful as the world onto which they rained.

 

“And that is why it rains?” I asked Zinda.

 

There was a pause, a moment of utter sincerity, then: “Of course not!” sang Zinda. “That’s just a story I made up!”

 

We laughed, and as I took control back from Zinda,  the mountaintop fell away. Once again, the ocean, the island and the clouds, all gilded by the high summer sun, were laid out far below us.

 

“Do you see that?” I asked Zinda. “That is a cumulonimbus cloud.”