Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Theme Story - Elerium

After the smoke cleared, Zach took stock of his surroundings. The pressure gauges showed no obvious malfunction, though he always had to be wary of bugs in the sensing software – no matter how much the programming disciplines advanced, there was always a bug lying in wait to ruin your weekend. He checked the monitor below, and tried not to get his hopes up at the words “Test completed successfully,” green and flashing in a non-offensive font. At least they didn’t use Comic Sans, Zach mused, this is a scientific establishment, not a lemonade stand.

            Still actively tamping down his excitement, Zach entered the retraction command for the lead shield between him and the observation area. Theory said it wasn’t necessary – the inch-thick safety glass should have been more than sufficient for this experiment – but OSHA had different ideas of necessary than the scientific establishment. With several loud clunks and the whine of a motor, the heavy shielding began to retract, glacially creeping up towards the ceiling. Up, not down – if the motor failed, they needed to rely on gravity to keep the shield deployed rather than cause it to retract. Had it come from the floor, they could have used a hydraulic system and saved a few thousand dollars of the taxpayer’s money, but no amount of historical data would overcome the desires of regulators with a paycheck from a subcontractor with a manufacturing subsidiary.

            Zach checked the lab log, making a few notations marking the time and parameters of the experiment. So much time wasted already on a pipe dream. How long are we going to beat our heads against this? He idly flipped through the prior entries in the book. Hundreds of tests, thousands of parameter changes, and no results. Increase frequency here, decrease ionization there, perform this experiment in a vacuum, perform this one in a magnetic field, and still they were no closer to developing the theorized element. Elerium-115 - or Ununpentium in the uninventive language of the IUPAC, which refused to name an element based on a reference to an obscure science fiction video game - was supposed to be some kind of energy panacea, doing for society what the vaporous cold fusion of decades prior was believed to have made possible. Cold fusion had of course never proven fruitful, researchers never able to cross the break-even point of energy generation. Of course there were still those researches spending time with the now-fringe idea, but they didn’t get as much funding as they used to.

            Many scholars pointed to cold fusion as a cautionary tale against cure-alls, calling the current quest a pursuit of energetic snake oil. Zach didn’t think they were very far off in their estimation, but as a lowly doctoral student he had to do as he was told, or else he might lose his research fellowship and the associated funding. With most of the funding coming from an oblivious government, the department used this lab as a cash-cow – and also a convenient way to dispose of mouthy physics students. Sure, I probably shouldn’t have spoken out so strongly against string theory, but it’s codified voodoo! Zach kicked himself yet again, doodling on a notepad to distract himself.

            Due to the height of the console, it took a minute for the lab to be visible from an observer in the laboratory chair. It was the soft green glow that caught his attention first, his eyes snapping to the window with magnetic force. No fucking way. He quickly flipped through the prior experiments, and searched through the more exhaustive logs in the lab’s database, but none mentioned any kind of emission on the visible spectrum. He looked up, still disbelieving as the shield finished its slow climb to the heavens, and saw the glowing green lump sitting upon the concrete pedestal in the test chamber. No. Fucking. Way.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Theme Story - The Night before Maya

‘Twas four days before Christmas, and all through the skies
a fiery comet crisscrossed the atmosphere, and everything died.

Santa fought his sleigh, working reigns with his handles and pedals with his feet,
But his inertial compensator had broken, ensuring a Pyhrric defeat.

As mommy and daddy hung stockings with care,
The friction from St. Nick burnt their house with a flare.

The magic had faded, and physics took over
As santa flew from Denver to Dover.

Superheated atmosphere paved the way clear,
A liquid streak of death destroying all we hold dear.

From house to house, city to city he flew,
But ultimately he was lost – there was nothing he could do!

The heat from his speed, magic had held at bay,
But due to the Mayans, that magic had faded today.

Quetzalcoatl was laughing, capering with glee
As his diabolical creation was unable to flee.

The orphanage was a crisp, the forests a flame,
Yet the poor man at the reigns was in no way to blame.

The myth of Kris Kringle gave the Mayans their way
To exact revenge from the Spaniards before Christmas day.

They removed the protections from his magical flying sled,
And laughed in glee as the nations below him bled.

Reindeer on autopilot, never changing course,
Santa brought death, a destructive apocalyptic horse.

He cried tears of blood for his poor victims’ sake
As his travels left lumps of coal in his wake.

Before long the night was done, dawning cold, grey and dark,
Leaving an empty landscape smoky, barren, and stark.

And all through the nation, even at the White House
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Theme Story - Jooz

It took  Zach a few moments to realize the bottle was empty. Just a happy swig, and a quick visual check. Huh, must’ve drank the salt. Bah, all that BS is probably way overblown anyway. There was a palpable difference in taste, the sweetness of the jooz giving way to a flavor that produced a vaguely unsettling saline flavor – henche the name salt. Unconcerned, Zach leaned back and let the drink work its magic.

He felt his muscles relax, tension oozing out through his back into the chair behind him. His vision changed as well, following the progression of his tension until it seemed his eyes must rest on the back of his skull. He looked as if out of a tunnel made of light, with the real world – some mindless science fiction film blaring on a television – taking up a small portion of the center of his vision. Ahhhh… this is the life. He sighed contentedly as a drowsiness descended, seemingly holding him bodily in the recliner. He never felt as relaxed as when he was on jooz, which was the primary reason he kept handing over half his paycheck for the glowing purple liquid with the gravel in the bottom. At least he thought it was gravel.

Man, that salty taste is weird. Zach worked his tongue in his mouth, trying to get some saliva flowing as he reclined. His body felt as if it were floating on warm air, immobile yet delicately suspended in a comforting liquid environment. He lazily smiled as he let his mind slip away, following the tunnel of light towards the entertainment of the environment around him. The tunnel walls pulsed curiously with the actions of the television causing the character of the light bathing him to flicker and transform.

Out of nowhere, his hearing seemed to fold. What the hell is that? As if he had been listening to a sheet of paper, and that paper folded abruptly in half. As the crease solidified his hearing cut out completely, leaving him in silence to watch the light show. His tongue continued to work of its own accord, seeking out the salty flavor while simultaneously trying to muster up saliva that just wasn’t coming. Agh, so salty. Need drink. As he tried to fight his way out of the fogged state his body lay in, he found he wasn’t able to move. He sent orders to his limbs, but they just wouldn’t respond.

He felt a twitch in his shoulder blades. It was mild at first, barely a noticeable hitch. Then it came again, moments later. The salty taste in Zach’s mouth continued to grow, and he felt a burning need inside of him – a need to twitch, centered right between his shoulder blades. Each successive twitch reduced the feeling, but it was coming back faster each time, like an itch he couldn’t scratch. Constant crescendos leading to a spasm of his shoulders, then a complete reset only to start the process all over again. The twitch became more uncomfortable, the desire to move his shoulders being stymied by his inability to control his muscles. His tongue jumped with each twitch, by now tasting nothing but salt.

Each twitch was painful at the peak by now. The movement brought blessed relief, but it just kept coming back.. Zach screamed in his silence, his frustration and terror building in his mind, but with his tongue now affixed firmly to the roof of his mouth, a roof seemingly made of salt, he made no sound. He tried to rationalize that the feeling would fade eventually, that he would come down, but then another twitch occurred, jarring his mind, and beginning the slow build back to painful discomfort.

He willed himself to pass out, trying to escape into unconsciousness, but he was a helpless prisoner to the misfiring neurons of his body, with nothing to do but experience the salt and the need, the burning need to twitch his shoulders. He felt as if he had been there forever. He felt as if he would never leave. The pain was becoming excruciating, like a butterknife being slowly pressed into his spine. At its peak, Zach passed out.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

I recently submitted my novel, to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition. It should be interesting - I'm taking my first length work of fiction and putting it up against 10,000 other people (well, technically 9,999 other people). The optimist in me has me wanting to check the website every day, to see how I'm doing. I'm proud of my novel, but I'm not certain it's up to the quality of several of my competitors. All I'm really hoping for in any case is some decent feedback. I've shown the writing to family and friends, but this is pretty much the first time I'm submitting my work for evaluation by a person who has no vested interest in my well being. Not that my family and friends would lie to me about the quality, I know they'd never do that. It's more of an external validation - what does a complete stranger think when they read my work?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Theme Story - Gone to Sleep

I participate in a group with several friends and acquaintances in which we all post short stories and scenes based upon a prompt for the week. I figured I'd pass these along to anyone who might like to read.



It was Timmy this time. 

It was as if he had never been in the room. His area was clean, all his toys put away, everything pristine and sparkling. It was always clean in the morning.

John wasn’t even sure if morning was the right word. The eight of them woke up, played, ate, drank, went potty, did everything under the same fluorescent light. It never varied, never gave any indication of the passage of time. Just a click, a hiss, and a cloud of smoke, then waking up to another friend gone.

They had lost three. Well, four. Timmy was the fourth. John looked around at his friends, and knew the same unvoiced thought was going through their heads. Where are they?

Everything had started out great. The twelve of them had woken up in the brightly-lit room, filled with toys and games. Sure, they didn’t recall how they had gotten there, or who they were, or what was happening to them, but an eight-year-old’s mind is a very malleable thing. Before long they were horsing around, playing tag, holding action-figure wars, with not a care in the world. One of them found a book, from which they all took their names – they couldn’t remember what they used to be called.

John was surprised to find that everyone got along well – there were no bullies, nobody was beaten up or picked on, not even fat Sarah! They spent those first few days, if they could even be called days, having fun. Food would appear at regular intervals, through one of several slots along the floor. Each child quickly chose their slot, and the choices held; the spots chosen became their rooms. There were just enough slots for all the kids, and none left over. Before long, you could see each child’s personality imprinted on their “room” – Jane’s was very messy, toys strewn everywhere, while Todd was cleanly and considerate, making sure he didn’t accidentally breach someone else’s space.

Everyone seemed to be getting along fine, and with all of their immediate needs met they barely noticed the passing of the time. Hours spent playing games would pass like minutes, and before long the click and hiss would send them all off to dreamland.

It was three days until Mikey disappeared. It was hard to notice, at first, with 11 kids running around and playing with toys. Hard to notice the missing voice, the clean empty space in front of one of the slots. It wasn’t until around lunchtime – that is, the second meal of the day – that they head the loud clunk. A couple of the girls said they thought they had heard a scream with the clunk, but the group ignored them. There was no scream – everything here was so amazing! How could anything be wrong? That’s when Megan asked the crucial question.

“Where’s Mikey?”

The kids looked high and low, and couldn’t find a trace of him. His room was clean, everything in its proper place. There was no sign that anyone had ever been there, aside from the extra slot near the floor.

The slots opened after that. 11 plates slid into the room, filled with what looked like tomato soup. Distracted, each child retreated to their corner to eat, the mystery of Mikey forgotten.

Things returned somewhat to normal that afternoon, and all the children had a lot of fun. Someone had found a Twister mat, and they spent hours contorting themselves according to the spins of the wheel before collapsing in fits of limbs and giggles. When the nightly click and hiss came around, Mikey had completely slipped their minds.

Megan wasn’t there when they woke up.  The other children searched high and low, but found no sign of her anywhere. It was as if she had never been. All the toys she had been playing with had been put back in the communal area, her room was barren. Once again, after a fruitless search the bright and shiny toys proved far too great a distraction, and if a bit subdued the children dove into their play with renewed vigor.

Lunchtime rolled around, and another loud clunk. This time Conrad claimed to hear the scream, but all the other kids dismissed him. They ate their tomato soup greedily, enjoying every bite. There were pieces of meat and mushy vegetables floating in the thick broth, giving it a salty but wholesome quality that was very filling. An afternoon wiled away in play, when the click came they all went to sleep without a care in the world.

The next day, it was Conrad. The children were very quiet in their search. They had dwindled from twelve to nine, and the smaller number was noticeable. A couple of the kids started crying, huddling quietly in a corner. They didn’t know why they were crying – maybe they missed their friends, or maybe they were worried about who would be next. Some of the others had a haunted look to their eyes as they combed the room, looking for any sign of Conrad. But again, there was no sign, and again, the kids resumed their normal interactions. If their play was a bit more subdued today, there was still laughter and enjoyment. When lunchtime rolled around, they all listened closely. Only Timmy claimed to hear anything, but he was the only one. It must have been his imagination, they thought. They enjoyed their warm soup, very filling and thick. When nighttime came, the click brought on looks of panic, sudden wide-eyed wails, but all was quiet and peaceful as the smoke set in.

This morning, no one moved. They didn’t need to look any more. Timmy was gone. He had disappeared while they slept, and there was no sign that he had ever been. Nobody even went through the motions of a search, knowing the effort futile. Each stayed huddled in their own room, ignoring the shiny toys as they tried to understand where their friends had gone. Some of the girls wept quietly, while the boys simply stared at the floor, arms wrapped around bunched knees, rocking quietly to soothe themselves.

After an hour or so, Robert crawled out towards the toys and began to half-heartedly play with a spaceship, but his movements were lethargic. He pushed it around the carpet  absently, not really paying attention as he stared at the wall across from him. Before long a couple more joined him. Anna picked up a doll and quietly brushed its hair, while Trey and Devon played a sullen game of checkers.

There was a collective gasp when the clunk took place. Everyone looked around, but it was obvious by their actions no one had heard anything. John dejectedly left the corner he had been cowering in, and determinedly picked up an action figure, ignoring the soup that came through the slot. He simulated an assault on some monstrous army, beating it into submission as his friends slurped nourishment around him.

Hours later, the playing died down. Each of the children began to look around, wide eyes quivering with fear. No communication was necessary, as it was obvious that everyone was thinking the same thing. Who’s next? Some of the girls started crying again, and a couple of the boys too. John refused to stop playing with his action figures. He concentrated furiously on the toys, not even noticing the click and the hiss. He fought valiantly against sleep, but his eyelids slowly crept downward. He struggled with all his might. He COULD NOT SLEEP. He refused to give in, but ultimately the smoke won and he started to drowse. As he lost consciousness, quiet tears formed in John’s eyes. He had heard the scream.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The cutting room floor - piracy

There are a few significant differences between the two. First, stealing implies that by taking an object, you are depriving someone else of its use. That isn't possible with movie files. If I rent a movie from the store and rip it to my hard drive, it does absolutely no damage to the disc itself. When I return that movie the next day, the next customer gets exactly the same experience. I haven't deprived anybody of anything.

"Second, and this is the crucial distinction, stealing is a criminal matter, whereas copyright infringement is a civil matter. All of the anti-piracy things you see before movies couch things in terms of stealing for some very specific and nefarious reasons. If you steal something, you can end up with jail time if you are caught. However, with copyright infringement, the only thing the movie companies can do is sue you for damages. There is no way that you will ever end up in prison for infringing copyright, which is the most important difference. Movie studios and anti-piracy groups put it in terms of stealing for intentionally misleading purposes – they want to scare people into not pirating films because, when it comes down to it, they have no recourse whatsoever."

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The cutting room floor

One of the things I've always wondered about the books that I read is "If this is the final edition, what got chopped out of the first draft?" Every once in a while, I'll post things here when I make a particularly large cut. I won't give much, if any context, so take these as you will. That being said, here's the first entry from Marvelous, the book I am currently editing:

(and not for the first time). Cube farms, as the pejorative goes, are in many ways the antithesis of a productive environment for a programmer. They do nothing to dampen noise, do nothing to give the developer a sense of privacy, do nothing to discourage the standard office camaraderie which, while vital to employee moral and overall workplace atmosphere, is a death knell for productivity for those people located near the budding camaraderie that need to concentrate closely on their work. As such, the auxiliary job of a programmer was to find effective ways to block out the noise and distraction that was fostered by well-intentioned designers that had absolutely zero conception of how to create an environment conducive to productive programming.