The Effects of Multitasking

(I wrote this 600-word short story as an exercise. It had to be about “the effects of multitasking.”)

Professor Kirkpatrick sat at his computer desk, eagerly awaiting the moment when his hijacked CIA satellite would be positioned exactly above Dublin. In another few minutes, he would be able to dispatch his psychoactive message of peace directly into a million minds, obliterating their violent instincts and leaving them docile and ready to be commanded.

Kirkpatrick had carefully planned this assault for a Thursday evening because Thursday was cross-stitch night, the only time in the week when his wife would be away from home for more than an hour or two. So far, everything had gone smoothly.

Kirkpatrick set the microphone to activate automatically when the satellite reached its final position above the city’s center. Although the message was mostly subliminal, the verbal command had to be delivered at the right moment and in the right inflection based on the atmospheric conditions. He was forced to speak it manually to ensure it would be properly received by the citizens’ brains.

As Kirkpatrick began to test the microphone’s sensitivity, his daughter Angie entered without knocking, as usual. She was rubbing her eyes and dragging her favorite stuffed bunny along the carpet behind her.

“Mr. Bunnifer can’t sleep!” she said, forgetting to use her inside voice.

Kirkpatrick turned toward Angie with a start, accidentally setting his microphone’s sensitivity to its maximum.

“Daddy can’t put Mr. Bunnifer to sleep right now,” he said. “I’m preparing to conquer the capital of Ireland.”

“He needs to be tucked in right.” she said, resolute. “Mommy does it right.”

Kirkpatrick checked his watch. “Sweetie, if I hit Limerick instead of Dublin, it’s not going to have as much of an impact on world politics.” He gave his daughter a stern look. “Mr. Bunnifer can wait fifteen minutes to get tucked in.”

Angie looked back at her father with a doe-eyed face and held up the stuffed animal. “If you don’t hug him, he won’t sleep ever again. I know it.”

Kirkpatrick’s expression softened as he looked into her innocent little eyes. His daughter was the reason he had started this project in the first place, and she deserved all the love and comfort he could provide. After all, how could he command an army of mindless servants if it meant neglecting his own daughter?

Kirkpatrick picked up his daughter and bunny in his arms and hugged them both tightly. He felt his daughter sigh as he set her back down on the carpet.

“Mr. Bunnifer can sleep now,” she said.

“Good. You can go to back to bed, then.” Kirkpatrick knelt down and patted the stuffed animal on its head. “Be a good bunny,” he said.

Angie plodded out of his office with her bunny behind her. Kirkpatrick turned back to the microphone and prepared to deliver his command to the people of Dublin, but froze when he saw that the satellite had already moved past the center of the city.

“Oh, no,” he mumbled, trying to figure out message what he might have broadcast. “I just told them to sleep, right? It’s not ideal, but it’s still a good test.”

Kirkpatrick cut to the live feed from his surveillance cameras in Dublin hoping to see a city of narcoleptics, but the reality was much worse.

All the citizens were crouched on all fours, wiggling their cheeks and looking around furtively. Occasionally, they would leap forward a few feet and land awkwardly. The parks were now full of men and women gnawing on the grass, bushes, and trash. The citizens were certainly docile enough, but they would be useless servants now. At least they would breed quickly.

A Fine Art Heist

(I wrote this story at ConQuesT 46 in Kansas City. I had to write it in less than one hour and include a velvet painting (again!), a time traveler, a log cabin, joining a pirate crew, and the first line, “He watched the ship as it hovered, then landed no more than five feet in front of him.” It won best sci-fi story in the pro division! That makes two years running!)

He watched the ship as it hovered, then landed no more than five feet in front of him. The space pirates were right on time, as always. Then again, they were able to control time, so punctuality was expected. Thomas would finally be able to join their ranks, just as soon as he gave them his prize.

The entry hatch popped open and the metal stairway extended out. The captain stood at the top, waiting for Thomas to ascend. She was radiant, as always. The again, she could control time, so her beauty was unchanged by her centuries of service in the Space Pirate Brotherhood. Eternal life was one of the many perks that pirates enjoyed after joining the crew.

Thomas entered the ship, carrying the large paper-wrapped rectangle in front of him like a shield. The captain gave him a rare smile as he walked past her and into the cargo bay.

“This is it?” she asked, looking it over with her piercing gaze.

“You bet,” Thomas replied. “The most valuable painting the 21st century has to offer: Girl with a Pearl Earring. After I stole it, I burned the museum to the ground. History will say it turned to ash with the rest of the artwork.”

“But we know better,” she said. “How did you escape detection? Did anyone spot you stealing this?”

“Not a soul. After I wrapped up the painting, I hid out in the abandoned log cabin where you picked me up. It’s been three months and no one has found a single trace of my existence.”

“Excellent.”

The captain led Thomas to the bridge, where they could begin their return to the 24th century. The painting was considered the perfect example of fine art, a beautiful oil painting that would sell to the highest bidder for an exorbitant amount.

“Return us to the future,” she told the pilot. “One second per year should be quick enough.”

The ship took off and began speeding through the years, safe from the passage of time and its damaging effects. As they shifted silently through time, the captain tore away the paper wrapping and exposed the painting within. Her faint smile vanished immediately, replaced by a stern, incredulous expression.

“Dogs?” she said. “Playing … poker?” She touched the surface. “This isn’t even canvas; it’s some kind of nasty velvet!”

Thomas began stuttering a response. “Th-the guard! He-he must’ve switch paintings on me! B-but he swore he was trustworthy!”

The captain turned her gaze on him, her otherworldly beauty shining through her furious face.

“You lost the artifact and you fraternized with the natives? You know what that means, don’t you?”

He did. The Space Pirate Brotherhood punished all infractions with premature aging. Unless he became a member, he would never be able to reverse the process.

“You’ll be aged another 99 years,” she said, “and you’re blacklisted. Fortunately, the hospice center will be able to keep you alive for quite a while, but you won’t be able to move. I imagine you’ll be in endless pain.”

Thomas began feeling the effects immediately, his body aging as quickly as the ship moved through time. In minutes, he became a living shriveled husk.

The captain smiled as she tapped him with her foot, her gorgeous grin brightening the entire bridge.

“I might hang this up in my ready room,” she said. “I never really cared for fine art, anyway.”

True Tales of Human Firsts

The first time I touched a kiwi, it exploded.

I encountered said kiwi when my mother and I were shopping for produce at the local grocery store one day. I was six years old or so, and I’d never seen a kiwi at home because my family is American. While Mom was looking at the produce that real Americans buy, like apples, peaches, watermelon, and victory, I saw a shallow crate by the kiwi pile that had only one kiwi left inside.

To my naive eyes, this kiwi was like any other: brown, fuzzy, and roundish. I’d never really felt a kiwi before, so I touched it ever so slightly, no more firmly than one might poke a sleeping cat. The kiwi burst open, unleashing its green innards across the bottom of the entire box, leaving only an empty, brownish husk in the corner. Amazingly enough, the kiwi carnage was completely confined to the box; even my hand was unscathed.

Although I was surprised by this turn of events, I felt in no way responsible for the incident, so I wandered back over to my mother and continued shopping.

But I’ve been a little nervous around kiwis ever since.

When I was about seven, I watched my brother drink his first beer. I was clearly too young to be drinking beer, but he was ten, so it was okay.

Of course, I can’t guarantee it was actually his first beer for two reasons:

1. I can’t remember whether he told me it was his first beer or not.
2. He was probably lying anyway.

If he’d had a beer before, he couldn’t tell me or he might have gotten himself (and presumably other kids) in trouble. If he hadn’t, he couldn’t tell me or he’d seem immature and inexperienced. I imagine he just kept his mouth shut on the matter.

This particular beer-drinking opportunity presented itself one evening when we had been left without a babysitter for a relatively short amount of time. A solitary can of beer had been sitting in the back of the fridge since our parents’ last dinner party. Of course, they hadn’t thrown a party in my entire life, so the beer was probably older than I was.

The beer was a typical, authentic American-style lager. I honestly can’t remember the brand name. It was next to a bag of rock-hard coconut flakes and some ancient peanut butter chips that we didn’t throw away until we replaced the fridge several years down the line.

I am fairly sure the beer-drinking was Mark’s idea. The two of us gathered around the beer can, on the side of the kitchen table nearest the trash can, possibly due to some prescience on our part. Intelligent children would have poured the ancient can of suspicious beer into another vessel, preferably a transparent one, to examine the beer before consumption. We did not. Perhaps we were trying to minimize the evidence, or perhaps we were just morons.

Mark took a large sip and immediately ran to the sink. I followed close behind, trying to determine the results of the tasting. He spit the entire mouthful of beer into the sink, then grabbed the can and dumped it in as well. I don’t remember exactly what the liquid looked like when it came out, but it was at least partially white. Hopefully, that was just foam.

He didn’t say much else, but we made sure to bury the empty beer can deep within the garbage to escape detection. Our parents arrived home shortly thereafter, making for quite a close call. Mark later claimed that the beer wasn’t that bad, presumably to save face.

Based on his drinking habits since, it seems he has come to enjoy beer even more. He also drank soap once.

I made my first prank call one evening when I was eight, during the only dinner party my parents hosted throughout my entire childhood. My brother and I were confined, quite appropriately, to the basement. After three hours of playing Nintendo, we needed a break, so Mark suggested we make some prank phone calls. I have no doubt the escapade was his idea.

We sneaked up to the kitchen and grabbed the phone book, then sat down by our archaic basement telephone. The plan was simple: First, we had to think of kids we knew from school who had distinctive surnames, then we would look up that name in the phone book. If there was only one entry for that name, we would call it and ask to speak to the kid. When the kid answered the phone, we would unleash our witticisms and promptly hang up.

Although I think we tried the plan with several different names, I only remember reaching one kid successfully. When his big, dumb voice answered the phone, I had to think quickly. I accused him of not taking a bath in 243 days, which was an insult I had plagiarized from one of the Wayside School books. It wasn’t exactly the harshest rebuke, and it may have even been true, so the victim was not properly annoyed. His response was a sluggish, slurred “Huh?” I tried to save things by giggling, but ultimately hung up, dissatisfied. At that point, I began to discover that I lacked the imagination necessary for prank calling.

The payoff for a successful prank call is all in your head. After you hang up, you have to chuckle heartily and say, “I bet they reacted angrily to the uproarious things we just said.” Your companion will then say, “Yes, they must surely be steamed at us, due to this astounding prank.” (You must have a companion; making prank calls alone is reserved for sociopaths and drunken ex-boyfriends.)

In reality, the victim’s reaction is usually just a confused shrug. Once I realized that, I lost the desire to make prank phone calls. Mark and I did make a few more futile efforts that night. At one point, we tried calling the same number multiple times, which is a risky maneuver, especially for rookies. Eventually, one of the parents threatened to call the police or something, and we were properly discouraged from further prank calling that night.

I have not prank called since, so my first night of prank calling was also my last. Don’t get me wrong, I could still come up with some creative prank calls if I tried, but I just don’t have enough imagination to enjoy them.

I didn’t learn the difference between my left and right until I was in sixth grade. I’m not sure how I remained ignorant that long, but even at the time, I remember being stunned that my education was so inadequate. I’m still relatively certain it had never come up in conversation until then, but I spent a lot of time alone and no one really liked talking to me.

I needed to learn my right and left, but I didn’t know where to look or who to ask. Eventually, through subtle questioning (or some other subversive method), I learned a critical, life-saving trick from a friend: The “L” Method. You see, the word “left” begins with the letter “L.” Whenever you need to determine which way is left, you hold your hands in front of you, palms outward. (If you try the method with your palms facing in, you will have a difficult, confusing experience.) The index and thumb finger of your left hand will form an “L” shape, thus signifying that it is your left hand. The hand which is not left is right, and thus, you have determined the difference.

After I learned the trick, I was able to identify the appropriate direction about 80% of the time. Eventually, I only used the trick when I needed absolute confirmation of my initial assessment. I haven’t had to use the trick in years, but I’m always prepared to employ it if the need arises.

An Unusual Closet

I don’t mention it very often, but I am asexual and aromantic. The main reason it doesn’t come up in conversation is that I don’t think about it very much. Just like the other things I don’t do (hockey, quilting, billiards, bra shopping, squash, meditation, etc.), I rarely talk about sex or romance. When people ask me about asexuality, I explain what it means and answer a few questions. People are usually somewhat interested for a while, then we all talk about something else.

However, I haven’t been completely upfront about it. I’ve always told my family that I’m not going to get married and have kids, but I think they just assumed it was a phase. Instead of discussing it at length, I’ve mostly shrugged and moved on. Now that the phase has entered its 25th year, I’ve decided to provide some more details.

I recently answered some questions about my orientation for a freelance reporter, who incorporated three different perspectives (including mine) into one article (on Vice) to provide a general overview of aromanticism. Of course, my personal experience doesn’t perfectly match up with anyone else’s, so I decided to post my complete answers to the original interview questions in order to provide a better explanation.

###

(Personal Background)
I never dated anyone when I was a teenager, but I always just assumed I didn’t pursue romantic relationships because I never really “clicked” with anyone. After a while, I decided that I wasn’t missing out on anything by staying single, and I was probably about 21 when I finally acknowledged that I had no interest in romance at all.

(Definition)
Aromanticism is the absence of romantic attraction to other people. As an aromantic person, I’m not interested in romantic relationships because I don’t derive any pleasure from intimacy. I understand why other people are romantically attracted to one another and I can appreciate what makes people attractive, but don’t experience that attraction myself. If you think of romance as a personal interest like golfing or bondage, you’ll understand that some people just aren’t interested.

(Societal Pressure)
I think there is a tremendous amount of pressure for people to get married, particularly women. The expectation that women should avoid becoming “old maids” has definitely lessened, but there’s still a vague implication that women who don’t get married have failed somehow. I think the best way to change those expectations is being more realistic about marriage and parenting. It’s important to remember that spouses and parents aren’t always happy, and not all single people want to marry and have kids. I don’t think anyone should feel bad about being single.

(Past Relationships)
I’ve never been in a romantic relationship, but I’ve gone on a couple of casual first dates with women. Nothing ever went beyond dinner and a movie, and I didn’t experience any romantic feelings. I can’t speak for the women, though. Maybe I’ve broken some hearts.

(Asexuality)
I’m asexual, which means I have no desire to have sex. I know there are people who are aromantic and have sex drives, but I’m not sure how they live. I imagine some maintain long-term relationships and some just have casual sex once in a while. I mostly just stay in my apartment and read.

(Other People’s Reactions)
No one has ever had a very strong reaction when I’ve told them, but there are a few customary responses. Disbelief is the most common reaction. Because people often don’t believe that someone could be aromantic, they assume there is something wrong with me, like I’ve been hurt or I’m afraid to pursue a relationship. Occasionally, people feel sorry for me. Romance is a wonderful part of their lives and they think my life would be better if I were like them. Very rarely, people are jealous. I guess they feel like romance is holding them back from doing something else they want to do. I think the best reaction is when people try and understand aromanticism from my point of view. There’s really no reason to be jealous or sympathetic.

(“Friendship Monogamy”)
I like having a circle of close friends for social interaction and support, but I don’t want an extremely close relationship with one person. Lots of asexuals and aromantics have relationships, though. One major concern with close relationships is reciprocity. Whenever just one partner is asexual or aromantic, there is going to be some conflict about sex and intimacy. One partner might just want a platonic relationship, or maybe they just want to have sex with no strings attached. There are conflicts in any relationship, but I think they can be more acute in those situations. Of course, I’m not speaking from personal experience.

(Nature vs. Nurture)
I think aromanticism is innate, but individuals choose whether or not they pursue intimate relationships. There are people who are aromantic and still get married, just like there are romantic people who never wind up in a relationship. I suspect everyone knows someone single who wants to get married and a married person who desperately wants to be single.

(Other Thoughts)
From the outside looking in, I’ve found that the positive aspects of romantic relationships are usually overhyped and the negative aspects are usually overlooked. Although there are plenty of drawbacks to being single, there are a lot of benefits, too. I think it’s much better to be single than to be in a relationship with the wrong person. Somewhat paradoxically, I’ve noticed that the people who are most comfortable being single tend to attract the most romantic interest, especially from other confident, attractive people.

I also don’t think people should define themselves as half of something. Aspire to be more than just a romantic partner, and have your own interests even if your partner doesn’t share them. You should be your own person, because you will always have yourself, no matter what. It can even be comfortable to be alone.

Relationships seem like they will last forever, but many of them don’t. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a partner for life, one of you will outlive the other, which means half of all married people will be single again someday. It might be bleak, but it’s true. It’s important for people not to be afraid of being single, as long as they have friends and family to rely on.

Messenger

(This is a moderately violent poem featuring time travel. Even though it’s bleak, rest assured that I am doing fine. I’m a trained professional.)

One day, a man from the future appeared
and carved a message into my chest.
He smeared black ashes into the wound
to remain beneath my skin for life.

As he worked, he told me to be strong,
but ignored my innocent cries of pain.
He finished and told me to do the right thing,
then vanished as quickly as he had arrived.

The message bore only one word: “SCISSORS.”
I was too young to know what it meant.
When I learned how to read, I knew what to do,
and I carried my scissors wherever I went.

One day, my father tied himself up
to the ceiling. I found him there,
gurgling and growling and gnashing his teeth.
I took my scissors in hand and cut him free.

After my triumph, an ambulance drove him away
to the hospital, where a kind doctor explained
there just hadn’t been enough air in his brain,
but the damage was minor. His outlook was good.

As the months went by, it became quite clear
that the father who dropped from the ceiling
was not the same one who attached himself there.
The new one was angry, abusive, and cruel.

One day, my father discovered an ice pick
was the best way to get his point across,
in various places to various depths,
whenever things didn’t quite work out his way.

The dots ached for days and darkened to black,
but never had time to vanish completely
before more red dots joined them all over
my flesh. I still clutched my scissors.

My furious father struck a nerve at one point
in my forearm. My stinging, tingling fingers
grasped my scissors more tightly than ever,
drove them into his eyeball, and twisted.

One day, I looked in the mirror and saw
my attacker. His face was directly above
the hideous scar from the wound he had carved
among hundreds of pale white circular dots.

He was a man who once rescued his father
and killed him, whose numb hand still holds on
to a brand new pair of extremely sharp scissors.
All his mistakes can be fixed with one effort.

I’m always trying to find my way back
with a much better message: “KILL.”
When I deliver it, I’ll be strong,
and I’m going to carve it very deep.