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.”

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.

Space Doctor

(I wrote this 500-word short story as an exercise. It had to be about a space doctor delivering news (good or bad) to a patient.)

The space doctor emerged from the backroom laboratory and entered the brightly lit examination room with a gloomy expression on his face.

“Well, give me the bad news, space doctor,” I said.

“I’m not a space doctor,” he answered. “I’m a janitor.”

I laughed. “If you’re not a space doctor, then what are you doing with that medical apparatus?”

He glanced at the instrument in his hand. “The mop? I was cleaning the floor in the women’s restroom.”

“I see. So if that’s the women’s restroom, then where is the medical laboratory?”

He seemed confused. “We don’t have any laboratories here.”

“Are you trying to tell me we’re not in an intergalactic hospital?”

“No. This is a grocery store.”

I looked around and realized the space doctor was right. In fact, we appeared to be in the freezer section of my local Value For Less, a grocery outlet that offered tremendous savings on a wide variety of everyday merchandise. Concerned about this distressing development, I turned back to the doctor.

“Listen, doc, I desperately need to be treated for a serious case of space syphilis. You’re the only one who can help me.”

He deposited his so-called mop in a large yellow canister nearby. “Look, if you have syphilis, you should see a real doctor at a real hospital.”

“It’s not syphilis, though; it’s space syphilis. I contracted it during sexual intercourse in space.”

“I seriously doubt you’ve ever been to space.”

I was about to laugh at his incredulity, but I paused for a moment. Had I been to space? Once I thought about it, I couldn’t remember ever having left the planet Earth.

“So maybe I’ve never been to space, but I still need to be treated for my syphilis.”

“There’s really nothing I can do for you,” the space doctor replied. “If you’re sick, see a doctor.”

“I don’t feel sick, though. Syphilis has no symptoms.”

“Yeah, it does.” He gave me a funny look. “So there’s nothing wrong with you, but you’re still convinced you have a sexually transmitted disease?”

“Actually, if I’ve never been to space, I’ve probably never had sex.”

“You’ve never had sex?”

“Not with another person, no.”

“If you’ve never had sex and you don’t feel sick, I don’t think you can possibly have any kind of syphilis. Honestly, you look fine.”

I sighed with relief. “So you think I’ll be okay?”

“Absolutely. Anyway, I need to get back to mopping the bathroom or my supervisor will write me up.”

“Thank you so much, doc.” I shook his hand.

The space doctor collected his cleaning equipment and returned to the women’s restroom.

I retrieved my shopping cart from the nearest aisle and continued shopping for frozen goods. As I picked out a selection of ice cream treats to celebrate my clean bill of health, I muttered aloud to myself, “Space can be a strange and confusing place.”

The Chatters

(I wrote this story at ConQuesT 45 in Kansas City. I had to write it in less than one hour and include a velvet painting, a trapped ghost, an alien planet, hiding from an unseen danger, and the first line, “He could feel the water rushing into his lungs.” It won best sci-fi story in the pro division!)

He could feel the water rushing into his lungs. Dr. Gladwell had told him the planet was completely devoid of water, so either something had filled the craters with it or Dr. Gladwell had been wrong yet again.

“The surface of the planet is like a velvet painting,” she had said. “There is a fine layer of hairlike follicles on the surface, but it appears to be perfectly smooth. Over the centuries, meteors have left vast craters in the ground, but the follicles eventually covered their floors.”

He asked if the planet was like a giant hairball.

“Of course not. These follicles, despite their ever-changing nature, couldn’t possibly be the byproduct of a living organism,” she replied.

As it turned out, his theory had been more accurate than the doctor’s. The fuzz, as he liked to call it, was most definitely alive. It was the sole source of sustenance for the Chatters, an alien race whose existence Gladwell had also failed to anticipate.

The Chatters took no interest in his landing pod or his meaty flesh, but they did crave one thing: idle conversation.

The planet lacked anything remotely akin to weather, but the Chatters discussed it anyway. They had no family structures, but they still complained about relatives. They knew no hunger or thirst thanks to the fuzz and their underground water supply, but they still talked about planning meals and their worries about “the harvest.”

There was no harvest.

He started to lose his temper after three days of hearing about the nonexistent sports the Chatters never played. He tried plugging his ears, but the Chatters were telepathic.

The rescue craft was not due for another six months, but after a week, he finally lost it. He tried to run and hide during a lull in the dull conversation about traffic jams. (The Chatters had no vehicles).

He rushed to the underground river, which was accessible through a tunnel in one of the craters. He was able to hide and survive on fuzz and river water.

After a week, he felt the Chatters’ psychic energy probing the tunnel, looking for his brain waves. They wanted to tell him about their stressful jobs, even though none of them worked. He had no choice but to swim downriver.

The current swept him away too quickly, and he ended up in the largest domed crater on the planet with almost no air left. He struck a patch of fuzz on the crater floor then tried to swim away. He couldn’t. The fuzz was less like a velvet painting and more like a sheet of hairy fly paper. Movement was impossible. He cursed Gladwell’s name as the water filled his lungs and he drowned.

His ghost floated to the surface and up to the dome, where it stopped moving. The dome was composed of transparent dolomite, an incorporeally impermeable mineral. He had nowhere to go; his ghostly form wouldn’t let him sink and the dome wouldn’t let him rise.

The Chatters rushed into the lake, and then they climbed out of the water and onto the rocky shore. Their telepathic voices began speaking in unison, directly into his soul’s thoughts.

The Chatters wanted to talk about politics. They had no government, but they definitely had a lot to say.

Downfall

(I entered this short story in a competition for DemiCon 25 and it won second place! The other entries are available here.)

Greg was buffing the lobby floor when the new volunteer showed up, 20 minutes early. The volunteer was a small, slight man wearing a 3-piece suit and matching overcoat. He walked with an air of confidence that betrayed his unimposing appearance.

Greg turned off the floor buffer and went to greet him.

“Hello there! My name is Greg; I’m the lead Patient Care Assistant in the long-term care wing.”

“An orderly?”

“Something like that. You must be Mr. Maclaren.”

“Dr. Maclaren. You can call me Paul.”

“Oh, you’re a doctor. What kind?”

“Internal medicine.”

“I see. Well, this is a purely non-medical position, Paul. You’ll just be interacting with the patients on a personal level, one-on-one. The director mentioned that you’re interested in dealing with one resident in particular?”

“Yes, the anonymous patient.”

Greg perked up. “Oh? That’s excellent. He never gets any visitors.” He looked around to see if anyone was watching, even though the lobby was completely empty. “But we’ll have to talk about it first. Let’s go to my office.”

“Lead the way.”

Paul followed Greg into a cramped side office that doubled as a utility closet. Greg shut the door behind them and sat down on the metal folding chair next to the card table that functioned as a desk. Paul sat stiffly on one of the two metal chairs on the opposite side.

Greg cleared his throat and spoke. “The patient you want to work with isn’t actually anonymous. In fact, we know exactly who he is.” He looked around again. When he was satisfied that no one was hiding between the mop and a rack of industrial chemicals, he continued. “It’s Magna Man.”

“The superhero?”

“Yeah. He ended up here after a traumatic brain injury.”

Paul raised an eyebrow. “I thought Magna Man was supposed to be invincible.”

“So did he, until he hit the pavement going Mach 10. Headfirst. After that, his thoughts got a little jumbled.”

“I see.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of a long story. It all started with that accident. He landed in the middle of Times Square during a routine battle with some fusion-powered robotic weapon crafted by Professor Whatshisface. You know, the bad guy.”

“Dr. Megalo.”

“Right. Despite his head injury, Magna Man managed to destroy the weapon and fly away.”

“They said on the news that he had finally decided to leave the planet for good.”

“That was a cover-up. A couple of hours after he flew off, some teenagers found him at a nature park in Albany. He was stumbling around and knocking over trees, so they called the police. The army dispatched a helicopter and flew him out to Fort Drum.”

“Did they find out what was wrong with him?”

“No, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The doctors didn’t have any way to take tissue samples and none of the medical scans could penetrate his skull. X-rays, MRIs, and ultrasound were all totally useless. No one had any idea what was going on inside his head. The doctors didn’t know what oral medications would work, if any, so they just tried to keep him comfortable and well-fed. Once his condition deteriorated even more, they announced that he had left the planet. Then, after a few more days, he stabilized and began to recover. I guess they don’t call him superhuman for nothing.”

“I take it there were repercussions from the injury?”

“Big time. When he woke up, he was extremely confused and couldn’t even speak. He had lost a lot of his motor coordination and didn’t seem to understand people when they talked to him. No one was sure what to do, and things had gotten dangerous.”

“Because of his super strength?”

“Right. They didn’t have to worry about it when he was unconscious, but once he could move around, he started breaking things and hurting people.”

Greg backtracked when he saw the look on Paul’s face. “I mean, it wasn’t intentional, and none of the injuries were too serious.” He sighed. “Well, one of the nurses became paraplegic, and one of the doctors lost his right arm past the elbow.” He shrugged. “The army knew they needed help, so they tried to calm him down and brought him here in a heavily armored van. We’re used to dealing with traumatic brain injuries, so we made some progress with him. After a few rough weeks, he started to relax and get along. He’s been here for about six months now.”

“How bad is he? Will he ever get back to fighting crime?”

“I doubt it. He’s functioning at a very basic level, but we haven’t seen much evidence of higher brain activity. He still can’t speak. The good news is, he’s fairly docile, and he gets along with the staff and other residents. He also seems to be more aware of his strength, so there haven’t been as many accidents lately.”

“I see. Is he mostly self-sufficient? Can he take care of himself?”

“For the most part. He feeds himself and he’s toilet trained.”

“That’s good to know. I was afraid he might be wearing a diaper or something.”

Greg looked sheepish. “He does wear special undergarments, just in case.” He cleared his throat. “It’s not usually a problem, though.”

“Right. So what does he do with his time?”

“The staff conducts several activities with the residents: arts and crafts, stories, group meals, and special events. He watches a lot of TV.”

“I can imagine.”

“Anyway, I’m really glad you’re here. All the other patients have friends and families who visit, but obviously, Joe doesn’t. We only call him ‘Joe’ because it’s one syllable and he responds to it. We’re not sure who he really was. After all, his identity was a secret, and nobody ever came looking for him.”

“That doesn’t give you many options for eventually releasing him.”

“Yeah. As far as we know, we’re taking care of him indefinitely. The army decided to pay him a monthly stipend for services rendered, and we put that towards his expenses. We write off the rest as a charitable donation.” Greg stood up. “I guess that’s everything you need to know. Are you still willing to work with him?”

Paul got up and nodded. “I think it will be an eye-opening experience.”

“Good! I’ll introduce you. You can take this chance to get to know one another, and if you’re willing to keep working with him, we can arrange for regular visits.”

Greg led the way out of the office closet and walked down to an open door at the end of the hall. He knocked on the door frame and went in. Paul followed him inside.

Joe’s room was spacious but spartan. He had a small bed, a coffee table, two easy chairs, and a wide-screen plasma television. The other walls were adorned with a few poorly colored drawing pages and several large holes in the drywall.

Joe was sitting in one of the chairs. The media always said Magna Man was 6’5” and weighed more than 300 pounds, but in person, he seemed even bigger. Despite his size, he wasn’t at all intimidating, in part due to his vacant smile and the plaid flannel pajamas he wore.

Greg turned off the TV and said, “Good afternoon, Joe,” speaking slowly and distinctly.

Joe looked at him and smiled.

“This is Paul,” Greg continued. “He’s going to be coming by once in a while to hang out with you.” He turned to Paul. “I don’t want him to get too overwhelmed, so I’m going to leave you two alone for a bit. Are you comfortable with that?”

“I’ll be fine,” Paul said.

As Greg walked out, he said, “I promise that you’ll be perfectly safe, but I’ll be waiting in the lobby if you need me.”

Paul made sure he was gone, then sat on the easy chair across from Joe.

“Hey there, Max,” he said. “I suppose I should call you Joe, since that’s what they’re doing. You probably don’t remember me, but my name is Dr. Megalo.” He looked around. “I’ve known you were in here for a couple of months now.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to think when I found out. When I first heard you had left the planet, I considered it a victory. Humans would be free to act however we liked without you pushing your morality on us.” He sighed. “The problem was, it didn’t fit the profile. You’d never abandoned anything before, especially not after such a minor scuffle. I had to be sure, so I looked into it. Once I realized the military was involved, I started searching their records. Oddly enough, it was a so-called ‘accounting error’ that led me to this facility. And here you are.”

Joe had stopped trying to listen and started staring off toward the door.

Paul stood up and looked back to make sure no one was there, then took a flashlight out of his coat. “You know, I never understood how you wore a costume without any pockets,” he said. “Now, let’s have a look at you.”

He walked over and shined the light into each of Joe’s eyes. “Irregular pupillary response,” he said. “Unequal pupil size.” He snapped his fingers on either side of Joe’s head. “Left ear less responsive. Could be tinnitus.” He held up his index finger. “Can you touch my finger?” Joe reached for his finger and missed, then tried again and touched it. “Good. Can you touch your nose?” Joe managed to touch his nose on the third try. “Good. I certainly don’t want to test your strength or reflexes, but your muscle tone looks good.”

Paul sat back down. “Well, a human with your symptoms would likely have suffered from severe cerebral hypoxia or a cerebral hemorrhage, probably both.” He shook his head. “Even though you look completely human, your physiology still baffles me.”

Joe nodded politely, but clearly didn’t understand.

“You might be surprised to find out that I collected samples of all your bodily fluids last year. Saliva, mucus, tears, urine, feces, earwax. Even semen.” He chuckled. “That was an interesting mission.”

Joe smiled at the laughter.

“I thought those tissue samples would help me understand you, but they were useless. Your DNA is completely alien. I had nothing to compare it with. I could have asked for help, but it would have taken a team of scientists years to figure it all out, and I had to work alone, for obvious reasons. Everyone thought you were invincible, but it turns out an indestructible brain can be damaged by bouncing around in an indestructible skull. I wish I could take credit, but it was a complete accident.”

Paul stood up and took a few more items out of his pockets, including an oxygen mask, a plastic hose, and a small gas canister. Joe watched, transfixed.

“No, my plan was a bit more sophisticated,” Paul said. “It hit me after I thought about all the times I saw you catching your breath after one of my machines struck you. You might have been impossible to hurt, but you gasped for air just like any human would. I was still trying to figure out the details when you had your little accident.”

Paul attached the plastic hose to the mask and the gas canister.

“This is argon gas, Joe. It’s completely odorless and tasteless, but it’s heavier than air, so it will sink into whatever your body uses for breathing and displace all the oxygen. You won’t notice anything; you’ll just fall unconscious and asphyxiate. You probably would have objected to this in the old days, but now I doubt you’ll have anything to say. Besides, it’ll put you out of your misery.”

He finished securing the hose and took a second oxygen mask out of his coat.

“If you’re nervous about the mask, I brought an extra one for me. It won’t have any argon, but at least you won’t be alone.”

He put on his own mask first, then Joe’s. Joe smiled at the game they seemed to be playing. Paul reached for the canister of argon, but before he could pick it up, Joe took a tiny silver robot out of his shirt pocket and handed it over. Paul looked at the toy and froze.

“This is the Violator Mark II.” He looked at Joe, who was still smiling beneath the mask. “They make toys based on my machines?”

He sat back down and took his mask off. Joe mirrored his actions, taking off his own mask.

“They think it’s just a game,” Paul said. “They must think I’m some kind of cartoon character.” He held up the robot. “This machine took nine months to construct. The original version took six months.” He shook his head. “You destroyed it in 25 seconds.” He sighed. “This one was just supposed to subdue you. I only decided to kill you after you threw a school bus at it. There were kids in that bus, Max.”

Paul dropped the toy on the ground. Joe frowned.

“I suppose if the toy companies knew what I looked like, they’d make a little version of me, wearing a cape, rubbing my hands, and twirling a handlebar mustache.” Paul stood up and started putting the equipment back in his coat pockets. “I don’t need to kill you, Joe. I already put you in here.”

He started to walk out, but Joe picked up the toy and stumbled across the room after him. Paul turned back. Joe handed him the toy with a concerned look on his face. Paul sighed and put the toy in his coat pocket. Joe smiled broadly and grabbed him in a bear hug, managing not to use too much of his superhuman strength. After he let go, he walked over to the TV, turned it on, and sat down. He waved goodbye as Paul left.

Paul tried to get out of the lobby as quickly as possible, but Greg noticed him anyway. He stopped buffing the floors and walked over.

“What did you think?” Greg said. “Are you going to come back?”

Paul looked at him. “I think so,” he said, “but I’m not ready just yet.”

“I understand. Call us again if you change your mind.”

Paul nodded and walked out. Greg turned on the floor buffer yet again and whistled Magna Man’s theme song as he worked.