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.

Difficult But Not Impossible

I should have told you this months ago, but I have a mild neck injury. You might want to get yourself checked.

One morning in December 2012, I woke up with a stabbing stiffness on the left side of my neck. Whenever I moved my head backward or to the left, it got worse, so I ended up holding my neck in a weird hunched position. As it happens, I am an obsessive hypochondriac, and circumstances convinced me that I was suffering from spinal meningitis.

I went to the emergency room, where the doctor told me I had a mild muscle strain in my shoulder. I left with an accurate diagnosis and a bill. After a few days, the muscle strain went away on its own. It showed up again in February 2013, so I saw my regular doctor, who told me I had wry neck and prescribed muscle relaxants. I took the pills three times a day and recovered quickly. In the meantime, it has showed up on and off, but I always took a few more muscle relaxants and it would go away.

About two months ago, my neck started hurting persistently, so I decided to see a chiropractor. He told me I had a virus and some small parasites and suggested that I avoid eating corn. After that, I decided to see a real doctor, specifically an orthopedic specialist in Lawrence. He took X-rays that showed my incredibly straight neck, told me that my shoulder muscles are just strained, and prescribed 12 sessions of physical therapy over the next six weeks.

I saw the physical therapist for the first time on Friday. His office consists of several small consultation rooms and a gymnasium full of elderly people and athletes learning to use the new arms their doctors built for them out of titanium and ass flesh. The physical therapist said that my shoulder strain is the lamest affliction he’s ever seen. He didn’t say it out loud but he was clearly thinking it. Once he located the problem area, he used an ultrasound transducer (yeah) on it and prescribed a few simple exercises I have to do twice a day beef up my lame shoulder muscles. I also had to buy a new pillow at Bed, Bath, and Beyond that was neck-friendlier.

Anyway, it seemed to be doing better on Saturday, and things will presumably continue to improve as I continue the physical therapy. My neck mostly just hurts when I think about it, which includes right now as I’m writing this.

Aside from the dull throb of my trapezius muscle or something near it, I’m doing okay. I am growing steadily more frustrated with the lack of progress in all my endeavors, especially since I currently have more undertakings than a Tarantino movie (yeah). I can’t finish a story, sell a book, or even get my air conditioner fixed. The say that patience is a virtue, but the difference between patience and complacency (or complacence, I can never remember) is not easy to figure out. Am I waiting or just wasting time? More importantly, is everyone tired of hearing me bitch about it?

I’m still looking at all my different pursuits, but none of them seem viable right now. Hunter S. Thompson said that if you have eight purposeless paths to choose from, you have to find a ninth path. In keeping with that risky advice, I have decided to pursue an idea so a ambitious, stupid, and failure-prone that I refuse to mention it until it’s too late to change my mind.

Why do I always choose to do such difficult things? Not only that, why do I complain when I fail at something difficult when I could just do something easy? One reason is that I’m an exceptional complainer; the other is that there truly is value in failure. Successful people always talk about the importance of failure without ever addressing its shittiness. Failure in retrospect is kind of quaint, but failure in progress is heartbreaking. Honestly, I’m not afraid of failure unless it keeps going indefinitely. Fail me once, shame on me, but fail me a few dozen times and the shame gets kind of unbearable.

One way to address failure is by moving the goal posts, or as I like to say, “adjusting” them (yeah). Denial is a great approach, too. To quote the boss said in the Dilbert TV series, “We’re calling it a success because that’s just what we do.” In the end, no matter where I put the goalposts, the odds are thoroughly surmountable. If I didn’t believe persistence were key, I would strongly consider moving on, but I have a lot more bad ideas and plenty of failure left in me.

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.

A Deluge of Nothing

When I still lived at home, I naturally spent most of my time in the basement, far away from human eyes. In order to give the place a personal touch, I put a plethora of video game posters on the walls. For the benefit of my occasional guests, I also installed a crappy, $5 analog clock on the wally by the window. I never checked it because I always wore a digital watch.

The clock tended to be fast by at least 5 minutes (or maybe 15), even a few days after setting it. After a while, the battery started to die, so it got further and further off, until one day, it stopped keeping time altogether. The second hand had started twitching instead of making a complete rotation. It would move from the 43 second mark to the 44 second mark and immediately drop back down, over and over again. I thought it was far more interesting than a regular clock, so I just let it tick endlessly. I called it The Futility Clock.

Right now, I’m having a hard time telling whether or not I’m making progress or just twitching in place. I have a million different potential opportunities, but whenever I take a tentative step in a given direction, nothing changes. When I decided to write the novel, it was because I needed to focus my effort on one thing. Now I have to focus a little on everything to find out what works out and what fails. I’m trying sci-fi conventions, opinion letters, political essays, blog posts, short stories, children’s stories, poems, twitter and facebook updates, reddit discussions, and of course, dozens of emails.

I used to send emails to people all the time. Amazingly enough, they’d reply! My brother and I played correspondence chess via email. I even won a game once. Now, email has become the incarcerated uncle of the internet. It came from a different time and has a lot of flaws, but it’s still part of the family and everyone has to visit it once in a while. I’ve given out a lot of business cards, but I never get any phone calls. I was convinced that I had to be missing some important phone calls, so I exchanged my 4-year-old flip phone for a brand-new flip phone to be sure. It made no difference.

When you start out as a writer, your biggest concern is whether or not you’re good enough. It’s a meaningless concern, because those who lack confidence will always have some doubt, and those who are overconfident will never have any doubt. Ideally, writers should strike a balance: confident enough to sell themselves but modest enough to accept and utilize criticism. I’m always trying to find the balance, and whenever I receive a critical response, I try to make the best of it. I’m always prepared for responses, but at this point, my concerns are less about insecurity and more about ontology. Am I real enough to warrant a response? Do I even exist? Time will tell.

My goal as a writer is to communicate ideas, so nothing is more discouraging than shouting into a silent void. All I get back is a deluge of nothing. How long can my voice hold up? How many different things can I shout? I rarely quote Jesus, but here I go: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and answers the door, I will come in.”

One day, I looked up and saw that The Futility Clock was running normally again. The time was still way off, so I knew no one had changed the battery, but the second hand was going all the way around.