Friday, November 30, 2007


This was a story snippet (i.e. not complete, despite it's length) I wrote some months ago. It was rather universally panned by my writer's group, while I thought I was trying out an original concept. What do you think?


A light appeared in the night. The photoreceptors of the beings below it were stimulated, and sent signals to the network of brains they were connected to, noting how unusual it was to see such a bright light at that time of night.

The light grew bigger as it slashed and burned its way through the atmosphere. The brains grew more agitated, and began to coagulate in the mud of the sea marsh. They began to form a lump as the photoreceptors were pushed together.

The light split in two as the heat shield fell away. A white parachute fluttered out and expanded behind the now fading light. The photoreceptors strained and turned in the mud, tracking the falling object. A sonic boom raged across the night, but went unnoticed by the beings watching in the mud who lacked organs to detect sounds.

The object fell into the southern end of the marsh, instantly killing the many brains in that vicinity. The other marsh beings felt a burst of electrochemical signaling across the network. Repair, repair, repair.

The object began to unfurl it's solar panels. They unwound to many times the breadth of the object, shlupping onto the thick mud as each panel locked into place. The panels waited for dawn. The brains underneath the panels shifted away under the weight.

One part of a being oozed up from the mud and onto the top of one of the panels. It licked the alien surface. What could it be? It was hard and flat and long, tasting vaguely bitter. Soon the whole marsh knew that the object tasted bitter. Other beings came up to the hard of the object, over their dead comrades, covering the sides, feeling the hard, angular surfaces. The brains consulted each other, and came to the conclusion it was a rock from the sky. Many had fallen through the countless eons to come to rest in the marshes of the world. It was not food, nor could it be used in anyway, but it was completely harmless, of that there was consensus. It was best just to forget about it.

Suddenly the object shook violently. Beings that had oozed up to cover it were flung off, landing out of place in the mud. They were forced to reforge their connections to the marsh. As they reconnected, the whole marsh began to wonder about the rock from the sky. They searched the archives of memory, bringing up every recorded rock fall. None of them had ever moved of their own accord. It was decided that the marsh was to exercise caution around the rock.

Dawn broke, and the object was illuminated with a dusty pink glow. A hundred thousand eyes saw the blue and red logo punctuated by white, but the brains could not comprehend what it represented. Below the logo was the caption "EARTH ARK 21". The brains did not know if the scritches they saw carried any important information at all.

The panels began processing the bight light of the once distant star, charging up the batteries. When this was complete, the interior nuclear reactor went into sleep mode, preserving itself for emergency use. One of the computers inside booted up successfully, relieving the smaller descent computer of it's duties. An antenna emerged from the top of the object. It extended fully before blossoming into a metal flower. The stamen began to send out a beacon signal back to the place of manufacture, a narrow strip of grassland in the middle of a marsh in what was once Alabama. By the time the first signal would arrive, there would be no one left to hear it.

Hatches opened on three sides of the object. Through each hatch emerged a nozzle. Each nozzle tilted slowly to point up at the sky at an angle. After a short passage of time, a fine black spray misted out and landed on the mud. The nozzles continued until they had produced a contiguous layer.

The marsh eyes were blinded with the sticky substance. They withdrew into the mud trying to remove the goop, scraping it on hard casings of their brain buds. Soon the goop began to itch, then it began to burn. A flurry of signals crisscrossed the network. Pain, pain, pain! The brains consulted, and it was agreed that the area around the object would be evacuated.

Many of the marsh beings died from the pain before they could retreat. The nanomachines in the goop were efficiently deconstructing the silicon matrices in the photoreceptors of the marsh beings. Silicon was the ideal material to forge new solar panels. The goop replicated itself continually outward from the landing site. The marsh could not escape the onslaught.

As more panels grew and integrated they began to feed energy into the object. Another critical milestone had been reached. The computer executed a program that knitted together a new substance. It was a dull brown liquid. This liquid was fed into the lines connected to the nozzles, and a second mist landed on top of the new panels. Enough of this mist was sprayed that it pooled on the new panels.

The liquid began to coagulate, forming tiny fiber tubes. The object lifted itself up on its landing feet and the brown liquid rolled down the ramp created by the panels leaving microscopic trails of tubes down toward the edge of the panels. Much of the liquid seeped into the mud. As the liquid coagulated and hardened further, the object slowly lowered itself back to its original position in the mud.

The tubes drew water up from the mud, and through capillary action, began to pump water onto the top of the panels. When the computer detected the weight of the water on the panels, it ran another program, and created another liquid filled with another type of nanomachine. It was the consistency and color of skim milk. This too it sprayed over the surface of the panels.

By this time, the star was beginning to set. On the first night, the object rested. The marsh beings noted that the object had stopped expanding. Was that the end of it? A few of the brains thought that the object might continue growing in the sunlight. They recalled the existence of beings on the landmass to the north that grew into the sky in the presence of sunlight. The other brains argued that this rock from the sky was not a being at all, and therefore could not truly grow. No consensus was reached that night, though it was agreed that this was because there was too little information about the rock. They waited to see what would happen as the sun rose the next morning.

As morning starlight once again kissed the object from the sky, thousands of photoreceptors waited with tense anticipation for any sign of change.They saw nothing, but an imperceptible change was taking place. The last liquid sprayed on the panels was busy working to sew the capillary tubes into tiny orifices where the panels met the object. The leak of water was slowly stopping,feeding now into waiting bladders inside the object, and the pool began to evaporate in the deepening midmorning heat. The deadened mud around the edge of the object began to harden and crack. The tubes grew deeper and wider into the mud.

At noon, the brains conferred, and it was finally agreed, though not unanimously, that it would be best to ignore the presence of the rock. Whatever had caused it to grow certainly wasn't connected to the sunlight. If it were to grow more, surely it would have done so. New brain buds would have to be grown to replace the many that had died, and it was decided that the complex courtship of gamete material exchange should begin as soon as possible to allow for migration times to and from the neighbor marshes before the onset of the rainy season would make travel impossible.

The dissenting argument was that the rock possessed intelligence of some sort, and would continue to grow when and how it decided. This argument was easily dismissed by the others. Still, the dissenting faction continued to worry the matter. A stray thought developed that the neighbor marshes ought to be warned.

As the day wore on, the bladders inside the object became full, and the computer began to taste for different chemicals dissolved in the water. It needed to know what it had to work with. It needed to design a building program so that the master program could eventually be executed. It began to compare the local chemical profile with the global weather and climate information it had gathered during its decade long orbit of the planet.

For six days, the object processed the new information. The memory of the rock began to fade in the memories of the beings in the marsh as they busied themselves with preparations for travel. It took the effort of the community to build the appendages that allowed them to travel across the rocky shore to the next marsh. It was decided that five emissary beings would be built, one for each neighbor marsh.

On the seventh night, the computer inside the object finished writing the building program. 38 microscopic species were selected from the database and their genetic information was downloaded into carrier nanomachines. The nanomachines were injected into two of the bladders, along with a catalytic agent that would activate them once they came in contact with carbon in the mud. The computer squeezed the bladders and the water rushed back out through the capillaries on opposite sides of the object. The tiny machines spilled out into the mud and began to build bacteria and fungi.

Months past. A fuzz began to form and spread around the ring of the object. This happened too slowly for the brains in the mud to take notice. The beings had finally built the five emissaries, and the treacherous journeys across the rocks had been launched. The mud in the marsh was now so dry that the remaining beings burrowed deep below where there was still some moisture. They began their hibernation in wait of the rains.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Curious Properties of Plate Glass

I was looking for old stories to post, and I found a snatch of a rant I wrote about war about five years ago. I decided to turn it into a twisted little short story. Enjoy.

The Curious Properties of Plate Glass

"Just one?"

"Yes." I said. It was the same thing every night. They knew me here, the night crew. It was the only place halfway good to get a meal at 3 am. I followed Jamie the waitress to my booth in the back corner.

"I'll be back with some coffee hun. I brewed a fresh pot just for you." Jamie bustled off. Why do waitress always call you hun? I settled into the vinyl booth and stared at the closed menu. Why bother opening it? I always got the same thing. I closed my eyes briefly. Sometimes I don't like to be served by Jamie, she tends to be on the talkative side. Luckily, she doesn't mind being the only one talking. I just hope some other customers come in and she doesn't launch into her rant about Thai prostitution. I hate listening to that crap when I'm trying to eat.

"What would you like?" Jamie was back, setting the coffee down as her words brought me back to the booth.

"Same I guess."

"Not going to mix it up?"

"I'm too tired to decided."

"Alright hun, that'll be one meatloaf special with a side of fries with ranch dressing instead of ketchup. It'll be a couple of minutes. We need to make a new batch of fries. The cook dropped a whole peach cobbler in the fryer, cardboard box and everything. Took forever to get it cooled down and cleaned out."


"Yeah. Okay, I'll be back in a few." Jamie swept up the menu and left. I creamed and sugared my coffee, then watched it steam lazily as the spoon swirl died out. It was fresh. I waited for the coffee to cool to a non-lawsuit temperature. Jamie returned before I had a chance to take my first sip. She leaned her hip against the side of the booth. Evidently, with nothing else to do, she was prepared to bunker down and yak.

"Peace has always been something that has bugged me, and war was always fascinating." she said. "I grew up on military bases, and played on tanks when just a toddler. I was steeped in militarism, but not in war. Soldiering is about defending ideas, not about butchering people - though obviously, that is what tends to happen. So if war is about ideas, couldn’t there be a better way to deal with conflict?"

"Mmm-hmmm." I sipped my coffee. She continued.

"The most optimistic would say yes - but it is not an easy yes. Ghandi proved that yes, but his legacy is nearly in tatters now, as India and Pakistan live out their own MAD plan." She fiddled with the pockets on her apron. "It is difficult, twisted, complex yes. Handling that yes is different than handling any past issue. There are no simple answers, no simple solutions. It will take work, it will take time, and it will take tremendous effort by everyone. Nearly impossible ... be back in a sec hun."

I closed my eyes again, waiting for the caffeine to kick in. In a minute Jamie was back with the plate of meatloaf.

"Here we go." She slid it in front of me, moving my coffee cup out of the way. She resumed her post by the side of the booth.

"Thanks." I said, unrolling my knife and fork from the curl of napkin.

"If I could summarize why all the wars in the world took place, reducing all the maddening details to a phenomenon - I would say that they started because someone needed to be listened to. They may not have had anything to say, but they needed someone to actually listen to them. They needed their collective ego to be acknowledged. Don’t agree? Apply the following sentence to the cause of any war you can think of: 'I’m or we are taking this food/territory/people/etc because it is mine/ours.'

"Fits doesn’t it? And there is a tone of indignation about it. 'If you get in my way, I’ll hurt you.' This brings me back to my days in elementary school being bullied around. The similarity is not coincidental. Being active about the integrity of one’s ego is a nearly universal characteristic of being human (and even mammalian). Essentially, it manifests itself as selfishness. One can be selfish about oneself, one’s family, one’s tribe or identifying group, one’s nation, race, religion or species. Those fries should be ready by now."

She left again. I chewed on a bit of meatloafy gristle. Why was there always a bit of gristle in ground beef? Couldn't the meat processors work it out so that never happened? When did they last bother to upgrade their equipment? In my head I began to see a meat packing plant - animals conveyed on hooks, dripping cold grayish blood on cement floors, being released whole into hoppers, being jerkily ground by gnawing blades, large bones splintering and spraying toothpick size bits against rusted metal. I started to gag. I took the bit of gristle out of my mouth and hid it behind the mound of mashed potatoes sopped with dark gravy.

Jamie was back and placed a red basket of glistening hot fries next to my plate. The little bowl of ranch was nestled in the middle.

"Thanks." I said.

"Sure hun. You know, I always say to myself that selfishness is often important when it comes to survival, 'do I/we have enough resources?', but cooperation and altruism is also very important for social species. Social insects have turned altruism into a fine art. Unfortnately, we can’t be cooperative and altruistic all the time. We’d probably die a slow boring death if we never took time for ourselves (we have a high need for amusement and navel gazing). Anyway, think of the following situation: you are in your car at a stoplight in a city. A homeless person approaches your vehicle and asks for money. He is bedraggled, and looks like he can definitely use some help. You can certainly afford to spare a buck. You have a choice, help him or not?"

"Mmmm." I mumbled as I munched on a ranch-drenched fry.

"Most people would probably choose not to help. This doesn’t mean that most people are cold and callous. Nor does it mean that they are entirely selfish. There are just a lot more factors invovled than is apparent. One common reason to say no is that you don’t know how the dollar may be spent. It could go to drugs and alcohol for all you know, so you are really doing the homeless person a favor by not helping them to sustain bad habits. You might say no so they are encouraged to get a ‘respectable’ job, where they are self-sufficient. It is a complex situation, and most people naturally weigh their options by switching between selfish, cooperative, and altruistic thought. This is a normal, peaceful mode."

I looked down at my watch. About fifteen minutes more. I just had to stick around long enough to make sure the job was done.

"Now imagine a more extreme situation. 20 homeless people are permanently camped out on your front lawn, banging on your front door day and night, demanding money. Let’s just say the police are unavailable to remove them. Would you be angry? Indignant? Unhappy? Threatened? Of course. Would you be motivated to some extreme action? Maybe, even probably. The situation has all the ingredients to start a little mini-war, and both parties would feel justified for their actions."

I set to work on the mashed potatoes, mixing in the gravy really good, but being careful to steer clear of the bit of gristle.

"Now let’s say you stay in your home all the time, passively resisting the homeless people on your lawn. You would probably starve prettly quickly. So that is not a very good option. What else could you do?

"You could tell them to camp out on your neighbors lawn, tell them he is wealthier and more generous. Essentially, this is redirecting the problem. If your neighbor is indeed wealthy and generous, it might resolve the problem, but nothing is guaranteed. If not, you have another problem - an angry neighbor!

"You could give them want they want. This is appeasement. But what if they come back, demanding more? You are not an infinite source of money, so this could either resolve the problem, or make it more protracted."

Jamie shifted her weight to her other foot. "You could spray them with the garden hose, get them soaked, maybe they’ll go away. This is a preemptive strike. This may work, but will usually move the problem somewhere else, and again, you’ve got angry neighbors. Also, you’ve attacked their way of life (living on your lawn), so this may be construed as an attack on their ego, and as a result, they’re angrier and more desperate.

"You could negotiate with them, tell them they can mow your lawn, and if they do a good job you will give them the money they want. This is diplomacy, a formal form of cooperation. This works if both parties are rational and the benefits are clear. However, the homeless people may feel that they deserve the money as is, and shouldn’t need to do anything to get it. Again, this could insult their ego, and the problem lingers. It could also reinforce their threatening behavior - they got rewarded the first time, so why not try it again? You want some more coffee hun?"


"I'll be right back." My thoughts trickled back to the package in the trunk. Did I set everything right? I should have bought more nails at the hardware store. It really wasn't in my budget though. I still have three more projects to go anyway.

Jamie was back with the coffee pot. "Here you go hun."

"Thanks." I dumped another sugar pack in, then watched a creamer do a reverse mushroom cloud in the browny murk.

"Okay, so you could also broadcast a self help tape through a loudspeaker. This is conversion. Sometimes this will work, but more often than not, it’s insulting and aggravates the problem.

"You could invite all your neighbors over to your house and threaten the group on your lawn. This is intimidation. If they flee, the problem moves somewhere else (and may come back later), if they stand up to you, you will probably be forced to fight, which you probably wanted to avoid.

"You could bring each homeless person into your house and teach them how to be self sufficient. This is the 'teach them to fish'", Jamie did airquotes, "divide and conquer method. This can tend to be effective, but takes time, and can be construed to be patronizing and insulting. C’est la vie. It can also be dangerous to your survival, as it requires contact with each individual. Who knows what they could do to you.

"So, for our solutions to avoiding war, we’ve got: redirection, appeasement, preemptive strike, diplomacy, conversion, intimidation, and the awkward 'teach to fish'. These all have a chance of succeeding or failing, based on the situation. In most cases, if all parties are rational, and are capable of offering and abiding trust - there is a good chance of success. So what if they are not rational or incapable of trust?"

The food was beginning to settle in me, and I was getting more impatient with Jamie's endless nattering. I fixed my gaze across the booth at a rip in the vinyl. Yellowed foamed peeked through the tear.

"This brings me to the most important life lesson I know of: you can't change anyone but yourself. You can convince, persuade, cajole, and trick, but you can’t change someone. Change has to be initiated by them, in their mind."

I noticed that the some kid had scrawled a zigzag of purple crayon next to the rip.

"If you’re doctor tells you to exercise for 30 minutes everyday, would you immediately schedule and follow such a regimen? You might say yes, but a lot would happen in your mind before you would start. You might ask yourself (or your doctor), why should I exercise for 30 minutes everyday? Do I have the time to spare? I don’t think I could put in the effort. This doctor just wants to torture me. Etcetera. You might eventually start exercising everyday, but you have to understand the risks and benefits first, then make the concious decision."

It should be anytime now. I hate being this close, but I needed to feel it. I needed to know. I pushed the plate away, and put my head down to the table, and my hands around my neck.

"Got a headache hun?"


"Oh, that's too bad. Sorry, I don't have any aspirin."


"Okay, so here’s another, familiar example: If all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you? You might say that is an immediate no, but depending on what that cliff represents (usually some form of peer acceptance), you would still weigh the benefits and risks. This behavior is typical of mammals and birds, not just us. It’s a built in survival feature. It even operates at some level during insanity-"

The car lit up in a ball across the street. I could see the light even with my head down. The plate glass windows of the diner flexed inward, then gave way to the pressure. I couldn't hear anything. Dust and smoke billowed in, my nostrils twitched with the acrid smell. Jamie fell on top of me, her limp fingers cradled in what was left of the bowl of ranch. I pushed her off me. Apparently a piece of glass had sailed clear across the dining room and impaled her in the throat, blood was burbling all over the place. That was close - I had always thought I would be more protected in that back booth. My adrenaline shot up. A car alarm screeched in the distance. Only three more. I would miss this business.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Red Mittens

This was another story I wrote as flash fiction on a prompt with my friend Leslee. If I recall, the prompt was "two people on a beach, one towel". Leslee did a story about a couple arguing over a towel (they were great, vivid characters), and I wrote this rather twisted piece. It has the vice of being ended too quickly, but Starbucks (where we were when we wrote to this prompt) was about to close. --K.O.

Jeffrey held the soggy towel to his chest. He stared at Jane in the distance, a dark speck barely visible through the winter snowstorm on Johnston beach.

"Hey!" She had evidently caught sight of him.

"Stay away from me!" Jeffrey shook with anger and fear.

"I'm not going to hurt you Jeffrey! You know that! I just want to see it!"

"No, you can't! I won't let you. You stay away." he wrapped the towel tighter around the precious bundle.

"I'm not going to take it Jeff."

"You always kill them - I won't let you kill this one, not this time!"

"Jeff no, I --" Jane trailed off. She couldn't deny the truth of his words. He turned his back and started slogging through the snow crusted sand. He moved towards the steaming, lapping ocean so that his footsteps would be erased. It was ultimately futile since he lived in the same house as Jane, and she knew all of the places he kept his jars.

"Come one Jeff. I just want to see it. Just let me look at it. Let me take a photograph at least."

Jeff spun around and slipped in the snow. He landed on his back, clutching the bundle even closer. The being inside struggled at the shock of the fall.


"Leave me alone!" He wriggled to his knees. "You just want to vivisect it!"

"Well, yeah. That's how you do research. We've been over this before. But this time Jeff, this time I promise, just a photograph."

"No...You always promise but you never mean it." Tears started rolling down his face. "No..."


"Don't call me that..."

"Jeff, I just want a look." By this time Jane had caught up to him. She came to a stop about four feet away from his sobbing figure. She shoved red mittened hands into the pockets of her tattered pea coat. "Let's at least take it inside. The electricity will be on in an hour or so. Damn rationing. I hate being bundled up all the time." She looked more intently at the bundle. "That thing is going to get a chill. We shouldn't let it die here."

Jeff thought she wanted it to die "there", at their home. After a moment, Jane continued.

"I think there is some soup left. Doesn't that sound nice?" Jeff looked up at her wondering about her perverse tendency to pretend that everything was completely normal. He saw her eyeing the bundle. Suddenly he wondered where she had gotten the soup, bad as it was. It wasn't anything that had been canned. There were large chunks of meat. Where had she gotten that? There had been no food in the supermarket for a month at least. Her eyes shifted to his face, the they narrowed as she tried to read him.

Slowly he got up, trying to restrain his expression. She smiled. A puff of breathe condensed in front of her face.

Jeff bolted towards the breaking waves.

"Jeff, no!" Screamed Jane.

Jeff waded out as far as he could before a wave broke over his head and he lost his footing. He was swept under. He lost his grip on the bundled towel. As he somersaulted in the surf, he caught a glimpse of the baby mermaid escaping the towel and swimming away. Jeff felt relieved. Then his neck snapped against a rock protruding from the sand.

Later that day Jane buried him in the sand by their house, placing her red mittens on top as a marker.