Query? [Pt. 1]

I groan as I sit up, gripping my aching head.  What happened?  I can’t seem to remember anything.  Somehow, I know that this is nothing new, that I often wake up groggy and confused.  It will all come back to me soon.

Dragging myself up to my feet, I move across the floor and settle down into the only chair in the small room, facing the computer terminal.  The screen glows blue in front of me.

QUERY?

“What happened to me last night?” I type in, and hit enter.

UNKNOWN VARIABLE: “NIGHT”.  SENSORS INDICATE THAT YOU EXPERIENCED A PERIOD OF UNCONSCIOUSNESS LASTING SEVEN HOURS AND FORTY EIGHT MINUTES.

QUERY?

The computer didn’t recognize night?  “What time is it?” I type.

THIRTY-NINE THOUSAND, FOUR HUNDRED AND NINETY HOURS HAVE PASSED SINCE TIME ZERO.

QUERY?

This is even more confusing.  I do a bit of rough calculation in my head, and come up with slightly over four and a half years.  I put my hands on the keyboard again.  “Define “time zero”.”

TIME ZERO IS DESIGNATED AS THE MOMENT WHEN THIS CHAMBER WAS SEALED AND SCENARIO FOURTEEN WAS ACTIVATED.

QUERY?

Chamber sealed?  I stare around, suddenly realizing that, although there is the outline of a door on the far wall, it was definitely shut, and the handle appears to have retracted into the door itself.  I get up and try pushing on it, just to be certain, but it won’t even budge.  I return to the console.  “Define “scenario fourteen”,” I put in.

SCENARIO FOURTEEN ENCOMPASSES ALL MAJOR EVENTS CREATING A BIOLOGICAL CATASTROPHE OF LEVEL FOUR OR HIGHER.  PROTECTED USERS ARE SEALED IN PERSONAL CHAMBERS UNTIL THREAT LEVELS HAVE DECREASED BELOW LEVEL TWO.  DUE TO UNKNOWN TIME FRAMES, PROTECTED USERS ARE MAINTAINED AT CURRENT ENTROPIC LEVELS THROUGH NANOBOT REJUVENATION.

QUERY?

I still don’t understand quite what was happening, but I can feel a deep pit opening in my stomach, a rising wave of horror threatening to engulf me.

“What happened to trigger scenario fourteen?”

WARNING: MISSING DATA.  SUMMARY COMPILED FROM BEST FIT ANALYSIS OF DATA.  SELF-REPLICATING BIOLOGICAL FORM OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN TARGETED CARBON BONDS OF DNA, CAUSING COMPLETE BIOLOGICAL EXTINCTION LEVEL EVENT.

QUERY?

To be continued….

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Agent of Karma

I thundered down the highway, the speakers in my truck blasting out AC/DC’s classic, “Highway to Hell.”  I was feeling pretty good, the wind howling along through my open windows.  Suddenly, I was forced to slam on my brakes.

“Asshole!” I shouted, as the Pontiac Aztec in front of me merged into my lane at a glacial fifteen miles per hour.  Without a turn signal, of course.

I fumed behind the wheel, my good mood completely ruined.  This guy needed to be taught a lesson.  And fortunately, thanks to my license, I was the right person for the job.

Merging over into the left lane (using my turn signal, of course), I crept up next to the green monstrosity of a car.  Looking over, I was not surprised to see that the man behind the wheel was texting on his phone, blatantly holding it up in front of the steering wheel.  I was surprised he was still on the road at all.

I reached under my seat, gripping the familiar handle.  Hitting the button to automatically roll down my passenger side window, I pulled upward, leveling the pistol across the car to point at the source of my hatred.  He, of course, was completely oblivious.  I would change that, I thought vindictively, pulling the trigger several times while an evil grin spread across my face.

As the paint pellets from the paintball pistol collided with his window, the idiot gave a gratifying jerk, dropping his phone between his feet and nearly veering out of his lane.  Revenge accomplished, I floored the accelerator in my own car, speeding past him.  “Agent of karma, asshole!” I shouted out the window.  I knew he couldn’t hear me, but I yelled it nonetheless.

On the heads-up display on my windshield, a small notification popped up, informing me that I’d picked up ten points on my karma license.  I grinned.  Sometimes, earning a living was hard work.  Other times, like right now, it was the most enjoyable activity in the world.

The Joys of Local Government

“And now, if we move on to the next paragraph, as is congruent with clause D…” droned on the county commissioner, flipping to slide 492 of 837.  Inside the confines of my head, I screamed loudly.  Several times.

Swiveling slightly in the high-backed office chair, I gazed down the row of other City Council members, trying to see how they were managing to stay sane.

On the far side of the curved table, Steve Sonneman was leaning back in his chair and tossing pencils up into the composite tiles of the drop ceiling.  Several already hung precariously above his head.  Next to Councilman Sonneman, Karin Herbert was contentedly knitting what was meant to either be a very crooked scarf, or an extremely long tube sock.

Next to me, Duane Olson was hunched forward and snickering.  I scooted closer and peered over his shoulder.  Councilman Olson was holding his smartphone below the table.  I winced as I caught a glimpse of the screen.  The councilman was enjoying some very offensive pornography.  With a lascivious wiggle of his eyebrows, he turned the phone towards me slightly.  I held up my hand in protest and looked away.  Olson shrugged and returned his full attention to the video.

Great.  I looked up at the main projector’s screen, now displaying (on slide 495) a graph with no title, legend, or labels on its axes.  The head councilman had to at least be listening, right?

I leaned forward to look at Jim Valentine, the duly elected head councilman, seated at the center of the table.  His head was bent forward, presumably in deep concentration.  However, as the commissioner fumbled to once again replace the batteries in her laser pointer, I saw a long bead of drool slowly descend from Head Councilman Valentine’s mouth to sit, glistening, on the table.  So he was asleep, then.

Slumping back in my chair, I thought back to the chain of events that had landed me here.  It was actually quite a short chain.  I was technically filling in for Greg Pomeroy, due to his “temporary personal leave of absence.”

What this meant was that Greg had realized a couple of days ago that this council meeting would conflict with his fishing trip.  He had asked me to fill in for him, and because I was already on my second beer, and I owed Greg twenty bucks besides, I had agreed.  Like a fool.

Now, trapped and entering the third hour of the meeting, with no end in sight, I bitterly regretted that decision.  I should have just coughed up the twenty.  My brain, desperately seeking some form of escape, directed my eyes in a longing glimpse towards the fire alarm on the wall behind me.  I actually caught my hand reaching back, acting out of its own self-preservation.

Fire alarm, sprinklers, water everywhere, being forced to flee the building . . . wait a minute, that was the answer!  I stood up abruptly, causing the county commissioner to pause in her litany.

“Yes?” she asked, glaring at me for daring to interrupt her carefully prepared five-million-point speech.

I gestured at the doors.  “Bathroom,” I said, and dashed for the exit.

Fortunately, the local watering hole was only two blocks from the government center, so I wasn’t too out of breath when I came in the door.  “Hey Charlie, beer me,” I panted to the bartender as I sank, gratefully, back into my usual seat.

As Charlie brought me a mug of frothy beer, I nodded at the TV behind the bar.  “Hey, would you mind putting on the city council meeting?” I asked.  “I’m very interested in local government,” I added to his raised eyebrows as he switched the channel.  I settled back in my seat with my beer.  Now, this was how the meetings should go!

Stall

I felt the first seizing of panic in my throat even before the engine died, as it gave its first misfire and the accelerator pedal shuddered beneath my foot.  That sixth sense, that vague premonition, kicked in, and I knew that I was in serious trouble.

Hoping for a recovery, I pushed down harder on the pedal, trying to up the flow of gas to the choking motor.  It was to no avail.  The engine gave one last gasp and then gave up, filling the cabin of the truck with a heavy damp silence.

Shit.

I still had a little forward momentum, and I threw the wheel to the hard right, managing to make it halfway onto the shoulder before the truck came to a complete standstill.  Angrily, I hit the button for the emergency flashers, ignoring the honks already coming from the traffic behind me as they swerved around the bed of the vehicle.

Staring out into the swirling white snow, I gripped the key tightly, trying to channel some sort of good luck down through my fingers and into the spark plugs of the engine.  Taking a breath, I twisted the key forward.

A few coughs.  The engine’s clicking sounded wet, raspy, like a choking smoker laboring outside a hospital to draw breath.  I held the key for a few seconds, but the truck couldn’t take in that full breath of air it so desperately needed.

I slumped back in my seat for a moment.  I was miles from the shop.  It would take nearly an hour for anyone to come get me, even if they left immediately.  Thoughts of a tow, of a broken vehicle, of accident reports and service claims filled my head.  I shook myself slightly, trying to remain positive as I reached for the key once more.

Click.

Click.

Click – cough – cough – ROAR.

Somewhere, the gods of travel are smiling down on me.  The engine kicks into life.  It’s unsteady at first, uncertain, and I hesitate to even move in my seat for fear that I’ll somehow disrupt the intimate balance.  But then the engine manages to recover, and erupts into a steady purr.  Throwing the car into drive, I hesitantly tap on the pedal, and am rewarded with a surge of forward motion.

I make my way back up onto the road, looking for the nearest chance to turn around and head back to the shop.  I take a moment, just a single moment, to appreciate my good fortune, considering how much worse things could have been.

On Date Anxiety

Ever been super excited for a date, because you simply can’t wait to see that person again, and every second between now and that date seems to last for an eternity?  But with other dates, you don’t feel nearly as passionate about it?  That, my friend, is because there are different levels of dates.

Three different levels, to be precise.
Now, please, contain your cries of amazement.  That such an incredibly complex idea such as a meeting between two adults can be condensed down to such a reductionistic list of a mere three levels is truly mind-boggling.  And yet, despite all odds, I have accomplished such a wondrous task.  
So, without any further ado, here are the three levels of dates:
1.  The Stereotypical “First Date” Date
This is the typical first date, the one that most people approach with cautious optimism.  Maybe a friend is setting the two of you up, and although you haven’t met this other person yet, they are being described in glowing terms and this isn’t one of your asshole friends that lies about these things or just wants to watch you have the worst date of your life.  
Maybe the two of you met briefly at another event, and they seemed nice enough to be worth a few hours of your Friday night.  Maybe you found their online dating profile, and even though everyone exaggerates on those and picks out their absolute best pictures, they are still witty/pretty/grammatically correct enough for you to think this might go well.  
In any case, you go into this date at about a 7/10 for both anxiety and expectations.  You’re hoping things will go well, and you’ll probably feel a little bad if the whole thing flops and ends up going down in flames.
Occurrence rate: 50%, depending on your social anxiety level.
2.  The “Ugh, fine, I’ll Get Out of the House” Date
Ever decided to go on a date solely to temporarily alleviate that feeling of dread and existential horror that you’ll be alone for the rest of your life?  That’s this date.  
This is the date that you have to put a reminder on your calendar for, because otherwise, there’s a good chance you’ll forget about it completely.  Maybe things will go great, everything will be better than expected, and this date will end up being quite pleasant and enjoyable.  It’s probably not likely, though.  
So why are you going on this date?  Sadly, it’s more about you than it is about them.  They’re probably a very nice person.  Although not to you, since otherwise you’d be more excited.  But you’ve been single for months, and at this point you fear you may be becoming asexual.  So, to make yourself feel better, you’re going to go out and spend money on an evening with somebody you don’t really care about, just for the change of pace and to delude yourself that you’re getting somewhere in your love life.
Occurrence rate: 35%, but it goes up as you get lonelier.
3.  OH MY GOD SHE SAID YES I’VE GOT A DATE I’M GOING TO PASS OUT NOW
These are the best dates.  On the other hand, these are the worst dates.  This is when that angel at the club, dancing in the spotlight above everyone else, passes you her number and tells you to give her a call.  This is when that drop-dead-gorgeous coworker, the one that every single guy at work drools over, laughs at your joke, touches your arm, and tells you that she’d love to get coffee sometime.  This is when that perfect barista at the coffee shop you stop every day mentions that she’s single to you with a knowing wink, and then hands you a coffee with her number written on the cup.  This is that moment when you have to do a double take, to make sure you’re not dreaming or caught in some alternative romantic-comedy universe.
In the lead up to these dates, you’re caught in a spider’s web of ecstatic delight that you’ve got this date, and gut-wrenching horror that you’re going to somehow mess it all up.  One wrong word, one off-color joke, one forgotten detail, and this beautiful woman is going to come to her senses and realize that you’re a lot less like Ryan Reynolds than she first believed.  This could go wrong so easily, so many ways.

On the other hand, what if it doesn’t?

This could be your future wife, right here.  And if the date falls through, then it probably wasn’t meant to be.  But if things work out . . . you may have the “early relationship” blinders on right now, but this woman seems flawless.  And you can’t wait to verify that, again and again and again…

Occurrence rate: 15%, although that depends a lot on your confidence and standards.  Gotta get out there to get there, you know.

On the Frustration of Mistimed Inspiration

Fortunately for me, my personal muse is both prolific and diverse, gracing me with a wonderfully varied flow of story ideas. Unfortunately, she hasn’t quite got her timing down right.

For example, the other day I was sitting around, minding my own business, when she gifted me with a brilliant idea. Of course, I don’t remember the idea now, but I know it involved time travel and was a wonderfully complex and interwoven plotline. Unfortunately, I was in the middle of driving out to a job site, and by the time I finished work, my muse had given up on me and taken off, probably for someplace sandy and warmer. Deserted for a desert.

On the other hand, after I’ve gotten home from work, when my laptop is close at hand and I am completely ready to write, my muse is usually off gallivanting, nowhere to be found. “I am an open book, ready for inspiration!”, I will yell, but my muse is far from earshot. I will stare at a blank page, struggling for a story to write, until I eventually give up and watch television.

On one hand, maybe I can trap my muse the next time she shows her face. Handcuff her to a radiator, or lock her in the basement. Of course, I don’t have any radiators in my apartment and the basement lock is on the inside, so I am ill-prepared for her capture. Even if I make the necessary preparations, though, I doubt that a captured muse would yield the same level of inspiration as one that is permitted to run wild.

So to my muse, my inspiration, who is generous with her gifts but awful with her timing, I say this: thank you for the ideas. Your stories range from intimate and funny to grand and far-reaching, and you refuse to limit me to a single genre. Your ideas are sometimes serious, sometimes funny, and sometimes a perfect blend of the two. Keep on providing me with this same level of brilliance, and we will go far together.

Just please, o muse, try to share your gift with me in the late afternoon, when I can take the time to write it down.

The Elements (3)

Author’s note: all elemental characters are loosely based on the drawings from Kaycie, viewable at http://kcd-elements.tumblr.com/.


Nitrogen & Oxygen

According to reports, Nitrogen and Oxygen both exist, not as singular avatars, but as pairs of twins.  While the Oxygen twins are identical, and always dwell together, the Nitrogen twins are different and are usually found apart.  
One of the two Nitrogen sisters has dark hair, while the other has light, almost silver, hair.  Both sisters dwell in London, but the dark-haired sister dwells somewhere in the undercity, while the light-haired sister seems to be a member of the upper society.  The light-haired sister makes common appearances at many high society balls and gatherings, and is pleasant and charming by all accounts.  The dark-haired sister, however, has been tentatively linked to several mysterious deaths, all from suffocation.
As for the Oxygen twins, they travel often, preferring to stay within the tropical zone, often at expensive resorts.  They appear happy and are not linked to any violent outbreaks.
Rutherford Institute Threat Level: 7 (Nitrogen), 1 (Oxygen)

Fluorine

Fluorine’s avatar resembles a yellow-eyed monk in a bright orange robe, who dwells within the Karkar volcano off the coast of New Guinea.  It is believed that the majority of the volcano’s frequent and violent eruptions are due to outbursts by Fluorine.  Little else is known about the avatar, due to difficulty in gathering intel.  Although he seems content to remain within the caldera of Karkar, he is considered extremely dangerous.
Rutherford Institute Threat Level: 9

Neon

Neon is a teenager dwelling in downtown Los Angeles.  Although he is believed to be associated with some of the gangs in the area, he has not been linked to any violent crimes or attacks.  Reports suggest that, similar to his element, he is able to produce a red-orange glow at will or when given an electrical shock.  He uses this ability to provide illumination when spraying graffiti at night.
Rutherford Institute Threat Level: 3

The Elements (2)

Author’s note: all elemental characters are loosely based on the drawings from Kaycie, viewable at http://kcd-elements.tumblr.com/.

Beryllium

Beryllium, a young girl in her early teens with green skin, is a rambunctious student at a private school on the East Coast of the United States.  Aside from her green skin, she appears quite normal, and is loud and outgoing in the classroom and among her friends.  She is loyal and unafraid of competition, and is always willing to take a stand for what she believes is right.

In one instance, when the school was stormed by a group of masked terrorists, Beryllium demonstrated incredible strength, ripping off doors and punching through walls to attack her antagonists.  Her skin also became hard and crystalline, reflecting small arms fire, and she was able to materialize crystal projectiles.  More extensive study is needed to determine the extent of her awakened powers.

Rutherford Institute Threat Level: 5 (under investigation)

Boron

A disillusioned chemist working in New Delhi, Boron’s avatar was not identified until, after losing an important grant proposal, he burned down most of the laboratory with intense green flames.  Since the incident, he has found work in another lab, and has never been officially linked to the incident.  He is morose and detached in an everyday setting – further surveillance necessary.

Rutherford Institute Threat Level: 5

Carbon

The location of Carbon’s avatar, an ever-shifting female figure, is currently unknown.  She was last spotted in the Pacific; given her tendency to inhabit caves and other underground structures, she is believed to be somewhere on the islands of Hawaii.  Capable of shifting her chemical structure between different elemental forms, she does not exert her influence unless attacked or threatened.  When awoken, however, she has demonstrated devastating power through manipulation of her element.

Rutherford Institute Threat Level: 8

The Elements (1)

Author’s note: all elemental characters are loosely based on the drawings from Kaycie, viewable at http://kcd-elements.tumblr.com/.

Hydrogen

Unlike most of the elemental avatars, Hydrogen chooses not to take a full-size humanoid form.  Instead, she can be found flitting about in the upper atmosphere, although her small size, roughly that of a mouse, makes her nearly impossible to locate.

Hydrogen chooses not to pay much attention to human affairs, and is almost always in a pleasant mood.  However, when angered, she is capable of generating explosions, violently ripping apart any who try to cage her.

Rutherford Institute Threat Level: 2

Helium

Helium’s avatar resembles a young, slight man.  He spends most of his time hidden in a temple in southwest China, floating in a meditative trance state.  He chooses not to interfere in human affairs, and passively ignores most attempts at communication.  His temple can only be found by those he allows to discover it.

Rutherford Institute Threat Level: 1

Lithium

Often found passing the time on the mass transitways of major cities, including New York, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, Lithium’s avatar is a young woman, wearing a pair of oversized headphones and dressed in dark colors.  She immerses herself in her music, ignoring most attempts at conversation.  However, when accosted, she responds swiftly with her considerable hand-to-hand combat skills.  She is well versed in martial arts, and carries a hidden dagger on her person.

Rutherford Institute Threat Level: 4

My Advice for Writing

Author’s note: I attend a writer’s group, where I tend to lecture on, quite pedantically, about how I feel writing must flow and ebb.  No, that’s not quite true, but I do offer a lot of advice on writing.  I figured that I would share some of that here, with the lucky few writers that check in.

Commas
As I told my friend John, in the writing group, “Put in a comma when your brain runs out of breath.”  While this may not help all the time, depending on the lung capacity of your brain, it is a good guide for using commas in sentences.  Commas create pauses, which help prevent run-on sentences from overwhelming the brain with a barrage of information.

Consider the following sentence:

My dad Jonathan was always a fan of woodworking but my favorite memories of him were when I came down to his workshop while he was working on his pride and joy a hand-crafted canoe that he would never finish but always held up as the ideal of his ability.

Holy cow.  I can’t even make it halfway through that monstrosity of a run-on sentence, and I wrote it.  Anybody’s brain will shut down and fizzle before it reaches the period.  But now, we throw in a handful of commas:

My dad, Jonathan, was always a fan of woodworking, but my favorite memories of him were when I came down to his workshop while he was working on his pride and joy, a hand-crafted canoe, that he would never finish, but always held up as the ideal of his ability.

Still a run-on, but much easier to read!  The commas help tell the brain where to pause, collect its breath, and then forge on ahead after recovering.

Another quick-and-easy method for commas is to read your work out loud and put a comma wherever you pause.  This is especially good for stream-of-consciousness writing.

And don’t forget, commas are important!  They make all the difference between
Eating out dudes
and
Eating out, dudes.

Similes
Using similes in writing is like using garlic in cooking; they should both be employed sparingly.  (See that?  That was a great simile.)  There are two main rules to follow with similes:

1.  Don’t overuse them.  Nothing distracts from plot-intensive writing or a good narrative like an overabundance of similes.  A little garlic in a pasta sauce or on a pizza can add a hit of powerful flavor, enhancing the taste.  However, if you throw cloves of garlic into everything, you will overwhelm your dinner guests and leave them gagging.  Same thing with similes.  Try to keep them down to one per page, at most.  Otherwise, readers will be so distracted by the comparisons that they’ll lose the thread of the plot.

2.  Similes can only go one way; they should compare something more obtuse to something more commonplace.  For example:

The sound of the wormhole opening was like nails on a chalkboard.

This is great – not many people know what an opening wormhole sounds like, but everybody recognizes the painful screech of nails on a chalkboard.

Her nails, scraping down the chalkboard, sounded like a wormhole opening.

This simile, not so great.  Unless you are trying to drive home the point (as subtly as a sledgehammer) that your narrator listens to a lot of opening wormholes, this simile compares something obvious to something that is unknown to the audience.

So remember, use similes sparingly, and make sure they run downhill – they compare something less well known to something more obvious!