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July 13, 2010 — 1,374 words

RollBots Recap: 126 “Paradigm Shift: Part 2″

By MCM

I've skipped a boatload of episodes to get here, so to help you catch up, I'll do a little recap in my recap so you know what you missed.  If you haven't watched the show and are planning to, you may want to skip this entire post.

So Spin is the only bot in the city without a tribe.  He's been getting in trouble for calling Vertex a spider since 101, and always very decidedly by Captain Pounder.  He gets his super-speed, finds the Boomstick, and has trouble when the city starts talking to him.  Then a creature named Vett shows up, and all of a sudden, everyone in the city can appreciate that maybe there ARE giant spiders running around.  There's a race to get the last artifacts, and Spin falls on the wrong side of the law, gets fired, and then arrested, and escapes from jail.  Captain Pounder is working with Vertex to take over the city, and Spin is the only one who can stop them.

Now we get to 126.  Spin realizes the last artifact is the medallion overtop the FCPD inpipe.  In reality, I'd written that to be the actual inpipe was the last artifact, but two things happened along the way: the size of the trax got a lot bigger (I always envisioned them as being maybe 2 bots wide and curved) and secondly, we had a lot of expenditures in the tail end of 126, so removing a big piece of trax wasn't in the cards :)

This is the episode where things get complicated for our characters.  Manx had been a Kei'zatsu before, but she went over to the dark side (we learn more about this next season); Penny is having to use the training that Captain Pounder put her through a few episodes before; Spin is up against impossible odds, and he finally starts to do things with a bit of strategy, rather than just going with the flow.

Normally, an episode of RollBots was scripted at about 30 pages.  This one was over fifty, and you can feel it in how it plays.  There were all sorts of subtleties that were just dumped as we went, because it was too packed to keep them around.  The battle sequence between the Kei'zatsu and Vett came out really well... there were actually a few moments in the storyboards where it was a bit too violent, and we had to cut it back.  But it was great to see Penny kick ass, and Manx let loose with her flares in such a wonderful way.  One thing that was lost in translation was Koto getting knocked off the Hub while trying to save Penny... that was supposed to be a little more tragic than it seemed, but we were afraid it would look like we'd killed a character, so we pulled back a bit.

(fun trivia: Spin arrives to confront Vertex, says "this is the end of the road, Vertex", which is a line from Transformers: The Movie (the 80s version) that I've been wanting to use for YEARS now)

So now we come to the last moments of the episode, where Spin is confronting Vertex, and we can see that Vertex has the upper hand.  Just as he's about to get speared, Spin is saved by Captain Pounder!  And not only that, but Pounder and Vertex know each other!  And not only THAT, but they speak the same spiderbot language that Vett's been speaking!  (and not only that, but it took a good long time for me to write out that language phonetically so the actors could pronounce it properly the first time around). And not only THAT, but it seems that Spin actually DOES have a tribe, and it's called Zuushin, and Pounder has known all along, and Vertex most certainly did NOT know.

(BTW, also at the start of the season: the floor of the FCPD has the Zuushin logo on it (the red one with the wings that goes with the branding for the whole series).  That was a mistake by the animators... they got confused about which logo went where.  It was replaced before it went to air, but they put in another wrong one the second time around, too.  Murphy's Law or something. There are actually a few instances where the Zuushin logo appears where it shouldn't, but never mind that for now)

Spin has some flashbacks here, and I want to half-explain them to you: first, we see that Pounder used to have another eye, and he lost it to Vertex.  Showing that was no easy feat, because implying characters maiming each other is not very doable for kid-friendly TV.  Then we see Spin being shepherded away from danger by an injured Pounder.  You may think that was just a question of taking off his eyepatch, but in reality, under that eyepatch, Pounder was just a seamless ball (in terms of modelling).  The animators had to create a whole new version of him with that nastiness inside, and they had to do it VERY FAST, too.  But the result is striking, I think.

The only other thing we learn from the flashbacks is that Pounder says "He can't know until he's ready," which I hope explains why he's been so protective of Spin all season: he didn't think Spin was ready to step up to the plate, and he was trying to shelter him as much as possible.  But now they've all run out of time.

Vertex takes himself and Pounder off the edge of the platform, about to drop into the World Below (are those mountains down there? hmm...), and Pounder says "Make me proud" before falling to his doom.  The Safety Net is coming back on, but will it make it in time?  And what's down there?  A spiderbot invasion?  We end season 1 on a major cliffhanger (literally!), and the shape of season 2 really goes from there.  It's not just more of the same.

The music in this episode, done by Serge Cote, is probably my favourite music in the entire series.  I have heard from several people that the sequence at the end where we have the flashbacks is so powerful that people have been moved to tears by it.  Which I admit sounds silly given the context, but really, Serge nailed this show.  He made marbles seem important.

Now about what happens next: I know exactly (and I mean shot by shot) what happens in 201, but there is a wrinkle: the budget for season 2 is almost certainly going to be a lot lower than season 1, and in that case, we may not be able to make many (or any) new characters.  If that happens, my plans are derailed somewhat, and I need to think of an alternative.  So there are seeds in this episode that you may never see the end of.  So while I'd like to pretend I know what's going to happen, in some ways, it's going to be an adventure for me, too.  Though the basic underlying structure will be the same.  So don't worry.

And thus, we reach the end of season 1 of RollBots.  I know I skipped a lot of episodes in there, but pretend you didn't notice.  I hope you've enjoyed the show as much as we've enjoyed making it, and trust me, as soon as I have news on season 2, you all will be the first to know!

July 13, 2010 — 1,167 words

Downtime

By

Ollie reloaded the page for probably the fiftieth time, but the answer was always the same: “server not available”, black on white, denying him his morning moment of zen.

“Webcam’s down,” he called to Gemma, making her coffee for her own moment of zen.  “Webcam’s really down.”

“Have you checked the news?” she said, breaking the packet into her cup and guiding the water with shaking hands.

“No,” he said, “I check the webcam, then read the news.”

“You’re gonna want to switch that around today,” she said, taking her first sip, and suddenly becoming mellow.  Her mouth curled up in a crinkly smile, and she sat down at the kitchen counter, finally awake. “Just check the news.”

“Why?” he asked, switching to his newsreader, “What’s on the… oh my god.”

“Yeah,” she said, sitting next to him. “That’s why the webcam’s down.”

“They lost power on the moonbase?  How did that happen?  Are they okay up there?  Oh my god, how did I not know about this?”

“You read news second,” she said, but he wasn’t listening, just reading, fast.  “It’s been all over everything since I got up.  I was wondering how you were keeping so calm.”

“‘A departing shuttle burned a power cable and caused a system-wide shutdown of the power grid’,” he read, skimming over the story.  “Backup systems failed… and… and there’s somebody stuck in there. Oh my god, Gemma!  He’s stuck in there!”

“What’re you yelling at me for?” she yelled back. “Do I look like I control the universe?”

“But how can we not know what’s going on?”

“Well if you really want to know…” she turned on the TV, sat back down, “…why don’t you get your news live for a change?”

She put down the coffee cup at the sight of the moonbase from lunar orbit, zoomed in and digital, totally black against the terrain around it.  The text crawl beneath restated the facts, but nothing could be as striking as the image of a burnt hole in the side of the main complex.

“Damn,” she said, “I didn’t hear about that part.”

“Administration officials have confirmed that is indeed a hole in the side of the moonbase,” said the news anchor in grave tones.  “The hole which we have been tracking the last few hours is confirmed to be leaking oxygen, and officials say the base will be dangerously low of air in the next forty minutes.”

“Forty minutes!” cried Ollie, sitting down on the couch with his laptop, trying to find out more, from any source. “They can’t even get the shuttle back to dock in forty minutes!  Does he have a suit?”

“Captain Bunning is said to be working to repair the electrical systems to the base,” continued the anchor as the picture zoomed in and out, and a small inset picture showed grave faces in NASA Mission Control, “and we have been told his personal communicator is still powered up, and he has been talking through the procedures with experts in Houston.”

“This is insane,” said Ollie, running his hands through his hair.  “This is just insane.  All the discussions say the pressurized suits are in the other half of the complex, and if the power’s not on, he can’t get there, so he’s probably going to asphyxiate or something.”

Gemma said nothing, just sat next to him, sipping her coffee, eyes stuck on the screen.  He kept scrolling through comments, ideas, theories, anything.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” he said. “I mean, I can’t believe we’re actually seeing this.  This is terrible, it’s—”

Gemma tapped him on the shoulder, and he looked up to see a small girl close up to a video camera, giant phone to her ear as she talked in that sing-songy voice preschoolers do so well.  She was identified as Chloe Bunning, and her  mother sat in the background, hand over her mouth like she was holding back a mournful sob.

“… an’ I love you, daddy,” said Chloe, “an’ mommy says you be brave okay?  I’m gonna be brave for you too. I love you lots, daddy.”

“Say good-bye, darling,” choked the mother from the background.

“Bye-bye, daddy!” the girl smiled, and handed back the phone.  The feed cut back to the exterior shot, and even the anchor said nothing for a moment.

“That poor girl,” said Gemma, her voice cracking. “That poor little girl.”

“Come on,” pleaded Ollie.  “Come on, you’ve gotta—”

Suddenly, the lights in the moonbase flickered back on, and Ollie and Gemma joined the anchor and most of the newsroom in a shout of shock and joy.  The camera zoomed in as far as it could go, shaking so much the astronauts on the shuttle must have been cheering themselves.

“Yes!” shouted Ollie, jumping from his seat and dropping his laptop on the ground.  He and Gemma hugged so tight it was as if they were the ones being rescued, and not some man they’d never meet, a million miles away.  Ollie started to cry, but it felt appropriate. Honest even. He kept his face buried into Gemma’s shoulder, her arms squeezing him, and he finally felt safe. They stayed there as the anchor replayed the facts, pointless words in this visceral moment of triumph.

Ollie exhaled, let go of Gemma, and they kissed the kind of kiss you have at the end of a war.  They rested their foreheads together, eyes closed, and listened.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” he whispered.

“You were yelling at the world,” she said. “It’s understandable.”

“I feel so… so something…”

“Little and vulnerable,” she said.

“Yeah, exactly.”

“I think that’s probably good. For all of us.”

The TV buzzed loudly, and they both looked over to see the crawl at the bottom of the screen wrapped with the words “Breaking News.”  The anchor was back on-screen, his face pale and grave.

“NASA is now reporting… one moment,” he said. “NASA is now reporting that the hydraulics systems powering the east and west barrier doors have not come back online.”

Gemma covered her mouth. Ollie sat back down. The webcam showed Bunning urgently digging through wires and panels.  He ripped his long-sleeved shirt off and kept working wearing only his sweaty undershirt.

“We’re hearing reports it can take up to four hours for the hydraulics systems to get back to full capacity,” said the anchor.

“He won’t last that long, will he?” Gemma asked faintly.

“I don’t think so,” Ollie said.

“What… what’s going to happen?”

Ollie looked up, took her hand in his, and squeezed.

“I don’t know,” he said solemnly. “But we’ll watch it together.”

---

This #1kstory is for Eli ("Server not available. Astronaut stranded on moon. Say bye bye. Celebration!")

July 12, 2010 — 708 words

Creative Recycling

By MCM

Next month, I'm going to be serializing a story called Arkady and Kain, about the world of international terrorism.  This is one of my favourite stories of all, and based on the outline I have sketched out, I think you'll like it a lot.  But what you may not know (and I had almost overlooked) is that this is also one of my older creations, coming back for a third lease on life.

Yeah, you read that right.  Third time.  The original A&K was made in 1993 (almost 20 years ago! What the hell!) as a short story series with original artwork for each instalment.  It was very much like my other work at the time: heavily influenced by Douglas Adams and really, really silly.  I printed out each chapter, folded and stapled the booklets, and gave them to my "fans", who generally ended up as characters in the story in one role or another...

[Side note: at Readercon, someone mentioned that when we're young, we write our friends into our stories and we always make everyone great and heroic and wonderful and perfect, so it's always boring.  I didn't do it that way.  My friends always ended up as halfwit lunatics who usually got blown up in some horrific way.  For instance, Stargate: Universe's Martin Gero inspired the Evil Dr Martin, a flamboyant and oft-defeated villain; and Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry was a character named CannonFodder, who appeared every so often to say a loony line and get shot to smithereens.  I can't be the only one to be cruel to my friends, right?]

The original A&K story went on for several months, after which it died out because there was very little left to do, once I'd killed everyone twice.  So it sat on a shelf for three years, until I decided I wanted to make a movie.  The new version of A&K was crafted as a semi-coherent screenplay, performed by the truly brilliant friends I had in high school, and presented once or twice before disappearing forever.  In it, the characters from the original story got a little more depth, a little more development, and there was a definite ending to it.  I'd learned more about writing, and something about life, too.

A&K went back on the shelf, but I knew I was going to pick it up again.  I just needed to figure out how I'd know it was time.  And then last year, it clicked.  It was time.  I just needed to squeeze it in.

I don't think remakes are necessarily a bad thing.  Gare Marx started life fifteen years ago, Dustrunners is turning ten next year, and there are other stories you'll see in the coming months that have their roots in things I did in the past.  What's interesting about remaking things — for me, anyway — is that you can see my progression as a person, as I interpret the lives of my characters in different ways.  What started off as a straight comedy gets more depth (and depth in different ways) as I experience things around me.

There are things I know now that I never could have known when I was 17.  Life is bigger than I thought.  There's passion to it, but there's process, mundanity, agonizing absurdity.  And quiet moments that stop the world and make you think it doesn't all need to be yelling and crying and oomph to be passion.  Applying those lessons to make my characters breathe truer air is worth it, even if I am repeating myself from time to time.

So even if you know Arkady and Kain, you don't really. You know a version, made by a different person, long ago.  Next month, you're going to get to see it in a whole new way, and I think you'll like how much it's changed.

P.S. No, you can't read the old versions or watch the movie.

July 8, 2010 — 877 words

Tiny Movements, Big Movements

By

Sunlight shone from below, reflected off the water beneath the old stone bridge.  They sat there on the edge, catching whatever breeze they could, oblivious to sounds and stares of Beijing around them.  She was a half-width too close to him, and desperately wished he was too.

The day had been a hot one.  She loved the sensation, like a humid embrace on every part of her body, like a warm bath you brought with you all over town.  The other girls in the office complained, bemoaned the way it made them look and feel, how they’d do best indoors.  She couldn’t wait to get out again, out of the passionless recycled air, grey-blue and frigid, sucking the life out of her day.

The boy sat uncomfortably, loose shirt drenched with sweat, fingers slipping off the strings of his ukelele as he struggled to avoid seeing her.  He was still a boy to her, ten years on, and she was certain she was that girl he teased in school.  He would remain the boy for as long as he stayed blind, but she wouldn’t force it.  She had to know he’d learned it on his own.

“I’m moving abroad,” he said, six notes from the end of the song.  He didn’t play the rest, just sat there, looking into the water, the crickets filling the gap in conversation.

There were so many things she wanted to say.  Don’t. You can’t. Not now. When? Where, and how will you get there and what will you do and how will it change you and will you remember to come back or is Beijing just where you started, and not where you’ll end?  But most of all, she wanted to beg him to take her too.

“Oh,” was all she said, and stared into the water.

“University,” he explained. “Three years.”

“And then?” she asked.

He said nothing for a minute, put the ukelele on the bridge between them, and wiped the sweat off his face.

“I don’t know,” he replied.  “I don’t know.”

“Are you scared?” she asked, and caught his eye.  She was hopeful, hopeful he would be scared, that she could keep him here with her until he saw the shirt she wore just for him, the way she cut her hair to catch his eye. Appealing to all the tiny little clues she’d learned about him over the years, to piece together his idea of the perfect woman. She wanted him to stay so she could be that woman.  She just needed time.

“Scared?” he repeated, looking at his instrument, rubbing the edge with his thumb to clean off a scratch that wouldn’t budge.  “I suppose.  It’s normal to be scared, though, isn’t it?”

“I would be,” she said.

“You’re scared of spiders,” he laughed. “You’re scared of everything.”

“I’m not scared of you,” she said, and this time, their eyes met for longer.  Long enough that she didn’t need to say a word, and he didn’t need to reply.  She picked up the ukelele and moved it to her other side, so there was only stone between them.

“My parents arranged it,” he said, picking at his thumb, wet skin sliding on skin.  Distracting himself, poorly.  “My father knows someone at the school and he said I’d make a great lawyer.”

“You would,” she said.

“I don’t know,” he muttered.  “I’m not very strong-willed.  I let you push me around all the time.”

“That’s just wisdom,” she smiled, and he smiled back, rested his hands at his sides, and brushed his fingers against hers.  “Your father is right.  You’ll be great at anything you do.”

“I should stand up to him,” he muttered, and she forgot herself, took his hand, squeezed it.  His father could shut him right down, and the day was going too perfectly for that to happen now.  “He’s arranged a marriage for me.”

Her hand froze.

The crickets carried on, oblivious, but the rest of the city seemed to stall, waiting to hear what she’d say.

“What will you do?” she asked, wishing she didn’t have to.

“What can I do?” he asked. “I can’t say no, can I?”

She looked at him, tears mixing with sweat, tried not to make it harder on him, no matter how hard it was on her.

“I don’t know,” she said.

He took her hand in his, laced their fingers together, and squeezed her.  She closed her eyes, turned away, trying not to cry.  It was unbearable.  The cruelty of it, of his kindness, of his blindness.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I noticed too late.”

She sniffled, sat herself straighter, turned with a smile.

“Noticed what?” she said, and her voice barely cracked.

They looked at each other, there in the humid bath of the late afternoon, and said nothing more until they said their goodbyes.  It was a long, long day, but it always seemed mercifully brief in her memory.

---

This 1kStory is for Lot ("boy, Beijing, awakening, ukelele, love").

July 7, 2010 — 1,150 words

Brian’s New Day

By

Brian woke each morning stapled to the ceiling above the coffee machine, which may seem like an inconvenience, but it made it much easier for him to wash his hair before breakfast.  After eating two slices of toast and a half-dozen grapefruits, he tucked his jacket under his arm and set out for work.

In his twenties, Brian had worked as an assistant gravestone carver, climbing tall palm trees and talking to small birds while his boss, a cranky old man named Phil, chipped away at marble.  That job had not been especially satisfying for Brian, so on his thirtieth birthday, he had applied to become an astronaut, which he felt he was immensely qualified for (on account of climbing things, much like an astronaut climbs into space).

Unfortunately for Brian, President Obama cancelled the space program shortly after he sent in his application, and he was forced to find a new career.  Primarily, this involved deep sea diving in the Hudson River in the hopes that someone employing fortuity or gosh-darn luck would happen upon him, ask what he was doing, and offer him the job he always wanted.  Not that he knew what that would be.  And furthermore, the likelihood of such a person happening upon him as he was deep sea diving was, on the whole, somewhat less than probable. But still, he tried.

On this day, however, Brian was not deep sea diving at all.  On this day, he was going to find himself the perfect cherry in the Farmers’ Market down by the docks.  He’d had it in his mind since Tuesday: the perfect cherry, round and dark red, a long stem on top, and brilliantly juicy when you bit it.  Not that he would.  He wanted to cherish it, or perhaps name it Cleo.  Cleo was a wonderful name.

Brian arrived at the Market around a quarter to nine, which was when he usually began putting on his flippers, so he found himself preoccupied with his feet.  It was because of this preoccupation that he happened to see a pair of beautiful green shoes standing before him, attached to a pair of beautiful long legs, attached (as it happened) to a beautiful, beautiful woman with flowing red hair and a dimple on one cheek, which made him want to try and poke a matching dimple on the other cheek, though he suspected that would be impolite.

Brian strongly disliked beautiful women.  The last time he had seen one, he had fallen off a third-story balcony and landed in a tomato plant.  He had never liked tomatoes before, but now he was deathly afraid of them.  Pizzas made him imagine big, round eyes watching him wherever he went.  He rarely spoke to Italians as a result.

This beautiful woman, though, was not attached to a balcony of any description, so he felt he might stow his dislike of her kind briefly, especially since she was smiling at him, and he had a hard remembering what he was trying to accomplish.

“Hello,” she said, and he nearly fell into a tomato plant, balcony or not.  “Are you looking for something in particular today?”

He opened his mouth to talk, and then closed it almost immediately.  He was fairly certain he wouldn’t be able to arrange his words in a way that made sense, and for some reason, he didn’t want to make a bad impression.  Instead of speaking, he pointed a trembling finger at the pile of cherries next to him, and then winced, as if the admission that he was after such a thing was so dark and twisted that he might need to be sent back to the hospital with the nurses that smelled of Tootsie Rolls.

“Cherries, eh?” smiled the woman, and looked across the pile with a choosy eye.  She ran a finger over them lightly, and he sucked in a nervous breath.  Fruits hated to be touched by bare hands.  His grapefruits needed oven mitts, and here she was, molesting them with her greasy pores and—

“Here we go,” she said, picking one up by the stem.  It was round, dark red, and the stem between her fingers was long, slender, perfect in every way.  Perfect in every possible way.  She held it out to him.  “This belongs to you,” she said.  He reached out with his trembling hands, took the cherry by the stem, too, just below her fingers so that his skin brushed hers ever so slightly, and then took possession of the cherry.

“Thank you,” he said quietly, and her smile got even bigger than before.  She winked at him.

“You’re welcome,” she said.  “What’s your name?”

“Brian,” he said, and tried smiling, though it only lasted a second.  He went back to staring at the cherry, because the cherry was largely disinterested in his day-to-day activities.

“I’m Cleo,” she said, and took a step backward, tucking her hands into her green apron.  “I’ll see you around, Brian!”

He watched her go, then watched his cherry, then went to sit in the park for a minute or two.  Soon it was time to go in the water, but he didn’t go in the water.  And soon it was time to come out of the water, but since he wasn’t in the water, he felt he could skip that, too.  And soon it was time to eat his sandwich, with four pickles and two slices of cheese… but all he could see was his cherry, and all he could think about was going back to the Market, and seeing if Cleo could find him another perfect one, just like this one.  Just like her.

He stood up quickly, started marching back to his apartment, up the stairs, down the hall, one key, two keys, knock four times (just to be safe) and enter.  He put the cherry on the counter next to the coffee machine, hung up his coat, then took it down and ironed it twice, then hung it up again, and sat down at the counter, staring at the cherry.

It was four o’clock, still two hours until dinner, but he was ready to sleep.  The sooner he slept, the sooner he would wake up.  The sooner he woke up, the sooner he could go back to the Market.  The sooner he went back to the Market, the sooner he would see Cleo smile.  And get another cherry.  And spend another day in the park, on the bench that smelled like German beer and lemonade, and think about all the ways he would tell Cleo how beautiful she was, even if he would never say it aloud, even once.

Brian had a new day, and it was wonderful.

---

This #1kStory is for Eva ("A day in the life of Brian, a 30 year old man").

July 6, 2010 — 1,079 words

Ignoble Death

By

Danika came back to a destroyed apartment.  At first she thought they’d been robbed, but then she saw Lenny sitting in a pile of laundry at the end of the hall.  He was separating socks, underwear, shirts, into two separate piles.

“Hon,” she said, putting her purse down.  “What’s going on?”

“Shh!” he said, and placed one sock in each pile, and then dug around in the hamper some more.  After a minute, he stopped, smiled, and looked up at her.  “It’s okay now.”

“Is it?” she asked, uncertain.

“It’s over,” he nodded, and then hiccuped violently, slamming his head into the wall behind him.  “Mother of Je—” he hiccuped again, and doubled over.

“What’s going on?” she laughed, rubbing the back of his head gently.  “Are you okay?”

“I’m c— cursed,” he said. “Have to b— break it before I die of as— asphyxiation.”

“Cursed?” Danika said. “Who would curse you?”

“Lois,” he whimpered.

“Lois Archibald the girl at the coffee shop?”

“Lois McKinley the ex— ex-girlfriend,” he said sheeplishly.

“I didn’t know you had an ex-girlfriend named Lois.”

“You met her once. At the g— grocery store. She was buying Vegemite.”

“Oh my god… the girl with the shaved head and two different-coloured eyes?  I can totally see that.  What the hell did you date her for?”

“L— long story. M— maybe later.”

“Okay, so why were you sorting laundry if you’re cursed?  Shouldn’t you be… I don’t know, sacrificing squirrels or something?”

“I saw a shaman and h— he said to go to the laundry and g— get half my stuff out and—”

“Wait wait wait,” said Danika. “You saw a shaman?  How much did that cost?”

“I f— forget. He took p— plastic.”

“If you spent our vacation money, you’re a dead man.”

“I m— might not be alive for our vacation!”

“Whatever.  Crybaby.  So this so-called shaman said to split the laundry in two?  By weight or size or what?”

Lenny stared at her, tears in his eyes.

“I d— don’t know. He didn’t say.”

“He didn’t have an instruction manual or something?  Shaman cheat sheet you could take home?”

“You’re m— making fun of me.”

“Well obviously.”

“I could d— die.”

She rolled her eyes, ducked into the bathroom.  “I’m going to humour you because I’m a nice person, but you’re going to owe me.  Big time.”

He said nothing, only hiccuped.

“Fine,” she sighed, and looked behind the bathroom door.  “Maybe you left some laundry lying around like you always do.  Maybe that’s why your ‘cure’ isn’t not working.”

“M— maybe,” he hiccuped, standing up.

“Hey, here we go…” she said, and he leaned forward.

She slammed the door suddenly, and he screamed and fell onto his back, clutching his hand.

“My f— fingers!” he squealed, and she noticed a small spray of blood at the edge of the door.

“What the hell happened?”

“You s— slammed the door on my fingers!”

“I was trying to scare you!”

“What the h— hell for?”

“To make your hiccups go away!”

“They’re not hiccups, they’re a c— curse!  I’m b— bleeding!”

“I can see that!  Wrap yourself up with something!  Get a towel from the laundry!  Or two!  In pair!  Whatever!”

“Don’t make f— fun of me!”

“Oh for the love of god,” she grumbled, and stormed into the kitchen to get an ice pack.  When she returned, he was still hiccuping, but reading the back of mangled business card.  His fingers were dripping blood on the floor.

“Okay,” he said weakly. “Okay, he said we could t— try other things.  Let’s try something else.”

“Like what? Sort the pile into lights and darks?”

“N— no,” he said. “Cut parts of my hair.”

“Which parts?” she asked, tossing the cold pack down to him.  He ignored it.

“I d— don’t know,” he said. “Just do random parts.”

“What if the shaman dude wanted certain parts and not others to be—”

“Then he would have s— said so!” snapped Lenny. “Just do it!  C— cut it!”

She leaned into the bathroom, found the pair little orange scissors, and knelt down next to him.  He closed his eyes like he was meditating.

“This is a bad idea,” she said.

“D— do it.”

She held out the scissors and cut a little bit of his hair shorter.  He exhaled, and for once, didn’t hiccup.  She cut another bit, and his breathing calmed even more.  Cut a few more patches here and there, until he looked like a mangy animal who had escaped a questionable laboratory by way of a flame thrower.  And still, he didn’t hiccup.

“There,” she said. “That’s as much as I can do.”

He opened his eyes at her, smiled nervously, and then let out a long, thankful breath.

“That was c—” he hiccuped and jerked forward, straight into the scissors, stabbing himself in the forehead.  “Pain!” he screamed, and threw himself back into the wall, toppling over.

Danika put down the scissors and went to get a bandage for his forehead.  She resisted the urge to comment on his state of affairs, but the look on her face implied her feelings, and more.  When she got back, he was sitting up again, bloodied hand to his bloodied face, trying to read the business card.

“Give it here,” she said, snatching it away.  It was written in scratchy handwriting that she didn’t recognize, but the third and final thing listed was easy enough to read: “Stand on your head?”

“I’ll n— need help,” he said.

“Does this mean you have to flip upside-down, or that I’m supposed to actually stand on your skull?”

He gave her a withering look.

“You s— still don’t believe it’s a c— curse?”

Well,” she said, flipping the card back and forth a few times, and then handing it over, printed side up.  “Given  that your shaman and your ex-girlfriend have the same last name, I’m not sure it’s a curse-curse so much as a curse of stupidity, really.”

Lenny took the card, read the name ‘Rafael McKinley, Shaman First Order’, and finally, his hiccups stopped.

---

This #1kStory is for Turid ("Get half of my stuff out. Cut parts of my hair. Stand on my head").

July 6, 2010 — 813 words

An Alternate History of the Future

By

In all honesty, it was a stupid arrangement to begin with.  Take the Northern princess and marry her to the Southern prince (who, by all accounts, was more interested in her brother), and you already have a recipe for disaster. But to base the hope of civilization on their marital bliss?  Madness.

It had been fifteen days since the Christmas special (seen by over 4 billion people, Republikan and anti-monarchists notwithstanding), which was likely not enough time for the Princess to forget about the unfortunate discovery of the camera hole in her private bathroom.  Already on a hair trigger, she had stormed through the royal complex, looking for a fight.  Two servants were sent to the guillotine (thankfully voted to safety by the healthy overnight audience), but when she came to the kitchen, her temper snapped clean in half.

“What the fuck is this?” she screamed at her husband the Prince as he tried to eat his toast with Strawberry Jam.  As was almost his trademark, he made no move to answer, just stayed there, frozen in mid-bite, as if she were a Tyrannosaur who hunted by motion.  It was not far off the mark.

“I told you to wash those dishes last night!” she yelled. “They’re still there!  No! No, there are more dishes now!  What the fuck have you been doing with your time?”

“Balancing the budget for our kingdoms,” said the Prince, although it was not strictly true.  He just needed to sign the papers, but he liked to pretend to be intellectual.

“Well do the dishes or there’s no Bed time tonight!”

He slammed his toast to the counter, stood up abruptly.  There’s no bed time any night anymore!”

“I wonder why that is!” she boomed.

“As do I!  Is it your butler, perhaps!”

Her mouth fell open, and he laughed and pointed. “Don’t try to deny it! I’ve seen the live feeds! You’re Bedding the help!”

Her face went red and she stomped her feet, but for once, the Princess had nothing left to say.  The Prince sat back down, picked up his toast, and bit off a corner.

“Save your reply for Primetime, dearest,” he said. “You never look good in recaps.”

The answer came at the start of Primetime, in the form of seventeen nuclear warheads landing in Southern cities at exactly eight o’clock. Thus began World War IV. The Prince’s head was mailed to Parliament, with a note attached that read: “Do the fucking dishes.”

The Southern nations, never adept at warfare after their stunning defeat in World War III, instead took to the skies in massive helium-filled balloons shaped like walnuts, reasoning that they would be harder to hit.  While that turned out to be largely untrue, strong winds blew them up and over much of the Northern hemisphere, making it much less palatable to engage them with nukes.

Over time, the Southern balloons grouped together, growing in size and depth until they became giant, floating cities in the sky, blocking out the sun, and raining sewage down on the poor Northerners below.  Whenever some General got into his head that he could shoot down the Shitstorms (as they were known), the populace paid a heavy price as a flaming ball of turd crashed into their town, incinerating everything and leaving the whole area uninhabitable for years.

A peace accord was negotiated by the great legal scholar Edmund of Guatemala, who traded the promise of food and helium for a complex piping system that helped funnel all the Southern sewage down into nearby lakes and rivers, rather than onto the houses below.  This, of course, led to severe water poisoning and mass deaths due to a resurgence of antibiotic-resistant bubonic plague, but on the whole, it was deemed a better deal than being pooped on during the morning commute.

Almost thirty years on, as the Princess (then technically Queen, though she preferred the former title as it implied youthful vitality) was in the process of divorcing her fifth husband (and eighth butler), the world’s helium supply became utterly depleted, and the Southern Shitstorms started falling from the sky en masse, destroying much of the North.

Public outcry was furious. The Republikan minority found itself in the majority, and passed a resolution demanding the Princess’ head on a pike.  This time, there was no audience left to vote her to safety, so after the guillotine was done with her and her extended family, the new government in Bucharest declared Reality broadcasting illegal, as well as butlers, and furthermore declared at all husbands must wash all the dishes immediately following dinner, or face execution.

Civilization had learned its lesson.

Husbands, as is often the case, did not.

---

This #1kstory is for Cathi ("Washing dishes, world war IV, helium balloon").

July 5, 2010 — 932 words

The Tease

By

Garville was fantastically despondent, to the point where he wouldn’t suck sap if you drowned him in it.  He lay on the  leaf, belly to the sky, sighing wistfully as loud as he could.  Finally, after seven such sighs, Bloot climbed down next to him and smacked him across the back.

“Hey!” he snapped. “Stop it!  You’re throwing me off my game!”

“It’s no use,” moaned Garville. “I can’t eat until she tells me she loves me.”

Bloot looked back at his fellow aphids, devouring the plant without him.  He wanted to go, but the sad state of his friend was impossible to ignore.

“Who are you waiting for?” he asked without compassion.

“Muxley,” Garville said. “Muxley, the one with the most gorgeous green skin.  And those shapely, shapely legs.  Oh god, I can’t stand the thought of losing her.”

“So go tell her,” said Bloot. “Bonus part is, you won’t be sitting around here annoying me.”

“I’ve told her already,” said Garville.

“Okay, good start.  What did she say?”

“She said she’d tell me if she’d be my mate by the end of the week.”

Bloot’s expression deadened.  He scratched his head lightly.

“End of the week,” he said.

“That’s right.”

“How old is she again?”

“Six days tomorrow.”

“Six days,” said Bloot.

“You keep repeating me,” noted Garville.  “And anyway, I know what you’re thinking: she’s very young, but she’s ready to reproduce. And I’ve only got three and a half weeks on her, which is a lot, I’ll admit, but you know what they say about true love knowing no bounds and—”

“Garville,” said Bloot, trying to put on his most serious expression. “I need you to listen carefully, because this is going to be hard to say.  Are you going to listen?”

“Sure,” said Garville. “But I don’t think a pep talk about patience being a virtue is going to do the trick right—”

“She’s leading you on, man,” snapped Bloot. “End of the week? She’s waiting for you to die.  A week to her isn’t anything.  Hell, she’s young.  She’s got three and a half, maybe four weeks of life to live.  You?  You’ll be dead this time next week, if not sooner.”

“So… so you’re saying she—”

“She doesn’t want to mate with you, bro.  She’s just not telling you to your face.”

Garville stood up sharply, bristling with fury.  He butted noses with Bloot, stared him down.

“You’re wrong,” he growled.  “And I’ll prove it.”  He stormed off down the branch.  Bloot watched him a moment, but couldn’t bear the thought of the heartache that was coming next.

“Garville, wait!” he called. “Come on, man! There are lots of other chicks on the plant!  You don’t need to—”

By the time Bloot caught up, the battle was half-over.  Muxley was rolling her eyes as Garville’s composure disintegrated before her.  If he hadn’t been so dehydrated, he might have been crying.

“It’s me! Garville!” he pleaded. “You remember me!”

“Oh yeah,” said Muxley. “So you’re like still alive?”

“You said you were going to give me an answer!” he said, trying to shore up some courage. “By the end of the week.  I’d like it sooner.”

“An answer for what?” asked Muxley. “I to’lly don’t remember.”

“To be my mate!”

“Like ew,” said Muxley. “Mate with you?”

“Y-y-you were going to t-t-t-tell me—”

“Like no offence, but I’d rather reproduce asexually.  To’lly.”

Garville disintegrated into a mess of wails and flailing.  Bloot stepped forward sneered at Muxley.

“Hey!” he yelled. “That’s just cruel!”

“Well hello, sailor!” she purred. “Speaking of mating…” She ran an arm along his back seductively.

“Don’t you dare!” he snapped. “Garville is my friend!”

“Who’s Garville?”

Garville wailed even louder.  Muxley took a step back, shook her head.

“You two are buzz-kills.  If you don’t want somma this — not you, fatboy — then I’ll get some service from the next leaf down, kay?  Later, losers!”

She made off down the branch, leaving Garville and Bloot in silence.  Bloot’s tummy rumbled.  He hadn’t eaten in almost two minutes.

“Listen,” he began, but Garville waved him off.

“It’s okay,” he said. “You were right.  And thanks for not mating with her.  That meant a lot to me.”

“That’s what friends are for, man.  But listen, one little setback doesn’t mean it’s the end of the game. Let me introduce you to my cousin. She’s a great shade of green too, and—”

“No one can have the same shade as Muxley,” Garville sighed. “No one.”

Bloot shifted his weight a bit.

“So, um, you’re not going to even talk to anyone else?”

“Not right away,” Garville said, pausing at the edge of the branch, the aphid-covered plant sprawling out below him. “I need to grieve for a while.  Get my bearings, figure things out.  I don’t think I can give my heart so easily.  It hurts too much.  But I’ll come back from this. I know I will.  This time next week, things will be different.” And with that, he was off. “Things will be better!” he called.

“For some of us, anyway,” sighed Bloot, and went to find Muxley.

---

This 1kstory is for pinkbagels ("Aphids.  Miserable, angsty aphids.")

July 5, 2010 — 796 words

The Hot Bar

By

Green leaves and flower petals were pressed under a sheet of spotless glass, random everywhere but two places, across the table from each other, where a sunflower arrangement spread out as if your glass were creating life itself.  Mary sipped her drink, a sweet pineapple concoction that made her significantly drunker with each taste.  The other sunflower, as usual, was bare.

“Excuse me,” came a voice from behind, and she turned to see a dark-haired man in a chef’s coat, and a moment later, a plate of brilliant-arranged food slid in front of her.  “I’m sorry for the wait,” said the chef.  “I wanted to bring this to you myself.”

“Oh,” said Mary, shy.  “Th-thank you.”

“May I sit?” he asked with a stubbled smile that she found hard to resist.  She nodded, and he sat across from her, fingers laced, probing her with luscious, dark eyes.

“Please,” he said, “please, eat.”

She unfolded her napkin carefully, then cut off a piece of meat and vegetables, and put them into her mouth.  The taste was exquisite: spices and textures and a hint a sweetness that made her pause, close her eyes, and take a slow breath in through pursed lips.  The air made the experience stronger.

“It’s to your satisfaction?” the man asked coyly.

“Oh god yes,” said Mary, after swallowing. “Did you make it?”

“Yes, my dear,” said the man, bowing slightly.  “I am Pietro, head chef.”

“Your food is brilliant,” she said dabbing her mouth with her napkin. “I can’t get enough of it.”

“I have noticed,” he smiled. “You are here almost every other night.”

“Oh no… do I stand out that much?  I’m so sorry if I’ve been bothering your staff.”

“You are not a bother,” said Pietro gently.  “Far from a bother.”

She blushed, and finished off her drink far too quickly.  She swayed a bit, giggled, then fumbled her fork into her hand.  Pietro snapped his fingers, and a waitress came by to scoop up the empty glass.

“You live nearby, yes?” he asked.  “When it rains, you never have an umbrella.”

“I live upstairs,” she said. “I can’t resist the smell, so…”

“So we are neighbours!” he laughed, then received another pineapple drink from the returning waitress.  “So now I know where to drop you off after our date.”

Mary froze, swallowed her food.

“D-date?”

“Tonight, after closing,” he purred. “I will make whatever you like.  Our best wine.  Candlelit dinner for two.”

Mary moved some vegetables from side to side with her fork, looked into his eyes, then away.  She started to laugh, but stopped herself, and then started again. The whole room seemed euphoric, as nonsensical as it felt to think it.

“Say yes,” he said. “I will not disappoint.”

“Yes,” she answered, then blushed again.

“Excellent,” he said.  “I shall pick you up at eleven.  What apartment is yours?”

“Th-third floor,” she said. “301, at the back.”

His eyes opened wider, and his smile almost felt sharp.

“The one with the cats?” he asked.

She nodded, took her drink again.  “I take in strays,” she said. “Foster care, that sort of thing.  They stay until they go.  I don’t think many stay more than a week, running off to live somewhere else.  It’s hard sometimes, but it feels good to do good.  Even if they only stay a day or two, I like the thought that I helped them move on to better things. I don’t know if I’ll ever have kids at the rate I’m going, so my cats are my family, spread around the city.  Wow, am I talking a lot.  I love this pineapple juice.”

“Drink as much as you like,” he laughed. “It is on the house.”

“I prolly shouldn’t,” she hiccuped. “I need to feed the kitties before our d-date.”

“Hmm,” he nodded, and she leaned forward.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.  “Are you not a cat person?”

His smile loosened, and he leaned back in his chair.

“No, I love cats,” he said. “I love all kinds.”

“Oh, thank god,” she laughed, and drank a lot more. A lot more. “My ex-boyfriend was a dog person.  Couldn’t stand cats.  You know what he said?  He said he’d chop up my kitties to feed his Rottweiler!”

Pietro covered his mouth in shock.  “Gods no!” he gasped. “That’s horrible!”

“I dumped him… well, two months later.”

“That is truly disgusting, my dear,” said Pietro, taking her hand in his. “Feeding cat flesh to a dog.  Repulsive.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“Dogs have too simple a palate to appreciate the flavour and texture of feline meat.”

---

This 1kStory is for Tara ("Pineapple juice and cats").

July 5, 2010 — 952 words

Craw Mud

By

A root or branch or something sharp scraped his arm as he fell, and when he landed in the soft soil, so many feet below.  The only thing he noticed was the thick red blood coursing down to his elbow.  He pulled his knees in, turned the arm to get a better look, but there was too much mud and grime on him to see through.

“Boys don’t cry,” he whispered to himself, a desperate mantra he didn’t quite believe.  “Don’t cry.  Don’t cry.”

He got to his feet, but lost his balance and landed a hand in a soft, earthen wall.  He looked left, then right, and then finally up, at the tall, pitch-black trench all around him.  All around him, and down, far down and into the distance, was darkness and slick dirt.  The sky was a long jagged line of grey above, ending in a vicious point.  Pointing the way out?

He reached up, trying to hold on to the sides of the trench he was in, but there was nothing to hold, nothing to pull himself up with.  It was too high to jump, so slippery to scale.  After some minutes of trying, he wiped a blackened hand across his brow and started walking down to the tip of the grey line.

When he saw it, he nearly stumbled into the mud again.  Half a mile on, so dark he was almost invisible, was a man.  Tall and lanky, with stooped shoulders and eyes that somehow glinted, even from this distance.  The man just stood there, staring, and the boy stared back.  Overhead, a crow flew past, screaming sharply.

“Hello?” called the boy, not moving forward, not moving back.  The man made no move.  “Hello?” the boy repeated.

The twinkling in the eyes disappeared for a moment, the head momentarily bowed.  The boy took a hesitant step forward, but then the man’s head snapped up, the twinkling replaced with somehow a furious red.  The boy stumbled, lost his footing, fell to his knees.  When he looked up, the man was marching toward him.

“Don’t cry,” the boy whimpered, and turned and ran.  Down the trench, footstep after clumsy footstep, arm leaking blood into the mud and the grime, he tried to stay calm, but panic was overtaking him.  He fell against the wall, scraped his forehead on a tree root, and landed in a puddle, inhaling thick water and choking it out.

He felt the root, digging the mud away, feeling where it went, how it climbed.  Up, definitely up.  He looked over his shoulder at the red-eyed man, storming closer, gaining speed.  The boy dug at the wall, shoving bits of dirt out of the way, trying to pull out enough of the root to… he got a foot in, hoisted himself up, but his arms were still too short to reach the top of the trench.  He grabbed uselessly at mud, digging his hands in, trying to find another root, something else to hold.

He dared another look back, and saw the man within yards of him, face sour and wretched, fuming eyes and clawed hands reaching.  The boy found something in the mud, held tight and pulled himself up, up off the support of the root, and screamed as loud as his lungs would let him.  He was up, he was almost there, fingers pulling at the sweet, unkept grass at the lip of the trench.

And then, so suddenly, his support gave way, and he fell back down into the puddle, head cracking back painfully, face fully submerged so that his lungs filled with muck, and though panic overtook him, all he could do was lie there and wait for death or some kind of answer.

Sharp hands grabbed his coat, pulled him up out of the water.  He choked, black slime coursing out his mouth and nose, and stared into the face of the man, the horrible, wretched man with skin like diseased tree bark, with eyes that shone red in the dim light.  The man glared at him, foul breath blown through gapped teeth, and growled a low rumble of a laugh.

The boy wanted to cry, wanted to fight or run or do something, but his legs were leaden and an unforgiving terror kept him from uttering a sound.  He made no move when the man slammed him into the wall, clawed hand running across his scalp.  Then he felt something hard and heavy on one shoulder, and then the other, and then, with a violent shove, he was on his knees, head bowed, repeating to himself over and over: “Boys don’t cry… boys don’t cry…”

“Boy,” said the man, and the boy looked back to see nothing at all.  “Boy,” repeated the man, and this time he recognized the direction: up.  Up against he grey sky, the horrid man looked down.  It started to rain.

“Kill small visitors with rocks,” said the man, voice trembling with joy. “Learn to move quickly or you’ll starve.”

“What?” gasped the boy.  “Wait!  No! You can’t leave me here!”

“I can’t, but I will,” sighed the man.  “Godspeed, boy.  Pray you grow to be ten feet tall.”

And with that, the boy began the better part of his life.

---

This #1kStory is for Nicholas Lancaster (“A boy falling into a man made ditch/trench in the forest that spans further than the eye can see and that is too deep to climb out of.  And lets say there is a shadowy figure at the end of the trench that starts walking faster and faster in the boys direction.”).