26 December 2008

"The Forty"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Merry Christmas," Andy said as he slid back into the passenger seat, holding out a paper cup.

"I'm Jewish," Jake said, taking a swig of coffee. "And this is awful."

"Sorry. Not a lot of Starbucks around here... hey, is that him?"

Jake looked out the windshield. "Yup. Let's go."

They exited the car into a gust of wind. Andy trotted to keep up with Jake as they crossed the street.

"Anthony Torza?" Jake called.

The man stopped walking. "Who wants to know?"

Jake held up his badge. Torza cursed.

"We need to see your artifact, Mr. Torza," Jake said.

"It ain't mine," Torza said. "I'm just holding it. For my cousin. He ain't a bad guy, he's just got a record--"

"We don't care, Mr. Torza," Jake said. "We just want to see the artifact."


Torza led them upstairs to his apartment. They watched him struggle with his keys, then finally take off his gloves to unlock the door. Once inside, Torza opened his closet and extracted a battered cardboard box.

"Be honest with you, I'll be glad to get rid of this thing," Torza said. "They give off some kind of radiation, right? I just hope it ain't made me sterile or nothing."

Andy opened the box. It was full of pencils.

"What the hell?" Andy said.

"It's lead," Torza said. "To stop the radiation?"

Andy wasn't sure if he wanted to laugh or cry. He settled for shaking his head, then scooped pencils out of the box until he revealed a metal shape, which he lifted with both hands.

Torza's artifact was identical to all the others: a regular icosahedron roughly the size and weight of a basketball. Nobody knew where the artifacts had come from. They had simply appeared one day, scattered across the globe. The agency had determined there should be forty artifacts--twenty matched pairs--based on their surface markings, and was tracking them all down. Andy rotated the artifact until he found the symbols.

"Seventeen," he translated, then stood up quickly and threw the artifact at Torza. "Think fast!"

Torza reflexively raised both hands to catch the artifact before it hit him in the chest. As soon as his skin touched the metal, the artifact began glowing with a soft blue light.

"We got a winner," Andy said, smiling.

"Thank you, Mr. Torza," Jake said. "We'll take that now. And at your convenience, we'd like to schedule an interview and routine medical exam."


The contents of the cardboard box rattled as Andy put it in the trunk.

"Lead," he said, getting into the car. "Clearly these things don't choose people based on intelligence. You ever wonder why they come in pairs? Or why the faces are twenty triangles?"

"Not interested," Jake said, starting the car. "Just four more 'owners' to track down, then we can get back to real work."

"Yeah." Andy scratched his chin. "But I'd still like to solve the puzzle. Close the case. You know?"

Jake shrugged. "If wishes were horses, kid. You'll learn to settle for a decent cup of coffee."


Audio: "The Forty"


Music: "bellsong" by maurixxio and "Rich Strings 192kbps .mp3" by orang_redux_777, licensed under Creative Commons from ccMixter.

Boy, am I out of practice. I wanted "Torza" to sound like a mook, but he came out less Brooklyn than I had intended. Still, close enough.

I'm also working on my pacing. Something I was taught in narration class, many years ago: no matter how ridiculously slowly you think you're speaking, it will not be too slow for the listener. After spending all summer on the road with audio books, I understand completely. If the ideal experience of reading words on a page is a light trance state, the ideal listening experience lets you continuously process just the right amount of information--not so much as to be distracting, but also not so little that you get bored and drowsy.


D20, Not Futbol

Several of my friends turned forty years old this month: Chang, my roommate from VPXII; Jerry, a fellow Richter Scale; and Karin, who introduced me to my wife (they've been best friends since high school). I've already written a story about birthdays, so I did a little brainstorming on the number 40 and came up with this week's piece.

This particular idea turned out to be much too big for flash fiction, and I had a hell of a time trimming this scene down to fit here--though I did manage to tie a nice bow on it at the end, if I do say so myself. I'm still writing the longer story, and plan to finish and submit it next month.

Yes, the artifacts do look like twenty-sided dice, and yes, the longer draft includes a bit where Andy and Jake discuss truncated icosahedrons. (Archimedes versus Plato--fight!)

The last paragraph also contains a shout-out to my Viable Paradise XII classmate, Tiffani, who just sold her short story "If Wishes Were Horses" to Strange Horizons. Woo hoo! She'll be published in late spring, 2009.


19 December 2008

"Family Jewels"

By Curtis C. Chen

The trouble started at Thanksgiving. Terrence brought Rachel home to meet his unexpectedly welcoming family. Of course, they were just buttering her up, biding their time.

It happened on Sunday night, after a trip to the local merchdome. Terrence's mother handed Rachel a mug of hot tea and asked, "Have you and Terrence thought about children?"

It was quite shrewd; Mrs. Katoomba had waited until the men had retired to another room for sports viewing and she was alone with Rachel.

"Well, we're not thinking about it immediately," Rachel said. "We couldn't start now anyway, with Terrence in the motility program and all."

Mrs. Katoomba blinked. "What program?"

They had to stay an extra day because bad weather closed the bridges. Rachel wanted to hide in the bathroom every time she saw Mrs. Katoomba's face.

Terrence couldn't stop apologizing during the drive home.

"I'm sorry," he said. "It just hadn't come up."

"You could have mentioned it."

"I don't generally discuss my sex life with my parents."

"So don't," Rachel snapped. "Tell her you're moonlighting. Tell her it's hard to find work in lowtown. Tell her something. Anything."

He didn't speak for a long time. Finally, when they were almost home, he said, "I'll talk to them."

Rachel sighed, her breath fogging the windshield. "No. You won't. That's not what your family does. That's why your mother cornered me. She knew you weren't going to talk."

"I'm sorry," he repeated.

There was a message waiting on their refrigerator. Terrence touched the door, and the video display came to life with the computer-generated image of a motility clinic nurse.

Rachel didn't want to hear it. She dragged their luggage into the bedroom and started unpacking.

She was angry at Terrence, but she was more unhappy with herself. Motility was a miracle of modern science, and their contribution to it was genuine charity. They had nothing to be ashamed of. But the pittance that the program paid didn't compensate for the time lost, months at a time, when Rachel and Terrence couldn't make love.

They had tried, of course. Sometimes Rachel could bring herself to a climax by rubbing against Terrence's doll-smooth groin--he still had a pelvic bone, after all--but she hated seeing his face below her, full of desire that she couldn't satisfy.

She turned around and jumped, startled by the sight of Terrence standing in the doorway.

"What's wrong?" Rachel asked.

"The clinic," he said. "They lost power during the storm."

She walked over. "Was anything--damaged?"

He blinked at her. "They're not sure. They want us to go in so they can reattach it and have us--test it. Make sure it still works."

Rachel's mouth hung open. "You mean..."

"Yeah," he said. "They want a sample. And--a video record."

She took his hand. "Oh, my."

"There's nothing sexy about this," he said, smiling. "It's purely medical."

"Yeah," she said. "You can tell that to your mother."

"You want me to call her now?"

Rachel punched his shoulder. "Go put on your hat."


Audio: "Family Jewels"


Music: "Bassexp" by p1rj1s, licensed under Creative Commons from ccMixter.

It's difficult to find instrumental music that's simultaneously funny and a little sexy. Let me just say that.

A few years ago, I took a voice acting class that focused on audio book reading. One of the most important lessons I learned in that class was not to belittle the material. No matter what you, as a reader, may think about the book--even if it's something you'd never read yourself, like a Harlequin romance--you must deliver it to your audience in a respectful way. You have a responsibility to the people who pay money and time for that audio book.

Many writing instructors tell their students to always read their work aloud, because words (especially dialogue) that seem clever on the page may ring false in your ear. I still have a tough time writing about sex or violence (how much should you describe? How much detail is required for clarity, and when do you cross the line?), but I'm working on it. As shown here.



Happy Holidays, legal adults over the age of majority in your respective jurisdictions!

This week's story is based in part on an actual incident. I tend to sleep later than my wife, and during one holiday at my parents' house, D and my mother had an early-morning conversation which the latter party steered toward the topic of children. D was not a happy camper.

My parents have known since high school that I'm not interested in being a father, but perhaps they were hoping some outside influence might alter my attitude. Sorry, folks. I'm working on a different kind of legacy.

To all those visiting family (and especially in-laws) for the holidays, I salute you for going Once More Unto The Breach.


16 December 2008

'Tis the Season

Since I just shot off my mouth over on the HotSheet about how great Creative Commons is, and I've been using music from ccMixter, I thought I should update my own copyright notice to make it clear that I'm doing a Doctorow and publishing 512 Words or Fewer under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

I know, that's a mouthful, but the short version is this: you're free to share any of these stories (text or audio) with your friends, and even use my words or ideas in your own art.

The only things you can't do are sell them (hence "noncommercial"), omit my byline ("attribution"), or publish your own work under a more restrictive license ("share alike").

I agree wholeheartedly with Tim O'Reilly's assertion that, for creative types, obscurity is worse than piracy. If you do anything with my 512 words, let me know so I can add a link from this site!


12 December 2008


By Curtis C. Chen

Edwin had never dreamed until his wife died. The night after Angie's funeral, he fell asleep, still dressed in his dark suit and necktie, and imagined that he was floating in an indoor pool.

The smell of chlorine wrinkled his nose. A vast rush of noise swirled around him--shouting, whistles, echoes. He was up to his neck in lukewarm water, and his feet couldn't touch the bottom. He'd never been any good at swimming. He started panicking and splashing. Nobody seemed to notice.

He woke up before he drowned. The last thing he remembered seeing while he sank was a lone infant, who seemed too young to be swimming unsupervised in a public pool, floating just below the surface of the water.

One week later, Edwin was back at the clinic.

"All the eggs are still viable," Doctor Plume said, adjusting his eyeglasses. "Now, your--situation has changed, but there's no reason we can't continue with the fertilization procedure."

Edwin nodded.

"Since your wife has--passed on, we will need to find a surrogate. I know this is awkward, but have you talked to your family about this? Your siblings, or maybe your in-laws?"

"I'll do it," Edwin said. "I'll carry the fetus."


"I researched male pregnancy. They've done it successfully in Singapore. Implant the embryo in my abdominal cavity, then give me the right hormones--"

Plume held up a hand. "Okay, Ed, stop. Yes, it's possible, but it's incredibly dangerous. Even with healthy women, ectopic pregnancies tend to kill the mother. And you don't have a birth canal--we'd have to do surgery to get the baby out. You'd never survive in your condition, and the baby's chances wouldn't be good, either."

"I've been dreaming," Edwin said, and described his dream. He'd been having the same one every night, about the baby in the swimming pool. Sometimes he could almost touch the baby. Sometimes the baby swam away. It always had Angie's eyes, and it never blinked.

"Look," Plume said, "we're both scientists. You know this is just your subconscious going on a joyride. It's not a message from beyond or some kind of holy vision. You're still very fragile, emotionally, and you need time to consider a decision like this."

Edwin nodded. "How much time do I have? Eighteen months? I can die from my next relapse, or I can die giving birth to my child, aren't those my choices? Weren't those Angie's choices?"

"You wouldn't be able to continue the gene therapy," Plume said. "There's no guarantee you'd survive a whole nine months with the disease and with, frankly, a parasite growing inside you. It'll probably kill both of you."

"There's a chance it might not."

"As your doctor, I can't even think about recommending it."

"Fine," Edwin said. "But will you help me? As my friend?"

Plume stared at Edwin, then removed his glasses and sighed. "This is going to be the most convoluted euthanasia I've ever performed."

Edwin smiled. He would look forward to dreaming for the rest of his life.


Audio: "Perchance"


Music: "dreamer..." by cdk, licensed under Creative Commons from ccMixter.

Not much to say about this one. I probably should have picked a different name for the doctor, since I popped a couple of his P's pretty hard. And I didn't really mean for Edwin to sound like Hugo the Abominable Snowman. Sometimes these things just happen, y'know?



Yes, the dream sequence which feels totally out of place and does nothing to advance the plot is the hallmark of amateur and amateurish writers everywhere. But combine said dream sequence with an oblique Shakespeare reference and add a sprinkle of medical jargon, and (as the band kids say) voila!

Well, actually, it's still not very good, but at least it's finished.

In high school, I read a short story by Robert Bloch (I think) that totally freaked me out. It was written in the first person by a witch who cursed a man by putting a baby inside him. The implication was not that it would kill him, but that he would suffer horribly because his body was not designed to support the growing fetus or, eventually, give birth to it. Eww.

On the other end of the spectrum, there's the 1994 movie Junior, arguably notable only for the fact that it stars both The Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger and Elinor Dashwood Emma Thompson.


05 December 2008


By Curtis C. Chen

I brushed away more leaves. There was a hard surface beneath. Ceramic armor. I ran my hand along it until I found the edge, then pointed my flashlight. I stared into a dark mass of machinery--joints, gears, struts, wires. There was a serial number engraved on the interior surface of the casing.

"I don't believe it," I muttered.

"What the hell is it?" Embeck called from below. He had insisted on staying at ground level, scanning the landscape, his finger on the trigger of our only blaster.

"It's a mech," I called back.

"A what?"

I rolled my eyes. "A giant robot."

"You're kidding."

I lifted one leg and kicked the hidden mass beside me. My boot clanged against the armor, and leaves fell like rain. I pulled away the remaining vines so my co-pilot could see the huge metal arm.

"I don't believe it," he said.

"Get up here and help me clear this stuff away."

"What if we're attacked?"

"Then you'll have the high ground. Hurry up."

He secured the blaster in his hip holster and climbed slowly. Very slowly. He was the cautious one now. Funny.

I was sitting on the mech's shoulder by the time he got halfway up the torso. The main antenna array had been crushed a long time ago. Rust, bird droppings, and other stains streaked down to the middle of the mech's back.

"I don't suppose you've ever driven one of these things," I said.

Embeck shook his head. "Never even seen one in person. When were these last used in combat? Fifty, sixty years ago?"

I grimaced. "Christ, Embeck, I'm not that old."

"You were a mech driver?"

"I got the training. I was a Starbird candidate, you know."

He smirked. "How the mighty have fallen."

I saved my breath. "Let's get this canopy open. Maybe we won't have to walk back to the crash site after all."

We found the emergency release latches around the opaqued chest cavity of the mech, following the seam just above the window slit. I remembered being sealed into one of these things, being overwhelmed by a dizzying array of displays, nearly losing my lunch as the mech lurched around the training field. The narrow band of sunlight coming in through that window was the only thing that had helped steady me.

When we opened the seal, a cloud of dust puffed away from the mech, with a sound like a sigh. Mech cabins are airtight, to protect the driver from biochemical attack. It smelled stale. We lifted the creaking canopy and locked it into place, then leaned over and looked inside the cabin.

This mech's driver was still strapped into his seat. Something must have made it through the ventilation filters. He just had time to park the mech in this grove to hide it from the enemy. His desiccated fingers were still touching the throttle.

Embeck vomited into the cabin.

"You're cleaning that up," I said.


Audio: "Antique"

Music: "This Isn't My Day" by Evrim Sen, licensed under Creative Commons from ccMixter.


Stop me if you've heard this one.


Mechy McMecherson

"Antique" was the first story of mine featured on 365tomorrows. I haven't changed anything except for adding one adjective. (Hint: the word has a double-C in it.) It is the last reprint you'll see here at 512 Words or Fewer.

Who doesn't love giant robots? Well, except me while watching the Michael Bay bastardization version of Transformers.


I have many problems with that movie, but chief among them is something I've said about much better shows: it is insufficiently rigorous. I remember reading a Wired article about the visual effects, in which the filmmakers go on and on about how they wanted their robots to be more "transform in a believable way," and to that end required the art designers to use actual car parts in the humanoid forms and change Optimus Prime's distinctive shape. I still prefer the old-school anime robot designs, with blocky limbs and smooth edges, but at the time, I was willing to give them the benefit of a doubt.

And then I actually saw the movie, in which (SPOILER ALERT) not only does Bumblebee transmute his physical structure from a 1976 Camaro to the 2009 model, but the magical Allspark gives life to inanimate technological objects--which, by the way, also allows them to sprout guns and rockets whose manufacture would require materials not present in the original object, such as chemical propellants and explosives.

Now, I suppose you could argue that transforming from car to robot is a merely mechanical action, while the aforementioned subatomic transmutation of fucking matter requires more energy (or Energon, as the case may be) and happens only rarely. But in that case, why wouldn't the folks who captured Megatron and the Borg Allspark cube be working like crazy to figure out how to turn lead to gold, instead of just reverse-engineering cell phones with bad reception?

Let's not even talk about John Turturro getting peed on. Just... no.

I mean, if you want to see unapologetic giant robot phallic imagery, go rent Robot Jox. I'm not going to say it's a good movie, but it was co-written by actual science fiction writer Joe Haldeman and correctly depicted the silent vacuum of space (as did 2001: A Space Odyssey and Firefly).



04 December 2008

Temporal Mechanics

As you may have noticed, I schedule each week's trifecta of 512 Words posts (story, podcast, and notes) to publish right after midnight. It just occurred to me that, since posts appear on the home page (and many RSS feed aggregators) in reverse chronological order, the notes will show up at the top of the page for most readers.

So, in the interest of not burying the lead, I'm going to reverse the order of the posts every Friday, starting tomorrow. Which means that the notes will actually get published first, chronologically; but when you read this blog, they'll show up under the actual story on the home page, and the story will get top billing. I'm hoping this will be an improvement. Let me know if you disagree.


28 November 2008


It seemed appropriate to write a story about food this week. Hope you had a nice meal yesterday!

The original germ for this week's 512 Words didn't make it into the final piece, but I'm including that text here to give insight into my process:
Nobody calls him by his name. It just feels wrong, you know? He's too important to have such a dumb-ass name.

Some people call him The Clown. But that feels disrespectful, too. And you don't want to disrespect him. For a while, a few called him The Redhead. But then that girl showed up, and things got confusing. When most men say "redhead," they're talking about a woman--usually someone they'd like to screw. And he is as far from sex as anything can get.

Most people these days call him Shoes. It used to be Big Shoes, because that's what you were probably staring at when you were in his presence, if you were lucky enough to be granted an audience. You don't look at his face. And you really don't look into his eyes. It's not that he cares. But there's something there, something in his soul, it's overpowering. Some are said to have gone mad from a mere glance.

Anyway, Shoes. That's what people say when they talk about him. You heard about Shoes' new dollar menu? Hey, want to grab a Shoes milkshake?

Never call him by name. The name is dangerous.

And here is the video that inspired the final draft:

When I was in high school, my friend Gavin and I rented and watched Killer Klowns from Outer Space. I promise you, we were not under the influence of any controlled substances at the time, but we found the line "They're dead. Everybody's dead" hilarious in late-night context.

That's not really relevant, except to point out that sometimes things seem funny that really aren't. Like clowns. And nobody knows why.


Audio: "American McGod"


Music: "In the Waiting Room (during Cancer Surgery)" by Gurdonark, licensed under Creative Commons from ccMixter.

That's right, it's another monologue. You're welcome.

Happy Thanksgiving!


"American McGod"

By Curtis C. Chen

Pay attention, son. This is important.

You call him "Shoes." Do you even know his real name? That's right, you don't say it out loud. Fear or respect or something. I can't blame you. There is something terrible about him, that bright red hair, that dead white skin. Those eyes that look like crucifixes. They say people have gone mad just from looking at his face for too long.

I'm old. I remember the way the world used to be, when we knew what was real and what wasn't. You don't understand that. It's all real to you, isn't you? You can't see the edges. That's okay. I'll be gone soon, and it won't bother me anymore.

This is what I wanted to show you. Here. Looks like nothing special, right? Crappy old beat-up plastic cafeteria tray? Watch this.

"Quarter Pounder With Cheese."

Yeah, it's real. As real as anything is these days. Go ahead, eat it while it's hot. What? You don't trust your old man? Fine, I'll split it with you. There you go.

Jesus, now I remember why I don't eat this crap.

I know what you're thinking. What's a geezer like me doing with an amazing thing like this? Where did it come from?

Here's the funny thing about making unreal things into reality. The fictions that humans create are inconsistent. We forget what story we're telling halfway through and make up something that contradicts what we said at the beginning. But when it all has to be real, the universe will twist itself around to prevent a paradox.

Nobody remembers television commercials. But the university preserved a whole bunch, and transferred them from tape to digital a few years ago. Guess who got to update the catalog for the archives? Let me show you what I found.

Isn't that a hoot? "Hamburger-eating-est clown." Doesn't even look like Shoes. And that ridiculous hat! But it's all there, recorded, watchable, so it's got to be real. Even the magic tray.

Yeah, finding it was a royal bitch. But that's another story.

Now you know why we didn't starve during the war. And you know why we kept this a secret. It'll only give you stuff from the menu, only things with names. We had to take the food apart, separate the ingredients and cook them into other things. We couldn't be greedy, couldn't ever ask for too much, in case people got suspicious. But we kept our family alive.

Do you understand? Do you know what it means, this tray, what it can do? The magic isn't in him. It's not Shoes. He's just a conduit. Same as this piece of plastic. The magic is outside of him. And if an object can channel it, maybe a human can, too.

This is yours now. Go on, take it. You've got your whole life to figure it out. You've got years. I trust you to do what's right. So does your mother, God rest her soul.

Oh, wait. One more thing.

"You Deserve A Break Today."


21 November 2008

On Titles

I would have come up with a wittier title for this week's story, but not a lot of English words rhyme with "Zenda," and none of them means "orbit."

I grudgingly admit that this idea was inspired by the end of the otherwise craptastic X-Men 3: The Last Stand. (If you haven't seen it yet, Spoiler Alert: IT SUCKS.) During the climax, when Wolverine staggers toward Dark Phoenix to kill her, you can briefly see his adamantium skeleton as his flesh is burned away and then regenerated by his mutant healing factor. Very little else works in the scene, but that one image is pretty powerful.

And yes, I basically stole the fourth paragraph from Con Air. Sue me. Cusack really sells it in the trailer, even though the movie itself is bloated and nonsensical.

Finally, as you may have guessed, I am a huge fan of The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan. I'm not sure why AMC thinks it's a good idea to remake it. I'll reserve judgment until I see the finished product, but why not come up with a new idea? Or, as shown above, remix some existing pieces to create something that at least seems fresh?

D and I will be at OryCon this weekend. If you're in the Portland area, feel free to give us a call:


Audio: "Prisoner"

Music: "Decaying Orbit" by Fireproof_Babies, licensed under Creative Commons from ccMixter.

Hey kids, it's a monologue!

I remember back in high school, when I really fell in love with drama, I found a used copy of a book containing monologues by famous playwrights. Some of them were pretty odd--like the priest counseling a married couple who breaks into an impersonation of sizzling bacon--but they all challenged me to understand and interpret different personalities. And, on the other side of the coin, it helped me start to see how a writer could create a character through carefully chosen words.




By Curtis C. Chen

Here comes the sun.

For a few seconds, as the blinding light thaws my body, it's bearable. Almost comfortable. Then I'm on fire for the next forty-five minutes, boiling hot until I fall back into the shadow of the planet.

I don't even know the name of this world. I was already drunk when I stumbled off my freighter, celebrating the end of a long cargo haul. I don't know the name of the bar. I don't remember the woman's name.

I do remember the name of her jealous boyfriend, the guy who couldn't throw a punch, the man I killed without even trying. I heard his name plenty during the trial. His father, the Planetary Defense Minister, publicly called for my head. He got what he wanted.

I wish I could forget what they did to me. First they replaced my blood with healer nanites. Then they cut out my lungs and stomach. They didn't use anesthetic. I felt every cut and slice and staple into my flesh. That I remember too clearly.

There are no prisons here. All the convicts get thrown into space. They turn us into cyborgs, able to survive on sunlight alone, and they put us in stable, isolated, high orbits. Every ninety minutes we circle the planet, alternately burning and freezing, all the time wishing they'd just kill us.

I can feel every pinprick of cold and blister of heat on my skin. The nanites work fast, repairing my nerve endings first so I'll feel the stinging as they regenerate tissue. They also collect the solar energy that powers my body, now that I don't breathe or eat. I don't know where the water comes from. A lot of it probably gets recycled inside my mechanical belly.

I tried to enjoy the view for the first few months. I've never spacewalked, and it was breathtaking despite the pain. But it just added to the torture.

It took me a long time to figure out how to turn around. There's nothing to push against up here. But what am I now, if not a man-sized spacecraft? And how do spacecraft maneuver in vacuum?

I rotated myself by spitting to one side. Now I'm facing away from that beautiful planet, looking out into the black.

My body's basic functions haven't changed. It's now using sunlight instead of food, but what it does with that energy is the same as before.

When my nails grow long enough, I chew them off and spit the ends out into the infinite darkness. The rest of the time, I just spit. It's not a lot of reaction mass, but it'll add up.

Sometimes I imagine I can feel friction heat on my back, but it's just sunlight. It'll take years for these tiny bits of fingernail and saliva to push me down into the atmosphere. I don't know if the nanites will keep me alive through re-entry. Probably not.

What's the saying? The first duty of every prisoner is to escape.

Besides, I don't have anything better to do.


14 November 2008

Three Months Early

Happy Valentine's Day!

"Love Lucy" was my last story published on 365 tomorrows. I haven't changed it much for this reprint; maybe added a sentence or two. See my HotSheet post from May 2007 for notes on the inspiration and writing process for this piece.

More recently, D and I watched The Notorious Bettie Page, and I was reminded of it while recording this week's audio post. I have no idea how accurately the movie depicts the circumstances of Bettie Page's life, but I thought the most interesting thing was how they presented her as an innocent. She never really understands why people get upset over her "smutty" photos; she describes them to others as "just silliness." To her, it's simply dressing up and playing in front of the camera. Bettie doesn't understand why some men might find these pictures so arousing, and she's not concerned about what they do behind closed doors. This, of course, is the polar opposite of Lucy, who can't stop thinking about it.

Incidentally, I'm in Los Angeles this weekend doing The Sitcom Room. After I get back, I may have some 'splainin' to do.


Audio: "Love Lucy"

Music: "At a Loss" by Fireproof_Babies, licensed under Creative Commons from ccMixter.

I think I've figured out my recording setup now. Please feel free to comment if you have any issues, suggestions, or other feedback.

(And yes, I was trying for a Blade Runner feel with the music.)



"Love Lucy"

By Curtis C. Chen

Lucy's hand shook as she traced the stylus over the text of the contract. Her agent had assured her that this was a good deal, but she had to make sure there were no surprises in the fine print.

The house paid very well, much better than temping, and even offered an advance. After a year of not getting work as an actress, Lucy needed the money.

She finished reading and signed at the bottom of the tablet. The paralegal came back into the room. She wondered if he'd been watching the whole time. His plastic smile was not reassuring.

The first room was the hardest.

Lucy sat on the exam table, alone, for a long time after she had changed into the gown. She didn't want to put her feet in the stirrups. She couldn't refuse; she knew that. The contract with her signature was binding.

And it was so much money.

Lucy was glad to see that the gynecologist was a woman. The exam didn't take long. The sensor ring around Lucy's waist hummed while the doctor picked up the speculum and aimed it between Lucy's legs.

"Try to relax," the doctor said in a tired voice.

Lucy bit her tongue. The metal instrument sliding into her had been warmed, but it still felt cold.

Next came the imaging chamber, where Lucy removed her gown and put her bare feet inside the outlines on the floor. Her knees felt weak, but she willed herself to stay standing while the blue scanning beams crawled over every inch of her naked body.

In the last room, Lucy sat, fully dressed, in front of a brightly lit mirror. Glowing words appeared on the mirror, one after the other, and she made a face to match each word while hidden cameras recorded her expressions.

It was like an audition. A creepy, weird, impersonal audition.

The first faces came easily: SCARED. TIRED. ANGRY.

The later ones were more work: BIRTHDAY. GRATEFUL. ORGASM.

Two hours after she'd walked in, she was done.

Lucy went straight to the bank to deposit her advance check. She felt numb as she stared at the receipt.

It was a lot of money. And there would be more, after the house built the androids: royalties based on how often they were used by the house's clients.

This was good, Lucy told herself. She wouldn't have to worry about paying the bills anymore. She could really focus on her acting.

And she wouldn't have to know what those clients were doing with the androids that looked like her, thousands of miles away--the contract stipulated that her likeness would only be used overseas. Those men wouldn't be touching Lucy. Each android would have her face and body, but it was only a machine. Not Lucy.

Just a picture of her. That's all. Just a stupid doll. Nothing more.

Lucy went home and took a shower. She scrubbed herself until her skin was raw and the hot water had run out, but she still didn't feel clean.


07 November 2008


"Guns, Shooting Velociraptors Out Of" was inspired by a rather silly thread of the same name in the nanowrimo.org forums.

I did not make up any of the dinosaur names. I got them from the educational web site Zoom Dinosaurs©. My favorite is the Masiakasaurus, which was named knopfleri because the paleontologists were listening to Dire Straits when they dug it up.

The product model numbers are a tribute to H.G. Wells' classic The Time Machine (published in 1895) and Stephen Baxter's sequel, The Time Ships (published in 1995).

I suppose the overall tone of the piece is an homage to John Scalzi's BrainPal™ brochure in Old Man's War. Like they say, steal from the best.

And, as always, I owe a debt of gratitude to Ray Bradbury (but NOT Peter Hyams).


Audio: "Guns, Shooting Velociraptors Out Of"

Music: "Schrodinger's Cat Paradox" by cjacks, licensed under Creative Commons from ccMixter.

I think this more or less speaks for itself.


"Guns, Shooting Velociraptors Out Of"

By Curtis C. Chen

Congratulations on your purchase of the SuperBadIdeas, Inc., Model TTS-1995 RAPTORGUN™ Semi-Automatic Theropod Projector! The RAPTORGUN™ has served many eco-military galactic regimes, and now, thanks to new arms treaties, SuperBadIdeas is proud to bring this state-of-the-art bio-weapon to private citizens like you!

IMPORTANT: Read these instructions completely before attempting to operate your RAPTORGUN™.  SuperBadIdeas is not responsible for injuries, property damage, or temporal anomalies which may result from improper usage of its products.

BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED. Your RAPTORGUN™ requires four GG power cells for operation. SuperBadIdeas recommends using alkaline power cells. DO NOT USE RECHARGEABLE, DRY PLASMA OR ZERO-POINT SOURCES TO POWER YOUR RAPTORGUN™. Using non-standard power cells may trigger the formation of gravitational singularities and will void your warranty.

To comply with interstellar freight laws, your RAPTORGUN™ is shipped in three parts. Follow the included holovid instructions to assemble your RAPTORGUN™. When properly assembled, you should see three solid green lights on top of the wormhole chamber. You are now ready to use your RAPTORGUN™!

IMPORTANT: Never aim your RAPTORGUN™ at friendly personnel. Never look into the barrel of your RAPTORGUN™. Never place fingers or other organic matter inside the wormhole chamber.

To fire your RAPTORGUN™, hold the weapon in both hands and pull the trigger. A flash of light and a thunderous noise will accompany the projection of your theropod!


Q. What kind of theropods will my RAPTORGUN™ project?

A. Your RAPTORGUN™ displaces specimens from the Senonian epoch. Though the TTM-1895 wormhole chamber will only transmit carnivorous theropods of a certain size, you may receive any of the following:
  • Avimimus portentosus
  • Bambiraptor feinbergi
  • Masiakasaurus knopfleri
  • Nedcolbertia justinhoffmani
  • Velociraptor mongoliensis
  • Zapsalis abradens
NOTE: Many species of Senonian theropods remain undiscovered. If your RAPTORGUN™ projects an unfamiliar animal, please contact the SuperBadIdeas Discovery Hotline immediately.

Q. How far can I project my theropods?

A. SuperBadIdeas recommends a minimum safe distance of three meters between shooter and target.

In order to displace a living animal through the wormhole, your RAPTORGUN™ translates each theropod into a Coherent Matter Stream™. If your target is less than three meters from the RAPTORGUN™, the stream may not resolve into its original form before reaching the target. The resulting quantum effects are unpredictable, and may include (but are not limited to): full or partial merging of theropod and target bodies; full or partial destruction of theropod and/or target bodies; and ruptures in local Calabi-Yau manifolds. Please consult your municipal authorities to determine what zoning requirements may apply to the creation of permanent hyperdimensional paradoxes in your community.

Q. I want to project a theropod over the top of a hill or tall structure. How can I calculate the proper trajectory?

A. Your RAPTORGUN™ is a personal sidearm and not suitable for use as artillery. Please consider other hardware, such as the SuperBadIdeas DINOWITZER® and MORTARSAURUS® products.

Want to get more out of your RAPTORGUN™? Visit our websphere for information on the HUSH-GUPPY™ silencer, EGG-BASKET® automatic fire conversion kit, and other accessories!


31 October 2008

Alternate Realities

Happy Halloween!

In a very twisted way, the title of "The Saints are Coming" was its inspiration. You may recognize it as the name of this song by U2 and Green Day:

That music video always chokes me up, in the same way that reading Ex Machina does. Because we can do better. We can be so much better. If you really believe this is the best of all possible worlds, you are part of the problem and should stay the hell away from me.


Audio: "The Saints are Coming"

Music: "Paloseco Brazz Bossa Trumpet" by The Paloseco Brazz Orchestra, licensed under Creative Commons from ccMixter.

You may notice a bit of a drawl in my reading this week. It crept in while I was rehearsing; it just felt more natural for this narrator to have a bit of an accent.

I imagine this scene as being somewhere near New Orleans, and that the bluesy trumpet is being played by an off-duty doughboy, thinking of home while he waits in the mud. Maybe this is the longest he's ever been away from his family. Maybe he's a little happy about that. But just a little.


"The Saints are Coming"

By Curtis C. Chen

The platoon waited, lying flat against the dirt slope as the sky darkened above them. Billy pushed his palm into the ground, feeling the damp soil. The enemy was bringing a storm. They always brought weather. They weren't exactly subtle.

"Weapons free, boys!" he called down the line. The soldiers responded with a chorus of clacking noises, chambering rounds and disengaging safeties.

Billy looked around just as a bolt of lightning seared the valley, painting the silhouette of someone coming up the hill. Billy shouldered his P90 and jammed the butt into his armpit, hard, until the soreness there burst into pain. They'd run out of caffeine and glucose three days ago. He tried to focus his eyes.

Shuffling noises approached. The soldiers flanking Billy turned and lifted their rifles over the sandbags.

"Messenger!" came the voice, just before a boy in camouflage fatigues stepped into the light. "Bravo Company messenger for Sergeant Armstrong!"

"Stand down," Billy said. Lightning stabbed the ground, closer than before. "Get in here. You're staying until the storm passes."

"Maybe even longer," somebody muttered as the messenger climbed into the trench.

"Milo, I will cut off your tiny hairless scrotum!" Billy shouted. A few boys chuckled. It was a ritual.

The new boy held out his message with shaking hands. Billy took the plastic card, verified the bar code, and passed it to Jackson, the radioman.

"What's your name?" Billy asked the messenger.

"Private Michael Thibodaux, sir."

"Don't call me 'sir.'" Billy frowned as Thibodaux wiggled a loose tooth with his tongue. A baby tooth. "How old are you?"

"Everyone fights," Thibodaux recited.


Jackson held up a deciphered display film. His round eyes looked even bigger than usual. Billy read the message and caught a whimper before it left his throat.

"Platoon!" Billy called. "Circle up and switch to infrared scopes! Eyes on the treeline!"

"Who is it, Sarge?" one of the boys asked, moving closer.

Billy hesitated, then said, "Francis Assisi."

"We're fucked," Milo said.

"I thought EPA napalmed all the animals around here!" said another boy.

"Yeah," Billy said, "I guess that didn't stop him."

"What, zombies again?"

"This isn't the city. We've got room to fight." Billy pointed to Thibodaux. "Now somebody get him a weapon!"

"Oh, my sweet Rapture..." Milo sang. "Halle-fucking-lujah."

More laughter. Rituals kept them sane.

Something boomed in the forest. Billy swung around, his heart racing. The wind blew a smoky odor--almost like barbecue--into his nostrils.

"Anybody see anything?" "Trees are moving--" "Oh shit! Ten o'clock! Ten o'clock high!"

The saint stood fifty feet tall, towering over the treetops. Flying, flapping shapes followed him and circled his head. The beatific glow of his skin illuminated dark smears on his friar's robes. His huge, watery eyes found the platoon, and he gestured with one massive finger. The flying things descended.

"Cover! Cover!" "Are those birds?" "They don't got no feathers!"

"Fucking miracles," Billy grumbled. "OPEN FIRE!"

Their weapons barked. Saint Francis of Assisi roared, and the corpses of wolves obeyed him.

It started raining then.


24 October 2008

an open letter to jra

Dear Jeff,

Thank you for your kind words regarding 512 Words or Fewer.

With regards to your admonition, I pledge that I will do my best to not suck, and to achieve my stated goal of posting one story per week. If, at any point, I fail to maintain this standard, please feel free to remark upon whatever you may perceive to be my shortcomings as a writer and/or heterosexual male.

And if you think you can write better flash fiction yourself, well, bring it, punk.




Inspired by Spam

Yeah, I guess I'm going to get a few comments on this one.

I started writing "October Surprise" back in July for a Weird Tales writing contest. I didn't finish it in time to enter the contest--couldn't come up with a satisfactory ending. Only later did I remember Raymond Chandler's advice: When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.

The spam subject line which inspired the story was "McCain says he is a young man trapped in old body." I swear that I was not influenced at all by this Onion article.

I admit the body-switch plot device is a bit of a cliché, but it was fun to imagine how each candidate might react to such a predicament. Not that I know anything about either man. I mean, I shook both their hands when they visited Google last year, but I'm not a touch telepath or anything. I'm a writer. I tell lies to strangers for money. And the pay's not great, so I might as well use my imagination and enjoy the first part.


Audio: "October Surprise"

Music: "too quiet (instr.)" by oldDog from ccMixter, licensed under Creative Commons.

My friend Raj, who is currently taking voice acting classes, had some good feedback for me on this so-called podcast. It's been five years since my own training, and I've forgotten a lot. Feel free to point and laugh. I don't have a director or engineer to do that during the recording process.

I pretty much set myself up to fail with the character voices here. I mean, it's hard enough doing non-caricatured impressions of McCain and Obama, but then I have to go and specify that they each speak in their own cadences, but with the other guy's voice. Thanks a lot, self. Maybe next week's story will feature, I don't know, aliens that speak with two mouths at once. Then again, that might be too repetitive, since this week's story is also about politicians. ZING!


"October Surprise"

By Curtis C. Chen

Barack watched himself in the mirror as he picked up the phone. It was strange to see that other face staring back at him. It was unnerving to see the unfamiliar body doing what he did.

He dialed his own cell phone number, the one that only his wife knew. It connected after the second ring. He heard the soft hissing of a hotel room air conditioner in the background.

"This is John McCain," Barack said.

Another noise on the other end of the line--a sigh of relief? "This is Barack Obama." It was bizarre, hearing his own voice but not his own speech--the rhythms, the pronounciations, all wrong.

"Thank you for serving," Barack said. It was the first thing he had thought upon waking, when he realized what the pain in his arms was. "I had no idea."

The man on the phone made a dismissive noise. "That was a long time ago."

"So," Barack said, "I'm guessing it wasn't your people who did this."

"No," said John. "If we had, we would have switched you with someone else."

"Unless something went wrong."

"I don't like conspiracy theories," John said. "Can we start by figuring out what we're going to do right now? Today?"

"David has my--your schedule," said Barack.

"I know. You're giving a speech. That isn't going to fly."

He was right. They each had their own way of addressing an audience. "Just follow the teleprompter. Tell them you didn't sleep well. They'll think it's fatigue."

"You trust me not to sabotage you?"

"I think this is what's commonly known as a Mexican standoff."

"Okay," said John, "I'll do the best I can, but if this thing lasts more than a day..."

"What if it lasts forever?" asked Barack. He found it strange that the sudden thought didn't frighten him.

John exhaled. It was a heavy, tired sound. "I sure hope it doesn't. I hope this is just some higher power making us walk a mile in the other man's shoes."

"Or maybe it's like the parable about the two men and the camel race."

"Don't think I know that one."

"A race in which the slower camel wins, but each man has to ride the other man's camel?"

A pause. "Are you calling me a camel jockey, sir?"

Barack found himself smiling, then laughing out loud at the face in the mirror. The whole situation was ridiculous. On the phone, he could hear his own voice laughing, too.

He heard a cracking sound behind him. He turned in time to see the hotel room door shatter inward, broken by a steel battering ram. Four men rushed in. Not Secret Service. They were dressed in black fatigues, wearing gloves and balaclavas.

The man in front raised a pistol and pointed it at Barack's--John's--face.

"What was that noise?" asked John.

"The punchline," Barack said.

He dropped the phone and raised his arms as high as he could. They really weren't that uncomfortable, once you got used to them.


17 October 2008

Conceived in Winter

My wife and I both have birthdays in October. Mine was two weeks ago, and hers is next week. People sometimes ask us if the gems in our engagement rings are our birthstones, but they're not.

"Birthdays" was my second story published at 365tomorrows. The plot was inspired by Einstein's twin paradox, but I got the tone from Neil Gaiman's "Chivalry." I think the mashup ends up being slightly more than the sum of its parts.


Audio: "Birthdays"

Still working on the background music. If you know any artists who would be willing to donate some podsafe ambience, please let me know.

I listened to last week's audio post again and realized I'd gone a bit overboard with the voices; i.e., using accents and other funny stuff to distinguish between characters. It's okay on The Simpsons, but not for most narration work.



By Curtis C. Chen

When Stacy was twelve years old, she celebrated her father's thirty-third birthday. It wasn't actually his birthday. It was two weeks before his birthday, but he was leaving on a mission before then, so they had to have the party early.

Stacy thought the party was boring. There were a lot of grown-ups there, drinking smelly drinks that bubbled like soda but tasted bitter. She knew because she stole a sip from her father's plastic cup. He was talking to another grown-up at the time and didn't notice.

"It's only sixteen light-years," he was saying, "but we're not sure how hard we can push the new stardrive."

"And you got that relativity stuff to worry about," said the other grown-up. Except he didn't say "stuff"--he said a bad word.

Stacy ran into the kitchen to find her mother. She was hunched over the sink, alone, her shoulders twitching.

"Mommy?" Stacy said, tugging at her skirt.

Stacy's mother turned to look at her. Her eyes were red, and her cheeks were wet.

"Ready for your bedtime story?" she asked, smiling.

"I'm not sleepy," Stacy said.

"Okay, come on then," her mother said, taking Stacy's hand as if she hadn't spoken.

"Mom," Stacy said. "I said I'm not sleepy."

Her mother squeezed Stacy's hand even harder.


When Stacy was sixty-four, she celebrated her father's fortieth birthday. She barely recognized the man who embraced her as the waitress maneuvered her wheelchair into the restaurant.

"My little girl," he said, his eyes glistening.

The waitress brought a plate of food that Stacy wasn't allergic to. She toasted her father with apple juice. She felt tired halfway through dinner, but pinched her arm under the table to keep herself awake.

After all the other guests had left, the waitress brought a glass of warm milk for Stacy and a cup of coffee for her father. The coffee smelled good.

He asked about Stacy's mother, about how his family had been over the last half century. Stacy told him that her mother, his wife, had remarried. She'd waited after the explosion, when everyone thought her father's ship had been destroyed due to a stardrive malfunction. She'd waited four years, but she couldn't wait forever.

"She never stopped loving you," Stacy told her father. She showed him the family photo that her mother had kept until she died, and which Stacy still carried in her purse. It showed the three of them at the beach, sunburned and laughing. He cried quietly.

When they left the restaurant, Stacy's father helped her into a waiting taxicab. He noticed her coughing and asked about her health.

"I'm old," she said, forcing a smile. She didn't want to tell him about the cancer.

Four days later, Stacy got a call from the space agency. They had found her father dead in his hotel room. He had overdosed on sleep pills, washed down with a bottle of whiskey. They said he hadn't felt any pain. Stacy knew they were wrong.

The note read: "No parent should outlive his child."


11 October 2008

Podcast Link

We're live and on the air! (It's just like radio, except without the listeners.)

For iTunes:

For all:


Audio: "Firepower"

Thanks to Larry Hosken for hooking me up with a shiny new GTalk headset. Future audio posts should be on time and of higher quality than the--let's just call it a pilot, shall we?


10 October 2008

Incomplete Data

The inspiration for "Firepower" was the first line. I had no idea where it was going to go from there, but after a few weeks of mulling, I managed to find an angle that resonated with me. Physicists, please feel free to correct my hand-wavy science.

As I said before, not all of these "stories" will be fully fleshed out. I've found that I'm better at writing scenes than planning out deeper structures, which is something I need to work on elsewhere. The point of 512 Words is for me to start developing some of the ideas I've been accumulating, to get feedback on them, and to keep writing.

P.S. Sorry about the delay on posting audio. I'm hoping to have a better microphone by this weekend. If that works out, starting next week I'll publish the audio at the same as the text of each story.



By Curtis C. Chen

The guns stopped working on Thursday.

Reggie couldn't understand it at first. He punched the firing switch three times with increasing anxiety before he remembered to check the power relays.

The plasma indicators were dark. No ammunition. Reggie followed procedure and closed the blast shield before flagging and locking his station. It wasn't until he was halfway down the corridor that he realized all the guns had gone quiet.

He reported to Weapons Control, where a platoon's worth of gunners crowded the small space. Reggie squeezed toward the back and found his friend Jasmine sneaking a smoke next to the vent.

"One stick not to tell," Reggie said, holding out his hand.

Jasmine gave him a cigarette. "Those things'll kill you."

"Speaking of, why hasn't Charlie toasted us yet? Looks like every gunner on the ship is here."

"I hear their artillery isn't working either."


In a loud voice, the chief of the watch told all gunners to report to their respective sergeants for new watch assignments. Reggie and Jasmine drifted out into the corridor and past a viewport facing the enemy fleet. The ships looked like they were standing still.

"Are we still moving?" Reggie asked.

"Surely matching course and speed," Jasmine said. "Mission hasn't changed."

On Friday, the engines stopped working.

Reggie hadn't realized how comforting he found that constant rumble in the background. The silence felt subtle but oppressive, like being trapped in a spacesuit. It gave him a headache.

The noise of the mess hall helped distract him. At lunchtime, he sat with Jasmine and some of her friends from Engineering.

"Ionization isn't happening," one of the engineers said, leaning forward. "We're energizing the chamber, but electrons aren't coming free."

"Then why did the guns shut down first?" asked the gunner next to Reggie. "It's all plasma, isn't it?"

"You need more energy for the guns," the engineer said. "They fire short, concentrated bursts. The engines use a continuous stream."

"So something's wrong with our igniters?" said another engineer.

The first engineer shook his head. "At first we thought Charlie was testing a new weapon, some kind of energy dampening field, but they wouldn't use something that also killed their own power."

"Days I wish we still had missiles," Jasmine muttered.

"So what's your theory?" asked the second engineer.

"Maybe it's this region of space," said the first engineer. "We know gravity curves space and time. Maybe there's a similar force here, affecting the strength of electron bonds."

"You can't change the laws of physics!"

"No, but you can bend them."

"So you're saying we should retreat? That's treason," said another gunner.

"I'm saying we should fly around the strange patch. Our reaction control thrusters are still good. If this phenomenon gets worse, it's going to affect more systems. Electricity might stop working. Maybe even our brains."

"I think your brain's already gone funny." The second engineer stood up. "I'm going back to work. To fixing things."

Across from Reggie, a woman tried to light her cigarette. Reggie couldn't remember her name.


05 October 2008

Audio: "Ghosts of Earth"

Yes, I'm still working on getting a better microphone. And background music.

Here's how I think these audio posts will work:
  • The title of the post will be a direct download link to the mp3 file.
  • There will be a Flash audio player embedded in the post, as shown above.
  • And the podcast, which should appear in the iTunes directory any day now, should only contain the audio posts.
As always, comments are more than welcome.


03 October 2008

After the Apocalypse

"Ghosts of Earth" was my third story published on 365 tomorrows, in early December of 2006. I sent the link to my high school English teacher, who asked if it was counter-programming for the holiday season; in fact, I'd written it around Halloween that year, and it had taken a month for the editorial process to run its course.

That editorial delay is one of the reasons I wanted to start this 512 Words project. I dream of someday being able to get published as quickly as Scalzi, but until then, this is a way to force myself to produce on a schedule and allow myself to experiment with ideas in short form. I'm already contemplating longer works based on some of the stuff you see here.

In fact, I fleshed out "Ghosts of Earth" for my Clarion 2008 application--not entirely successfully, since it didn't get me into the workshop--and also started "Waiting for the Dot," another story in the same universe. Both of those are longer than 512 words, so you won't be seeing them here.


"Ghosts of Earth"

By Curtis C. Chen

The first crystal fell on Los Angeles in the middle of rush hour, killing thirty-two people. Caltrans spent an hour trying to move the enormous mass before it drilled itself into the ground and disappeared.

Two hours later, another crystal splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The Navy sent a submarine to track it, but they couldn't go deep enough. Three hours after that, another one hit the Pacific. Then a fourth crystal struck the ocean south of Japan, flooding the coast.

Someone noticed that all four impacts had occurred on the same line of latitude, proceeding west. Governments evacuated cities while the bombardment continued, every three hours, like clockwork: China, Iraq, Algeria, the Atlantic Ocean, South Carolina. Then the tenth crystal impacted off the coast of Mexico. They were moving south.

NASA triangulated the origin of the crystals to a point outside the Moon's orbit. Observatories all over the planet turned their lenses that way, but saw nothing. The ship was too small to be visible at that range.

We had no vessels that could travel that far. All we could do was evacuate the cities in the line of fire and attempt to study the crystals, which we were unable to halt or slow as they burrowed deep underground.

Five days later, the last crystal fell into the Pacific, west of central Peru. There were now one hundred and eight alien objects embedded deep in the Earth, arranged in a precise grid circling the equatorial region of our planet. The invaders had parked their ship in space and let Earth itself rotate each target into position for them.

Eight different research teams had crawled down the crystal tunnels. Two teams were broadcasting live video when the crystals started burning. Again, we could only watch, helpless.

The world burned for nearly a year. Most of the plant and animal life died within the first day. The crystals weren't just raising the temperature and fouling the air–-they were also causing chemical changes, using our planet as raw material to terraform itself.

The aliens waited a full decade before landing, to let their new vegetation and prey animals grow. The few humans who had managed to survive, in Antarctica and other frozen places, were slowly suffocated by the toxic atmosphere. We mourned them, but only briefly. We still have work to do.

The crystal fire had killed our bodies, but freed our minds–-some say souls, or spirits. We don't entirely understand it, but we know that we're still here. We can see everything. And we can do things.

We watched the aliens land, and sent scouts to verify that they couldn't sense us. Creating six billion angry ghosts had not been part of their invasion plan.

They use electronics, just as we did, and we've found that our incorporeal forms can directly affect electrical systems. A million scientists, no longer restrained by language barriers, are devising a plan to sabotage whatever the aliens do next.

We're betting that they won't want to live on a haunted planet.


01 October 2008

Audio: Test Post

First paragraph of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, read by Curtis C. Chen. [Download mp3]


Happy Birthday to Me!

And here's a present for you, reader: Not only will I publish a story here every Friday, I'll also post an audio version of myself reading that story. D and I really enjoyed listening to audio books during our road trip this past summer, and I didn't take a full year of voice acting lessons for nothing.

These audio segments should be available as a podcast on iTunes. As a test, this very post includes a clip of me reading the first paragraph of a classic science fiction novel which you may recognize.

UPDATE: Okay, let's try this again. Flash audio player below, podcast-friendly enclosure link in a separate post to follow...

Let me know if you have any problems downloading the audio. And yes, I will get a better microphone. Soon.


26 September 2008

Why 512?

Short answer: Because I'm a geek.

As far as I know, there is no formal definition of "flash fiction" (probably because there isn't much money in it, but that's another discussion). Most publishers want short fiction that's at least 2,000 words long. The flash fiction sites I've seen define it as pieces of fewer than 1,000 words, or fewer than 500 words.

(Aside: Yes, "fewer" is grammatically correct. All those "10 items or less" supermarket checkout signs? WRONG.)

Those limits have always seemed rather arbitrary to me. I can understand needing to define novella vs. novelette lengths, when there's a difference of tens of thousands of words, but to me, picking 1,000 instead of 900 or 1,100 feels oddly hidebound--choosing a number which seems "round" simply because biology predisposes us to base-ten numbering.

Besides, I like the 500-word range better. It's more concise, which is good for the reader who has not much free time in her busy work day; and it requires me, the writer, to have better focus. But, again, why choose 500? Why not 470 or 608 or 537?

So I choose 512. In binary, 1000000000. Two to the ninth power. Half a kilobyte. It's a computer science thing. It has more meaning to me than the number of fingers I have. If I'm going to pick a number dictated by the nature of the universe, I'm going straight to fundamentals.

Note: I'm still at VP--this post was written last week.