03 April 2009

"The Incredible Machine"

By Curtis C. Chen

Travis stepped out of the elevator and exhaled with relief. He saw only three people in line at the alcove next to the guard desk. Travis walked across the empty room to join them. Today was the day.

The guard looked up, recognized Travis, and smiled. "Back again so soon?"

Travis shrugged. "Writer's block. Besides, I might as well use up these vouchers." He pulled a bundle of green paper slips out of his bag.

The guard said, "Maybe you should try creating in a different medium. Like poetry instead of prose, or drawing sketches. You know, stimulate some different brain regions."

Travis nodded. "That's good. Maybe I should just give these to you instead of waiting for the machine."

The guard laughed and turned back to his newspaper.

The woman and two men ahead of Travis got their printouts and chattered excitedly to each other while walking back to the elevator. Travis stepped up to the machine, dialed the controls to SPECULATIVE FICTION, fed in all his vouchers, and pushed the VEND button.

He read over the first few printouts while waiting for the rest:

In a society where people have computer-mediated shared consciousness, one man discovers that others are altering his memories without his knowledge or consent. Hijinks ensue!

The second printout read:

What if all humans begin life with certain fundamental instincts that they lose quickly and can never regain—for example, infants speak their own language which adults cannot understand? What if one baby realizes that she is losing her infant-mind, and fights to keep it? What if she succeeds?

The third one was just a groaner:

In a dark future, the "Google" corporation controls all the world's information and deletes anything it has deemed undesirable. A rebel enclave seeks to preserve that knowledge. They encrypt and hide their data using Google's own servers, storing these forbidden e-books inside... TERABYTE 451.

Travis was a little annoyed that he had traded one voucher for a punchline, but he had a whole vault full of printouts at home, and they were all about to become much more valuable.

After the machine had finished vending, Travis tucked the thick sheaf of papers into his bag and looked around the room. Nobody else had lined up behind him, and the guard was deep into the sports section.

Travis pulled the ball-peen hammer out of his bag and attacked the machine. He knew exactly where it was most vulnerable. He smashed the control panel, the dispenser slot, and the main power line before the guard wrestled him back from the alcove.

"What the hell are you doing?" the guard shouted. He yanked away the hammer and pinned Travis to the ground. "You've ruined it! Why would you do that?"

Travis smiled, reached into his shirt pocket, and handed the guard a crumpled old printout:

In a world where all good ideas are dispensed from a single machine, one man corners the market by stockpiling hundreds of ideas—and then destroying the machine!


Audio: "The Incredible Machine"


Music: 'Chorus Guitar' and 'Guitars' stems from "Mandelbrot Set" by Jonathan Coulton, licensed under Creative Commons.

At last, a semi-legitimate use for my movie trailer announcer voice!

Film geeks may also suppose that "Travis" is a reference to the character played by Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver.


Going Meta

Thanks to Jeff, Loren, and Corby for supplying certain of this week's 512 words. They are just a few of the people who have been emailing me story ideas. While I appreciate the thought, I don't really need any more ideas right now. Executing on the ideas I already have--for short fiction, novels, and screenplays, among other things--is more than enough work.

Last Monday, I received my rejection from Clarion 2009. The good news is, this year's form letter was very encouraging, and I've already put my two application stories into turnaround with my VPXII manuscript critique group. I've got high hopes for revising both "Persuasion" (based on "Bachelor of Science") and "Prisoner" (a longer version of "Prisoner") into salable shape.

This is my 27th week of doing 512 Words or Fewer, which means I've officially crossed the halfway point. I still don't know if I'll continue this project past the one-year mark, but so far, it's gotten me to write a lot more (and on a greater variety of topics) than I would have otherwise. Business types call that a "net positive!"