Monday, June 30, 2014

Dreamleaks 4: The DEMI Fires

This day had not been going well for old Toby. For starters, he planned on biking at least part of the way to work, but halfway there, he remembered he brought his laptop home to do some work on the weekend, and he wasn't about to risk that on a bike ride. Then he got to work and had almost his entire day wasted on meetings, busywork, and insipid office banter. Even right now, he had a half-dozen co-workers in his office, huddled together around a computer screen watching some stupid video while he was trying to get something finished. It had already gotten dark, and he just wanted to go home.

Of course, all of this seemed pretty trivial when the fires started.

Because he wasn't the only one staring at cats being morons, he noticed it before anyone else. The office complex just next to their own glowed from within, an intense light that shattered any remnants of a normal work day. For just a moment, as he saw the panicked figures screaming through the building's glass entrance way and even hotter blue flame build among the more “normal” red flames, Tobias could only stare in horror. And then he burst out of office, moments ahead of their own evacuation, while babbling “no, no, no, no, no!” to himself. Not fire, anything but fire. Not with what he knew about Data Efficiency Management, Inc., his employer, and the secrets he knew about his co-workers.

Both DEMI and the other office complex were some distance from the rest of the city, down the hill in a little side road all their own. Even so, as Toby and the rest of his office made their way outside, he could hear the wail of the incoming fire trucks, assuring Toby that no act of insane heroism on his part would be needed, that the actual professionals would take it from here. Even so, Toby could barely fathom the horrors he witnessed around him, too stark for even the endless blaring lights and sirens around him to drown out. He saw one EMT crew frantically try to save a man with a gaping hole blasted in his chest even going so far as to massage the poor victim's heart from the inside! And as the fire went out and the smoke cleared, he saw people sprawled out on the ground and stairwells, looking no different than if they were sleeping. Which, Toby tried to rationalized, they could be. It's not like the firefighters and ambulance crews would just leave people, not after the fires had stopped. Right?

Before he could think bout it more, he learned that his boss Irene had called a department-wide meeting to discuss the fire and what it meant. Toby, under the excuse of needing some fresh air, stayed behind as long as he could. The last thing he needed after all this was dealing with Irene. Irene was a hard-ass on her best days, and something like this would make her into a tyrant. Even worse, she wasn't in the loop about the important stuff. Toby was, and if Irene wanted answers, Toby might not be able to bluff his way out of it.

See, DEMI isn't just a mediocre network solutions company. They're secretly a safe harbor for refugees, refugees that most people wouldn't even believe existed. People with powers beyond what science can explain, perhaps, or with a heritage including some creature that shouldn't exist. He knows for a fact that the receptionist is, in fact, some kind of mer-creature. And his office friend Tessa, the one with the burn scars on her arms? That wasn't just the result of some childhood accident, it turned out. Tessa is a pyrokinetic who came about her powers at a really bad time. But Toby knows Tessa. She's harmless. There's no way she could be responsible for something like this. Could she?

As he pondered this, however, he saw flames billow up in the other building again. And this time, they flowed through the power and gas lines to his office as well. Since everyone was still returning after the last fire, they made it out safely this time. But two fires separated by mere hours? This couldn't be an accident.

The firefighters arrived even sooner this time. Hell, they probably didn't even all make it back to the station yet. But while this second fire was put out almost immediately and without any casualties as horrific as the first, it was clear that the firefighters had the same suspicions that Toby had, if not exactly the same theories about the cause. It was clear that the police would be here soon, and this time, Irene didn't even wait for people to get back into the office before she ordered her entire department into another meeting some distance from the building.

But Toby couldn't have imagined what she did next. As soon as they were out of sight, she pulled out a gun and yelled, “Everyone, on your knees! NOW!” Once they got over their shock, Toby and his coworkers complied, Tessa included. Toby couldn't say what would happen next, but he had two guesses. First, Irene was in fact responsible for the fires herself and she wanted to get everyone's silence before the police came asking, one way or another. But not even Irene could be so homicidal, Toby thought. Theory two is that she also believes these fires were started by someone, and so of course her first instinct was to blame it on her underlings. That's so Irene. Of course, Toby also knew she could be exactly right. So what would he do? What even counted as the right thing to do? Would he keep his friend's confidence, knowing that to expose her or her powers would likely be a death sentence or worse? Or keep quiet, risk his own life, and possibly let an arsonist go free do cause more death and destruction?

Toby had no idea what to do. But he knew that whatevre happened, it was going to get messy.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Cutting, part 2

Last time we met I expended some calories on the usefulness of cutting what you have written.  Today I thought I would provide some details on what I mean.

Here is a an opening to a short fiction (approx. 700 words) I've been working on as practice to keep as concise as possible.  It opens:

    It is easy to take a person; they won’t be missed right away. The key is to not break their timing. If they are out for a walk, they may be missed within an hour. Take them when they are going to the store, maybe two hours. A movie or church, three hours, (but really, who goes alone?). My personal favorite is shopping. No one know how long they will be gone, so that if you can take them when they first depart you can have upwards of six hours before someone starts to worry.

Originally the opening was much simpler: "It is easy to take a person."  In the early drafts this was important to me, and later I expounded on "why". In the cutting exercise I removed the why until it was time to reveal that part of the character and in its place set the "how".

Notice I have not written "How", as in "How" to actually take a person. In truth that is the "easy part" from the opening sentence. What I need is an emotional commitment from the reader, and I do this by providing common situations the reader may find themselves in. Everyone, at one time or another, goes to the store alone. When I plant that seed of belief in the mind of the reader, I then spring the trap, forcing the reader to see themselves in the situation.

Nobody sees a white minivan. Nobody.


the door slides open, a swift push of the cattle prod and they fall right in, rolled in plastic and taped shut. I drive off and no one ever sees them again.

Revealing the psychotic behavior in the voice I use, I rely on the reader to envision themselves in the position of the victim, and finding themselves in greater peril as I remove the rules of normal social behavior. This is someone among us, driving a plain white mini-van, watching for an opportunity. I have removed all the pretense and backstory of why. It doesn't need to be there, at least not yet.

From here I build a bit of backstory with only hints of "Why". The reason is two-fold:
  • It cements the psychosis of the voice, allowing the reader an edge of comfort in their belief. (This is then immediately rewarded.)
  • Set the stage for the final reveal.

The reward I mentioned comes in the next part of the story:

     The walls are gray and smell like disinfectant. The people wear white, some with many keys. I smile at all of them, but they don’t like me.

In a perfect world evil is locked away tight. I do not have to use the phrase mental hospital. I also do not have to explain how or why the voice was caught. It doesn't matter. The reader finds a moment of comfort that the evil is now locked away.

So now the voice of the story has shown that he is evil and that he is locked away. I am not expecting the reader to feel at all sorry for him, but I need to give a hint of insight before the end.

     Criminally insane. That’s the phrase I couldn’t remember. So much is a fog now, I shuffle across hard linoleum from one room to the next, my robe hanging open. Most times I don’t care. I like the colors on the quiet TV. I like the little candy pills in the paper cup. The water tastes funny and isn’t that cold. I can smell something decaying, but it is fleeting; vaporous.

I'm about 600 words into the story and thus far the voice has taken people and buried them away:

      I sit at the steel mesh window and watch the trees and sky. So clear and clean. The woods far off remind me of my other life, the cabin and my van, the people and all the holes I dug. So many holes. So many bones. The shovels were well worn.

And here I could end, evil tucked away from society and good prevails. But where is the fun in that? And are you sure you know the difference between good and evil?

I have about 100 words left to change your mind.

Other blog posts by Eric Michalsen
Follow Eric on Twitter @michalsen or catch up on his rantings at his blog.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Tele-Reality Conference Call

I figured I wrote enough stories from dreams lately, so it would make sense to mix things up and write a story about dreams this time.

Tele-Reality Conference Call

Melinda was not having the best day. It was the end of the quarter, profits were down, and the future of her business rode on the success of a single business venture. And Todd, the hypothetical brains behind the entire venture, was on the other side of the world, which rather inconveniently still lingered around 2 am while she and the rest of her department was ready for their afternoon business meeting.

Melinda looked around her office and sighed. Todd promised he would attend the meeting via remote access, but it's been almost twenty minutes since the meeting started and still no sign of him. She already called him twice and got no response. The fool must have fallen asleep, she figured. She looked over the table full of eager yet terrified underlines and said, “Sorry, people. I know we're days before deadline, but there's not much point in even having this discussion without Todd present. I'll just have to postpone the meeting and hope that...”

“No, wait! I'm here, I'm here!” Todd, or rather the monitor that Todd should be connected to, burst into life. Todd was visibly on the other end, but something looked … off about him. “Sorry I'm late, Melinda. I'm using a new networking tool and it took a while for me to figure it out.”

“Better late than never,” Melinda warned, “but not by much. I worried you fell asleep.”

“Oh, I did!” Todd said. “Still am, actually. But it's fine. I got the Dreamchat all set up last night, just in case that happened.”

The rest of the table turned into a cacophony of whispers and questions. Melinda did her best to ignore them. “I'm sorry, are you seriously trying to speak to us through your dreams?”

“Not through, exactly,” Todd insisted. “More like I happened to be in a dream, while talking to you. I assure you, my mind is as active and focused as always. The Dreamchat auto-initiates lucid dreaming. Just treat this as any other business chat, except I'm talking to you on the back of a flying purple walrus.”

Now that she thought about it, she did hear about this Dreamchat system. But she thought it was still in the prototype phase, waiting for enough idiots dumb enough to expose their inner minds to the world at large. And speaking of expose, she just realized what looked off about Todd.

“Todd, are you NAKED?”

He looked down and blushed. “Oh, crap,” he said. “I'm sorry. You know those dreams where you're back at school and suddenly have to take a test you didn't prepare for, and also you're naked? My subconsciousness must have thought this was one of those dreams.”

“Well, dream yourself some clothes,” Melinda demanded. “I don't care if you're in the office or on the back of a fantasy mammal, you will honor our dress code.” As she ordered her subordinate, however, Melinda noticed a dark figure looming over him. “Todd, look out!”

Todd whirled around, gasped, and fled away from the … camera. Melinda suddenly wondered how the camera could possibly work in this scenario, but they had bigger problems. The evil presence chased Todd to the edge of the walrus and drew ever closer, giggling in a sinister but scratchy voice.

“Todd, what the hell is that?”

“It's my childhood fear,” Todd explained. “Dirk Tinglestar, the evil cowboy clown.”

“That's right, little Toddy,” Dirk laughed. “Now reach for the sky! It's time for you to face me, or it's for you to die!”

Melinda tried to take this seriously, but she couldn't suppress the giggle. “Dirk Tinglestar? Really?”

“Yeah, you know, black hat, white face,” Todd nervously explained. “I've had nightmares about him ever since I was six, when I thought I saw him looming outside my bedroom one night. It turned out to just be a jacket hanging in the hallway, but try telling my subconscious that!”

Dirk, meanwhile, finally noticed Melinda and the rest of the increasingly confused businesspeople on the other side of reality, and left Todd alone to creep towards them. “Oh, we have guests for tonight's show! Just for them, I'll make sure you die extra slow.” As Dirk got closer to the camera though, he frowned. “What's all this?” he snarled.

“Sir, if you would please stop tormenting my director of new business!,” Melinda said, using her best executive tone of voice. “He is a grown man, not a child for you to bully, and we do not have the time for this. If we can't get this deal finished, then we'll be in the red, which will greatly displease me. And then you AND Todd will have a much bigger nightmare to deal with, capiche?”

Dirk drew even closer, until a single hideous eye dominated the screen. “Oh, no, this won't do at all,” Dirk said. “Little Toddy didn't account for growth in the public sector. If you ignore that, your profits will soon fall.”

“He didn't what?” Melinda turned back tot he table, where all the materials Todd should have needed for the presentation were scattered across the table. She gave them a cursory glance and realized the evil dream cowboy clown was right. “Oh, that's an excellent point,” she said. “What's your opinion on market change in the next fiscal year?”

Before Dirk could respond, though, he vanished, replaced again by Todd. “Sorry about that,” Todd shouted. “It's okay, I got away. Dirk shouldn't bother us again tonight.”

Melinda did her best to hide her disappointment. Besides, it sounded like Todd had another problem she would have to deal with. “Todd, I can barely hear you. What is all that whistling in the background?”

Todd looked around and shrugged. “Oh, I seem to be falling to my death,” he explained. “Not a problem. Judging by the distance to the ground, I should have a good five or ten minutes before I reach the ground. And everyone knows that you never actually die in a falling dream.”

“Well, when you wake up, would you care to join us on the call in the real world?” she asked.

“Oh, you don't want that,” Todd assured her. “I'm useless right after I wake up. Give me some time to get a few cups of coffee, and I'll call you back then.”

Melinda held her hand to her forehead. Twenty minutes late, ten minutes of this nonsense, and she knows that Todd would be at least half an hour before he can drag himself to a physical computer. “Never mind, Todd,” she told him. “Just go back to bed.”

“Oh, okay?” Todd said, confused. “But I thought this meeting was mandatory.”

“Oh, it is,” she told him. “So get your ass back here as soon as you start dreaming again. And could you do us a favor and dream of Dirk again? He sounded like he had some insights we could use.”

“Are you serious?” Todd yelled. “Ma'am, Dirk is a nightmarish apparition, the total of my darkest instincts and fears.”

“I'm an equal opportunity employer, Todd. I don't care about whether you technically exist or not. I just care if you can get results.”