Tag Archives: Forty-Minute Story

Forty-Minute Story: Rimshot

Ben Trube’s writing challenge: Write a story in which two characters are having a conversation in a public place, and a stranger cuts in. Or conversely, write a story in which your character cuts in on a conversation between two strangers.

Quark polished a glass. “So I told him, look, Julian, the holosuite programs come on a strictly as-is basis, no refunds. You want to fight the Battle of Hastings, great, that’s exactly what you get. Not my fault if you can’t understand what anybody’s saying.”

“Mmm.” Odo surveyed the bar.

“Now the chief’s recalibrating the Universal Translator to handle Old English. I said, you’re kidding! You can talk to any alien in the quadrant, but you can’t speak your own language? Even if it is a little out of date. Not that I mind, you understand. The suite hasn’t seen this much use since Worf discovered chess boxing.”

“I see.”

“Odo, you’re looking even more sour than usual. Personally, I’m impressed. Tell me what’s bothering you.”

Odo studied him. “Why should I?”

“Because I’m your friend! That’s what friends do. Besides, I can help.”

“Ha!”

“You forgot Kira’s birthday, didn’t you?”

The constable’s eyes shot open wide. “How did you – ”

“It was yesterday, and today you’re moping. The clues were obvious.”

“I’m not moping. Anyway, why do you know the Major’s birthday?”

“The Major? Is that what you call her on your long starlit walks down the Promenade? No wonder you’re in trouble.”

“We’re in space, Quark. Every walk is a starlit walk. And I’m not in trouble. Not exactly.”

“You’re not? What did she say?”

“She said – ” Odo looked around and lowered his voice as if imparting Federation secrets. “She said it was fine. She said birthdays are silly.”

“But?”

“But she hasn’t said anything else since then.”

“Ah. I knew it. Odo, the answer is simple. All you need to do is – ”

“Pardon me, gentlemen.” The interloper wore a dapper suit with tie and trench coat. Dress and accent suggested early 21st-century England, with a touch of…something. Schizophrenia, perhaps? “I couldn’t help overhearing. You’re having lady problems, and I happen to be something of an expert. May I offer my assistance?”

Odo scowled. “And you are?”

“The Doctor, of course. Listen – Odo, was it? You’re made out of fluid? I mean, aren’t we all, but it’s a bit more fluidy in your case, isn’t it?” The Doctor’s lip curled as he looked him up and down. “Turn into any shape in the galaxy, can you?”

“That’s more or less what shape shifters do,” Odo said dryly. “Do I know you?”

“Doubtful! But listen, Constable, the solution is obvious. Here’s what you want to do. Transform into a loaf of bread. Get on a shuttle. Actually, get on the shuttle first, then turn into bread. The key thing is that you’re bread. Follow? Now, launch yourself into the corona of the Bajoran sun.”

“And why,” said Odo, “would I do anything as idiotic as that?”

“Because you, my friend, are toast.” The Doctor clapped him on the shoulder. “Cheers!”

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Forty-Minute Story: “Snow”

View

View from my house yesterday afternoon

She seems distracted. Looking at the snow.

“They can’t all be unique,” she says.

We’re in the family room, curled up together on the couch. On the television, Walt’s yelling at Jesse about something. She pays no attention. Fireplace off, central heat kicking. From under her blanket she’s looking at the snow.

“Snowflakes?” I say.

“Since the dawn of time, there must have been…” She cocks her head, doing the math. “Ninety-nine gazillion snowflakes. No way none of them gets a dupe. Sooner or later, we’re bound to get a repeat.”

“What happens then?”

She lights up, hands clutching at unseen foes. “Then it’s a sign!”

“A sign.”

“The end times! Snowmageddon! Hailpocalypse! Icenarok!” She punches her palm. “Bam, just like that. Snow runs out of ideas, it’s all over, baby. Hell hath no fury like a macroscopic ice crystal scorned.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah!”

Her eyes go dreamy, and I know I’ve lost her. I bring her back with a kiss. We sit in silence for a time. More yelling on the TV. I feel like I’ve watched this scene somewhere before.

“Maybe,” I whisper, “they’re all fragments of the same giant primordial flake. When the meteor smashed the dinosaurs, it also smashed Flakezilla, and all the ones we get now are just the pieces. So in a way, maybe they’re all the same.”

She considers this. As she cogitates, she absently licks her lips, and I restrain the urge to kiss her again. I want to know what she’s going to say.

“Flakezilla?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s stupid.”

Well. I tried.

“I love you,” I offer instead.

She smiles, utterly unique.

Forty-Minute Story: The Attack

They came from the sky, and they came at night.

Some scream when you shoot them down, metal limbs shrieking to shrapnel, red occulosensors crackling to oblivion. Some wilt mournfully in the air, resigning to the hail of our bullets. Some break in half and become pairs of jerking, frenzied robotic targets.

But there are always more.

The Rain of Drones started October 2, 2017. A Monday. NASA had tracked the meteor as it sidled up to our planet, noting its proximity, triple-checking the numbers to make sure it wouldn’t hit. Nobody’s calculations expected it to slow down, break into a trillion attack bots, and descend like titanium snow for months.

Except – well, I wonder sometimes if “attack” is the right word.

Don’t get me wrong, they wreaked hell at the start. The first few that landed, each one reared up on its hind legs, planted itself firmly on the spot, and declared itself lord of everything in a one-kilometer radius. Said declaration came in the form of pulsing energy spheres blasting anything that moved. Thousands died. You don’t need to feel sorry for these things.

But I do, a little.

I get my job done. I shoot the suckers down. We’ve got jets in the air 24/7 now spinning a web of fire for the nasty little flies. We’re very good. Less than one in a thousand gets through.

They’re not a threat anymore. They just keep falling, a few at a time. There’s no pattern we can make out, no strategic targeting. Most would land in the ocean if we didn’t get ’em, just sit at the bottom, taking potshots at crabs.

One crashed in the Sahara. We can’t get close enough to capture it – the damn thing just goes crazy if you get anywhere near. We could blast it from a distance, of course, but it’s not hurting anyone out there, so we’re studying it instead.

They’ve learned plenty about the technology, the engineering, all very classified. But here’s what I’ve learned. If you leave them alone, they don’t attack.

Why?

What’s the plan? Why scatter them randomly without picking targets? Why make them so vulnerable on the way down? Why not take territory once they land?

Why do I feel so strange about blowing them apart without a fight, day after day?

Some say it’s Judgment Day, the end of everything. I figure God could’ve sat back and left that job to us, saved Himself the trouble.

Some say it’s only phase one of a bigger attack, that these are scouts to test our defenses. Except they’re not broadcasting signals, and they’re not moving. What the hell kind of scouts are those?

Everybody’s got theories.

But me?

I don’t know. I suppose if I had to guess – well, it doesn’t feel like they’re attacking. It doesn’t feel like they expected us to be here at all.

It feels like somebody’s coming home.

40-Minute Story: The Recitation

Marissa’s young face furrowed in concentration as she stood, holding the musty book. She propped elbows against hips to support its great bulk.

“The Spell of Knowledge,” she intoned, mimicking Ada’s stern recitations. But she spared a glance out the wide window, which flooded the cramped library room with late morning sun. It was springtime, outside.

Marissa shifted uncomfortably as she bore the book’s weight. Why did all these spells have to be bound in a single heavy volume? Shouldn’t there be a better way to organize them?

“First invocation,” Ada commanded. She studied Marissa intently from the dim corner where she sat, plump hands folded on her russet robe. Marissa’s own coarse sleeves itched at her wrists, but she knew better than to try and scratch.

“H, T, T, P,” she pronounced. “Colon!” Now she raised her left arm and chopped the air twice, quickly, so as not to drop the spellbook. “Slash, slash!”

Her gestures were sloppy, she knew, but Ada said only, “Second invocation.”

Marissa hesitated. “It says ‘Optional,’ Madam.”

“You will know the long forms as well as the short.”

“Yes, Madam.” It was a brief line anyway. “Double-U, double-U, double-U.” She stabbed the air. “Dot!”

“The pronouncement.”

Sternly now, drawing out the two syllables of the word of power. “GOO-gle.”

“And the coda.”

“Dot co. Dot U, K.”

“You may sit.”

Marissa sat down more quickly than was proper, resting the book on her lap and rubbing the fire from her biceps. “How was that?” She nearly added, Can I go outside now? but thought better of it.

Ada sighed. “Dearest Marissa,” she said. “I love you like my own daughter, but I worry what will become of a girl who cannot focus her mind on these crucial tasks. You know we are the only tome-readers left in this village. Your brother is out toiling in the corn field, sweating under the sun. Without the proper daily recitations, for Fortune and Increase and even Knowledge, the crops will die and his hard work will be for nothing. Mind, I said proper recitations, with purpose and a full heart, and a focused spirit.”

Marissa slumped in disappointment. There would be no escape this morning. “Did I not read the passage correctly, Madam?”

“Correctly? Hmph! Do you suppose correctness is all a spell requires? It isn’t just the words, child. You must mean it from your toes to your scalp. But you would rather be out there, playing in the yard with your…your strange toys…”

“They aren’t toys!” Arguing never worked, but she couldn’t help herself. “They’re the pieces of an old transistor radio, from before the Worldfire. If I could just put them together right, I know I could…well, I don’t know what, but those old machines have to do something!”

Ada rose. “Do you know the story of your name, Marissa?”

“Yes, Madam.” If she was getting the name lecture, there was definitely no escape this morning.

“Your namesake was Marissa Mayer, the great sorceress. She, too, lived before the Worldfire. She helped write the Google spells, and she led the wizards of Yahoo. She had a purpose, child. A passion for her work, for her magic. Do you think she wasted her time on these, these…what did you call them? Transistors?”

Marissa bowed her head, though not with humility. She was hiding the rebellion in her eyes. But she stayed silent.

“Study the tomes, child,” said Ada. “There will be time enough later for games.”

Forty-Minute Story: A Distant World

Daktor strode into the room like a conqueror, and that’s exactly what she was. She held out her purple, scaly fingers in a gesture of command. It was important to be regal, no matter who she addressed. Even if it was a computer.

“Speak, Voice,” she ordered. “Tell me about these humans. Theirs is a distant world, but General Noth advances in their direction. I hear many conflicting rumors of their kind, and I would know the truth.”

The ship’s computer was a vaguely cylindrical mass of metal and polymer casing, enclosing such strange and mystical circuits as even Daktor dared not imagine. It spoke in a harsh synthetic tone. “Enlightened One, these creatures are no threat to your navy.”

She frowned. “I have heard of their skill. With ships, with technology. They have colonized three of the nearby systems, have they not?”

“It is so, Enlightened One.”

“How do you know they are not a threat?”

“They were a race of toolmakers, Enlightened One. They achieved nuclear fission and interstellar drive early in their history. But they have fallen.”

“Fallen – how? The technology is gone?”

“The tools remain, but the toolmakers have grown weak. They engineered such clever devices that they had no more need of toil, of skill. Pampered by their machines, they ceased to study, and they forgot how to invent new things. A few of the old builder clans remain, but it takes all their effort just to maintain the ancient ways. They do not innovate.”

Daktor smiled. “Like a thousand other worlds. Prey to their own genius. Once I have pushed my borders beyond them, I will teach them new ways. Our ways. The ways of strength.”

“So it will be, Enlightened One.”

Daktor strode out of the room like a conqueror.

A panel in the corner shifted, and two heads poked out of a supply cache, scanning the room. Their faces were not purple or scaly, but soft and smooth. Daktor would have thought they looked weak, had she been there. But Daktor had moved on.

“They bought it,” one said to the other. “Let’s move.”

———-

For those who don’t know, Forty-Minute Stories are a semi-regular feature here. I write each one in (shocker!) forty minutes or less, in the mornings before work. If you liked this one, there are plenty more.

Forty-Minute Story: Field Trip

Although Nishant stood away from the other fourth-graders, staring into space, he listened to Mrs. Carlson more carefully than any of them.

She was calling names.

“Rachel.”

“Here.”

Rachel wasn’t a good name, he thought. Not that he had anything against the girl, though Nishant did wish she’d wash her hands a little more often. Rather, it was the name itself. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t…work.

“Tom.”

“Here!”

Now Tom, that was a good name. So many possibilities. You could add an e and make one of his favorite words, tome, which meant book. Or you could switch the T to an R and create ROM, which was a Super NES game. Or maybe…

He trailed off as he noticed Rachel, like him, wandering a short distance from the group that was clustered around the school bus. With her sticky hands, she tugged at a cone on a short tree that bristled with needle-like leaves. He remembered it was called a fir – a word he had learned in Life Science only yesterday.

Fir. Now there was a word. It practically screamed with possibility.

“Nishant.”

He was vaguely aware of his name being called, but he didn’t care. He was staring at the tree. He could feel it in his mind – the tree itself, and its word. They weren’t separate things. It was all one. Fir.

“Nishant Balan!”

He’d had inklings of this before, but never so strongly. It called to him. It was itching to change.

“Nishant, there you are! Please pay attention. All right. Amy.”

All it would take was one extra letter, one extra vowel, to nudge it into…

With an awful whoosh, the tree mushroomed into a pillar of fire, licking the sky with red and orange. Rachel screamed, staggering back and clutching her face. The scream and the fire set off shouts from all the kids, and Mrs. Carlson came running over. “Rachel, Rachel, are you all right?” The three digits she tapped into her cell phone answered her own question. Rachel kept screaming.

Nishant stared, a sick feeling rising in his gut. He’d done this. He hadn’t known quite what would happen, certainly hadn’t meant to hurt anyone. But hadn’t he pushed the tree toward fire? He was responsible. What would his mother say if she could see him now? The girl didn’t look too badly injured, but she was in so much pain.

The fire was spreading into nearby trees, though the original blaze had already died down to the size of a small campfire. Nothing was left of the tree. It had been completely incinerated.

No, thought Nishant. Not incinerated. Replaced.

He concentrated on Rachel again, reaching out with his mind, feeling the pain in her hands, her cheeks. So much pain. But pain was a good word, too. Not good to experience, but good for transforming into…

The stormclouds unfurled in seconds like an apocalyptic banner, and the sky spilled torrents of rain. The spreading flames flickered and died under that colossal gray. The children surged inside the shelter of the bus.

And Rachel –

She sat up. The burn remained on her face, but she had stopped crying. Her agony had vanished. Bemused, the teacher ushered her and Nishant on to the bus as well, still speaking rapidly into the phone.

As Nishant took his seat, dripping small puddles onto the floor, he gazed out the window through the curtain of streaming water. The storm was subsiding. He couldn’t help but smile. Through the swirl of competing questions and ideas, one thought dominated his nine-year-old brain.

I need to buy a thesaurus.

Forty-Minute Story: Reboot

The Goodtimes Jukebox was fourteen kilometers across and extended three kilometers down into the rocky crust of Titan, Saturn’s great orange moon. Every second of every day it pumped in millions of cubic meters of nitrogen and methane and ethane, churned it through eighty-three kilometers of underground pipes, sifted it through vessel after vessel and unit after unit, and finally spat out its end product.

The machine broadcast happiness, pure human happiness, to the entire solar system. All across the colonies orbiting Neptune, Jupiter, and Venus, on Mars and Luna, and even on good old Earth, 200 billion people went about their daily lives with small smiles of deep, genuine satisfaction, free from anxiety and unhappiness and fear, courtesy of the nonstop stream of 5.6-kHz J-waves broadcast direct from Titan, courtesy of the Goodtimes Jukebox.

Angie Ming was happy, sitting in a small room in the heart of the machine, surrounded by softly pulsing displays and touchscreen controls. She had been happy just about her entire life, even though she was all alone here, a leftover relic from a much larger human staff that had gradually been replaced by robotic attendants. Now she was Chief Operator of an empty room, 59 years old, with no other career prospects in sight.

None of that bothered her in the slightest.

Nor was she worried that she was about to turn off the source of her contentment. Every eleven years, the culmination of a vast internal cycle that no single human any longer fully understood, she would flip the switch and the great machine would take an hour of rest, to reboot and start up fresh for another eleven years of nonstop warm fuzziness.

Angie Ming tapped her screen for the eighth time, laughing quietly at the precautions, as she indicated that yes, she really really did want to do this. The speakers bing-ed softly, the lights flickered, and with a titanic groan that settled into a fourteen-kilometer-wide sigh, the Goodtimes Jukebox turned off its tune.

All of humanity had taken the day off work, she knew, in preparation for this scheduled calamity. They would be hunkered down at home, or in specially designed shelters where they were robotically monitored for signs of suicidal leanings. She herself felt the contentment and certainty gradually drain from her skull, the slow tightening in her chest, the heavier breath, the vast loneliness of the mechanical behemoth that had swallowed her whole. She looked at her reflection on a chrome panel, pinched the strands of gray hair with an uncharacteristic worry. For the first time in eleven years she felt rather than knew that someday – at least half a century distant, to be sure – she would certainly die.

And then she remembered Walter.

Walter, the man who had given her his surname, the man who had given up his teaching job on Io to move with her into this robotic dungeon. Who had held her hand all through the last reboot, who had smiled at her through his own pain with kind gray eyes. Walter, for whom death was no gray-haired abstraction.

Hot tears spilled down her face, and for a miniature eternity she cradled herself in her arms, as human beings were doing all across their far-flung islets of civilization. She rocked forward and back, propelled by the deep-rolling waves of grief, the last real piece of him she had left.

The screen lit up again, and slowly she raised her red eyes to see.

Reboot complete. Reactivate? Y/N

She stared, as if freshly woken from an ancient dream. She lifted her hand but did not touch the screen. She sat this way for a long, long time, feeling the question and its answer circling in her heart.

Reboot complete. Reactivate? Y/N