Category Archives: Play with the Prose

Spookymilk Play With The Prose — Playoff Challenge #2: One Month To Live

Round 2 of the Play with the Prose playoffs — okay, I’ll admit it: I was a little peeved about advancing out of round 1. It’s not like I phoned it in or anything, but last week and this week have been busy, and I wouldn’t have been too heartbroken to have had my season end. Still, I’m still in it, so the new challenge was to write about someone knowing they have one month to live, in 500 words or fewer.

Hal noticed the large foldout tucked into a family history book from the recently discovered cache of his late, great uncle’s memorabilia. All the intricate writing and curiously connecting lineages of the family tree drawn upon it absolutely fascinated him. Tracing various lines with his finger, he located his Uncle Ted, where Ted’s remarriage a month ago was duly recorded…and yet, this book had been in storage for at least four years. Hal noticed other recent family events were also noted with their dates as well. Looking closer, he began to identify dates in the future, some as far as 2080. How could that be? And then he froze at an item in his own small rectangle:

Harlan Joseph MILLER
DOD 10-5-2012

His own death, barely one month away! Hal quickly refolded the page like it was about to burst into flames, and put it back on the shelf.

For the next four weeks as Hal tried to go about his life as a HS sophomore, when he thought about the prophetic missive he found himself alternating between an icy chill down his back and uneasily trying to dismiss it. He never told anyone – how could he? He wasn’t sure he believed it himself.

On that fateful day, Hal thought about saying something on his Facebook page, but couldn’t see how he could and not have it look like a suicide note. Throughout the day he kept picturing himself in bus crashes, falling down stairs, ingesting spoiled cafeteria food (which it was most days), even seeing Ms. Tingle naked and subsequently having a heart attack. Still, he returned home from school just as alive as ever.

That night he gave his parents each a hug and went to bed. He lay awake a long time, wondering how it would feel dying in his sleep, which of course kept him awake. He put his headphones on and found a good station with some quiet music playing…and came suddenly awake at three in the morning. Hal threw off his headphones, got up, and walked over to the storage room and lifted down the box containing the family history book. He carried it back to his bedroom, where he carefully unfolded the large page under his desk lamp. There is was, just as he’d remembered it. This time, though, he scrutinized the area around his name closer.

Married 6-6-2018

There was a wife, kids, grand kids – his line continues! After spending over an hour tracing different lines and studying the foldout further, Hal came to a conclusion: he’d found more than one name misspelled and other minor discrepancies – his death date was a typo. Hal sat back in his chair, a heavy weight lifted off his chest. He refolded the page, flipped off the desk lap, and climbed back into bed. The last thought he had before falling back asleep was, “I need to check Facebook and find out who Carly Lynn Fassbender is!”

So…what happens now? RESULTS

The judges’ comments:
K: I rather enjoyed the fact that I finished with a happy ending this week. I always like that, actually, to cleanse my palate after the ball-kicking depression everyone else puts me through. The story is told in too unexciting a way – I think there was potential to show us some close calls with death before the narrator finds out he was all wrong – but I like where the story took me in the end. The theme was a bit of a cheat, but for me, it was fine. BRONZE

P: This sort of feels like cheating. It’s also a little weird to have Facebook be such an integral part of the story (being referenced often). I really like the idea of a person finding a family tree book with prophetic information in it, but the fact that it’s riddled with typos sort of ruins it for me. BRONZE

  • My work with genealogy gave me my initial idea for this one. And my work with family tree documents riddled with typos (like my own, no doubt) led to the final direction.
  • Not a whole lot of body to this one, but what do you want with 500 words?

Time to do some exploring now for some well-deserved rest!

Thanks again to spooky and Nibbish for your fine adjudicating, and to all the other participants, and best of luck in the finals!

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Spookymilk Play With The Prose — Playoff Challenge #1: Small Decision/Huge Consequences

Round 1 of the Play with the Prose playoffs, for which I qualified as one of the top six in the regular season — the challenge is to write a 500-word or fewer work in which a seemingly small decision results in huge consequences later on.

Sept. 23, 1999
Mars loomed large in front of the Mars Climate Orbiter as it sped towards its rendezvous. After gliding through space for 286 days, MCO had finally reached the critical point in its journey where the orbit insertion burn would occur. Unfortunately, the orbiter was 100 kilometers closer to Mars that it should have been, and its struggling engines overheated in the Martian atmosphere. Instead of slowing into an ever-decreasing parabolic orbit, it plowed across the thin atmosphere and escaped Mars’ gravity to be lost for good.

Jan. 13, 1997
Jeff Kehler, a software engineer with Lockheed Martin, relaxed in his Colorado home, a remote in his hand. He had scrolled through most of the cable channels when he stumbled upon a rerun of the first episode of Cosmos. He was pretty sure he hadn’t seen it since it first ran back when he was in college, so he settled down for a little guilty pleasure. When the episode ended, it was followed immediately by the second episode, and Jeff realized that it was a Cosmos marathon! After the seventh episode, Jeff changed and got into bed, and while he knew he had final integration testing tomorrow, he also knew that his VCR wasn’t working, so he continued to stay awake, finally shutting off the TV after the last episode, at almost 4AM.

Sept. 27, 1999
While internal mission analysis had already begun, an external “MCO Failure Board” was formally commissioned. When a $125 million project fails, fingers need to be pointed. The folks at JPL in Pasadena were convinced it was the navigation software from Lockheed Martin, while the Lockheed Martin engineers in Colorado were sure it was the operations of the JPL scientists that caused the error.

Jan. 14, 1997
Jeff Kehler snapped awake in his chair in the test lab, the integration testing already well underway. He quickly tried to remember at what point he was at when he fell asleep, but could not recall for sure. In any case, the other testers were at lunch, and with a couple quick calculations he could tell that the simulation was already showing a noticeable discrepancy, no doubt due to his failure to apply the expected mid-mission flight corrections. After waffling a bit, he quickly overrode test protocols and made a manual course correction before the others returned. He then decided he’d better pause the simulation to get some coffee. The remainder of the day’s simulation completed within test tolerances.

Nov. 10, 1999
MCO Failure Board released their phase 1 report describing the probable cause of the mission failure. It was determined that a systemic failure of communication between NASA’s JPL and Lockheed Martin, specifically the use of metric versus English measuring systems, was the root cause. Deeper in the report it faulted the integration testing for failing to identify the discrepancy prior to launch. What the report failed to ultimately uncover, though, was that the blame for the huge setback to the exploration of Mars fell directly upon the late Carl Sagan.

Will there be a “next week” or not? RESULTS

The judges’ comments:
K: I love this one all over. Yes, it’s a gimmicky structure that totally works as a storytelling device and yes, the science is interesting, but there’s more than that. This is a human story about an eager character with very important shortcomings, and how those flaws affect his life and career. So many sci-fi writers forget to ask their readers to connect with a character or with a real story; this writer – and we all know who it is – NEVER forgets to do that. GOLD

P: Heh, funny. I like the back and forth narration of this story, and the joke at the end is definitely good. The perils of staying up well past one’s supposed bedtime come through time and again, though rarely with such catastrophic results. This may be the best pure example of the challenge. BRONZE

  • I meant to preface this with Based on a true story, but forgot. For the most part, the portions not focused on Jeff are true.
  • I didn’t get this finished until late as it was. I didn’t have anything come to mind otherwise, and this one really sounds a bit clinical and documentary-like. The thought that Carl Sagan could be blamed for setting back space exploration though tickled me a bit. I really need to rewatch Cosmos sometime, though.
  • I intentionally interleaved the story because, really, this thing didn’t have anything else unusual going on with it.

I seriously did not expect to be moving on after this one, and now I have a busy week to have to work out a story for the semi-final round…wish me luck.

Spookymilk Play With The Prose — Challenge #16: Goodbye

This is the last of the regular season Play with the Prose challenges, and appropriately, it’s to write a story about a goodbye in 300 words or fewer.

The last of the 127 scientists and their families had evacuated the research base and entered the austere star cruiser as the dispassionate, disembodied voice of AnTON, the base sentinel, intoned, “Eleven minutes until impact. All personnel have been accounted for and are on board.” Captain Sharperson closed the airlock to the Segel Glätten behind her, her young daughter Saffre’s hand held tightly in her own.

The approaching coronal mass ejection from the star Gliese 33, a bloated red giant, was more massive than anything they’d predicted. Not only was its radiation far greater than a human could survive, but the stream of electrons and protons would irreplaceably damage any electronics in its path — a path that included Advanced Research Outpost Tau/Omicron.

The pilot was already completing his flight preparations as the captain entered the control room, pointing her daughter to one of the strap-down seats along the back. “Captain, we’re flight-ready, but AnTON isn’t cutting us loose!”

Eight minutes to impact. Evacuation procedure three-alpha completed.

The captain ran her fingers through her hair. “Then why are we still docked, AnTON? We need to go NOW!”

I am still awaiting verbal settlement.

The captain glanced over at the pilot, who shrugged his shoulders and gestured frantically at the ship chronometer. Captain Sharperson stared furiously at the control panel. “What settlement? For God’s sake, AnTON, our procedures are complete – launch the Segel Glätten!” Only silence answered her. “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR, AnTON?!”

Saffre came up from behind the captain and held her tightly around the leg. Trembling, she whispered, “Goodbye, AnTON.”

At that moment, a tremor shook the Segel Glätten as the release locks opened up, and the base’s autopilot slowly spun the star cruiser around and into an escape vector.

Did I go out with a bang, or a whimper? RESULTS

The judges’ comments:
K: Although AnTON is just an artificial intelligence, this story is loaded with suspense and humanity. It’s a high concept that could be unintentionally comical if told with less care, but I found myself well engaged with this one. In the past few years I’ve finally become something of a sci-fi fan, and I think it’s related to the solid genre stories I get here. GOLD

P: What does AnTON stand for (other than “cheap way for Pete to like your submission”… it was only last week I professed my approval of the name). I didn’t entirely feel the tension that I maybe should have with the imminent destruction of the vessel, but the denouement (The AI just wants to be acknowledged) was very nice. SILVER

The end of the regular season: STANDINGS
I can’t be upset with a solid fourth place, good enough to reach the playoffs. I’m particularly pleased that only once didn’t I medal, something that only New Guy, the top place finisher, and I accomplished.

What’s next? Post season, baby! Now we get to separate the men from the…well, me. Time to get writing!

Spookymilk Play With The Prose — Challenge #15: Missing The Action

We had a week to work on the latest Play with the Prose challenge, so there are no excuses it’s bound to be good one week has passed. This challenge was to write a 300-word or fewer story about a character that is just away from the action.

“I may not be the sharpest blade in the razor, but I had no problem getting a security clearance here, and in this economy, a job’s a job, right? Okay trainee, just tag along with me while we walk the mail cart…

“The left door is Dr. Teliknisharma’s lab. Lots of weird stuff goes on in there. Hold it open, will you? Thanks. Looks like the doctor and staff are working in the sealed room, where the bright blue glow is behind those windows. Look, all the staff in there is jumping and waving at us — hey, how’s it goin’? – no time to visit, though…

“This next lab gives me the creeps. Dr. Spencer is pretty cool, but he works with dangerous insects and stuff, so I don’t hang out here very long. Get the door again, will you? HEY DR. SPE…oh, shhhh! He’s sleeping over there on the floor! Just lay his mail on his desk and we’ll let him sleep. He puts in some crazy long hours.

“Dr. Cortez and Dr. Helvetica work over here. They do some pretty funky stuff with lasers and things, I guess. We have to put on these goggles before we go in, but careful, it’s hard as heck to see with these things on. Hey, thanks for getting the door! MAN, I CAN HARDLY HEAR OVER THE MACHINERY AND THE SHOUTING! HAND ME THAT STACK ON THE TOP AND LET’S GET BACK OUTSIDE AGAIN! Whew — they must be running another safety drill in there or something.

“We tend to learn a lot of new names; there’s a lot of turnover here — did that sound like an explosion to you? — and often we have to learn different routes, too.”

The end RESULTS

The judges’ comments:
K: The joke comes dangerously close to wearing out its welcome, but I smiled throughout. I liked the choice of using a tour guide and had fun imagining the new hire…is he clueless, or horrified? Funny either way. GOLD

P: I should be rolling my eyes at the gag, but I laughed at just about every one. The oblivious security guard is such a trope that it’s not even funny…. only it obviously still is. BRONZE

Sitting pretty: STANDINGS

  • I wanted to write this as a one-sided discussion, much like Eric Idle’s French waiter in The Meaning of Life (NSFW). Dialog chews up word count fast, though.
  • Difficult to get across in 300 words how inept the “advanced” researchers are and how clueless our main character (“Nick”) is. Still, nothing too earth-shattering with this story, just some good fun.

With the next challenge, it’s time to say goodbye…

Spookymilk Play With The Prose — Challenge #14: Formerly An Animal

The challenge was to write a story about a character who used to be an animal, in 200 words or fewer. I took that to its extreme and decided on the 59-word limit, as an exercise.

I Sit

   I sit, unmoving, in the front hallway, glass eyes staring out of a body stretched over a wire and foam core, my mouth stitched closed and unable to warn of noises and intruders.
   How could they do this? I wish they could hear my whimpers. I thought they loved me! I itch all over. Oh God, how I itch!

Do I get away with it? RESULTS

The judges’ comments:
K: Wow, did I really not say that the character has to be human now? It would seem not, so “former animal” is fair game here. This is a little slice of Alfred Hitchcock or something, right here. SILVER

P: 59, eh? I thought as much the first time I read it. WHat this one lacks on the “spirit of the law” side of things, it certainly makes up in the “letter of the law” department”. Saying that is kind of shortchanging the story itself, though. It’s the old “no mouth, must scream” business. Awful stuff. Nicely done. SILVER

Where’s Waldo? STANDINGS

  • Yeah, the challenge probably intended the lead character to be human, but that’s not what the challenge specifically said. It’s nice that we’re given (some) leeway to stretch the limits a bit.
  • I came up with this idea rather early, but I didn’t have much meat to it, so I decided to distill it to its essence by making it a Fiction 59 format, which is much better suited to its dark theme.

Next week, a challenge that doesn’t quite hit the mark…

Spookymilk Play With The Prose — Challenge #13: In A Restaurant

This was a challenge that almost didn’t get submitted by the deadline. We were tasked with writing a story that took place in a restaurant (300 words or fewer).

Private Kohassek strolled into the dining hall, loaded up a tray of…stew? (it smelled good, at least) and sauntered over to a solitary spot at one of the vacant tables. As usual, he only had a short time to eat chow and get back to his security detail. While he ate, his eyes wandered around the large room, and they rested on a solder two tables up from him. The soldier’s uniform had begun taking on a glowing, sparkling sheen. The camo took on prismatic, multicolored hues, shifting back and forth through the visual spectrum. Kohassek jumped when they exploded into a shower of beautiful sparks.

Across the hall, Specialist Hassler had halted mid-bite (“What the hell??”) admiring the golden stalactites emerging from the ceiling. He slowly put down his utensils and climbed up onto the table, groping for the just-out-of-reach glittering treasure. He then began the futile effort of stacking the unstackable chairs to gain the necessary height.

Meanwhile, PFC Kochanski had risen slowly from her seat, transfixed by the stream of marching silver praying mantises which were spreading from the table onto the floor around it. She jerked as she bumped into Private Stodgers behind her, who was avoiding stepping into the small bottomless cavities which had appeared between the floor tiles. They then both noticed that all sorts of unusual activity had broken out around them.

After making his grand entrance, the sight in front Staff Sergeant Yaro caused him to stop short, wide-eyed and slack jawed. After quickly surveying the large room, he bellowed, “JUDAS PRIEST ON A PONY, GET ME A MEDIC, PRONTO!” at the nearest soldier, then crashed through the kitchen door like a crazed bull. “DAMMIT COOKIE! YOU’VE BEEN PICKING YOUR OWN MUSHROOMS AGAIN, HAVEN’T YOU?!”

King of Bronze — RESULTS

The judges’ comments:
K: I saw the drug angle coming within a handful of words, but it was still a lot of fun, given the writer’s commitment to calmly explaining the impossible scene. A more subtle ending, to fit with the tone, probably would’ve been funnier, but it’s nitpick week here at CdL so whatever. The use of “Kochanski” is a nod to Red Dwarf, right? BRONZE

P: Ah, mushrooms, is there any dull situation they can’t liven up? I’ve got a soft spot for the imagery of the hallucinogenically inclined, and this doesn’t disappoint. The gag at the end is basically just a confirmation of what the reader is already thinking, but it’s funny, anyway BRONZE

Ladies and gentlemen, your STANDINGS

  • I had warned Spooks that it would be dicey getting my submission in, since I was in Omaha for the last two days. I finished this off at the Omaha airport but didn’t get it sent as I had lost my internet connection and the lines were queuing before I had gotten it reestablished. When we landed in St. Louis, we sat outside the gate for an extra 25 minutes waiting for the plane in front of us to leave. When the shuttle finally dropped me off, I had less than a half hour to get home, so I had the laptop powered up beforehand so that I could make a final run-through and email it with three minutes to spare.
  • Yes, Private First Class Kochanski is a nod to Red Dwarf.

Now’s a good time to begin thinking more animalistically…

Spookymilk Play With The Prose — Challenge #12: Choosing A Leader

The challenges keep on coming! The latest: in 200 or fewer words, write a story about a group selecting their next leader. My submission:

“Everyone, let’s calm down! We had a good thing going with that last one, but sometimes a subject will wake up early, right?” The gathering of ethereal creatures mumbled their agreement. “Well, it’s time to move on. We’ve had three apply for our next subject’s dream, and if you’ll allow me, since I’m presiding tonight, I’d like to weigh in here.” The crowd again murmured assent.

“Adrienna, as much as we all love your work …” (several cheers and a wolf whistle) “…this subject has not had anything to drink this evening, she hasn’t been reading her romance novels or been dating lately, and frankly your speciality might be a little out of context. Circe, you’ve been rather busy the past several nights, so therefore I personally am leaning towards Pasiphaë this time.”

Circe, floating over on the speaker’s left, gave a slight nod of her head. “Are we all okay with Pasiphaë handling this one?” The speaker was greeted with glowing auras and vocal approval. “Great! Take over, Pasiphaë.”

“Alright everyone – we’ll need a lush Asian jungle. It’s going to have a multi-level subterranean train station…”

More bling — RESULTS

The judges’ comments:
K: Ooh, a dream team. That’s a groovy idea, and one I’d read for a lot more than 200 words. The story never reaches for a heightened stakes, which is alright in this setting, but I wonder how that’ll affect its final position. BRONZE

P: I love the concept. The idea of muse-like beings getting together to mess around with the dreams of the subject is all kinds of fun, as is the description of the different specialties. I love the vague possibilities of Pasiphaë’s contruction. The prose itself is a smidge awkward at times, but I’m still a fan. SILVER

The current STANDINGS

  • I didn’t really have a good idea for this one until I woke up the morning this was due. Yes, I did have a dream set in a jungle in India that involved a train station below ground with lots of long stairways.

Time to find a fine eating establishment now…