Monday, January 9, 2012

Spookymilk Survivor X: Aladdin's Lamp

Last week, Vogons had to do the first non-trivial voting out of the competition. Everyone submitted again this week, so voting is actually important again this week. Will Vogons be voting another one of their number out? Or will they be Vogoning all over their competition? Read on.

This week's challenge was "Aladdin's Lamp", a twist on the old "three wishes" myth. The protagonist of the story was allowed three wishes - one had to have a good result, one a bad result, and one an ambiguous result. How'd I do with such a task? Let's find out...

Here's my story:

Caleb Parker was a cheerful man.
That he put a gun to his head and fired was shocking enough. That his estranged ex-wife wordlessly handed me a white business card with the word ‘Omni’ on it at his funeral was puzzling.
Omni Incorporated looked unimpressive – a medium-sized office building in an area full of medium-sized office buildings. The lobby was the same. Unused chairs, nondescript art, and a receptionist’s desk. I wondered what they actually did, since there was no indication anywhere.
“May I help you?” The receptionist asked.
“I’d like an appointment.”
“I’m afraid we can’t do that without a reference or prior agreement.”
I fumbled in my pockets, searching for the card. Finding it, I pulled it out. “I have this”.
“This way, please.”
The man led me down a corridor, past several doors. Finally coming to the one he was looking for, he opened it and ushered me in. In the center of the room was a hospital bed, with a great deal of computer equipment hooked to it via some cabling. “Make yourself comfortable. Doctor Henter will be in shortly.”
After a wait, a woman came into the room and introduced herself as Dr. Madison Henter. I shook her hand as she explained the process. I would be placed in a deep, medically-induced sleep for somewhere around two hours, while the machine (‘Eidolan’, she called it) would do its thing – whatever that thing might be (she wouldn’t elaborate).
“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked “none of our first time users actually undergo the procedure on the first day.”
While the idea of being put into a coma didn’t entirely sit well with me, I needed to understand what happened to Caleb. “I’m quite certain” I said “Let’s do this.”
Dr. Henter placed the IV with the anesthetic and had me count down from ten. I don’t recall hitting seven.
“Hello, I am a digital construct here to ensure the merging process is as smooth as possible for all who would use Eidolan. You may call me Eve.”
I wasn’t in the medical room. Instead, I was in a room with no clear walls – only a fuzzy white expanse with no clear limit. In front of me stood a beautiful woman.
“Where am I?”
“It is designated ‘The Shimmering’, it is a white space where your subconscious can interface directly with Eidolan’s hardware.”
“What do I do now?”
“Eidolan can sense your innate desires and make them reality.”
“Any desire?”
“How is that possible?”
“It is not for the user to try to understand these things. Please, what is your deepest desire?”
I’m not even sure why Claire came to mind. I hadn’t seen her in three years, and we had not parted under good graces. I should have asked for a million dollars, or a private continent. Instead, my subconscious insisted on trying to get my ex-girlfriend back.
I woke up disoriented in the waiting room with a slight headache. I took the bus home. When I got to my apartment, I was shocked to see Claire sitting on the step.
“How is this possible?” I asked her as stepped forward and hugged me warmly.
“I was just thinking of you this afternoon” she said “I thought about everything, and I shouldn’t have left. I think we should try again.”
Claire and I talked for a couple of hours before I sneaked off to get some rest. I should have been skeptical. I should have disbelieved my ‘good fortune’. Instead, I slept like a baby.
The next day, I awoke to see Eve sitting in a chair at the foot of my bed.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded “you don’t even exist.”
“True, but the process that the Eidolan uses has some residual effects. Think of me as an afterimage, a sort of merging between the version found in the Shimmering and of your own mental biases.”
“How is all of this possible. The last time Claire and I spoke, she told me that she never wanted to see me again.”
“Whatever else you may do…never ask that question.”
“I can’t just let this go unanswered…”
“I know.”
Later that day, I went back to Omni and made another appointment.
Inside, Eve greeted me. “Welcome back, Josh. I trust you are happy with the results of yesterday’s session?”
“I am, but I need to know how this works.”
“It is not your place…”
“Yes, I know what your policy is” I interrupted “I just don’t know if I can accept it.”
“Surely there must be something else. Do you want a promotion? A private island, perhaps?”
“This is all impossible.”
“Impossible is such a limiting term. Expand beyond it.”
My better sense told me to be wary of answers like this. This had to be a scam, something dangerous, even. It had killed Caleb hadn’t it? Still, curiosity won out.
“Please. Anything is possible. Do not let your skepticism keep you from taking advantage of this opportunity.”
“I just… don’t know. What if I ask for a million dollars?”
“I want to be able to play the guitar.”
“You don’t have higher aspirations?”
“I’ve always wanted to play, but mostly, I need to know that this isn’t coincidence.”
“Fair enough.”
I awoke. On the way home, I stopped at a music shop and bought a guitar. That night, I serenaded Claire with the most beautiful guitar playing that she’d ever heard. Again, I slept like a baby.
I awoke the next day with the worst headache I’d ever experienced. I rushed to the bathroom to find my nose bleeding.
“My counterpart should have warned you about repeated use of the machine.”
“What in the fuck is this?”
“The process causes strain on the human brain. If spread out over weeks, it’s not serious. You’ve done it twice in the last three days…”
“Is this how Caleb died?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What did it do to him? How does it work, Eve??”
“Do you really want to know what happened to Caleb?”
“You fucking know I need to…”
“Then you know what must be done.”
Omni Incorporated had closed for the weekend, and the only human presence was a lone security guard sitting at the front desk sipping coffee. With Eve’s help, I slipped by him easily. She led me to the Eidolan, and assisted me in turning it on. I slipped myself the sedative and quickly lapsed into The Shimmering.
Eve was there, as before. Her form was different than before – almost alien in its appearance.
“I cannot convince you to just accept this?”
“No. I want to know what happened to my friend Caleb Parker. I want to know how this works.”
Eve gave a slight nod. I woke up.
I was a cheerful man, once.

And here's the judge's critique:

K: I really like the opening and closing lines here. Stories that come around ending where they began can be a little hacky in less apt hands, but the use of the same dichotomous language made it pop. There are some pacing issues and the tension feels like it should be greater, but this concept is very strong. 2
DK: I like this template, with the hero who keeps going in a dangerous direction, but it too doesn’t strike me like some of the other ones do. Like most of these, though, there really isn’t anything wrong with it. 2

A couple notes on scoring. I'm actually very happy with these results for reasons I'll get into in a bit. Judging was done on a forced curve (so there were only two 5's to be given out, two 4's, and so on...) this was, to use, Spooky's words, one of the best weeks I've ever seen, so for both judges to think mine merited above a one is excellent especially considering...

It is truly astounding what one can't do with 1200 words. I had a grand idea for this story. Lots of exposition, lots of backstory, lots of character development. Writing the story the way I wanted to write it meant that by the second wish, I had already used 1800 words. I panicked, then wrote up a completely nonsensical submission just in case I wasn't able to make the sad story of Caleb Parker work (don't worry, you'll get to see that, too...) I went in with a hatchet and cleared away huge chunks of the story. The introduction has hit the hardest - entire scenes were removed. On the one hand, I guess it made the story a little leaner, on the other hand, motivations were obscured, characters weren't built up, and I had to axe some dialog that I liked a lot.

The final product was riddled with pacing issues because the cuts (I could've cut down further, but I had to have something to resonate, and 1200 words of "and then this happened" would've been awful). With ten minutes to spare, I essentially had a meltdown, said 'screw it', and submitted what I had. Truly disappointing.

Even if I had been able to shape this the way I wanted to, I don't know that I would've gotten very much higher a score. People brought it this week. When I saw my score, then saw Brooks' score, I knew that Vogons had another vote coming our way.

...only we didn't. Beau, Matt, and John brought the heat and the flavor, and our glorious team ended not only not finishing last, but winning outright. Granted it wasn't by much, but it was enough. Good going all around, gentlemen.

Break out the 'Vogons Gonna Vogon' tag!

1 comment:

  1. Spent all week trying to eat you in Werewolf, that's my excuse.

    Ran out of time to make my story work. Glad the team picked me up, I'll be on it this week.