Friday, October 30, 2015

New Short Story: Hazard Pay

“Alpha Thirt ..., report.”

Gleeb, civilian researcher temporarily assigned to the Intergalactic Exploration Corps, stopped short at the words echoing in his head.  Those idiots – he was just on a survey mission.  Couldn’t they leave him alone for five minutes?  “Alpha Thirteen, reporting.”

“Req ... t status rep ... t.”

He tilted his head slightly, hoping to get a clearer signal.  The radio waves on this stupid planet were playing havoc with the inner ear communicators.  Which, now that he thought about it, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing .... “Sorry Mission Control, your signal’s breaking up.  I’m losing you ....”

A moment of silence, then, “How’s that, Alpha Thirteen?”

Gleeb sighed.  “Just perfect, sir.” He maneuvered his data recording device back into position.  “I have moved on to the second phase of my mission and begun a survey of the initial level of territory surrounding my base camp.  Though there are no signs of the advanced civilization reported to be living here, I have already logged in several species of absolutely fascinating native fauna and flora ....”

The voice on the other end cut him off.  “Any resources we can use?”

Gleeb bristled, his antennae twitching in righteous indignation.  What, did they think Prolovium deposits just sat out in the open air, waiting for any idiot to smack into them?  No – you needed a professional.  “As I was saying, I have begun a very thorough survey of the area, but I still have a considerable distance to cover.  The foliage, mainly long, flat stalks that do not appear edible, grow thickly over most of the area, blocking my view and impeding any readings I attempt to take.”

“Have you tried climbing them?”

He could feel his sides begin to quiver, never a good sign when one was attempting to avoid risking insubordination.  “They aren’t sturdy enough, sir.  Besides, sectional budget decreed that we weren’t to be allowed jet packs on this mission.”  He looked down.  “And it’s not as though our bodies are designed for climbing ....”

“Understood.  I’ll transfer you to Lieutenant Trang to finish your report.”  Translation: now that I know you don’t have anything I want, I get to move on with my life.

There were a few clicks, and another voice appeared in Gleeb’s head.  “My man Gleeb, how’s it hanging down on the dirt heap?”

At the sound, Gleeb could feel himself settle, his outer casing fitting comfortably for the first time in what seemed like days.  “Trang, buddy, next time I decide I need to go make something better of my self, tell me to go stick my head up a slime cleaner.”

“Consider it done.  So, what’s up?”

“Not much – I haven’t even found the local water source.”  He slid backwards a bit to allow a six-legged creature passage, with a slightly different back marking than the one he had already catalogued.  “And definitely no sign of those ‘alien death crunchers’ that space creeper was going on about. I told you that guy had just been hit with some bad froom juice.”

Trang chuckled.  “I know that feeling.  Still, unless you come up with something more interesting, that’s gonna be the story that goes around. You know no one ever bothers reading the report.”

“Too true.  I ....”  Noticing something in the distance, Gleeb narrowed his eyes.  “Hold on a minute, I think I see something.”

“What is it?  A Prolovium deposit?”

“No – it’s too roughly grained for that, though the readings register as a mineral compound.  But the geometric shape suggests construction, and there appears to be immense pale towers in the distance .... ” He moved closer, almost despite himself.  “I’m going to get a better look.  Alpha Thirteen out.”

Gleeb cut off communication before Trang could tell him to stop being a fool and get the glorp back to camp. He wasn’t going to do anything dumb like trying to approach the natives, of course, but if he didn’t get something useful out of this mission he was never going to get government funding. The space creepers had only gotten themselves in trouble because they hadn’t known what they were doing.

Trying desperately to remember the stealth section of the manual, Gleeb took a deep breath and slid forward, thankful that he had few inner organs to cause him problems during such stressful moments.  He did, however, briefly gave in to the very unscientific wish that he had been issued a weapon, another thing that didn’t seem to fit in to this year’s budget ....

“The foliage ends at the edge of the unidentified material, which looks to have been manually cleared. The proximity to the massed foliage suggests a farm of some sort, or perhaps a preserve.  I’m moving into the open area now.” Gleeb scanned his new surroundings, perplexed for a moment. He was so certain the towers had been right there ….

A rumble cut through the air. “Eeeeek, Mommy, a snail! Do something!”

Gleeb had only mere seconds before the shadow fell over his head, exactly like the one the space creeper had seen over the heads of his men.  Some inner instinct told him that this had not been one of his more brilliant ideas.

He sighed. At least he wouldn’t have to write the report this time.


The mother, after a quick glance to make sure that the creature that had offended her daughter’s delicate sensibilities was dead, wiped her shoe on another part of the sidewalk.

“Great.  I thought the gardener had already sprayed for that sort of thing.”  She shook her head.  “I hope this isn’t the start of an invasion or something.”

Friday, October 16, 2015

New Short Story: Dressed to Impress (AKA The Elves Are Coming)
The elves were coming.

Morena Montclair, whose husband had made his money in the magic mirror business, was in an absolute tizzy. No one in the neighborhood had hosted elves before, and if she pulled it off it would be a social triumph that would far surpass the fact that Gertrude's second cousin was a Baron.

She absolutely had to dazzle them. Morena spent a solid month getting ready, decimating the local potted tree supply in an attempt to recreate a forest in her dining room. She insisted that the cooks use only elven recipes, tasting and retasting them until they were as delicate and ethereal as she had always imagined elven food to be.

It was her outfit, however, that took most of her time and attention. It had to be perfect, elegant and magnificent all in the same breath, so these elves would know that she'd been born human only by accident. She was worthy to be one of them, and would be an excellent addition if someone happened to invite her to an elven party or two.

(She would also be an excellent addition if one of them happened to be looking for a wife. Leonard was perfectly pleasant, but also the sort of man one didn't hesitate to leave for brighter horizons.)

By the day of the dinner, she was resplendent. Her sleeves belled out four full feet, the leaf-green silk trailing on the ground behind her. She piled her hair on top of her head and wove small branches into it, though the bird was nixed after an incident that forced a thorough hair-washing and restyling. Elves didn't seem to wear a lot of jewelry, tragically, but she'd purchased two different sets of emerald combs to wear in her hair.

When they came, gliding in through the front doors like they were walking on air, Morena bowed so low she needed a maid's help to right herself again. "Honored guests, welcome to my humble abode."

When she looked up, the lead elf's expression was as placid as his waterfall of golden hair. Perhaps they simply hid their admiration better than humans did. "Thank you. Your husband said the meal would start soon?"

That was the most she could get any of the elves to speak to her, even after they sat down and started eating. Morena tried to engage them in conversation, asking them about the length of their sleeves and whether it was fashionable to wear small pumpkins in the fall, but they only gave her the briefest of answers before returning to some sort of business discussion with her husband. 

Finally, in the middle of the dessert course, one of the lesser elves turned to her. "I must ask - what is that fascinating accessory?"

Morena brightened. It wasn't the attention she'd hoped for, but she'd take what she could get. "Do you mean my headpiece?"

He shook his head. "No, the overrobes your staff wear." He gestured to one of the serving girls. "Those pockets would be most useful."

"'Overrobes?'" Morena stared at the serving girl, confused, then her eyes widened in horror. "You mean her apron?"

"Apron." The elf said the word slowly, as if committing it to memory, then nodded in satisfaction. "Most excellent. I shall have to see about acquiring one."

Immediately after dinner, Morena demanded one of the maids' aprons and put it on. No one commented on it. The following spring, aprons became a common fashion accessory for the more practical-minded elves.

When she heard the news, Morena refused to leave the house for a week. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Being a teenager is terrifying

My hands shook all the time when I was a teenager.

It wasn’t because of a medical condition, and I never checked whether I had anything like anxiety disorder. The fine tremble was so familiar to me that I never even thought about it much, and when someone asked I would brush it off with a “oh, they always do that.” Never once did I think about how strange it was, and alarming, that an average day could make my hands do something a human body is only supposed to do at its most frightened or emotional.

The emotion and fear weren’t exactly new to me either, with every day a desperate effort to prove myself to classmates I was certain hated me and a father and grandparents who looked at me and wished for a different girl in my place. It was like every morning was the biggest test of my life, and I was dogged with the constant, terrible feeling I was failing no matter what I did.

Adults forget how terrifying being a teenager can be. It’s like inching slowly out onto an impossibly high diving board for the very first time in your life, Olympic-level judges critiquing your every step and hesitation. People are screaming suggestions and other critiques to you from both the sidelines and the water, along with dire warnings about what will happen if your dive isn’t absolutely perfect. There’s some encouragement, but it either gets lost in the shouting or makes it seem like you’re being a coward for not just jumping in.

When you get in the water, it’s always easier. True, we still have people shouting at us from the sidelines, and sometimes the other swimmers try to drown us, but it feels like there aren’t as many people paying attention. Even more importantly, the water is familiar to us now – even climbing back up and jumping in again isn’t as frightening, because we know what it feels like to fall. We’ve done it before, and we know what to do with our bodies.

If you’re still up on that diving board, it’s okay to be scared. Being young is incredibly overwhelming, and though those of us down below mean well we don’t really understand. Just be as good to yourself as you can be, and know that when you get down to the water you realize that the shouting doesn’t really mean that much. All that really matters is that you get down here without hurting yourself, and figure out how to keep your head above water once you’re here. The rest of it is just noise.

I don’t know when my hands stopped shaking – I only noticed the strange stillness afterward. But whenever something stressful or frightening has happened in the years since, I can’t help but look down at my hands. Surely this is bad enough to make them shake, I always think. Surely what I’m going through has to be scarier than just being a teenager.

But they’ve never shaken since. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Conquering it all, one step at a time

You can’t do it all at once.

It’s one of the hardest lessons to learn, whether it comes to weight loss, quitting smoking, writing a novel or getting your dream job. Primed with that first, wonderful burst of determined enthusiasm, we rush out to conquer whatever’s standing in our way with all the fervor of the newly converted. For a little while, at least, we’re sure we can do anything.

But whatever mountain we’re trying to climb inevitably outlasts that first rush of enthusiasm, because no matter how much we want something there’s still only so much our fragile human selves can do at once. The more worthwhile and life-changing a goal is, the less likely it is that you’ll be able to knock it out in a few weeks or even a few months. If the mountain you’re trying to tackle is big enough, you might not feel like you’ve made any progress at all during that time.

After working that long and hard for something that still seems so far away, you’ll start worrying that you should never have bothered making the climb in the first place. There will be a moment when your energy fails you, and you look at your treadmill or the alarm waking you up for your morning jog and loathe it with every fiber of your being. When you find yourself with a cigarette in your mouth, despite your best intentions, or you stare at your resume and wonder if you should just delete the file completely.

This is the point where so many people give up. They see a slip and a fall as the same thing, and take either as a sign to give up on the mountain completely. Some get sick of the work they’re putting into it, but others turn around because they feel like they’ve failed some kind of test. If they were a better person, the kind of person meant to accomplish whatever they’re trying to do, they wouldn’t be feeling so lost and discouraged by now. They lose hope, and let their doubts talk them into walking away.

But there’s no one, anywhere, who has ever raced to their goal with an easy stride and a song in their hearts (and if there are a few rare blossoms out there who have, do the world a favor and don’t admit it to anyone). Achieving your dreams, no matter what they are, is a long, slow and often painful process that takes the kind of raw determination that isn’t nearly as pretty or fun as enthusiasm.

The kind of people who accomplish their goals still curse their clock’s existence, think longingly of cheesecake or a cigarette, and cry and swear and kick things where no one can see them. And then they get up and go for the run anyway, or say no to whatever they’re craving for the thousandth time. They grit their teeth and suffer through the misery, because they want what’s at the end badly enough that they’re not going to let anything stand in their way.

That doesn’t mean they don’t stumble sometimes, earning scraped knees, heartache and grief instead of another step forward. When that happens, because it inevitably will, they pick themselves up, wipe their eyes and forge ahead. Falling a thousand times doesn’t mean you won’t get to the top of whatever mountain you’ve set your sites on.

You’ve just got to take it one step at a time.