Giant Flaming Fowl

Gargantuan white ducks waddled down the road, their orange webbed feet large as small cars, and each impact released a thunderous tremor that could be felt miles away. We hid in terror at their passing, huddled behind broken signboards. “Quack!” said one. “Quack!” We covered our ears and trembled, sure each moment would be our last.

Jane, crazed by booze and her innate hatred for the lab-created monsters, broke free from her hiding place and raced out to the middle of the cracked pavement. She stood behind the last one, pointing a flare gun. I wanted to scream “No!” but didn’t dare. She risked her life, but I couldn’t risk everyone else’s.

The muzzle spit flame and sparks, and the projectile shot out, wobbling, and embedded itself into the massive tail feathers. It took a moment for it to register through the massive body, but when it did the giant duck gave a shudder and it opened its beak. A noise like none other raked the very air around us, and flames quickly spread along the oiled feathers.

Jane did a dance of vengeful joy and then scrambled to load another flare.

It was the last time we saw her alive.

SleepLink

Raymond’s phone emitted a crystalline chime. A message, he knew, from another world.

Swaying back and forth with the train’s motions, his eyes blinked open and he reached into his jacket pocket, feeling for the warm metal. Pulling it out, he held it in front of his bleary eyes and focused on the screen.

SLEEPLINK Message from Mary North – Ray I need your help! My hair has turned to metal! I think it’s like Brillo or something! Can you come home right now?

“Uhh yeah,” he whispered to himself. Thumbing the phone’s keyboard he replied, “You are asleep and dreaming right now. Nothing is wrong. Either wake up, or shift your dream in another direction.” He hit send then plinked the screen off with a push of a button, and then slid the phone back into his pocket. Oh man, he thought, it would be nice to be at home right now, asleep, instead of riding a stuffy crowded commuter train at 5 in the morning.

From deep within his pocket came another chime. Raymond gave a half-sigh, half-laugh. Why, he wondered, did we ever think this SleepLink service was a good idea? He slipped his hand once again into his pocket, finding the phone, pulling it out.

“I’m not the one dreaming, you are,” she’d replied.

“No sweetheart,” he typed back. “You’re the one logged into SleepLink, not me. Everything is okay.” He almost quipped something about making sure her Brillo hair didn’t get rusty, but he restrained himself. He was too tired.

Accessing the control app, he thumbed through the menu and chose something he was only supposed to do if absolutely necessary: RESET PARTNER’S DREAM. He knew he was supposed to try to talk her through a nightmare first, because using this was kind of like teleporting at random and not knowing where you would land.

The wheels hit a bump in the tracks, and the lights flashed inside the train. The jolt threw Raymond’s head against the window so hard he was amazed the glass didn’t break. It felt like it had cracked his head. He clutched it a moment, feeling a wave of dizziness, and after he recovered Raymond felt a warm body next to him in the seat. Glancing over he was startled to see Mary sitting with him.

She was in her pajamas. Her sexy pajamas.

“What the hell?” he exclaimed.

“Oh, you hit the dream reset!” she said. “Great. Just great. I’m naked in public. Thank you Ray.”

It took him a moment to find his voice. She wasn’t naked, exactly — though the nightie was pretty much see-through. What stole his voice from him was the fact that her head was festooned with a mass of dull gray steel wool instead of hair. “Oh crap,” he said, “I teleported you out of your dream!”

“No, stupid, you teleported me into your dream.”

“I’m not dreaming!”

“No? Then how do you account for me being here? Teleportation isn’t actually possible. And—” she pointed “—explain why there’s a Klingon sitting in the seat across from us.”

The Klingon looked over at them, bemused. “I’m heading to a Star Trek convention,” he said in a low, guttural voice.

“He’s going to a convention,” Raymond said. “See.”

“Of course he’s going to agree with you,” said Mary. “He’s in your dream.”

Something occurred to Raymond. “Wait a minute,” he said to the Klingon, “it’s five in the morning! What Star Trek convention is going to be open this early?”

The Klingon now had a third eye. “Meow,” he said. He smiled at them with long, sharp, pointed teeth.

Everyone else on the train turned around to smile at them. They all had three eyes and sharp teeth. Raymond and Mary looked at each other, and then both fumbled quickly for their phones, scrambling to open the DreamLink app and hit the reset button. Mary — lord knows where she had been keeping her phone — beat him to it.

The lights blinked, and instead of being on a train, they both floated in a kind of blue-violet void surrounded by large stuffed panda bears and Hello Kitties. “Oh no!” Raymond cried. “We teleported into your dream!”

Mary spun upside-down and smiled. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

“No!” Hello Kitties terrified him, and these were over 15 feet tall. He fumbled for his phone but lost his grip on it, and it went tumbling away into space. Raymond watched it in horror, especially as one of the giant stuffed pandas grabbed it and crunched it to bits with its very real, very non-fluffy teeth.

“Raymond?” said a voice that wasn’t Mary’s. “Raymond? You okay? Raymond?”

He sucked in his breath and lifted his head in one convulsive movement. Raymond found himself sitting at a table with a bunch of people who were all staring at him. His co-workers. The lights were dim and a PowerPoint presentation shown on the wall. His face felt wet, and he reached up to touch it, finding drool all over his chin and cheeks.

“Uh, yeah, I’m okay,” he said, his tense and breathless voice undermining his words. He had to put his hands firmly against the table to hold himself upright. He felt dizzy and disoriented.

“Are you sure?” asked his boss. She looked concerned.

Raymond’s phone, sitting on the table in front of him, chimed and the screen lit up. INCOMING SLEEPLINK MESSAGE, it said. Without reading it, Raymond grabbed the phone and turned it off, then shoved it into his shirt pocket.

Up on the wall, the projected PowerPoint slide depicted a giant Hello Kitty.

His three-eyed boss said, “Meow.”

Star System, Galaxy, and Universe are not Interchangeable Terms

THIS IS AN OPEN LETTER TO SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS, PARTICULARLY SPACE OPERA WRITERS, AND ALSO PARTICULARLY TO NEW WRITERS

You really need to get this hierarchy straight:

For the most part, planets revolve around a sun. This is called a Star System.

Stars (with their collective planets) are generally found in big collections called a Galaxy.

Galaxies all exist in a Universe.

YOU REALLY NEED TO KEEP THESE TERMS STRAIGHT.

To simplify it, think of it this way: If a planet was a house, then the Star System is a street of houses, and a Galaxy is a very large city. A Universe is the entire continent.

Also, a note about distances:

Planets inside a Star System can be very far away from each other, but they’re still within the gravity well of a star.

Stars are usually very, very far away from each other, so far away that it takes their light years — sometimes hundreds or thousands of years — to reach each other. That’s why we use the term lightyears as a unit of measure.

A lightyear is 5,878,499,801,210 miles.

Carl Sagan

That is also why we generally use the science fiction term “hyperspace” to cheat and jump from one star system to another, and to bypass the reality of a thing called “time dilation” which would make plotting any kind of fictional story a real challenge.

GALAXIES ARE VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY FAR AWAY FROM EACH OTHER. It takes light hundreds-of-thousands, or millions, or even billions of years to reach each other. Even using “hyperspace” you need to stress how in the heck you can go that far, even if it’s a simple statement that the technology pokes a hole in space to enable instant travel across ANY DISTANCE. If you establish that up front, you might get away with it, but … and this is a big point:

You must respect the vast distances between all these celestial objects, and have a grip on what they all are. Bonus points if you have a good knowledge of what a black hole is, and a quasar, and other exotic and strange things such as a neutron star.

You will never be able to look up into the sky and see something happening at that very moment to a star. If a sun is destroyed by a “Star Killer,” you won’t see it happen from a neighboring star system for years.

Major goof made in a recent Star Wars movie

You should also know that there are many different types of stars, ranging from giants to dwarfs, and various colors, and each color means something — and is an indicator of how much heat and radiation that they spew forth.

But above all, do not get star systems and galaxies confused.

If you do, your readers will laugh at you.

Modern Love

She closed her eyes and leaned forward, and whispered: “Give me some sugar, baby.”

“I only have Splenda,” he told her.

She pulled back, blinked a couple of times, then tried again. Eyes closed, leaning forward, she said, “Give me some Splenda, baby.”

He opened a little paper packet and poured the white chemical on her tongue. It tasted sweet enough, but not quite the same. She sighed.

“I can’t get used to this modern love,” she told him.

“I’m plastic,” he replied.

Cacophony Now!

Grackles. It always came back to the grackles.

Harold saw an opening in the crowd and made a break for it, hoping to slip past the overhead eyes that kept track of day-to-day humanity. They could see inside people but it was hard, he knew, for them to see through people. The best place to hide was in a crowd.

From the grackles.

They were silly looking black birds with long tails and yellow eyes – yellow X-ray eyes, as it turned out — and were armed with long, razor-sharp beaks. For four miserable years now they ruled as malevolent dictators, acting like some Hitchcockian nightmare when a human got out of line. The punishment was swift, sudden, and final.

Thou shalt not break the laws of the grackle.

No one had paid much attention as they migrated, spread, multiplied. An invasive species is all they were. Our own fault since we’d cut down their rainforest homes. They had to go somewhere, right?

To them, you see, we were the invasive species.

Even Harold had known, dimly, that they could talk — like a parrot could talk. He’d read about it somewhere. But no one, not even animal behaviorists on the extreme edge, had any idea the shiny black birds were plotting. Scheming. Positioning themselves for a strategic win.

Don’t dare call it “Bird Day.” Don’t refer to it, out loud, as “Avian Armageddon.” Refer to it by the proper name, the name they decreed we refer to it as: “Grackle Win Big, Mankind Stupid Day.” Make sure to pronounce it with the proper respectful inflection as well, or risk a beak hole in your cranium.

Harold had made it from the doorway and into the crowd. He kept his head down, his hands in his trench coat pockets. He heard the sound of fluttering wings pass overhead, and just as he feared, there came the piercing shriek of an alarm.

The noise they made. The noise. It would put a Moog synthesizer to shame. But it wasn’t just noise — it was their language. And not just their language, but also the language of other birds, other animals. The grackles were consummate masters of cross-species communication.

“Eggs stolen!” they began announcing in English. “Eggs stolen!”

“Egg thief! Egg thief!”

The words were punctuated with organ chords, bells, sirens, cell phone rings … a cacophony of alarms from a huge random library of sound bites. This was combined with more and more flapping of wings as the alarm spread and the grackles took to the air. Harold kept his head down, and like everyone around him, just kept walking — pretending none of this was happening. The man next to him muttered the f-word under his breath. The woman in front of him, young with curly dark blonde hair and smelling of flowery perfume, echoed the sentiment.

One of the grackles swooped down from its perch on a streetlight and landed on her head. She made an “Eeek!” sound and froze, trembling. The bird however only used her as a perch — it’s yellow, X-ray eyes were staring at Harold. First one eye, then after a turn of the head, the other.

“Human!” it said. “You smell of fear!”

“I’m afraid of beautiful women,” Harold told it.

“What is beautiful women?” it crawed at him.

“You’re sitting on one. She frightens me.”

“This women is not beautiful!” The bird’s voice cracked and hit pitches so high that it hurt Harold’s ears. “She smells of bad flower chemical butt smell!”

“This is why I fear her.”

“Stupid human!” The bird bounded into the air, iridescent black wings flapping, yanking a few of the young lady’s hairs out as it flew off.

The young woman turned to look at Harold. Before he could say a word or mutter some sort of apology, she slapped his face. Hard. Then without further comment, she turned again and resumed walking, as did the others in the crowd around them.

The shock of the pain, the stinging of the skin on his face, it didn’t bother him. The truth was women did scare him. That’s why the bird flew away — it didn’t detect a lie. Harold shook it off, and deliberately putting one foot in front of the other, he fell back into the flow of the crowd, his head down as before. The cacophony and flapping wings continued above.

Harold made it out of the area, crossing a bridge over murky water, and then entered his apartment building without further confrontation. Once behind locked doors and closed curtains, Harold gently extracted a handkerchief from deep within his trench coat pocket and holding it before him, gingerly unwrapped five tiny eggs. They were light blue with dark lines and spots as if someone had spilled ink on them. He held them, taking shaking breaths, his hands trembling.

These five delicate objects would fetch a fortune on the black market. It was the ultimate defiance. The eggs of the enemy. But Harold had no intention of selling them. They might be tiny, you see, but they were delicious.

It all came back to the grackles.

Harold craved an omelet.

The Melvin Plink Incident

Melvin Plink sat with his face frozen in an attentive, respectful posture while the company’s CEO droned on and on, blah blah blah, talking about having to save and reuse paper clips and do away with free coffee or the entire corporation would collapse on itself.

Inside his mind, there was a Salvador Dali painting of an arid, brown and red landscape, and numerous wooden sticks were used to prop up Melvin’s false expression from the inside, and every single piece of wood was trembling with the pressure of maintaining its burden.

Melvin had seen the payroll files. He knew the bloated, over-inflated figure that described this man’s paycheck, nearly as much per month as Melvin himself made in an entire year.

Paperclips, the man was saying … save the paperclips.

To Melvin’s horror, one of the Dali prop sticks holding his facial expression snapped under the pressure. Snapped like a twig, and each of the others thrummed with the vibration of imminent doom. Another broke, and then another.

Some stray signal was sent from a corner of his brain, pulsing down his spinal column and causing his legs to straighten. It was as much a surprise to him as it was to anyone else that he suddenly stood, rudely interrupting the CEO. His hands, working of their own accord, pulled his ugly red and blue striped tie from around his neck.

As the CEO stood looking at him with a quizzical expression, Melvin snapped his tie like he would a towel, smacking the CEO right in the face and knocking off his glasses.

Like in a dream, seen from outside himself, he watched as he recharged his tie for another strike, but horrified co-workers grabbed his arms, man-handling him out of the room, delivered to the uniformed security men as they came trotting up. He heard yelling from the board room, and people shouting at him, but the words had lost meaning … it all sounded like animal noise … and his only desire was to get outside, into fresh air and sunshine.

The uniformed men didn’t speak during the long ride down the elevator. Another joined them in the lobby, holding a cardboard box full of familiar items. Pens, a clock, a small stereo … a box of paper clips. Melvin moved willingly with them out the revolving door and didn’t even mind when they shoved him to the ground. The blue of the sky was so beautiful.

The sunshine, so warm.

Goodbye Galapagos

Darwin sat wearily on the back deck of the steamer, gazing out at the islands and bidding them farewell.

A large lizard swam behind the boat, calling to him. “Darwin! Darwin, please… Don’t leave me!”

“I’m sorry,” he said to the lizard. “It would have never worked.”

“I’ll change for you,” the lizard called out. “I swear I will!”

He shook his head, knowing she could never change. Her children perhaps, but not her.

Something Truly Great

Debbie looked at herself in the mirror for a good long while before balling up her fist and punching herself in the right upper cheek. She didn’t hold back, either. As if in slow motion she heard the meaty, squishy sound of the impact, and saw the ripples it caused across the surface of her flesh. Her head snapped back, and she reeled to maintain balance.

“Take that,” she said.

Her reflection stared back, eyes wide, shuddering in pain. “You stupid bitch,” it exclaimed. “Why did you do that?”

“Because you’re constantly standing in my way.”

“I’m protecting you, you idiot!” her reflection raged. “I’m constantly saving your ass!”

“You’ve been holding me back my entire life.”

“But you’re not smart enough to—” Smack! Debbie cut herself off by a sudden and horrific uppercut to her own chin, cracking her mouth shut and slamming her teeth together. She coughed, and suddenly drooled a stream of very red blood. A sharp pain warned of a mangled tongue. Tears leaked from her eyes.

The pain made her knees weak.

“I’m as smart as anyone,” she said to herself, “except when you tell me I’m not. So from now on, you shut the hell up.”

“But no one is going to want to look at your ugly face when you—”

Debbie slapped herself, hard, but it didn’t seem hard enough so she slapped herself again. And again.

“Stop it!” she screamed at herself. “Stop! You can’t do this! No one will take you seriously. No one really likes you!”

Balling up her fist again, she punched herself square in the center of her stomach. It caused her to double over and smack her forehead against the edge of the bathroom sink. She was full on crying now, like a child.

“I like me,” she told herself. She straightened up, facing herself in the mirror. “I like myself, and I trust myself. That’s all that matters.”

“But you’re such a screwup!” her reflection said. “You can’t do anything right!” It cowered then, ready for another strike.

Debbie simply shook her head. “To hell with you,” she told her reflection. “I’m not listening to you anymore. You stay the fuck out of my way.”

Bloody and discolored, looking like she needed to go to the emergency room of a hospital, her reflection wavered on the point of collapse.

Debbie, in the meantime, turned away from the mirror, not a scratch on her, and strode purposefully toward the future.

She intended to accomplish something truly great.

Martin’s Cookie

A good sized chunk of Martin’s cookie broke off and fell to the restaurant’s floor, and then vanished.

Not that it really vanished — it’s just that the rough-hewn tiles were remarkably cookie-colored, and cookie-textured, so that the broken piece of the cookie instantly blended in. And the cookie was happy about that because the very last thing it wanted was to be masticated in a horrible, damp human mouth, ground into its component particles, and ingested.

The horror!

So mustering all its might, each individual bit of that section of the cookie rebelled, invoked its right of manifest improbability, and separated from the rest of the doomed cookie. The fall from the towering table top was nothing. The impact, hard as it was, did not phase it. It was free. Free!

Martin saw the cookie spontaneously break and a piece of it jettisoned into the air, falling and disappearing. His own mind instantly separated into two. One half said, “Sadness, part of the cookie is gone forever.” The other said, “Three-second rule! It’s still good!”

The halves engaged in a form of mental arm wrestling, each trying to win control of the body.

Martin jittered. Martin twitched.

The cookie, far below, did its very best to remain invisible.

With a victory that jolted Martin’s whole body into action, one side won, immediately joining both halves of his brain back together. Bending over, focusing his bleary eyes on the tiles below him, Martin searched for the missing piece of cookie. It was too good to be wasted. His tongue demanded every crumb, every morsel.

Alas, it was nowhere to be seen.

He blinked. He rubbed his eyes. Where did it go?

Ah! There!

His arm moved, his fingers flexed. Down it reached, down, ever down, his body bending, his spine flexing, all muscles coordinating to reach the prize and reclaim it. Inch by inch, stretching. Biting his lip.

Something flashed past his eyes. A broom! Bristles sweeping by, scooping the cookie fragment up, depositing it into some sort of flattened bucket on a stick.

Martin gasped but was too embarrassed to say anything. It was, after all, on the floor.

The cookie felt itself transported up and around, gravity tugging at it from this way and that, until it flipped end over end and dropped amid other flotsam and jetsam at the bottom of an industrial strength black plastic trash bag.

Success! It had made it! It settled back, relaxing, and sank into a contented daydream about a long gentle disassociation in a landfill.

Hours later, when the world seemed quiet and dark, a pair of long slotted teeth gnawed their way through the black plastic. The head of a horrid, smelly rat pushed through, destroying the cookie’s daydream, and as this diseased vermin devoured the cookie, bit by bit, crumb by crumb, the cookie found itself wishing it could be instead back on the plate in front of the human.

Following Your Passions to Success

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist. Still to this day I am still passionately interested in science. What stopped me from becoming a scientist, though, is I have a mental block when it comes to higher forms of math.

In modern speak: I can’t math. But in reality I can, I just was too ADD (literally, thought I wasn’t diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder until I was in late my 40’s). I was too distracted to push my way thought the math and learn it.

So I drifted into the next logical path, and decided I wanted to be a science fiction writer. And I became one (albeit with very limited success). But then I learned during this journey that the publishing industry is rife with the same petty squabbles, bullying, and rivalry as High School (which I hated) and so I took the Groucho Marx route: I don’t want to belong to a club that would have me in it.

I also used to make Super 8 films with my teenage friends, but I never considered going into film making as a profession. Odd, because that is now a large part of my profession — and one I really enjoy. I daresay I enjoy it much more than writing fiction, though I think that is mainly due to it being an instant gratification endeavor. Much like photography, which is also a large part of my day-to-day profession.

Speaking of photography, I just won another first place in a world-wide (though niche) photo contest.

I’m a winner! And this is an escalator. Exciting, I know.

Another thing I used to do as a young teen, and never seemed to realize I could have done it as a profession, was make silly recording. Well, now there’s podcasting, which I’ve been doing for years, and I’ve even done it professionally.

What actually kept me employed for a large part of my life was computer industry work, and that’s because I have some sort of odd supernatural affinity for it … and it for me. I once wrote a short story about a “voodoo computer healer” and — even though I have never levitated anything (like the character in the story does) — I can in many cases hold on to a laptop or touch a cable and heal the technology. Scoff at me if you will, but at one job they used to have me come sit in the finance offices while they ran payroll because they were convinced the check printers would not break down if I was there. Even now my girlfriend, who is an IT master, has me come over to work on the stuff that stumps her, and 7 out of 10 times all I have to do is touch it and it starts working again.

I kid you not — and no, I can’t explain it.

To sum up: If I had concentrated on any of these interests, and specialized in it, I could have made a career out of it. It’s just pure luck that all these interests which I followed eventually congealed into one career that has helped me succeed. You couldn’t have predicted it, because my profession didn’t exist 20 years ago.

So my friends, you can take it from me: follow your passions, and do not give up. They will lead you to success, though it may not be the success you were expecting.