So, Prosers, the playoffs are off and running.  Giving more words was a good idea – the concepts are fleshed out here and everything – but the theme was a bit of a killer.  There’s nothing bad here, but it was obviously a tougher one for the writers (and I know this because three of the four told me so).

So, two of you have been great, but your journeys end here.  The others have the daunting task of taking on Ian and Sarah for Friday’s deadline.  Let’s sort this out.

1 Bret Highum

I’ve always been a history buff, so I didn’t have to think about it for very long when Professor Obata offered me a chance to try out his new Virtual Historical Gamer.   A quick tutorial and some uncomfortable plumbing hookups, and away I went!

My cheek rasps softly against the wooden stock as I nestle it into my shoulder.  The trigger seems to tremble under the touch of my finger, the cool metal begging me to add a couple ounces of pressure to release the firing pin.  I try to calm my breathing, but this is so realistic!
The sky is beginning to lighten, the sun cresting over the hill in front of me.  Beautiful.  I wait until the Targets appear, black silhouettes in front of a creamy pink backdrop slashed with orange.  I apply pressure to the trigger, just enough, repeatedly.  The Targets go down.
I ignore the shooting from either side of me; undisciplined spurts of gunfire that tend to find red clay or whistle off into the atmosphere.  One of the Non-Targets is huddled in the mud next to my feet, screaming in terror.  Too much realism.  I ignore it until my rifle is too hot for me to hold.  Then I take the Non-Target’s rifle and ammunition and go back to shooting.
I get into a rhythm as the sun climbs higher and I can see more clearly.  There is a small group of Targets carrying an American flag.  One shot for each.  A Target hides between a tree and a boulder.  I shoot the rock face; then shoot the Target when the rock chips spalling from the shattered pumice drive the target into the open.  The firing from my allies has become nearly stopped.  A Target crawling back to the top of the ridge.  One shot.
Now it gets trickier.  The Non-Targets are starting to move forward, and I have to be careful to not hit them.  Someone behind me starts yelling at me, but I ignore it.  There are more Targets, and I only have so much time.  I manage to hit two of them before I am tackled from behind and my rifle taken away.
The Non-Targets release me when I don’t struggle.  Once their attention leaves me, I key the recall switch held between my upper molars.

“So, how’d it work?” asked Doctor Obata, as he unhooked the feeds and opened the clamshell of the immersion tank.
I stretch my neck- that had been very intense.  “Good, good.  What was that, Iwo Jima?  Very realistic, maybe a bit too gory.  A little uncomfortable being on the Japanese side, but the past is the past, right?”
Doctor Obata’s eyes glitter a bit, and his smile is merely thin lips drawn back tight from yellowed teeth.  I have my jacket on and I’m halfway to the door before I realize all the voices I hear through the open windows are speaking Japanese and the flag by the blackboard is white with a red circle.

K: This isn’t a bad idea, but it’s pretty clear where it’s going from early on.  I’ve become trained to look for big endings, and this was the only one that made sense, given Doctor Obata’s name.  I liked the prose, but the structure needed a bit of work. BRONZE

P: I’m a bit conflicted with this one on first read. The change in tenses throws me out of it a little, even though it was obviously purposefully done. The concept is solid, and the parallels of mindless first person shooter playing (where people are delineated into “targets” and “non-targets”) raise it a cut above what it could have been. The ‘gotcha!’ ending, then, seems to let the story off too easy. It’s clever, but I’m unsure of whether or not it truly fits.

2 Erik S

Raymond had loaded the washer, but not started the cycle.  His wife, Joan, after her nightly gin(s), needed little excuse to berate him to madness.  After the usual, useless row, he slammed himself inside the study.  Seizing on an outlet, he ripped apart a subordinate’s budget proposal that was innocuously sitting in his inbox…

David glared at his computer screen the next morning, bristling at the rebuke.  What would that old bastard know about how things really were?  Forcefully closing his laptop, he walked to one of his salesman’s desk and demanded his recent call report.  Glancing at, and summarily dismissing it, he noisily criticized such shoddy work loud enough for anyone within earshot to hear it…

After picking up his son, Garrett sulked at the restaurant table, still sour over the afternoon’s events.  His son sensed the weather and quietly picked at his food.  Returning to fill his soda a little later than he would have liked, Garrett took the opportunity to belittle a frequent target of everyone: the waitress.  He loudly wondered how a job like this could possibly be so difficult.  Through clenched teeth, the waitress apologized, retreated to the wait station, and impatiently glanced at the clock…

Returning home to her apartment after her double shift, Barbara removed the shoes from her aching feet, hung up her coat, dropped her purse, and fell into a chair beside the kitchen table.  Her son, further and further distant these last couple years, grunted a greeting, and stuck his head in the fridge. Barbara sighed deeply.  Normally, Barbara said little to nothing, but tonight, she just felt she couldn’t hold back.  “Son,” she said…

I closed the door and turned around.  “Yeah?”

“I… I’m sorry.”

“F… for what?” I asked, slightly unnerved.

“We… I… I don’t know, I guess we don’t talk so much these days.  I usually come home too tired from work, and you’re usually busy with this or that.  I just…”

And then she gave a tired, little laugh, took a deep breath and asked, “How was your day?”

“It was okay.”

She exhaled quietly, softly nodded her head, and gently said, “Good.  I’m glad to hear that, honey.”  She saw me glance at my room and said, “Sorry.  Long day.  Anyway, if you need anything, let me know.”

“…Okay”, I muttered.  I took two steps towards my room, stopped, and for what I realized was the first time in a long time, said, “Thanks, Mom.”

I think that was the first time I saw my mother for what she was: a hard working woman who had sacrificed more than I ever knew for me after what I’ve discerned was a bastard of father left her years ago.  I only wished it hadn’t taken me 15 years to reach that realization.  I’m not sure what inspired her to reach out to me, in her own little way that night, but looking back, I think that’s my one of my last days as a kid, and one of my first days as a man.

K: I really like this idea and payoff, but the change in perspective is odd, to say the least.  It’s told in third person omniscient initially, and then in each of the other two sections, it’s in first.  It’s a strange decision, and unfortunate, since otherwise I really liked the scope of this story. SILVER

P: At first, it seems as though we’ve stumbled upon some sort of horrible reversal of paying it forward. Then, the twist – a happy one. The halting dialogue is a bit much, but that’s a minor gripe. I was dreading the payoff to this one, expecting everything to pick up steam until in culminated in all out death and destruction, but instead, I got an inspiring story without a lot of saccharine.


3 David Larson

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 aCosmos 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.

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.


4 Matt Novak

In the beginning, Rube Goldberg needed a light.

He spent the better part of his first day trying to find the right size bulbs for the warehouse he’d rented.  And then he needed to find a really tall step ladder.  But when he got the lights in, it was good.

The next day, Rube had to decide where he’d set up his machine.  The machine had lots of parts.  He’d need a staging area.  A haven, for planning, away from the chaos.  So on the second day, Rube created the havens.

On the third day, when Rube got to the warehouse, he found it had been flooded.  So he got out a mop, and made some dry floor in the midst of the water, and that was good.

On day four of building his machine, Rube strung up all the various lights he’d use, that would switch on and off, and mark the times that various things were happening.  And that was pretty good too.

On the fifth day, Rube really got down to work.  He hung some of parts of his invention from the rafters, and used some of the spots where there was still water too.  The invention was really coming together, and it was good.

On the sixth day, Rube Goldberg finished his machine.  It quickly grew and multiplied and came to fill the warehouse.  And then he created his pièce de résistance, a part of the machine in his image and likeness, and he set it over all the rest of his invention.  And he looked over everything he had done, and it was really, really good.

On the seventh day, Rube went down to the warehouse.  He was going to set his machine in motion.  Just a little flick would set a marble rolling, and bit by bit all the pieces would move, the whole thing in motion, so much greater than the small beginning.  He had created an entire system: complex and interconnected and beautiful.  But when he got there he remembered that he was supposed to pick up his grandmother and take her to Uncle Morty’s for dinner.  They were having brisket.  He rushed away, the keys still in the door.  He would have gone back, but he wouldn’t have ever heard the end of it if he’d been late with gramgrams, and it was a small thing, leaving the place unlocked.

It was a restful day, and for a time he forgot all about his invention.

On day eight, Rube came back.  Things were a mess.  It seems someone with bad intentions – some little devil – had come by and mucked things up.  The machine was running, but it certainly wasn’t behaving like Rube had intended.  Wheels were spinning, fires were burning, and various factions kept crashing into others.

Tempted to forget the whole thing, Rube remembered his motivation.
“Alright,” he said to himself, “but if Rube Junior wants to see this work, he’s going to have to help me clean it up.”

K: Cute enough, even if the gimmick wears itself out before long.  The theme seems tacked on, which is okay for broad comedy like this, I suppose.  I think it can be pretty funny, but the gags needed to be punched up to drive the absurdity home.

P: So, I guess ‘clever’ is a descriptor that could work for pretty much all of these (lots of thinking outside the box!), but a Rube Goldbergian semi-retelling of the Genesis creation account? That’s fantastic. Puns are plentiful, but all of them are sharp and smart, and the ending is pure gold. In fact, this whole story is.



After two straight weeks of Pete and I agreeing on practically everything, we can’t get together here.  No harm done, right?  Well, not unless you’re Novak.  Ahem.

So, Erik S and David Larson hereby move to the semifinals.  Sorry to keep you around when you tried to leave, Erik.

They’ll join Sarah Johnson and Ian Pratt for the penultimate challenge: due Friday, with a limit of 500 words, write a story where the central character has a month or less to live, and knows it.

Thanks for the season, Novak and Bret.  I’ll write a more proper goodbye tomorrow, but damn, I am tired tonight.