Hey, gang! As is your usual wont, we weren’t short on good ideas. Many, though, tried to jam too much into too little space where I really believe the idea was workable in the number of words provided.

Anyway, I’m a sucker for time travel, and true to form, I didn’t get tired of reading them even for the length of sixteen different stories. Onward, Prosers.

John Wreisner

First came the questionnaire.
“Are you a person who believes in predestination?”
“Are you opposed to capital punishment?”
“Have you ever stolen anything, no matter how small?”
Hundreds like these. Thousands, it seemed, circle upon circle filled in with a number two pencil. Her great grandfather had told her about those. Number two pencils, a monument to last an aeon. They filed out of the room in an exhausted silence.
Next came a personal interview. Why did she want this job? Was she an optimist, or a pessimist? Was she aware that the material reward for this job was virtually nil? Was she aware she could die performing this job? What are her strengths? Weaknesses? Her great grandfather had told her about those kinds of questions, too.” Hundreds of years later and humankind is still horseshit at self- assessment,” he’d say. “Why don’t you forget about this job? Meet a man, stay on the farm?” But she did not. She answered the questions and two weeks later, she got the job.
She entered a low building, squatting defensively against an oppressive gunmetal sky, choked with contrails and low smog. The building itself gave no suggestion of its purpose. A man with an expensive haircut and a cheap suit met her in the lobby. “Call me Jim. That’s not my real name. Better that way.” He extended a pale, damp hand. “Follow me.”
“We’re called “social workers” he said. “Sort of a euphemism. What we do is for the good of society. The work we do. Social workers.” He gave a lopsided, self-satisfied grin and touched the tips of his index fingers together to illustrate the point.
“After the advent of time travel- especially after it became commercial, but before it was regulated, before it was criminalized- we knew nothing. Nothing. The physicists and theologians thought they had the fucking philosophers stone.’
She shifted in her seat when he cursed, her thigh making an embarrassingly sexual sucking noise as it pulled away from the cheap vinyl. She blushed.
“We send people back’ he continued “To clean up. Too many story lines got too convoluted. And here we are.’ He motioned around the room, but she knew what he meant. The world. The crumbling, ruined world.
“You’ll know nothing about where you’re going. What you will know is that you’ll have an objective. Probably murder. You’ll be implanted with a memory of your target, sent into the device, and perform your task. You’ll black out afterwards, have your memory wiped, and wake up back here.” Not “here” he motioned around the room, laughing. “But in this facility. You start tomorrow.”
It was arid, hot. She wore sandals, little else. Low mud buildings. Livestock. Diseased beggars. Stagnant wells reeking of sulfur. Her implanted memory triggered after wandering a marketplace for days, feverish and thirsty and confused. She saw him standing amidst an adoring crowd, long hair, white robes, kind face, beatific. She closed distance, plunged the knife, and heard only ‘Yeshua! Yeshua! Yeshua!”

K: Huh. I suppose this is the kind of thing I should see coming around these parts, but I didn’t. It’s rare that I don’t ding a story for taking too long with the setup, but I thought it effectively built the tension leading to our big reveal. GOLD

CW: Well shit. That would certainly turn time on its head. I’m pretty sure the idea of time traveling assassins isn’t unique but it’s still fun. – BRONZE

Matt Novak

It looks like I have blood on my hands. The roasted tomatoes, which I’ve torn in rough-edged segments, layer the pan. I top them with the meat sauce, cheese, pasta, repeat. The pan goes into the oven, and I scrub the counter clean. An olfactory duet of of lasagna and lemon cleaner strike a tentative harmony in the air. I step back and examine my work: there is no trace of the mess. I look at the timer, and it gives me permission to relax. I turn on the TV and it tells me the opposite.

A scene of chaos unfolds on the screen. A reporter crouches slightly behind a car. Lights flash on emergency vehicles. A helicopter shot shows students hurrying from the high school.

Our high school.

I hear the reporter say they’ve given the all clear. I hear her say “at least 10 dead.” I watch her approach tearful students, and I think it crass, but I can’t turn away. I want to hear their answers too.

“We were at the assembly”

“Homecoming game tonight”

“Dustin ran on the court”

“Nowhere to hide”

The helicopter shot again, and a studio voiceover summarizes for those just tuning in.

I wish I could make it all go away. I wish I could travel back through time. Save those children. Prevent the casualties.

I head for the door, remember the lasagna, turn off the oven, break down in tears. The sirens bring me back, and my mind races.

I called the police. No. There are phone records.

I sent a letter. The unreliable post office.

I park a block from the office and take the back stairs. The computer eases to life and I find the note from last week.

[Open Case Note]
Tuesday September 23
Met with DM. He demonstrated [edit:cut]no[edit:cut][edit:insert]serious[edit:insert] signs of anger displacement issues. He expressed some suicidal ideation [edit:cut]but it appeared mild enough that DM isn’t[edit:cut] [edit:insert]and DM is[edit:insert] considered an immediate risk to others. [edit:insert]Sent letter to law enforcement reporting concerns, and requesting they investigate threats DM has made.[edit:insert]
[Close Case Note]

I step back and examine my work: there is no trace of the mess. The only way I can travel through time is on paper. At least it will prevent one casualty.

K: I’ve always been fascinated by the horrors of the rampage killer, and what the he’ll makes them do what they do, so that’s a gripping backdrop. I wonder how, though, we might drop our narrator closer to the action? Make her a school employee? It felt a little distant, nice though it was. SILVER

CW: The idea of changing time by altering a document was great. I especially liked how that was portrayed. I’m sure the Colorado Theater guy’s (refuse to use his name on the internet) shrink felt pretty much just like this. So so close to a silver. – BRONZE

Jonathon Pope

“Do you understand why I’m here?” the tall glowing man asked.

“Not really,” I said, ” is it something to do with the story I’m supposed to write?”

The tall man sighed quietly, and began again. “We are an experimental unit of Social Workers from the future. We exist in order to try to affect positive change throughout history.”

“So… you’re like, what, time travelling shrinks?”

“No,” the tall man said, gritting his teeth a little. “This is the reason I’m here is to let you know why you are having difficulty writing this story. The fact that you have almost no concept of social work is causing you your difficulty.”

“But I don’t have time to learn about social work before the deadline!” I responded. “How am I supposed to come up with a story about this!? Can you tell me what you do?”

“Sure,” he snarled, “let me just sum up in a few words the incredibly complicated work that we do.”

After a moment the tall man realized that I was waiting for him to continue and sighed more deeply than ever. “OK, look. We identify problem people throughout history, and we work with their families to try to neutralize the damage that they do, in order to right the wrongs of the world. We’ve made a lot of progress, too!”

“Such as?”

“Ever hear of Adolph Hitler?”

“No.”

“Pol Pot?”

“Who?”

“What about John Wayne Gacy?”

“The western movie guy?”

“If we weren’t out there, doing what we do, you would know all of those names, and you would be horrified by them.”

“Look,” I said, “This is fascinating, but it doesn’t really explain what you do, or help my story.”

The tall man looked at me with pity and said “Nothing can help your story. You went meta. Colin will somehow misunderstand it and Kelly will hate it.”

“Colin? Kelly? Who are they?”

The tall man looked confused, and pulled a device from his bag. After studying it for a moment, he looked at me and said, “You’re right. The judges will love this story. Ryan gives it a gold. Novak declared that it made him weep for joy and gives it a silver. Spike said it made him embarrassed to be a writer, and all the other players immediately quit after reading it.” He tapped on his device a few times. “Wells, Wells, what happened to you?” he muttered. Suddenly he stopped, and looked horrified.

“You OK?” I asked.

“Fine, fine,” he said, attempting to be breezy. “Just more work to add to my pile. Look, I need to get going, there’s a little time – er – snafu to deal with.”

“But my story still sucks!” I yelled as he began to fade.

“It was always going to suck, just submit it!” he yelled back.

K: Meta can lick me, but the judge twist at the end was admittedly pretty amusing. Believe it or not, this almost got a medal from me.

CW: First off, I’d like to say… Fuck you! Secondly, I really did get the meta in this and I loved it. This was fun, even though that Colin character sounds like a tool. – SILVER (Hitler reference 1)

Christina Pepper

I.
“Hello?”
“Can I talk to you about Mr. Jenkins?”
“Look Alicia, I’ve got back-to-back meetings all afternoon. Can it wait?”
“Oh, I suppose.”
Click.
– – – – –
ring ring ring ring ring
“This is Kurt. Leave me a message.”
– – – – –
“Hello?”
“Did you reach Mr. Jenkins yesterday?”
“No, it went straight to voicemail. Why?”
“He’s dead.”
“What? He was supposed to have a bed at Helping Hands.”
“He never showed up.”
“Fuck.”
II.
“Hello?”
“Can I talk to you about Mr. Jenkins?”
“Look Alicia, I’ve got back-to-back meetings all afternoon. Can it wait?”
“Oh, I suppose.”
“You suppose? What the hell’s that supposed to mean? You’re as bad as my wife. Just give me a straight yes or no.”
“Uh, in that case I think you should try to reach him now.”
“Fine.”
Click.
– – – – –
ring ring ring ring ring
“This is Kurt. Leave me a message.”
“Hey, it’s Jeff Thomas from House of Hope. Just calling to see how you’re doing. You’re all lined up for a bed at Helping Hands tonight.”
– – – – –
“Hello?”
“Did you reach Mr. Jenkins yesterday?”
“I left a message but didn’t hear back.”
“He’s dead.”
“What? He was supposed to have a bed at Helping Hands.”
“They said he wasn’t sober when he showed up for check-in.”
“Fuck.”
III.
“Hello?”
“Can I talk to you about Mr. Jenkins?”
“Look Alicia, I’ve got back-to-back meetings all afternoon. Can it wait?”
“Oh, I suppose.”
“You suppose? What the hell’s that supposed to mean? You’re as bad as my wife. Just give me a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
“Hey, I know you’re busy, but there’s no need to be an ass about this.”
“Whatever, bitch.”
Click.
– – – – –

“Hello?”
“Hi, Mr. Jenkins?”
“Yes . . . ?”
“This is Alicia from House of Hope. I work with Jeff.”
“Jeff who?”
“Jeff Thomas? Your social worker?”
“You mean the prick who stole my dope last week?”
“Uh . . . ”
“You seem nice, though. You as pretty as you sound?”
“How much have you had to drink today, Mr. Jenkins?”
“Don’t matter none, honey.”
“Can you tell me where you are right now? I’d like to send over one of our outreach team members.”

– – – – –
ring ring ring ring ring
“You have reached Jessica Thomas. Please leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
“Jessica, it’s Alicia at House of Hope. I know it’s not my place to ask, but is there any chance Jeff could be using again? I don’t have time to go into specifics right now, but I’m worried that something’s not right.”
– – – – –

IV.
“Hello?”
“Jeff?”
“No . . . this is Ben. Who is this?”
“It’s Alicia.”
“What are you calling Jeff for? He was fired last week.”
Click.
“Fuck.”

K: Here’s a trick we should see utilized a little more often: cutting out the exposition when everyone knows the prompt. This clips along at a pace that brings out the inherent humor in the situation without relying on punchlines. Great fun. GOLD

CW: I wasn’t really feeling the cyclical recursion here, but I appreciated the goal. Moral of this story? Drugs are bad mmkay? Or, like, you can’t fix… oh nevermind.

Beau

Fatima could hardly breathe.The Florida heat was oppressive today and Blackwood Cemetery had a stark shortage of foliage. Her mouth tasted like bile; she tried to spit, but couldn’t. Nolan’s family had already left. She doubted anyone noticed her presence. All the same, she didn’t want to seem disrespectful. She hated herself enough as it was. The gravestone beckoned to her like a gruesome roadside accident. The sun was getting hotter. She left.

*****

“I would like to apply for my time benefit, please.”

“Your name?” The gentleman behind the granite desk was either bored, dismissive, or both.

“Fatima Bronwyn.”

“Please fill out these forms, ma’am. Do you have the proper identifications?” He hadn’t even looked up yet.

“I do. And I want to go this afternoon.” That got his attention.

“Ma’am? May I remind you that this is a once in a lifetime benefit. There are no exceptions. The body can barely handle the stress of one trip.” He was looking directly at her now. “Are you absolutely sure this is the right time?”

*****

They always said going back in time was disorienting. But she never felt more aware of herself and her purpose in life than at this moment, one week ago.

“Have a nice life, Fatima. Bye,” Nolan said cheerfully.

This time she didn’t leave.

“Nolan, can I speak with you a little bit longer? I want to ask you something.” He sat back down in his chair. “I’m worried about you. Are you thinking about ending your life?”

Nolan opened up to her for the first time. She learned about the death of his wife, which he still blamed himself for. The sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his uncle. His pulling away from his family as the depression took over. His puppy Dawson joined the conversation after a while, an obvious comfort for Nolan. After an hour, he seemed more hopeful than ever.

“Nolan, I want to ask you how you were planning to kill yourself.”

He sighed, and opened up the end table drawer beside him. As she expected, a pistol was revealed.

“I really care about you and am glad you are feeling more hopeful. Would it be all right if I ask your sister to come over and take the gun home with her? Just to be safe?”

Nolan agreed.

*****

Though it was impossible, this day seemed even hotter than before. Blackwood Cemetery was no longer just a barren wasteland. It was a fucking recurring nightmare. Except this time, she was noticed.

“Fatima?”

It was Nolan’s sister. She averted her eyes.

“Thank you.”

“Um…” Fatima replied. She was caught off guard by a hug.

“You gave me one more night with my brother. I will always be grateful for that.”

Nolan’s sister smiled then turned to leave. Fatima exhaled. The air was breathable again. She headed towards the gravesite.

K: There’s nothing I can point to as a glaring flaw here, but it’s a fairly expected kind of story that goes where the reader knows it’s going. Decent prose, decent idea…it just didn’t offer a standout moment. I may underrate this one due to my expectation that Fatima was going to get just one more night out of it.

CW: This was emotional and moving in all the right ways. It seems that just one more night with a loved one is worth a one-time ever time travel. Fatima is truly selfless. Ultimately, there was nothing she could do for Nolan, but I liked her. – BRONZE

Melissa Diamond

“There’s a man here to see you,” Nina said.

Mary glanced up from her desk. Nina waited. Her hair was so long that the longest ends rested on her distended belly.

“Tell him I’m busy, love.”

“He said it’s urgent. He–” The girl paused, bit her lower lip. “He says time has caught up with you.”

Mary’s hands shook. To keep from succumbing to the fear, she placed her pen in her ledger and closed the book. Nina scurried out to get the guest. Mary unlocked her desk drawer, opening it just enough to see the gun inside. Then she stood.

The man had aged a few years, but she recognized him. If her eyes hadn’t, her heart would have. Agent Price. Nina offered him a drink as they entered, but he didn’t respond. Mary dismissed her.

“We’ve been looking for you for five years,” Hamish said.

Mary pretended to be unafraid. “And yet you couldn’t get to me any sooner.”

“You need to end this thing.”

“I love it here.”

“We’ve lost funding. Sending me here, now, was the best Organization could do with what money and energy we had at our disposal. The machine is so old now that we can’t even get it to go back far enough to stop you; to before you started this Home; before you–”

“It shouldn’t matter. I did my job!”

His eyes blazed. “And then you ruined everything by staying.”

Mary’s eyes widened. No. This home was her life. Her passion. Countless girls she’d saved. Countless children. “I’ve spent 20 years in this time period. Twenty years in this backward place getting to know the community, acting as an advocate for the abandoned girls here, advocating to build the Home so as to educate them instead of leaving them to fester on the street. All those bastards they birth each year? Those children will no longer breed poverty, generations of discontent, anguish –”

“I know this, Mary–”

“I’m keeping this town from becoming the center of the biggest terrorist organization of the 24th century. Are you telling me I didn’t succeed?”

“You did. But you stayed, and now the government considers you an enemy.”

The edges of her vision darkened. She pushed them back, even as her stomach churned. She felt sick. Worse than she had in days. She rested her hand on the edge of the desk drawer, one finger against the gun’s steel.

“Only me and the organization know why you were sent here originally, and I had to read it in journals from other time workers. Why?” He pointed angrily at Mary. “Because you saved all these girls, prevented a terrorist organization, and then got married.”

“So?”

“So now you’re pregnant with his child, and that child is the worst dictator this country will ever see. My family barely survived his revolution.”

Her teeth clenched. “That’s not true.”

He reached for his gun.

“You loved me once, Hamish,” she said.

His expression flattened. “Not on my timeline.”

K: That’s a very strong ending exchange to an otherwise slow-moving narrative. A LOT of this dialogue is thinly-masked exposition, and I could see the characters glancing out to me going, “Ya get all that?” after they spoke. This is a great plot with potentially great characters, but needs a pass through to show some trust in the reader’s understanding.

CW: This was another of my favorites, though I felt like once again it was dumbed down a little bit. With some of our (read my) previous misses, maybe it’s for a reason. I liked this idea and that the child out of time would become a horrible dictator. Too much knowledge means too much power and power corrupts. Is that the concept? Either way – GOLD

Sarah Wreisner

FAQ
How does KinSource™ work?
We are proud to collect the most captivating, obscure human DNA samples in human history. KinSource™ time travel specialists shape our large collection of human ancestry; our family trees are the most exclusive in the world.

Where are the KinSource™ samples from?
Our DNA samples span every epoch of the Cenozoic era.

What can I expect from a lifetime subscription?
Genealogy subscriptions allow unlimited access to our immense databank. KinSource™ users submit personal samples using our convenient, private DNA sample kits. Samples are entered into own massive database, providing subscribers with a comprehensive mapping of historical ancestors. In addition to this unique access, KinSource™ subscribers participate in our quarterly voting process. Electronic ballots allow KinSource™ subscribers to vote on upcoming DNA mining expeditions. We let you decide!

What does the KinSource™ subscription pay for?
The KinSource™ subscription covers the expense of collecting samples from noteworthy subjects. Because these trips can be dangerous, our insurance costs are as high as our satisfaction rates.
Gold and Platinum premium subscriptions connect users to DNAWatch™, our vast library of expedition video footage. We are always improving our technology to allow our subscribers to enjoy the journey with us!

How do I know what the next KinSource™ trip will be?
KinSource™ never stops searching the living archives of human history for the most interesting DNA samples available. Some of our recent examples include Emperor Caligula, Joan of Arc, William Shakespeare, The Prophet Muhammad, Socrates, Dante Alighieri, Augustine of Hippo, Julius Caesar, Alaric the Visigoth and Mary Magdalene. Our agents are always booking new trips! Please check our travel schedules often – we are always updating our website.

What does a premium subscription offer?
Our Gold subscriptions are worth every penny! Gold memberships allow users up to three (3) samples of their choosing. Our most premium subscription – the Platinum – allows the user to connect directly with one (1) ancestor of their choice, all while enjoying the comforts of our highly secure, military-trained time travel escort. Please ask your agent for details and limitations.

Is this type of work dangerous?
Our travel specialists are highly prepared, and we take every precaution available. Our vaccinations, bioweapons and cloaking materials are state-of-the-art. Occasionally, the hardships and superstitions of ancient human life present our travelers with unique, perilous situations. Our most ambitious trips have presented the unique dangers of extinct animals, eradicated diseases, superstitions and awkward appearance sites. We aim our travel trajectories into safe zones, free of war, religious zealotry and plagues – but when something goes wrong, we are prepared. Even in the worst conditions, our travelers are trained to face every possible conflict known to man.

What about the moral risks?

We carefully avoid upsetting our ancestors’ lives. We know firsthand how disruptive an appearance from a time traveler can be, especially for the most distant relatives. Be assured that every safeguard is always in place here at KinSource™.

K: I always have a hard time with stories told through manuals (yes, I’ve read enough of them here for that to be a thing). It’s just a less interesting way to tell a story than a story. That said, this manual reads with a believable voice throughout and I think it offers a bigger story that the reader understands given the setup. I’m a little surprised at how much I enjoyed this. SILVER

CW: This was a unique approach that reminds me of the Assassin’s Creed games without outright copying their premise. I thought it was going there at first. I liked putting this as a FAQ and the worldbuilding done within a simple FAQ was fantastic. – SILVER

Sama Smith

She found him in a bathtub full of blood; a note resting on the floor next to him.

Dear Maura,

I want to make sure you know know why this happened and why it’s your fault.

I know you wanted to help me, but you turned my existence into insanity.

Do you remember our first conversation? When you asked me how best you could help me and I said that unless you can go back in time and knock that first beer out of my hand no amount of help was going to do it. Or maybe I just said fuck you. And you just fucking smiled. After that I don’t remember a damn thing til I woke up in bed the next day.

When I got up things were different. My room was different–my bed, my clothes, shit, my face looked different. And I wasn’t hungover. I didn’t feel like shit for the first time in decades.

Then I got hit by a wave of confusion. I remembered stealing my dad’s six pack when I was 10, but then I remembered deciding not to do that and play baseball with the guys instead. Conflicting memories twisted inside me and my brain felt like a vice.

It happened again a week later when you came back asking about jobs. I’d always been a mechanic, that’s all I knew, but now I couldn’t even tell you where a fucking transmission goes. My drunk old man would share some scotch with me as we worked on junkers, but maybe not because I also worked stocking shelves so I could afford my 76’ Camaro. I remember doing both during the same time, but that’s fucking impossible.

I tried to tell you about these dual memories. You just asked if I was using again. I never did drugs in my fucking life! But I also remember getting high with the guys after practice.

I don’t remember much after you last left. But it hit me that you did this to me. Somehow you changed my past. There’s no other explanation. Everything was familiar until you came along. I know it sounds crazy, but I can’t go around remembering two different lives.

You shouldn’t have tried to help me. I was better with the booze.

– Albert
—–
Maura walked out of the bathroom and called the police. A sob caught in her throat as she sat down on the sinking leather couch. She ripped open the lining of her purse and grabbed her last, emergency cigarette. She coughed through the first drag, but soon the burn began to comfort and clear her head.

Maura crumpled the note into a ball and dropped it in an empty glass of bourbon in front of her. She flicked her lighter on and watched the paper burn.

K: Okay, the idea of a suicide note opening with the line “I want you to know why this is your fault” is pretty damn engaging, but I found the writing to be a little too careful and measured, as if the soon-to-be-deceased knew he was writing a short story for a Play with the Prose competition. On the other hand, a reread allowed me to let go of that a little and get into what must have been a horrifying experience for the narrator (and Maura too, in her way). I’m glad I gave this one a second read. SILVER

CW: I really liked this one. It kinda reminded me of the Butterfly Effect in the dual memory thing, but this is a perfect way to account for what time travel might do to someone. The fact that Maura tried to help and do what he wanted and still ended up failing and even being blamed is sad and terrible. – GOLD

Erik S

Having now had the chance to work the new machine several times, Clarence was becoming more comfortable with the controls. He powered and targeted the machine until the whirring and revving reached a crescendo, then abruptly subsided after emitting a moist “BLOOOOP”.

Clarence unsecured and unsealed the airlock. Pillows of mist lazily collapsed across the threshold, then stretched across the floor. Clarence winced in anticipation. He flicked another switch, and a motor kicked into life, rolling the contents of airlock out onto the floor.

The unit remained motionless and silent. Clarence, hoping he’d finally extracted an acceptable unit, gave a small cheer and went over to inspect it. He’d only taken a few short steps when the unit began the now familiar process of catastrophic failure. Its gravity and inertia systems swiftly deteriorated and it began moving in erratic, non-concentric circles while emitting a high pitch buzzing noise.

Clarence sighed. He gingerly picked up the malfunctioning unit, looked it over for any obvious defects, and failing to find any, opened the front access panel (though he had to work at it for a moment). The circuitry was crude, but he still couldn’t find any obvious cause of fault or glitch. Frustrated, he dropped the malfunctioned unit next to the other ones and stalked back to the machine, determined to find one he could use.

Chuck’s eyebrows involuntarily rose; a rarity after all this time.

He peeked over the file at the young woman across the cluttered desk in his messy, musty office. The 19-year-old smacked gum indifferently while rolling her eyes at her cell phone. She had just welcomed twins into the world, her third and fourth children. That didn’t impress him much, but he certainly had questions on the logistics of her twins having different fathers (her third and fourth daddies).

He inhaled, about to ask a (more appropriate) question, when he felt the universe inhale behind him. At least that’s as well as he could explain it. The air behind him bubbled violently, the molecules vibrated with a vicious whine, and he felt himself compelled inside the anomaly.

Next, it seemed as though his entire body was forced red-hot tube of impossibly small diameter. Somewhere, his mouth screamed.

He fell to the ground and felt his form uncomfortable “plop” back into place. A sheen of light sliced through the darkness as a portal of some kind opened. What stood before him might have once been human, but the frightfully stretched and misshapen. It approached him with a horribly unnatural gait, producing inhuman sounds in discordant pitches.

Chuck’s terror filled eyes happened upon a pile of naked humanity, all broken or bent at awful angles. The one of the top of the pile had had its chest unceremoniously pried open.

Chuck began to scream and scream.

Clarence sighed as he added another defective unit to the pile. He vowed he would find a working Assist unit to assist the first Assist unit they had extracted, now catatonic.

K: This is certainly a smart idea with some darkly comedic potential, but my main qualm is that the story is all plot-plot-plot and I wasn’t given a compelling reason to get into the lives of these characters. I don’t need a groundswell of emotion or anything, but nearly everything I know about these two characters is their names. Cut 10% plotting, add a little flavor, and now we’re cooking with gas. BRONZE

CW: I’ll be honest. I got totally hung up on the errors in this one to the point where everything was disjointed and didn’t make sense to me. I had to ask Kelly to clarify for me but even then, this didn’t quite do it for me.

Matthew Gilman

Fitz stumbled through the padded door of the trapezoidal pod, into the laboratory. Legs aching, he willed himself to the room’s only window. “Good sign,” he muttered, noticing the transparency of the air outside. He turned back to the nest of equipment across the room. “Right, Pru? No more toxicity from the Sulfur Bombs. Looks like I convinced her.”

Prufroy shuffled out from behind the monitors. “Yeah. Good call talking to the mother and aunt together.” He folded into a wooden chair near the pod, then looked up at Fitz, entreatingly. Fitz trudged over and took the chair opposite.

“Air’s normal. Lower geiger-readings on the surrounding flora, no geothermal energy fluctuations.”

“Electricity grid on, obviously…” Fitz added. “I see trees again. No influenza pandemic either?”

“Right,” continued Pru. “Thriving populations in Baltimore AND Baton Rouge.”

“Uh-huh.” Fitz stretched his tired body and waited.

“But…”

“There’s always a ‘but’.”

“It’s not enough.”

Groaning, Fitz let his neck go slack, his head falling over the chair back until he found himself staring blankly at the ceiling. “What do the numbers say?”

Prufroy cleared his throat. “We’re at a 38% total extinction probability.”

“That’s good, right?!”

“It’s not ideal. We need to be under 30% before we’ve contained the damage.”

Fitz cringed at what he heard. He took a long gulp of air before finally responding. “…YOU’VE.”

“Hmm?” Prufroy responded.

“Not ‘we’ve.’ Before YOU’VE contained the damage YOU caused by inventing YOUR machine, messing up the universe when YOU went back in time.”

Prufroy began nodding defensively while Fitz was still speaking. “Yes, I know, I did this. I’m just–”

“–a scientist, I know,” interrupted Fitz, angrily, “doing what all scientists do: fucking around with the natural world, leaving godawful messes for the REST of us to fix.”

“–no. I’m incompetent.”

Fitz stared at Prufroy. “Pru, you perfected time travel. You’re brilliant.”

“But I’m incompetent at this. I did what I could. But it kept getting worse the more
kill-Hitler-as-a-child scenarios I tried. I knew I needed your expertise.”

“Wait…kill-Who-as-a-child?”

“…Never mind, you wouldn’t have heard of him. The point is…talking is gentler. Less future chaos than killing. Kidnapping. Castration”

Fitz goggled. “Pru…what are you saying? What have you done?”

Prufroy was lost in his own words. “History’s like wallpaper. You try to push a bulge down in one spot, and it pops up somewhere else. The harder you push, the uglier that new bubble is.”

Fitz’ eyes sharpened. “So, with my…people skills…”

“Yes.” Pru sighed. “A softer push. Explain the hardships of bringing a person into the world. Urge them to reconsider. If it’s ‘their’ idea, the bubbles are smaller.”

A silence followed. Fitz cleared his throat. “But not small enough.”

“No. Soft pushes, hard pushes…neither are enough.”

Fitz swallowed. “So what do we do?”

“We tear the wallpaper down for good.”

Prufroy extracted a pistol from his pocket.

“Fitz…I’m going back to visit my parents.”

K: This opens with a bang, but offers a pretty predictable Butterfly Effect conversation afterward. I’ll admit I was endeared by Prufroy’s total acceptance of his own idiocy, but after a few too many exchanges, I wanted the characters to stop talking and ACT for a bit. This is the polar opposite of the previous story; we have engaging characters, but they’re stuck in a conversation loop that just isn’t going anywhere.

CW: I feel like this would be how things would happen. Someone smart enough to invent time travel would screw something else up, causing massive death while trying to prevent it. Time travel is a completely different mindset. I like that this was recognized and that someone like Fitz was brought on to help. Alas, ultimately we need to kill the inventor’s parents. I wonder if this already happened for real…? – GOLD (Hitler reference 2)

Brian David

Chester’s phone started to vibrate, a cheery melody floating from its tiny speaker. He reached clumsily towards the nightstand and silenced the alarm. Chester stuffed his face into his pillow in one last fit of denial, and then swung his legs over the edge of his bed. He walked across the shag carpet, rubbed his eyes, and opened his bedroom door.
He found himself looking down a long hallway, the walls of which were covered with metal plating and fitted with an intricate series of conduit and wiring. A row of fluorescent lights ran down the middle of the ceiling and disappeared into the distance.
Chester blinked. He turned and looked back at his bedroom window. The sky was clear and a cardinal stared at him, perched on a branch that hovered in front of the pane. He shifted back to the metal hallway and squinted.
“Um. . . “
Something nudged Chester’s left foot. Looking down, he saw a large white sphere. A shutter opened on the surface of the sphere, revealing a lense.
“Please help.”
The voice was high-pitched and broken with static.
“Please help. . .Chester.”
The sphere rolled down the hallway. Chester shrugged, rubbed his eyes and followed.
Several minutes passed. The sphere was guided by a dotted yellow line painted along the floor. Eventually it rolled into a large room, the far end of which was covered entirely with windows. Nothing could be seen through the glass; only a deep, impenetrable darkness. Floating a few feet away from these windows was an odd purple light, like a disembodied lamp.
The white sphere nudged Chester’s leg.
“Please help . . . Chester.”
The purple light vibrated, and then someone spoke.
“Don’t mind Maurice.”
Chester wasn’t sure where the voice was coming from.
“He seems to think there’s a cure for depression. I appreciate his optimism.”
The lense on the sphere flickered.
“Please help Chester,” the sphere chirped.
“And he still calls me Chester,” the voice continued. “It’s cute.”
The purple light moved away from the window.
“So, this is it.” The voice now had a tinge of sorrow. “We made it, Chester. This is it.”
Chester frowned.
“Car wrecks. . .so many surgeries. . .aging, war, supernovas. All of these things could have been – should have been – the end. But they weren’t. So here we are.”
Chester now felt distinctly uncomfortable. The purple light shrunk and drifted away.
“What am I doing? . . .take him back, Maurice. It was a nice thought.”
The light disappeared. The lense on the sphere flashed and it rolled back down the hallway. Unsure of what else to do, Chester once again followed.
When he finally reached his room, Chester turned towards his strange companion. The shutter on the sphere flipped close.
“Please. . .”
Chester shut the door.
Behind him, the cardinal sang from its perch. Shaking his head, Chester opened the door again, revealing the familiar stretch of hallway, with drywall and shag carpet, that lead to his kitchen.
Chester was hungry.

K: Chester is the character of the week. (Note: I should have long ago instituted a “character of the week.”) When characters face extraordinary circumstances like the ones presented here, by far the most banal and tedious dramatic choice is to have the character sputter for a couple of pages as we listen to his inner confusion. A cautious acceptance of the situation is a little more realistic, and Chester’s ho-hum response immediately draws me to him. I suppose I’d get tired of a week full of nothing but apathetic geeks, but the occasional Chester always makes me smile. GOLD

CW: So this is supposed to be a comedy, but after reading it several times I didn’t find myself laughing. Maybe this is more my fault than the writer, but with some of the really fantastic stories this week, this one didn’t earn a medal. Sorry Proser.

Margaret Martin

Marcus dug dirty fists into his eyes, trying to stop the tears.

People who’ve never been whipped think it’s the whipping that makes you cry. Yeah, it hurts. Hot ribbons running down your legs, pooling in your crotch and behind your knees.

But that’s not what makes you cry.

It’s your insides. They clench up solid under the whip. Then when it’s over, they just let go. You quiver like a dirty puddle and start leaking from your eyes and nose.

Marcus picked his way to the pump. He splashed his face and turned around to let the water wash the sting from his welts.

“Grandpa?” He was startled to see him standing there.

The old man was talking. “Wait! Don’t… Lord have mercy.” Finally he turned his head. “Marcus?”

Marcus regarded the old man suspiciously. “Why do you sound funny?”

“I’m not your Grandpa. I’m… I had a Dad just like yours. Then I had a son, and now he’s got a son, about your age.” He pulled some photos from his pocket. Marcus saw himself and his Dad at the farm, some people holding a baby, more people with a baby. The man who wasn’t Grandpa kept talking, but Marcus’s brain was sore and sloppy, and he couldn’t follow.

“Marcus, your Dad whipped you today to teach you a lesson, didn’t he?”

Marcus nodded, twisting his arm behind his back to brush away the flies that were picking at his bleeding stripes.

“Where I live, some people found out that if you learn about your mistakes by getting whipped, when you get a son of your own, you’ll whip him too — to teach him a lesson.”

“Yes sir.”

“So you’re going to do that? And then your boy is going to whip your grandbaby. Because he’s got to learn about mistakes too.”

Marcus shifted, trying to imagine a grandson. “Well, I guess so.”

“But now… maybe you think…” The stranger swallowed “… maybe you wish that you hadn’t taught your son that. Maybe you don’t want him hurting that little boy! So you pray to the Lord to make things right.” He paused for a while, scrubbing his eyes with his knuckles. Finally, he fished another picture out of his pocket.

“See this little boy?”

Marcus studied the picture. The boy was wearing big shoes and had white teeth and thick curly hair, just like his.

“He made a mistake – ate up the strawberries his Mom was saving. What do you think? Would whipping be a good way to teach him about his mistake?”

Marcus tried to think, but his brain was still white liquid; ideas surfaced and floated away before he could grab them. He shook his head. “Whipping makes your head useless. Nobody can learn that way.”

The man knelt in front of Marcus to look him in the eye, the remorse of generations bending his shoulders.

“I bet a smart boy like you could find a different way.”

K: Once again, I thank you for eschewing exposition when we all know the prompt. Beyond that, it’s a 150-word story that uses many more; we know very shortly into this piece where it will be going and where it will end. I don’t know how to make this ending stronger, but I know there’s got to be more than to have the old son say “Just don’t do it.” Dramatically, the logical but stronger choice would be to have him threaten violence of his own, since he’s learned it. Beyond that, there are countless possibilities, and while the story is fine enough, this ending leaves so much potential on the table.

CW: I can’t say this one surprised me. I can’t say this one was the best. But I can say this one was great. The colorful descriptions and accurate portrayals of true pain resonated with me and I could just imagine how a father would feel later in life when he realized how wrong he had been to beat his children. Being able to go back in time and end the cycle? I’d do it. – SILVER

Ian Pratt

Giovanni leaned back in his chair, his feet propped lazily on his desk, his hands knit together over his eyes. His assistant Rachel read from the week’s stack of screenplays.

“This is called Diamonds Are A Girl’s Worst Enemy. It’s a rom-com about-“

“Pass,” Giovanni grunted.

“This one’s called Another First Chance. It’s about a social worker who-“

“Pass,” he grunted again.

“Would you let me finish?” Rachel snapped. “Please, just let me finish telling you about this one. It’s about a social worker who travels back in time to-“

“Pass! Christ. Are you kidding me? My god. Pass.”

Giovanni heaved his legs off of his desk and slouched slightly upright.

“What’s next.”

“That’s it. You passed on everything.”

Giovanni rubbed his eyes. There was a pressure building between his temples, a few pebbles bouncing before a major rockslide. He’d slept for maybe four hours. Three? He opened a desk drawer, rattled around with his hand, and closed it. His Oxycontin was still in the car. He checked his watch. 10:43am. Sharee left at 5, so her flight would still be over the Atlantic, perhaps easing into a slow descent before touching down in France. Then before he knew it she’d be sucking some frog’s dick in a nightclub bathroom. And he’d sent her there. He did. Him! Giovanni! “Oh okay Sharee, you’re thinking about studying fashion? Why don’t I just get you an internship at Vogue Paris! I’ll charter you a private jet, I’ll put my name on the lease for a 1st Arrondissement penthouse, I’ll pay for a bouquet of Cristal bottles to be waiting for you!”

And why? Because he wanted to impress her? Because she was younger than his daughter and he had some sick, uh, not Oedipus complex. What’s the one with fathers and daughters. Electria. Electra. They hadn’t even known each other a month. “Christ, am I the biggest dumbfuck on earth?” he thought.

“I’m sorry?” said Rachel.

Oh for fuck’s sake, he’d said it out loud. He pinched the bridge of his nose. The pebbles still rained down, and the larger rocks were beginning to shift. Coming to work was a mistake. He visualized himself holding the Oxy bottle, his stubby fingers slipping over the plastic ridges on the cap, the way they always did, as he struggled with the childproof seal. He visualized Sharee in the Vogue office, moaning as some shithead photographer bent her over a desk.

Rachel gathered up the rejected scripts and held her breath as she walked out of Giovanni’s office, exhaling after she closed the door. She set them on her desk as she slumped down in her chair. After a moment she reached out and shoved them in the trash, not bothering to save the one with her pen name on it. She opened her email and closed it. She clenched and unclenched her jaw. She turned her head to glare at the door behind her. Are you the biggest dumbfuck? Is that even a question?

K: Some of the week’s strongest and weakest writing is in this story. The opening industry stuff is funny-’cause-it’s-true, I hate to admit (and I love the horrible title of the rom-com). The characters are well-drawn and I think I’d love this one all the way through, but when we get to Giovanni’s inner thoughts, it takes a nosedive into tedious rhetorical questions. I’d prefer to keep Giovanni and his repressed emotions at a greater distance, which would really drive home his character better than the bull session he has with himself here. Some good stuff here, though it’s not far from being much better. BRONZE

CW: Well Giovanni is a poor excuse for a human being. Unfortunately he’s probably more the norm than the exception. And his taste in women is AWESOME! This was written well and was technically tied for me for a bronze medal but lost out. I liked this one, but I just liked the others more.

Pete Bruzek

Nancy hated being summoned to Trumbolt’s office. A evil, pompous windbag he might be, but he was a very rich, very powerful evil, pompous windbag who held a great deal of in whether or not she would be able to continue paying the rent. When he beckoned, none refused.

Nany opened the door to Tumbolt’s office. He heart sank as she saw the weasel-faced man sitting in the chair next to the one meant for her. Franklin. Ever since he had arrived in a spectacular ball of light three months earlier, Trumbolt had hanged on his every word.

Trumbolt noticed Nancy’s hesitance right away.

“No, no, no. You should listen to what Mr. Franklin has to say this time. He’s got some great ideas” he said.

Nancy begrudgingly complied and seated herself, waving a hand dismissively to Franklin to continue.

“Yes, so we have the needy, right?”

“Right.”

“And the various programs which have been set up are inadequate, corrupt, or fundamentally flawed?”

“Well, I would argue that what we really need…”

“Yes, yes, of course.” Franklin went on as if she was not there, “what if we took all of these unprivileged folk and put them to work? We would provide extremely cheap housing onsite, and the work that these needy souls would provide would make our great country’s infrastructure stronger as they provided their families one two, maybe even three meals a day from cafeterias which we would provide them. They would work to pay off their debt, giving the rabble something to do other than cause mayhem.”

“That…sounds like a poorhouse.”

“Yes! That’s it exactly! Since I arrived here, I noticed the stark lack of poorhouses! You have plenty of minimum wage jobs, but those are a poor substitute for a good poorhouse!”

“I’m not even sure that’s legal.”

“Well, it’s too late!” Trumbolt interjected, “I’ve approved the construction of four of these poorhouses to be built immediately. All of Mr. Franklin’s cases will be transferred there immediately, and I will be going over your caseload to determine which of your cases qualify, as well.”

Nancy burnt the building to the ground that night.

K: You essentially say it yourself in the opening: Trumbolt is sneeringly evil – to a degree that I just don’t buy. His reaction to the poorhouse idea is a nudge-nudge to the reader, but unfortunately, I’m the type of reader who won’t let an impossible-to-believe villain off the hook. You can make a character thoroughly rotten but still believable; one on this level just feels like a cheap manipulation.

CW: This one was rushed. There were six errors just in the first two paragraphs. It was extremely difficult to focus on the story given this. Trumbolt did what most people would given the power of time travel, abused it to further his own goals! With a little editing this could be much better.

Abby Stansel

Marcus slumped, head in his hands, as tears ran down his cheeks. Slamming the phone against the counter, he turned away. His eyes caught on a photo of a man with a little girl on his shoulders, spinning and playing. Maria hurried into the room. She didn’t have to ask what had happened as she saw what they had both feared in his shaking shoulders, in the photo he was grasping to his chest, in the broken phone. Marcus raised his head and locked his eyes on hers, and in them she saw what he was going to do.
Marcus opened his eyes in a small office.
“It worked!” he cried. “It really truly worked.”
Marcus checked his watch, and then glanced at the door, waiting patiently for the man he knew would soon walk through that door. He did not wait for long. Only a few minutes after he’d settled down at his desk, there was a sharp knock on his door.
“Come in, Mr.Brenani,” Marcus said.
A man entered. Even though Marcus hadn’t seen the man for twenty years, he recognized the younger version of him in the sharp green eyes, in the soot on his hands and face. But he also recognized the pain in the man, the emptiness that had haunted Marcus’s dreams as a child in his blank stare.
“How are you doing?” Marcus asked.
The man didn’t answer, just gripped something in one of his hands. He threw it down on the table, and held his head into his hands, shaking.
Marcus picked the object up. It was a simple locket. Hesitating, he opened it. There was a photo inside, of the man who sat in front of him with his arm around another man as they leaned against the massive truck. The men’s eyes were bright, and they were laughing. They looked happy.
Mr.Brenani answered Marcus’s unspoken question. “That’s Ryan,” he said softly. “He is…was my partner. At…at a fire last month, we heard someone crying out. I knew the building wasn’t safe. But he convinced me to let him go in. He could always convince me to do anything. The next thing I knew…the building was collapsing.”
Marcus looked into the man’s eyes and saw the pain he’d seen in this man in the future. The pain that had led to the horrible horrible event that had made him send himself here.
The men talked for hours. Finally, Marcus rose to leave. He turned back as he exited the office and said simply, “it wasn’t your fault.”
When Marcus returned to his kitchen, he hurried to pick up the phone dial the number.
“Hi, dad” he said. “Just wanted to make sure you’re ok. How’s Bruce.”
K: This one could use some dividers for the passage of time, eh? Did anything get lost in the cut and paste? This is a massive story wedged into a too-small number of words, and it raced from set piece to set piece as I tried in vain to keep up and get into the characters. Cut this from several distended scenes to one clear one.

CW: This is another story that wasn’t technically bad, or written poorly or anything but just lost out to better stories this week. You captured the idea that going back in time generally hurts more than helps and I liked it. Just not enough.

Annette Barron

The newly appointed Social Time Corps settled in around the polished conference table; eight women and two men appointed by the President of the United States to use the new technology for the good of mankind. Daunting.
“I personally don’t feel qualified to take on future projects yet,” Susan began. “I feel like we need to see how we do in the past first. Thoughts?” Several heads nodded in agreement. “Good. I assume you have all been thinking about this non-stop, because how could you not?” Chuckles all around. “Let’s get our ideas out there. Kumi, wanna go first?”
“I’d really like to go back far enough to affect the way women were perceived,” Kumi began. “You know, when the clergy decided women didn’t even have souls?”
“Or maybe we could stop Christianity from beginning at all?” Raj suggested. “Lots of horrible crimes against humanity resulted from Christianity.”
“True,” Susan agreed. “But lots of horrible crimes have resulted from just about every religion. Where do we start? And do we have the right? Kumi, as a woman, there’s no way you’re going to be able to go back in time and help women. No one’s going to listen to you. Maybe you could go, Daniel?”
“My specialty is children, Susan. And what would I do, anyway? There’s no way to stop Christianity. No one can agree on where it started. I was thinking more along the lines of working with Hitler as a child and maybe stopping the Holocaust from happening.”
“You should just strangle him,” Raj chimed in.
“Social workers do not kill.” Susan admonished.
“Not even to save millions?” This from Lupe. “I was thinking about how much better the world might be if JFK hadn’t died. How much further might we have progressed? I could go back and stop the killer.”
“How?” Raj demanded. “A little spot counseling? And who’s to say the world really would be a better place? That’s a big risk.”
“We can’t be afraid to effect big change.” Susan leaned back in her chair, massaging her temples. “What about Martin Luther King? Should we consider making sure he isn’t assassinated?”
Darla joined in. “I don’t think so. I think his death did more good for the cause than he could have.” She leaned forward. “What about the Native Americans? Can’t we do something about that tragedy? Maybe sink the Mayflower or, I don’t know, slit Columbus’s throat?”
“And we’re back to killing?” Susan sighed. “Maybe we should tackle smaller projects first, so we get an idea of how far reaching the ramifications can be.”
“I’ve been working with the Adults Molested as Children group in Parents United,” Fong offered. “We could find out where the abuse started and try to stop it. I lost one to suicide last week.”
“Social workers do not kill,” Raj scoffed, “but I would not mind offing some pedos. We should change our name to Assassins for Social Justice.”
Silence descended as the colleagues exchanged bleak looks.
K: I can’t tell if this one wants to be funny, poignant, dramatic or a combination of the three. (I have to get this out – it’s “affect,” not “effect” in your application). I think this one proposes some interesting questions, but the group solves them or plows through them in short order, giving the reader nothing to ponder. This story looked like dynamite when the idea of killing Christianity was brought up, and focusing on this question (or any one of the others) would have worked better than NOT focusing on a ton of them. As with many stories this week, a little focus would have gone a long way. BRONZE

CW: This was entertaining. Why must humans always resort to killing to eliminate problems? Oh. Because it’s effective? Right on. Oh and guess what! You won the 3rd Hitler reference award! That earns you a… crap. I’m out of medals. So close.

———————————————————————————

Wow…all over the place this week. Colin, that is. But hey, so were the ideas. We’re going to be grounding things in reality a bit more this next time, so hopefully you dug this while it lasted.

So how about a prompt for next time? Alright, here’s the deal: we’ll skip Monday, because everyone will be off drinking or whatever, and reconvene for another long challenge next Thursday at 7pm Central. Then we’ll do four short ones in a row. Cool enough?

Next time, let’s make like Sama Smith and write about a broken family. In fact, let’s get right to the action and write about the moment that the relationship falls apart. That’ll be an uplifting week of stories, right? 500 words again.

Peter Steinke update: surgery was a success, and he is, for the moment, totally cancer-free. Pete will never be out of the woods completely; cancer claimed his father (some time ago; he probably wasn’t much older than Pete is now) and as I’ve always heard it said, you don’t beat cancer until you die of something else, but right now things are the best they’ve been in a while. Hopefully we see him back, but if he prefers to take care of himself and stay home with his wife for a while, I don’t think I’ll blame him.

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