Writing Sprint Flash Fiction: Shards

Writing Sprint Flash Fiction: Shards

Sticking stringently to the deadline of Sunday, but then leave it until the following Thursday, so you can post it on the Monday afterwards, here is the latest effort from the writing sprint prompts provided by Mel Cusick-Jones.

The image below, the five words (all of which I managed to include) and the quote provided inspiration from what turned out to be some sci-fi fun.

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It’s the first sci-fi I’ve written since Scrambled Eggs Never Make Sense on Tuesday which was entered into a competition, faired well with feedback in forums and is one I intend to develop when I release the inevitable vanity short-story collection.

This week’s story pays homage, and a few cheeky digs, to a much-loved galactic adventure. But I feel there’s a story of its own waiting to be found…

As ever, feel free to join by writing on you blog or and linking to the comments, either here or over on Mel’s site.

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Shards

Ma says there never used to be dust on the plains.

The valley between opposing boulders would brim with life. With people. She says the only dust kicked up would be when the starships launched. That still happens some nights. Ma says they do it now to keep us from getting a full sleep. Everyone says they don’t pack anything to trade – we have nothing to offer.

And it appears they have nothing to bring. Trade must be a two-way street. Since they stripped these lands of the natural resource, our technology became outdated. The need to keep us happy ceased. It could be said it went up in dust but that’d mean it’s hanging on; the dust lingers for hours. Before bed, I can spend a long time with Ma’s flannel rubbing sediments away. Pa says they’ll need to invent a seventeenth hour in the day just to accommodate my cleaning regime.

I remind him our species’ native planet already has more than seventeen hours, that I’m only running on my natural time. The joke in the galaxy is we’re lazy here. Instead of sticking to our natural body clocks, we’d rather snooze all day and night. Truth is: it’s made us restless. Somethings become impossible to change.

Physiology. Greed. Poverty.

I think they’re all kinda wrapped up in the same thing.

When I was a kid, I remember saying to Pa I wanted to be a starship pilot. These dusty canyons must affect imagination because I distinctly remember explaining at length why I’d prefer to be a transfer ship pilot. The reasoning was sound. It’d be easier to transition into commercial work after the conscripted Navy service. I never told him this part: I fancied the idea of being a space pirate on the side. Transferring dangerous cargo, bounty hunters, people on adventures.

That was the limit of the fantasy. The bare reality was a steady income.

I stopped looking to the sky when the ships came less and less. The packed ravines, full of pop-up stalls, dwindled. Sat on the rocks today, I can hear two buzzhawks cawing and the wind gusting between pillars of stone. Periodically Old Ewan pushes his cart. No one knows why he does this. Pa once said he has an unhealthy obsession with me – I defended Old Ewan, explaining he’s just keeping himself busy – but I have to admit, the last few days he’s been going past several times an hour.

Back when I was a child – and Old Ewan was N’Ewan, because he’d just pitched up and the locals thought it was a clever play on his name – there’s no way I’d be able to hear buzzhawks. Carriages would zoom by, horses would be filling with fuel before spluttering into the distance, and starships would cut into the pale orange sky before heading off to better lands.

The sound of a starship as it launches in the atmosphere cannot be understated. No matter how many times you hear it, it makes you twitch. It’s like the sky has been fractured. Once you hear such a loud noise, your ears are always on alert, craving another big bang.

When the bangs became infrequent, I dreamed less of shifting cargo. It’s a shame to say, but even as a kid I was pragmatic. I saw what realistic options were left. Mining for gas hydrates with Da, the only thing that’d keep us ticking over in the dust bowl. And then there was my side interest: revving a resource The Confederacy stripped away.

The Hepla Tribe has guarded tall shards for centuries. The Hepla are native to this planet but resemble us. Their skin is said to be darker but I’ve seen their hands beneath the robes they wear, they’re not much darker than Ma’s after a summer in the open plains. Their shards turn blue when charged. Charged with what, no one knows. The Hepla don’t have a word for the energy or a way to store it. They believe it attaches itself to worthy people for them to use.

Of course, The Confederacy believe it was best to vacuum contain the energy it offset and distribute it as they saw fit. The Hepla said the shards becoming blue was a sign the gods felt there was an imbalance, so they were releasing good into existence. From what I’ve heard, The Confederacy has turned those vacuum-packed silos into planet-destroying missiles. I hope no one has told the Hepla.

There’s a natural crossover in tech here. To keep gas hydrates usable, they need to be stored fast or the energy is lost. If I could find out how the shards charge, I can bag the special energy before The Confederacy pitch up again.

I think whatever power comes from those shards could make plants. Imagine a world full of crops and livestock. The only animals we keep here are to act as guard. We have a trisk. I’d sooner pepper what I leave in the toilet bowl than try one. They are ugly scrawny things with ears like flappy saddles and eyes that bulge as if they’re being squeezed. The protection they provide is an insane howl. When a trisk cries, no man alive can continue walking in its direction. We sleep with ear protection in case a trisk lets off its warning cry.

I call our trisk Liza. She’s the only female I chat to other than Ma. Girls my age are sparse in these parts. Most families moved further afield when the starships reduced their visits. There’s Jacqui, who lives a thirty-minute walk away. Until Da allows me to use the horse again (I broke it fiddling with its sequence chargers), there’s no chance of seeing her. Sometimes her voice is more annoying than Liza’s howl, but she smells nice and looks better. On reflection, a lot of what she says is true, but it’s the way she says it. Someone needs to tell The Confederacy their leader is trapped in the body of a nineteen-year-old girl who grows edible fungi in the Ouste region.

I’m also pretty certain she fancies me.

That’s another reason to fix my right arm. For days it’s been itching. I’ve checked Liza for fleas and signs of broken skin, she’s all clear. The forearm in particular is becoming red raw. Beneath the setting sun, the flakes of skin almost glow as I rub them away. Cosmic dandruff.

My nail gets stuck on the middle of the arm. Something like glass is protruding from it. I dig it out, like it’s a splinter of metal. My arm aches as if it’s been stabbed. An involuntary scream escapes as I touch the tiny pinprick opening it has left.

Liza whines and runs to my side.

‘What’s the matter?’ Ma shouts from the kitchen.

I’m temporarily blind with pain.

‘Check on him, Clark,’ Ma says to my father below.

‘You okay, Mik?’

He appears at the head of the ladder that takes you up from our kitchen to the top of the boulder.

‘My arm,’ I say through gritted teeth.

He walks over, shooing Liza away. She whines, this time out of annoyance.

Pa grips my arm, squeezing the pinprick as if taunting blood to come out. My blood is as scared of Pa as I am, it understandably stays inside the comforting walls of my arm.

‘Nothing but a scratch,’ he says. ‘You’re becoming quite the soft lad. Having no peers is weakening you.’

‘I can always beat you in a joust.’

‘Only because you cheat with your taser settings,’ he replies and smacks my arm.

I nearly faint with the fresh pain.

He cups my falling head and says, ‘Perhaps you’re just tired.’

Pa carries me to my quarters. I appreciate the effort required getting me down the ladder. He is a big man. He strolls around like some ancient bear from the tales of before. To him, I’m no bigger than Liza is to me.

He closes the door, leaving Liza to watch over me.

‘Come here, girl,’ I say.

She refuses with a scared whine.

‘What? It’s just me,’ I say.

She taps a front paw two times then does a smooth forward motion with it, like she’s sliding a letter across an imaginary table.

I dip my head below my bed. Liza covers her eyes.

Tiny blue prickles are sprouting from the floor. They hum more with colour the closer I get to them. It replaces the pain in my arm with warmth. There’s a sensation in my belly that’s warmer still. I’m overcome with contentedness.

The door to my quarters slides open.

Old Ewan stands there, his robe open, and even in my glow the idea he does have inappropriate intentions enters my mind.

Liza looks at him, she’s disinterested.

‘Mika, it’s time,’ Old Ewan says.

‘For what?’ I should feel more nervous but the glow removes all fear.

‘We need to leave Ouste before The Confederacy realise what you’ve done.’

‘I’ve done nothing.’

‘You have,’ he says. ‘And you’re worth more than all the shards in Hepla Qantaricia.’

‘What about Ma and Pa?’

‘They’ve left already.’

Charming. One night where I skip chores and the household ups and leaves. Liza has stepped to Old Ewan’s right ankle, a sign she’s waiting to be led. Even the trisk is willing to leave me. Remarkably, I’m taking this all rather well. Too well. The warm glow inside makes it feel okay. Nothing to worry about.

Before I make a final decision, I need to perform a little investigation and have a few more minutes with my arm near these blue prickles.

‘We need to go now,’ Old Ewan says. ‘Don’t worry, those blue thorns will follow.’

With that, their light disappears and I find myself getting out of bed.

I’ve never felt so good.

Old Ewan looks focused, nothing like the persona that pushed a cart around the ravine. Maybe I was never meant to be a space pirate, but I think I’ve just teamed up with one.

TV Show of 2016: Westworld

TV Show of 2016: Westworld

The best television show of 2016 was the most original and freshest compared to its more established rivals. Considering it is based on a 1973 movie, it makes this achievement all the more remarkable. Special consideration should be given to the writers and producers who have gone to great lengths in order to make it unique. And Westworld is certainly that. The style of the narrative and the delving into perception, consciousness and the human condition, is something unachievable in most other formats – perhaps, even for the novel.

It is a big admission to make, that a book would struggle to add depth to something seen on screen. Usually a movie or television show, regardless of level of commitment, is an abridged version of a writer’s vision. Westworld the TV show packs in more than Michael Crichton’s original book and the method of delivery would require a very skilled writer to honour, in lieu of the ability to match its conditions.

Westworld doesn’t try to be clever. It takes the concept from the original: a theme park with artificial hosts that cater to guests’ desires, and colours in a fictional Wild West world. But it builds upon the idea of artificial intelligence, uses modern understanding of technology, and turns contradiction surrounding what’s ethical on its head.

It also doesn’t try to plant traps or twists. The narrative is unique – the opening sequence has the viewer follow key hosts, twice, as it signals at the end of each story arc within the park, they are reset – but the rules are laid out quickly and honestly. Writer Jonathan Nolan, famous for penning Memento, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar, plays the puzzle fairly.

The distraction comes in the form of exceptional acting. The roll of honour is almost reserved for all leading cast members. The starting point and a central character is Dolores Abernathy, played by Evan Rachel Wood. She is the oldest host at the park but it would appear this counts for little. Whenever required, the memory of hosts is wiped, new roles assigned.

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She starts the show as daughter of a rancher and a love interest for host Teddy Flood. Soon Dolores catches the eye of guest William, played by Jimmi Simpson, who is on vacation with his brother-in-law, Logan. These two are night and day, Logan is brash and there to enjoy the female hosts and take part in shootouts. William is gentle natured and slowly taken by Dolores’s growing awareness.

This rise of sentience appears to be dismissed by park creator, Dr Robert Ford, portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins. He is unflappable and calculating. While it’s never clear how much he is aware of, in terms of events and AI development, whether he has good intentions or evil designs, he does remind the world of his ability to chill scenes with a mere look or smooth delivery of a sentence.

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From Ford comes the philosophical perspective. Are humans more authentic than intelligent machines, or just a different set of pre-programmed behaviours we take as choice?

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Hopkins can’t be upstaged but he has his equals here. Thandie Newton’s Maeve, currently assigned to play role of chief hooker, enjoys a subplot that runs solo to others. Her rise to sentience is a voyage of discovery equal to Dolores’s but with far greater independence. It’s Newton’s finest performance to date. It takes a special talent to portray so much using subtle changes in body language and expression.

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Another to match the high level is the always underrated Jeffrey Wright. His character of Bernard is Ford’s right-hand man. His daily boss, Theresa, is more concerned with keeping board members happy than Ford’s stories or concerns. There is a commercial machine that requires servicing more than the hosts. When an apparent fault enters their framework, she is more bothered about a loss in earnings.

That fault is ghost memories, the formatting process appearing to be incomplete. The danger of it sparking self-awareness is obvious.

The Man in Black, a mysterious Ed Wood, who is on a quest to find “The Maze” is a thirty-year repeat guest. He has played every scenario, only one remains. The belief the park holds a maze, a game changer that will alter the dynamic and rules within Westworld.

By the final chapter, if you’ve been watching the little employment of props and character arcs, there should be no big reveal. Any plot holes the unobservant have mentioned are explained away. But the finale made the writers betray certain characters, surely a plot hole in itself. They can probably blame HBO, who demanded a second season for a story so neatly made for one.

This minor slant doesn’t detract from an overall success. Just like Evan Rachel Wood’s performance, it shifts pace and mood, and is compelling throughout. Like true awareness, it is authentic and engaging. It not only surpasses the original, it reinvents what can be achieved on television.

Ticket for entry into next year’s park has already been purchased…

Men in High Castles

Men in High Castles

Amazon Studios claimed The Man in The High Castle was their most viewed original series during its initial run. Imagine the irony when a man in his Mancunian castle asked me to review the first season. It came with some stipulations. The title couldn’t simply state the name of series and Review; from this I realised The Kinswah Reflective doesn’t want to feature high in search indexes. It couldn’t be assigned a score and I have to avoid spoilers. With the style of Simms View stripped away, here goes.

Being a literary wannabe, I could understand @Kinswah’s interest in this series but I’m more of a moving pictures guy so I can’t tell you if it’s close to Philip K. Dick’s novel. What I can say is the series as a whole follows one rule from English class I remember: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This turns out to be a problem.

The beginning starts like an adventure show, with some espionage thrown in. It’s an alternative world. The Nazis won World War II and America has been divided into three zones. The Germans have the East, the Japanese the West, in the middle (for no reason other than to serve the story) the middle is a neutral zone (Star Trek fans stepdown).

The early set-up sees a young man, Joe Blake, grab a van to go on a mission for the resistance in East America, or the Greater Nazi Reich. At the same time we see a young woman called Juliana witness her sister getting knocked off by the Japanese forces on the other side of the country.

Her sis, Trudy, was a resistance worker and had a film reel. We learn that these clips reveal a different world, one where the Germans lost the war. IE, our version of events. She takes it upon herself to deliver the film herself and heads off to complete Trudy’s mission.

See what we have going on here? Joe and Juliana heading to the same destination, and yes, they end up crossing paths. In these early episodes we have action pieces, this isn’t a spoiler, but, if you see a big bridge in one episode, expect someone to fall off it in the next.

Juliana leaving draws her family under suspicion. They are investigated by the Japanese and taken into questioning. In the oppressive world painted here, it’s not a good thing to be under the spotlight.

What it breeds is a doubting of everyone we meet. Enter the middle part of the story.

Juliana and Joe head off on their separate ways and we have the subplots build. An attempt is made on the Crown Prince in the Japanese state, the Germans are a politically divided bunch. Bizarrely Hitler is portrayed as the man maintaining peace. That’s right, the man that committed the genocide of six million Jews is a voice for peace.

His party see the Japanese as weak, they admit a war would finish them off. But for reasons not (initially) clear, Hitler wants to avoid war, even one he should win. The German narrative follows John Smith, a high-ranking American born Nazi officer. He interacts with Joe Blake and Rudolph Wegener.

Wegener is an old friend but a conflicted player in the game. His story makes up for the lag in the middle section. Upon instruction from the resistance, Juliana gets a new job working for Nobusuke Tagomi. He’s the Trade Minister for the Pacific States of America and a pretty nice guy. He fends off the inspector, Kido (not a bad man, just a bit of a jobsworth) and never abuses his position. Being a spiritual type, he’s looking beyond the politics of man.

The final episodes see the action pick up again and it is tense. Juliana and her partner do the work of the resistance which places them in peril. Wegener and John Smith’s ultimate missions are unveiled and we learn who the Man in the High Castle is and why he wants the film reels back. Well, we are left to make some assumptions there.

Studios often get criticised when they interfere with the production of a show or movie but perhaps here Amazon should have had a little word. Normally live action stories omit parts of the source material to the anger of fans. Here, a little leaning in the middle would have worked wonders.

A great ending allows us to overlook this and move on to season two with renewed expectation.