Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sandworld, Episode 1: Hot Water

                Mira could barley move her arms.  They were pressed against her chest, palms up, and she tried to free her left hand enough to reach into the metallic belly of the contraption.  Sweat poured from her brow and soaked her hair, which was pulled into a tight braid and pinned beneath her head.  “Can you see it, Mira?” she heard her father ask. 

                “Ot yeh,” Mira replied.  She had tried to say “not yet”, but the light clenched in her teeth had prevented her from doing so. 

                After a second of silence, her father said, “Is that a yes, or a no?” 

                With a grunt of frustration directed at herself rather than her dad, Mira wriggled the fingers of her right hand until she was able to take the light from her mouth.  It had started to dim, so she shook it as well as she could.  Its light gained a little strength.  “Not yet,” she replied.  “This is the same model we worked on yesterday.  Why is the coupling not where it’s supposed to be?” 

                From the room around her came the modest sound of someone clearing his throat.  “I’m afraid that’s, um, my doing,” said Mr. Mayota, Mira and her father’s latest client.  “I had some, um, modifications made on it a few months ago.  Now it only takes half as much coal to keep it hot!”

                “Until it breaks down,” Mira grumbled to herself.  Louder this time, she asked, “Do you know where they put the power coupling when they did these ‘modifications’?” 

                “Not really,” Mr. Mayota replied.  “I don’t know much about these things, so I didn’t really ask questions.  Which is also why I called you two instead of crawling under there myself.”

                Mira squinted into the metallic underbelly of the huge pressure-cooker.  Everyone in Beryl had one, and fixing them was what kept Kinvara Repairs in business.  Her father had started the business when he was not much older than she, and since her arms had been long enough to reach into the metal bellies of the things, Mira had been tagging along.  Mira suspected that her father used his daughter’s knowledge of contraptions to keep himself from clambering beneath the things.  She teased him about it often, but only because she loved him. 

                Suddenly she spied a familiar part amid the mismatched and jury-rigged innards:  a narrow, hard glass cylinder that was capped on both ends by brass knobs.  Inside the coupling was a spring, which was supposed to be at least somewhat compressed.  This one had decompressed almost completely and nearly forced one of the brass knobs off the end.  “I found it!” she cried in triumph.  “Wow, it’s a wreck.  There’s no recompressing this one.  It’s shot.” 

                Mr. Mayota said a curse word, to which Mira’s dad responded, “Kish, if you don’t mind!  My daughter is in the room!”

                “I’m sorry, Maleer,” he replied, though he still sounded flustered.  “It’s just … I thought my troubles were over when I paid for those modifications.”

                “Think of it this way,” Mira said as she twisted her left arm among the cogs and pistons of the contraption.  “The money you saved on coal will pay for the new coupling.  So you haven’t really lost anything.”  She took the coupling with her gloved hand and tried to pull it free.  Whoever had cheated Mr. Mayota out of his money for the so-called ‘modifications’ had really forced it into place; Mira bit her lip in frustration and pulled harder. 

                Without warning the coupling pulled free, and her hand came flying back.  A thin stream of lukewarm water issued from the coupling socket and splashed onto Mira’s face.

                Of all the things that could have happened when she removed the coupling, that was the worst possible.  The spring inside the power coupling was meant to stay compressed and regulate the heat from cooker’s coal-fired belly to its water pot.  The result was steam, which powered the contraption at three times the efficiency of coal-fire alone.  Every time the steamer was used, the spring decompressed a little, until it had to be reset.  But whoever had messed with the cooker’s innards hadn’t put it back correctly; the trickle of water could only mean one thing.  Mira was seconds away from a blistering blast of steam to the face. 

                When the water splashed onto her face, Mira squeezed her eyes shut and tried to turn away from its source.  “Pull me out! Pull me out!” she cried frantically to her father, who had been holding her ankles the entire time.  Two hands yanked hard on her boots, and just as Mira slid from beneath the cooker she felt a searing blast of steam broil her long braid, which trailed behind her head. 

                “Mira!  Are you all right?!” Mira heard her father cry.  She finally allowed herself to spit the acrid, metallic water from her mouth as two hands slipped beneath her back and lifted her from the floor.  Mira flung away her heavy gloves and wiped her face with a handkerchief from her pocket. 

                “I’m fine,” she assured her father when she could see again.  He sat in front of her, his dark eyes full of worry and his tall, prominent nose only inches away from her.  His huge arms wrapped around her and squeezed her tightly and his onyx-colored beard, peppered with its fair share of white, scratched comfortingly against her cheek. 

                When he finally released her, Mira turned and looked at the damage to the cooker.  The low-ceilinged room had become stiflingly hot and muggy from the blast of steam.  The floor beneath it was covered with water, and even from a few feet away Mira could feel the heat that radiated from the puddle.  If her father hadn’t pulled her out when he did, she’d surely be dead.   Or she’d be in so much agony that she’d wish she was dead. 

                “Mira!  Maleer!  I …. I ….” Mr. Mayota stuttered.  The short man ran his hand across his bald pate, which was covered in sweat from the heat of the room. 

                Mira, her heart thundering in her ears from the close call, tossed the broken coupling at Mr. Mayota’s feet.  “That’ll be seventy-one cogs for the new coupling, ten cogs for removal fee …” she looked back to the cooker.  As if on cue, it burped out one last blast of steam.  “ … and twenty cogs for installation of the new one.  Once your cooker cools off.”  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Johnny Jackrabbit and the Treasure of Mad Badger

Brigit's Flame All-Stars contest, week 2
Topic:  Transcendent
Title:  Johnny Jackrabbit and the Treasure of Mad Badger
593 words, rated G
Author:  Graham Smith (chuck_the_plant)

“Who’s that, daddy?” asked a small voice from my lap.  A little hand pointed to the screen. 

“That’s the main character, as a kid,” I whispered to Tucker. 

Tucker turned around and blinked two huge brown eyes at me.  “But I thought that he was a grown-up.” 

“He was.  I mean, he is.  This is a flashback.”  I ran my fingers through my son’s silky blonde hair.

“Oh.”  Tucker turned back to the screen and focused on the cartoon characters for another moment, then turned back around in my lap.  “What’s a flashback?” 

In front of us, a teenage girl turned around and sent an acidic look to Tucker and me.  I could have returned the gesture, since I had been ignoring the blue glow from her cell phone since the movie started and plainly wasn’t interested in the movie through which she was babysitting the two kids next to her.  Instead I ignored her and whispered to Tucker, “It’s when someone thinks back to something that happened to them in the past.  See?  That’s why Johnny Jackrabbit is smaller, here.” 

Tucker looked back to the screen, as if just seeing it for the first time, and then turned back to me.  His seven-year-old eyes were wide.  “Oh!” 

Tried as he might to keep his voice down, his last word had come out louder than he had intended.  Through the darkness of the theater I saw several more heads turn our way, and I stifled a laugh as I pressed my finger to my lips and made a shushing motion.  Tucker’s hands flew to his mouth like he had just discovered his transgression, and he turned back to the screen. 

Jonathan Jackrabbit’s flashback ended, and the grown-up version of the character appeared on screen again.  With his band of other cartoon animals, he set off on a quest to find buried treasure.  During a musical montage that showed the characters traveling by boat, plane, and hot air balloon, Tucker turned back to me.  “Is that why he’s looking for treasure, daddy?  Because he remembered reading about it in his flashback?” 

“You got it,” I told him.

This time, the teenage girl actually turned around and shushed at us.  Tucker jumped from surprise, nearly dropping his popcorn, and the girl turned around before either he or I could confront her.  Tucker beckoned me with his finger, and when I leaned down he cupped his hands around my ear.  “That girl’s mad, isn’t she?” he said, his voice almost silent. 

Imitating my son, I cupped my hands around one of his tiny ears.  “I think so.”

It was Tucker’s turn again, and I didn’t even mind that his hands were oily from the popcorn.  “Maybe we should be quiet so she won’t get madder.” 

Instead of replying I merely winked to my son and gave him a thumbs-up.  As he turned around and stuffed his cheeks with more popcorn, I realized that it wouldn’t bother me if everyone in the theater shushed us, pelted us with Raisinettes, or tried to blind us with their cell phones.  I had never enjoyed a movie as much as Johnny Jackrabbit and the Treasure of Mad Badger.

“I love you, Tucker,” I said softly into his ear. 

Tucker turned, shushed me much louder than was necessary, and then looked back to the screen.  A second later he turned and whispered, “I love you, too, Daddy.”  He then quickly added, “Are they going to use those shovels to dig for treasure?” 

I shushed my son, nodded, and squeezed him tightly. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mr. Cavanaugh, The Inept

Brigit's Flame January All-Stars Contest, Week 1
Topic:  Erudition
Title:  Mr. Cavanugh, the Inept
Author:  Graham Smith (chuck_the_plant)
Wordcount:  1250
This piece is near and dear to my heart, because it is loosely based off of the very first novel I ever wrote (by the same name).  I have yet to sell it because it so happens that it's pretty terrible and needs rewritten.  Even so, it'll always be my baby. Enjoy! 

My palms start to sweat as the bell rings and my first class enters the room.  I'm nervous, because this isn’t just my first class of the day, or my first class of the school year… it's the first class I've ever taught, period.  And, of course, the other reason has me so nervous that I'm afraid my knees will start knocking together.
Once everyone is seated, I brace my feet in a confident stance and spread my palms welcomingly.  “Good morning, everyone.  My name is Mr. Cavanaugh, and welcome to first period.”  I consider saying, ‘Call me Mark, because Mr. Cavanaugh is my father!’, but I decide it’s too corny and cliché.  Not to mention that it’s the first day of school, and I’m trying to make an impression that will last all year.  
Things go fairly well.  I spend the entire class period explaining my classroom rules and procedures, then I tell a few stories about myself to lighten the air.  I get what I think are a few good-natured laughs, which I guess is the best I can expect from a room full of teenagers.  When the bell rings to end class, I’m glad I decided to wear a black shirt because I’m sweating badly. 
Second period, luckily, is planning period for my wing of the building.  As the halls fill with students, I step outside of my classroom and watch as kids pull items from their lockers for their next classes.  When the last locker is closed and the hall is empty, I slump against the wall and exhale a sigh of relief.
“Rough first class?” says a voice to my side, and I turn to see Lina Argus, another teacher on my floor, walking toward me.  She befriended me the day I was hired, and the two of us have become close since then.  I still haven’t gathered the courage to ask her out, but I will, soon.  At least I hope I will, because she is stunningly gorgeous. 
“Actually, no,” I reply with a smile.  “In fact, it went perfectly.”
She grins.  “Why are you so surprised?  I’ve been telling you for weeks that you’d be fine.  No one made an issue of it, did they?” 
She is, of course, referring to the number one reason why I was nervous about the first day of school, even more than it being my first day as a bonified teacher.  I am the only one of my kind in the building.  “No,” I said again.
“See?  It’s like I told you:  kids respect confidence.  If you don’t make a big deal out of it, neither will they.  You’re their teacher, and they want to see you as an authority figure, whether you’re an Inept or not.”
 “I guess they knew what to expect, since my class is called ‘Inept Studies’,” I add.  “By the way, have I mentioned how much I dislike that name?”
“It might have come up,” Lina says with a smirk.  “But I’ve told you, ‘Inept’ doesn’t mean the same thing to us as it does to you.  It just means you’re not an Adept, like us.  And if you’d like to change the name, talk to Elmer.”  She's referring to Elmer Cartwright, the Dean of McGrady’s Institute for Adept Youths.  “But I’m telling you, you’ve got nothing to worry about.  These kids are going to love you, and no one’s going to think you’re ….”
A scream resounds from around the corner of the hallway.  I turn to see a boy I don’t recognize, probably sixteen years old, bolt around the corner at full-speed , with a mischievous grin on his face.  A second later a girl rounds the corner after him.  She has red hair and she’s soaked from head to toe.  The boy darts behind me and Lina, using us as human shields, and cries, “No matter what she says, she’s lying!” 
The girl skids to a stop.  Her wet tennis shoes make her slide a few inches on the tile.  “Really, Charlie?!” she screams at him.  “On the first day of school?!  Really?!” 
It’s then that I recognize the girl.  Her name is Cassandra Kinney, and I was told to watch out for her.  She was suspended three times last year for fighting; not because she was necessarily a bad kid, but because she was constantly antagonized by other kids and was easy to push to her tipping point.  I also remember something about a screwed up home life. 
She grips her hands into fists and her hair blows around her face.  Steam starts to billow from her body.  Even though she’s standing fifteen feet away from me I can feel the heat rolling from her.  She glares daggers past me to Charlie, whom it seems is trying to hide his snickering.  Cassie huffs in breaths through clenched teeth, and then her hair bursts into flames. 
Oh.  And Cassie is a fire Adept.
“Control yourself, Cassie,” Lina said, taking a step toward the girl.  “You said this year is going to be different, remember?  No more suspensions?” 
“But Ms. Argus!” Cassie argues.  “He just drenched me as I was walking into gym!”
“And he’s going to get in trouble,” Lina says, and she turns and glares harder and Charlie.  The boy tries to step behind me, but I move against the wall to expose him.  “But you’re going to do better this year.  Last May, we made a pact.  No suspensions.” 
Cassie presses her lips into a thin line and closes her eyes, and her breathing slowly returns to normal.  The flames in her hair gradually die down, then disappear altogether.  Her clothes are completely dry, but her shirt seems to have shrunk from the steam because an inch of her midriff is showing. 
“Good girl,” Lina says.  “Now go to your dorm and change clothes.  Be back in time for third period.”  Cassie then notices that her shirt has shrunk and almost loses her temper again, but she simply shakes her head angrily.  Lina then whirls to Charlie.  “As for you, young man, I expect better from you!  This is your fourth year at McGrady’s, and you know the punishment for using your powers on another student!  And your parents are going to get a call about replacing Cassie’s clothes.”
Lina prods an indignant-looking Charlie toward the principal’s office.  He sprayed Cassie with a misty jet of water from his index finger as he passes.  The red-headed girl looks like she is about to snatch at him with her bare hands, but I take a brave step toward her and decide to do something teacher-like. “Come on, Cassie,” I say.  “You made a good choice.  Don’t offset it by making a bad one.” 
Cassie squeezes her hands until they shake and the air becomes warm again, but after a second she composes herself.   For a silent moment it’s just she and I in the hallway, and I suddenly brake into a nervous sweat again.  “I’m going to my dorm to get changed, like Ms. Argus said,” she says.  “Thanks, Mr. Cavanaugh.  I’ll see you for fourth period.”  With that, she leaves. 
Hoo boy.  That loose-cannon fire Adept is in my fourth period class.  And, along with her, two-dozen other children that, in addition to taking my class, arecurrently taking classes on how to turn invisible, change their shapes, and bend the elements to their whims.  Even my colleagues can do amazing things that I had only read about in comic books and seen in video games.      
Just another day for the only Inept at McGrady’s Institute for Adept Youths, I suppose. 

The Other White Meat

"It smells funny," Lupus said. 
Nubilus sniffed. "It does. But it's not an unpleasant smell, is it?" 
Lupus nudged the small bundle with his nose again. "A little like flowers.  Flowers that have soiled themselves." 
Nubilus rolls her eyes at her husband. "It smells better than that.  Why don't you open it and see what's inside?"
Lupus stalked around the wrapped bundle and examined it from every side. It didn’t sound or smell like anything deadly, so he took a corner of the little pink cloth in his teeth and pulled it back.  He jumped backward at what he saw.  "What IS it?" Nubilus asked as she stepped closer.
"Don't touch it!" her husband warned. "We don't know what it is or where it's been!" 
"Oh, please, Lupus!" Nubilus teased. "You worry too much!  Look how pink and lumpy it is! It's not going to hurt us." She took an appraising sniff, which encouraged Lupus to stalk toward it.
"It looks like one of the baby pigs we snatched from the barn last week.  Only uglier."  He licked his lips. "I wonder if it tastes the same." 
Just then, the thing in the bundle started to squirm, and some feeble sounds escaped its mouth.  As its two tiny eyes squinted to the sky, it threw its mouth open and screamed until its face turned red. 
Lupus opened his jaws and lunged for the thing, but Nubilus stepped in front of him. "What do you think you're doing?!"
“How else are we supposed to get it to shut up?!” Lupus argued.  “It’s crying is going to draw the entire rest of the pack, and then we’re going to have to share!”
"You are NOT eating this creature, and we are certainly not sharing it with the pack!" 
Lupus lowered his ears and whined. "But I love pork!" 
"Lupus, this isn't a pig!" Nubilus barked.  “Look, no hooves! It has ... fingers.  Like a human."  Nubilus lay on the ground and wrapped herself around the small thing, placing her nose and tail close to its face. A second later it stopped crying. 
Lupus, on the other hand, had backed away from it again. "What are you doing!?" he cried. "If that thing is a human pup, we need to be gone! Do you know what humans pups come from?  Big humans.  Do you know what big humans have? Guns." 
"I think someone left her here," Nubilus said.  Her eyelids drooped pleasantly as she nuzzled the baby with her nose. 
"How do you know it's a ‘her’?" Lupus asked. Nubilus took the edge of the blanket in her teeth and lifted it, and lupus turned away, disgusted. "Okay, I get it.  But why do you think someone left her here?" 
"She's too small to have run away on her own, and she was wrapped in this blanket," Nubilus rationalized. "Plus, look at this." Gently she dug around inside the blanket with her snout, and emerged with a piece of paper gently clenched in her teeth. On it were several lines of human writing.
"So some human heard I liked pork and wanted to leave me a piglet. I mean, a humanlet. Either way, I don't want it. Let's go." 
"Let's keep her, Lupus." 
Lupus tripped over all four of his legs. "I told you, I don't care how much I like pork, I'm not giving some human more excuses to take shots at us!" 
"Not to eat!" Nubilus said, outraged. "As our pup." 
Lupus' face fell. "Please, Nubilus, we've been through this.  We can't have pups.  We've tried."
"But what if she was meant for us, Lupus?"  Nubilus pushed.  "What if she's the pup we've always wanted?" 
"I've never wanted a human pup!" Lupus cried.
Nubilus' eyes became fierce. "It wasn't a mistake that we found her. It can't be. You are not going to eat her, and I am not going to leave her for something else to eat her."  She nuzzled the baby lovingly with her snout.  "She needs us. All we have to do is get her back to the den.  We can decide what to tell the pack later."
Lupus crept closer to the baby and put his nose inches from her face.  For a moment her tiny hands reached for him, but then she snatched a whisker and plucked it from his snout.  Lupus yelped and skittered backward. 
"See?  Our pup already takes after you!  Ferocious from the start!" Lupus shook his head, and when he opened his eyes he found a look in his wife's eyes that he had always hoped to see, but had never appeared until now from their inability to have their own pups.
 "I can't believe I'm doing this," he grumbled.  Lupus knelt, took the edges of the blanket in his teeth, and gently picked the baby up from the ground. Nubilus grinned at him in a manner than only wolves can distinguish, and the two trotted to their den to plan a way to convince the pack that what they had found was their pup and not a humanlet.    
Nubilus licked her husband’s snout.  “I love you.”
“I luff you, too,” Lupus replied, his mouth full of blanket.