Saturday, August 11, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Serial Adventures in the Tropeosphere,”
by David A. Gray

Nota Bene: I know I said that the introduction to last week’s SHOWCASE story, “The Moshe 12000,” was an exception, but—well, here we go again.

TO: David A. Gray
FROM: Stupefying Stories
DATE: 07/24/2018
RE: Submission 1806173, “Serial Adventures in the Tropeosphere”

Dear David,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider this one. It has a snarky “Philip K. Dick in Purgatory” quality to it that the first reader absolutely hated but I found pretty amusing. Good thing I at least skim every story before we send the rejection.

The reason I’m going to pass on this one is that it’s the sort of metafictional writer’s inside joke story that appeals to me but often irritates readers, and all that running these kinds of stories ever gets us is inundated with lots more stories just like it, only not as good, written by writers who don’t get that this is the single most clichéd possible way in which to begin a stor...

Wait. On second thought, I’m going to accept it and publish it in SHOWCASE. Let this stand as a warning to all writers. If it spares just one slush pile reader from having to read another story with this beginning, it will have been worth it.

Kindest regards,
Bruce Bethke
Editor, Stupefying Stories



Samyang was in the art wing of his chateau, supervising the hanging of the 253rd and final painting in Monet’s Water Lillies series. It was not going well. He’d brusquely directed his servants to move the canvas up a fraction of an inch here, down a hair there, but there was still something wrong about the whole scene. A snap of finely manicured fingers summoned the head of household staff, who in turn fetched the interior designer to fuss with the ambient light settings. It was just not right, thought Samyang, brushing off assurances that the frame was perfectly horizontal to one thousandth of a degree, shaking his head at the promise that the lighting was exactly that of an evenly overcast day, that not a beam of light was falling directly on to the painting, whilst at the same time, not one speck of it was in shadow. Nothing worked. It was just … wrong.

“Leave me alone, all of you,” the trim middle aged man said wearily, and the muted stampede of gratefully departing feet reminded him that he could be a difficult person to work for.

“It’s not that I mean to be hard on people,” Samyang told the vast and richly appointed space. “It’s just that I worked so hard for all of this, and I like things to be perfect.”

He regarded the painting again. Today was meant to be the culmination of decades of patient and sometimes not so patient collecting. He was a wealthy man. No, a rich man. A very rich man. But of late, he was finding it difficult to recall exactly the source of the money. Or what he actually did for a living. Something to do with funding the scouting missions for a future colony in the light of a distant, promising star, he knew. At least he thought he knew. Maybe I’m overtired, he thought. I need a vacation. As soon as I’ve fixed this problem, I’ll call the helicopter and just tell the pilot to take me somewhere nice.  

He paced back and forth, perfect chin resting on a fan of long slim fingers. Just as Samyang was about to give up, he spotted it. The flaw. He assumed some oaf of a servant had damaged the canvas, and felt the fury rise up in his chest. But when he stepped closer, he saw it was no tear, no dent, but something stuck to the surface. A tiny glint of foil, perhaps. He pulled a pristine white handkerchief from his blazer pocket, and knelt, reaching out so very carefully with the edge of the cotton, to brush the speck of whatever if was off the canvas. To Samyang’s indescribable horror, the foil peeled up and away from his touch, lifting off the corner of the invaluable painting, like the top of one of the self-heating meals he had sometimes witnessed his servants eating through a window to their quarters. He thought he might faint, but then the peeling effect spread to the wall, the floor, and to his own self. None of this was ever real, Samyang knew with horrible certainty.

¤   ¤   ¤
Captain Sam Yang groaned and half stumbled, half fell out of his stasis capsule. Too soon, computer, he subvocalized. It was meant to be ten centuries until our destination. This is too fast.

“I’m sorry, Captain, but there was an emergency. I had to deactivate your favorite dream simulator, and wake you. Please go to the bridge.”

Captain Sam padded past arching galleries full of silent capsules, slow-moving maintenance servitors and vast hangars full of all of the things they would need to start the new colony. He knew without having to ask that they were only halfway there, that something terrible must have happened. He was well aware that once woken from stasis, there was no going back in again. I will fix whatever needs fixing, then wander this vast ship, and finally die alone here, a future hero of the great journey, he thought, jutting his perfect chin out proudly. By the time he reached the bridge, he was ready to accept his fate. His destiny.

“An anomaly,” computer announced, turning the big curved wall into a screen. Sure enough, a pulsing light, stuttering on a frequency that was somehow wrong. “We cannot proceed past this point. The anomaly is blocking our way,” computer added.

Captain Sam studied the data, knew he should have an easy and brilliant solution, but came up empty. Which was not his style, at all.

“Computer, zoom in on the distortion at the center,” he ordered, “and filter all the extraneous frequencies out.”

The image hurtled at him, shedding intensity as it did. What was left was a metallic flicker, maybe the heart of the anomaly itself. Before Captain Sam could order computer to report, the flicker dropped away. No, peeled off. And with it, the front of the colony ship, and the deck under his feet. This isn’t real, Captain Sam thought, as he unraveled.

¤   ¤   ¤
Sammy threw his helmet onto the bed and shouted back down to his mom.

“Just ten minutes more, ma! I was nearly there! I’d found the anomaly!”

“Sammy, you come down for dinner right now, or that stupid console goes in the trash!”

Sammy sighed, admitted to himself that he was hungry, and jumped to his feet. He’d get on again later, when his parents thought he was asleep. He thundered down the stairs, slumped into his seat at the kitchen table. His big sis stuck her tongue out at him, and mom hit her on the back of the hand with a dish rag.

Sammy smirked, until the foil capsules landed on the table with a dull thud.

“What’s this?” he demanded, poking one of the oblong silver blocks with a forefinger.

“It’s the new self-heating meals everyone’s talking about,” Mom said. “The ones they developed for the colony ships to New Earth! I thought we’d try them for a change.”

Sis touched the silvery red tab on top, and hers unfolded with a gentle hiss, letting stream escape, along with a strong smell of vegetables. Sammy looked around, confused.

“What colony ship? That’s just the game I was playing. It’s not real.”

He rapped the package as Mom and sis looked at him with concern. The packaged foil peeled back, and steam gouted up into his face. Sammy screamed, saw the packaging unwrap on to the table, and keep on folding, rolling back everything in the room. He inhaled the steam, and knew no more.

¤   ¤   ¤

Sayang screamed as she came awake, part from the shock of being torn from her programmed slow-state dream, part because of the steam jetting from a ruptured pipe on the small compartment’s wall. It seared along her exposed forearm, and Sayang felt an analgesic patch self-apply and the skin go numb. She sprayed the hose with foam, and it hissed shut. Her bashed tablet showed a red alert fade to the same amber as a dozen others. She looked around the cramped command capsule, and shook her head. Three years of piloting this titanic steel worm, boring tunnels through this new world’s subsurface rocky ice, had reduced the colossal sparkling engineering triumph of the Verne III to resembling something the engineers had built from junk. You knew this was the way of it, Sayang, she thought. Did you think that five years on treble union rates and a million-cred bonus was for nothing? There were other boring machines on the planet, but they never crossed paths, and never would, until they had completed the warrens for the inbound settlers to shelter in while the atmosphere seeding took effect. Already, far above her head, clean rains were washing complex new compounds into the forming soil.

The routine was simple: supervise the giant machine’s simple AI, cycling through  carefully chosen sanity-boosting dreamstates for six hours in every 30, and another four in the muscle twitch machine so she would be strong enough to accept the giant paycheck at the end of her stint. The Verne III lurched, and Samyang frowned at her tablet. Nothing could jolt the giga-ton machine like that. Another lurch, and the tablet flashed to a nose-cam view from a niche in the huge drill head. Something silvery was there, maybe the diamond-hard bit spalling off a layer? Unlikely but … there it was. A sheet of the front of the machine lifted off, then, as Samyang gaped, the whole 20,000-ton nose cone peeled away. She was shrieking like the ruptured steam pipe when her cab, with her in it, folded away to nothing.

¤   ¤   ¤

Yangs rubbed his bone-dry eyes with the heels of his hands, and spat. He hadn’t even been given the full twenty minutes in the healing machine this time. That probably meant the end was damn near nigh. He lifted his legs off the grimy couch and stood with a grunt. It had been a fine condensed dream, too: Yangs had always wanted to be an engineer out on the edge of peaceful, hopeful, fantasy space. Instead, he was fighting to defend New Earth against the latest wave of invaders, and losing. That was the thing about blindly leaping out into the universe, shouting for attention: the universe had heard, and had come looking. And not nicely. Yangs picked up his railgun, noted the half charge, grunted again and stepped out into the glaring purplish-blue sunlight. The sky was so full of targets he didn’t even need to aim. The silverly slugs ripped into the air, ripping an alien assault ship from nose to stern, peeling it open like a tin can. The gutted craft filled the sky, which also peeled open. Yangs grunted one last time, in surprise, then was gone.

¤   ¤   ¤

“Major Sammi, have you had one of your little episodes again?” the big orderly sounded mildly concerned, which Sammi knew was the least he could pretend to be, given the money the government was paying to have her fixed in here. Fixed slowly. Very slowly. She was the last of the experimental special ops team still in the facility: the others had all been rehabilitated and shipped out again, she knew, to stem the tide before it entered the system. Sammi nodded, thought of telling the orderly, but decided to save it for his weekly psych briefing. She held out a shaky hand, disgusted that the once heroically muscled limb was now atrophied, and the nurse dropped a single red pill into it.

Sammi popped it in her mouth and swallowed dry.

“How long have I been here?” It was all cloudy now, though she was sure he’d known the answer to that last week, or month, or year.

The orderly looked puzzled, and when Sammi looked around, irritated, she saw the outside view of gardens and hedges and the deep purple sky was cloudy, suddenly, and fading.

“I think you’ve been here forever,” the orderly said, then flipped inside out.

¤   ¤   ¤

The synthesized voice was pleasant, almost playful, given the horrific message it was conveying.

“Forty seven years, seven months, eight days, thirty minutes of sentence remaining. Compression options will reduce or expand that by a factor of three, depending on your choice. Note, sleep sentencing pod is experiencing a temporary glitch. Please be patient as self-repair is activated.”

Sam-2987 lay back on the body-formed soft couch and looked around, still expecting to see peaceful gardens through misty windows. His view was very different from that. The steel-glass hatch over the locked pod was dirty: someone was skimping on the cleaning, it seemed. Come to think of it, someone was skimping on the general repairs, too: the vast building’s tiers were, as far as he could see from inside his one-man prison, wrecked and empty.

“Hulloo!”  Sam-2987 called, “anybody? I think there’s been a problem.”

“No problem,” the artificial voice told him cheerfully. “This unit is experiencing a mild glitch. As soon as self-repair is activated your sentence will resume, according to the pre-programed unconscious scenarios you were permitted at time of sentencing. At present, you have served one third of your term in stasis.”

“But where is everyone?” Sam-2987 tried to batter the inside of the crystal case, was prevented by the restraints around his wrists and ankles. “This place was busy, there were guards, other prisoners!” He felt panic rising.

“This facility was cleared automatically 290 real years ago, when the city was abandoned.”

“What about me? My total sentence was only 60 years, for subversion! I should be free too! What’s happening?”

“This unit suffered a glitch in the bombardment of 3067, that caused the sentence timer to reset every 20 years. You have forty seven years, seven months, eight days, thirty minutes of sentence remaining.”

Sam-2987 screamed, and thrashed. “That was hundreds of years ago! Let me speak to someone! Please!”

“There are no humans left on this continent. Or, probability suggests, this world. Inducing sleep sentencing in five … four…”

Sam-2987 hammered at the canopy, then used his nails to claw, like a wild animal. It didn’t even mark, until right at the edge, a corner of the coating peeled back. He ripped at it, shedding nails, screaming.

¤   ¤   ¤

His knees gave way and he stumbled, felt strong arms go around his shoulders, was grateful even as he was embarrassed at his nakedness. Wires trailed from his skull—his bald skull, he realized with a shock—like a jellyfish’s tentacles.

“You’re out,” someone said. The voice was calm, practiced, almost bored by the routine. “You hit the emergency abort, to exit the program.”

“Program?” he didn’t even know who he was, let alone where. He turned, saw a young crop-headed woman in a nondescript smock.

She smiled past the two burly men holding him up: “The Tropeosphere program. You were only one per cent through the program you selected in the Simulator.  That’s why you’re discombobulated. Who are you? Think, and it will all come back to you.”

He thought, felt grains of detail drift in. “A writer …I… I don’t know.”

“That’s right. A famous writer, or at least you used to be.” She sounded amused, in a gently mocking way. “You wanted to experience every cliché in your genre, and apparently you were on a quest to do the impossible…”

Now he knew, and interrupted: “I remember! I wanted to come up with a twist that readers wouldn’t expect.” He laughed, and coughed. “Something that hasn’t been done sensibly in half a century. If I can absorb every trope and staple, every twist ending that surprises no-one, I can combine the best elements of all of them and come up with something totally new!”

“That’s right … and you missed some of the best ones. You still had the ‘Murderer Serving a Thousand Sentences’, the ‘Last Second of a Dying Man’s Conscience’, ‘Scientist Mentally Transplanted into his Pet Dog’, … ‘Alien Buying Recorded memories of Extinct Humanity’…”

“Okay, I get it.” He was irritated now, felt she was mocking him, and didn’t like it. He was a big deal, he was starting to remember. He deserved better treatment. Even if he hadn’t had a best-seller in decades.

He shook off the attendants’ arms and tried to gather as much dignity as a naked shaking wire-festooned man might be capable of amassing. He looked round the sterile little room, at the clamshell pod he’d scrambled out of. It bore a striking resemblance to the one in the prisoner-left-behind trope he’d just come from, which seemed like lazy programming. They’d even piggybacked on the peeled edge of the fingernail-scarred lid, adding it to the dream. He tutted and walked over to it, intent on calling the smug woman out on their corner-cutting.

“No!” she said sharply. “Don’t. Mr Samuel! Please!”

Too late, he pulled at the edge, felt the translucent foil coating come up and off, and saw the room stream away to nothing...

David A. Gray is a Scots-born designer and writer exiled in Brooklyn. His short stories have been accepted by Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Metaphorosis, Children of the Sky anthology, Chrome Baby, Starship Sofa and others, and his first two novels are scheduled to be published in 2019. 
Once in a while his tendency to think he’s cleverer than he really is lands him in situations like this one.
Art credit:: Claude Monet, “Water Lillies.” This photo of the painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was contributed under the team name “shooting_brooklyn” as part of the Wikipedia Loves Art project in February 2009. 


Judith said...

I like this story a lot, especially the tongue in cheek way all the cliches are packed in. Link to it in your sub guidelines, as illustration of what not to do, unless you're as good a writer as David. Or maybe, stop after "do". I hope to see more by this author.

Unknown said...

Hey, Judith. Many thanks for the kind words (it's David Gray here, just in case my login isn't displaying such): I was a little hoist by my own petard on this one: my self regard grew with every vignette and I had to stop myself looping the whole thing around like the mystical snake eating its own tail. If there's a line dividing pastiche an cliche, I needed to look behind me to see it.