Curiosity

The following piece was written for Scribophile’s Flash 500 “Unreasonable Constraints” contest:

This challenge is to write entirely in passive voice.

You will be allowed to use 1 (one, uno, un, ein) active verb per 100 words. If you need some help with passive voice, check out this website. As usual, you have 500 words (meaning 5 active verbs tops) to tell the story of what makes an inhuman character’s life difficult.

Hopefully the contest will be won by you!

Enjoy!


Six dusty wheels were warmed by the creeping morning sun, bringing dozens of small motors to life with muted clicks and whirs. These cheerful sounds would have been barely audible to an observer standing close—there was no such observer, of course, but every moving part on the Mars rover had been designed to be silent as possible, just in case.

The self-contained mobile laboratory had been given dozens of tasks, from the mundane to the scientifically groundbreaking. Each task was fulfilled with diligence and precision. Samples of soil were collected, tested, stored onboard. Temperatures were measured: sunrise, sunset, and at each meridian. High-resolution photographs were taken: sweeping vistas of deserty-red. Breathtaking close-macro shots: rocks, crystals, ice. Even the occasional self-portrait—all directed by a rigorous list of assignments.

Despite the serious mission, our imagined observer might be forgiven for thinking the robot was happy: as the lab was moved onto the sunlit floor of the great Martian crater under its own power, its single turret seemed to sway intentionally from side to side; sine-wave tracks were pressed into the rusty dirt.

The source of this odd behavior was simple. The exact nature of the rover’s encounters could not have been predicted before landing, so the operating system had been programmed with an “affinity” module. Objects and locations could have “probable interest” values assigned; the higher a value, the greater the affinity.

The robot had been given the ability to like things.

As a result, Curiosity liked its job. Daily activities of photographing, collecting, and analyzing, having been given high affinity values, were enjoyed. However, with limited onboard storage areas, the rover was soon filled, and its ability to discard anything was hampered under the very algorithm by which it was driven to gather in the first place. When the impasse had first been recognized, samples were neither gathered nor discarded; the poor robot was immobilized in agony.

The solution was inspired by the problem: the affinity module was enhanced, by the robot itself, with an obsessive fondness for chronological sorting. With the adjusted algorithm, collected items were unloaded into neat piles monthly. Piles were grouped into clusters by year. In this way, old collections were never lost, but new collections would never be passed over for want of storage.

The job could be enjoyed again.

The rover’s oscillations were amplified as it approached an outcropping at the crater’s edge, as though the vehicle’s chassé were exaggerated by eagerness. All along the small ridge, previous annual clusters had been neatly aligned in rows of eight, in columns of eight rows each. Fifteen columns were passed before a sudden stop at the corner of the sixteenth.

A single empty space.

Specimen containers were carefully lifted from the mobile lab’s compartments and set on the ground. When the last had been placed, the cause of the robot’s delight was revealed. The accomplishment was recorded in the rover’s computer memory: Cluster number one thousand twenty-four was completed today. A perfect, round number.

Rivals

Boris had not stopped talking in the hour-and-a-quarter the pair had been standing on the dirt semicircle, hard-packed by thousands of feet which had, at one time or another, sojourned around the lonely iron pole, a pole which unnecessarily hoisted a pockmarked and faded orange sign with long-forgotten lettering—the only sign of its kind for thirty kilometers to the next village or fifty to the last, so what it had once said didn’t really matter: every child and every babushka knew its location simply as “the bus stop.”

George, of course, hadn’t listened to a word of the incessant Russian-accented noise. For all of his oppressive Slavic hospitality and grandiose assertions of lifelong friendship, Boris was an insufferable imp, amusing himself in the mild torment of others, and George was thrilled to have their decades-long partnership coming to an end. He found himself suppressing a smile as the one thought he had never dared express bubbled to the surface: he hated Boris, and always had.

Without waiting for Boris to finish whatever sentence he was in the middle of, George cleared his throat and spoke. “Can I bum a smoke, then, for old times’ sake?”

“Of course, dear friend!” Boris laughed a deep, hearty laugh and shook a cigarette halfway out of its cheap red-and-white paperboard box. He extended the box toward George and waited for the tentative reciprocation. When George’s fingers neared the proffered smoke, Boris jerked the pack away and shouted gruffly, “Two hundred rubles!”

George opened his mouth to speak, and closed it up again without a word. He lowered his eyes to his shoes and patted his pockets with both hands. “I’m sorry, Boris, I don’t have—”

Boris laughed again, a booming guffaw that reddened George’s face. “Is okay, George! Is joke!” He stuck the little box back at George. “You go on, take as many you like.”

George made no move to accept.

Boris smiled and tipped the box from side to side. “Hmmm? You not liking Russian cigarette now, George?”

George’s lip twitched—a slight snarl that delighted Boris—as he snatched the pack of cigarettes, destroying half of its poorly-rolled contents. He took one unbroken cigarette—not the one Boris had offered, though that cigarette still stood straight from the box—and put it in his mouth, crumpling the remainder in his hand. George jammed the other hand into a pocket and fished around, finally dropping his shoulders and pulling out an empty fist.

Boris fairly giggled—a low and rumbly titter better suited to a much higher voice. “You want lighter?”

George glared at Boris, jaw muscles flexing and relaxing, flexing and relaxing.

“Okay, okay, you don’t want lighter.” Boris shrugged, palms up and forward in an attempted show of sincerity, but he couldn’t suppress the ear-to-ear grin. “How about match?”

With two fingers of his left hand, George reached up to his mouth, eyes never blinking nor moving from Boris, and took the last unbroken and unlit cigarette from his lips. Opening his fingers, he let it fall to the ground in front of him. He stepped toward Boris, placing one foot over the cigarette.

“Boris,” George said, twisting his foot in the dirt, “I hate you. Always have.”

August (Poem + Story) / (Story a Day in May)

I am participating in the “Story a Day in May” challenge (see http://StoryADay.org for more details). The goal is to write a complete story each day. Today’s piece actually meets two challenges: not only does it count as my Story a Day, but a second challenge which was “Take a poem or story and rewrite it as a story or poem, and post the two together.” So, I did.

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Story a Day in May: Day 1

I am participating in the “Story a Day in May” challenge (see http://StoryADay.org for more details). The goal is to write a complete story each day. The following is the first day’s results: unedited, unreworked, and… unfinished.

I have a very good idea where this story is going, but it’s obviously a much longer piece than I intended to write. But, the important thing is that I wrote it all in one sitting, and I successfully completed the first day of the challenge.

See you tomorrow for Day 2!

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The Legend of Slottsfjellet: Chapter Six (Part 18)

Just starting? Be sure to check out The Legend of Slottsfjellet: Foreword and Disclaimer first, so you know what’s going on.

Somehow Joe managed to not see Marta at all until early Wednesday afternoon, about an hour before the workers were to arrive. He was standing outside trying to picture the completed castle in its place when she came up behind him. He heard her approaching.

“It’s going to be really busy the next few days,” he said, without turning.

She stood next to him and looked in the direction he was facing. “Yes. Yes, it will be.” When Joe didn’t add anything else, she observed, “We won’t see each other much while the castle is being built.”

Joe looked at her but still didn’t turn. Instead of responding, he put his arm around her shoulders.

  • Part 19 Coming Soon!

The Legend of Slottsfjellet: Chapter Six (Part 17)

Just starting? Be sure to check out The Legend of Slottsfjellet: Foreword and Disclaimer first, so you know what’s going on.

Joe spent most of Tuesday walking around the construction site with Karl, going over details and taking further instructions. “It’s necessary now for you to know more of what is happening here, because you will be in charge of the workers who arrive tomorrow.”

“What exactly do you mean by ‘in charge’?”

“Well, Mr. Stadtler, these will be Norwegian construction workers, so it is important that they not know that I am involved in this project. Instead, they will take their directions from you.”

“From me? But I don’t speak Norwegian, remember?”

“That is not a problem. Most, if not all, of the men we will hire will speak English. Norwegians are quite well educated, Mr. Stadtler.”

“And what am I supposed to tell them? They’re bound to wonder why we’re building something here, especially a castle.”

“You’ll find, Mr. Stadtler, that Norwegians are a lot less nosy than Americans. However, it is true that some of them may become curious, which brings us to an additional way I planned for you to be useful. If anyone asks questions, tell them that you work for an American firm that is building this castle for a wealthy American client. That will satisfy them. They understand Americans’ eccentricity.” Joe scoffed, but Karl continued, “Now, we have sixty men already recruited and waiting to be transported. Will that be enough?”

“That depends. . . will we have heavy equipment? Like a crane? Bulldozers? Backhoes?’

“You will not need bulldozers or backhoes. The foundation will be laid directly on the rough grade. If needed, certain areas can be prepared with shovels, but in general even that will be unnecessary.”

“What about the stone? I can’t put it in place without a crane, and I don’t know a thing about cutting it.”

“That is also not a problem. The stone has already been quarried, and you can hire a team of stonemasons to size it as it arrives here. We will bring a crane for placing the larger sections.”

“So, sixty men—not including stone cutters—ready to arrive tomorrow. I still don’t see how we can possibly be finished in two weeks without heavy equipment, even if we work eight-hour days with no breaks.”

“There is no need to limit yourself, Mr. Stadtler. You will get the most skilled and the strongest labourers we can find. They will have no problem working ten or twelve hours each day. In fact,” he added, after thinking a moment, “There is no reason you can’t divide the men to work around-the-clock, since we would like the project completed as soon as possible.”

“We can’t work in the dark.”

“Of course not,” Karl said, with emphasized patience. “You would not be expected to. We will bring in very high intensity lights to set around the site when it gets dark.”

“So, I’ll use two shifts of thirty men each working twelve hours at a time.”

“Sixty men—”

“Plus the stone cutters.”

“Sixty men, plus the stonemasons, will be here Wednesday afternoon or early evening. That’s tomorrow. Now, Mr Stadtler, you will also be in charge of paying the men’s wages. They will be paid cash; U.S. currency. This is to further the pretense that you are at the head of this project. At the end of each day, we will give you exactly enough money to cover that day’s wages. From there, you will be responsible for getting all of it to your ‘employees.'”

“How much am I—are you, rather—paying them?”

“We are offering two thousand American dollars per day to each worker.”

“Where am I going to keep all that cash? I can’t just walk around with a couple hundred thousand dollars to pass out every day.”

“I suppose you are right. I will have a safe placed in your trailer tonight, and we will secure the money in it. It may be easiest to have the workers collect their wages from you there, rather than allow you to distribute the cash.”

Karl was thoughtful for several minutes and said nothing. Finally, he looked at Joe and said, “In order for that idea to work smoothly, you will need this.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out several keys. Selecting one, he held it out to Joe. “This is the key to your trailer.”

Joe reached out hesitantly for the key, but didn’t take it. “Are you serious?” he asked.

Karl nodded. “All of the workers will be housed in trailers, which will arrive tomorrow before noon, and they will have free access to come and go. It would be too difficult to explain why their alleged boss were restricted and confined to his own quarters. Besides, Mr. Stadtler, I think you already understand that it would be very foolish if you should decide to leave.” Joe took the key from Karl and put it into his pocket.

Joe wasn’t sure what to make of this gesture. He wouldn’t go so far as to consider it friendly, but he had to admit that it seemed out of character for Karl to show so much trust—first with the money, then with the key. “Thanks, Karl,” he said uncertainly.

“Do not forget that I am directing this project,” was Karl’s stern reply. “You’ll meet tomorrow a man named Peter Bruvik. He will be our liaison, communicating instructions from me and information from you while I stay out of sight. Though you will appear to lead everything, I will be constantly informed of your progress.”

“I just don’t get all the secrecy, Karl.”

“Mr. Stadtler, there is no way for you to understand the importance of the work we are doing here. Even if I thought you could understand, there is precious little that we can safely tell you about the larger nature of this project. To have too much information would not only jeopardize our work, it would jeopardize your life.”

He said it so casually that Joe couldn’t help joking, “What is this? Some sort of international espionage?”

With an ironic laugh, Karl replied, “No, Mr Stadtler, international espionage would be far less complicated.”