Flash Fiction: “Those Physicians in Whose Steps I Walk”

Sometimes you get a late-night brainstorm while reading articles on Wookieepedia, listening to podcasts about roleplaying, and then the next thing you know, you’ve got this wild idea for a story in your head. And, no, it can’t wait until morning. It’s got to be written now.

Well, this is one of those stories.

Those Physicians in Whose Steps I Walk,

By Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 1,116

She was one of two hundred and sixteen robots that came off an assembly line at the last Venusian sky-factory.

Cold yellow lights stared out from two recessed nodes in a smooth gray cranium; these were what passed for her eyes. Clawed manipulators extended from spindly titanium rods attached to her torso, able to switch out and produce whatever tool she needed; these were what passed for her hands. An extensive vocabulary of medical knowledge and diagnoses came out in a gentle monotone through the steel grille affixed to the front of her cranium; this was what passed for her mouth.

At the sky-factory, she had been designated G1-DS.

Everyone at the shipyard, though, just called her “Dess.”

Inside the foreman’s office, Dess stood at attention. She stared out the viewport behind the human’s desk, out at where a vast semicircle of shuttle docks and half-finished cruisers floated gently, just beyond the arid planet’s gravity well. If she increased the magnification on her visual sensors, Dess could almost pinpoint the tiny stream of mining haulers that flew in and out of the planet’s atmosphere, bringing down new work crews and bringing up all the raw materials humans could need for shipbuilding.

Utterly routine, but she would rather be watching that than listen to the foreman.

“Look, G1, I appreciate your concern? But really, this isn’t the time or place for it.” Lounging in an ergonomic chair behind the desk, Foreman Temuera North had poor spinal alignment and soft, billowing tissue around the neck and waistline. Just by looking at him with her diagnostic suite, Dess could pinpoint everything about his medical history. None of it good. “We’ve got a system here, okay? The foreman answers to the Director, the crews answer to me, and you answer to the medbay supervisor. It’s that simple.”

“Working conditions aren’t that simple,” Dess insisted. She gestured one of her clawed manipulators to the datacard on his desk. “Ever since that last vein of adamatine steel was discovered, cases of hypoxemia among the miners has risen by as much as sixty-three percent in the last month. If we don’t treat this soon, we could be looking at—”

“Trouble.” The word fell from Temuera’s lips like a stone into a pond. “That’s what you’ll be looking at, G1. Just trouble.”

“Sir, the miners—”

“Are fine, Dess. Do you get it?” Now the foreman’s eyes had narrowed, and Dess detected a spike in his blood pressure. “We don’t discuss mining conditions unless it’s been vetted as safe for public release. We don’t stick our noses—or sensors—where they’re not wanted.” His heart rate continued to climb as he spoke. “Do I make myself clear, G1-DS? Or is there a data corruption in your processor that I can have the techs look at?”

Every byte of her programming told her this was wrong. Every other byte told Dess to let it go. Drop the case, go back to her unfinished duties at the medbay. Loyalty subroutines reminded her that a severe absence could be marked as negligence and grounds for a total memory wipe. But her ethical software had different ideas, flagging and highlighting every instance of conspiracy and health hazard in the foreman’s statement.

With a hiss through her vocoder, Dess lowered her head. Her servos whined in protest as she opened the storage compartment on her torso’s lower-left ring.

“Your intentions are clear, Foreman,” she said out loud.

Temuera’s face broke out into a smile, twisting the native tattoos around his jawline. “Well, good. I’d hate to have to dismantle a fine automaton like yourself—”

He never saw it coming.

One clawed manipulator reached out in a mere matter of microseconds, clutching the human’s throat and silencing him at once. As Temuera’s eyes bulged, Dess removed the fully-loaded hypodermic from her chassis. She armed the plunger and then plunged the needle into one of his neck’s main arteries.

A high dose of painkillers wouldn’t kill him—even as she railed against the Do No Harm slogan drilled into her codebase–but it would render him unconscious. Not so different, she reflected, from sedating an irate patient in the medbay.

As the foreman slumped against his desk, Dess replaced the needle in storage. Her sensors registered a steady pulse, airflow, and heart beat just beneath his skin.

Then she went to work.

Step One: Isolate all footage of the conversation and transmit it to the Judicial Department on Venus, with her personal notes attached for viewer context.

Step Two: Use her built-in bone cutter to break the door’s lock on her way out, even though it meant damaging her cutter appendage beyond repair.

Step Three: Make a hasty route to Docking Bay Forty-Seven. There, she would find a shuttle drone, one whose low-level programming would register her emergency response credentials and give her a ride out of the star system when asked for one.

Step Four: Start over fresh, far from the Mining Consortium and far from their private security teams. Some settlement, where colonists didn’t question the arrival of an unattended medical robot, and where her ethical analysis of their health might be better appreciated.

All of this, Dess calculated and considered in less than thirty seconds.

Then she made her escape.

On Cybele, a distant world near the Deneb star system, Dr. Farah Zorn rubbed at her temples. She was tired, but her shift wouldn’t end for another half-hour. And to make matters worse, there was an outbreak of severe space adaptation sickness among the newly arrved colonists. Her medbay looked less like a healing center and more like a battlefield, with triage lines and fatigued orderlies stumbling over each other, narrowly avoiding collisions over the groaning rows of people.

“Excuse me?” A gentle synthetic voice reached Farah from over her shoulder. She turned around and blinked at the silver bipedal robot that had suddenly appeared. Or maybe she was just hallucinating it. That last patient’s chart had her convinced she was losing her mind.

“Yes?” Farah tilted her head. “Look, if you’re really here—”

“I am.”

“Then, can you help?” Farah gestured to a line of men and women, all of whom were still waiting for treatment. “We’ve got SAS cases left and right. Everyone here needs a quick vital check and then a shot of—”

“Dimenhydrinate.” The robot nodded, and then she lifted a vial of medicine up to the doctor’s eyes. “I have just the thing, ma’am.”

“Excellent.” Farah laughed. “You’re hired. What’s your name?”

“My designation?”

“I asked your name, sweetie.”

“Oh! Well…” The robot drew herself up proudly. “I am G1-DS, ma’am.” Then, after a short, embarrassed pause, she added, “Most people call me Dess.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Elements of Fiction – Part 2: Action

Hey there, and welcome back for another installment of “Elements of Fiction.” Today, I’ll be looking at action, what it means within a story, and how it can do more than advance the plot.

What is Action?

Action is one of two things in fiction:

a) What happens in a scene

b) What a character does

You might think that these definitions are saying the same thing, but that’s not always the case. A lot of things can happen within a scene that’s beyond a character’s control.

Copyright © 2007 by Miramax Films

For example, in the ending for No Country for Old Men (spoilers!), after the hitman Anton Chigurh takes care of Llewelyn Moss’s widow, he’s driving away, almost scot-free. Almost, because out of nowhere, another car hits him, and he ends up with a broken arm. Two local kids come across Chigurh, who’s trying to mend his arm. He tries to pay one of them for his shirt, and the other kid gives it to him anyway. Chigurh makes a sling and gives them the money to keep quiet about ever seeing him. The kids bicker over the money as Chigurh limps off into the distance.

Now, what happens in this scene? On the one hand, no one could predict that car coming up and hitting Chigurh’s vehicle. We, the audience, are just as blindsided as he is. On the other hand, look at how the killer reacts to the whole sequence. He didn’t get a clean victory. He’s killed everyone in his path, but he’s still caught up in the forces of chance like the rest of them. And Chigurh, being a sociopath, doesn’t get that a local kid might give him his shirt out of kindness. He insists on giving him money because that’s in line with his personal code, and then he doggedly escapes the scene of the crime on foot.

In this scene, we see something that happens to a character, and we see a character’s response to it. This is what action in a story looks like.

Action is also how we might define what happens in a story. There’s a great episode of “Stand In,” a program on MTVU, that features South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about how they came up with their formula for making new episodes. They never create the action beat for beat with “And then they… and then this happens, etc.” Instead, they use the idea of “Therefore… but…” As in “Eric Cartman has something good happen, therefore he tells his friends, but then his friends tell Cartman that he got swindled by an older kid.” It’s the basic idea of setting up a character goal, then subverting that goal, and then watching how the character reacts to the new challenge, whether they fail or succeed.

Finally, yes, action can be what a character does in the literal sense, like getting a big fight with the villain or chasing after their love interest. Those kinds of action are standard, like when the Final Girl squares off with the Monster at the end of a horror film. But it’s how the action unfolds that tells us something about the character. Sometimes, a character might be expected to do one thing, but then decides to do something else.

It’s how, for example, George R.R. Martin created a compelling storyline in his Song of Ice and Fire novels. He took every medieval fantasy trope and turned it on its head. The noble lord fails to expose the palace intrigues, and while we expect the child king to spare his life at the end, we learn how vicious King Joffrey truly is, and so Ned Stark loses his head. Ned could’ve stayed honest and fought to the bitter end, but instead, he chose to trust the Lannisters for his daughter’s sake. This trust gets him killed, and even the Lannisters are upset with Joffrey’s decision. He could have done the conventional thing and shown clemency, but instead, Joffrey chose to flex his newfound royal muscle and have a known traitor brutally executed.

When you think about action, think about what a character wants and what might get in their way. Then think about how they’ll have to get around that. And from there, you’ve opened the door to a whole path that will move the story forward, while revealing what your characters want most of all and what they’ll do to get it.

Stay tuned next week for Part Three: Dialogue.

Yuri!!! on Ice: Got Style, Got Grace, Got Ice in Your Face

Copyright © 2016 by Funimation
Copyright © 2016 by Funimation

I watch plenty of Western animation these days, from RWBY and Steven Universe to Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman, but I’ll never lose my interest in anime. I’m always looking for new stories, new genre, to try out. Which is how I ended up watching a 12-episode show about men’s figure skating and a coach-student love affair.

Yuri!!! on Ice tells the story of Yuri Katsuki, a Japanese figure skater who lost at the latest round of the Grand Prix and went into semi-retirement. However, he soon catches the attention (and attraction) of figure skating legend Victor Nikiforov, whose moves Yuri copied flawlessly in a performance that was recorded and uploaded to the Web. Victor wants to become Yuri’s coach and help him win at the Grand Prix with a new program. This puts Yuri in the crosshairs of figure skaters from around the world in half a dozen competitions, including Victor’s other big admirer, the Russian skater Yuri Plisetsky.

Yuri and Victor are the heart and soul of this anime, no doubt about it. It’s a neat duo with a classic style: the anxious, desperate-to-win young hero paired with a confident, level-headed, and eccentric mentor. However, there’s more to them than meets the eye. Yuri proves to be more confident and playful than he originally let on, and Victor is not quite the untouchable skating champion that everyone thinks he is. It’s refreshing to see an onscreen romance where the two characters actually change roles every so often (and it’s nice to see an LGBT romance done well in a show, as Kori Michele explains in an article on Medium).

When I first heard about this anime, I knew far more about the main characters, Yuri and Victor, and their passionate onscreen chemistry. But after just the first episode, I was blown away with the artistry, the sheer beauty, of the animation for every figure skating sequence. And kudos to the show’s producers for getting real-life Swiss figure skater Stéphane Lambiel to play himself as a commentator.

Most people don’t know this, but I took 8 years of gymnastics training as a kid after school. I never competed professionally, but I know a lot about the work that goes into that kind of athletics, and I can recognize it in the skating routines that these characters pull off. It’s an absolute delight to watch this show for the sports angle alone.

I don’t know if this is true of other sports anime and manga stories, but one thing I liked in Yuri was the psychological angle it took. Every time we watched a different figure skater perform their routine at a competition, we got a glimpse into their inner monologue and what was at stake for them. It’s one thing to do this for the protagonist whom we’re cheering on. This show, however, actually went and did it for every major skater, from the rival Russian skater Yuri to side characters like Michele Crispino from Italy and “JJ” Leroy from Canada. That motif definitely fleshes out the world in which the show takes place.

Yuri!!! on Ice does something spectacular within a simple 12-episode run. It’s a good introduction to both the sports anime and yaoi genres, as well as a tight and well-toned story with almost no filler. It breathes passion, from its characters to its fluid skating animations to its music. Whether or not you enjoy all the stock anime gags, or even if you’re not a huge fan of Boys’ Love, there’s something for everyone to enjoy in this series.

The English dub of Yuri!!! on Ice is available through Funimation. New episodes can be found through Crunchyroll.

Bibliography: Yuri!!! on Ice. Directed by Sayo Yamamoto. Written by Mitsuro Kubo. MAPPA (studio). Funimation (North American distributor). TV Asahi; BS Asahi; STS; NCC; Sun TV; AT-X. Original broadcast: October 5, 2016December 21, 2016.

One Punch Man: An Anime That Works as Its Own Abridged Series

Copyright © 2015 by Madhouse
Copyright © 2015 by Madhouse

I’ve been on record of saying how bored or unsatisfied I am with so much superhero media hype these days. It’s rare to find a superhero who is himself bored with the whole affair, too.

One Punch Man is one of those concepts in anime that sounds so stupid that it’s actually brilliant. In a world where costumed fighters are common and licensed under the Hero Association, there’s only one known fighter who’s a self-stated “hero for fun.” Here we meet Saitama, a young man who trained so hard that he went bald, but whose punches can destroy towering monsters and demons in a single blow. Much to his disappointment.

Of course, Saitama isn’t alone in his crimefighting business. He has help from the cyborg Genos and the martial arts master Silver Fang, who are the only ones in the show who seem to get just how scary and powerful he really is. They’re also a much-needed contrast, being heroic and noble to Saitama’s selfish, unconcerned style.

I love Saitama’s facial expressions and overall attitude. He’s so unlike your average superhero or shonen protagonist, being rather bored or more interested in smaller, stupid things. But that’s the point, isn’t it? When you can destroy enemies with a single punch, you don’t see challenges the way other people do. Instead, we get a guy who dresses like a superhero, but who’s more concerned with swatting a pesky mosquito or making it on time to Bargain Day at the market. He looks a hero, but he talks and sounds like us, the Average Joes of the audience.

The show plays with nihilism much like another animated series, Rick and Morty, does. For all the villains and arcs that Saitama faces, there’s no overarching point. He breaks everyone’s expectations, and he himself has few expectations about the world. Even the origins of his powers are treated as one big anticlimactic joke early on. Much like the mad scientist Rick Sanchez, our anime hero is just in the superhero business for fun and to get some perks out of his adventures. All the ideals of justice and law don’t matter in the slightest to him, even with more earnest heroes like Genos and Mumen Rider standing up for them.

None of this, however, takes away from the anime’s overall quality. The fights in this show (when they aren’t hilariously one-sided) are about as long and clever as any shonen fighting series. It’s as much a joy for Saitama as it is for the audience to see him take on an opponent who actually proves to be a challenge. And the show itself has so many superheroes to choose from, from cyborgs to martial arts warriors to deadly psychics, all bringing a different flavor to each episode.

At 12 episodes for a single season, One Punch Man is an absolute treat. If you’re looking for something that takes the piss out of the superhero genre, or perhaps an intro to the shonen genre, then this anime is for you.

The English dub of One Punch Man is available through Adult Swim. At the time of this writing, its second season is still in production.

Bibliography: One Punch Man (anime). Directed by Shingo Natsume. Produced by Chinatsu Matsui, Nobuyuki Hosoya, Keita Kodama, and Ayuri Taguchi. Written by Tomohiro Suzuki. Based on the manga by One. Madhouse (studio). Viz Media (North American licensing). Adult Swim (Toonami). Original run: October 5, 2015 – present.

Flash Fiction: “Golden Treats”

I wrote this story around the start of this year’s Olympic Games. Apologies in advance for associating with whatever contrversies or incidents may have occurred since then.


Golden Treats, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 394

Everyone was lining up to watch the track and field events at that year’s Olympic Games in San Diego. At the hundred-meter dash, almost everyone was cheering for the runner second most favored to win: Rusty from Team USA.

Of course, it wasn’t hard to love Rusty. He was, after all, a golden retriever in a jersey. Thanks to a loophole in the rules, the Olympic Committee had no reason to object to having dogs participate in any of the games. They’d been impressed at how well Hermann, Germany’s very own German shepherd, had done at the shot put test.

As he bolted across the track, Rusty panted and galloped ahead of the competition. He almost fell behind the runner from Kenya, but that was only because he’d been thinking about his visit to Sea World the other day. His coach—and owner—had taken him to the otter exhibit. Rusty had been so ready to chase the otters, but Greg had yanked on his leash and reminded him that it wasn’t nice to bark.

Rusty couldn’t help it. He just got so gosh darn excited about everything!

With a bark, Rusty charged ahead, overtaking the runners from both Kenya and China. All he had to do was imagine those otters ahead of him, and off he went. Just the boost he needed! He could almost see them now—

His ears perked up. Something two miles away from the track had grabbed his attention. It was strange. Almost sounded like the horn of a car.

But no, Rusty’s ears went flat. A growl rose from deep within his throat.

It was a mailman. Somewhere, two miles away from the stadium, someone was driving a mail truck. He could hear it. He could smell it. Rusty was mad enough to go chasing after it—

Then he heard Greg blow his whistle. A whistle that only dogs and canine Olympians could hear. Rusty snapped back into focus. He let out another bark and scampered ahead. He even passed Natasha Ivankova, the exceptionally strong runner from Russia and most favored to win.

Later, as he stood on the podium to receive his gold medal for the US, Rusty’s ears perked once again. Somewhere, he was sure, a squirrel was running underneath the bleachers. But then Greg shoved a bacon treat into his mouth, and he forgot all about it.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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