"Why did you bring that? It doesn't work!"
"Does too, you skinless cretin."
We raced along the cylindrical paths, the sound of flyers chasing us.
"Even if it does work, what's its use now?" As Cecilia had pointed out, we were skinless. No suits, no engines, no use for it.
"I didn't say ..." She glared, as much as one can when sprinting away from Secs intent on jailing you.
I veered left as we reached the crossroads, but Cecilia's arm shot out and pulled me to the right, pushing us up against the wall.
The flyers neared. Cecilia twisted the useless thing until a rusty bolt flew off and hit me in the nose.
Cecilia tossed the noisy, steaming, thing out into the street and rounded on me.
"Get down, you empty headed ass!"
She jumped on me as the flyers reached us. There was an explosion and shrapnel and smoke and confusion filled the enclosed streets. We sprinted across the passage and headed for home, the Secs fooled.
"So, it's a steam bomb now?"
"Well, it's tiny, loud, and annoying, just like its inventor."
She growled and slapped me.
Duff says: As I’ve said before, opening with dialogue is a potent device if done well. The first two lines do a good job of setting up tension and giving us a sense of character. My main gripe with the opening is “you skinless cretin.” Insults, in dialogue, are a difficult but vital thing to get right. It’s a mistake to get overly descriptive with insults, using them to provide exposition or to physically describe the characters. As with overuse of names, the end result is often more to knock the reader out of the story than to seat them more firmly in it. I have trouble believing a character who calls their friends by epithets like “you skinless cretin” and “you empty headed ass.” In reality, friends call each other things like “asshole” and “fucker” and “idiot,” generic insults that roll off the cuff easily. If the author of this story had just used “skinless” as an insult by itself, it would have felt more natural as well as tantalizing us with the setting. Okay, though. Enough about insults. The second thing that bothered me was that the tone of the dialogue (and to a lesser extent the description) throughout the story just doesn’t seem to match the action. Right up until I hit the word “jailed,” I assumed that the characters were involved in some sort of game or sport, rather than running for their lives. There is no fear in their affect. That can work if we get a sense that flippancy is their defense mechanism, or that they are so used to danger as to be unfazed by it. But we get neither. In the end, it was that mismatch of tone, and the resultant uncertainty about what was at stake, that kept me from getting engaged in what is otherwise a tight story with good action.
Helen says:It starts off well, with the title and a few terse lines establishing the tension, and the lingo of our “skinless” heroes chased by “Secs” giving us a sense of a foreign setting. But after a while it feels like the dialogue is being asked to carry too much weight, and the line “Cecilia twisted the useless thing until a rusty bolt flew off and hit me in the nose.” veers into slapstick. There’s a dramatic explosion, but it leaves us wondering: if the thing wasn’t a bomb to begin with, what was it supposed to be? It’s a good portrait of sibling rivalry and could be a great way to set up a story about these two characters, but taken in isolation, the ending undercuts the stakes and there are too many changes in tone for me to know how I'm supposed to take the story. “[T]iny, loud, and annoying, just like its inventor” is cute, but it doesn’t feel micro.
by Moira Young
A middle-aged man met Karen at the docking bay. “Jim Tyler,” he said. “Welcome to Microtopia.”
She shook his extended hand. It was warm. “Karen Barnes.” She raised one brow. “You here to show me around?”
“That’s my job.”
Karen chuckled. “So what are you in for?”
“Embezzlement.” He shrugged. “Careful. It’s rude to ask that.”
Jim took her through the settlement, showing her the gym and the theatre, the cafeteria and the park. When they reached her quarters, Karen looked around and grinned. “You’d think people would scramble to get in here.”
Jim’s face darkened. “There are costs.”
“I shot my abusive husband,” she snapped. “Even if I’m an inch high for the rest of my life, better this diorama than a prison I don’t deserve.”
“The rest of your life,” he repeated. “Feel your forehead.”
Karen gasped. “I’m burning up!” she cried. “So are you.”
“I’m twenty-eight years old, Karen. I’ve only been here six months.” He grimaced. “Shrinking criminals doesn’t just save the taxpayers, it gets rid of us.”
She stared at him, horrified.
“Enjoy your stay,” said Jim. “You won’t be here long.”
Duff says This was one of the last stories cut from the short list when we were paring down to the five stories eventually printed in AE Micro. “Embezzlement.” He shrugged. “Careful. It’s rude to ask that.” I was sold on the story by that one line. It echoes so many familiar prison dramas that, regardless of whether such an exchange has ever happened behind real-world bars, it casts the story in a mold we can understand. This, always, is the key to making the premise work in science fiction. The problem with the story, for me, was that the ending fell flat. Right up until ”I’m twenty-eight years old, Karen.” I was rapt, but then the story floundered, trying to hold the reader’s hand through the twist ending. Also, replacing a couple of the speech attributions (“repeated,” “chuckled,” “gasped,” “snapped”) with “said” would have gone a long way.
Helen says:This story has an intriguing premise, one that stood out among the entries and even from those with a “shrinking person” theme. Even within the span of 200 words there’s foreshadowing about the characters’ fate. The setup, pacing, and payoff work well — no mean feat in a story of this size — but the dialogue, while it helps drive the story, sounds a bit flat. This was a close one, though!