I’m sharing the short story below, The Ruined Man’s Dream, because I’m done with it and somebody might enjoy a bit here or there. It deserves something, but not overmuch. The story’s story may be the best part of the story — I think at least there’s a chuckle in it for other writers.
A listing on Duotrope for a short story (under 2,000 words) based on a tale from the Thousand and One Arabian Nights caught my interest. I love fairy tales, tall tales, and interesting challenges. The deadline was two weeks. I can usually come up with a title in a fortnight, but that’s about it. Despite this, I committed and got right to work with research.
With so many stories to choose from, I finally settled on “The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again.” Anything Aladdin or Ali Baba related seemed too obvious. And, considering the word count restriction, I needed something simple but punchy. Since the original title gives away the twist, I switched that up and moved the whole adventure from Bagdad to the inner planets of our solar system in the mid-future. This may seem risky, except an editor’s interview on Duotrope led me to believe a more adventurous interpretation would be welcomed. The timeline was tight, and I’d developed the locations and some characters in this story-world before in a couple different short stories and a novella — short-cut tip there =)
After a couple drafts I shared the story with my inner circle, pretty happy with it. The feedback wasn’t great. Maybe fast writing wasn’t for me? I had struggled with resolving the archaic story structure, which pivots on the inescapability of fate, with modern expectations for a character with agency. Even worse, it lacked tension and my main character came off flat. The interesting part came too late to be worth it. Ugh…
The deadline was a day away, and in the middle of the night it hit me — restructure the timeline and change the point-of-view. It would echo the story-in-a-story convention found so often in the original tales. Of course, that would solve everything.
Actually, it did. Mostly. The details of the reveal/twist at the end had to change, as well as the clues in the beginning paragraphs. Most of the story switched to dialog. I ended up with a fluid sort of first/third/second person POV that hopefully feels natural. In hindsight, the punctuation is anything but. It was a heavy lift, but I revised, edited, edited, edited, and submitted by midnight.
If you’re a writer, you know how the next part went. It didn’t. Not for weeks. After a bit, the publisher extended the deadline a month. Hmm. Maybe not enough submissions? Then after an expected sixty day wait… nothing. Another month down the road, and finally something definitive arrived by email.
Nope, the publisher went out of business.
No regrets here, it was really fun to take on as an assignment. I recommend it if you’re feeling stuck or uninspired. After I submitted it, I ran the story through my writers group and they found a bunch of things I wish I’d changed. The version below is what I submitted, so there are issues with it. I’d love to hear your take in the comments. Ultimately I think it is good for a two-week effort, but I really need it to be just good good, regardless of time restrictions. Next time!
The room smelled of sweat and ozone. Miguel’s tongue felt thick as plush carpet. His eyelids scraped open to see a dark blurry detention cell. Green lenses glowed at him.
“Why did you come?” the android guard said. Its voice was smooth, artificial, and human all at once.
Miguel cleared his throat. “I’m from Mead Orbital. I just flew in.”
“I asked why. There’s nothing on Hubliss-Luco Station for a solitary old man.” Its face looked like a melted lead skull.
Rising to a knee, Miguel shrugged. “I don’t think you’d understand.”
The guard grabbed a bar on the door with metal fingers. “Now that’s suspicious. What can’t I understand?”
“Nothing personal. It’s just that, well, do you dream?” Miguel rubbed his head. “I followed a dream.”
“How so? This goes into your file, be specific, honest, and complete.”
Miguel squinted at the guard. He hadn’t done anything wrong, why was he being held?
“Sure, why not. A couple weeks ago this mysterious woman appeared…”
“I was in Sunnyside Park, a huge room in the Mead Orbital Manufacturing Station. Hardly any people or androids left anymore so it’s quiet. Windows run the full length of the park along one wall and the sun fills the view, our orbit’s so close. Anyway, I was sweeping the shrine again. It’s all I do these days.
The shrine was a simple brass plaque once, marked the construction date. Generations worth of plaster and scrap metal have been glommed around it. There’s a maintenance robot that broke down and now it blends in like part of the decor. That’s why I sweep.
It was a surprise when I looked up and saw a woman. Hadn’t heard her approach.
‘Sunnyside Shrine,’ I said.
Her hair was black as starless space, held loosely with a woven band. She wore a rough tunic, brocaded on the shoulders and chest in geometric patterns of purple and pink. Wavy rays radiated from the neck in a deep green that matched her eyes. She carried some twigs with leaves and coiled vines. They looked real.
I smiled and expected her to giggle at the gap in my teeth. She didn’t, and I realized she wasn’t as young as I thought. It was impossible to guess her age.
‘You’re visiting? Welcome, welcome,’ I told her. ‘Back when Mead was booming, they printed the hulls of all the big ships here. Every religion and sect added to the shrine. See? Here’s a tiny stupa, a fancy cross, some candles.’ I gave her the whole spiel.
This woman knelt before the shrine. She built a small pyramid with the green sticks and secured it with colored wiring.
‘Nobody comes here anymore, you some kind of pilgrim?’ I asked. ‘I do my best to sweep, pick up litter. There’s a spot in back where I sleep.’
She held her hands palm-up and closed her eyes.
‘I was rich once, you know? Had a warehouse on the Tantalo docks. We sold parts to the ship outfitters. They’d tow the hulls out and finish them here.’
The woman stood and turned. She reached out and nearly touched my face.
I couldn’t look her in the eye. ‘Wasted everything, gave it to creditors. Well, gamblers. I thought I’d build something lasting, but fate decided otherwise.’
She left as silently as she’d arrived. Her skirts flowed along the ground as if she floated. Sounds crazy.
It felt extra hot, so I decided to nap.
After a while I became aware of myself within a dream. Darkness melted into patterns of the woman’s tunic. I smelled crushed leaves, dirt, and electricity. A pyramid of branches formed and the woman’s face filled a fuchsia sky.
She spoke into my mind, ‘You have been faithful.’
‘Hardly,’ I said. ‘I could have done so much more if I hadn’t been foolish.’
‘Leave this place. Travel to Hubliss-Luco station.’
‘Hubliss… I can’t. It’s a hundred million miles away.’
The woman hummed the sound the universe makes in-between its atoms.
I was in a kind of trance. I dug my fingers into rich soil and grass grew between them. Greenery wrapped around my hands and turned golden with the luster of metal.
‘Find your fortune,‘ she said.
I covered my face. ‘It isn’t possible.’ I cried like a newborn.
‘You must leave.’
When I lowered my hands, she was gone.”
“The dream was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Of course, it was nonsense. Why would I leave for someplace far away, where it’s probably cold? Then again, what was stopping me? The shrine gets shabbier each year. I thought about it for a few days and figured I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
I checked in with the local office and learned the corporation had a program to ship residents away anywhere inside the asteroid belt. They’re broke, trying get rid of dead weight like me. Once my ship departed the trip only took a week.
When we all shuffled off the ship through the tunnel to the receiving dock, I couldn’t believe it. A rank smell hit me, like sweat and onions over a base of machine oil. I could taste it. Shudders ran through the floor and an air duct squealed. The docks were like a refugee camp, crowded with people, robots, and androids. You know how it is, with the low ceilings and junk everywhere.
I wasn’t sure what to look for, so I picked a direction. Thought there might be a shrine, a garden, or somewhere green on the station.
Guess I walked the wrong way. I got disoriented. When I looked back where I’d walked from there was no clear path, only shipping containers and vendors. A scrum of people pushed me along. They weren’t random strangers either, but some locals who seemed to know each other.
‘Wait,’ I said. My chest tightened like a ratchet strap. ‘This is the wrong way.’
One guy with hair swooped over his face sneered. ‘Got that right.’ He pushed me into the arms of someone big.
A gloved hand covered my mouth and nose–couldn’t breathe. My arms were pinned. They dragged me to a dim alcove.
The glove smelled like old socks. Not sure if that part matters or not. Nobody would look me in the eye. They rustled through my pockets and bag, but I don’t have any valuables.
‘Tear my heart out, he’s got nothing gang,’ the swoop-hair guy said to his friends. ‘Grandpa here looked so poor I was sure it was fake. It’s another hungry night.’
The guy holding me from behind grunted. ‘What about this one?’
Swoop-hair stared in my eyes. ‘Mmmm, what about you?’ He pushed the hair back from the hidden half of his face. A shiny amber lens was implanted where his eye should have been. It was infected.
‘You won’t be a problem, will you? We’re just tryin’ to survive here, nothing personal.’
The glove lifted from my face finger by finger. I shook my head. ‘I’m only here because of a dream.’
They all laughed.
‘This is where dreams die.’ Swoop let his hair fall and seemed conflicted about what to do with me. ‘Stay here tonight if you want. Leave tomorrow and forget you ever saw us.’
The station fell into the Earth’s shadow and the lights dimmed. Some of the gang pulled mats or blankets out, others leaned into corners.
I curled up along a wall. I hoped to dream of the mysterious woman, but it was hard to fall asleep.
Eventually I must have because lights and shouts jarred me awake. Metal hands picked me up and forced my face against the wall. Footsteps pounded and bodies crashed. Blue lights flashed and lit the fog of my breath.
‘Halt. Do not attempt to flee. Attempts to escape, resist, or attack may result in bodily harm and-or death.‘
‘I haven’t done anything,’ I said. ‘Please.’
‘Silence, suspect. Comply with all orders,’ you told me. That was you, right?
Mag-cuffs snapped around my wrists.
‘I won’t run, promise. You could catch me.’ I flashed my dumb smile and a couple of your guard pals snickered.
You said, ‘Quiet. You won’t be warned again.’
‘I don’t know these people.’ I was trying to explain what happened.
Then you shook your head, reached out a stubby wand, and zapped me in the chest.
So, I followed a dream, like I said. You probably can’t relate.”
When it was over the android guard stared at Miguel for a full minute.
“Machines don’t dream,” it said. “But we shut down for memory optimization every sixty days. Occasionally there are anomalies after reboot.”
“I didn’t know,” Miguel said. “Can I go?”
“You’re free to leave, your file’s clean. In fact I’ve re-credited you a return flight to Mead Orbital. This is no place to be alone. You’ll fall in with the wrong type.” The guard swung the door open and gestured to a table. “Your belongings are there.”
Miguel hesitated. He thought about home and his shrine. The visage of the mysterious woman filled his mind and his atoms hummed. “I’m sorry, I can’t go home. I believe the dream.”
“Then be an old fool,” the guard said. It sounded disgusted. “Here’s some advice, don’t chase after dreams. I rebooted with an anomaly once. I saw mounds of gold, credits, jewels. It was so utterly convincing I began to search. I filtered my memory for clues. Weeks later, the image occurred again, then a third time. For months I scoured the most desperate corners of Hubliss-Luco until I finally decided to do something useful. That’s when I joined security to try and improve the conditions here. The visions I’d seen weren’t real, there was no shining brass sun, no vault of gold behind it.”
“You dreamed of a brass sun?” Miguel pursed his lips to keep from smiling. The plaque of his shrine back home featured a brass sun. “That’s pretty specific.”
“Not really,” the guard said. “It’s a common enough symbol. What had me convinced was seeing the number, 01.18.24. I thought I might be a combination key, or even a memory address. But no, it was just a recurring error.”
“No doubt.” Miguel’s heart skipped. 01.18.2468 was the day Mead Orbital had been dedicated. It was stamped on the plaque, but the last two numbers were covered by plaster.
“Now get out of here,” the guard said. “Before you get into real trouble.”
Miguel slipped by and grabbed his bag with trembling fingers.
One year later, a golden light bathed Sunnyside Park. Children played and couples strolled hand-in-hand. Miguel looked down from his apartment balcony. He ran his tongue over smooth new teeth and smiled. Below, shrine custodians swept in his place.
He sniffed the sugary perfume of orange blossoms. His little potted tree had grown unruly and he snipped several boughs. He strolled to the shrine and recalled the woman who had visited him.
“I wish I knew the right words, perhaps a prayer to show my gratitude,” he said. Ever since he’d found the treasure hidden in his shrine, he’d wanted to honor her. On a whim Miguel knelt and made a pyramid of branches. He rose and breathed in the park’s new vitality and potential. Perhaps no words were needed