Inmate #008: “The White City”

The two men sat stoically as their van cruised down a thin dirt road, an umber chalk line on the flat and featureless landscape before and behind them. Well, the van wasn’t theirs, exactly. It belonged to the driver, who was hunched forward slightly and who gripped the rusty steering wheel with thick, scarred hands that reminded his passenger of potato skins. Neither of them had spoken a word since the ride began. They didn’t even know each other’s names, if indeed either had a name to know. One drove, and the other rode. They had never needed to learn anything else.

After several hours, the Sun was directly above them in the cloudless sky when the road ahead was swallowed suddenly by a wave of blinding white that only seemed to intensify as their tired eyes struggled to adjust to it. Less disciplined individuals might have reflexively screamed in agony from the burning, throbbing pain the two men endured in their heads before the wave transmogrified into rows of cubes of differing heights. When the pain began to subside, they could see that these cubes were limestone buildings that flanked the van on both sides. Counting them was impossible, although distinct rows could be seen for miles. Each building had a large rectangular hole that served as a doorway. Above these were pentagonal high reliefs featuring intricate patterns of squares and circles. Some of the larger buildings had square holes on either side of their doorways that were occupied by thin sheets of latticed stone, all of which were bordered by thicker carvings of various leaves and flowers.

Both men ignored the buildings and their decorations. The driver never reacted much to anything as a matter of course, but his passenger was more concerned with the city’s emptiness than with its appearance. Theirs was the only presence on the road, and if there was anyone or anything inside any of the buildings, nothing indicating as much could be seen, heard, or smelled. He glanced at the rear-view mirror and saw there were no tire tracks in the dirt. This was all unusual but not entirely unexpected. The van slowed slightly, and the passenger returned his focus to the road, which branched off into right turns at two different places about 100 feet apart. The turn closest to the van was in an alley of sorts between two buildings, while the other was on the exterior edge of the last building he and the driver could see. Time was of the essence, so they not only had to quickly make a decision, but their decision also had to be correct.

Using just enough gas to keep the van moving, the driver rolled down his window and sniffed the air as a dog does when meat is being cooked. His senses were more acute than those of his passenger, who looked at him out of the corner of his eye until he saw the driver’s nose wrinkle, something that would have been imperceptible to anyone else. A decision had been made. Sure enough, the driver accelerated and turned the wheel sharply, noiselessly easing the van into the closest turn. The walls of the two buildings seemed to extend into the sky for miles. As the van passed through the opening they created, the wall on the driver’s side mercifully yet briefly provided respite from the glare and heat of the Sun. The men soon emerged into a rectangular clearing. Aside from a row of buildings in the distance, to their right was nothing but flat land slightly darker than sulfur. The van slowed again as the men noticed what was to their left.

They could have been confused for mannequins or statues. Not unlike the buildings in which they worked and lived, hundreds of men and women were arranged in rows. Each was prostrated on a patternless, maroon rug and clad in white, shawl-like garments. All of the men wore a matching topi (prayer cap), while the women wore the hijab. Their skin was darker than crude oil, which made them seem shadows made flesh. They didn’t move. They didn’t even seem to breathe. By all appearances, this was a silent, outdoor Jumu’ah, aside from everyone praying together in the same space, side-by-side. It was unorthodox, but to the men in the van, it was also irrelevant. They continued passing by the congregation until they were next to the imam. He was also prostrated, and his back was facing the van. The driver bowed his head slightly before leaning out of the window and cheerfully calling out, “As-salāmuʿalaykum,” using his first spoken words that day to wish peace upon him.

The imam tensed slightly, startled, before rising to his feet and turning to face the driver, ready to admonish him for interrupting his prayer. As soon as they made eye contact, however, he fidgeted unconsciously and instead returned the wish and greeting in a rushed mumble: “Waʿalaykumu s-salām.” He heard the passenger of the van stifle a laugh, and he struggled to suppress a rush of anger. He needn’t have bothered, however, since it disappeared when the two locked eyes. In its place was a sudden nausea and an inexplicable fear that was unrelated to but wasn’t helped by the unnatural paleness of the man’s skin. He shifted his gaze to the ground, determined not to look at either man again if he could help it. The passenger didn’t bother stifling his laugh this time. It seemed to echo in the imam‘s ears. There was a steadily intensifying pounding behind his eyes, and he thought he had never heard a worse sound in all of Creation.

He quickly discovered he couldn’t help looking at the men, after all. They began to speak in unison, and he was enthralled by their words. He had never heard the language before, but he somehow mentally translated it into Arabic. They told him who they were and from whence they came. He did not ask why they had come because he already knew the answer. He began speaking to them excitedly. His thoughts were in Arabic, but the language he spoke was theirs. His discomfort was forgotten. Like his speech, it no longer belonged to him. Other emotions soon followed, but he didn’t notice. He kept speaking. Control no longer belonged to him, not that he minded. Opinions no longer belonged to him. Afternoon turned into evening, and evening turned into night. His congregation was still frozen in prayer. Perception of time no longer belonged to him. Sight, soon to be joined by his other senses, no longer belonged to him. Awareness of others no longer belonged to him. He spoke until his thoughts no longer belonged to him. He spoke until his faith no longer belonged to him. He spoke until he relinquished everything he had to the men in the van, and then he spoke no more.

It was early afternoon when the two men left the imam in the clearing, but they did not leave him with nothing. First, they returned his life. Then, they returned his faith, his thoughts, his awareness of others, his senses, his perception of time, his opinions, his control, his emotions, and his speech. They also returned his memory, although it wasn’t intact. From it, they kept the van and themselves. They thus took from him truth and knowledge. These they returned to their compartments inside the worn, octagonal leather box from which they had been taken and then removed a clear sphere from the box’s only remaining compartment, placing it in one of the imam‘s cold, rigid hands. They closed the box, and the passenger pulled a brass padlock out of his left pocket, while the driver unclasped a tarnished copper key from the silver chain around his scarred neck. One inserted the key into the almond-shaped hole on the bottom of the padlock, and the other threaded the shackle through a loop on the edge of the box’s lid and closed the padlock. There was an octagonal groove on the floor of the van positioned directly between the two men. Together, they gingerly lowered the box into the groove until the top of its lid was level with the floor. The driver looked at his passenger, who returned the look with the slightest of nods. Nodding himself, the driver turned a key (half copper, half brass) already in the ignition. Slowly, the van’s engine began to breathe.


He was prostrated before his congregation and before Allah. He rose to a sitting position on his knees, performed the necessary recitations, and concluded with taslim, saying, “As-salāmuʿalaykum wa rahmatullah (Peace and blessings of Allah be unto you)” while facing right. He repeated it while facing left, and then he stood. His congregation stood with him, and each person shook hands with those on either side. They gathered their prayer rugs and dispersed, leaving the imam alone as they proceeded to resume their duties for the day. He made no attempt to follow them. He raised his gaze skyward, staring into and beyond the azure abyss as tears he did not feel streamed down his face and evaporated upon touching the ground. Every time he finished praying, he normally felt fulfilled, and he did now. However, there was another feeling he did not understand, an emptiness. He felt as if he were mourning the loss of something irreplaceable and of immeasurable value. He couldn’t be sure if the feeling was sudden or if it had been with him for his entire life. Both seemed true, and that scared him.

Dropping to his knees, he decided against praying. He didn’t know whether to pray for guidance or for answers. Would he be able to handle either? Did he even want either? That last question was important. This feeling could be a blessing, but it could just as easily be a curse meant to lead him astray. He could be risking, if not guaranteeing, eternal damnation. For all he knew, he was already damned just for entertaining the thought. He told himself the fate of his soul didn’t matter. It became a mantra repeated in his head until he believed it. Tears fell again, and this time, he felt them. He relished them. They were tears of joy. He understood that he had been given a gift. He didn’t know by whom, but he offered praise and thanks to Allah all the same. Returning to his feet and picking up his prayer rug, he turned and faced the opposite edge of the clearing, admiring the radiance of the buildings in the afternoon sunlight. He blinked and then saw nothing.

The city and its people were gone.

Inmate #007: “Run”

Note: Sometimes, I write down any details I can remember about dreams that I have. What follows is largely based on the details of one such dream.

Run if you choose, if you dare, if you live without a care in the world.

Run if you have spilled blood on the plots of the dead, if you have seen the tortured faces in the snow, contorted in screams, shrieks, and howls.

Run if they told you to kill the shadow woman.

Run to the north, to the east, to the south until civilization is a distant memory.

Run to the abandoned castle upon the hill, to the withered, crumbling husk once called home by the head of a powerful and flourishing nation.

Run to the rotting wooden door and knock once.

Run when you see her, when you see her hair clinging to her ebony face like leeches, when you see the wisp-like sword in her left hand.

Run when you hear her laughter, when the chills crawling up your spine almost send you into shock.

Run when she begins to run.

Run through the ancient stone corridors, through the doorways she slams behind her, through time as it seems to stretch and bend around you.

Run through the pain building in your lungs and muscles, through the frustration of constantly increasing your speed and never getting any closer.

Run through the square opening she creates in one of the walls.

Run until you can run no longer, until the shadow woman disappears, until you feel both relief and confusion.

Run until you cannot resist the urge to look backward, until what you see makes you scream.

Run until you realize you are going to die.

Run.

 

 

 

Inmate #006: Assaulting the Void: An Exercise in Overcoming Writer’s Block

It is time once again to assault the void, that insufferably blinding, mocking, repugnant white void. Pusillanimity is its ally, but it can do nothing but watch in silence as the void suffers. Every keystroke is a knife mercilessly plunged to the hilt into its pristine flesh, and every word is a sledgehammer splintering bone. Rivers of blood flow from each newly created orifice. Whatever doesn’t seep into and stain the floor around the void’s crumpled body splatters onto the walls and ceiling, creating another void that envelops victim and assailant in a darkness that is both frightening and inspiring in its brilliance.

Not the cleanest of work, but it has to be done. There are those who appreciate it. Others don’t, which is fine. The world would be dull if everyone appreciated everything everyone else ever did. Some people criticize the work believing they know how to do a “better job,” as if they understand the struggle, but are unwilling to allow even a speck of dirt to touch their porcelain hands. To them, assaulting the void is merely an exercise in reckless violence, if not murder, that accomplishes nothing. The assault in and of itself is no accomplishment. That much is true. However, it is not intended to be, and that is what they fail to grasp. Who can blame them? The assault is all they see. They may as well be blind.

If “all the world’s a stage,” then the assault is a recurring scene in the acts of the play of life. As with any scene, its success is dependent upon the actors and actresses delivering their lines correctly. This gives the assault a purpose and makes it more likely to resonate with people, provided everyone involved contributes to the best of his or her ability. Most of the time, they do, and their experiences (i.e. their lines) give order to the void’s blood spatter. Every so often, however, some taciturn prick decides to intentionally stall the entire production, creating the phenomenon known as “writer’s block.”

I am obligated at this point to mention that anyone who has an issue with that last sentence is welcome to get off of his or her computer, tablet, or mobile device and begin breathing into the nearest paper bag or suitable equivalent*, preferably far away from the rest of us because it’s a rather rude distraction (don’t glare at me; it’s bad for the eyes (yours and mine)). With that out of the way, no, I am not referring to stage fright. Yes, stage fright is common throughout the play of life, but not in assault scenes. These scenes are watched exclusively by content creators and provide the basis for every form of content. Writers transcribe them. Filmmakers record them. Artists transform them.

The actors and actresses know this. They forge the weapons used in the creators’ own assaults against their own voids. Without these weapons, there are no assaults, and without assaults, there is no content. Without content, there is no hobby and/or livelihood. The failure of an actor or actress to deliver his or her lines is not only an inconvenience for his or her peers, but it is also an act of contempt toward the audience. Therefore, anyone who commits such an egregious act is considered to be a “taciturn prick” (are the paper bags still nearby?) because, as I said, it’s intentional.

I could go on, but that is all the time I have today, unfortunately. I need to get the crew ready to go help some other poor soul do something productive with his or her time. Before I do, I am obligated to remind everyone that although any questions, comments, or concerns relating to this content should be relayed to its creator, the opinions, phrasing, and whatnot belong to Mr. Samuel Bernard Mayhew. It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance.


 

*Mayhew originally instructed people to gouge out their eyes and puncture their eardrums so they could “never be offended by anything,” but he told me the remark was from an earlier draft of the script.

 

Inmate #005: Aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown (CV-10)

Note: I am not and do not claim to be an expert on aircraft identification. If I have mislabeled something, please let me know.

I would like to say that I was initially interested in the U.S.S. Yorktown because its name reminded me of where Lord Cornwallis surrendered to colonial and French forces in 1781, concluding the last major conflict before the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. Unfortunately, this post isn’t in the fiction category, so I must admit that I knew nothing about the Yorktown prior to seeing it early Tuesday afternoon.

Most of what I saw is documented in the photographs below (click each for a larger size), excluding a flight simulator, the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum, and a replica of the Apollo 8 Command Module, which simulates the launch and landing of the spacecraft. That particular experience was slightly uncomfortable and much too short, but overall, visiting the Yorktown was more than worthwhile.


 


 

As a bonus, the following is a view of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge with the F/A-18 Hornet and what I believe is the Grumman WF-2 (E-1) Tracer in the foreground:

Inmate #004: “Consequences”

They dance in the valley sometimes, clothed in the ashes of the wind. Have you ever seen the wind burn? The scent is not unlike that of a rose. Does that make sense? The confusion in your eyes is sharp, like shattered glass. You have not tasted their gaze. Of course not. You are not one of the anointed.

What am I talking about? Who am I? Who are “they”? Am I insane? My, you are inquisitive. That is admirable. Not to me, you understand, but to them. If I were you, I would consider that a blessing. Why? How? More questions. Have you always been this inquisitive, or are you so because you are here with me now? Inquiring minds want to know. Ha! They already know, of course. I just thought that would be fun to say.

Anyway, you are not the first to come here, and you will not be the last. You are only being told this information because, as I said, they admire you. That is an honor of a magnitude you will unfortunately never be able to fathom. I hope that was not too dramatic. It was? My apologies for giving you the impression that your opinion was of any value.

Now, now. There is no need to fret. It will have value if you earn their respect, and I am confident you will do that soon enough. Hmm? Get to the point? So bold! I love it! Our time together is for your benefit, but if you care nothing for yourself, I am more than happy to turn you over to them. Alternatively, you can stay here until they take you. Either way, your fate is ultimately theirs to decide. Your choice helps determine what happens once they do. I advise you to make it while you still have the privilege.

…So be it.


 

There is the slightest hint of disappointment in your eyes as you turn from the naked, broken organism suspended before you. Its pale, wrinkled flesh is devoid of hair but riddled with scars. Its chest heaves with every breath as it struggles in vain against restraints around its neck, wrists, and ankles, restraints that only you can see.

Before they came, you were like this organism, this human. You led an inconsequential life for years. When they came, you thought they took that life from you. They offered you a choice, and once that choice was made, you realized instead that they took you from that life. You became one of the anointed, sworn to carry out their will through your own. In exchange, they gave you a glimpse into their perception of your world, a perception that exposed limitations you did not know you or your species had.

Five hundred years have passed, and that perception is no more alien to you than they are. Humans and their ilk are the aliens now. Most have been exterminated, but the most intelligent among them are offered a choice. It is the same choice you were offered, and it is the same choice you offered this human.

In the distance, the dust-filled sky above the valley begins to darken from its normally muted blue. When it is darker than the darkest night you have ever seen, it undulates. A signal. With a wave of your hand, the still-restrained human is suddenly and violently thrust toward and into that darkness. Its screams may as well be the buzzing of a fly. Seconds later, it falls toward the ground below but is intercepted at the last moment by an eastern breeze. As this breeze carries the human deep into the valley and beyond your field of vision, a faint but sweet aroma soon reaches your nose.

 

Inmate #003: Making the most of Super Mario Maker

It has been almost three months since Nintendo released  Super Mario Maker in celebration of the 30th anniversary of introducing a potent “Italian plumber” virus into the Japanese home console ecosystem and exploiting its ability to quickly replicate and mutate in order to eventually achieve global domination Super Mario Bros. 

In that time, over three million courses have been uploaded by long-time Mario series fans and newcomers of all ages. New courses are uploaded daily, and a recent update added even more, resulting in an essentially limitless experience. To help anyone picking up Super Mario Maker for the first time, what follows are suggestions for creating and playing courses that can potentially enrich that experience.

 Creation

With so many options available to use when creating a course, it is tempting to use as many of those options as possible in a single course. However, regardless of the type of course planned, the number of elements used is less important than ensuring that the elements are used well, at least if you want people to not only play your levels but also to enjoy playing them.

To accomplish this, introduce them to players gradually. Experiment, but allow players the opportunity to familiarize themselves with each element and its role in your course so that they are prepared if and when that element is used in more complex or difficult situations.

Testing should be done extensively throughout the creation process. Much of that testing involves determining how modifying a course affects the experience of playing through it. That said, sometimes creators fail to realize that they can also test their own abilities in addition to those of potential players.

Perfecting mechanics such as wall-jumping in New Super Mario Bros. U is more bearable in an environment of your own making because you can do so in different situations at will. This not only prepares you for similar situations in others’ courses, but it also prevents the need to cheat in order to clear and upload your own courses (e.g. hiding a door that leads directly to the goal).

Play

Wading into the sea of courses Super Mario Maker has to offer can seem overwhelming at times, but much like Minecraft, it becomes more approachable when you have a specific purpose in mind.

At the moment, the only way to find a specific course you want to play is to enter its course ID (fortunately, that will change this month). Watching people play courses on Twitch or YouTube and/or following people on social media is an efficient means of obtaining course IDs if you know which course or courses you want to play.

If you do not know which specific course(s) you want to play, you can identify the style in which a course was created by the game title displayed in the top left corner of a course’s listing. Playing courses in a specific style can help you become familiar with mechanics you may not have seen before or help you adjust to mechanics unique to Super Mario Maker.

The 100-Mario challenge mode is perfect for those looking for something resembling a traditional Mario platforming game, at least if played in moderation. The unpredictability of the mode resulting from every course being random can be exciting, but that unpredictability can mar the experience if you are accustomed to courses of a certain level of quality.

Even so, it provides an opportunity to learn or even change your course preferences. Knowing those, you can more easily identify courses that you are likely to enjoy before you play them, a skill that is essential if the game is to have any longevity for you, especially if you are not inclined to create and share courses of your own.

Additional Advice

  • Download courses that interest you as you play and view them in the course editor to see how they are designed or to practice playing through portions that you are having trouble completing.
  • Refer to this booklet if you are away from the game and in need of inspiration.
  • Your courses are not set in stone. Feel free to edit them to try new ideas or replace them as your skills improve.
  • Take the time to comment on others’ courses. Whether it is a feature you like or an issue you find, let the creator know. He or she is more likely to do the same for you.
  • Have fun!

 

 

 

Inmate #002: A Poetic Summary of Survivor Series

Atlanta was hot, or so JBL thought

As Goldust returned, and Neville crashed and burned.

Mex-America was humbled before Roman’s might.

Though he lost to the Fringe, KO put up quite a fight.

The king was dethroned, the New Day’s departure bemoaned

By the Laoch, who succumbed to a triple onslaught.

 

Creative backpedaled on Reid (hardly erasing the deed),

Charlotte’s brief spat ended when Paige tapped on the mat,

And Prince Pretty won against Ziggler in his pay-per-view debut.

Unfortunately for him, the crowd’s reaction was subdued.

Destruction took a backseat to Fear’s and Desolation’s crushing defeat

By two brothers united in the fire and darkness they bleed.

 

Two others clashed, and many hopes were dashed.

Roman “reigned,” and the Game congratulations feigned.

Swift, forceful kicks to the jaw left Roman on his back.

Trading gold for gold, the Laoch went on the attack.

On a colorful bed, Roman’s dreams were (temporarily?) dead,

And with that, wrestling fans threw a few hours in the trash.