Hey! It looks like you're new here. You might want to check out the introduction.

No Prompt! Have Fun! · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
To Make a Choice
The first thing to know about Cousin Ken was to never stare at his scars or he’d break your fingers. Dav learned this when he stared at Cousin Ken’s scars and he broke his fingers.

“He’s sensitive,” Brendam explained, as Dav crawled out of the house. “You should go away and never come back.”

But Dav didn’t go away. He looked down, and tried his hardest not to cry. He’d spent too much time looking for Cousin Ken to go away after just a look.

Brendam didn’t care for his tears. “Wait here,” he said, as he opened the door to Cousin Ken’s house. “He needs me. I’ll apologize on your behalf, and then he’ll call the hospital so they fix your hand immediately. Then you’ll leave.”

Dav didn’t reply.

Cousin Ken’s house wasn’t a mansion, even though it should have been. It was small, and wooden, and full of shadows. The blinds were all closed, the door had no glass. Dav lived in a castle made of gold, full of light and wealth—and he knew why. Cousin Ken had created, all alone, the family riches. And yet, he lived in misery.

It didn’t make sense… at first. But now, as Dav waited for Brendam to come out, looking at the holes in the walls, the unkempt garden, the filth on the side of the road, Dav felt the pain, like hot needles going upwards, from his hand all the way to his shoulder. His beautiful face darkened with a frown. The house made sense now.

If that thing inside—and Dav remembered the scars, running from the forehead to the very base of the neck, turning the face into a lumpy mess of flesh and red tissue. He remembered the short arms and the misshapen back, how it looked like a crumbling, broken mountain—had really been Cousin Ken, he fit the house perfectly.

But still, it didn’t make sense why he would want to live this way.

“Good. You waited.”

Brendam got out and closed the door behind him. Dav wanted to get in again, to talk with Cousin Ken—even if his hand still hurt—but just a look at Brendam’s face told him what was best for him. Part of him disliked being ordered around by what was almost a complete stranger, but he knew Brendam, or at least, he knew his reputation. He was, famously, Cousin Ken’s caretaker and only friend.

Dav swallowed. “Look, I’m sorry, I—I didn’t know…”

“I apologized for you.”

“I shouldn’t have stared, I—”

“You shouldn’t have come here.” Brendam took Dav’s hand and examined it. “You knew this would happen.”

“I didn’t!”

“And yet, you came.”

“I didn’t know!”

Dav yanked his hand from Brendam’s grip, causing him to flinch and look at him, really look at him, for the first time. “My God,” Brendam said, and his voice sweetened. “How old are you?”

“Mother told me not to come,” Dav said, looking off to the side. “She… I had no idea this was going to…” He shivered. “Was that really him?”

Brendam gave him a soft smile. “You poor kid. You really didn’t know.” He nudged him, so they would walk together down the street. “That was, indeed, the man you know as Cousin Ken.”

“But he can’t be!”

“Oh, can’t he?”

The sky seemed to clear when the house disappeared in the distance. Birds started singing again. The air smelled fresher. They walked faster.

“And how did you imagine him, then, kid? Suit and tie, a handsome face? A great mansion, people lining up by his door? A powerful man?”

“Yes! How can he look like that? He’s a—a monster! Why hasn’t he fixed his face, his—”

Brendam walked with his hands linked behind his back, and he shot Dav an unreadable stare. “Kid…”


“David.” Brendam nodded. “Did you think your cousin was happy?”


“Exactly. No great man was ever happy, David. Ever.” His eyes sparkled. “And you know why?”

Dav didn't reply.

“Because misery, David, misery breeds genius,” Brendam said. He was looking up front, face completely expressionless. “Try to imagine, if you can, a man who would give it all to invent a machine that creates perfection. A device that builds beauty. Wouldn’t that be an ugly man?”

A grunt. Dav was young, yes, but old enough to recognize condescendence. “I don’t see how that’s relevant. Cousin Ken didn’t need to be like that.”

“Didn’t he? I believe he did. Necessity is the backbone of invention. We don’t look for the things we don’t miss.” A sigh escaped Brendam’s lungs. “Thanks to Ken, David, you will walk into that hospital, you will step in that wonderful room full of mirrors, and you will get your bones mended. Your wounds will disappear without stitches, your scars will fade away.”

“Yes.” The words were hard in Dav’s throat. “I know what Cousin Ken invented.”

“And I’m trying to tell you why he invented it. Why he had to invent it. Why he’s the only one who could invent it—because that was his dream. That was what he needed, all his life. A room full of mirrors, and what you see in them is a misshapen, hurt creature… but then the reflection changes. And the hurt goes away.” He pointed at Dav's hand. “How long will it take them to cure this? A minute? Two?”

“I don’t know.”

Something in his voice made Brendam stop. He looked doubtful, now. His lips pursed. “I’m not trying to humiliate you. I’m… sorry. Ken is dear to me, and—I’m sorry. I just don’t know how much you know.”

“I know what you’re telling me. That Cousin Ken invented that thing.” Dav raised his swollen hand. The fingers were twisted, like claws. “The thing that can fix this.”

“Yes.” Brendam continued his walk. “But do you know how it works?”

“It… fixes you.”

“No. It doesn’t ‘fix’ anything. Fixing implies solving a problem, restoring what’s wrong. What Ken made, it just…” Brendam swept his hand to the side. “Changes it. But it doesn’t fix it.”

Dav frowned. He was young, his hand hurt, and he didn’t want to admit it. “I don’t understand.”

“Hmm. Ken grew up looking at the mirror,” Brendam said, “and wishing that somebody would take away the bad. The wrong. The ugly. I think he wondered who was responsible, or why it had to be this way.”

“Okay. So he went and invented a way to fix that.” Dav couldn’t help the frustration creeping to his voice again. “But then why didn’t he fix himself after that was done? Why does he still look like that?” The picture of Cousin Ken, his back and his arms and his face, it all came back to him, and he shivered again. “He can get rid of the scars, and the lump in his back, and… everything. So why?”

Brendam wasn’t smiling. “Don’t you think he tried?”

This made Dav stop.


“He created a machine to fix himself. You think him a monster, don’t you?” Brendam’s hands, still linked behind his back, tightened. His knuckles went white. “You’re scared of him. Imagine being him. Being disgusted by what you see in the mirror, knowing everybody thinks the same... Do you really believe he didn’t try to solve his problem after he invented the machine?”

“The… It didn’t work on him?” Dav felt a pressure on his chest. “It didn’t…?”

“It’s…” Brendam took a deep breath. “It’s a little hard to explain. I’m trying to put into words. Maybe you should think of it as choices, David.”

Dav blinked. “Choices?”

“Yes. That’s how the machine works. Your life, what you are, what you see around you? It was created by choices. Everything you do, everything you say, everything you think, is a choice. Choices change the world. They shape reality.” He pointed at the street. “What if I pushed you in front of a car right now? You would die. What if I didn’t? You wouldn’t.” His eyes flared. “It’s a choice.”

Dav tried to think about it. “Okay.”

Brendam saw through the façade. “Hmm. Every time you do something.” He snapped his fingers. “Bam. The world changes. But what if you hadn’t done it? What if you had chosen another option? Then the world would be different, a little bit.”

“So everything I do changes the world,” Dav said. “If only a little. That’s what you mean?”

“Not just your choices. Everybody’s choices. And what about the things that we don’t choose, like the things left to luck? A coin that lands on tails instead of heads. A mutation that doesn’t happen. A car that stops in time.” Brendam closed his eyes. “Do you follow me?”

“Yes, I think.”

“Good. And in some hypothetical universe, in some reality that’s not our own, your choice might have been different. And in a third one, something else changes. Imagine infinite realities, and each one can be the same, or completely unlike our own. Because every time there’s a choice, there's a chance.”

This made Dav stop to think. He remembered all the times he’d been to the hospital for a minor cut or a small wound. He remembered the room with mirrors on the walls, the room that held the machine Cousin Ken had invented so many years ago.

When you stepped in that room, and the lights turned on, you could see your reflection, and your reflection’s reflection, and so on. You could see infinite versions of you. Infinite Davids.

Dav muttered “Oh”.

“Get it? Every choice, every chance. That means that everything that can be possible is possible… Somewhere else. In a different reality.” Brendam ran a hand through his long hair. “In another world, I could be a woman. Why not? But everything else, it would be the same. Or absolutely different. Or I could be dead.”

Dav nodded. “So the machine creates that. It…” he frowned. “It makes anything because it could have happened. It works by… It takes every, every possible choice, and then it… makes it real?”

“Maybe. Maybe it calculates every possibility, and then indeed makes it a reality. Or maybe it reaches somewhere we can’t see, and takes what it needs from that universe where things didn’t go the same way. What matters is, it doesn’t fix any of your problems. It just puts them away, swaps them for something else. Something better.”

Dav thought, again, about the infinite Davids. At first they would be exactly like you knew you were. But then the machine would turn on, and then there would be a humming noise, and the reflections would all change. Slowly, at first, but then they would go faster.

And little by little, as they changed, you would change, too. The blood would go away, the pain would disappear…

“So the machine chooses?” he asked. “How can it know what’s a better choice?”

“Oh, it doesn’t. That’s the doctors, I’d say. They…” Brendam shrugged. “They calculate, and pick the best for you. A healthier version” A side glance. “A more beautiful one. Do you think you were born like that?”

Dav laughed. He couldn’t help it. “No,” he said. “I was… I’ve seen pictures. I had the funniest nose.”

Brendam chuckled. “But you don’t, know. You’re beautiful. We all are.” He sighed. “That’s what Ken gave us all. The chance to pick. The ability to get the best of all possible works. Swap your broken wrist for a healthy one, the face of a human for the face of an angel.”

Dav nodded. He’d never thought of it this way, like choices, but he didn’t see that much of a difference. Fixing or changing for something better, it was all the same. “And… it didn’t work for Cousin Ken?”

A pause. They were close to the hospital now, really close. Dav knew the city like the palm of his throbbing, hurting hand.

“That’s the worst part,” Brendam said. “It did. The machine didn’t fail.”

Dav frowned. “What?”

“The machine didn’t fail. When your cousin went in, the machine worked perfectly. They calculated every possibility.” Brendam looked at Dav. “He couldn’t change.”

The words seemed to have an echo, a particular weight. Dav felt them on his stomach, and remembered the look in Cousin Ken’s eyes.

He swallowed. “How? How is that…?”

“Possible? Feasible?” Brendam asked. There was a smile on his face, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “It shouldn’t be. If I chose to push you in front of a car, you should die. If I chose to dye my hair, it should be red. But with Cousin Ken, that doesn’t work. No matter what he does, no matter what anyone does, no matter what happens, he’s the same. All the paths lead the same way. Everything leads up to him, and the bad never goes away.”


“It’s worse than that. You see, when he discovered this, when he saw that he was always the same broken man across all the universes, he got the scars.”

Dav’s eyes got wide. His neck itched. “The scars in his face?”

“Hmm.” Brendam scratched his nose, rubbed his own forehead. “He wasn’t born with them. They’re homemade, in his words. A fit of rage. Inevitable, really.” His voice dropped. “Literally, inevitable.”

“But he could have—”

“He couldn’t. Don’t you see it? All of them—all the Cousin Kens, in every single reality, they all found out. They discovered they couldn’t be changed. And they got the scars.” Another deep breath. “All of them, no matter what they chose, were driven to get those scars, at the same time. He created the machine, and it just made it all worse.


Dav thought about his mother.

Thanks to her, Dav had known of Cousin Ken all his life, but still, he’d always been a mystery. Everything his family had said about him was that Cousin Ken had to be left alone.

They were in front of the hospital doors now. Dav looked at Brendam. “But if everything is possible, and if you can pick anything…”

“Then at least one reality should be different, but yet, here we are. Arguing about this won’t change anything. He has the scars. He’ll always have the scars.”

Dav looked down. “And I stared at them.”

“And so he broke your fingers. He was really sorry,” Brendam said. “But, you need to understand that, for him… Well. You can always fix your hand, can you? But he can’t fix his face.”

They stood in silence for a moment. Dav, looking down. Brendam, looking at Dav.

Then Dav talked. “Mother doesn’t like to talk about Cousin Ken.”

A blink. Brendam tilted his head to the side. “Oh?”

“Nobody really does. They told me to avoid him,” Dav continued. “I thought they hated him. But…”


Dav made his best to choose his words. “I… My mother. She’s really pretty now. But when she was younger, she wasn’t as much. And now she says she’ll never come here.”

“Ah.” Brendam looked to the side. “Of course.”

The scars. The short arms. The misshapen back. Dav wondered if they hurt. If they hurt as much as his hand, for example. He talked like one talks in a dream. “He shouldn’t be this unhappy.”

This made Brendam frown. “Excuse me?”

“Cousin Ken. He shouldn’t be this unhappy.” Dav looked at Brendam eye to eye. “He can’t fix himself, but he helped a lot of people. He saved a lot of lives. He should be happy about it.”

Brendam arched an eyebrow. “Are you an optimist, David?”

“I don’t know.”

“See, that’s the thing. It was a trick question.” Brendam squinted. “Nobody is an optimist. You need to decide if you want to be one, and then make an effort. Ken made it possible to fix everybody but himself. He made our lives better. And you know what?”

Dav took a step back.

“Maybe some people would enjoy that.” Brendam’s voice was sweet with anger. “Maybe somebody would love the chance to be a hero, to sacrifice themselves for humanity. And maybe they’d be optimistic about it, and bathe in their own altruism.

“But see, that’s a choice. You need to choose to be a hero, or perhaps to be an optimist. But Ken? That was something he couldn’t do. He never had a choice. Because there’s one truth, and one truth only—no matter what, no matter how, Ken suffers. Good afternoon, David.”

And with that, Brendam turned around and left.
« Prev   15   Next »
#1 · 3
· · >>Aragon
15 – To Make a Choice

Awwww, yiss. Finally, a good hook! Author, you've got me. Now let's see if you can keep me.

Descriptions are solid, and contributing to characterization and tone (at least, maybe more). The paragraph on the houses is a great piece. Biggest complaint early on is the overabundance of he's and him's. It makes following the flow of the story dashed difficult in places, trying to figure out which of the three male characters in the beginning is doing what. (Honestly, I think one of the best reasons for strong female characters in fiction is because writing is so much easier when you're flipping between he's and she's.)

This is moving at a very nice clip. It's doing a good job dropping just enough information to leave you questioning, wanting to know more. I think this could get tightened up a bit in editing, but this is a very solid start you've got here, author. ("Condescendence" isn't a word, though.)

Neal Stephenson's Anathem is one of my all-time favorite books, and it looks like the technology here is going exactly where that story went with Fraa Jad. This excites me. At the same time I know this story is only a couple thousand words long, so it can't do too much with that idea.

There's not a lot of surprise here, but this is a genre of story I'm pretty familiar with (and love). There is a lot to talk about, but I think I may skip past that and let other people start those conversations after they read it. I think the reason Ken can't change is pretty obvious, and I think the author is quite intentionally laying the seed for that in the middle of the text, though I'll be a litle curious what other people say. There's an interesting larger issue of what's really happening with this technology, too—and I've got my own metaphysical interpretation on that (which, yes, owes a lot to Anathem). But that's very extratextual, and at that point we're all just speculating about the story world rather than authorial intent.

Which I'm fine with.

Okay, final verdict. This is far and away the best story I've read in my first five. It's a little hard to judge whether that puts it at Solid or Top Contender. I'm going to edge toward Top Contender here, though—because this is so much of the stuff I love; because despite being a nearly pure idea story, it's still got a lot of solid characterization and a nice, simple frame story; and because at the end I find myself thinking about the world described a lot more than I'm thinking about what the author did here. Those are all signs of a very good story to me.

Excellent job, author.

HORSE: ▉▉▉▉▉▉▉▉▉▉▉▉▉▉▉▉▉▉▉▉
TIER: Top Contender
#2 · 1
· · >>Aragon
This had a great hook, and was a fun read. God, you people and your literary nature. Second one in a row. Always making me feel like a pretender.

Anyway, I liked the central idea of this – the machine that makes you better. Or, more like, possibly steals better from elsewhere. I was expecting Ken to not be able to change because otherwise the machine wouldn’t exist, and I’m still not sure if that is right or not, but the conclusion seems to indicate a sort of fatalism in the form of Cousin Ken, as he can’t be any different, refuses to be. Or maybe he’s locked into this reality because he built the machine.

The machine itself is an interesting and rather fun idea, though I’m still not sure at the end whether or not it is supposed to be a sinister thing or not – the implications of his mother not wanting to go there anymore indicates that the thing may well be stealing you from other realities, at least in some way, and she’s realized its true nature.

The biggest disappointment, though, is that Dav never really explains why he was there. Was he there to cheer up Ken? I think making that a bit more explicit might have been good.

All in all, I liked this, but I felt like it tried to be a bit too ambiguous about what it was trying to do.
#3 · 1
· · >>Aragon
That hook is great, but it was thrown off by the ambiguous pronouns. Bit of a mixed first note.

Huge chunks of expository dialogue surrounding pseudo-science didn't really do a whole lot for me here.

Just guessing, but the answer to why Ken can't change himself seems like this; in the worlds where Ken doesn't look like that, the machine never got made.

On the whole, this is fairly well written, but it's also fairly… straightforward, unidirectional, and simplistic, without taking any unforeseen turns or reaching a conclusion that surprises or satisfies me. To me, Brendam feels like a mouthpiece, and David feels like an audience stand-in, making this feel annoyingly audience-directed. In the end, I'm not sure if this story is about David or Ken, and I'm not sure whether what's happened here really means anything to either of them. And that leaves me feeling like you haven't really finished the story.

So, this is well-written, but I'm not seeing much in the way of actual plot or meaningful emotion here. Ken's plight is the highlight, I'd say, but even that seems fairly pointless in the end, because it just seems kinda held up for examination, and not truly acted on. Also... never had a choice? I find that doubtful, honestly. There are people IRL who've had harder lots, accomplished less, and been happier with it, so that rings awfully hollow to me.
#4 · 4
· · >>Bradel >>Aragon
This was an idea story, not a character story, and I'm fine with that. It's a style I appreciate even if it is a lot less common today than it was in the '60.

Here we get an interesting idea, a couple of implications, a few bare-bone yet functional characters, a handful of rules and then a gentle invitation at discussing the thing. No real answers are given but I think they are not needed.

This kind of story is fuel for discussions.

It entertained me, but I think it'll need to establish a few more rules to have a certain punch.

Wild guessing and spoilers ahead:

I currently see a few possible explanations for how the machine works, the one I think the most probable being also the not horrible one.

First theory (the most probable one IMHO)
The machine only works across universes with other machines. Which means it copies the positive traits as it doesn't seem like people getting random wounds from other universes switching parts with them. In this case Ken's condition seems to be the prerequisite for the machine coming into existence, which means that there is no better template for him to use. Here we have a positive sum game and really nothing horrible going on.

Second theory
Universes with the machine switch parts (only physical parts, minds seem to stay) with other, machine-less universes. Ken's condition is a universal constant. We have lucky universes preying on less-lucky ones. This one requires some hand-waving to explain Ken's uniqueness and is, I think, less elegant than others.

There are probably a lot more possible permutations of all the elements, but this two are the main ones I thought up.

To summarize: nice idea, interesting concept, good writing, needs something more to really shine, being it strong characters or some hints on what is really going on.
#5 · 2
Since we're getting into wild speculation:

So I generally agree with your first theory, and I think the author clearly laid seeds for that.

I've got this weird ancillary theory though, that relies on a bit of my own metaphysical thinking. I think of us as all occupying a possibility space as described here, but I don't think of the whole "mirror image worlds" as representing actual different instantiations of us. I think we exist across a space of possibilities, but our minds organize that information in such a way that we really only perceive ourselves in one particular part of that possibility space. All the "mirror world" versions of us aren't separate at all, they're parts of what's literally our own body, spread out over a couple extra dimensions, and that we have a hard time perceiving accurately.

So the thing I find really freaky here is that, under this multiverse interpretation, what Cousin Ken's device is really doing is shunting everyone's perception into a particular reduced subset of possibilities. If the possibility space is infinite in an undiminishable way, that probably not a big deal. But if the possibility space has some sort of achievable limit on it (e.g. if the reduction factor created by the device is large enough), everyone's eventually going to start having Cousin Ken's problem and free will may go out the window, because there simply aren't enough universes left that people's consciousness can habitate in. I find this a rather scary and fun potential consequence.

Yes, I'm probably a little bit of a crazy person.
#6 · 1
· · >>Aragon
Clever hook, and the story got moving quickly. Clean writing; I was never distracted from the message.

Character-wise, while they could have been developed more, they were enough to get the job done; the main star here was the idea, and it was an interesting one. You wove a lot of implications and dark hints that really stimulated the imagination.

While what there was is already solid, it feels like there is still some untapped potential here. Even as the story ended it felt like we were standing on the cusp of a deeper reveal.

For example, given how much talk there was about choice, and the the underlying themes of understanding Ken and the dark implications hinted about the machine, I was almost expecting Dav to come to some sort of realization and decide against having his fingers fixed, or that he might have an epiphany would prevent it from working on him anymore. I could also easily see Dav making a later visit with Ken and seeing just how much deeper this rabbit hole goes.

Overall an engrossing and well written story, but one that I felt didn’t fully explore the scope of its idea.
#7 ·
I think I'm going to stop giving numbered scores for stories and full reviews. I don't really have the time and energy for that and I don't know the best way to review short stories. Judging by my performance in previous writeoffs I rarely know how to write them.

Sorry if this sounds selfish, but everyone's reactions to this story made me very jealous of your ability.
#8 · 1
· · >>Aragon
This is another one that seems to me to be dragged down by a sudden gearshift in the middle of the story. Unlike The Necromancer's Wife, though, it shifts gears down. There's a burst of initial action (and a great hook), followed by some wider context and setting up of conflicts, and then the actions just sorta stops as Brendam and Dav take a walk and Brendam lectures him on mirror-universe theory for a while. That part really dragged for me, but I'm a pretty sci-fi-literate guy and the concept is old hat to me, so for general audiences like the Writeoff you may have been better served giving that explanation anyhow.

Where you unambiguously could have improved it was to thread that exposition together with something else occurring so that the scene served two purposes at once. Right now it feels like the story sort of goes on hold while the premise is explained. What if the walk to the hospital was so short that Dav started getting his fingers fixed while Brendam was telling him how it worked? That actually could kick off an interesting conflict of its own -- suddenly Dav's then confronted with the ethics of having basically just stolen mended fingers from some other Dav in some other universe. (You could do this with the current story, too, by having him face that choice as he reaches the hospital and deciding whether to go in or not -- but that wouldn't give a second purpose to the exposition scene. In fact, that's where I thought this story was going, but it stops before it gets there, so it doesn't really feel like this reaches the end of its story arc to me. Even leaving the answer to that question hanging would have worked to some extent, but you only ever really ask it by implication, so the story feels like it's just introducing an idea that I already knew and asking me to think about consequences I'm already well familiar with.)

So, yeah. Fantastic setup. Bring everything else up to the standards of that first scene or two.

Tier: Almost There
#9 · 4
Right, I gotta make a wrap-up for this. Ahem:




Yo. Yooooo--


--OOOoooaaaw shit.

Yeah that about wraps it up.

I'm so good at this.

Anyway -- thanks for taking the time to comment, guys. Awesome reviews, they meant a lot to me. You really made me think about what to do to improve this bit. Barely had time to write it, but still, I wish I'd had more time to develop it before the writeoff.

Oh well. At least now I have a really clear idea on what to do, which means you guys sorta did my work for me. Hahah. I didn't even pay you.