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The Grass isn't Greener · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
Bits and Bites
"Reginald, you malodorous fiend!" Polly's breasts heaved against the tight-laced bodice of her gown, strategic rips among the laces making everything involved seem to bulge even more. "You shan't get away with this!"

Reg stared down at her. The railroad tracks, the pleasant burn in his fingers from the rope he'd used to tie her down, the full moon casting melodramatic shadows among the jagged rocks, it was all as perfect as always. But...

When had he last seen the actual moon?

Polly was going on. "You may threaten me, you may abuse me, you may have your filthy, filthy way with me, but I will never reveal the secret Daddy entrusted to my safekeeping!"

A train whistle sounded in the distance. With a sigh, Reg turned away and said, "Afghanistan banana stand."

Everything froze, then faded to the matte gray of sim disconnection. Reginald gave another sigh, pulled the headset off, and set it carefully in its stand beside his recliner.

"Reg?" Polly sat up in her own recliner to his right, the helmet giving her head a sort of robot insect look. Her gloved hands lifted the helmet off, her salt-and-pepper hair squished at the temples from the set's pineal stimulators, and her chocolate-brown eyes blinked at him. "Are you all right? What happened?"

His mind a jumble, Reg couldn't find any words. But with the creases on Polly's brow getting deeper as second after second of silence ticked by, Reg forced himself to say the first thing that came to mind. "We never talk."

Polly did some more blinking. "Talk?"

"I mean—" He waved a hand at cream-colored walls of their VR chamber, the consoles and the couches and the counters and the conduits all state-of-the-art or close to it. "This stuff's great, of course. But—" Still not sure what he was trying to say, he shook his head. "Can we maybe take a night off?"

"Well, sure." With practiced ease, she hung up her helmet, slipped off her gloves, and shimmied out of her black external suit. "That whole 'tied to the train tracks' scenario's no fun unless we're both into it anyway." She was already pulling her bathrobe on over her white, skin-tight inner suit before Reg had managed to get his gloves detached, but then ever since he'd first met her in high school forty-odd years ago, she'd always been better at handling technology than him. "There anything in particular you want to talk about?"

Looking at her, the same woman he'd fallen in love with despite the wrinkles on her face, Reg had to catch his breath. "Let's go out," he said.

Polly cocked her head. "Out?"

"To a restaurant." Reg peeled off one leg of his external suit, then shifted to peel off the other. "For dinner."

"Huh." She touched a finger to her upper lip. "I take it you're not talking about them delivering the food, then us going into their sim to eat it?"

Reg snorted, standing and grabbing his own robe. "No sims." Now that he'd had a minute to get used to the idea, he found himself liking it more and more. "Let's go out and sit in someone else's space and eat their food and pay them for it!"

"Kinky." A sideways smile curled along her face. "It'll be like when we were in college." She snapped her fingers. "Oh! We'll need clothes, won't we?"

Those took a while to find, but Reg didn't mind at all. Polly got a little frisky trying on the various outfits she'd tucked away in their bedroom closet, and they ended up making love outside of VR with just themselves in their bed for the first time in years.

They lay pleasantly tangled together afterwards till their stomachs growled nearly in unison. Polly laughed. "Weren't we going out to dinner?"

"Well?" Reg blew a little breath along the side of her neck so he could watch the fine hairs behind her ears stand up. "If some of us could keep our hands to ourselves..."

She elbowed him gently in the ribs. "I'd forgotten how sticky it is, doing this without a skin suit." Standing, she stretched and started for the bathroom. "I'll shower, then dress, then we'll be off."

He watched her go, thought about forgetting it all, plugging in, checking the news, falling asleep...

But no. Sticking out a leg, he felt around till he found the floor, pushed himself out onto it, padded naked down the hall to the guest bathroom—when had they last had physical guests over?—splashed himself off, and squeezed a middle that had expanded a bit since his college days into the jeans and black t-shirt Polly had found for him. Tonight was about breaking routines, he'd decided somewhere along the line, not getting sucked back into them.

By the time he got back to the bedroom, Polly had on her own jeans and a dark, fluffy, pullover sweater. "They were advertising the fall VR fashions on the sim, so it might be a little chilly out."

"Chili." Reg crooked a finger at her. "Pol, you're a genius. That'll be just the thing."

Rolling her eyes, she kicked her booted feet at a couple shoes sitting in the carpet. "Be a genius yourself and put these on, too, okay?"

"Wait a minute." He sat, bent over, and reached into the shoes. "Are you telling me you found—" Digging out a pair of argyle socks, he gave a low whistle. "Did we really used to use all this rigging all the time?"

Polly tugged at her sweater. "I don't remember clothes being this itchy."

Reg tugged on the socks and couldn't manage to ignore the doubts that wrinkled cold along his back. "Maybe if we wore our skin suits underneath?"

"What for?" She spread her hands. "Without the sim set, they'd just be long underwear. And some of us—" Bringing her hands down to her hips, she struck a pose out of some glam sim. "—are much too cool for such fogeyness."

Wrestling with the shoelaces, he arched an eyebrow at her. "Only old people use the word 'fogey.'"

She folded her arms. "First, I'm a century past what they used to think of as old, thank you very much. And second, I used 'fogeyness,' not 'fogey.'" She stuck her tongue out. "You're always so imprecise."

For a moment, he considered leaping up and getting into a tongue wrestling match with her, but for all that the rejuve treatments had kept him pretty spry, leaping hadn't really been in the cards for quite a while now. Instead, he finished with the shoes, stood, and gestured to the bedroom door. "Our night on the town awaits."

It took both of them to remember the unlock code to get the front door open, and they stepped out into an exceedingly gray hallway. Reg nodded to the doors of their neighbors, all exactly the same except for the number stamped near the top, as they moved past them toward the elevators. "How many heart attacks you think we'd cause if we started knocking?"

Scowling what he recognized as her phoniest scowl, she nudged him in the ribs. "And you wonder why I keep making you play the mustache-twirling villain."

At the elevator, it surprised Reg to see that their building apparently had forty-five stories. "We're on nine, right? And didn't that used to be the top floor?"

Polly rubbed her chin. "I think I saw something in the sim a couple decades ago about the city expanding upward." She shrugged, and the elevator pinged.

The doors slid open; they stepped inside, and Reg poked the L button. "That's for the lobby, right?"

"Unless they've changed the alphabet."

He pointed his impression of her phony scowl at her. She rolled her eyes and scowled back so fiercely, he let himself wince back against the side of the elevator car. She gave a triumphant nod, and then the doors were pinging again.

They opened to reveal a large empty space, the walls and floor the same gray as upstairs. For an instant, Reg thought there wasn't anything else, but then he spied a single small doorway in the center of the far wall.

"Huh." More than a few second thoughts poking at him, Reg peered out of the elevator just far enough to look around. "Not much in the way of decoration, is there?"

"Well?" Polly brushed past him and headed across the lobby toward the door. "No one ever sees it but the delivery people."

Reg followed. "So maybe they'd like something nice to look at." He waved at all the grayness. "Seems to me they used have a sofas and tables and a concierge desk and potted plants and...I don't know. Something, at least!"

"We did," a deep but quiet voice answered from ahead, and part of the wall beside the door shifted, darkened, became a circle of what looked like smoky glass. "But as Ms. Berman remarked," the voice went on, the circle vibrating, "with so few people using the lobby, the building managers decided to save on upkeep. Most deliveries, after all, are made by drone to the access ports on each individual floor, so it's a rare occasion for anyone to enter this part of the building at all."

Polly was blinking at the circle. "I didn't know any of you Assistants were still around." She looked at Ref. "When did we decommission ours?"

That got a snort out of him. "You think I'd remember?"

The circle wavered. "With the current state of simulation technology," the voice said, "Assistants such as myself only have value in large-scale and non-customer-based situations such as building maintenance." The voice seemed to become a bit more animated. "Are...are you here to go outside?"

With a crisp nod, Polly said, "We are."

"And in fact—" Reg tapped the tip of his nose. "Do you know somewhere nearby where we can get a bowl of chili?"

"The Bermuda Triangle Chili Parlor," the voice replied instantly. The little door swung open, a coldish, dampish sort of smell seeping into the complete lack of aroma that Reg hadn't noticed until that very moment. "Turn right and head down Division Street for two blocks. You'll see it quite plainly."

"Thank you." Polly pulled a chipcard from the pocket of her jeans. "I don't suppose there's a way we can give you a tip, is there?"

This time, the voice didn't answer for at least a second. "It's appreciated, Ms. Berman, but not necessary. Or physically possible, for that matter."

Reg pointed a big grin at Polly. "Besides, the proper procedure is to give the doorman a turkey at Thanksgiving. Everyone knows that."

Polly sniffed. "Like I'd know anything about proper procedure." She poked a finger at this chest. "And like you would, either."

"Hey!" Reg started, but she was already heading out the door. He sighed and turned back to the Assistant. "Then I guess we'll see you coming back."

"Yes, Mr. Berman. Have a lovely evening."

"Anything's possible, I guess." Winking at the circle, he stepped outside.

It wasn't a post-Apocalyptic wasteland, or at least no more of a post-Apocalyptic wasteland than Old Town Chicago had ever been. The sky did have an orange glow to it, but he quickly realized that it came from the lights of the city reflecting off the cloud cover.

Or more specifically, the lights from half the city. Polly stood on the sidewalk a few paces away from him, a big, gray wall rising up and up and up beside her till it vanished into the actual darkness, and the whole part of the sky on this side of the street stretched out dim and shadowy.

But Polly was looking across Division Street, and Reg could definitely understand why. The buildings over there were the sorts he remembered from all those decades ago: squat and brick with glass windows in the walls and concrete steps leading up from the sidewalk. Those buildings spilled light from every crevice, and the way the sky send back that light, he guessed the neighborhood for quite a distance in that direction must be these old-style buildings.

"Which is why we bought here," he said aloud as the memory bubbled up. "So we'd be living on the intersection."

"That's right," Polly murmured. "But..." Raising a finger, she pointed to the figures moving along that side of the street.

Short and stocky, their ears long and dangling down to their shoulders or pointed and reaching up from their hair, snouts on their faces and fur covering their skin, they weren't human, Reg realized after a moment of squinting.

Polly had clenched her hands in front of her chest. "They have genetically altered animal people on the sim, but...but...but..." She turned to him, her eyes wide.

"Huh." Reg blinked at the folks moving up and down the street, going into and coming out of the buildings, their hands—their paws?—in the jacket pockets, no shoes on most of their feet—no, those were definitely paws they were walking on...

A clearing of throat made him look over, Polly glaring at him. "That's all you have to say? A whole new type of sapient life's been going about their business under our very noses for who knows how long, and all you've got is 'Huh'?"

He shrugged. "Well, I meant it." Turning, she started down the street past her. "Two blocks, the Assistant said, right?"

For a minute while he carried on alone, a little worry tugged at him. But then Polly came stomping up and fell in beside him. "They must've taken over! I mean, if we're all up in our towers and they're all living down here, then...then...then...they're running the real world, and we're living like sardines dreaming in a can! It's— And— They..." Her words dissolved into huffing and puffing.

Reg gave another shrug. "As long as someone's running the chili parlor."

She snorted, but she didn't stop, didn't turn back, didn't say another word as she kept up with him. They reached the end of the block after another minute, the cross street all dark gray walls and shadows to Reg's right and all lights and life to his left.

Polly seemed to notice, too, her head craning from side to side while they stood waiting for the light to change. When it did, they crossed, walked the whole next block with the featureless wall of another apartment building rising into the night on one side and the actual neighborhood going about nightly its business on the other. "Huh," she said then.

"Exactly," Reg answered. He pointed to the long, low building sitting kitty-corner to where they now stood. The building's neon sign blazed from the roof—Bermuda Triangle Chili Parlor—and the sweet, savory mix of chili powder, fresh cornbread, and melted butter that drifted across him seemed to be waking parts of his innards that he'd forgotten he had. "Well, Pol. Whaddaya think?"

Eyes closed, she was sniffing the air. "I think I've gone to heaven."

They waited for the lights again, crossing to the next massive apartment block before crossing Division Street and walking up to the front door of the chili parlor.

Which was when Reg remembered money. "You suppose they take chipcard here?"

"Of course," Polly said at once. But then she blinked and said, "We'll ask the cashier before we sit down."

Nodding, Reg pushed the door open, and the aroma wrapped around him like a skin suit. The noise, too, something he hadn't really noticed outside. Was he that deaf, or were these animal people that quiet?

Whichever, it wasn't going to be an issue in here. Conversation, laughter, the clatter of cutlery, a sort of rhythmic electronic squeaking and whistling that could have been music: the place had everything he remembered from restaurants long ago. Of course, the customers, the servers, and the cooks all seemed to be non-human, but a five foot, six inch tall rat woman in a red-and-white-striped blouse and skirt standing at the cash register just inside the door somehow made everything seem even more perfect. "Table for two?" the rat woman asked.

Reg started to nod, but Polly was pulling out her chipcard. "We just wanted to make sure this was good here first."

The rat woman squinted at the card, then looked from Polly to Reg and back again, her eyes widening. She didn't scream or hiss or point a shaking claw at them, though. Instead, she just nodded quickly, pulled two menus from a rack on the side of the counter, and said, "This way, folks."

No one leaped from their seats as they followed the rat woman into the brightly lit dining area, the floor all light-blue tile, the walls all white and the seats at both the tables and the booths all padded with red plastic cushions. The conversation didn't stumble into silence, nor did anyone drop a tray of dishes to shatter and scatter all over the floor. The rat woman just showed them to an empty booth along the back wall of the dining room—all the booths by the windows, a quick glance showed him, were full. She set down the menus, told them their server would be along in a moment, flashed a toothy smile, and scampered back in the direction they'd come.

A part of Reg was a little disappointed at their reception, but it was a small and pretty stupid part, he had to admit. He really didn't want anything to get in the way of him trying some of the chili.

Polly had already picked up one of the menus. "Not that I have to look," she said. "I'm just hoping they serve milk: the more dairy product I get with my chili, the better." A smile pulled her lips, and she tapped the bottom of the laminated card. "A bowl of the regular with cheese and sour cream, a glass of milk, and a scoop of ice cream for dessert."

Reg nodded. "I'm liking the look of this Green Death Chili."

Her mouth went sideways. "You want to kill yourself with the interior gas, or me with the exterior?"

He shrugged. "A little of both, maybe?"

Some sort of cat man skittered over then, said his name was Brian, and asked them if they wanted any of the special potato skins for an appetizer. Reg shook his head and ordered two bowls of the regular chili with the toppings Polly had suggested. "Water for the both of us, too, please, and a milk for my wife."

Brian did some jotting on a notepad, said he'd be right back, and left.

"Huh." Polly was shifting her eyes around while keeping her face pointed at Reg. "Do you suppose they get a lot of humans in here?"

All Reg could do was shrug again. "Maybe they think we're moles or something."

She nodded. "Looking at you, I could believe it." With exaggerated care, she brushed her fingernails against the sleeve of her sweater. "I'd be more of an afghan hound, myself: regal and refined and just generally classy."

He cocked his head. "I could see you as a shrew pretty easily."

Her eyes twinkled, but she jabbed one finger all the way across the little table to poke him in the shoulder. "You can be replaced, you know."

It just seemed like the sort of place for banter, Reg thought as they kept quipping back and forth. Of course, they bantered all the time in the sim at home, too. Did doing it in a restaurant full of animal people make it more real than doing it in a VR situation? 'We never talk,' he'd said to start this whole thing off, but were they talking now? Or just doing more playing?

Brian came by with the chili, then, and Reg let the thoughts get washed away in the flood of scents and flavors. Polly made little scrunchy faces and yummy noises throughout, so she was evidently enjoying herself, too, especially when he ordered two cups of vanilla ice cream.

Fuller than he'd been in a good long while, Reg finished the last bit of Polly's dessert—she loved the stuff but could never manage a whole portion. "A good idea," he told her, "thinking of chili."

Her lips pursed. "I said 'chilly,' and you know it." She reached over and patted his hand.

At the cash register, the rat woman had been joined by a rabbit man. He beamed at them while the rat woman slid Polly's chipcard into the reader. "Hope you folks had a good time," he said.

Reg nodded. "It's a fine place you've got here."

The rabbit man's ears dipped, then came back up. "I'd ask you to tell your friends, but, well..." He spread his hands. "I don't know how it works over there."

"Eh." Reg tried to think of something witty, but since he wasn't in the sim, nothing came to him. "It's pretty much the same," he finally said while Polly tucked her card back into her pocket. "People are always people, right?"

The rabbit man's nose had been twitching non-stop, but now it froze, his forehead under his brown fur wrinkling.

Polly's sigh whispered in Reg's ears, and she nudged him in the ribs. "Try not to make a scene." She smiled at the rabbit man and the rat woman. "Thank you. Good night." She pushed the door open and stepped out.

Giving them his own thanks, Reg turned and followed her out. She was waiting on the stoop, and she looped an arm around his as they headed for the crosswalk across Division Street. "'People are always people'? Really?"

He poked the button on the pole at the corner. "Well? Aren't they?"

"I suppose." Cuddling against his arm, she stayed that way during the whole walk back.

The door opened before Reg even had a chance to reach for it, the Assistant's voice asking, "Did you have a nice evening?"

"We did," Polly said, practically pulling Reg through onto the gray carpet.

But Reg had to stop in the doorway. "The moon!" He snapped his fingers. "I wanted to have a look at the actual moon!"

Polly blinked at him, then looked at the darkened circle of the Assistant's interface. "What's the weather supposed to be like tomorrow night?"

"Also cloudy," the Assistant said. "There may be a break later in the week, however."

"All right." Polly gave a crisp nod. "Could you let us know if it does?"

The interface seemed to wobble. "That's not really my function any more, Ms. Berman."

"But?" Polly's smile would've powered any number of electronic devices.

Another tiny pause, then, "But I'll let you know."

"Reg?" She started for the elevator all the way across the big empty lobby. "Thanksgiving's coming up. Make a note about that turkey for the doorman."

Reg sighed. "Thank you," he said to the Assistant. "Maybe you noticed that my wife's something of a menace."

"I didn't notice that at all, Mr. Berman." The Assistant's circle curled into a sort of crescent. "Good night, sir."

"It is, isn't it?" Reg gave the Assistant a wink. "Good night." And he made his way to where Polly was holding the elevator doors for him.
« Prev   6   Next »
#1 ·
· · >>Baal Bunny
Feels very stream-of-consciousness in the right way. A bit meandering and strange, but in a way that mirrors how people actually live. The sci-fi world feels both very grounded and very futuristic which is impressive (given most writers try and make this happen with lots and lots of violence instead of an old couple being silly with each other), and I love how casually you introduce the new sapient species.

Really like this one.
#2 ·
I'll call this:

Another good first draft. But here, author, you've got the details in place, but you still need to go in and add the actual story. What do these various characters want? How does what they want bring them into conflict? How do the events we read about here allow them to resolve that conflict? You kind of hint at it here and there, but I usually need more than hints if I'm gonna figure out a story.

Also? I've only read three of the stories for this round, and already two of them have characters named Polly. Is this a trend?

#3 ·
· · >>Baal Bunny
Alternate Title: The Ready Player One x Zootopia Crossover No One Asked For

Two things I liked:

1. Considering how dour the previous entries were, the lively sense of humor here is a breath of fresh air. Immediately we're plopped into a humorous scenario with a description of Polly's (there's another Polly?) tits, a description that in just about any other context would make me cringe, but which fits the goofy scenario being presented to us. The relationship between Polly and Reg is pretty joyous, and despite being very old (how old exactly is more iffy, but I'll get to that) they can't seem to get enough of each other. Even the reveal of the world around them can't even dent their love for each other.

2. The real world as presented in the story is fairly unique, even if it does run the risk of feeling like furry pandering. There are so many questions raised about how the world works, and I think this was a deliberate choice; it ties into the theme of Polly and Reg becoming content with living in a world that is unfamiliar to them. Maybe the real world isn't so bad or different compared to the virtual simulation? A lighthearted, even optimistic interpretation of the prompt that I can get behind.

Two things I didn't like:

1. Unfortunately, I do have a limit for gaps in the world-building, and there were times where I just wanted a simple answer to a simple question but didn't get it. If Polly and Reg are so old, then how come they act so young? There seems to be implications that they're even older than humans should naturally live to be, and I must've missed how this is justified in-story, but I don't think it ever is. The place that humans have in a world that is now dominated by furry kin goes practically unaddressed as well, and it makes the world of the story feel even smaller than it really is, because these gaps in world-building are so big.

2. As much as I enjoy the characters and the central theme, there isn't much of a story here. There is a distinct lack of conflict, or reflection, or even information that would propel a conventional plot forward, and I get the impression that the plot came in at a distant third behind the characters and theme. Honestly though, this is a nitpick coming from me, since I tend to be more forgiving of short stories with unconventional narratives. But you could certainly do something more with this, author.

Verdict: More of a proof of concept than a complete story, but I do enjoy it a fair bit. Keep up the good work, author, and don't throw this in the trash afterward.
#4 ·
· · >>Baal Bunny
Atmospheric and fun worldbuilding. The intro was strong in that you made the familiar strange enough to emphasize the changes that had happened. The fakeout wasn't bad either.

I know it's the big city and all, but I did find it a little suspicious that there was a chili joint that close.

The characterization was solid; the banter moved the story along nicely, but otherwise didn't stand out to me for good or ill. Likewise the prose.

The biggest issue I had was how it hinted at potential conflict and built up tension, (exploring the unknown, the reactions to the chipcard and the 'people are always people' line), but then nothing came of it.

Overall it was an enjoyable story, but for me it hinted at more than it delivered.
#5 ·
· · >>Baal Bunny
The casual tone of this story conflicts with the plot itself, in my eyes. It all just played out so easily. I'm not saying this world should have been dystopic, with cameras and searchlights and tasers coming out the moment Reg and Pol tried to leave their room, but if it was so easy to go out and have a meal, would they really have gone years and years without ever doing it? Eating out is nice.

I think, in general, the consequences of being cooped up inside for so long are kind of non-existent here. I dunno. People need exercise, they need fresh air; anybody who just stays inside for weeks at a time, let alone years, will experience major consequences to their physical health, not to mention their mental health. And yet these two just seem as healthy as people I might meet at work. If you were trying to lay down some commentary on being sedentary or living your whole life in a simulation, where was that in the story?

Speaking of work. what do either of these two do to make money? Perhaps I missed that. I'm not normally one to ask the author to fill in plotholes that don't really affect the story proper, but that was a pretty big hang-up for me. Perhaps I was looking for some sort of commentary on these sim-nuts not contributing anything to society or something...?

I'm not sure. Really, I can only agree with the above that the commentary isn't clear. I imagine it has something to do with the furry animals, but it's lost on me. Sorry about that.

Thanks for writing, and good luck!
#6 · 1
>>Miller Minus

Thanks, folks, and congrats to our medalists!

Since I only had about 8 hours spread out over the three day writing period to work on this, I concentrated on just getting the "step-by-step stuff" done from beginning to end. There is a story here, but since I write by the accretion method, this is just the framework of it. It'll need another draft or three to layer in the character stuff and the world-building stuff and turn it into a proper cake or parfait or trifle.