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Day One Hundred and Thirty-nine: For SCIENCE!

October 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Porter Dupree lowered the goggles back down over his eyes and leaned on the edge of the workbench for a moment. He took a deep breath, then reached up and keyed on the recorder. “Okay,” he said. “This is boot-up attempt number forty-five. Project day twenty. Failure minus five.” He rested a hand on the arm of the battered black android that lay on the bench, then reached over to the control panel and tapped a large green button. “Go.”

There was no lightning, no explosions or anything like that. Just some fluctuating graphs on his laptop screen, some rapidly-changing figures, and a schematic of the android’s body. Granted, there was a small laser array, but strictly speaking it could have just as well been covered up and hidden. If this were a science fiction movie, the writer probably would have flashed it up a bit, just to make the audience gape at the Awesome! Power! of SCIENCE! But then again, if this was a science fiction movie, he probably would have managed to get this to work forty-four tries ago.

The first time was exciting. Everything was new, all the parts clicked together snugly and perfectly. He’d tested all the circuits and all the connections, and in their pieces they worked fine. Put them together, however, and try to boot up the system as a whole, and the project was a dud. The android just lay there, gently humming but not actually doing anything much more technologically complicated than slowly warming up.

But this was science, and progress was never guaranteed. Porter would go to bed and look at the pictures he’d pinned to his wall of his favorite innovators – Tesla, DaVinci, Jobs – and remind himself that success came only after failure and the persistence to endure it. So the next day he took the machine apart and re-checked, piece by piece, component by component, connection by connection to see where the flaw was. He cleaned contacts and replaced microchips and resoldered anything that looked like it might be coming loose. Then it all went together again, the black plastic shell was snapped into place, and he held his breath as he keyed in the startup sequence again.

And… nothing.

Undaunted, he tried again, replacing parts that seemed too old or worn, revisiting his software coding, poring over circuit diagrams and trying to figure out more efficient designs before plugging it all together and starting it up, only to have it, once again, not work.

He started the project in earnest about a week after his brother Kevin died. His mother had been a complete wreck, and he needed something to do without letting her grief infect him. It started with a few sketches and the faint tickling of an idea that just… might… work. Within days, boxes started arriving at the house, filled with electronics and heat-moldable plastics. When his mother finally got around to finding out what he was making in her basement, she had told him it was an abomination, and that he would never be allowed under her roof again as long as he worked on “that thing.” His girlfriend really tried to support him during the months that he was putting the project together, but in the end, she left too. He didn’t notice for a few days.

And every night, he would go to bed and look at those pictures and think, “Tomorrow will be the day.” And every morning he woke up, ate quickly, showered if it occurred to him, and ran to the garage. He’d lost his job weeks ago, but he didn’t find out until the police arrived to see if he was dead. When he answered the door, pale and thin and blinking in the rising spring sunlight, they seemed surprised to see him alive. He hadn’t shown up in the lab for a week and a half. No one had heard from him, no one knew if he was alive or dead. Finally his boss called the local police and begged them to find out what had happened.

Of course, when he turned out to be fine, Porter was immediately fired.

But that didn’t matter. The great black android laying on his workbench would change everything. He would never need to worry about money again, once this worked.

And it would work.

He glanced over at the readout on the screen. He had spent a couple of days tinkering with the user interface, making it simpler and easier to read. All it told him at this point was the same thing it had told him before, and the time before that. All systems worked by themselves. Everything was humming along just fine. But as a whole, the connections just weren’t there, and it was beginning to grate at him. He could feel it. Something wasn’t clicking, but it was like turning a key in a sticky lock – he knew that if he could just jiggle it the right way or add just the tiniest bit more pressure, the key would catch, the lock would open, and an entire new era of humanity would begin.

But it would not begin today.

The android lay still on the workbench. The boot program was cycling through the bootup sequence, rebooting, and then starting again. Porter rested his chin on his hands and watched the robot’s fingers for a while, hoping to see one twitch. Just a little. But there wasn’t even a hint of movement.

After fifteen minutes, he halted the startup program and turned on the recorder again. “Attempt number forty-five: Unsuccessful. Will review power loads and microtransistor arrays and prep for attempt number forty-six. Failure minus four.”

Four more tries. That was about how many more he had left in him.

He turned off the laser array and turned on the overhead lights again. After his eyes adjusted a bit, he raised the goggles and spent a minute blinking. He made his way over to the head of the android. It wasn’t really handsome, but then he wasn’t exactly an artist. In any case, that was all aesthetics. Once it worked, he could pay someone to make it pretty.

He touched his fingertips to the pressure-seals at the temples, pressed, and twisted. The top of the android’s head came off with a click, exposing the glass-encased brain inside.

It floated in a thin soup of nutrients, with a web of fine wire delicately laid over and into the countless crevasses and folds. Porter carefully took the glass case, gave it a half-turn, and pulled the brain out of the android’s housing, exposing the complex metal plug that was entwined with the brainstem. Quickly, carefully, he turned around and docked it with the power station, and the little LEDs in the base lit up again. Keeping the brain alive, surprisingly, had been the easy part. When he started, it looked fine. Mostly fine. About as fine as you might expect from a freshly-exhumed corpse. It had been a lovely pale pink, full and hearty.

Now its color had gone to gray, and it floated more loosely in the bottle that Porter had made for it. The longer he kept it alive without any input from the rest of the world, the worse off it got. It wouldn’t be long before it was too far gone to be of any use.

He pulled a flashlight from his pocket and peered into the android’s skull. Everything looked okay, but it couldn’t hurt to have another look in the morning. He clicked it off and patted the bottled brain. “G’nite, Kevin,” he whispered. “See you tomorrow.”

Day One Hundred and Twenty-five: Summoned

September 23, 2011 4 comments

Neil dropped his keys in the key bowl as soon as he walked through the door and called for his cat. Despite popular belief about cats and their aloofness, Nickel usually came running to the door when Neil came home, tail raised and eyes wide. Granted, this was because Neil usually fed him right after he came home, but he chose to take it as a sign of Nickel’s unconditional love, rather than a blatant attempt to emotionally blackmail him for food.

Today, Nickel didn’t come to the door. “Nick!” He dropped his bag on the table next to the key bowl and slipped off his shoes. “Nick, I’m home!” Still no cat. Neil shook his head and trudged into the kitchen, sorting mail as he went. A bill, some advertising flyers, another bill…

And a robot sitting on his sofa.

It looked human, insofar as it had two arms, two legs and a head, which swiveled around to look at him. Other than the shape, the thing was utterly inhuman. Its body was battered and scratched, made of black and grey metal and plastic that looked like it had been through a war. Its eyes, however – or the two great circles in the front of its head that were currently staring at Neil – were luminous and bright green, slowly pulsing. The robot stared at Neil for a moment and then returned its head to its original position, staring straight ahead at an unadorned wall. “Your cat is fine,” it said. Its voice sounded almost human – almost. It had a hollowness to it that reminded Neil of the way computers always talked in movies. “It is hiding under your bed.”

Neil blinked. He cleared his throat and tried to speak, but it took a few tries before words came out. “Okay,” he croaked. “Let me check.” He backed away from the robot and, when he was out of sight, turned around and dashed for his bedroom.

The robot had been telling the truth – Nickel’s bright eyes were shining in the darkness under the bed, and the cat let out a pitiful meow when Neil ducked down. “Come here,” Neil whispered. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon Nick, we have to get out.” The cat wouldn’t move, but that wasn’t going to be part of the plan. Neil wriggled under the bed, clamped his hand on the scruff of the cat’s neck, and started to pull. “Sorry, Nick,” he said as he dragged the resisting cat out.

When he stood up, cat in his arms, the robot was standing in the doorway. Neil dropped Nickel, who immediately ran back under the bed. How had the thing sneaked into the room? He glanced down at its feet, which appeared to be shod in some kind of rubber, and that might have done it. But something that big? It should not be that quiet. He held up a hand, and the robot stepped forward. “Look,” Neil said, “I don’t know what the hell you are, but you can’t -”

The robot’s arm flashed out, and he grabbed Neil’s hand. Its grip was firm and rubbery. It dragged Neil towards it and clamped the other hand around his wrist. There was a brief stab of pain, causing Neil to cry out, and then the robot released its grip. There was a small drop of blood oozing out of a needle mark, but otherwise he seemed unhurt. He flexted his fingers a few times just to be sure. “What the hell, man?” he said. “What did you -”

“Tapscott, Neil. Thirty-five years old. Born in Boston, Massachusetts to Tapscott, Lowell and Marie.”

Neil felt his insides loosen up and a flash of heat start to wash over him. “Oh my god,” he said. “Please don’t kill me.”

“Currently residing at 454 Ingersoll Lane, Sylvania City.”

“Look, I don’t know what you think I’ve done, but really, I’m nobody here!”

“Employed by Acton Informatics as a data entry processor.”

“That’s right!” Neil dropped to his knees. Part of him knew that a robot would be immune to such a gesture of submission, as it couldn’t have had room in its programming for something like that. But it couldn’t hurt to try. “All I do is put data into databases, you know? Addresses, phone numbers, that kind of thing?” He forced a smile and tried to sound like he was enjoying a big joke. “So you can definitely just go on, kill some other guy. Right?” He cringed backwards and tried not to look into the glowing green eyes of the robot. “Right?”

The robot took another silent step forward. “Tapscott, Neil. You are summoned.” It reached down and picked Neil up off the floor. A band on its wrist flared to life, throwing off wisps of violet light that flickered and pulsed around them. “Transport is go,” it said. There was a flash, and the small, single man’s bedroom was replaced by a vast white hall.

The floor was smooth and cool when the robot released Neil, letting him drop to his hands and knees. When he looked up, the ceiling seemed to go up forever into gray shadows. The room was huge, and there were more robots standing in a circle around him. They were all identical, except for the damage they’d taken. The one who had found Neil was the most battered, but none were factory-fresh. They all stared at him with pulsing green eyes and said, “Tapscott, Neil. You have been summoned.”

Neil stood on shaking legs and turned to look at them all. None of them moved. They just stared. Again, they said in a single, hollow voice, “Tapscott, Neil. You have been summoned.”

“What?” Neil asked. “Summoned, what for? Why?”

The robot who had brought him stepped forward. “To answer for your crimes,” it said. It held up its hand and tapped the palm. The lights in the room began to dim except for one corner just beyond the robots that had surrounded him. They slowly moved apart, encouraging Neil to walk forward just by the pressure of their presence. The light illuminated a long, tall pedestal, made of the same bright white stone as the floor. On it, draped with a sheet, was something that looked for all the world like a human being. The shape underneath was unmistakable, something he’s seen from countless cop shows and medical dramas.

He turned to the robots. “What?” he asked. “You think I killed someone?”

They didn’t answer, but kept walking slowly, moving him along with them.

“I didn’t kill anyone,” he said. “I can barely bring myself to kill cockroaches, so… People? That’s not going to happen.”

The robots still walked and remained silent. Neil yelped when he backed up against the pedestal and glanced down. Yup. A body. Definitely a body.

The crowd stopped walking. The robot who had brought him stepped forward and pointed to the body. “You must answer for your crime,” it said.

Neil looked at him, then at the body. He felt his mouth go dry as he realized what he was going to have to do. With trembling fingers, he plucked at the cloth that covered the body and gave it the lightest of tugs. When it slid off, he yelped, but even that was cut short when he saw himself lying on the dais.

He started at it for a good long time. It was his face. His body, down to the mole on his shoulder and the appendectomy scar. And it was cold and dead.

Neil spun around, looking from one robot to another until he came back to the one that he was most familiar with. “What,” he asked, “the hell is going on here?”

Day Eighty-Five: The Biggest Day [MAKE-UP]

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment

This was written for the Worth1000.com contest – “Unmet Expectations.” The instructions were: “Write a story where a key point is something/someone/somewhere that has not lived up to its expectations.”

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Secretary of State Ernest LaFayette turned off the TV in the conference room and excused himself from the meeting. He walked calmly back to his office, removing his jacket and tie as he did so, then ran to his toilet and spent the next five minutes throwing up.

The President had called him two hours ago, utterly frantic, but LaFayette’s staff had already found out from Twitter and Facebook – an alien spacecraft had landed on the National Mall, right in the middle of the Ellipse in front of the White House. There were thousands of people there, all trying to get past the cordon that had been set up. The ground was littered with correspondents, bloggers, and photographers hoping to make names for themselves.

So far, no one knew anything. The ship looked more like a piece of modern art than anything else – it was mostly white, with colored stripes down the side, and was blocky and cubic. There didn’t seem to be any windows or doors. There were nothing that looked like guns, no shimmering shields or giant robots determined to protect the ship at any cost. It just sat there.

And it was going to be LaFayette’s job to find out what it wanted.

Someone knocked gently on the door. “Mister Secretary?” It was Amy, his assistant. “Are you okay? Do you… need anything?”

LaFayette stood up on shaky legs and flushed the toilet. “No,” he called. “No, I’m fine. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Okay,” she said. “The President is on line two.”

Quietly cursing, LaFayette washed out his mouth and spat in the sink. He inspected himself in the mirror, and for the first time in a very long time, felt as old as he looked. He smoothed back his hair, took a deep breath, and left the bathroom.

Amy was standing by the door, looking professionally concerned. He nodded to her, and she closed the door. LaFayette counted to ten, picked up the phone and pushed the line two button. “Mr. President,” he said.

“Ernie!” He flinched. “Ernie, we’re sending a motorcade to pick you up. Should be there in about five minutes, so get yourself together and get ready to make history!”

“Yes, Mister President.”

“There’ll be sharpshooters set up, just in case, and we’ve got some helicopters watching the skies, in case there are any more of ’em. You’ll be perfectly safe out there.” The President laughed, a short bark. “Unless they’ve got some kind of death ray we don’t know about. Then you’re screwed.”

“Thank you, Mister President.”

“Don’t thank me,” he said. “This is the ultimate diplomacy, Ernie. This is what you were meant to do!”

“Thank you, Mister President.”

“I’d do it myself, but for some reason the Secret Service doesn’t like the idea of me walking up to a bunch of Martians and saying Howdy. Go figure.”

LaFayette gritted his teeth at the insinuation. “Of course, Mister President.” A new Secretary of State would require, what – a confirmation hearing? Far less valuable than a President. “I should probably go, sir,” he said. “I think the motorcade has arrived.”

He hung up. Amy handed him his jacket and tie and offered him water as he walked out the door. The motorcade was huge – he had a limo, with at least five other limousines lined up behind it. Surrounding everything were dozens of police motorcycles and military vehicles. Inside his car, Amy handed him a new shirt and a young man started working on his hair. “The world is watching, sir,” Amy said. “You should look good.”

The police had cleared the streets as best they could between the State Department building and the Ellipse, but it was still slow going. During the drive, the President called three more times, trying to remind LaFayette of the importance of this event, as if it weren’t so obvious. LaFayette’s stomach burned, and his throat hurt from trying to keep everything down while he sat in the car. Amy was busy going through paperwork, but every now and then she would glance up to see if he was okay.

They were met at The Ellipse by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also did their best to impress upon him how important this event was. A young man from the Secret Service interrupted them. “Sir,” he said, breathless. “It’s opening up!”

Everyone looked at everyone else, and they all walked together towards the crowd. LaFayette wanted to run. Run far and fast and away. He bit his lip and put his hands in his pockets as they reached the edge of the cordon and stopped.

The crowd was vast and silent as the ramp dropped down from the ship, revealing a shadowy interior. Cameras were clicking in rapid-fire, and reporters were speaking in hushed tones to the rest of the world.

A dim shape appeared inside, and a murmur went up from those who could see it. The shape soon resolved itself as it stepped into the bright autumn sunlight. It was some kind of walker, eight-legged and metallic, topped with a tinted dome. In the silence, LaFayette could hear the mechanical, electric sounds of its movements and the faintest ring of its sharp footfalls on the metal ramp. The crowd was utterly silent as they watched – even the national guardsmen around the perimeter were gaping. A moment later, a second walker joined it.

When the walkers reached the end of the ramp, they stopped, their feet digging into the sod. There was a pause that lasted just slightly too long, and people in the crowd jumped when the domes atop the walkers let out pressurized gas in a bright, loud hiss and started to open. LaFayette was surprised to realize that he was praying under his breath, something he hadn’t done in a very long time. Whatever happened next would be the defining moment for humanity. He closed his eyes tightly to clear his thoughts.

The domes released a pale blue gas when they opened. From this distance, he could make them out easily. The beings sitting inside were vaguely reptilian. Their skin was scaly – one red, the other gold – and they had large, shining eyes that squinted against the sun. They were wearing what looked like pressure suits and breathing masks, but their skin was exposed to the air. Someone nearby whispered, “My god. Lizard men.”

The aliens looked around at the crowd, and then at each other. LaFayette took another deep breath. This was it. He thought about the times he had met dictators and madmen, sat down with them to negotiate peace – or at least some kind of armed stability. They had been the worst of humanity, the kind of people that would bring shame to the world. And he had been better than they. He would still be better than they.

Ernest LaFayette straightened his jacket, brushed off the cuffs, and stepped forward to meet the aliens.

He stopped in front of them and craned his neck to look up. He didn’t flinch when the insectile walkers hissed and slowly lowered themselves to meet him. There was a moment, where human first met alien, when everyone held their breath.

“My name,” he said, in a level, clear voice, “is Ernest LaFayette.” He spoke slowly and clearly, with his arms at his sides. “I would like to welcome you in peace to the planet Earth.”

The red alien’s eyes widened, and it turned to the gold one. It spoke to the other, and their voices sounded musical, like deep flutes. The red alien turned back to LaFayette and, in a clear voice, trilled, “Earth?”

A murmur ran through the crowd. LaFayette kept his expression neutral, but everyone could hear the excitement in his voice when he replied. “Yes, he said. “Welcome to Earth.”

There was a moment of utter stillness.

The red alien looked around at the crowd and the monuments and the city. It looked LaFayette up and down, and then trilled something to its partner. The gold alien responded, and they conversed in their melodic tongue. Then the red alien looked down at LaFayette and said, “Thought it would be bigger.”

Its walker lifted quickly, turned around, and walked back up the ramp with quick, sharp steps. The gold alien watched it, and then turned to the bewildered LaFayatte. “Apologies,” it said, in the same deep, flutelike voice. “It has been a very long trip.” A small patch of scales on its forehead fluttered and changed hue for a moment, and then it, too, stood up in its walker and returned to the ship.

The ramp was pulled back up, and within a few minutes, the ship lifted silently off the ground. With the world’s eyes upon him, Ernest LaFayette watched the aliens turn around and leave.

Day One Hundred and Twelve: The Earth Died Screaming

September 10, 2011 Leave a comment

The piece I wrote as a make-up for Day 84 – The End – annoyed me so much that I had to re-do it right away rather than wait until the end of October. The problem was basically this: It read like a history lesson, and history lessons are, by and large, boring. The only way to make people interested in history is to show events through the eyes of someone who experienced them. That’s why so many people love Lord of the Rings, but only the hard-core nerds love The Silmarillion. So I ripped it apart and did it again. I hope it’s better. This story was also submitted to the Worth1000.com contest, “The End,” so if you like it – and you’re a Worthian – go give it a vote!

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My memory has been fading. I don’t remember my childhood anymore. The name of the first girl I kissed. The street where I grew up. I want to remember, I strain and push and try, but the noise of all the other voices – the screaming and the begging – it’s all too much.

There is one thing I do remember, however. Vividly. We all remember, and it will probably be the last thing to go.

We remember the invasion.

I was arguing with my fiancée Joanne in our apartment in St. Louis. Something about plates for the wedding. Or cakes. Or something, I can’t remember, but we were arguing. And then the sky went dark, as something indescribably huge blocked out the sun. It wasn’t an eclipse. It didn’t have that kind of slow majesty to it. It was something else, something we wouldn’t fully understand until it was far too late.

It was a ship. A spaceship. An honest-to-god alien vessel, bigger than the planet itself, which had come to visit the Earth with unknown intentions. In the first few hours of its arrival, the TV news was devouring itself, trying to get information on the ship. Politicians came out and gave speeches, they interviewed every scientist who would talk to them, and flashed every amateur cell phone video that was sent to them. All they knew was what we knew too: It was big.

Its arrival caused chaos everywhere. Joanne left me in tears to go to her parents’ home in Nebraska. I tried to get her to stay with me, but she wouldn’t have it. “Family is everything,” she’d always said. I guess I just wasn’t family enough yet.

All around the city, people were going mad. Breaking windows, stealing televisions, as though there would be anything to watch after this. Cars were jacked and joyridden, and people stole jewelry by the armful. To look pretty for the little green men, I supposed. I wanted to laugh at myself for not joining in – here was the end of the world and I was still worried about being arrested. As though this would turn out to be some big mistake and the police would show up and tell me, “An alien invasion is no excuse for stealing an XBox, son.”

I called my mother in Fenton, just to see if she was okay. She told me to be careful. “There are a lot of crazy people out there, Charles,” she said. “I saw on TV that New York City is burning.”

“St. Louis isn’t New York, mom,” I told her.

“And there have been earthquakes happening everywhere, because of the gravity.”

I wanted to laugh. “Mom, that thing’s gravity can’t be…” I had to pause while the building trembled.

“Still, you mustn’t –“

The phone cut out. My apartment was completely disconnected as the cable service died. No TV, no phone, no internet, all in one terrible moment. I paced around the apartment for an hour, aimless and blind. There was no news, no updates, and for the first time in my adult life I felt truly alone.

Out on the street, people were running through the city. They were crying. They were laughing. They were drunk and sober and horny. I sat in my window and watched them until I couldn’t take it anymore, and I went to the roof.

The ship filled the sky from horizon to horizon. Lights traced paths across its dark surface in amber and blue, great straight lines and slow curves that seemed to go on forever. I wondered what we all wondered, once we took the time to think about it. Who were they? Why were they there? What did they want from us? The movies and TV shows I grew up on gave me two options: they wanted to invite us into their great galactic federation, or they wanted to invade and take over. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that humans were important enough for either.

My question was answered the next morning. With the probes.

I woke at 6:00 AM. The streets were dead. There were cars on fire and garbage everywhere, and people lying on the sidewalks. I chose to believe they had passed out. The ground rumbled under my feet as soon as I stepped outside, and I dove against a building for cover. Masonry fell from the roof, missing me by inches. When the quake was over, I thought I heard drums, of all things. I followed their sound as far as I could.

Tower Grove Park was full of people. Tents, lean-tos, people wrapped in blankets and parkas and big blue plastic tarps. There were people cooking and playing, staying together through the long night and trying to keep spirits up. When I ambled into the park, a guy in a beat-up business suit greeted me. “Welcome to the party,” he said. “Feel free to camp out wherever you like, and if you have any food we’d all appreciate it.” He shook my hand and then hugged me. Then he jogged away to somewhere else, and I never saw him again.

The park was a party. A celebration. People were drumming by the dozens, dancing and spinning across the grass. There were groups telling stories to each other, reading and singing songs to each other and to the ship. If you ignored the sky, it was a festival. The smell of food filled the air, from dark, spicy chili to hamburgers and hot dogs. Not everyone was afraid, it seemed.

I didn’t join in the dance circles or the drum tribes or the poetry readings that were going on all around us. I gravitated towards others, huddling by their fire with the look of people whose entire world has been dismantled in front of them. I sat shoulder to shoulder with an older Mexican lady and we stared at the fire. We didn’t talk at first. Then she told me about her son, who was living in Los Angeles and wanted to become a teacher. I told her about Joanne and how we were planning to spend our honeymoon in Las Vegas and never leave the hotel. For a moment, I almost forgot what was hanging above us.

Then the screaming started.

The probes swarmed towards the park in the hundreds, great jellyfish made of plastic and steel. They had blinding white lights that swept the crowd, and whip-thin tentacles that trailed in the air behind them. As soon as they appeared, people panicked into the darkness. Most of them were caught immediately. What happened to those who were caught – what would happen to all of us – is the most vivid memory of all.

The probe would ensnare a person, lifting and immobilizing them in the air. Then it would slice away the top of their skull and, in one swift movement, scoop out the still-living brain. The body would then drop to the ground and the brain would be put into a fluid-filled sac that hung below the probe. Soon, each one was carrying five or six human brains dangling pendulously below its body. Some of them, having reached their limit, would glide off away from the crowd, only to be replaced by another.

I didn’t see the probe that got me. The Mexican lady prayed and ran as my arms and legs were pinned by unbreakable cables. I opened my mouth–

That’s where my memory ends. There is a blackness there, a period of infinite time in which I sensed nothing. I thought nothing and knew nothing. How those things kept us alive is something I’m not sure I want to know. What I do know for sure is that I would rather be dead now. Any death, any hell would be better than this, and I know the billions of others on this ship would agree with me.

The great, amnesiac blackness ended with awareness. First I knew myself, and then I knew the others. All the others. The noise was deafening, billions of voices full of fear and confusion. In an instant, I knew where I was and what I was. What we all were.

The brains of humanity had been networked. We had been connected together into a huge organic processor aboard the ship, and what the ship knew, we knew. We knew so much, right then, that it was hard to comprehend what we were seeing.

The Earth, hanging perfectly still in space. The mother ship disgorged thousands of smaller ships, harvesters. Some began to spray the surface with a compound that reduced any organic life to a slurry of amino acids, which was scooped up and brought back to the ship. Other vessels collected water and ice, drained the oceans and rivers and lakes, broke up the glaciers and then returned with their prizes. Some large ships brought back mountains, hewn from their roots. They tore up the continental shelves to get at what lay underneath and siphoned off the sluggish, red-hot magma that lay just under the paper-thin surface of the Earth. The process took… days? Months? Years? There was no way for us to tell in in there. In time, though, everything else was gone, leaving only a white-hot spinning iron core surrounded by the detritus of the operation.

Special ships were dispatched. They hovered by the core and primed their great engines before laying down drag hooks in order to slow it down. Slowly, slowly, for the first time in billions of years, the Earth stopped turning. The ships clamped down on the core and dragged it into the main vessel to be melted down and used as raw material.

And that was it. Where once there was a planet teeming with life and intelligence there was now a field of debris that would orbit the sun for as long as the sun shined. Another traveler here might wonder what had been there, but they would never know. Far off, the moon drifted away into other realms of the solar system, having been deemed less useful than its mother planet. Perhaps another world would take it in.

An order shot through our network, and the ship turned. Our sun swept through the ship’s field of view, and then there were nothing but the stars we thought we knew.  Humanity howled in grief and pain, and another order brought us to heel. We turned away from our sun, our home, and started to move to the next world, an impossible distance away.

Day One Hundred and Ten: In Transit

September 8, 2011 1 comment

As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.

This story features Jani Morgan, who was seen on Day 25 –Babysitting as a space pilot for hire who really kind of regretted her life choices, and Eddie Holsclaw, the young sufferer of Capgras Delusion that we saw in Reunion on Day 9. Let’s see what happens when we put them together…

—————————–

The prisoner was beginning to make Jani nervous.

She’d picked him up outside of Antares, part of a favor that she needed to repay to a friend of hers who ran a series of prison asteroids. Just like everyone else who ever hired Jani, Annica started off by saying the same thing: “It’s no big deal, really. Just a simple job.”

To their credit, most of the time they were right. A little cargo here, some upper middle-class middle manager there. The occasional satchel of narcotics or weaponry. The bureaucracy of the stars was so thinly spread and so entrenched that its only reason to exist was to protect its own existence, and the last thing they actually needed to do was their jobs.

But on occasion, it did get interesting. One time she was nearly boarded by a gang of pirates lurking around some little-used shipping lanes. Another time, the creature she was transporting got out of its cage and tore apart half the electrical systems of her ship. They were stories that she loved to tell over a drink in a dive bar, but she would much rather they just be the tall tales of the space sailors.

This guy looked like he was going to be one of those stories.

He was brought onto the ship by two armed guards, and they had him strapped to one of those Lechter frames. He was human, which definitely caught her interest. There weren’t a whole lot of them flying around space, and any time two humans got together, interesting things were bound to happen. It usually ended in a fistfight or a mad night of sex. Sometimes both. The prisoner couldn’t move much more than his head, but he didn’t have the mask. Jani wasn’t sure if that made her feel better or not. His eyes were blue and wide and flickered around the ship as he was wheeled aboard. She couldn’t tell through all the bindings, but he looked thin.

“He gonna be any trouble?” she asked the guards.

One of them shrugged. He was of a reptilian species – probably the ones out of Sirius. They were very good at not moving when they didn’t have to, and being absolutely vicious when they did. “Probably not,” he said in a voice that was surprisingly melodic. “He’s only dangerous if he gets a hold of something.” The other guard, who was hairy and wide and barely fit into his body armor, just nodded and kept his eyes on the prisoner.

Jani nodded. “Fine. You guys can camp out in the galley. I’ll be back there once we’re moving.” The guards wheeled him through the door and they vanished into her ship. She went the other way, to the cockpit, and started preparing for launch. The new piloting rig she’d bought made operating the ship easier, but at the same time it pointed out just how old and crappy everything else was. It still smelled like burned plastic and stale sweat, and you could tell which letters she used most on the keyboard because she’d touch-typed them off. This gig wouldn’t help, either. There wasn’t nearly enough money in it to pay for anything good, but it did earn her some goodwill.

The ship rattled a little as she spun up the engines, but once it got going, the vibrations stopped. You could still hear it, if you listened. She’d named it Titanic, partly out of a sense of irony but mostly out of her belief that disaster might pass her by if she had enough chutzpah about it. So far, so good.

She reached over and called up the coordinates to their destination. Then she leaned all the way to the other side and entered them into the nav computer, all the while thinking about how she needed to refit everything. The autopilot set, she flipped the intercom. “We’re leaving the dock, guys. Once we’re on our way, I’ll come see how you’re doing.” She clicked it off without waiting for a response.

Once the ship was pointed more or less where they wanted to go, Jani activated the autopilot and let it take over from there. She stood up, not bothering to watch as the stars slid past her main screen, and stretched before she went back to the galley.

The security guards were sitting at the booth where she ate most of her meals, and they didn’t look comfortable. The prisoner was still in his cage, staring at them with a look of smug satisfaction. His eyes flickered to Jani when she entered, and she ignored him as best she could. “Everything all right here, guys?” she said.

They glanced at her before they said that everything was fine, and she suppressed a sigh. The coffee maker wasn’t any better than the rest of the ship, but it made something that tasted vaguely enough like how she remembered coffee to taste that she went along and suspended her disbelief every morning. She started fixing some for the guards.

“They made you pretty.”

She looked over her shoulder. The prisoner was staring at her. “What model are you?” he asked.

Jani went back to setting up the coffee maker. She checked the pot twice to make sure it was clean, and double-checked how much water there was in the tank and that the coffee powder was in the little steel cups that she almost never used because they were for company. Satisfied, she turned on the machine and let it start gurgling away. She wiped her hands on a towel, slowly lowered herself into the booth where the security guards were sitting, and leaned her chin on her hands. “I’m sorry,” she said to the prisoner. “Did you say something?”

He twisted his face into what she thought he probably supposed was a smile. “You’re clever, too. I can see you know how to mock us. Bravo.” He glanced down. “If I could, I’d applaud.”

Jani looked over at the guards for an explanation, but the lizard was very decidedly not looking at the prisoner, while the fuzzy one was carefully inspecting his weapon.

“They tell me I’m crazy,” the prisoner said.

“No kidding.” Jani’s expression didn’t change. “What’d you do?”

The hairy guard reached over and touched her arm. “Miss. You really shouldn’t engage him.” His eyes were big and liquid and looked worried, though she suspected that was their standard condition.

“What’s he going to do?” she asked. “He’s tied up, isn’t he?”

“Yes, but…”

She turned back to the prisoner. “You got a name, crazy man?” she asked.

The prisoner made another one of those almost-smiles. “You can call me Eddie,” he said. “Eddie Holsclaw.”

“Eddie?” she said. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve met an Eddie.” She leaned forward. “What’s another human doing way the hell out here?”

Eddie didn’t answer her question. The almost-smile dropped from his face and he closed his eyes. It took a moment to realize that he was shaking. His jaws were clamped tight, his eyes squeezing out thin tears, and his face was reddening. Jani looked over at the guards, who were both watching very carefully. “You shouldn’t have said that, miss,” the lizard one said. “He’s got a pro -”

“You are not human!” Eddie screamed. His eyes were open now, bulging from his face, and spittle flew across the room. “I know what you are! Machine! Foul, dirty machine, a made thing, a simulacrum!” He took a deep breath, and before the end of it, the fuzzy guard was on his feet and reaching into a small pouch on his belt.

“Don’t you come near me, creature!” Eddie yelled. “You filthy mechanical torturer! Let me out of here and I’ll destroy you all! Make room for the living, for the real!” He cried out as the guard jabbed him with a hypodermic. “You will all… I will free the universe… You…” His head dropped forward as far as it could go, and a thin line of drool slowly dripped from his lips.

Jani looked from Eddie to the guards and back again. The fuzzy one was putting a second hypo back in the pouch, keeping his eyes on the prisoner. The lizard was standing and had his baton gripped in both hands. When it became evident that Eddie was out, the guards sat down again, keeping watch on him.

The coffee maker beeped, and Jani jumped. She laughed, a short, unfunny laugh, and quickly doled out two cups of coffee to the guards. “Here you go,” she said. They took it with nods of thanks. She looked over at Eddie again and shook her head. “They don’t pay you enough,” she said to the guards.

“No kidding,” the lizard guard said. He held up the coffee. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” She backed up to the door. “You need anything, just hit the intercom over there. We’ll be at our destination in about two hours.” She backed up through the door, and slammed her palm on the lock switch as soon as the door was closed. Then she exhaled.

The piloting rig wasn’t as comfortable as a chair in the galley, the view of the stars was dead boring, and she’d forgotten her coffee. “At least there’s no crazy person in here,” she said. She glanced back down the hall to the galley door and then, just for good measure, closed off the cockpit. She reclined in the piloting rig and stared out the window. It was probably going to turn into a story, whether she liked it or not. She hoped Annica appreciated it.

Day One Hundred and Nine: Mystery Man

September 7, 2011 Leave a comment

The only life I’ve ever lived is my own, and nothing will ever change that.

I’ve come to grips with it, really. I think I have. When my brother was dating, he was a poor black woman, a single mother and an eldest of five daughters before he finally got married to a girl who studied human sexuality because a cousin had felt her up when she was ten and she’s never been truly comfortable around men ever since then. Something about that resonated with my brother, and there must have been something in his life that she liked, but I have no idea why.

Which is, come to think of it, kind of the problem.

The women I meet get frustrated with me because I can’t understand them. At first we talk, we smile and exchange pleasantries. Then she takes out her Memory and offers it to me, and that’s pretty much the end of the date. A real man, a whole man, would do the same, and they would spend a few minutes plugged into each other. They would know each other inside and out, soup to nuts, warts and all, and then decide if they wanted to stay together. Their Memory, and the microscopic robots that recorded every instant of their existences, would be all they needed to know about each other. If they thought it could work, then it would be off to the city hall to register. Otherwise they’d shake hands, split the bill and be on their way.

I sweep floors in a bar for a living. I could do more, but most jobs require that you hand over your Memory so they can decide if you’re a good hire or not. Some guy from HR takes a look at what you’ve done from birth until five minutes ago and makes the decision right there. It’s a perfectly reasonable decision, There’d have to be this whole process of interviewing, like they did when my great grandfather was just out of college, and that was never really reliable. People could lie, they could put up a good first impression to hide glaring flaws.

Not anymore. Now a quick assessment can be made and the risk is next to nothing.

All that means a guy like me isn’t going to get hired for much more than what I’m doing now. I have no Memory, at least not one that anyone else can see. When I was a newborn I nearly died because my body rejected the nanobots. My parents told me later that it was rare, but not unheard-of. “Your brain is defective,” my father said. “You’ll never be a full member of society.”

That was probably the most intimate conversation I’d ever had with him.

My boss calls me “Mystery Man,” and I cringe when he does, but it’s true. Without the hardware that everyone else has, no one can know who I am.

The weekly news was on as I swept up. The anchor, Ellis Cerrano, was very popular at the Life Library – my boss had been him several times, and I think my mother had a subscription. The big story was a criminal trial, something that we hadn’t seen in a very long time. There was no point to committing crimes anymore, at least unless you were absolutely sure you’d get away with it. If the police caught you and subpoenaed your Memory, you were convicted. The whole trial process took less than half an hour from arrest to conviction. If by some misfortune you were innocent, you were back on the streets with an apology and a small sum for your troubles.

I leaned on my broom and watched Cerrano breathlessly tell the story to the world of the criminal mastermind Nuseto KoyKozy, the man who had managed to anonymously steal millions from the richest people in the country. He kept it up for five years, hiding behind aliases and managing to never give up his Memory to anyone. In the end, though, he was tracked down, caught, and his Memory acquired by the police. Within a few weeks, all of the stolen money he had hidden away would be retrieved and returned to its rightful owner.

“Damn shame,” a man said. I stood up straight and looked around. A man in a white suit was standing at the bar, the only person there in the middle of the afternoon. He looked over at me and said it again: “Damn shame.”

I just went back to sweeping. The afternoon was a dead time, but when dinner rolled around, the place would fill up and I’d have a lot more to do.

“I’m talking to you, big man,” he said. I looked up and he was looking at me.

“Me?” I said.

He laughed, and it was a mean laugh. “No, jackass. The broom.” He stood up, his hand outstretched, and I flinched. “Of course I’m talking to you,” he said. He reached down and took my hand. “I’m Tyrone Nikaido. And you must be the Mystery Man that Ibaino has told me so much about.”

I didn’t like the name. I especially didn’t like knowing that my boss talked about me. I took my hand away. “My name’s Narr,” I said, and went back to sweeping.

Tyrone watched me for a little while, his hands in his pockets and his lips pursed as he examined what I was doing. I started sweeping the same spot over and over again, and I could feel him watching me. I could have just hit him with the broom, but then I’d be out of a job. In jail, maybe. Probably.

“You are a unique man, Narr,” he said. I didn’t look up. “There are some people – some very interesting people – who would love to meet you.”

“I don’t want to meet anybody,” I said.

He shrugged. “But they still want to meet you.” He leaned towards me, his voice dropping to stage whisper. “The man with no Memory.”

I dropped the broom and started walking to the back. Inside, I was cursing myself. I’d have to move, get a new job, start the whole thing all over again. I wanted to cry.

Tyrone grabbed my arm, spun me around and looked up at me. “Don’t be stupid, kid,” he said.

“Let go of me.”

“When I’ve had my say.” He led me to one of the booths and had me sit down. I kept glancing around, waiting for my boss to come in and blow up at me, to remind me that without him, I’d be living on the streets.

“You’re a unique man,” Tyrone said again. He glanced over at the TV, which was still playing samples from KoyKozy’s Memory. “That guy did well enough, but it was his Memory that got him, in the end.” He looked back at me. “Once they have that, the game is over. The cops have all the evidence they need to convict, and you’re spending time being reprogrammed.” He said it with a sneer, and I could understand why. There was only one real punishment for crime these days, and the Memory made it simple: re-live the lives of those you wronged. Over and over again until the state was convinced you’d learned your lesson. KoyKozy had wronged a whole lot of people – he’d be spending a long time in rehab.

“A man with no Memory could go a long way,” Tyrone said. He stared at me for a while, to let it sink in.

I didn’t need a while. “I’m not a crook,” I said, standing up. “And I’m leaving.”

Disappearing wouldn’t be too hard. I didn’t have much. All I’d have to do was find another job that barely paid my rent, another landlord who didn’t care who lived in his place. Another city where I could vanish and not be noticed.

I stopped in the doorway and clenched my fists. I knew – I knew – this was a bad idea.

But.

Tyrone was grinning when I turned around. He hadn’t moved from the booth. He was just waiting there like he knew what I would do. My feet dragged as I walked back towards him, and the smile on his face never faltered. I closed my eyes and let out a breath that seemed to have been in my chest forever.

“What do you want me to do?”

Day Eighty-four: The End [MAKE-UP]

September 6, 2011 1 comment

The main thing that everyone realized by the end was this: even if they had known sooner, there was no way they could have stopped what was about to happen.

Astronomers in the southern hemisphere were, simply by virtue of economics and land mass, less common than those in the north. Even so, if the great vessels of the Galactic Overlord P’thn’aar had approached the planet from the north rather than the south, all that humanity would have achieved would have been a few more weeks to come to grips with their impending annihilation. As it was, researchers at the South African Astronomical Observatory were the first to notice something new in the southern skies. It confounded the astronomers at first. Its brightness far exceeded any asteroid they had cataloged thus far, and it appeared to be stationary in the sky. Telescopes across the hemisphere were trained on it, and most were better able to figure out what it wasn’t, rather than what it was.

It wasn’t a star, that much was certain. Its spectral profile suggested that it was reflecting sunlight, rather than emitting light of its own, but opinions differed on what kind of material could throw back that much light. Blogs erupted with the news, opinions raging from UFOs to rogue stars to comets of doom that would most certainly smash into the fragile Earth, rendering it unfit for life of any kind. It was not until simultaneous observations were made from every possible observation point that the true scope of the incoming object was revealed.

The primary ship of the Galactic Overlord P’thn’aar was massive, possibly three to four times the size of Earth itself. Frantic recalculations made the scenario even worse. Given its size, and the increase in its brightness over the weeks, its speed could be determined. The ships would reach the Earth in less than three weeks.

Panic gripped some nations tightly. New York, London, Berlin, Sydney – they were all in flames within days of the announcement. There was a surge in suicides across the planet, and bank collapses as loans stopped being repaid while credit lines were maxed out. Families were broken up, entire economies collapsed as people stopped going to work, and the death of humanity seemed more and more certain as astronomers gathered data on the incoming object. The world faced an event unprecedented in human history, and humans were not handling it well.

When the news was released, two weeks after the discovery of the object, that it appeared to be slowing down, there was a brief period of celebration. It appeared that the hand of God had been outstretched to protect His fragile world and deliver His beloved creation from almost certain death. The celebration lasted until the first good pictures from Hubble were released, and the reason for the object’s slowdown became clear.

The ship was made of metal. Its leading face was caked in accumulated space dust and debris, but the rest of it was gleaming and clean. The surface was smooth, marred only by long, straight lines that were spread out evenly from pole to pole. It had no lights, no windows, it was sending no signals. As it approached Earth, it slowed, and the planet came to the realization that their doom was even more terrible than they had thought.

By the time it stopped, the great ship was close enough that the moon’s orbit was being affected – it was pulled into a long ellipse, destroying the night sky that had been familiar to mankind for centuries. But other than that, the ship did nothing. It filled the sky, bright and gleaming, but it sent no signals, it destroyed no cities. Governments from around the world attempted communication, guaranteeing peace if only their new guests would also do so. An attempt was made in the United States to revive its shuttle program for one last mission, but the Senate voted against the funding, and any chance of sending humans to visit the ship were lost.

Exactly three days after the ship arrived, the broadcast was made. It would be the last signal broadcast on Earth, and it was humanity’s final confirmation of its fate.

There was no video to the broadcast, simply a static picture of an alien sigil, white against a black background. The voice that spoke was flat and cold and businesslike.

“Earth is to be commended for producing intelligences in quantity. Intelligences will be harvested for analysis and computational upgrade. Earth will be exploited for all resources. Hail Galactic Overlord P’thn’aar.”

Those who had not panicked before took the opportunity to do so now. There was no news, because the radio and television stations broadcast only static. Cell phone service was gone, and land lines had been disabled. The internet, for all intents and purposes, had ceased to exist. With no place to turn for opinions and information, many people descended into the madness of not knowing.

Their only respite from their own thoughts came when the probes descended from the ship.

They were small silver disks, about the size of a truck tire and trailing thin, metallic tentacles behind them. To everyone’s horror, they spared no time completing their duties.

A probe would seize a person by the head and hold them close. One of their tentacles would slice through the skull, tearing it off and throwing it to the ground. The brain would then be scooped out and the lifeless corpse dropped unceremoniously to the ground. The brain itself hovered in a force field, dragged behind the probe. It was swift and brutal. Moments after one brain was harvested, another would be found. Tens of millions of these probes launched from the main ship towards the Earth, and each of them wanted only one thing: brains.

The vast majority of probes hunted humans, and they were unstoppable. They were shot at by weapons large and small. They were hit with rocks and beaten with sticks, and none of it mattered. They harvested a brain, dropped the body and then went on to the next, and none were spared their attention. When a probe reached its limit, it streaked back up to the main ship to unload its precious cargo.

Some probes, however, went after animals. People saw them taking the brains from elephants and chimpanzees, dolphins and whales, even cats and dogs. Animal harvesting was the minority of operations, however. Humans were their primary target.

Within days, the planet was empty of thinking beings. Cities were empty. The seas were quiet. On the great ship, the harvest was networked together, brain by brain, until the intelligences of Earth, tightly packed and networked, were allowed to see what the ship could see: the ravaging of their home.

Great machines had been unleashed from the main ship to disassemble the Earth. Some came back with ore and rock, others soaked up the oceans into great, continent-sized bags. Specialized ships bored all the way into the mantle and began to harvest the glowing minerals that had lain under the planet’s crust for billions of years. Smaller ships scoured the planet, spraying a solvent that reduced all life forms to a homogeneous organic slurry. Like the water, that was bagged up and transported to the ship.

In the end, all that was left was a hot, spinning iron core. Specialized craft descended upon it, landed gently, and fired great rockets to counteract its spin. When the core stopped, the craft latched onto it and towed it into the main ship as well, leaving no trace of the planet Earth but a smattering of debris.

An order was sent through the great processor that was the last true remnant of Earth. The billions of brains screamed and convulsed, but they complied. Overlord P’thn’aar’s mining ship had to move to the next world, far, far away.

Day Seventy-eight: Mother’s Day

August 13, 2011 1 comment

The last time I saw my mother was fifteen years ago, thanks to that damn time machine of hers.

She made me take physics in high school, pushed and pushed me for success and high grades. When the time came for the science fair, she took over instantly. My plan to do a simple demonstration of pendulum action was shoved to the wayside in favor of a prototype of her laser refraction system, a new method of capturing photons in a supercooled gas chamber that no high school student in the world would ever think of trying. “Donna,” she said, “this will completely guarantee you an A. Promise.”

“Mom,” I said, “on what world do you think that a high school freshman could be able to put together a super laser-defrackulator thingie? No one will buy it for a second!”

We argued about it for days, a roundabout argument that didn’t end until I packed a backpack full of clothes and set out for my dad’s house, which is where I managed to put together a model that did what I wanted, but didn’t actually win anything.

I think it was about a week before she noticed I was gone and showed up at my dad’s, looking to take me home. In a perfect world I could have stayed there, but this world had a judge that believed that a mother was a better caretaker than a father no matter that the mother was far more likely to, say, blow out the power grid for an entire neighborhood on a whim.

My friends used to joke that she was a mad scientist. I didn’t find those jokes nearly as funny as they did.

The night before my junior prom was the last time I saw my mother. She had taken over the garage with her latest experiment, something that she swore up and down was a time machine. The explanation of how it worked was technical and confusing, especially since no matter how hard she pushed, I was never really interested in the science that she was doing. All I knew was that she would be in there when I got home from school, surface long enough to eat the dinner that I made, and then she’d go away again. All I would hear from her would be the hum of machinery, the occasional “WHUMP” of a small explosion.

This night, however, she emerged from the garage in a cloud of smoke and a howl of triumph. “I got it!” she yelled.

“Great,” I said, re-checking a math problem. “Don’t give it to me.”

“No, no, no, sweetie – I got it! The machine, it works!”

“Uh-huh.” I didn’t look up. “Congratulations.”

She went to the sink to wash her hands. “This will revolutionize everything,” she said. “The future is finally open to us, and pretty soon I’ll be able to get to the past, too.” She went to the fridge, grabbed a beer and popped the top off. “Here’s to the greatest advancement in science since the discovery of fire.” She took a long pull off the bottle and handed it to me. “Want some?”

I glared at her. “Seventeen, mom. Remember?”

“Nonsense,” she said. “Time is meaningless now.” She finished the beer and then snapped her fingers. “You know what? I’m going to have a beer with you.” She went back to the fridge for two more bottles.

“Mom,” I said, “I have homework to do and the prom is tomorrow. I am not getting drunk with you.”

“I didn’t say ‘get drunk,’ I said ‘have a drink.’ Big difference.” She turned around with a grin on her face and a weird light in her eyes. “And I didn’t say I was going to do it tonight, oh no. I’m going to have a drink with you when you’re older and better able to appreciate what your mother has done for you.”

“Mom…”

She held up the beer-less hand. “No, no,” she said. “I’m going to go have a beer with you fifteen years in the future. We’ll laugh, we’ll have a good time, and you’ll see!”

I watched her go to the garage door and just shrugged. There was nothing I could do to change her mind. There was never anything I could do. So I waved at her, said “Travel safely,” and went back to my homework. A few minutes later there was a grinding noise and a squeal and another “WHUMP” noise, and that was it.

My prom date called a little while later to make sure we knew when we were meeting. We chatted for a while, and then hung up. I wrapped up the math homework by nine, made something to eat and then watched a little TV. Before I went to bed, I poked my head into the garage and said, “Mom? I’m going to sleep!” She didn’t answer, but there was always a 50-50 chance there.

So I went to bed.

The next day I got up, ate, went to school. Came home, fussed over the prom dress and my hair, and my date arrived at five. Zach was adorable in his rented tux, and he told me I looked pretty, which was all I really wanted to hear. I went back to the garage before we left to tell her I was leaving, and there was still no answer. I looked in a little more.

The garage was empty. Just her twisted mass of cables and machinery that had occupied the garage for months. I rolled my eyes.

“Everything okay?” Zach asked from behind me.

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s probably out scavenging computer parts or twigs and leaves or something like that.”

He smiled and gave me a hug from behind. “Off building a sub-orbital death ray again?”

I turned around in his arms. “Are you kidding? Geosynchronous – to make sure unscrupulous boyfriends don’t get too fresh.” He smiled and kissed me and I kissed him back.

Prom was great and we stayed out all night. By the time I got home, the sun was rising and I was exhausted. I peeked into the garage, but there was still no sign of her, and my half-asleep brain resolved to do something about this before too long. I slept all day and ordered pizza for dinner. There was still no sign of mom, and that was about when I started to worry. I called the few people she might have been with, but they hadn’t seen her. I called my dad, but he didn’t know where she was.

I went into the garage to see if there was anything that might help. She’d never forbidden me to go into the garage, of course. I’d just never really been interested in taking a look around. Nothing she made was ever useful or even cool, so I pretty much just walled it off in my head as Her Space and let it be.

Now I was finally getting a look at what she’d been doing all this time. The center of the room was occupied by a circular platform, which was surrounded by cables and wires and ducts and other stuff that I couldn’t identify. There were tall racks of electronics nearby, all blinking gently in the dim light, and the place smelled of ozone and motor oil. Near the platform there was an aluminum suitcase with a small display inside. On the display it said: AUGUST 11 2026 10:24 AM.

I stared at it for a moment, and said, “No. Not a chance.” There was no way in hell that my mother had actually built a working time machine. I mean, she was good – she came up with some weird ideas that almost worked all the time, but this? A time machine was more than I was willing to believe.

She didn’t come home, though. Not that night or the next one or the one after that. No phone calls or emails, either. She had her flaky moments, yes, but not like this. After a few days, I had to call the police. They asked all the standard questions – what was she wearing, where did you last see her, all that. My father came over to help with the formalities, and I showed them the garage with the “time machine” in it. The police took notes and said they’d be in touch. I moved in with my father, and that was pretty much it. Mom never came back. The house was foreclosed on, since no one was paying its mortgage anymore. No one would buy it because the place was riddled with mom’s “improvements,” and they couldn’t demolish it because no one had any idea what kind of chemicals and toxins and whatnots would be released if they did. So it languished in the town bureaucracy for ages, gathering dust.

I graduated from high school with honors and went on to college, majoring in anthropology. Zach and I broke up because he wanted to study astrophysics in Colorado, and there was no way I was moving out there. I traveled around the world, observing various non-technological peoples in other countries, and on occasion I wished that my mother’s time machine really had worked. It would be the anthropologist’s dream to go back in time and see how early humans lived, document their evolution over the millennia.

Mom missed out on all the fun of my early twenties. My father loved every minute of it, of course, watching me figure out what to do with my life, making mistakes and becoming a better person, all those things. But he never mentioned my mother. And neither did I. She was gone and, well, that was that.

On that date – August 11, 2026, I went back to the house. It was a horrible-looking place, hidden behind some hedges and trees that people in the neighborhood had planted to make it seem like less of a blight. If they couldn’t get rid of it, they could at least hide it from view. I popped open the door, scaring off some small animals that had nested in the front hall, and picked through the decaying, graffiti’d downstairs to the garage.

Most of the electronics had been stolen years ago. The rest were cold and covered with dust, or smashed and lying on the ground. Local teenagers maybe, or transients. It didn’t matter. The machine was a long time dead, dusty and defaced.

I checked my watch. 10:20 AM. Only a few minutes to go. I thought about what I would say or do if she appeared in front of me. Cry? Scream? Hug her? Punch her? Maybe she didn’t know what would happen when she took her little jaunt into the future. Maybe it never occurred to her what the ramifications would be. Or maybe it did, and she really didn’t care. I dusted off a crate and sat down.

It was hard not to look at my watch while I waited for the moment to come. It was harder still not to berate myself for thinking that she would actually show up, maybe in a flash of light and sound, or that she’d just be there, grinning madly and holding a couple of cold bottles of beer.

When I finally relented and looked down at my watch, it was 10:25. Past time, and she wasn’t there.

Against my will, my heart sank. Part of me had hoped she would be there, even though I was absolutely sure she wouldn’t be. I stood up, dusted off my pants, and took a deep breath. “Thanks, mom,” I said into the empty room, and then I turned and left.

Mom was gone. Wherever she was, I hoped she was happy. I left the decomposing house and went back to my life. Back to my future, which was now well and truly my own.

Day Seventy-one: Genius [REDUX]

July 31, 2011 3 comments

On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. When I first wrote “Genius” (day sixteen), it was an experiment in doing a dialogue-only story. No narration, no description, no nothing. Just the words. I think it worked out okay, with some good characters and an interesting premise. For the revisitation, I thought I’d put in a more conventional third-person narrative and see what I could make of it. Let me know what you think!

———————————–

Kevin took deep, slow breaths to try and keep his heartbeat under control. The tip of the soldering iron trembled ever so slightly, and that wasn’t good enough. This part of the apparatus was vital to the success of the project. He blinked away the sweat that dripped into his eyes. He took one more deep breath, held it, and let it out as he lowered the iron to the circuit board.

“Kevin? Time for dinner, sweetheart!” He jerked the iron up and away from the board and cursed. He swung the magnifier back, dropped the coil of solder on the tabletop and growled under his breath at his mother. “Don’t make me call you again!” she called.

He wiped his forehead, set the iron back in its holder and counted to ten. “I’ll be up in a minute, mom!” he yelled. He stood up and turned on the light, blinking against the sudden illumination. The basement was cluttered and chaotic, with benches and boxes full of parts and various electronic components, cast-offs from neighbors’ trash and whatever he could scrape together from eBay. He took a battered notebook from one of them and started scribbling on a blank page.

“This is the second time, Kevin. It’s getting cold.” His mother’s voice was starting to sound concerned, but that was the default expression for her. For the last few years, she hadn’t know what to do with her son, and that was fine with him. She and his father had tried therapists and talking to his teachers at school, but they didn’t have any help for them. “He’s a great student,” they said. “Top honors, just… He’s in his own world sometimes.”

Would that that were true. If he had his own world he’d be able to get work done, to stay away from such trivialities as whatever it was his mother had cooked for dinner. It was only after many arguments and a little begging and pleading that he convinced his parents to let him use the basement for his own purposes. He promised not to do anything that would burn down the house or get him arrested, and they’d just have to live with that.

In recent weeks, however, he’d spent more and more time down there. He would come home from school, head straight downstairs and not show his face again until he came up to wolf down his dinner. After that it was straight back to the basement, and he wouldn’t emerge again until morning. They had tried to talk to him about it, as they had tried to talk about so many other things, but whatever he was doing down there was taking up all of his attention.

“Kevin,” she called again. “Your father and I… You’ve been down there all week, and we’re worried about you.” He didn’t answer, but put some extra notes next to an improved circuit design. He may not have finished this one, but maybe that was a good thing. If he just tweaked the design a little…

“That’s it, Kevin. I’m coming down there.”

His head snapped up from his notebook as he head her come down the stairs, in flagrant violation of the agreement they’d made. “What? Mom, no, you can’t – No!” He ran to the foot of the stairs to stop her, but it was too late. “No no no no – awwww, mom!”

His mother looked completely out of place in his basement junkyard. Her pale blue suit was clean and uncluttered, and the only jewelry she wore was a tastefully small cross on a thin gold chain. She looked every bit the professional working mother, but she’d somehow managed to make it look easy. She looked around the basement with an expression of horror and confusion, not only at the chaotic mess of things that was down there, but simply the chaos itself. Up above, in the house that she ruled, such a thing as this would never be tolerated.

“What on earth have you been doing down here?” she asked. She reached out to open one of the battered cardboard boxes and recoiled as dusty cables and connectors spilled out. “My God!”

Kevin took his gloves off and tried to escort her back to the stairs. “Jeez, mom, I told you not to come down here.”

“I mean, just look at this mess.” She walked around him and started peering into everything with the horrified curiosity of a driver passing a fatal accident. “Why do you have a shopping basket full of batteries? And broken remote controls? And is this -” She picked up a metal basket with a leather chinstrap. The helmet had been festooned with wires, all leading to a thick, canvas-wrapped cable that was coiled in another box. “It looks like my old colander,” she said. “What are you doing with this?”

“Mom, could you put that down please? It’s delicate.” Kevin was acutely aware of the whining tone that was entering his voice and he squared his shoulders. “Mom, look, just put it down and go back upstairs. I’ll be up in a minute.”

She put down the helmet and sniffed. “And what’s – what’s that smell? It smells like… Like…” Kevin knew what it smelled like, but he was used to it by now. The smell of burned-out electronics was part of the background atmosphere of the basement at this point. She spun around to face him again. “Kevin, have you been smoking down here?”

He wanted to deny it, but stopped himself. “Yes!” His eyes lit up. “Yes, mom, that’s exactly it.” He weaved through the junkpiles and gently took her arm, trying to guide her out. “I’ve been smoking and I feel terrible about it and I promise that I’ll stop, so just go back upstairs and-”

She broke free of him again and approached the door to a walled-off section he had built. “What’s in here?” she asked, turning the knob.

“Mom, no!!” It was too late. The room beyond that door was better than the rest of the basement, at least in terms of neatness. There were small lights in the darkness, a well-organized bench, and shelves of tagged and labeled devices, the successes that had been culled from all his failures.

His mother looked around, and stopped, horrified, when she saw what was on the desk in the middle of the room. “Oh. Oh my God, Kevin, what have you done?” She approached it, gingerly. There was a great glass jar, its thick walls distorting the dim light that shined upwards from the base. Inside, its neck wired to a shining steel base that was covered in little lights, was the head of their family dog, Racer. She leaned towards it, her hand to her mouth.

It opened its eyes and started barking.

“Mom….”

“Don’t touch me!” she screamed, stumbling backwards from the dog’s head. She backed up against the door, her face twisting between anger and disgust. “Oh God,” she whispered. “Is that Racer? You – you said he ran away and-”

“Mom, I-” The dog barked again and she whimpered. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s Racer. He – quiet, boy! Quiet!” The dog stopped barking but started licking the inside of its container.

“Wh- where’s the rest of him?”

“Buried out back, mom. I…” She bent over and threw up on the floor. “Oh. Okay. You, um…. I’ll just…” He grabbed a small towel off a rack and twisted it in his hands. “I’ll clean that up after. Don’t worry about it.”

“Sweet Jesus, Kevin, sweet baby Jesus…” She wiped her mouth and took a step closer to the thing in the jar. Racer barked again and started panting happily as she approached.

“Mom, I know how this looks,” Kevin said. “Look at me, Mom.” He reached out to touch her and she flinched away, but she looked at him. “I know how this – shut up, Racer! – I know how this looks. And I know it looks pretty bad.” He tried to smile. “But if you look at the bright side-”

“Bright side? Bright side?” She rounded on him, and her usual expression of careful pleasantness was gone. Now his mother’s wide, tear-filled eyes were full of anger, fear, more real emotion than he could remember seeing from her in a long time. “You have your beagle’s head in a jar, Kevin! And it’s still alive! How –” She gestured around to the bizarre-looking contraptions that were on all the shelves. Some of them looked vaguely identifiable, but there were far more whose purpose she could not begin to understand. “And these machines? Did they do this? Did you make these?”

“That’s what I’m talking about, mom!” Kevin got in front of her and tried to recapture her attention. “I made these! Out of the crap that people throw away. Out of the things in my head! Look at Racer, mom!” He ran over to the desk and wrapped an arm around the glass case. Racer barked again. “He got hit by a car, okay? And I kept him alive! No one else could have done that!”

“You-”

He left Racer, who whined quietly, and picked up a thing that looked like two old TV antennas stuck together with a copper coil between them. “Do you see this machine, mom? Hold on, let me find…” He put it down and started digging through a box under the desk.

“Kevin-”

“Hold on, mom,” he said. He stood up again with a metronome in his hand, the one they bought for him when he’d expressed an interest in playing the piano. That had lasted for very nearly two weeks. “Okay, Look at this, okay?” He set it ticking and put it on the desk some distance away from Racer, who was watching it intently. “Nice beat,” he said, “four-four time, keep your eyes on it…. You watching?” He picked up the machine off the desk and pressed a small button. The coils began to hum quietly and a soft glow filled the space between the spreading antennas. He adjusted a dial, pointed the whole thing at the metronome and pushed the large red button in the base of the device. He touched the pale glow to the metronome, which immediately stopped in mid-swing, the pendulum leaning precariously to the right. The glow stayed around it, faint and iridescent.

Kevin turned back to his mother, a huge grin on his face. “Isn’t that cool?” He held up the device towards her and she took a step backwards. “Localized time distortion! I can dial that baby down to almost nothing!” He turned the dial back a bit, just for show.

“Kevin, stop.”

He gestured back to the shelves. “I have an antigrav plate down here somewhere, and a new plastic that can replace human skin cells. If I can find the remote, I’ll show you my army of mind-controlled cockroaches.” That look of disgust passed back over his mother’s face and she looked like she might want to throw up again. “Okay, maybe not them, but didn’t you wonder why your roses grew so big last year? Why they screamed sometimes? Or what happened to those kids who egged our house last Halloween?” He laughed, and it was a dark laugh. “Not a coincidence, mom. I mean just look at all this stuff!” He turned back to her.

“I… I’m looking, Kevin.” Her voice had gone quiet.

“And?”

She walked over to the desk, and rested a hand against the glass case. “Oh, Racer…”

“Mom, forget about Racer. Racer was just a stepping-stone, a way up to something better!” He grabbed her with his free hand and turned her to face him. This time she didn’t flinch. “Mom, listen to me: in a few years, I’ll be able to figure out how to keep people alive indefinitely. And not in a jar, either. I have stuff down here that’ll change the world, mom.” He tried smiling again, letting a note of pleading enter his voice. “Don’t you see?”

She nodded slowly, mechanically. “Yes, Kevin. I see.”

“Do you understand why I did all this?”

The nod again. “Yes, Kevin. I understand.”

“So… we’re cool?” He maneuvered to look into her eyes, but she looked away. “Mom?”

His mother took a deep breath and turned to the door. “Kevin. I’m going to go upstairs now. I’m going to call a doctor or someone, because this…” She looked back at the room and shuddered. “This isn’t normal.”

“No, mom. No, you can’t do that.” He gripped the device tightly.

“I have to, Kevin.”

“No, you can’t. I’m not ready – the world’s not ready! You have to just – Mom, wait!!” She was already out the door, heading towards the stairs.

“I can’t let you do this, Kevin, not under my roof!” She reached a block in the maze of clutter and turned around to find a clear path, a sense of haste and panic entering her steps.

“Mom, no! Stop!” He held up the time-stopper as she approached him, and the pale glow lit up more brightly between the antennas. “NO!!“

She tried to step around him, but there wasn’t enough room. She turned to look as the light embraced her and she slowed down. “Kevvvvv…iii…nnnnnnnnnnn….”

Kevin looked at his mother, who was frozen in mid-step. Strands of hair hung, immobile, and the cross on its chain was dangling off towards the lapel of her suit jacket.

“Oh, mom,” he whispered. “You shouldn’t have made me do that.” He reached out to touch her, but drew back his hand. He didn’t know what would happen if he touched her. He made a mental note to test that out later.

He sat down on one of the boxes and rested the device on his lap. “You’ll be fine like that.” He tried to make himself sound sure. “You won’t have to worry about getting old, anyway. Not for, let me see…” He checked the settings on the device and then did some quick math in his head. His eyebrows went up. “Huh. Two point three million years.” He smiled and patted the machine. “Damn,” he said. “I am good.”

His mother stood there, frozen in time and perfectly beautiful. She didn’t understand, and that was no surprise. He’d never expected her to, but rather hoped that he’d be able to show her some of the more amazing things first before letting slip that bit about their dog’s head in a jar. Or the cockroaches. Sooner or later, he figured he’d be able to bring her around – her and his father. But she’d pushed the schedule ahead, and letting her go was far too risky.

And now there was his father to worry about. If she didn’t come up soon…

Kevin picked up his gloves from the workbench and put them on. “All right, then,” he said. He took up the time-stopper again and rechecked the settings. A pale glow bloomed between the antennas. “Dad first,” he said, mounting the first step. “Then dinner.” He smiled grimly.

“Then the world.”

Day Twenty-five: Babysitting

June 15, 2011 2 comments

Jani Morgan leaned back in the harness, tapped the glowing amber button and waited for the airlock to cycle through. She stared out the front windows at the far edge of the Phi Orionis beta transit station. It looked like every other space station she had been to. White, covered in bleached nanocarbon to keep the micrometeorites at bay. Great black wings jutting out, angled to catch every last photon of sunlight from the two great stars millions of miles away. Small craft like hers flew up to it and attached themselves like ticks to the side of the station, while others buzzed away and vanished into that other-space where Einstein’s finicky little laws weren’t quite so restrictive.

It looked like every other station, and the stars just looked like all the other stars. The cockpit of the Dutchman was grimy and worn, rigged with tech that she should have replaced a long time ago. She flipped the cover off her pad and started going through the docking checklist. Hatch seals secure.

Check.

Air filters at better than eighty percent.

Check.

Fuel cells at better than fifty percent.

Check.

Freshwater tanks at better than seventy percent.

Check.

Everything just like it was the last time?

Check.

You’ve made a terrible mistake and should have lived and died on Earth?

Check.

The monitor for the airlock pinged, and the display turned green. She slid the pad into the pocket on her leg, unbuckled the restraint harness, and stood. Her legs were tired from the trip, from days of sitting in that seat. Her back ached from leaning and twisting to get to those vital controls that were never designed for an operator without a minimum of three tentacles. Her eyes felt like lead balls in her head. Her head was cloudy and her thoughts were dim.

In space, things like “years” lost their meaning. Given the vast number of stars around which intelligent beings lived, and the ridiculous lengths people went to in order to get from one place to another without having to sire a legion of grandchildren, a system of timekeeping had been developed that was reliable, but baffling at the same time. It took into account where you were and how fast you were going, then fed you a “date” that you could be pretty sure was what everyone near you would agree on.

How it worked, no one knew. And no one cared, because it worked. The upshot of it was that Jani wasn’t able to figure out how long she had been in space. If she had been able to, she probably would have popped a hatch and happily suffocated in the interstellar medium.

Long enough for her to feel old, she knew that. For the glamour to wear off the whole enterprise. Now she could look at a new planet, and her initial thoughts were not, What a wonder this is, another whole world with a great and fabulous history of life and intelligence! They were more along the lines of, I hope these little bastards don’t try to pay me in local scrip again.

Jani pulled herself through the umbilical and into the station, where a weak gravity field had been established. An Octaran, in its patchwork blue armor and gurgling aquatic respirator, was holding a pad and barely serving as cover for a smaller, skinny being that was trying to hide. It wasn’t doing a good job.

The Octaran gurgled something, and Jani made the universal sign for “I don’t understand.” A it lifted a tentacle and slid it around on the pad. “Is this better?” it asked in heavily accented Standard.

“Yeah, it’s fine,” she said. “What’s the job?”

Another tentacle – she could count at least five – wrapped around the smaller being’s arm (upper appendage, anyway – no reason to be speciesist) and pulled the little one forward. “This one is to be transited to the settlement at Polaris B. Your account-” it tapped the pad again “-has been credited half the payment. Other half on delivery.”

Jani looked down at the little biped that stood between them, caught between terror and astonishment. It had two big eyes, spaced widely apart. The evolutionary marker of a prey species. True to its biology, it was balanced on its toes, eyeing the exits, while trying to watch both Jani and the Octaran at the same time.

“A child?” she asked the Octaran. It gurgled in the affirmative. “A child,” she said to herself, rubbing her eyes. She took her pad from a pocket and checked her bank balance. The money was there, as promised. Final payment would set her up for a while, maybe give her time to take a vacation.

“All right,” she said to it. She looked up at the Octaran. “Is there anyplace where I can get food here?” The guard checked his pad, and gurgled. “Good.” She put her hand on the child’s shoulder, and it flinched at her touch. “We’re gonna get some food while the ship resupplies. Okay?” The child blinked once, but otherwise didn’t respond. “Do you understand me?” she asked. The child blinked again.

“Great,” Jani said. She looked up at the Octaran, who adjusted his speakers and said something in a voice that sounded like great bamboo stalks clattering together in the wind. It made Jani think of home, and she fought the urge to scream.

The child looked at the Octaran, then at Jani. Then it started to cry.

“Well, shit,” Jani muttered. She looked to the Octaran for help, but there was none coming. It just said, “Vital data has been transmitted to your pad. Payment will be made upon safe arrival.” It made a complicated, tenticular salute, and then left the two of them alone.

The child continued to cry, the high, wailing noise that all scared and lonely children across the universe made.

Jani sighed, turned around, and walked back into her ship. Left alone, the child stopped crying and limited itself to worried sniffles. All it could hear was the sound of hatches being opened and then closed, and the tall biped occasionally saying something in that harsh voice it used. The child looked behind it. The door was closed. No way out. It started to cry quietly again.

In a few minutes, Jani came back and held out her hand. “Chocolate,” she said. “Take it.”

The child looked at her, then at her hand. Then at her again.

“Why’d that translator have to leave?” Jani asked. She broke off a small piece, put it in her mouth, and tried not to break down sobbing as memories came to her. Her mother, Easter Sunday, many Halloweens, the candy store on the way home from school, Chuck…

Spindly little fingers broke off a tiny, tiny piece. The child sniffed it a few times, then gave it a tentative lick. Then it popped the piece of chocolate in its mouth.

Jani watched. And waited.

The child chewed for a moment, then looked up at her and shrugged.

“Really?” Jani said. “The only piece of chocolate within a hundred parsecs and you shrug?” She carefully wrapped the remaining chocolate in a piece of foil. “Fine. At least you’re not crying.”

She went to the door that led into the station and held her pad up to the sensor. “Let’s get something to-” Before she could finish her sentence, the child darted past her, running with speed granted to her by thousands of successful generations of ancestors, and vanished into the crowd.

Jani didn’t waste a moment before running after the child, cursing in as many languages as she could remember.