The Libertarian Confederation of America, Chp. 1

Prologue: A House Divided

Render unto Ceaser that which is Ceaser’s, and unto God that which is God’s.
– Matthew 22:21

In the year 2024, upon the election of California Senator Juanita Rosario of the Green Party to the office of President of the United States, old political divides came to a head. The largely agrarian states in the southern and central region, that held to an individualist philosophy, felt they could no longer support the planned society philosophy of the industrial and academic regions to the north, and west. Under the leadership of Governor Archibald Humphrey of the Republic of Texas, these states declared themselves in secession and formed The Libertarian Confederation of America.

20131110-235007.jpg
President Rosario had a different perspective on Lincoln’s famous quote, “A house divided can not stand.” She decided it was best to allow a negotiated, peaceful separation rather than fighting a second civil war to force unwilling citizenship. Borders were negotiated, bureaucracies generated, treaties signed, and a new nation was born. Citizens were given a year to move to their preferred society. A great migration, in both directions, took place as people made hasty decisions based on fear and/or hope of great changes that would come in the new societies of unchallenged ideologues.

With the removal of anti-federalist agenda from national politics, the United States pursued a far more liberal, progressive policy. The military was reduced to a defensive posture, insurance and education became universal programs, welfare became a permanent WPA type program and heavy regulations were introduced on economic and energy related industries. In a few short years, similarly governed regions of Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, chose to join the remade republic. While a few of the more laissez faire, bank haven, island nations, chose to seek membership in the new, like-minded confederation. The nations of the European Union, fearing lack of influence in the new landscape, voted to approve a constitution for the EU, formalizing the economic alliance as a nation with a central senate elected by state governments.

At the end of Transition Year, the Confederation, under now President Humphrey, shut its borders and declared a 5 year isolationist foreign policy to develop domestically. With that period coming to an end, the first creaky bureaucratic doors have begun to open. Interest is high not only in the corporate world, but also among the US government’s defense establishment, the media and the public at large. Everyone wants to know what the Prodigal Child has been doing.

Continue reading

Involuntary Luge

Jerry Seinfeld once performed a comedy sketch entitled “Olympics” for which he wrote a joke about “Involuntary Luge”. That joke was the inspiration for this story.

20130715-205105.jpg

Davis

stood in line awaiting his fate. He still couldn’t believe this was really happening. The black guy in front of him, a stout 6′, 250 lbs, was doing a poor job of holding back his tears. The young white girl behind Davis wasn’t even trying, she just laid her fat face into her fat hands and wept, he could see her skin folds jiggle inside the orange lycra suit all the “contestants” were made to wear. He tried to ignore them both and remind himself that injuries were actually quite rare. He straightened up his slender (a polite word for frail), 5’9″ 140 lbs frame, brushed back his thinning orange hair, and recited the stats in his mind, only 1 out of every 200 contestants gets injured. Only 1 out of every 300 of those are fatal. 10,000 compete every day. He knew how that math worked out, but it didn’t make him feel any better to think about the solution, so he just ignored it.

All he had done was steal some milk. And some cereal. And some cookies. And some napkins. Alright there may have been some toilet paper and toothpaste and garbage bags in the mix as well. But the kids stomachs don’t wait for payday, so… But the manager pressed charges, and so here he stood with the other petty thieves, whores, and vandals. No need to waste jail space or try and fine poor people, when society could just scare the hell out of them. An effective tool, while first offenses hadn’t decreased any, recidivism rates were dramatically reduced since the introduction of “The Race”.

Guards walked the line dressed in thick, blue, winter gear. They were more focused on keeping an eye out for medical issues (fainting, heart attacks, etc) than escape attempts. After all, no matter how scared of the punishment you may be, whose going to turn a misdemeanor into a felony by running? Still, they carried stun batons and cuffs, no chances being were taken with this herd of minor league criminals.

The line moved forward 2 steps, telling Davis that the next 2 contestants had been selected. A moment later he heard the starter gun fire, followed seconds after by the roar of the crowd filling the stadium on the far side of the ridge. Every time he heard that roar, it sent his stomach sinking into his groin. The man in front of him sobbed out loud, just once.

Track 1

Davis Mitchell! Track 2, Brianna Terrell!” The tiny, balding guard bellowed from atop a mound of snow between the 2 track heads. A burly guard was posted next to the front of the line, where Davis now stood after 4 excruciating hours, and a pair of tall, skinny guards bookended the track heads. He trudged through the slush to the top of track 1, nodded to the guard and looked down. Immediately, he regretted that decision.

The first length dropped precipitously about 50′ on what he was sure was at least a 65º angle, and then turned sharply off to the left and through a tunnel. He looked to his right and saw Brianna, apparently the name of the fat girl behind him in line, step up to the track. She looked down and began crying again. He didn’t blame her, he felt like crying himself.

The guards offered no sympathy. The Skinnies grabbed the Contestants by the arms, and Shorty slapped a numbered helmet on each of them. Then they were turned towards the track where a sled, which was actually a thin piece of 5′ long plastic with handles on the side and rusty blades beneath, was laying. They were directed to sit, roughly pushed onto their backs, had their hands, feet, and heads properly positioned, and then given a brief list of instructions.

“Keep your elbows in and steer by pointing your toes.”
“Resist the urge to look, feel the track with your mind.”
“Don’t lean with your body in the turns.”
“Keep your head centered over your pelvis.”

None of this or the other verbiage tossed at the terrified competitors actually sunk in. Before they could ask any questions, the guards stood and stepped back, each grabbing a lever. Davis heard Brianna shout, “No, wait!” and then the starting gun fired. The guards pulled the levers, and the 2 Luge sleds were shot, ballistically, down the tracks.

Snow

was really all Davis could see at first. Snow on the mountains above, snow on the track, snowy white clouds in the sky. For just a moment, he actually thought about how beautiful the variety of shades of white were. As the ground dropped out beneath him and he hurtled downwards, at ever increasing speeds, without any mechanism for manipulating the speed or direction he was taking, entirely at the mercy of gravity, momentum, force, and sheer luck, he was more terrified than he had ever been in his entire life. He forgot all about the pretty snow.

He pissed himself in mere seconds. The warmth of it filling the underside of the lycra suit around his pelvis and belly fat was both bizarre and oddly comforting. Then he vomited into the helmet, which, of course, has a closed face mask. Luckily the fluid dynamics involved dragged it all up into the top of the helmet, so his vision was only blurred instead of completely obscured as he watched the mountain side rapidly approach. Just as his testicles were shrinking into his abdomen, that was when he turned the corned for the tunnel, rapidly.

It would be more accurate to say, the sled took him around the corner, since he didn’t do anything to cause it to happen. At 80 mph, he only stayed on board because of ext-ropy. Into the pitch black tunnel he was plummeted. He could not see his own feet, let only the tunnel around him. He screamed liked a little baby girl the whole way through.

Another turn in the dark, and then bright light from the exit, which he hurtled through at 90 mph, and suddenly he was an airborne projectile. The tunnel had ended on a cliff, he was launched 20′ out and 30′ down before landing on track again. He could feel the cold wind pressing through the lycra suit and spreading the pooled urine evenly across his body. Out of the periphery of his left eye, he could see Brianna in the air, just slightly ahead of him, wildly swinging her oversized, orange, arms and legs. He could not hear if she was still crying over the crowd screaming at their dramatic entrance into the arena.

Just before landing, Davis was able to get a glimpse of the stadium through his vomit stained visor. 10s of thousands of people, bundled for warmth, sat in stands built into the mountain side looking down on the valley into which the tracks ran. Giant monitors above the tunnel entrance displayed everything they couldn’t see in brilliant detail. Then he landed, his trajectory meeting perfectly with the angle of the track, and he felt barely a bump as he continued on his hell route. For a moment he worried about Brianna’s landing with all that wild gesticulating, but then he was onto the next terror and she was forgotten.

Like a roller coaster, the track twisted over itself, and Davis found himself speeding across the mountain, upside down. Some positive might be said for him slowing down, except the decrease was from 95 to 85 mph. He then flew out of the loop and into a quick, sharp dip, which curved up onto a ramp, launching him over a gap that had no apparent bottom.

Again he heard the crowd’s roar of appreciation as he soared through the air, helpless and horrified. When he landed on the other side, on just a single rail for a moment, 2 things happened; 1) the crowd went wild and 2) Davis shit his pants at exactly the same moment the second sled rail touched the ground.

It occurred to him that he didn’t see Brianna just as he realized why his legs and butt had become warm and squishy. He could feel the urine and feces mixing at his waist into a soupy concoction of human waste. As Davis paused to consider that, he realized his throat was sore, which was when he first realized that he’d been screaming the entire time, until now. Somehow, the complete body fluid dump had been therapeutic, and Davis seemed to reach a Zen-like state. The sound of the crowd, the sense of danger, the smell inside his suit, all dropped away. He found himself floating inside a fog bank, warm and calm.

Faces

hovered in a semi-circle above him. Davis smiled as his helmet was removed.

“Is he alright?”
“I think he might be in shock.”
“He’s smiling.”
“Is he happy or crazy?”

“Hello? Mr. Mitchell? Hello? Can you hear me?”

Davis looked at the grey haired guard in the middle, “Of course I can hear you. You’re standing over my head and shouting.”

“He’s okay. Why are you still laying there? Get up.” The guard appeared severely disturbed by this unusual behavior.

Davis, still half in his Zen daze and stinking like a bus station bum, rolled off the sled onto his knees and struggled up onto his feet. He faced the group of guards who seemed unusually excited to see him. “What’s going on?”

“He doesn’t even know.”
“How could he? He was practically catatonic.”
“Well tell him.”

“Mr. Mitchell,” the old guard began, “Now that you have completed paying your debt, I want to be the first to congratulate you for having set a new world’s record on the Penal Luge.

“I did what?”

“The thing you just did? You did it faster than anyone in history. Well done.”

“But all I did was lay there, scream, and crap myself, till I lost my mind.”

“That must be the trick, then.”

Then the group was on him; shaking his hand, patting his back, asking for autographs, the whole bit. He was having trouble focusing on any thing in particular when he suddenly remembered, “What happened to Brianna?”

“Who?”

“The girl who was on the other track when I was going down.”

“Oh.” Everyone stopped and grew quiet. “I’m afraid, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you knew each other. I’m afraid the young lady did not succeed.”

“Did not succeed? What is that a euphemism for?”

“Because she did not follow directions about keeping her arms still, she lost too much speed, and failed to cover the distance of the second gap.”

“You’re saying she fell to her death?”

“Yes.”

“What crime did she commit?”

“She was a prostitute. A temptress most foul. Now, our society is rid of her.” With that, the guard spun on his heels, and then he and his entourage stomped away in a very superior fashion.

Davis shook his head and turned to leave, only to find himself beset by cameras and microphones and people wearing too much makeup.

“Mr. Mitchell, how does it feel to hold the world record in Penal Luge?!”
“Mr. Mitchell, how did you prepare for today?!”
“Davis, can you describe how it feels to Luge for the first time?!”
“Sir, do you think the punishment fits the crime?!”

He was trying to ignore them and just push past towards the locker rooms, where he could change back into his street clothes and head home, but he heard that last question and got angry.

“Does it fit the crime? Is that what you asked? I stole food for my kids because honest work don’t pay the bills no more, and the government cut food stamps again. And for that you terrorize me? A women died here because you don’t approve of how she uses her body. And We the People? They just gathered around to watch us suffer in this ridiculous pop-justice system we have concocted. Meanwhile serious murderers and corrupt politicians walk free because they have money, and everyone knows it. You want to know if I think the punishment fits the crime? If this is fair? What the fuck does that even mean anymore? Our justice system is a god damn myth. A fable for children. We tell them hard work has rewards and being bad has consequences. We give it a dogma and ritual called capitalist market and justice system, and then tell everyone to believe. Anytime someone points out the lies, we call them traitor or criminal. Fit the crime? By what metric?”

The cameras ate up every moment. The reporters held out their mics to soak up every word. None of them really comprehended what he was telling them, but they knew he was passionate and that was always good TV. That night millions of homes would see that speech, subtitled, “Con Remains Unrepentant”.

There would be no mention of the death of Brianna Terrell.

Drone Wars 1: H@(k3d

Mommy, where do drones go when they die?
Nowhere, Edgar, machines don’t have souls.

20130629-162121.jpg

Edgar

sipped at his perfectly-too-hot-mocha while leaning on the window
counter, pretended to read the newspaper, and checked out the same
brunette working the veggie food truck on the sidewalk he’d been
not asking out for 3 months. He paused in his stalker behavior to
admire himself in the window reflection. He ran his short, fat
fingers through the mop of curly brown hair on the round head which
sat atop his squat 5’10” frame, turned his head sideways once,
started to feel a little bit positive and then noticed 2 teenage
girls giggling further back in the reflection. Against his own
better judgement, he looked over his shoulder at them, and they
lost it, gales of laughter filled the coffee shop. Edgar just
smiled and nodded his head, then turned back to his paper.

He was about to return to checking out veggie girl, when he noticed the
headline, all the rest was immediately forgotten; Drones on Patrol.
He had to read the article twice, and then confirmed it with a
search on his mobile, before he would accept it as truth. Drones of
all types had been popping up for years, and not just in security
fields. Mail drones, transport drones, fire drones, assembly
drones, you name it there was a drone doing what used to be some
breadwinner’s job. The coffee shop even had a bidet drone, in the
men’s room. Demand was high for machines that would do everything
for us for free and without complaint. Edgar had never liked it,
but had come to accept it as it had creeped up, 1 profession and
convenience at a time. But this, this was just insane. He scanned
the article quickly, again: Per the Attorney General, effective
immediately, all police patrol duties nationwide would be
transferred to drones…Arrests and investigations would still be
done by humans, but the blue and white drones will ticket, detain
and search, utilizing state of the art body scanner and weapon
hardware…resistance or vandalism would be treated as any assault
on an officer…for the benefit of the security of all patriotic,
law abiding Americans. Drone cops will be pulling guns on
citizens and ordering them to submit to a search! This is fuckin’
crazy! 3 days, that’s all we’ve got. What the hell can we possibly
do? This is beyond any simple protest hack, we need to actually do
something to prevent this. They’ll have the entire country under
the thumb of a mindless, soulless army.

Edgar realized that he had been mumbling to himself out-loud because people were staring. He just nodded awkwardly at them, scooped up his stuff,and stumbled out the door in a 225 pound chubby blur of horizontal stripes and blue jeans. Heather will know what to
do.

Heather’s

place was his favorite. It
smelled like strawberries and chocolate, and she hung a
kaleidoscope of sheer cloths from the ceiling that made the light
soft and cheerful. Edgar smiled every time he entered. The floor
was dusty hardwood, if you could find it between pillows and
oddments, and assorted dropped papers and objects. She would boast
about her mother referring to her as a “heathercain”, considering
the inherent chaos in her character a mark of pride. He stood in
the doorway he had opened with the key she gave him and called out
to her while knocking, “Heather? Hello? Heather? It’s me. Edgar.
You’re- friend, Edgar. Hello?”
Even with the key, he could not accept the idea he was welcome. He heard her before seeing her. The staccato rhythm of her feat on the ceiling as she skipped the hallway. He could hear the echoes of her singing as she reached the top of the spiral, black iron stairwell. The lilting high notes of her voice brought him the rest of the way into the house, locking the door behind. As she bounced down the stairs, 1 foot then the other, he could hear the tiny bells on her sash ringing and see the edge of her tie dyed sarong as she floated into view. Her smile made his heart warm and large, as she paused by the rail so her
guest could look at her. Chestnut hair was pulled back into a bun,
except for a few strands on either side framing her slender face
and long, narrow, hooked nose. She smiled so sweetly, it didn’t
bother Edgar at all that she was missing 2 teeth on the bottom left
and 1 above them. “Hi, Eddie. Good morning.” Her speaking voice
reminded most people of a kazoo, but it was music to him.

“Hi.” He exhaled.

She came into the living room and dropped onto the flower print couch, “Are you going to come in and sit or just stand there like a moron?”
He shook his head and looked around “Um, I was going
to go with moron for a few more minutes if you don’t mind.”

“Whatever makes you happy. Is that an actual newspaper?”
“Yes, actually, that’s what brought me here this early.”
“You found the last print newspaper?”
“Seriously, look at today’s headline.”

He thrust it towards her. She took the paper, read the headline, sat
up, “What the-?” She kept reading. Edgar opened her laptop laying
on the coffee table, the regular laptop not the encrypted jaun, and
he began pulling up other articles to answer the questions he knew
she would have, because they were his questions too. It would be 20
minutes before they had silently digested enough data to start
discussing. And then they just started talking in a rushed tumble
of excitement/anger/enthusiasm/hostility yet somehow they were able
to hear each other as well.
“I can’t believe they’re doing this.”
“I know! Such blatant fascist crap.”
“Do they really think they can
just roll over us with their automatons of death and we’ll do
nothing?”
“This is totally typical of the civil rights crushing,
misogynistic, patriarchal, fear-mongering, military-industrial
banking complex that runs this national corporation we call a
country!”
“Yeah!”
They both started laughing at that and then just sat there for a moment. Finally, she got up and headed for the kitchen, “I need coffee, how about you?”
“Sure I could use a 3rd cup.” She looked at him across the room, through the cloth draped,wooden window frame that separated the rooms.
“3 days isn’t much time to stage a significant protest, they played this well. We’ll have to work fast.”
“Protest my ass.” Edgar stood up, throwing some
imaginary object on the ground in defiance, causing his belly to
vibrate “We been protesting and pranking and messing with people
for decades, and what do we got? Hmm? A reputation, that’s what.
Anonymous wears stupid masks and jacks up websites.” Heather
found the air-quotes confusing “Big deal. Name a single thing we
wanted the corporate state to stop doing that they actually
stopped? Can you?”
Making her way back into the living room, she waved a finger admonishingly, “Well, We did stop a few internet security laws form getting passed.”
“That didn’t come back later as something else? When did that happen?” She sighed and slumped into the couch. Edgar was finding it difficult to keep his angry political anarchist focus while looking at her.
She seemed unaware of his distraction, “I don’t know, I guess your right. But its a long war on an existential battlefield. You can’t expect instant gratification.”
He sighed at that, “Well, that may be true, I don’t know. What I do know is that they are really building these things
now. Not just the police drones. While millions are unemployed,
they clean our homes and build our products, hell they even do our
learning for us,” he waved dramatically at the computer. “We are
entirely dependent on them and now they will police us, too? It’s
gone too far. We must make our stand now, before its too late.”

“What do you want to do, big man?”
Edgar attempted to stand up a little straighter, “For starters I want you to call me that more often. In fact, I think that should be my nick name from now o-“
“Edgar!” He deflated, visibly, and joined her on the couch, “I
don’t know. I was hoping you would have an idea.”
“Me? ” She sat forward at this, “Is it my turn to defeat the evil empire? I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was Friday already. Let me see what I have in my little black book of heroic schemes…”
“Okay, okay. I get it. But seriously, if someone’s going to do something about the menace of drones its going to be us. Right? I mean, ya know, ‘We are Anonymous’ and all that.”
“Yes, well, that sounds all cool and shit, but we still have the whole ‘what’ and ‘how’ details.”
“Indeed.” Edgar leaned forward, scooped some weed off the table,
and packed into the bowl. Heather went into the back into the
kitchen and poured 2 cups of coffee. The rich smell of dark
columbian beans filled the apartment.
“Let’s think it through logically. The problem is the drones. The drones are running on an AI. They all have independent power sources and hard drives, making it difficult to attack them all at once.”
Edgar exhaled “But they are networked.”
Sitting back down, she set the coffees on the table, put her feet up, folded her hands behind her head, and stared at the ceiling. “They are networked for communications.Which could be a vulnerability.”
Edgar passed the bowl to her and asked, “What would happen if they couldn’t communicate?”
Heather got the lighter lit and then held the bowl by her mouth while she explained, “They would just carry out last coding. Which would
probably mean that most drones would only have minor disruptions.”
“Hmmm.”
“Hmmm.” Heather dropped the bowl and lighter onto the table
and jumped up, “Oh! Oh! I know, we could use the network to carry a
shut down code that released at a prearranged time.”
“Like a trojan virus time bomb!”
“Exactly!”
“Can you write that code?”
She passed back, and let the smoke roll out her mouth as she spoke, “Hell, most of it is written already. I can take pieces of several
different viruses, worms, and trojan horses and just add some code
for the time delay element. I should be able to do that in less
than 48 hours. Is Oscar busy?”
“No he’s free.”

Oscar

was the nickname they had given to the Independent SuperComputer for Anarchist’s Revolution, or ISCAR. Their group, which included about 8 computer geeks altogether, had built it in Heather’s basement by networking together several smaller machines they had built. Not only was its hardware faster and more complex than anything on the market, but the operating system was entirely of their own design. Any connections made to the internet were routed and re-routed through so many random servers per second that tracing them was impossible and even then such a cyber enemy would be facing an unknown coding languageon unfamiliar hardware.
Heather sat at her kitchen table drinking coffee, interfacing with Oscar via blue tooth. It had been 36 hours and she was almost done with the code. All that was left was figuring out how to insert it into the government communications network that the drones run on. Breaking into a lab and hooking up a USB drive like some old movie was not going to cut it. “Maybe we could give them a gift, like the real Trojan horse.” Heather suggested.
Edgar laughed, “Yeah we could push a big wooden drone up
to city hall in the middle of the night, and when they bring it
inside the next morning, poof, out pops a computer virus.” They
both laughed for several minutes. The kind of laugh when your
exhausted and worried and overworked and really anything is funny
because you’re just about at you’re breaking point. Finally running
out of giggles, she sighed and looked at him, “We really should
have figured this part out before you did all that work.”
“No, no we’ll come up with something. Everything is hackable. Right?” Edgar looked to her for support through bleary eyes.
“That’s right. And we’re hackers.” She offered her “My Little Kitty” coffee mug in toast. He clinked her mug with his Calvin and Hobbes mug, “Good hackers, too.”
“Well, bad hackers, but good at it.”
“We’re on the side of good, I think. It’s those control freak technocrats with their soulless drones who are the bad guys.”
“Yeah!” She shook her fist at the invisible enemy. “Yeah!” “And we’re going to stop them, because we’re good guys.” She added in a fit of a redundant enthusiasm.
“That’s right.”
“Like heroes, and shit.”
“That’s us in a nutshell.”
“Just as soon as we figure out how.”
Sigh, “Yes.”
“So,” Heather returned to her logic mode, “we have a bunch of
independent machines, connected by a closed, secure comm network,
and we want to feed a message into that network from outside,
without detection. How can that be done?”
“We need a machine that has access. We need to grab a machine, inject our message into its hard drive so that it will then send it into the network at the next update.”
“You want to kidnap a police drone?” She looked at
him like he had suggested going to the moon.
“Why a police drone? Can’t it be a cleaning drone or something? Aren’t they on the same comm network?”
“Are they?”
“I think so. And even if they aren’t, if millions of drones go offline at once, that sort of weakness in a system might cause them to pause on bringing cop drones online.”
“Maybe we should grab an industrial drone, so if your wrong and the
networks are separate it will still shut down something serious.”
“I don’t know, if all the rich people’s cleaning drones suddenly
shut down and inconvenienced them it might get more of a result
than 1 company’s products offline for a week.”
“Good point.” She reached for her coffee and then almost knocked it over spinning around and grabbing his arm, “Oh, oh, oh! I got it! It’s so obvious! The transport drones. Public, private, whatever, they all
tap into the same NavNet for road updates and whatnot.”
“Which also connects to everyone’s personal maps and calendars and all that crap. And, and! You know what else? They all feed into the same
satellite network. That’ll shut down the whole country in minutes!”

“Yeah! And then they’ll really know we’re the good guys.” Her
sarcasm was hardly subtle, but Edgar didn’t care.
“Nobody’s going to be thanking us, but if we tear this automated society away from the handful of people who control it now and return it to the people, it’ll be a good thing.”
“The Anti-Populist Revolution?”
“Indeed. Alright, You’ve still got more coding to do. I’ll call the
crew together and figure out how to grab and interface with a
transport drone. But we wont actually grab anything yet. We need to
have everything ready and do it 1, 2, 3.”
“Yes, sir, Captain Big Man.” She grinned at him over her shoulder as he walked upstairs to make phone calls.

Drones,

even transport drones, are not easy to capture, as it turns out. There were 5 of them on the crew: Edgar, Heather, Johnny Thumbs, Stevie Cartwright, Ellen 3 Nipples, and Kevin the Dog. Johnny was the security hacker.He could cut into a CCTV and set it on a loop in seconds without the suggestion of footprints. Standing about 5’6″, balding except for a band of brown hair around the back, he got his nickname in high school. He’d put his thumbs into 1 of those chinese finger traps after drinking several Long Island Ice Tea’s and was unable to escape the rest of the night. His friends laughed and laughed as he jumped around in the middle of the room jerking his thumbs away
from each other and screaming, “My thumbs! My thumbs!” Stevie knew
robots, he used to build them for the military before he saw the
results of his work during the Saudi civil war. That’s where he met
Ellen who was programming the robots he built. She grew up with
Heather and Johnny. It was Johnny who gave her nickname. They were
a strange looking couple. He a 6′ tall Mexican and her a tiny,
blonde Jewish girl barely reaching 4’5″. Kevin the Dog was a
chocolate lab they found abandoned a week after leaving the
military and coming home, named after a friend lost to the most
recent war.
Edgar and Ellen waited outside the Red Shoe Inn under the flickering yellow parking lot lights just after sundown, watching traffic pass by, waiting for a taxi. The Inn wasn’t an inn at all, just a bar Ellen liked to visit with her friends. The exterior, a 1 story, square, cement building, with a stucco exterior and a few trees scattered about the lot recklessly, was entirely unremarkable. Inside was an entirely different story she preferred keeping separate from her daytime life. It was early still, so there were few patrons or employees present, still she was nervous. “I don’t understand why we are using a place I
frequent, and during normal traffic hours. Shouldn’t we be doing
this at, like 4am, in the middle of nowhere.”
“We’re hiding in plain sight. There is nothing suspicious about us being here, now, because you do ‘frequent’ this place” he made those air quotes that annoyed her so much, “and these are normal hours. As long as you do your job once we get in the cab, there is no reason for the law to ever look twice at us.”
“I’ll do my job,” She did not like being challenged on her skill set, “you just do yours.”
At that moment an auto-cab responded to Edgar’s wild, vigorous waving and pulled up alongside them. Shaped like an arrowhead, the narrow front compartment housed the robot hardware sitting over the electric
engine. Slightly to the fore of the engine sits the single front
wheel. The wider, rear compartment of this vehicle holds 2
passengers, which rest over, inside, and partially forward of the 2
rear wheels. The entire silver exterior is covered in alternating
sensors; half being solar power collectors, the other half being
proximity sensors. The rear door slid out of their way, and they
slid into the firm, pleather, bucket seat. The robot’s head spun
about and faced them. Edgar was surprised, as he was every time, to
hear it’s blaring, foreign tones, “Hello, how are you doing? Where
would you like to be going today?”
Edgar leaned over to Ellen, “Why do you suppose they all sound Indian?”
The robot corrected him, “My accent is Pakistani, in point of fact. My fellow transport drones’ interfaces and I are sharing this particular dialect because the person who invented this design was Pakistani. It is the voice of her son which you are hearing. Where would you like to be going?”
“Um, Penn’s Landing, please.”
“Very well. I will be taking you there immediately.” The door slid shut with a hiss, the lock clicked into place, the head spun around on its robot neck, whoosh, the vehicle leaned slightly, and they turned a long slow arc out of the lot and onto the road. The electric engine made barely a hum.
Ellen pulled her laptop out of her bag, popped it open, and fired
up her interface program. The vehicle slowed and stopped in the
middle of the road. “Okay, well that’s sort of good.”
“Just relax.”
Lights and whirring sounds began to emanate from the front of the
cab. “There is being an error in our navigation systems. Please
forgive us. We will return to being on our way very soon.”
Edgar tried to reassure the mechanism, “It’s alright, um, cabbie, we have everything under control.”
“This vehicle is not equipped with a manual override”
Ellen laughed, “It is now.”
A few seconds later, the vehicle began to move again. She steered them down severalblocks and into an alleyway. The rest of the crew were already there, waiting, bicycles leaning against the wall between the
dumpster and the back door of the old, closed public library that
used be there. The dumpster served the retail warehouse across the
street. Kevin the Dog had already found someone’s leftover lunch
that hadn’t quite made it into the dumpster and was enjoying
himself immensely. Johnny was sitting on the ground, squat legs
crossed, tablet on his lap jacked into a portable hard-drive, he
had already interfaced with every security camera on their route
and looped the recording so that they never appeared on any of it.
Since they were spending so much time in this alley, he was
rerunning last night’s security show of a bum MMF 3-some. They
rolled up, came to a stop. The doors opened. Ellen took a moment to
smile at her man and then returned to her monitor. Edgar never took
his eyes off, appearing far less relaxed than she.
“Error. Attempting system override.” The drone continued its efforts to
reassert control.
“Ellen?”
“The drone is fighting me. Don’t worry, I can take a simple trans-bot.”
“Well can you turn off the annoying audio.”
“No she cannot.” a clear, deep, NE Caucasian American accent came from the front of the vehicle.
“Did the robot’s voice just change?” Edgar looked at Ellen. The robot head spun around and looked at both of them. It spoke again in the new voice.
“By interfacing with this vehicle’s hard drive you have potentially
violated section 1703 and 3205 of the corporate espionage code
and/or section 3728 of the anti-terrorism code. You will be
detained and authorities contacted. That is all.” The doors closed
and locked again.
“Ellen?”
“It isn’t sending any message to anybody. Just give me a minute on the rest.” The seats began to tingle. The tingle began as a tickle and became more intense as seconds passed.
“Ellen?”
“Its trying to electrocute us, but I’m preventing it from sending enough power through at any 1 time. So its building the charge up slowly. Which is really, very clever for such a simple machine. You have to be impressed with the level of problem solving skills for an AI at this lev-”
“Ellen!”
“Oh all right. Hang on. We’ll be out soon. Surprised you can feel it
anyway.”
“Was that a fat joke? Did you just make a fat joke while
we are being electrocuted?”
“Oh its just a mild charge. And besides, there’s always time for fat jokes.” She turned to look at him, “You know if you would just go cycling with me every other day, like I ask, there wouldn’t be any fat jokes.”
“Ellen! could we discuss your projected body image issues some other time.”
“I do not project. You know that’s like the kid who says people pick on him because they’re jealous. You know who they grow up to be? Lex
Luthor.”
“Could you please focus?”
“I can do better than that.” She pushed the enter button and the lights all turned off. The doors unlocked and opened. An audible hiss poured out of its electrodes and then it just became quiet. “Now, on to the actual job we’re here for.”
Edgar jumped out as soon as the doors slid aside. Heather helped Ellen gather up her equipment.
Stevie reached under the front wheel well, pressed a few buttons, and the entire plastic body rose a foot off the chaises, providing easier access to the engine and mainframe. He turned to the group, “Alright, it’s going to take a few minutes for me to gain access to the central
processor, link into this drone’s comm center, and then access the
main network. So get your stuff ready in the meantime because we
wont have a lot of time to screw around once I do.” Stevie grabbed
his tablet and bag of tools and ducked under the vehicle. Edgar
joined Johnny watching the security cams. In addition to looping
the footage on them, he was also keeping an eye on nearby cameras
to see if anybody was coming. The girls, reluctantly joined them.

“Wow, that is a fascinating smell you’ve discovered.”
“I didn’t discover it, it existed as an indigenous specious before I arrived. Don’t turn me into the nasal Columbus.”
“Nasal Columbus?”
“It could be a thing.”
“I think you’re hypothesis may be flawed.”
“I defy you to demonstrate their cannot be a corollary to Columbus for odors.”
“How would this symbolic corollary go about exploiting the odors?
Or sailing off in search of the route around the round odor world,
for that matter?”
“I think you’re being a bit literal. The core
point is that-”
“Ready!” Stevie rolled out from beneath the
vehicle.
“Oh thank god.” Both girls said at the same time. The boys
looked at each other and shrugged. Edgar rolled over and up onto
his knees, then stood up and ran over to the vehicle. Heather and
Ellen were already there getting the laptop set up and plugged into
the cord Stevie had left extending out from underneath. The other
end of the cord plugged directly into the robot’s central
processor. Heather sat down and began to open her interface
software. She skipped passed all the primary files and systems,
knowing the security protocols would be too severe for her to
overcome swiftly. She wound her way deep into the bowels of the
system, found the most minor of systems, barely protected and
slipped inside. That code let her piggy back into another system,
and another, and an hour later she was into a system that needed
constant updates, the traffic reports. She found the code that the
auto-transport and the network used to recognize each other, and
added a simple goto command, sending it in search of the ANY1 file
when given the proper password. Then she downloaded the trojan
virus into the memory files labeled as ANY1. The next time,
according to the plan, when the network gave its password so it
could provide the vehicle with the normal updates, the virus file
would also upload and activate to the network and then spread to
every other computer being updated. Then she added some more data
to convince the vehicle it had spent all this time in a grocery
store parking lot waiting for them to return, rather than in an
alley being hacked. After they disconnected, Edgar and Ellen got
back in the vehicle an she piloted it to the grocery store. Every
one else left on their bikes, with Johnny remaining so he could
properly cover their tracks. In the parking lot, she returned
control to the vehicle. It appeared to have no memory of the
events.
“Welcome back. Was you shopping successful?”
“Um, yes, we are having everything shipped to our home though because we have somewhere to be tonight. Could you drop us off at our friends house on 4th and Patterson?”
“Of course, sir.”

Headlines

the next morning would have been
awesome for Edgar and his crew, if there had been any. It turned
out that Heather had been right about all of the drones being on
the same comm network. Not just the vehicles, all of them. When the
update went out at 4am every drone in the western world received
the same trojan time virus. At 8am EST they all shut down. Every
machine with an AI based on the drones and connected to the comm
network had received the shutdown order and obeyed. Transports,
security, media, labor devices, comm tech, banking tech, market
trading tech, military tech, all just became dormant. You couldn’t
order a cup of coffee or flush a toilet, if it was automated and
received network updates. Which they all were. People panicked.
Product sat in warehouses, dirty dishes sat in sinks, dust remained
on shelves, traffic did not rush, phones would not auto dial,
television could not blather, the world of automated services fell
silent. After discovering his mobile devices and television and
networked laptop were all dead, Edgar rolled out of bed and
shuffled over to the window. He smiled to see people milling around
on foot, talking to each other, and looking around lost. They were
confused and angry, sure, but at least they were interacting with
each other. There was not a single vehicle on the street or in the
air. The street cameras all had their lights off. He turned to grab
his phone and call Heather, then stopped himself and laughed.
Even I am trained like some Pavlovian dog. Ah well, I can
break it. It’ll certainly be worth it. We did it! We really did it!
We didn’t just harass Big Brother, we actually scored a
victory!
He knew they would fix it eventually, but he
was going to enjoy this in the meantime.
He reached into his nightstand, pulled out the pre-packed bowl of weed and a lighter, took a long slow victory pull, enjoying the warm skunky flavor as it filled his throat and lungs, and then let it slowly pour out of his mouth and nose like an overweight, Caucasian, green dragon.
“Ah, yes, Ja-provide. To victory and freedom, and… stuff.”
Setting the pipe down, he headed for the shower. Turning it on, he
put his hand in to adjust the temp, “They all laughed when I asked
for a manual shower. Whose laughing now? Bwa-bwa-bwahahaha. Okay,
its probably weird that I’m talking to myself about the shower
controls.”
By the time he got out of the shower, the television had
turned itself on and was broadcasting an emergency text message on
all channels while playing the most irritating buzzing sound. The
text read simply, “Emergency: Automated Systems have been disabled
by national enemies. Devices with manual controls can be enabled by
plugging in a keyboard and typing #0101#. More info to follow as
available. This message will repeat until device is turned off.
Emergency: Automat-” He turned it off and sat on the edge of the
bed, smiled slightly to himself. I’m a national enemy?
Cool. What happened to enemy of the state? Man works hard, does a
job well, still can’t get the proper recognition.

He quickly got dressed, grabbed some cold pizza from the fridge, and
headed out the door for Heather’s place. He took his phone but left
it off for now. Even if they do get it back up soon, he didn’t want
to be back on the grid right away. When he arrived, Kevin the Dog
was laying on his favorite spot, the boys were playing video games
in the main room, and the girls were drinking Mai Ties in the
kitchen. He closed the door behind him and shouted, “Fellow rebels,
I promised you victory and victory we have achieved!” As he held
his fists up in triumph his belly rolls shook, as if cheering him
on. They all paused, looked at him, mumbled something that sounded
like, “yeah” and then returned to what they were doing. “Aww,
c’mon, you’ve got to be more enthusiastic than that, we just shut
down the network. We achieved our goal, more than our goal, we
struck a serious blow last night.”
Stevie turned his head slightly, but never actually took his eyes off the monitor, “It was cool and all, but let’s not get it twisted, they already have it back up,less then 5 hours.”
“Where? What? The emergency single runs on its link because its an emergency single, kept separate, and it took 5 hours to get that running. What else have they fixed?”
“I see traffic.”
“Manual override vehicles. The manual control world is
reasserting itself. That was our point, right? Lack of human,
civilian control is dangerous. Lack of individual control of that
individual’s life is dangerous. That societal control is an
illusion to justify tyranny. With all of this down, simply by
attacking the NavNet, we have shown how deeply the government
machine has infected every part of our lives. My electronic tooth
brush wouldn’t work this morning. Why is my tooth brush on the
net?”
Ellen clucked her teeth, “They’re going to respond Edgar.
They wont just let this lay.”
“Against who? With what? We are Anonymous, and they are offline.” As if on cue, grey shapes flew past the windows, rattling the frames. They all rushed towards the unknown object, jumping onto the couch and yanking the flimsy drapes aside. Outside, floating above every building and on every street corner, was a grey, 3 sided, drone bearing the markings of the US Army. A row of lights and sensors lined each of the 2′ long edges, and in the center of each face, in the middle of the
official seal, there was a portal for tools to extend from the
interior.
“Well,” Edgar mused, “I don’t think they’re on the same
network as the civilian stuff.”
Stevie laughed, “No, I’d say not, but at least they don’t know who we are.”
“Why do you think that?”
Johnny pulled himself away from the window and headed back to the game. “We’re still free.”
“For now. But not having come after us yet isn’t the same as not having our ID. They just may not have gotten to us.”
“Way to be an optimist.”
“I’m just being a realist. Right now they are just trying to maintain order. Give them 48 hours to get a grip on things, then they’ll focus on looking for us.”
Heather walked into the kitchen, “Well, then, maybe we
shouldn’t give them that 48 hours.”
Edgar perked up, “Now that is an interesting idea.”

Colonel Neva

marched down the corridor of the Pentagon to the offices of the Assistant Director of the National Security Agency, per his orders. They had interrupted a software update to his cybernetic systems to demand his immediate presence, which was unusual in itself. As was the request to meet with the NSA, a liaison office that mostly stood empty as he understood it. He wasn’t concerned about missing
anything substantive in the update, but the unusual nature of the
request had him curious. Colonel Alan Francis Neva was the first,
and currently only, cybernetic soldier in the US Army. After taking
severe damage during the battle for Riyadh, they had decided to
experiment on him by replacing body parts with technology. It seems
the military organ donor card is more comprehensive. Now his right
arm, left leg, spleen, left lung, right eye, and the cerebellum,
which is the back part of the brain controlling voluntary movement
and balance, are all robotic. Plus they also took the time to add a
thin layer of bullet proof armor beneath his skin at the chest and
head. Which was nice but very uncomfortable in the cold. Col. Neva
entered the plain, grey, square office with only a metal folding
table in the middle around which stood 2 male officers and 1 plain
clothes asian male, and 1 plain clothes african female, and shut
the door behind him.
He faced the General, a caucasian man, 6′ tall, probably 70 years old but in excellent health, and saluted. The general returned the salute, “At ease, Colonel. I’m General Aiken, This is Colonel North,” He gestured to the thin, cross eyed officer to his left, whose face was pock marked with acne scars and pile of grey hair appeared to have landed on his head by accident.
“And these 2 are from the NSA. You can call them Agent Jane and
Agent Joe.” From the look on their faces, it was clear he had just
invented those monikers. At 5’11”, Jane was tall and slender, her
hair cut to short, tight, reddish curls that seemed to match the
red line in the frame of her narrow black eyeglasses, and the thin
red stripe that ran down the sleeve of her black jacket and the
side of her matching black skirt, cut just slightly up the back.
Joe, on the other hand, was a short, 5’5″, squat, man with a
traditional side part and loud, plaid tie, dark blue suit. They
nodded to Neva, he nodded back. Agent Jane spoke first, “Now that
we’re all friends, let’s get down to business. In the light of what
happened today, we have a lot of work to do.”
Neva looked around, confused, “Excuse me, I’ve been in update cycle since 4am. What happened today?”
“Oh. General, do you want to brief you man?”
“Colonel, some time last night a computer virus was launched
against the civilian NavNet which, short version, resulted in
crashing all the automated devices in America that connect to the
primary network for updates every morning.”
“The civilian network only?”
“Exactly. Which is devastating, but also means we are the
only organization capable of providing security services for this
country.”
“What about Posse Comitatus?”
Agent Joe chimed in, “The PATRIOT ACT of 2001 and the NDAA of 2012 allow for emergencies. Which this qualifies, I think. Riots and unrest have already started. Not mention our foreign enemies mobilizations. But that’s not why you are here, we have the National Guard handling local security.”
“You want me to pursue the terrorists.”
Agent Jane jumped back in, “That’s right. This committee is a task force set up by the anti-terrorism committees in congress. They told us to do something and we are putting you in charge of the investigation.”

Colonel North took a step towards him, “Not only are you super
cyber guy, but you also have experience running investigations for
CID before the war.”
“Of course. I wont let you down. What do we have on the enemy so far?”
“Not a lot.” Agent Joe waved him towards
the table, we he could now see was actually a monitor displaying a
map, “We do know it originated in Philadelphia, and we have this
list of hackers living in Philly.”

The Choice

Janice

Janice Chan stood in the bathroom staring at the tab, three tabs actually, all lined up on the counter along the sink. She looked at herself in the mirror. Half her chestnut hair was pulled up into a bun at the back of her head, the other half hung randomly around her long, thin cocoa face. Narrow, angular Japanese eyes flowed into a long, slender Jewish nose gently arcing over full, African lips. “Pure breed mutts” is how her mother used to refer to their family lineage.

Her slender hand went to her forehead at that thought, Mother? Oh my god, am I really going to be a Mother? She adjusted her Hello Kitty pajamas and looked into her own eyes in the mirror, the reflection of the tabs glaring up at her like neon beer signs advertising UNPROTECTED SEX. She could hear her Mother’s voice in the back of her head, “Would a condom really have been such a big deal? And where is Mr. Round Pecks now?” Oh hell, I’m going to have tell him, too. Damn spontaneous fling, now we’re the fucking Brady Bunch. What if he wants to raise it? In the 3 weeks we hung out I never even saw him read. Do I want to raise it? Do I not? I wonder how that new thing, The Procedure, really works?

Tommy

Tom Finnegan unlocked the back door to Finnegan’s Pub, stepped inside, entered the alarm code on the worn, faded pad, then turned and walked down the hall in the dark to where the light switches were. Carefully avoiding the dip at step 5 and the ripple at step 13. Even in the dark, he could navigate flawlessly this building he’d known since his father had opened when Tommy could barely walk. An audible click, a hum of power flowing threw old knob and circuit lines, and the antiquated florescent lights slowly powered up. The entire property had been built in the 1970s and never remolded. White Formica covered the bar, and the tables, neon beer signs decorated the walls, a coin operated flip jukebox sat in the corner, and the hardwood floors clashed with the tone of the wood paneled walls. Behind the bar hung autographed pictures of local minor league sports heroes and politicians, and the coup de gras: A picture of Frank Sinatra that Grandpa Joe had gotten on a trip to Vegas.

Everyday Tommy would open up and revel in the fact that all of this was his now. Then he would flirt with the waitresses as they arrived, get the place ready to open, and head home till the evening shift started. After taking a nap, he’d work out, go to his wood-shop and build something poorly, then its off to Father Avery’s soup kitchen to volunteer for 2 hours. Every day this was his routine. Every night he would go to the bar, do the ordering and/or books, then help out behind the bar, and usually pick up a female customer before the night was over. At 30 years old, Tommy thought his life was perfect.

No Love, No Marriage

Janice tried to put yesterday’s revelations out of her mind all day, to little effect. She wasn’t going to do anything about it during a Monday shift, but you couldn’t tell that to her brain. No matter how hard she tried concentrating on researching and cataloguing arcane legal documents, her mind drifted off to those test results. Which, in turn, sent her mind spinning onto the job implications of her new situation. She had started as an intern, then got hired directly out of graduate school 3 years ago, promoted a year ago, she had figured another year or 2 before she became a department head with this or another firm. If she took 6 months off, followed by a dramatic decrease in overtime, that would alter her career path severely. Not that she didn’t enjoy her current position, but permanently?

She sat on the train, heading home when the disembodied voice announced the approach of Peterboro Station, Mr. Round Pecks’ bar was just a block away. She sighed and stood. This is another decision I’m sure to regret.

As soon as Janice entered the bar, she was squinting against the florescent lights reflecting off the formica. I can’t believe I let those girls bring me in here. I can’t believe I slept with the guy responsible for this visual crime. Looking around there was only 1 table occupied and a couple sitting at the bar. The waitress and the barmaid sat at the opposite end from the customers, under the tv, playing with their smartphones and ignoring each other. Everyone in the bar appeared to have shopped at the same t-shirts and sweatpants warehouse.

“Can I help you, honey?” The barmaid hollered from her stool around her chewing gum, a strand of orange hair caught in the corner of her mouth, unnoticed. Her white t-shirt had sleeves and was emblazoned with the emblem of Finnegan’s, an empty mug on its side.

Janice hated cute nicknames, especially from people she didn’t know. She approached the bar, set her brown leather, faux Giani Bernini bag with the label facing out. “Yes, honey, I’m looking for you’re boss. Mr. Thomas Finnegan.”

The 2 women looked at each other and smirked, “Well, sweetheart, Tommy ain’t my boss, he’s my brother. And if you need to see him cuz he made you call him daddy, forget it, he’s probably moved on to some other slut already.” The waitress giggled.

Janice’s anger at being called a slut was only intensified by the fact the description of the situation was brutally accurate and clearly a regular occurrence. A truth she did not want to dwell upon. “The help doesn’t need to know my reasons. Is he around or not?”

“He’ll be here in a few minutes. Why don’t you have a seat. Would you like us to help you with a beer or something?” She had particularly malevolent look in her eye when she said help.

“No, I’m fine. Let him know Janice is here when he arrives.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

An hour later Tommy walked in the front door of his bar, grinning his big boyish grin. The place was half full of regulars now, a few of whom were already drunk. Janice had been sitting at a table in the back, getting work done on her laptop, but found herself increasingly distracted by people-watching. A woman stumbled in at 5:45 already plastered, stumbling and calling for whiskey, dressed in a white skirt and rainbow striped tube top, she barley managed to make it to the stool upright. Her drinking partner, a balding man in wrinkled grey flesh, just laughed and then fell off his own stool, then laughed some more. Janice sat in stunned silence watching the parade of human self deprecation.

Tommy’s sister gave him a nod in Janice’s direction, he turned, saw her, paused for moment, then the light bulb clearly came on as he remembered her, and with a broad grin he headed towards her table.

“Hi, Janet, right? How are you?”

“Janice. I’m fine. How are you?”

He didn’t seem to realize she had corrected him on the name. “Me? I’m always great. Life is good ya’ know.”

“I’m glad you feel that way. We need to talk. Why don’t you sit down.”

“Wow, normally when a girl says that to me she wants to break up. But we’re not together, so, what’s up?’

“Sit, please.”

Confused by abnormality, he sat down quietly. Janice sat across from him, and leaned forward, folding her slender hands in the center. He responded by mirroring her actions, his thick torso casting a dark shadow across the pale, cracked white formica tabletop, as his thick, calloused fingers interlocked just a few inches away from hers. Janice found herself very aware of the warmth of his body. She was a little disturbed with herself for the involuntary response under the circumstance, but she chose to just ignore it and move on.

“Listen, Tom, here’s the thing,-”

“Tommy.”

“What?”

“People call me Tommy, not Tom.”

“Right, Tommy, I want you to understand I’m just here to inform you. You don’t need to do anything or be anywhere, or anything. I don’t even know what I’m doing yet, I just thought it was right to tell you what was happening.”

Tommy still hadn’t come within the vicinity of a clue, “Janice, what are you talking about?”

She realized she had never said the word out loud. In fact she had never even said it in her thoughts. “I’m- well, Tommy, I’m, that is we- no I am, pregnant. You’re the father, biologically.”

The news knocked him back in his chair like an Ewok log trap swinging down from a tree and hitting a Clone trooper off his sky sled on Endor. Just moving along, then- BAM! Cute, little, helpless looking, creature just nocked you on your ass. It took him a moment to speak, she just sat quietly and let him gather his thoughts.

“I uh, I guess, I don’t want to be rude but my first question is how do you know its-”

“Because it has to be yours, Tom, there is no other option. It’s not like I’ve been using my vagina to gather semen samples from around the city.”

“Of course, of course. I didn’t mean- I just- I wasn’t- Well, alright then. I guess,” The he drew himself up, squared his shoulders, took her hands in his and declared, “let’s get married!”

She yanked her hands and body back as far as the booth would allow, “Married? Are you insane or just incredibly stupid? Even if I do decide to keep it, which is a real possibility, there is no way in hell I’m marrying you. I barely know you. And you just learned my proper name! Let me repeat, you don’t need to do anything, I just thought it was right to tell you.”

“Of course it was right to tell me, its my baby, too. I wont pretend I’m not relieved about the marriage idea, but I want to be a father to my baby. Doing nothing is not an option.”

“I haven’t decided I’m having it yet, either. I just found out this weekend. I need time to process this myself, and decide what comes next.”

“What? Listen, first of all, abortion is a sin. Second, with that new thing, The Procedure, its totally unnecessary. So why would you?”

“Don’t go getting all preachy with me, Tommy Fornicator. I’m going to do what seems best for all involved. What that is? I don’t know, yet. The Procedure supposedly allows fetus to be removed and grown in an incubator starting at 10 weeks. Which I’m already passed. Now, the jury is still out on how viable that is, but even so, there’s more to consider than just the technical aspects.”

“Such as?”

“I’m supposed to do what? Start a little version of me, then tear it out of my body before its done, dump it into a lab to be grown, and then let whomever take it from there?”

“Its not like adoption was just invented. Besides, in this case, it would be me adopting the child.”

“You’re going to raise a kid as a single dad?”

“Sure. Why not? This bar paid for the raising of me and my brother and 2 sisters.”

“I don’t know, we’re talking about a baby I’m carrying.”

“Not if you use The Procedure.”

“Not if I abort it, either.”

“So you don’t want the kid, but you don’t want someone else to raise the kid either, so the kid has to die?”

“There is no kid, yet, its just a blob.”

“A blob that’s going to be a person. A blob that god says its a sin to kill. And don’t forget it’s half me. Now back in the old days, when it was all about your body, I’d shut up and accept that I don’t get to be the decider. But now, it doesn’t have to stay in your body. They say The Procedure is no worse, no more difficult for you, than any of the other stuff your Gyno does. So why not let me adopt the fetus?”

“I don’t know, dammit! I don’t know! I just found out about all of this. I haven’t decided if or what I want for me. But I’ll keep your opinion in mind, I promise.”

“Will you at least promise to tell me before you finalize any decision?”

“Yes.”

“Alright. Well, let me know if you need anything in the meantime. I have a full kitchen and my cousin is doctor.”

“What kind of doctor?”

“Ummm, a foot doctor I think, but he still had to go to med school and study everything.”

“I think I’ll stick with my O-B.”

The Choice

3 weeks later Janice and Tommy drove up to the New World Clinic on the corner of Jackson and Glendale. A squat, octagonal building occupying most of the block painted bright pink and yellow, with a red, brick sidewalk leading up to the automatic sliding glass doors set opposite the corner on the diagonal. In the grass lawn stood a short, wide sign announcing their name with the slogan, “Preserving the Image of God”. Janice cringed a little reading the sign while waiting for him to parallel park. She knew it was well intentioned, but somehow it offended her secularist, evidence based view of the universe to suggest that the creator of all things looked like humans. She had to admit it pleased her ego somehow.

He stepped out of the black Grand Prix and hurried around to get her door, but she had already let herself out and onto the sidewalk. He tried to reach for her hand, but she demurred this attempt as well. Side by side they walked towards the doors in silence. Janice dressed in a long black, sleeveless dress and Tommy in jeans and bright yellow golf shirt. He adjusted his baseball cap, and reached to push the door open for her when it automatically swooshed open in reaction to their body heat being viewed by unseen detectors.

She smiled at him, “Thank you, anyway.”

“Even the machines wont let me be chivalrous.” She giggled politely.

Inside the building it was alabaster on ivory, the only color was a pink path painted on the floor leading straight back and around the corner to the right. Tommy and Janice dutifully followed the road laid out for them in silence. The hallway unbroken by other sight or sound, her shoes clickety clacketing with each and every step. The end seemed to get further away the more they walked like some cheap horror movie. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. When they finally turned the corner, Tommy was sweating like it was on a pump. They both paused at the entrance to the seating area.

It looked like Barbie had vomited on Sponge Bob and then a blind person had been allowed to finger paint with it. Yellow’s, oranges, and pinks laid down and twisted around each other in bizarre plaid/argyle/tie-dye and then stretched across the chairs, couches, and walls of the room. The floor and ceiling were the same alabaster of the hallway, which only served to enhance the technicolor sensory assault.

In the middle of the far wall a 4×4 opening was cut for the paper pusher squad to access their public. A bright orange counter beckoned the couple. Janice took a breath and they began the slow march across the room. They stood at the counter and looked at the staff, expecting a reaction from their presence. The pair of overweight, curly haired, muumuu wearing bureaucrats offered no such politeness, instead continuing their gossip session regarding the activities of someone named Peter and his “friend” Greg.

Tom cleared his throat, “Excuse me, ladies.”

The face over the muumuu on the left looked at them, “What?”

“We’d like to get some service.”

She sighed a tremendous sigh and shuffled her girth up and over towards them. Leaning in and breathing heavy from the effort she intoned, “Welcome to the New World Clinic, where we work to preserve God’s image. This brochure lists our services, and numbers you can call for anonymous consults, all services require a minimum of 24 hours before an appointment can be scheduled. Is there anything else I can help with you with today?”

Several times Janice attempted to interrupt her, but there was no stopping the preprogrammed litany. When she stopped to breath, heavily, Janice said, “We have an appointment with a Doctor Hu.”

This appeared to annoy the mound of woman greatly, “Well why didn’t you say so in the first place? What’s the name?”

“Chan, Janice and Finnegan, Tom.”

“So that’s Mr. And Mrs. Finnegan?” She began paging through her book.

“Did I say that? No. I think would have said that if that’s what I meant, don’t you?”

“Excuse me ma’am.”

“Ma’am?”

At this point Tom decided it was best to redirect the conversation, “Excuse me, perhaps you 2 beautiful ladies could compete for my affections another time? If we could perhaps just move this along?”

That caused both of them turn and look at him with eyes of fire, as he intended, ending the tete e tete. The clerk-hemoth gave another sigh and returned to her book, “Yes, I see you here, Finnegan and Chan 2:15. Have a seat, fill out this form, and we’ll call you when the Doctor is ready.”

After 15 interminable minutes sitting in the splatterific waiting room, not speaking to each other, their names were finally called. She was already 5 steps toward the door by the time he was on his feet, scrambling to catch up with her.

The Procedure

Dressed like a green ninja, Tommy sat on a stool to Janice’s right, holding her hand as she lay on her back on a cold, metal examination table. She stared at the blank, ivory ceiling and tried not to think about the fact her legs were spread and strapped into harnesses with her vagina exposed to a doctor she had never before met. He, Dr. Hu, was hunched over so his head and arms were beneath the sheet draped over her knees as he held a black plastic sphere against her pink nether and made technical adjustments.

“Ah yes, very nice.” The Doctor’s voice could be heard from beneath the sheet.

Tommy did not like that at all, “Excuse me?”

“Oh, no, no.” The small, round head of the doctor popped up from under the sheet. Green mask and hat covered most of his features so that only his bright, narrow eyes could be seen. “I was referring to the data I’m receiving. It’s coming through clearly. The specimen is a healthy 20 week old female with all the parts it should have in all the right places.”

Janice choked back a tear at hearing that news. Tommy turned to her, “Honey, if you want to change your mind, or take more time, now is the time to say.”

Dr. Hu poked his head back up, “Now would actually be the last time.”

“No. I’m sure. Let’s do this.”

“Okie Dokie. Nurse, administer the dose of anesthetic.” With that his head dove back under the sheet and returned to operating the plastic sphere. Janice tried to hold still as she felt it pressing against her vagina. The nurse, a old African-American woman dressed in hospital greens, squeezed her right hand as she released a syringe full of drugs into her veins. Then the Doctor pressed some buttons, a section opened, and a slender, plastic cone extended inside her. She could feel each dry, skinny, plastic section slipping a centimeter into her, expand, then the next section, then the next. Then she passed out.

After

When she awoke, Janice lay in a bed, her legs flat and together. She wore a blue cloth apron, and was covered by a white sheet. The doctor and Tom were both gone and she felt as if her innards had been scraped by a dull, flat, metal bar. As the burning inside her vagina registered, the last vestiges of cloudiness from the anesthesia quickly dissipated. Sitting up triggered a spasm of super-cramps erupting across her abdomen. She almost fell off the table curling into the fetal position.

A few minutes of sobbing later, she stood/fell onto her feet and looked around the room. A standard looking hospital room; white everything, chair by the bed, sink, locked cabinets, and her clothes in neat pile on the end of the counter. Janice started towards the pile but found herself restrained by medical tubing and wires connected to her arms and chest. She fell back onto the mattress and stared at the ceiling. She laid her hands on her stomach and touched the strange emptiness though she had never felt the child’s presence. Every bit of logic told her she made the right decision, but even so, Janice had never felt such loss as that of a suddenly empty uterus.

“I am no longer pregnant, I did not give birth, my fetus continues to grow. What am I?”

Found Treasures

This was originally written for a short story contest invoving NPR and the Paris Review. Unfortunatly, I missed the deadline so I gave it a quick rewrite and here it is. The premise of the contest was the protaganist finds somehting and isn’t going to give it back, less than 600 words. This version goes over the word count.

From a distance he looked like a scarecrow that had lost its way and was standing on a city corner for some reason. Slender body, long arms and legs, dangling, he leaned up against the green pole signifying a bus/trolley stop. His thin brown hair hung loosely in a variety of lengths over his face. The cheap, tuxedo-like outfit he wore sort fit his body in that it was neither too short nor too long. He took a deep breath and let it out slow.

Tom was tired. Not just in need of sleep, although that was certainly true, but he was soul weary. The kind of tired that you feel in the marrow of your bones and the tendons that bind your joints. The kind of tired the comes from a long day of work followed by another long day of work followed by several more, preceded by a long weekend with your in-laws. Today was Friday. The TGIF-ist of all Friday’s he could ever remember. He stood at the trolley stop on the corner of 36th and Lancaster, just swaying back and forth, barely holding his 5’11” frame erect, listening to Bob jam on his earbuds, and waiting, like he did every weekday, at this exact time.

The clackety-clack of metal wheels on metal tracks disturbed him from his reverie. Looking left, he saw the stained, off-white, rectangular tube slowly sliding towards his corner causing the other denizens of the stop to begin scrambling for position. All sense of line protocol vanished, elderly women and men with canes and walkers sprang to life in a curb side battle royal to gain first access to the few remaining seats. Tom stood back and waited. The trolley bypassed them all and stopped directly in front of him. He stepped on first, dropped his token in the slot and flashed the driver his boyish smile. She smiled a toothy grin and winked back at him with her wandering eye. He headed towards the back looking for his wife.

Shelly sat in the “good seats,” the last row on the left before the back doors. Nobody behind the handicap seat in front mean leg room for them. There was an empty seat next to her today. He walked right up and plopped into it with a sigh. She looked almost as tired as he felt. Her red hair had been tied up in bun, but that now hung loosely on her neck. Her puffy eyes, half closed, followed here hand as she absently brushed crumbs from a recently finished muffin the faux Catholic School outfit the restaurant called a uniform. She leaned her head on his shoulder and matched his sigh.

“How was work baby?” He muttered.

“I served food to old men who stared at my butt and gave me money. How about you?”

“The same.” She gave a half hearted giggle. She held a MFA in music and worked as a waitress. He held a BA in English and worked as a bartender in a gay bar. They had been married 2 years.

The person in front of them stood and left. Something fell against Tom’s foot. He turned to tell the person, but he was out the door and gone already. Shelly reached down and picked it up. She pulled back the bag it was in and gasped, smiled at Tom, eyes wide. He looked at the object in her hands.

At first it just looked like a package of fresh baked brownies. Nice, but whose going to eat bus brownies? Then he looked closer and smiled, too. These brownies had a distinct green color.

“This weekend just got a whole lot brighter.” He laughed.

“Do you think we should?” clearly wanting him to say yes.

“Ja provide, who are we to argue?”

“I can’t argue with that.” She giggled. “We should call Angie and Bob.”

“Eric and Janet, too.” He nodded

Shelly sniffed the package once and smiled before she stuffed it back into the bag. They held hands, and felt their skeletons lighten at the prospect of good times. Tom began hum the tune to “Celebrate”. Shelly reached up and pulled the cord for their stop. They practically bounced off the trolley into the weekend.

 

The Pool

Jerome Peabody, Fund Manager

Jerome Peabody drove his pooh brown SUV out of his 2 car garage, and down the short driveway, turning right onto Mason St. The garage couldn’t really fit 2 cars because of this oversized vehicle, but Jerome lived alone, so that wasn’t a problem. Though this fact made the oversized vehicle less sensical, still it was the thing to have at his age and income level. He absently brushed his right hand down the length of the narrow, plaid tie which served to break the monotony of his pale blue, button down shirt checked his thinning brown hair in the mirror, and pulled out of the driveway. The plaid tie, pale blue shirt, black pleather belt, black nylon slacks, and sturdy, black, dress/walking shoes were all newly purchased at JCPenny just the day before; a present to himself on the occasion of his 10th anniversary at work. At the office, they gave him a dinner coupon for $50, a cake in the break room, and a bonus of $350. His supervisor, a kid half his age who had been there half the time, patted him on the back and praised his consistency. Jerome was surprised and delighted.

Today was Wednesday. Jerome didn’t go into the office on Wednesdays. This was his day in the field with Citizens who were about to become active in The Pool. The Pool couldn’t just exist on its own, someone had to operate it. That was Jerome’s job. He was a Manager for the National Economic Stability and Justice Pool, and newly active accounts had to be investigated to prevent “mistakes”.

A light day today, only 2 Citizens to visit. Jerome decided to drive to the furthest account first and then head towards home as he worked. That would be most efficient. Tapping the turn signal left, he checked all directions twice, then rolled up the on ramp, slowing for the yield sign as he checked across his left shoulder, and then merged smoothly onto the freeway. There was no radio on, or cell phone hooked up, no tasty beverage, or any other form of distraction. Jerome drove the vehicle with his hands at 10 and 2, and thought about his next meeting. Safety demanded he not divide his attention further.

North for an hour to see Erin Nolan, 80 years old, mother of 4, widow of 5 years, dying of Leukemia, property totaling 40 acres valued at $3.4 million, cash/investments totaling $2.5 million. Expected death date: 3 days maximum, October, 17, 2042. Exactly 80 years, 3 months and 4 days after her birth.

Without even realizing it Jerome began to whistle. He did it a lot, though he had no idea, whistling while he thought about his clients. It would shock him to realize it, such an unnecessary and pointless act. “Why would anyone do that?” He would ask, if he were ever cornered into a conversation about whistling. But there he was, just driving down the highway, thinking about a dying woman’s property, and whistling a tune.

Erin Nolan, Citizen

It took exactly 1 hour 10 minutes to cover the 63 miles between his home and Mrs. Nolan’s, including a stop to buy a water and energy bar before the meeting, granola without flavoring. The driveway wound like a snake up the perfectly trimmed, vibrant green hillside the ivory mansion perched atop. Walls gleaming, 137 windows and solar paneled roofs sparkling, his fecal toned automobile rolled into its corona sphere. Squinting against the reflected light, he reached for his laptop from the seat back compartment of the passenger seat, an outdated, heavy piece of equipment that contained files on thousands of Citizens. He opened the door, stepped into the light, and approached the column framed entryway. A pair of ivory colored, ceramic, Doric Columns, connected to nothing, pointed at the sky. Jerome stared at the not-portico for a moment, confused. There were columns but no roof. The base was cement, painted ivory, and the doorframe was wood, carved with an Ionic pattern, also painted ivory. He could not help but wonder where they found the craftsman willing to do this project. Shaking his head, and whistling, he walked up to the door and pushed the little yellow button bearing a smiley face. He could here the song, “Hello” by the Beatles, echoing through the house.

Jerome cleared his throat, straightened his perfectly straight shirt, then turned to observe the view. From this vantage he could see the suburb where he lived and the city skyline beyond. In close, rolling green hills, groves of trees, and farmhouses, cut into squares by transportation routes extended outward towards the grim urban towers spewing columns of dust, smoke, and heat into the sky with multifaceted flecks of electric lights cutting the darkness like insect eyes. He had just started to whistle when the door opened again.

“Oh, sir, hello, sorry for the wait.” He turned around to find a woman standing there probably only a few years younger than him. She looked as if someone had stretched out a much younger girl, dressed her in a black pantsuit, and added wrinkles to the corners of her eyes. Blonde hair hung in a scraggled mess around her face, framing eyes puffy and red from weeping. Her thin lips chewed on a lock, which she quickly pulled away with a long, slender finger. She attempted a smile, “Please come in, I’m Kerrie. Are you the PoolBoy?”

Jerome bristled at the diminutive nickname, “I am the Fund Manager, Jerome Peabody, yes ma’am.” He nodded as he crossed the threshold. The main room was larger than his home, a giant open, circular, space, floored with hardwood, containing only a massive chandler dangling over a circular table in the center. Along both walls were pocket stairwells, and in the center back, the only exit, a set of white double doors.

“Fund Manager? You mean PoolBoy isn’t your proper title?”

Jerome turned to face her, “No, ma’am, people just say that because the the Fund is referred to as The Pool.”

“Isn’t that it’s proper name either?”

“No ma’am, it’s the National Economic Stability and Justice Pool.”

“Well that is a mouthful.”

“I suppose, ma’am.”

“They ought to call it the Government Crime Project!” Stumbling down the stairs with a drink of dark alcohol in his hand, at 10:15 am, a young man with curly black hair and dressed in a pink bathrobe, bellowed and slurred.

“Don’t listen to him.” Kerrie turned her back to intruder and waved her hand dismissively, “He’s my cousin Luke, he’s just angry because he has to earn his own money now.”

“Yes, we’ll, Justice does have 2 scales, as they say.” Jerome nodded in a thoughtful manner.

Her head tilted slightly, “I never heard that before. Who says that?”

He paused, surprised by the inquiry, “I don’t know, possibly only my father.”

“Oh, hmm, I like that.”

“Ma’am, not to be rude, but may I see Mrs. Erin Nolan?”

Luke slid/fell his way down the last few stairs, then paused holding onto the bannister, as if unsure whether he was indeed standing or not. He looked around, then seemed to remember what was happening and turned to Jerome with a sneer, “Yes! Hurry up and get to your prey, vulture. Don’t waste any time talking to those of us who are about to be bereft of our love.”

This was too much for Kerrie, she pirouetted angrily, and delivered her most acidic, boardroom, retort, “Which love would that be, Luke, my Mother, or her fortune?” Luke shrank back, unsure how to deal with actual confrontation, so she dismissed him with a snide upturn of her lip and returned her attention to Jerome. “Mr. Peabody, if you’ll follow me, please.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She escorted him, briskly, butt cheeks almost squeaking, towards the white doors at the back of the hall. A large, bearded, black man dressed in a dark suit with a white shirt swung open the double doors upon their approach till they locked in place, then stood by the right, at attention. Kerrie stopped in front of him.

“Todd, this is Mr. Peabody from the National Econ- from The Pool. He will be here for a few hours. Treat him as you would any guest.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He responded in a high, squeaky voice like an animated mouse or a misaligned flywheel.

“Sir, this is my mother’s butler, Todd. He will get you anything you need, my Mother is in here.” Then she turned and headed through the doors into a sunroom which had been converted into a makeshift hospice bedroom.

The floor was cement, tiled with painted ceramic laid out in a mosaic of Van Gogh’s The Lilly’s, the ceiling and wall was a half arch of glass extending in a radius of 5 meters out from the wall, supported by plastic beams every meter along the width. To his left, all the plants in the room had been moved, crowded together, haphazardly piled on tables, chairs, and the floor. To his right, Mrs. Erin Nolan lay prone on an aluminum framed bed, stark white sheets and blankets bleached yellow by the sun, a single tube extending from her emaciated left arm into a clear plastic bag dangling from a metal pole by the bedside. The sole color came from a small square of cloth laying across her torso, gripped tightly by her right hand, faded and edges haggard, it had the face of a puppy stitched into the center in green yarn. Older than anyone in the house except Erin, she had this blanket since her now deceased little sister made it for her 70 years ago.

Kerrie pointed to the bed, and held back a sob, “She’s not awake very often. I would prefer you didn’t disturb her.”

“I need to run some tests, but I should be able to do so without bothering the Citizen. I do have to ask some questions of someone. Will you be around in half an hour?”

“Yes, though you may find Todd more useful for personal details, he knew her better than anyone at this point.”

“Very well. I’ll begin now. You can stay or go, as you wish.”

Kerrie looked at her mother again, then all but ran from the room, holding her hand to her mouth. He walked over to the bedside, noticed a chair against the wall, pulled it out, and sat facing her. He set the computer on his lap, opened it, and began calling up files as soon as the operating system engaged.

Active Accounts > Inheritance > Incoming > Nolan, Erin > Identification

This was the first time he had actually looked at her, personally. She looked like her daughter, but all dried up like a raisin to a grape. Her hair lay in wispy patterns of white on white across the pillow. Her narrow lips fluttered in the weak puffs of air her lungs still managed to expel. Both of her arms lay exposed, pale flesh dangling from the bone, so thin the feeble veins and arteries were visible like a morbid, interactive Jackson Pollock.

He pressed audio record on the keyboard. “This is Manager Peabody, Case #42-10-345p, Nolan, Erin. On Location with Citizen. She is unconscious, gaunt, dehydrated, pale, and malnourished to the untrained eye. First thought upon seeing her is that this human will be dead soon. About to perform DNA test to confirm identity.”

Jerome then set the computer down on the floor, reached into his left shirt pocket and removed a vial containing a cotton swab. Whistling, he popped open the top, removed the swab, leaned down by the side of the bed, stuck it into her urine container that was being filled by a catheter tube plugged directly into her pee hole. He soaked it, and then pulled it back out, and looked to be sure it was saturated. Still whistling, he stuck it back into the vial, replaced the lid, and pressed a button on the bottom. A clear chemical filled the bottom, and the swab turned blue. After painting the inside of the lid with the treated cotton, he laid it face down on a 3 cm square scanner in the upper right corner of the keypad. The he turned to face the Butler.

“Okay, that will take awhile. I will need confirmation of Mrs. Nolan’s estate and assets,” He told Todd the Butler. “and their is a final witness document.”

“Mrs. Nolan, when she was still able, gave me this to give you. It is a complete list of all her holdings.” Todd held out a USB drive.

“Hmmm, yes, I should be able to view this while the scan completes.” Jerome took it, plugged it in, began perusing the list. “All very standard. 2 boats, 3 houses, a farm, several vehicles, oh a private airplane, very nice. Ah, she still owned shares in quite a number of companies, usually they buy them back before death. That will fetch quite a nice sum. Very good, very good, everything seems to be in order.”

“I’m very happy for you.”

“Hmm? Oh yes, sorry. Well, as you know, property will not transfer to the state until 6 months after death. Cash and investments will transfer immediately. The funeral cost will be-”

“Can we not talk about this right here. She can still hear, you know.”

“Oh, well, if you wish.”

“I wish.”

“I just have a 1 more thing to do here with the body.”

“Mrs. Nolan.”

“Yes, who else?”

“I meant- never mind, just hurry up and be done, I’ll be right outside if you need me.”

“I understand.”

Exactly 14 minutes and 30 seconds after beginning his Citizen Inventory, Fund Manager Jerome Peabody completed it. He had also measured and weighed the Citizen, and complied a complete list of her demographics. Finalizing his checklist, Jerome stood and went outside for Todd the Butler. He found him standing in the doorway, facing forward, hands at his side, eyes brimming. “Excuse me, Todd, I could use your assistance inside.”

The Butler cleared his throat and replied in quivering falsetto, “Of course, I’ll be right there.”

Jerome returned to his laptop, balanced it on his left palm, and with his right thumb pressed a preset on the number pad. An application of his own design opened with a absolutely no fanfare at all, beyond the interface fading in full screen. The camera and mic were now set to record at the touch of a button, and the scanner became touch sensitive. Todd entered the room.

“Okay, Todd, you will say your name, that you are a “witness”, and the date, and then put your thumb on the scanner like I do.”

“My thumb?”

“Yes. I am here to confirm this is her, and you are confirming that I am actually here. Can’t have people defrauding The Pool. Trust but verify, as the proverbs say.” Jerome found it was helpful to reassure people with traditional sayings. The Butler gave him a funny look but shrugged and nodded. Jerome was satisfied with that. He continued ahead.

Reaching up, he pressed the space bar and the word recording appeared on the screen in red. He straightened his shoulders and looked into the camera, “This is Jerome Peabody Fund Manager for the Social Economic Justice Fund, performing final inventory for Mrs. Erin Nolan at her primary residence, on October 14, 2042.” Then he placed his thumb on the scanner, it flashed once, then went dark.

Jerome turned the computer to face Todd, and placed both his palms beneath it for balance. “I uh, This is Todd Weaton, Butler to Mrs. Nolan, as good a woman as I’ve ever known, and uh, I am a witness that Mr. Peabody is here, now.” He raised him thumb for the scan, but Jerome stopped him with a gesture.

“Sir, could you, just, say the date.”

“Today is October 14, 2042.” Then he slapped his thumb onto the scanner, hard enough for Jerome to almost lose control of the keyboard.

“Thanks you. Now just 1 more.”

“What do you mean 1 more? What are you doing?” But it was too late for Todd to do anything. Jerome laid the computer on the bed, picked up Erin’s hand, and pressed it on the scanner.

“This is the fingerprint of Erin Nolan, the Citizen whose account has become active.” then he dropped her hand.

Todd had his arms around Jerome by now, he picked him up and tossed the older, smaller, paler man across the room. Jerome landed in a pile of plants, flowers, and chairs, he opened his eyes to see the angry butler storming towards him. Kerrie ran into the room, “What is all that noise? Todd? No! What are you doing?”

“He put his hands on Mrs. Nolan.”

“What?”

“I was just getting a fingerprint, for my files. It is required.” He stood slowly, bruised and shaken, but not really hurt. He began to vigorously brush the dirt and wrinkles out of his suit, but then surrendered to the situation.

“Is it required that you do it like an ambush, instead of asking politely, like a human being?”

“I find that people are not always accommodating, yet it has to be done. So I take the shortest route.”

“You are a disgusting little man, Mr. Peabody.” Kerrie now turned her sneer on him. “Have you collected everything you need?”

“I have.”

“Then gather your things and leave.”

“Very well.”

Jerome Peabody, Regroup

It took less than 5 minutes for Jerome Peabody to be on the road again. He was quite satisfied to be away from that house. People were most unruly at these times, especially the wealthy. They were so accustomed to being in control of their world and getting what they want, both death and The Pool did not sit well with them.

Ah well, nothing to be done, next on the list. Which would be… Loomis, Arthur T., 34 years 362 days old, 1 child, married, property totaling 1 vehicle valued at $10,000, cash/ investments totaling $500 cash and -$10,000 debt. Birthdate: October, 17, 2007.

It would take 32 minutes to arrive at the home of Citizen Loomis. Jerome tried to focus on piloting the vehicle, but all he could think about was his disheveled appearance. His new clothes were ruined, even the shoes, which were both comfortable and dress black, had been scuffed in the fall. These were his anniversary present to himself. Now they’re ruined. Not even an apology, instead they use terms like Pool Boy and thief. As if The Pool weren’t essential.

The Pool was the result of the Great Economic Compromise of 2025. American government was stagnate, divided leaders refused to give any philosophical ground, meanwhile the country was sinking deeper into economic ruin. Until President Stein struck a deal all sides could accept. Social Security and Welfare, in all forms, would cease to exist. Medicare would become a universal health insurance plan with a means tested fee. Only spouses can inherit money or property of any type, with certain exceptions for heirlooms. Absent a living spouse, all treasure is converted to cash and entered into The Pool. At age 18, 35 and again at the chosen date of retirement, no less than age 55, all Citizens will receive payments equal to 1/2 the national median income.

Which will be $35,000 today. Jerome mused as he turned into the neighborhood. He swore he recognized these houses. A left on Rodale Street, a right onto Greenway, I know this place. This should be it on the right side, 472. Yes sir, I have definitely been here before. I wonder if it was for a payment or an inventory?

Each yard was neatly squared off by sidewalks of square cement blocks and cracked tar driveways. Basketball nets hung, ragged and rusted, like a field of crosses marking the death of middle aged men’s dreams. Citizen Loomis’s yard was a brown swath of old growth infiltrated by every weed in the region. You could feel the lush green grass in the other yards projecting disapproval towards his yard.

Arthur Loomis, Citizen

Jerome stood next to his vehicle, inspecting himself to be sure he didn’t have any dirt left hanging on him. It was bad enough to be a wrinkled mess, but he couldn’t very well embarrass the government by showing up covered in dirt. He took another look, and then headed up the path towards the white aluminum screen door on the front of the forest green ranch house. Perfectly squared bushes lined the walk on the approach to the house, creating a privacy barrier for the front deck. Jerome stepped onto the cherry stained pine planks, a series of wooden 4×4’s to his left and right, support the roof over his head, all untreated. He stepped towards the door looking for a bell.

“Hello.” From his left, a tiny voice sitting on a hammock. A little girl, 5 or 6, with red hair and a blue jumpsuit, and a cloth doll of some type Jerome was not familiar. “Can I help you?”

He approached her, “Hello. I hope so. I’m looking for a Mr. Arthur Loomis.”

“That’s Daddy, but I don’t know you.”

Despite himself, Jerome smiled, “That’s true, but you’re father is expecting me. Why don’t you tell him that the man from The Pool is here.”

“You’re the PoolBoy?”

“I am not- yes, fine, whatever, please just tell you’re father I am here.”

“You don’t look like a pool guy, you’re not even wearing a bathing suit. You know, we don’t even have a pool.”

“I don’t work on pools. It’s just a nickname. I’m here to discuss something important with your father could you please let him know that I’m here.”

“My Dad is at the store. He’ll be back in a half hour or so.”

“I see. And your mother, where is she?”

“Mommy’s standing behind you.”

Jerome spun around to find a brunette in a ponytail, blue t- shirt, work gloves, and overalls holding a hand spade in 1 hand while covering her giggles with the other. As soon as he saw her he remembered why he recognized the address. She knew him, too.

“Peabody! It’s you, holy cow! You’re my guy, and now my husband’s guy, too! What are the odds of that? Huh? How often does a couple get the same guy? Come in, come in.”

She grabbed his hand and dragged him inside. Her name was Ellen Klein, at least it was 3 years ago. When he new her she was a single, childless, doctoral student. She was the one. For weeks after their meeting he had been unable to work properly, his entire life became unsettled, all he wanted was to reach out to her. But there were rules about that sort of thing, and he did not break rules. Now here she was again, and him with his new, anniversary suit, ruined.

The little girl took his other hand, “My name is Athena.”

“Really?”

“Yes really, what’s your name?”

“Jerome Peabody.”

“Really?”

“Fair enough.”

Ellen patted him on the arm, “Its really nice to see you again. I never thought I’d get to thank you.”

“Thank me?”

“The Payment saved me.” she snapped her fingers, “Out of debt, wiser for the mistakes, and a few grand left to do something with, just like that. I set up a home business which not only pays my bills but also led to meeting my husband.”

“And me!” shouted Athena.

“And you, my little bonus prize. Say thank you to the nice man for setting those dominos in motion.” She hugged and kissed Athena on the head.

“Thanks Peabody, for the dominos.” She beamed at him so enthusiastically he barely had the heart to correct them.

“Really, ma’am, I think you are giving me too much credit. I didn’t give you anything, the law says everyone on their 18th and 35th birthday and retirement. I just verify and deliver.”

“Daddy is going to be 35 this week. Is that why you’re here?”

“Yes. I have to be sure that we have the correct information, address, bank account number, stuff like that, and while I’m here we do an enhanced census report. Then I file my approval and the payment is deposited on the Citizen’s birthday.

“and to answer your prior question, I’ve never heard of a Manager getting assigned both spouses, but the program is getting older now. I mean so far nobody born into the program has retired, so we have a lot to learn yet.”

“Wow, I never thought about that side of it.” Ellen shrugged, then looked around in mock surprise, “I’m sorry, do you want a drink? Something to eat?”

“If Citizen Loomis is going to be another half hour, I suppose I could use a glass of water.”

“Okay. It won’t be quite that long, but it’ll be a minute. How about a muffin, I made muffins this morning, they should still be just a little over room temp. I’ll get some.”

When she came back Athena and Jerome were engaged in a staring contest. He sat upright in the faux Victorian high back, hands laying palm down on his knees, and she sat cross legged on the glass coffee table across from him. She smiled and said “I can not be beaten.”

Jerome, stone faced, said nothing.

“I will not blink.” She said, but you could see the strain was getting to the little girl. She began to shake from the effort, sweat built up on her brow. Jerome didn’t stir.

“I brought water, ice tea, and muffins. If anybody wants to stop competing with children and have some.”

Jerome took the hint, and looked away, “I am beaten. You are the winner.”

“I win! I win!” She hollered and jumped around the room. Hopping from green area rug, to blue couch, to brown love seat, and back again she screamed, “I win!” over and over.

“Alright Athena, enough of that. Don’t be rude to our guest.” Jerome was already pouring himself a glass of water and ignoring the display. “Mr. Peabody, tell me about yourself.” Ellen sat next to him on the couch, and hugging her knees up to her chest.

He almost choked on the water, shocked by the interest in his life, “Me?”

“Yes, you. You must have a life. You know all about me, and my husband, but I don’t know anything about you. That hardly seems fair.”

“I don’t ma’am, I mean there’s-”

“Oh would you please stop being so formal? You know me more intimately than most people, I think you can call me Ellen.”

He blushed at the suggestion that they were intimate, “I don’t know ma- Ellen, my life is not so fascinating. I work and I go home, I’m 47, I own some property and a -”

“Oh no, no, those are just stats. What do you do? I like to garden and make muffins. I help raise this crazed genius. Tell me about you?”

“Well, I enjoy sitting alone at night, on a building rooftop, and just listening to the city; the motors, the feet, the voices, the weapons fire, the alarms, the wind, the buzz of electricity in the wires, a fight between strays, the city. I find the constant measured rhythm of the combined chaos to be reassuring. You know? As if despite all the unknown factors we must face everyday, somehow they combine to form a balanced whole that is always consistent in form.”

“Wow, that’s really beautiful, Peabody.” They looked at each other, and he could see her admiration for his words was completely plutonic, but in that look he felt the burning call of his temptation.

Just then the front door swung open to allow a slender man with a mess of red hair in jeans and a yellow, red, and green horizontal striped T-shirt, carrying bags of groceries. He bellowed a deep brassy, “Daddy’s home! With ice cream.”

“Ice cream!” Athena was off the couch, across the table, and wrapped around his knees before the sound of her voice could close the distance. “Daddy, look, Mommy’s favorite PoolBoy came!”

After Ellen and Arthur stopped laughing, the young man extended a hand to Jerome, “I’m Arthur and I guess you’re from the Pool?”

Ellen interjected, “He’s the same guy who showed up for my payment. Can you believe that? Even he said he never heard of that?”

Arthur looked at him, skeptical,” Really? How bizarre. Well, let’s call it a good omen, and get on with collecting that payment. Shall we?”

Arthur was very happy to get down to business, “Absolutely, sir. We just have to do some paperwork, then I’ll be on my way.”

“Okay, Ellen, could you take the groceries for me before Athena has the ice cream on the rug. Thank you.” He sat down across from Jerome, while he was busily setting up the laptop in the table.

“Alright, to begin I need a DNA sample, for ID purposes, so if you could just swipe your cheek with this,” Jerome reached into his pocket and pulled out a second vial with cotton swab. The process was completed quickly. As was the inventory and fingerprint.

“Very well, sir. Everything appears to be in order. Over the next few days the data from this interview will be catalogued and double checked. Assuming nobody sees an error I missed, you will have a payment equalling half the median income for all households in your primary account on the morning of your birthday.”

“Do you know what that amount is?”

“This morning it was $30,213.45, but it does vary from day to day by a few dollars.”

“A few dollars, huh? Well I guess I’ll just have to wait before i do any real budgeting.”

“Exactly so.”

Ellen had returned, she sat next to Arthur, squeezing his arm, she was so excited, “We’re going to expand our business with half and put the other half away for her college. We’re so excited.”

“What did you do with your 18th birthday payments?” Never before had Jerome taken am interest in the personal lives of his Citizen accounts. He was confused by his own behavior.

They both laughed, she answered, “I went to Australia for a month, came back flat broke. This guy bought a car.”

“I did not buy a car. I bought 3 partially wrecked 1974 Mustangs, and rebuilt them into a single, working vehicle.”
This interested Jerome, “That must have been worth a significant amount of money.”

Arthur looked a little embarrassed, “It was for about a week, until I wrapped it around a tree.”

Ellen giggled, “Not just any tree.”

“It was the tree outside the Mayor’s house. In the middle of his front yard to be precise.”

“Oh.”

“Yes. So, what money I had left was spent on fines, etc.”

“But now you have business together?”

Ellen perked up, “Yes, we have a one of those antique bookstores with a wine bar, so you can have a drink and snack while reading an old fashioned print book. You wouldn’t believe how popular it is.”

“Your probably right. Well, barring any unusual circumstance, your payment sold process on your birthday. Thank you for the muffin.”

“Oh, can’t you stay for dinner?”

“Ellen, let the man go, he’s probably got more clients to see.”

“Thank you for the offer, but that really wouldn’t be appropriate.” Why do I want to say yes so badly.

Jerome gathered his computer, and walked out the door, down the path, and stood by the driver side of his vehicle. He paused and looked up at the porch, Athena hung off the post, swinging back and forth, watching him, she waved. He waved back. Then he got into the vehicle, backed out of the driveway, and whistled all the way home.

Fire, Blood, and Pain on Mars

Victor

At 25km high and 264km in diameter, Olympus Mons is the largest mountain in the solar system and the second largest in the known galaxy after 4Vesta. After the humans of Earth had dropped a hydrogen bomb into this, and several other, volcano the resulting cloud of ash fertilized the soil and thickened the atmosphere enough to melt the ice caps and start an environmental cycle. By seeding the planet with flora, fungae, sea life, and assorted bacteria, it took less than a decade to get the red planet prepped for humans and other animals. A timeline significantly accelerated by Kentauran terraforming technology.

20121119-105507.jpgArtist

None of this impressed Victor as he flew towards the northern escarpment. His immediate superior, known as Arthur to the humans, waited impatiently for a report on his recent mission. A report Victor had no idea how he was going to present without losing everything he’d built for himself. It was supposed to be a simple recon, instead it had devolved into a complete disaster.

As he closed on the ridge line, Victor tucked his wings and dove for the row of cave entrances along the face of the escarpment. Slowly allowing his wings to extend and turn up, the air currents pulled his slender, red body in a long, slow arc directly into the open rock mouth of the largest cave, Southern Passage. “Slow Down!” Someone yelled at him as he shot down the artificially smoothed tunnel. Tiny adjustments in the position of his wing tip or the slightest degree change in their angle allowed him to weave through the traffic of Kentauran buearacrats and families cluttering the air of the passageway.

Southern Passage served as the main thoroughfare for the municipal region in the central southern escarpment. Every municipal region in every Kentauran settlement on every world was laid out exactly the same. Throughout the universe, the consistency of the bureacratic mind is a truth as unyielding as the laws of thermodynamics. Victor confidently flew down the main passage, broke right at the 3rd intersection, then curved in a long slow downward parabola as he slowed to a stop before the last door on the left. On the door, in Kentauran glyphs, it read simply, “Native Relations”. As it does on this door on every foreign world. Behind everyone of those doors, on everyone of those worlds, is the Kentauran intelligence service.

Victor scanned his eye in the security check, opened the door and flew in. Several important looking Kentauran he had never seen before were hovering in the middle of the room with Arthur. He knew they were important because they looked at Victor like they were calculating who was supposed to kiss whose ass. This was his first time in Arthur’s office on Mars. Typical of their species architecture, it was a half sphere narrowing at the top, walls smooth as glass from the process which hollows out the rock by heating it within a curved field till it becomes magma and flows out. the floor of the room remains a pool of lava, keeping the temperature closer to life on their home world. A number of steel bars hunts from the crest of the dome, for the Kentauran to hang from when they needed to relax. Along the rock face to Victor’s right were a bank of communication terminals. On the opposite face hung large, digital maps of Mars, Earth, and the solar system. In the middle of the room, the flock of Kentauran just stared at him.

In the high frequency Kentauran vocal range, Arthur introduced him, “Friends, this is my agent on the ground, code name Victor. Victor, this is, well, these are my friends, they are here for an update on operations.”

“Hello”Victor coasted forward and up, bringing his eyes even with these individuals to whom he was sort of being introduced. He joined the circle so that there were now 6 of them, with practiced ease they adjusted their wing beat pattern so that those opposite in the ring beat their wings in unison, and then the next pair clockwise did the same, and so on. In this way the group was able to share the effort of generating the required current for them all to float upon, a skill every child on Kentaurus was taught.

The oldest member of the group spoke first, his skin darkened and lined with age. Deep grooves in complex, rolling patterns flowed across the thick, deep maroon flesh. The bright ochre eyes held the memories and experiences of 300 years, and the quivering tone of his voice revealed the accompanying exhaustion. “I understand all did not go as planned.”

Victor sank slightly, he looked to Arthur who simply nodded, “No sir, we, the human deputy and I, were attempting a simple observe and report of the renegade operation known as “the Czar”. The human Mayor did not want us to engage unless it involved rescuing their missing Sheriff. But we discovered the Sheriff had been killed, and then were discovered ourselves. We had to fight our way out.”

Arthur spoke up, “And the human?”

“He made it out alive, mostly. I returned him to their hospital before coming here. But sir, respectfully, the important thing is here is the rogue operation. We vastly underestimated it. I sincerely doubt it began here on Mars.”

Deputy Frank

Deputy Frank Vigo knew he was in a hospital from the grey/white walls and sheets and floors, and the grey/white smell of antiseptic. He was not sure, however, what hospital this was, or how he got here. Reaching to rub the sleep from his eyes with his left hand, he felt resistance pulling on his flesh. Confused, he held up his arm and stared at the tubes sticking out of it without comprehension. Noise at the foot of his bed caused him to look and discover a group of people standing there.

20121119-110840.jpgArtist

“Madam Mayor?” as if he wasn’t sure if she was really there. Alicia Evens, 1st elected Mayor of Tholus County, Mars. Her mocha skin holding a pale green hue in the fluorescent hospital lights, she stood at the foot of his bed, looking as concerned as a Jewish mother on the first day of camp.

“Deputy, How are you?”

“I’ve felt better. Where am I?”

“You’re in the medical center in Tholus City. Victor brought you here.”

The Doctor chimed in as he and the others began moving about the bed, poking and prodding Frank, “Just in time, too. Another hour or so, even I might not have been able to save you.”

“Good thing you were here.”

“No kidding.”

Alicia rolled here eyes and cleared her throat, “Deputy, I’m sorry to be blunt, but do you remember anything from your investigation?”

“M-my? Oh yes, the Czar.”

“Yes, the Czar. Did he, they, do this to you?”

“Oh yeah. Well, sort of, yes.”

“Deputy!”

“What? Dag! I just regained consciousness for god sake. Can I have a minute?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry. It’s just that I sent you out with orders not to engage, and you came back looking like you might have engaged.”

“Yes, we engaged a little. It turns out Sheriff Tomes is dead. His body is probably dumped in the Labyrinth. And the Czar, as far as they are concerned, is the law in the area around the old arboretum. Apparently they don’t like outside law enforcement coming around.”

“Wait, wait, go back to the beginning. How do the Sheriff die?”

“Actually, that’s not the beginning. You have to start when Victor and I left your office a month ago…”

To be continued…

David Eddings: The Belgariad

The Belgariad is a 5 book series by David Eddings (1931-2009), which would be followed by the Malloreon Series, and 3 prequels co-authored with his wife Leigh. As stories within the fantasy genre there are certain plot and character staples one can expect: there is a dark lord trying to rule universe, and our hero is an orphan living a mundane life until one day a wise old man whisks him away, in the nick of time, just before some mysterious bad guys get their hands on him. It turns out the boy is not some ordinary kid but in fact, the secretly hidden away heir to a throne, magic power, and the focus of prophecy. And so a fellowship of the outmatched, yet heroic good guys is formed to help our hero (Garion) retrieve the magic object (the Orb of Aldur) from the bad guys (The Disciples of the Evil God Torak).  [Aside: in the Rivan Codex, Eddings offers an essay in which he outlines the principal elements of a fantasy story.]

The appeal of Eddings’ writing is the depth and detail of his character’s and plot line. We watch the characters develop and change over several years as the endure hardship and loss and suffering, as well as celebrate the occasional good day. Although the villains are rather 2 dimensional, as villains should be, the 4 main characters and numerous supporting characters have full lives aside from the quest. So you cannot help but become attached to their fortunes. And the plot lines are intricate, subtle, and developed over the course of the series.  Although you obviously recognize that Garion is going to be the hero of the story right away (by virtue of him being the main character), it is book 3 before you fully understand the implications for him. Eddings is very careful to build towards the revelation, rather than dumping it in your lap in the first chapter and then making the rest of the story only about the chase. In fact the full scope of the plot line isn’t revealed until the  second series, The Malloreon, although you would not realize it at the end of the Belgariad, which feels complete.

Plot

There were a number of unique and interesting elements to the series, however, the truly original twist that Eddings’ put into his stories was the personification of prophecy and fate. The driving force behind everything are these 2 prophecies. In ancient history known only to the Gods, an event took place which altered the the universe by interrupting its natural course, causing the God Torak to be born instead of the God Eriond. This created 2 possible ‘fates’, the original and the new. Each fate has its own prophecy. Due to the vastness of space-time, it has taken several millennium for the dominoes to fall on this event. But now the situation must be rectified, the universe can have only one destiny, and its up to a young boy named Garion to kill the evil God Torak or the entire universe will descend into chaos.

These prophecies are not just predictions, there are actual sentient forces behind them. These rival forces are characters in the story, able to manipulate events, people, even the gods, to their will. Although the Human Garion and the God Torak fill the traditional roles of Protagonist and Antagonist, it is these 2 prophecies that are actually moving the story in that manner.  Ultimately both possess the same desire, to force a final showdown between their vassals, the “Child of Light” (Garion) and “the Child of Dark” (Torak). At which point either we will be returned to the original path, or stay on the new path until it destroys us.  The end goal of the Light Prophecy is the ordered, stable universe, while the Dark Prophecy desires chaos and destruction.  And nobody, not even the Prophecies, know how the final meeting will end. (Spoiler: the good guys win)

Art

Although the definition is oft disputed, originality is always a key element to the credibility of a work as art. A hurdle science fiction and fantasy genres are regularly accused of failing to overcome due to the appearance of formulaic plots and rehashed concepts. This is a criticism that could easily be applied to any artistic medium if the observer only offers a cursory glance, rather than truly seeing the individual creations of the great artists. David Eddings is one of those rare great artists.

Now, the concept of good and evil coming to a final showdown is not particularly new. Nor is the idea of being compelled by some metaphysical force to your fate. But the concept of circumstance causing the birth of competing, thinking destinies affecting our lives for their own ends, essentially turning the universe into a timeless game of chess, is both new and interesting.  This is not God and the Devil playing with Job, in this story God and the Devil are but tools of Destiny just like Job. Eddings is presenting the cause and effect of history, on a cosmic scale, as being so complex that it organically develops an intelligence of equal complexity.

This idea that a) there are competing fates created by ancient events, and b) there are ethereal beings who personify these fates, and c) play active roles in the competition as manipulators of events, is an invention entirely belonging to Eddings. (which is to say, as a fan of the genre I’ve never encountered it elsewhere). I find this thematic invention very compelling, because he asks the audience to conceive of the universe from a different perspective.  This is more than the suspension of disbelief required to accept magic or space travel, in order to understand the outcome of the quest you have to understand the nature of Eddings’ universe. And doing so inevitably causes you to consider your perspective on the actual universe, because we comprehend the new by relating it to what we know.

In this story Eddings asks you to accept 2 key points about his universe: 1) every seemingly minor event is actually a necessary component in the puzzle of the universe, and 2) therefore individuals choices can change the ‘identity’ of the universe.  Which makes Destiny the synergy of all history, and our relationship to it, and each other, symbiotic.

And this is where the work becomes art, by moving the audience, through an original metaphor, to reconsider their perspective on the world.

 

 

Jack L. Chalker: The Well World

“The Saga of the Well World” and “Watchers at the Well” by Jack L. Chalker (December 17, 1944 – February 11, 2005) presents a unique look into the manner in which science fiction can transform real science into metaphor and, through that effort, enter the realm of art.

Story

The story is set in a distant future where humanity has settled the galaxy, running into few other species in the great expanse. Society operates in collectives of planets, some capitalist, some mafia like, some using drugs or technology to turn themselves into insect-like colonies. The back cover summary for book 2 “Exiles at the Well of Souls” gives us a good review of the story line.

Antor Trellig, head of a ruthless interstellar syndicate, had seized a super computer with godlike powers, which could make him omnipotent. The Council offered master criminal Mavra Chang any reward if she stopped Trellig – and horrible, lingering death if she failed. But neither Trellig nor Mavra had taken the Well World into consideration. Built by the ancient Markovians, the Well World controlled the design of the cosmos. When the opponents were drawn across space to the mysterious planet, they found themselves in new alien bodies, and in the middle of a battle where strange races fought desperately, with the control of all the Universe as the prize.

We soon discover the Well World is a massive  planet (several Jupiters combined) whose crust is covering an ancient super-computer. This computer maintains the equations that control the physical universe. On its crust are several hundred hexagonal territories, each containing a different species. These are the seed stock for all intelligent life in the universe, grown here and then deposited on planets once ready. Built by a race known as the Markovians, who were the only intelligent species to inhabit the universe. Having evolved to their fullest, they felt something was missing, so they decided to try again. They built this planet/computer to program a new universe, based on a new quantum math, populated by the species they created. However they could not create new souls, so they had to transform themselves into the new creatures and let the computer run on auto. This was the key part of the project, they were testing to see if different forms and/or compositions in different environments would allow them to discover what was missing. They left one of their own behind to monitor things, Nathan Brazil, who is not ruled by our physical laws because he is not of this universe.

Science

String Theory suggests (vastly oversimplified) that everything in the universe vibrates at a quantum level similar to a violin string, and like music, that vibration has a numerical equivalent. And this is the base math for all matter and energy in the universe. This theory also requires a minimum of 10 space-time dimensions. That is the science behind the science fiction which drives this plot.

Art

The art of this set design is in the use of the theory as metaphor. While the characters are engaged in all the usual politics and action/adventure associated with the genre, power hungry bad guy and liberty defending heroes working with morally ambivalent pirate types, the subtext throughout the series is the Markovian equation and their quest for fulfillment.

Are souls in new bodies capable of discovering new truths, or is that just redecorating? Is perspective as valuable to understanding as knowledge? Chalker has taken the nature v nurture argument to a quantum level, asking if physics or metaphysics determines who we are, and where the line between the two exists.

Chalker is not so arrogant as to offer a final answer to these questions. But the fact he causes his audience to ponder their own existence in relation to the world around them, I believe, lifts this above the level of pulp fiction. The fact that he does it subtly, through symbolism and imagery and parable, convinces me this work graduates to the level of art.

 

Star Trek: Mirror Universe

One of the aspects of the Star Trek series that I always enjoyed was the continuity of plot lines across series. The mirror universe is one of the most well structured examples of this.

In the original series, Captain Kirk, Scotty, Bones,and Uhura, end up switching places with their doppelgangers from the alternate universe due to a transporter accident. Of course, in the “Mirror” universe everyone is evil, the federation is an empire, women are scantily clad, and men wear beards.At the end of this episode, just before the happy ending where everyone goes home, ‘real’ Kirk encourages mirror Spock to recognize the tyrannies fail but freedom is forever, and the logical thing to do is reform.

Flash forward to the Deep Space Nine series (DS9)  produced 3 decades alter, set a century after, the original. In the second season, Major Kira Nerys and Doctor Julian Bashir get trapped in the Mirror universe due to a shuttle engine leak while traversing a stable wormhole.

This time there is no switch, and they meet their counterparts. Major Kira’s Mirror is a petty tyrant, and the Chief O’Brien’s is a slave in an ore processing facility under her command. The Doctor’s Mirror is not seen.  It seems Kirk did have influence on mirror Spock, who in turn did change the empire into a peaceful federation. The result, however, was an uprising by the formerly oppressed who then turned the humans into slaves and built their own empire. Now led by the Klingons and Cardassians, with the Bajorans playing a significant role.

I found this attention to detail impressive. Not only honoring the roots of Roddenberry’s  creation, but also maintaining the story line for the audience.  They could have developed a new alternate universe, with their own rules, but the authors chose to develop the story organically.

DS9 devoted 5 episodes to the Mirror universe, which gave them time to develop the characters and plot.  Instead of a flat, “Bizzaro World” where the characters are all just opposites, we find the characters have similar root personalities that have developed differently due to circumstance. Similar to identical twins seperated at birth and put in different cultures.

So the Chief is still mechanically inclined, but never received Federation training. Kira is still in the military, but instead of being a resistance fighter she is a tyrant.  And, despite the influence of Kirk, the mirror universe remains a place of oppression.When Bashir tells Mirror O’Brien (Smiley) that in the other universe he is a “Chiefof Operations” it blows his mind. The idea that his life could have been something other than slavery rocks the foundations if his identity. Setting in motion a series fo events that will alter the Mirror Universe.

Captain Sisko’s Mirror is a privateer serving the tyrant Kira in exchange for not working in the mines. It is also insinuated that he is her sex slave, as are several other females and males. Influenced by the crossover characters “Smiley” (O’Brien’s Mirror) and he become the leaders of a human revolt against the empire.  And the struggle for freedom continues.

In the prequel series, Star Trek: Enterprise, during the last season they had an episode entirely within the Mirror Universe that showed how the Federation got turned into an Empire by the Mirror Jonathon Archer. A paranoid megalomaniac bent on instilling order and security to the  galaxy, resulting in neither. He is assassinated by his consort, Sato, before he can even where the crown, who then declares herself Empress.

A story which, on the surface, appears to be a political soap opera in space, is in fact a parable about the illusion of control, and the influence of circumstance.

Tom Bombadil is Master

For those of us who read “The Lord of the Rings”, there are several sections of the trilogy which were left out of the movies. I’m not here to criticize Peter Jackson’s work, it was a fantastic production. But some of these abridged sections hold content of significance. Their absence may allow for the action to flow faster for the modern, instant gratification culture, however a key piece to understanding the puzzle is lost.

Tom Bombadil by Brother's Hilderbrant

One of my favorite characters was Tom Bombadil, who exists not only in the “Lord of the Rings” but also in “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”. This character appears to be an incidental contact for Frodo and the Hobbits as they are forced to take a path through the “Old Forest” in order to avoid the enemy. However, Tom’s role (and that of his his wife Goldberry, daughter of the river Withywindle) in the trilogy is to provide background/setup for the mythology that governs Middle Earth.

Myth of Middle Earth

In the Silmarillion, Tolkien describes the creation and history of his fictional universe. There is a creator, Eru Illuvitar; gods, the Ainu/Valar; and lesser gods, the Maia/Istari (Gandalf, Saruman, and Sauron are these); and a vain, greedy, rebellious god, Melkior.  Their story is the story of creation, and the birth of the Children of Illuvitar (Elves and Humans). Tolkien unfolds the entire history of the universe before the act of creation actually occurs, in a chorus of the gods.

‘Behold your Music!’ And he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before there was only hearing; and they saw a new World made visible before them and it was globed amid the Void….and as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them there that it lived and grew.

Melkior becomes the “evil one” character who eventually mentors Sauron before being destroyed. And then Sauron becomes the “evil one”.  The common theme for the evil characters is the desire to rebuild the world according to their own designs (industrialists). Whereas the heroes are always nature loving, agriculture and mysticism types (hippies). The darkness that comes when the evil is advancing includes pollution and fire and noise and hostile behavior. The territory of the heroes usually coincides with sunshine, greenery, music, and beautiful women with flowers in their hair. The concept of the ancient past being a time when nature was more powerful, and life was better, is pervasive in the stories. It is the advancement of technology which has disconnected the living from life.

So what does all this have to do with Bombadil? We meet Tom early in the first book, when we are still learning what the plot is, along with the Hobbits. This is not incidental, he represents the old powers, the old middle earth, from the days when it was still being formed, before Melkor forced the Valar to remove themselves.  He does not fear Old Man Willow, nor does the Ring of Power affect him, not because he is able to control them but because they cannot control him.The themes are being laid out for us.

Frodo asks twice who he is, once of Tom’s wife Goldberry, to  which she responded cryptically,

[Frodo] “Then all this strange land belongs to him?”

“No indeed!” She answered, and her smile faded. “That would indeed be a burden…The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear, Tom Bombadil is Master.”

And later he asks Tom directly, to which he responds even more cryptically,

“…Tell me who are you, alone yourself, and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the rivers and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn… He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless- before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”

The last phrase is interesting because it suggests Bombadil does not come from the same place as Melkior (the Dark Lord), but the only beings on Middle Earth at the beginning, before the elves, were the Valar, the Maia, and Melkior. All of whom were with Illuvitar previously. Athough Tolkien does tell us, in the Silmarillion, that only Illuvitar saw/heard the fullness of the music of creation, and therefore there were unknowns even to the Valar. Is Bombadil one of these surprises? If he is not one of the gods, then what is he?

The last time Tolkien speaks of him, beyond an aside, is at Elrond’s council in Rivendale, when they are trying to decide what to do about the Ring of Power. He is described as ancient and powerful,  but not concerned with the petty wars and politics of the world. Gandalf dismisses the idea of enrolling his aid as pointless;

“…he is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waitng perhaps for a change of days, and he will not stop beyond them.

To which Glorfindel the Elf adds that hiding the ring with Bombadil would only be a delay, for if Sauron was not defeated;

“…I think that in the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then night will come.”

Themes of ancient history and fate, and cycles (first and last), and the connection between Bombadil’s origins and good, wrapped into a man who exists in the world yet remains aloof. Very much like an ideal or philosophy.

In just a few short passages, Tolkien is able to establish this character as a symbol of the ancient ‘faith’, and define that faith as standing with nature and tranquility and freedom. He also establishes that Bombadil is respected by the heroes, therefore they are also with the ancient faith. The presumption that Sauron will try to destroy Bombadil if they meet, tells us that evil is against these things represented by  the ancient faith. And so the entire backdrop of the trilogy has been introduced without a narrator.

In “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”, an epic poem by Tolkien, Bombadil tells stories from his life. He is continuously falling into the clutches of badgers and river spirits but simply sings a few magical lines and walks away; because he is master and no one can hold him. And yet depite this mythos, he is described physically as:

Old Tom Bombadil was a merry fellow;

bright blue his jacket was and his boots were yellow,

green were hid girdle and his breeches all of leather;

he wore in his tall hat a swan-wing feather.

He lived up under Hill, where the Withywindle

ran from a grassy well down into the dingle.

‘Silly’ is the best word I can think of to describe the image this conjures up for me.  A happy, goofy guy bounding through life. Yet this same character is unconquerable and everlasting from the beginning til the end of days. Again, Tolkien reinforces the concept of good as content and satisfied. Fear, self-doubt, and greed all come from desire which the symbols of good do not have.

At this point its worth noting the inspiration behind Bombadil. According to the Tolkien Library Tom was inspired by Tolkien’s son’s destruction of his brother’s toys.

… Tom Bombadil was originally a Dutch doll also belonging to Michael Tolkien. John, his brother, put the doll down a lavatory. Bombadil was rescued and Tolkien wrote The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, originally published in Oxford Magazine in 1934. Tolkien later offered to his publishers the idea that Bombadil’s story could be expanded into a sequel to The Hobbit, but they didn’t bite, so Tom appeared anyway in The Lord of the Rings. Tom makes his debut in the form found in this collection.

So this character, inspired by his children’s misadventures, appears for a brief moment in an epic trilogy. A work noted for the incredible attention to detail. Is it possible he just threw it in to amuse his children or irritate his publisher? Possible, of course, but it does not seem likely. The man wrote an elvish dictionary in order to assist him with ‘realism’. That is not the type of person who carelessly messes with his story on a whim.

If Bombadil is indeed a symbol for the back-story and the ‘good’, then his presence should foreshadow the theme of the plot.

In its most simplistic summary, the “Lord of the Rings” is about the corrupting influence of power and greed. The only people able to carry the ring without being overwhelmed are the Hobbits, who have no dreams of glory or power or wealth, because the Shire has everything they need or want. They are satisfied and therefore un-corruptable.

Sauron and Saruman, the evil characters, are consumed with desire for more; more knowledge, more power, more servants, etc. They wish to control everything, and thus they ruin everything.

Bombadil is unconcerned with the world, and master of himself. Therefore he fears nothing and needs nothing (except the love of Goldberry), and is at peace with the world around him. (very Zen)

The message of the Tolkien’s epic appears to be ‘greed is bad for you’. And he provides what he considers positive examples in the Hobbits. And then he offers Bombadil as this iconic, Budda-like character. Content, self-aware, and wise; Bombadil is the true opposite to Sauron. Unlike Gandalf  and Galadriel who had to resist temptation, Tom is unaffected by the offer of power. Because he has seen the ‘powerful’ come and go, and knows it to be a lie.

Tom Bombadil, Master of Middle Earth, is Tolkien’s vision of the ideal good.

At least that’s my theory.

 

Project Mars

The President of Earth announces that volunteers are needed to settle Mars with the assistance of  aliens who have recently made first contact with us, and every idiot and his brother decides they are the Lewis and Clark of space.

Project Mars, Earth 2025

Continue reading

Legacy

Chapter 2: Nathan

Officially, you had to be 18 to work. But that was a privilege which belonged to the upper castes. For the children of workers, making money began when you could count. For Nathan, it had always been the hustle. He was a smart kid, quick witted. He never missed an opportunity when it presented itself, and that made him successful on the street. Some days he brought home more money than his father. Not that that what was saying a lot. Even in a lucky family such as Nathan’s, where both parents had decent jobs, there was barely enough income to maintain the small 3 room shack they lived in. Not that he had spent much time there in the last 2 years, anyway