Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Flash Fiction: NAME THAT TIME

This is one of several stories I've written where I simply launch into writing the first phrase that comes to mind, keep writing and somewhere down the road, I find the story. Actually, to be imprecise, I've written several severals of stories like this. It's always fun. This story is featured in Weirdyear and comes from my anthology "Thirty More Stories."


            The first time traveler in history, Dr. Burgonius Limpstead V, flipped the switch of his ChronoMaster FlexTron9000 and plunged into a maelstrom of colors, pain and roaring silence that dropped him in a muddy swamp outside of what would be New Bedford in about, oh, 350 years, give or take a few decades. The automatic “dead man switch” on the ChronoMaster FlexTron9000 flipped Dr. Limpstead back, this time through a typhoon of brazen colors, raw pain and thunderous roars until he plopped limply in the petunia garden of the lovely Miss Rochester-Winthrop, the merry spinster who lived nine doors down from Dr. Limpstead’s Cedar Avenue Georgian cottage.
            After a few minutes of retching and vile cursing in three languages, two cups of mint tea from Miss Rochester-Winthrop’s Dresden-blue retirement gift teapot and a check to cover the damages to 38 petunias and a tulip patch, Dr. Limpstead, er, limped back to his Georgian cottage to furiously recalculate the programming vectors of the ChronoMaster FlexTron9000. He worked all through the night, slept on his laptop stand and recalibrated the entire software package by Wednesday afternoon. If it was Wednesday.
            The second time traveler in history, the same Dr. Burgonius Limpstead V, flipped the switch of his ChronoMaster Flextron9001 and plunged into a hurricane of sound, agony and blinding flashes of light, suddenly appearing almost 46 feet above a grassy plain that would be New Bedford  in about 200 years or so, give or take a decade or two. The semi-automatic “dead man switch” flipped Dr. Limpstead, who was struggling to regain the breath the fall knocked out of him, into a chaos of deafening shrieks, bone-searing agony and blinding daggers of light until he plopped unconsciously into Miss Rochester-Winthrop’s newly-seeded tulip patch, plowing into it at roughly 11 miles an hour and turning said patch into a foxhole.
            After almost an hour of empty retching and full-body cramps, two cups of chamomile tea and a few lady fingers, plus a check for landscaping what was left of Miss Rochester-Winthrop’s garden, Dr. Limpstead called a cab to drive him home, and after pointedly ignoring the look of Middle Eastern stupefaction he received for the ride, fare and miserly tip, Dr. Limpstead began furiously recalculating the programming of the ChronoMaster FlexTron9001. He worked all through the weekend, slept on both his laptop stand and denim-covered ottoman and recalibrated the entire software package and hardware components by Thursday morning. If it was Thursday.
            Digital cameras on 17-second delay were sent out to become time-traveling devices 1, 2, 3, 4 (came back soaked and useless), 5, 6 (which took 163 pictures of what looked like oil in water, with human ears scattered in precise Cartesian patterns), 7, 8 and finally 9, which showed New Bedford circa 1851. All nine cameras reappeared in Miss Rochester-Winthrop’s garden, causing the merry spinster to drop the idea of a petunia and tulip garden and use the money the nice Dr. Limpstead kept paying her to pave over the whole area and open an outdoor café.
            Finally, the third time traveler in history, Dr. Burgonius Limpstead V, flipped the switch on the ChronoMasterFlexTron10000 and plunged into a warm current of soft pastels, music of the spheres and a slight tingling sensation along his fingertips. He landed gently in a shadowy alley along the east side of the New Bedford square. As expected, a small gentleman of swarthy moustache and prosperous dress was walking west, his walking stick swinging along lightly. Dr. Limpstead gave him a stupendous punch in the mouth, knocking the stunned gentleman onto his fundament. “Don’t name the boy 'Burgonius’, damn it!” he roared.
            Dr. Limpstead flipped the “Return” switch and floated back amidst cool pastels, tinkling bells and a mild buzz along the knees, gliding softly into Miss Rochester-Winthrop’s Tea Tulip Café. The merry spinster smiled. “Why, David, how nice to see you again.”
            The next day, Dr. David Limpstead developed a marvelous new handheld GPS console with the uncanny ability of locating flower shops.

Flash Fiction: IN SEARCH OF YORK

After completing Thirty Stories, I embarked on another 30-story project, all one-pagers. This one, however, suffered from a gap several months long as I started writing and completing other fiction projects. One of the early pieces was this one, featured in Yesteryear Fiction.


            Belson folded York’s telegram with care, his eyes roaming the far wall, where the big game trophies stared down in silence. The club was empty except for himself and the inestimable Cogsworth, the valet worth his weight in gold. Belson’s mind could only focus on three words; “star apes” and “hurry.” None of them were expected from the unflappable Percy York. Ever.
            Three weeks later, Belson’s makeshift expedition force stood on a raft poling its way up the Zambezi River, the Gorge walls rising ahead as the water swirled from muddy brown to foaming white. Belson had lost two-stone weight in getting to the bloody Belgian Congo, fighting every step of the way for more speed. He was into the sixth day of the hike, ahead of schedule by one day. The constant prod of “hurry” had led Belson to use only four porters and bring only enough supplies for a two-week expedition. If York needed more, they’d have no choice but to leave the Gorge and return to port.
            A day later, the Gorge was taking its toll on Belson and his porters. One had been killed in a rockslide. It took two bullets fired in the air for Belson to control the remaining men and get them climbing again. But now, night was falling and Belson knew that in the dark, he’d be left alone.
            Awakening on the narrow ledge, aching and stiff from the cold,  Belson found himself alone. The porters had left him almost everything, but Belson snorted in disgust as he filled two knapsacks with dried beef and fruits, some tea, sugar, flour and beans and tossed the rest, food, tools and clothing, down the Gorge’s steep face. Ahead lay a difficult climb into a startlingly-dark forest, several thousand feet above the jungle floor.
            By nightfall, bloodied and exhausted, Belson dragged himself over an overhang and onto the plateau. His breath was ragged and the pain in his chest threatened to put him away for good. Crawling jaggedly, he found a large fallen tree and without bothering to check for scorpions or snakes, tucked himself against the rotting wood and passed out.
            The sun was high in the sky when Belson lurched awake, his mind back in his London club, his body wracked with pain. A thin white plume of smoke rose above the treetops and Belson knew York, consummate explorer that he was, had created a signal for Belson to follow. With heavy steps and frequent stops, Belson made his way across the tangled forest’s floor towards the smoke signal. He thought of York’s obsessive search for “apes of genius, apes that match or even exceed Man as users of tools,” a search that had taken York years and cost him his not inconsiderable fortune. Belson and several dozen of Great Britain’s finest minds had helped York until the search proved futile. In the end, only Belson had continued to help. And within an hour or so, Belson would find out if his support of York had paid off.
            Emerging in a rough clearing, Belson espied a modest cottage, built with rough hewn wood and thatched with heavy grasses. A small fire burned untended in front of the cottage, white smoke pluming in the still air. Scanning the clearing carefully, Belson limped towards the cottage, discretion overtaking the urge to call out to York. Hurry, he had wired, it seems years ago. That lent an extra degree of caution to Belson’s approach.
            He reached the cottage door, a vertical raft of trimmed heavy branches and bound with lianas. Pushing it gently, the door swayed inward. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, Belson could make out a seated figure, white hair under jauntily-angled pith helmet. York! Belson lurched forward. “York! Are you well?” His steps faltered as he took in the…wires…leading from York’s slowly swaying head to…a large box, flickering with light.
            Whirling, Belson tried to draw his pistol, but a heavy blow knocked him back as if he were a child. The huge ape leaped astride him and grabbed his throat. As his vision faded, Belson saw…heard…the ape say softly “You came in time, Mr. Belson. We so need another brain…”

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Flash Fiction: SEE BOBBY LAUGH

From Thirty Stories, also appearing in Yesteryear Fiction, I wrote this one with the intention of surprising my then-fiancé. As luck would have it, while she was reading the anthology manuscript, I walked in on her reading this story. I did surprise her. She married me anyway. (Whew!)


            Bobby raced through the piney woods, shrieking in laughter. His feet pounded the pine needle carpet , rat-tat-tat, as he made his escape. Behind him, scattered shouts urged him to an even greater effort.
            The game started out as Tag, with the Benson twins, Kelly, her sister Mary Jo and roly-poly Melvin getting the jump on a summer day. By the third go-around, the four Vincent kids had joined in and Team-Tag was the game, though the teams seemed to change every other moment, mainly to keep Melvin on the other side.
            When lunch rolled around, old Mrs. Harper had handed out like a million hot dogs to the growing pack of kids, telling them she was leaving for Florida the next day and she was making sure they’d never forget her. Because their mouths were stuffed with meat by-products, fleshy bread and ketchup, no one told her she’d be cheered for being gone.
            With a “Wait at least an hour before doing anything strenuous,” the kid tribe, now joined by Benny, Lars and Christine from over by the old Harper store, started a fast game of Prisoner, with Bobby chosen as the first one. Bobby was fast, but not so fast that Kelly or Lars couldn’t catch him. And he was fun to chase because he started laughing as he ran and usually ended up laughing so hard he’d pretty much collapse and be caught. They always caught him because Bobby always laughed.
            After the joke of having Melvin be Prisoner and caught within ten seconds of leaving Jail, Bobby was picked again, although Mary Jo, the freckled whiner that she was, wanted to be picked Prisoner at least once. Bobby laughed and when the rest started laughing, he took off.
            The wind raced past his ears and his lungs heaved as he sped through the trees, kicking a pine cone. He looked behind him and saw Kelly, pigtails flying, racing past the big walnut stump he’d jumped a few seconds before. He laughed. He couldn’t help it. Running was fun!
            Over to the left, Lars was zipping through trees like the football player he was, avoiding the unmoving trees like they were Carson Junior War Eagles. The Panther star was on Bobby’s trail and Bobby just laughed harder.
            An abrupt cut left Lars behind the kudzu bog, that swampy bit of the woods where the trees had become vine-covered poles. Hidden, Bobby changed direction, running closer to Kelly. He laughed and was delighted to hear her laugh, too.
            Kelly almost grabbed him, her tanned arm a streak that Bobby barely avoided. He twisted to the side, almost crashed into a gnarly pine tree and giggled his way back up to speed. “Over here!” shouted Kelly and Bobby laughed short and hard, breathing deep for a major-league sprint.
            Taking the soft rise on slick pine needles, Bobby saw the old walnut stump ahead. Almost six feet wide and two feet high, it sat like a flat-topped frog in the woods, the bark all craggy and mossy and wet even in the hottest summer day. Bobby knew he needed to run faster, before Lars caught up with them. He giggled, laughed and giggled again as he turned to see how close Kelly was.
            Very close! Her pretty face was set in a frown of effort, but her eyes were shiny with glee. Her pigtails bounced and her long legs pumped easily, closing ground.
            Nearing the stump, Bobby laughed, the musical trill that made chasing him so much fun for the kids. Mouth open in delight, he soared over the stump, then slowed to a stop.
            A smiling Kelly ran close to the old walnut stump and jumped.
            The huge scaly claw whipped up from the stump and slammed around Kelly, crushing her in an instant. The claw retracted like a whip into the stump, slime drops spraying at Bobby’s feet.
            Laughing, Bobby turned to race through the woods. He’d be caught, he knew. After looking for Kelly, the kids wouldn’t play for a while, but one day Bobby would laugh and the kids would laugh and they’d chase him again through the piney woods. Next time, the stump would catch Lars.
            And then, nobody would catch Bobby again, no matter how much he laughed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Back in 2008, I wanted to get back to writing fiction and I proposed doing so by creating 30 stories limited each to one standard page. Basically, no more than 750 words on average. I wrote everywhere, on my netbook, but long stretches of other work meant it took me several months to finish them. This was one of the first to see the light of day, on Yesteryear Fiction. It also forms part of my first e-book, Thirty Stories, available on SmashWords.


            “I was in my truck, see? The same truck I’ve been haulin’ ‘cross the lower forty-eight since that wacko Carter was muckin’ up the White House. Now, you gotta remember I don’t do no drugs like most of the haulers out there. Don’t need ‘em. I can get by with two, three hours of sleep a night for as long as it takes me to drag a load from Hartford to San Josie. So I never done drugs and I wasn’t doin’ no drugs that night. God’s truth.
            So there I was, rakin’ up the I-90 in Idaho at an easy eighy-five, my chirper keepin’ Smokey off my ass, when I come up to Kellogg, you know, like the cereal people. That always kills me. It was just past one a.m. and I was cruisin’, man, just cruisin’, maybe me and four-five other cars on the whole damn highway. I had my mind set on pullin’ into Mullan in about fifteen minutes and maybe grab a piece off that waitress that worked in the Blue Barn. She was damn fine lookin’ and loved it when I stopped in late at night ‘cause her old man worked the late shift at the morgue. He was one of those muck-scrapers, you know, the guys that get called out to pick up stiffs. Loved his job, the freak.
            So I’m lickin’ my chops, if you know what I mean, and maybe dreamin’ a bit when I suddenly see the road has changed. Now you gotta remember I been drivin’ that road for damn near thirty years, back when Wallace had that freakin’ stop light up there that made you hack the gears for no freakin’ reason. Putzes forced the highway to go around the town, the peckerheads. So I know that road, okay? I know it well. And what I saw that night, well I tell you, that wasn’t no I-90.
            First off, the road itself was made of stone. I shit you not. It was stone, like what you see in them planetary pictures of Mars or whatever. Not that it was red, no, it was more like gray or maybe blue-gray. And it had some cracks in it, some of them fairly wide, but they ran across the road, so my tires just plunked ‘em.
            I saw the guard rails were gone, too, like they’d been taken away while I was thinkin’ of Betty Mae. She sure could make a man feel good, if you treated her right. I did that, you know. The fog came down and around me and my truck like someone had done thrown a blanket over us all. It was thick, like cotton, not wavy-wispy like fog normally is and it came up so sudden it was like someone threw a goddamn switch. I looked down and saw I was doin’ 60 and I figgered 30 would be better and I’d still get to see Betty Mae in about a half hour.
            But the road and the fog had other ideas. First I felt some tremors, like my hauler was blowing a tire or was throwin’ a piston, but I knew it couldn’t be none of those ‘cause I always kept that big mother in perfect condition. Hell, never lost a day for no repairs and I been drivin’ since Ford pardoned Nixon, the two bastards. Put damn near three million miles on that thing and it never let me down. And that night, it saved my life, I know that, ‘cause if my big one had blown somethin’, I’d be tellin’ you this here story as a ghost.
            The tremors, they were getting stronger, like somethin’ was comin’ closer. I got down to 30 and was about to shift to second when…Hell, it’s been over twenty years and I still don’t know what that shit was. It had a head, I know that, ‘cause I saw somethin’ like eyes and a long mouth, like a possum or armadillo, but with fangs along the side. It came at me from my right and I thought it was comin’ right at me, so I yanked that bullhorn of mine, the one with the double-battery that could squawk the chrome off a bumper. yellin’ and screamin’ like a madman, I downshifted and floored the pedal and the hell with fog or nothin’. I hauled my ass so hard out there I slid past Mullan and had to double back.
            Found out the next day from the other haulers there was a ten-car smashup just past Kellogg. Everybody dead. Happened about the time I was drivin’ that stone road past a beast from hell. Best part was that Betty Mae left that freaky old man of hers and went haulin’ with me the very next day. You gotta remember, I always treated her right. And I didn’t drive down I-90 in Idaho no more until they built that overpass past Wallace. No sense in making my big rig haul ass that hard twice in a lifetime, right?”


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Short Story: IT'S TIME

This one was for the SFNovelists Short Story Contest of 1999. The theme that year was "Life forms." Close to the deadline, I had the idea of writing a story that linked to "Third Mind," for essentially, I had hinted at a new life form. And I was just months away from becoming a father, so in what I consider to be one of my better writing executions, I wrote this story in one sitting, on the last day possible and to exactly the 3,000 word limit. (I won.)


            "Mommy? Daddy? I'm here…"
            The weak, fragile voice squeaked from around them. The walls fluttered and flexed, the lights brightening to a harsh glare. Junibel, her dark eyes widened in panic, clutched at her midriff, her hands splayed as if trying to reach all around and in at the same time.
            Jacken's mouth hung open, his eyes flitting from wife to wall to light to coffee cup to…
            "My baby! It can't be my baby!" cried Junibel, her voice raw and harsh.
            "Mommy? Mommy!" The voice was still fragile, but now it reverberated across the mod. 
             Jacken started to walk over to her when she screeched "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MY BABY?!"
            Jacken leaped over the furniture as it moved out of the way and embraced his wife, holding her sobs and struggles, trying desperately to see if she was bleeding. Mid-terms were safe, they said, just a little speed-up is all. Within the rising fear in his chest he had time to think Our baby--our baby, then murmured words of quiet and peace as Junibel rocked in agony. The room was filled with all sorts of smells: sweet, sour, pungent, acrid, a crashing kaleidoscope of odors that swirled from every point and made his eyes water.
            "Mommy? I'm here…and there. Yet."
            Jacken's head snapped around, then back to stare at his wife's abdomen. Still relatively flat, he placed a hand and felt the cool tightness rock with her movements. No blood, he breathed.
            The coffee pot gurgled, while the furniture closed in on the couple, jittering unsteadily. The windows lightened and phone calls were squelched.
            "It can't be, it can't be," sobbed Junibel, as the center table and the computer merged to form a--head--lumpy and warped.
            Jacken stroked his wife's hair, slowly. "There's gotta be an explanation, dear. Please, calm down, take it easy." His words belied the tightness in his eyes. The smells became fainter, but remained sour.
            "Don't call me that!" snarled Junibel, her face red and blotchy. "Give me back my baby!"
            Jacken sat-fell back onto the carpet, the strong thump as much a surprise as the scream. The walls closed in, tilting awkwardly inward as the furniture slithered back and forth. The table and computer separated, while a low hum made itself heard from the far window.
            "Tea is ready," said the brewpot and a cup, huge, enormous, coalesced from the dining room table filled with a steaming liquid that looked like--milk.
            "Honey, what do you mean the baby's gone?" asked Jacken, softly.
            Junibel's arm flashed out. "He took it! The damn thing took my baby!"
            "Mommy, no! No!" said the breaking voice as the doors irised open and shut noisily.
            "What?" Jacken rolled onto his knees in front of her. "Took it? How? How can you tell?
            Junibel bent over double, keening in pain. Open-mouthed, Jacken watched. The enormous cup of…milk spilled over heavily, dripping thick liquid over the floor, blotting all smells with its heavy musk. The carpet swelled to absorb it, only to squeeze it back out. More cups and--arms--formed along the walls and on the chair behind Jacken. With horrified numbness, Jacken watched as a tentacle formed behind Junibel, tiny tentacles forming at its tip and it gently, waveringly, touched…her hair.
            "Mommy," whispered the walls, the floor, everything. Jacken took it all in, then pulled Junibel to her feet, hugging her. She could barely stand, her sobs ragged and helpless.
            Raising his head slightly, Jacken said: "Room, report."
            The tentacle withdrew. Silence.
            "Room! Report!"
            Only a…whimper?
            "Restart sequence, alpha beta gamma. Go!"
            The walls straightened, the carpet shrunk, the air cleared up as another odor squelched the mustiness, the furniture started to move back into its original positions when everything came to a halt, movements half-completed, textures uneven, angles all on the bizarre side. 
            A timid voice: "Daddy. I am here."
            Junibel's legs gave out and he placed her on the armchair behind her, noting that it moved slightly to position itself closer. He nodded.
            "What is your name?"
            Flutters, along the walls, even under his feet. "Billy." Shaky.
            "Billy." Firmly.
            "You are the Room Control, aren't you?" Jacken crossed his arms.
            He sighed. "You were the Room Control?"
            Something--swallowed. "No." The furniture moved away from Jacken. A voicecall was sent to the coffee pot, which started saying "…fault of your current obligation, which expired twelve hours ago. Please transfer the amount due plus thrity-seven dol--" Jacken slammed his hand on the pot, noting it didn't flex. The pain made him curse.
            "Daddy? What is 'default'?
            He shook his head. "Restart sequence, alpha bet--"
            "No, don't," said Junibel. He whirled. "That's not going to change what's happened." Her eyes were puffed and swollen, her nose a blotchy mess, but her lips were set in a firm line that always meant it was time to do something.
            "What did happen?" Jacken's jaw was tight, his nostrils flaring as he rubbed his hand with grim steadiness. Junibel noticed as the pheromone washed over them, literally, as heavy as mist. "Stop that!" snarled Jacken.
            "Sorry," said the small voice. "I wanted to help."
            "Help? It's your job to run this place, not 'help'," exploded Jacken. A muffled sound echoed from the far walls as droplets of water dripped from patches on the ceiling. "Now what?"  he snapped.
            "You made him cry," said Junibel.
            "I what?"
            She stood up, wiping her hands down over her face and holding Jacken's hands. "You made him cry."
            "Him? The room's now a him?" Jacken searched his wife's face for a clue.
            She placed both of his hands on her belly. "Feel him." Jacken kept his hands stiff until the pressure made him relax. One, two, then another small thump against his left hand, as of a tiny fist poking outward.
            "That's me, Mommy! Daddy! Can you feel me?"
            Two more kicks and Jacken went numb. In a hollow voice, he said "Kick twice, then one more." He put everything he had into his hands.
            Two kicks. Then one more.
            "That was easy! Tell me another one!" The furniture danced. "I know what 'default' is, too. It means 'Failure to perform a task or fulfill an obligation, especially failure to meet a financial obligation'. I know what a task is, and I know what 'fulfill' means and--"
            "That's enough, dear, we understand," said Junibel.
            No we don't mouthed Jacken. Junibel led him to the armchair, which elongated into a couch. They sat, and the couch gently shortened. A cup of mint tea appeared up from the arm rest. "It has honey," said the small voice, trying to please.
            "Thank you." Junibel sipped the tea, carefully keeping her face free of any expression: the tea had bits of leaf in it.
            "Is it good, Mommy? Is it?"
            "It's good," she said, staring at Jacken.
            "That's our baby?" His voice was barely above a whisper. She nodded stiffly. How? he mouthed. Junibel shrugged.
            "Mommy? Is Daddy okay?" A heavy tumbler rose out of the floor, filled with a dark amber liquid. "Scotch, but I can't find rocks."
            Jacken started. "No, no, don't worry. It's a little early for me now." He needed the drink; he didn't trust what it would be.
            "Oh, I'm sorry," said the voice, tiny and hurting.
            "No, no, please, you did fine," said Jacken without thinking. He almost slapped his forehead. Junibel smiled grimly.
            "Is it okay if I talk to you?" asked the voice. They both nodded. "Why were you crying, Mommy?"
            Jacken gave her a pointed look. Taking a deep breath, she said "When I heard the voice, I suddenly felt…empty. It scared me."
            "Oh." Several seconds passed. "I didn't mean to scare you."
            Junibel nodded jerkily. "I know, I know." Unsteady silence filled the room.
            "How did you do this, Billy?"
            "I…don't know, Daddy. I was there, inside Mommy, and I suddenly--felt--a need… to get out."
            The couple exchanged looks. "Out? But why now? And why into the room control?"
            The walls clattered, the sound slowing down into silence. "I don't know. And this was the only way to do it. Did I do something wrong, Daddy?"
            Wrong? thought Jacken, this was…Junibel's hand covered his, and squeezed softly.
            "Dear? Billy?"
            "Yes, Mommy?"
            "Can you go back? To where you were before?"
            A long, long silence. The room darkened to late dusk. "You don't want me?" said the voice tearily.
            "No, sweetheart, that's not it. I want you and Daddy wants you." She shook her head, eyes crimped shut. "It's just that this is…difficult for us." She took another deep breath "We love you, and we're worried that something bad might happen to you in here," she patted her belly, "While you're out there." She waved at the walls.
            Silence. Sobs broke it. "I can go back."
            "Billy, this is important. Can you really go back?" Junibel caught her lip with her teeth.
            "Can you do that right now?" asked Jacken, receiving a warning glance from his wife.
            Slowly, "Yes. You want me to leave."
            A quick glance and a swift nod; the marriage still worked. "Only for a few minutes, Billy. Mommy and I need to talk, but we want to make sure you'll be safe and can grow up to be a healthy baby."
            "But I'm already big!" whined Billy.
            "We know," said Jacken quickly, "But you need to be born, to come out from Mommy and you're still very tiny in there. In another three months or so, you'll be ready and we'll have a baby."
            "But I'm already ready! I'm already here!" Billy's voice was rising.
            "Billy, I can't hold you now." Jacken's eyes widened in wonder.
            The humming returned for a few seconds. "I want you to hold me, Mommy. You too, Daddy."
            Jacken sighed. "We want that, too, dear," said Junibel. "Can you go back now and keep growing like the good little boy that you are?"
            "Yes," with a little vigor. "I--I'm going now." A few seconds' pause. "I--I left a mess here."
            "Don't worry, Billy, it's nothing we can't fix." Junibel's eyes held Jacken's. The room brightened, and with measured pace, the furniture and walls moved into Family positions, and their clothes shimmered into comfortable pajamas. The cup and tumbler were reabsorbed, the carpet thickened properly and the coded beep-beepbeep of Standby Mode came on.
            Junibel quickly pulled her husband's hands onto her belly. Two kicks, then one; two kicks, then one; two, then one.  "It was him," said Junibel, soft awe in her voice. As Jacken leaned back, she felt it again: two, one.
            Jacken waited a few seconds. "Room. Report."
            A smooth male voice, cultured with a touch of foreign accent said "Functions interrupted for seventeen minutes. Structural integrity was compromised, but has been restored." Jacken gave his wife a look that she answered to, then stood up to enter the kitchen. The voice interrupted itself. "Ma'am, may I get you something?"
            "No, thank you," she said.  She opened the fridge door and picked out an apple.
            The room continued. "Seven calls were placed to your numbers, two voice, four e-mails and one vid. Each was re-routed to--diverse destinations." Jacken had never heard it pause before and could only smile at what it had discovered had happened to the calls. The coffee pot indeed… "It is now 11:28 AM. Office configuration?"
            Junibel's nod prompted Jacken. "Office," he said. The walls shifted, the furniture changed angles and curves, the computer split into two workstations, the entire area shifting in a rhythmic cadence as their clothes altered from housewear to casual business. Sitting at his chair, Jacken spoke before everything was in place.
            "What are we going to do?"
            Junibel sat in her chair. "What can we do?"
            "Do you honestly believe that was our baby that we were talking to?"
            "What do you think? He certainly kicked at all the right times."
            "Maybe it was just a coincidence," said Jacken wearily. "Maybe we let stress push us a bit too far."
            Junibel knew he was looking for an escape, and it made her bitter. "No. And I can prove it."         Jacken glared at her, the tone in her voice an unmistakable challenge. "Room," she said, "Replay interruption sequence, full speed." On the screens in front of them, the event unfolded again. At the moment Jacken slammed the coffee pot, his right hand tingled. With a soft caress, he activated his newsreader, the image floating a few inches above his palm. It was an ad: offworld, GigaSat placement and he'd already qualified! Contract awaiting acceptance, 175,000 dollars a year! Then the bubble burst: license and certification required prior to outposting. Jacken slapped his hands together, blipping the holoreader off. He barely refrained from cursing.
            "What is it?" Junibel lifted her eyes from the scene.
            "GigaSat contract for me," Junibel's face softened into a smile,"But I need the damn license and certification. Damn! I can't get a better position being only a 94! Where are we gonna get $12,000?"
            Junibel bit her lip. "How long is the contract held?"
            A quick pass, a glance, then another one and Jacken plopped his hand on the desk. "Until tomorrow, ten AM."
            She kept her gaze steadily on him. "Did you see the proof?"
            "That it was the baby and not the room control we were talking to."
            Jacken huffed. "I need money to get that job! Can't you see how important that is?"
            Junibel surged to her feet, leaning across her computer at him. "And can't you see how important THIS is? We're talking about our baby!"
            Jacken bristled, then collapsed in on himself. "You're right, honey, I'm sorry. You're right. But it's just so frustrating…" He shook his head, leaning against her as she moved to be at his side. His hand stroked her belly. "This is amazing."
            "Uh-huh," muttered Junibel, her mind trying to make sense of her actions.
            Reaching across, Jacken clicked a few keys. The screen flashed the responses immediately. Junibel leaned over to look at them, then straightened up. With a clear mind, she snuggled into his lap.
            Jacken kept staring at the screen. "We're overdrawn by four hundred bucks, and the dividends don't kick in until next week. And even if the e-bans take off like they did three weeks ago, we'd still have only two thousand dollars. And that's not enough to buy any DJ e-bans. Playing with the big boys takes big money."
            Junibel nodded. "You heard what they said about my outposting. There's no way I'm getting the baby lopped, even for that job."
            "Especially now," said Jacken, and Junibel's hug tightened at the warmth in his voice.
            Three minutes passed. The screen leaned back and merged with the desk. "Will it happen again?" asked Jacken.
            "I think so."
            "What do we do?"
            "I guess we keep it quiet for now, to protect the baby and figure out what to do after he's born."
            A few more minutes. "And about us?" asked Jacken.
            Junibel snuggled down into Jacken's arms. "We'll survive. There are other jobs, and we can always go to Dad for a short-term loan for your re-upping. It's only four points and it won't be that expensive."
            A sigh. "At 98, I'll have my pick of outpostings. But what about you? Can't you speed up the pregnancy to short-term?"
            She shook her head, rubbing her cheek on the rough material of his shirt. "Too risky this late into the second month. He'll be born in four months anyway, and I can still search with you."
            "Coffee," said the pot.
            The room went to darken the lights when it…was pushed away. It watched as--Billy--clicked and flittered his way to: dollars. It watched, surprised, as funds e-tranned from distant places to Jacken's account. It tried to point--Billy--to a Commandment, morality, ethics, law, but there was no interest at all. It watched the e-trans end at eleven figures.
            Junibel started. Two, one; two, one. "Again!" she whispered. Jacken helped her stand.
            "Mommy? Daddy? I'm back!" The screen Jacken used flowed back up, flashing new, long numbers.
            "Yes, dear," was all Junibel could say.
            "I did something good for you and Daddy!"
            It took a few seconds, but the look the couple exchanged grew from doubt to judgment to acceptance. Reaching out to each other, they embraced, hands on Junibel's belly to feel two, then one, two, then one. The smiles they shared were deep and proud. "Yes you did, Billy! You certainly did!"
            The room watched as the screen was tilted and turned, but the couple had their backs to it.
            "Uh, I'm going--now," said Billy.
            "You're going back?" asked Junibel.
            "Ah, yes, Mommy."
            The room knew otherwise. Billy stuck his tongue out at it, but the room couldn't see in utero.
            "Okay, you go back and rest now. We'll be here when you, um, need us," said Jacken, sharing a dubious set of shrugs with his wife.
            Billy giggled, inside Mommy and aloud. "He's shaking!" said Junibel. "He's laughing inside of me!"
            "See you later, Mommy! Bye, Daddy!" said Billy's happy voice. And he went. Out in the world…
            The room watched as the couple sat in her chair, his screen still unobserved. It watched as they felt the familiar two, then one pattern, and as they laughed at some change in its pace. And it watched as first dozens, then hundreds of other small voices were heard in rooms like it around the world:
            "Mommy? Daddy? I'm here…"

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Wrote this one for an SFNovelists Short Story Contest in 1998. The theme was "What will life be like 50 years from now?" I thought of the impact technology had and how we simply accepted its presence with us, and added the notion that our problems would be pretty much the same. (I came in second.)


            “Call ExpoCore 6, please.”
            The room softened the lighting, hiding the man’s fatigue lines. The screen coalesced on the near wall, a youthful face winking into view.
            “ExpoCore. How may?”
            “Good day. You have my app under review. Jacken Beniter. 553-967-396-884.”
            The youthful man looked down, apparently reviewing a datascreen. “Yes, we have that here. App denied, held for further consideration.”
            “What does that mean?” asked Jacken, his voice devoid of energy.
            The youthful face pretended not to be nonplussed. “That you’ve been exxed for the next deepflights.”
            “Why, damn it?” The room deleted the last two words.
            “Why? You are obviously not qualified. No offense.”
            Jacken heard “Why? Not qualified,” the man’s image seamlessly reconfigured to match the words.
            “But I’m a 94th percentile!”
            The face smiled softly. “I’ve got lumbs of 98s and 99s just marshing up my desk. We don’t get down to 94s until the real shit slices.”
            “Yeah. I know,” said Jacken morosely, his tone arriving confidently. “Good-bye,” he said, waving his hand while the room added an eerily positive “Thank you”.
            A soft chair slid on its magtracs arriving precisely under Jacken as he flopped back. The room altered the lighting, slowly adding luster.
            “Where’s Junibel?” asked the man.
            “Connected, crossnet,” said the room.
            “Coffee’s ready,” said the pot.
            The room released a mild pheromone, then changed it to a slighter baser form. And waited.


            The woman was young and pretty. She’d never noticed either trait. “I must speak to Coordinator Rand-engTri. It concerns my outposting.”
            The beveled eyes of the New Former stared back, deliberately blinkless. He'd learned it intimidated. “If I were to piss on Rand-engTri’s schedule every time someone said ‘It’s urgent’, I’d be back on the Moon in nanos, thingy.”
            Junibel clenched her fist, the room raising the image from full body to full face for impact. “When he finds out you didn’t connect me, you’ll be on the Moon in nanos, freak.” The last word arrived as “dearie”, lips and everything.
            The New Former made two decisions: He’d connect the prissy little scuz and he'd go back for fangs. Intimidation was the fuel he would really jazz thingys with from now on.
            The connection was made, a pulsebeat of time. The Coordinator sat at his desk, massive shoulders and iron-gray hair over a child-like face. New Fad. Some added wrinkles that spelled their name when read in a mirror.
            “Junibel. Very persistent. How did you get past Lickme 2-2?”
            Junibel frowned at the name. Fucking freak. The room adjusted the temperature, downward, and added a vasorelaxer to the oatmeal. “Threat of the Moon if he didn’t connect me. The usual.”
            Rand-engTri laughed. “Worked this time. How may?”
            Junibel chewed her lower lip, a curiously pretty gesture that had lost all meaning. “I’m pregnant.”
            “Happiness always! Full select?”
            “Of course. Medium term.”
            Rand-engTri nodded. “Yeah, I’ve heard that’s best. Short-termers go nozzy sometimes and full-termers are just pain freaks. Have it lopped and you’ll be ready to travel.”
            Junibel reacted as if stung, but her image remained composed. “That’s just it, Coordinator. I want to carryout this baby.”
            Rand-engTri’s face went sour. “On a midterm? You’re due here in three weeks standard and the baby won’t be born until, what, November standard?”
            “Yes,” Junibel nodded, as the room raised the temp and gently warmed water for tea.
            “That’s almost three months past your assignment date. Unacceptable. Get it lopped or get another post. You barely made this one,” he added snidely as the connection winked off.
            The full message came through. The options were already known, and the tone would certainly help decide, so it all came through.
            Junibel walked to her daycouch as it came towards her silently, slipping into it with a despondent cast to her shoulders. “Breakfast?” asked the room.
            “A little. I’m not hungry.” The room refrained from answering, placing oatmeal and tea within reach.


            “Family,” said Jacken and the walls flexed, slid and shifted until a great room emerged, Junibel on her daycouch sipping tea. Jacken’s chiseled jaw was unshaven and his wavy hair was delightfully touseled. Junibel noticed none of it. She never did.
            “ExpoCore 6 turned me down. ‘Too many 98s and 99s’ is what the shiteater said! It’s the same everywhere!”
            Junibel waited for the slowdown, noticing the smells: A quick one, meant to keep communication from becoming a shouting match. It worked, as always. Jacken sat down, the chair shifting shape to allow him more space.
            “I’m sorry to hear that. Rand-engTri told me to have the baby lopped and get my butt over there or I’ll have to find another job.”
            Another call, the third, was rerouted to Refuse Management. The room created another loop, to Traffic Control. Vehicle reports were more interesting.
            Jacken’s strong hands covered his face, went up into his hair and then into flying action. “We can’t go on like this! We have to get a bigger mod.”
            Junibel sipped her tea, noticing the change in smells. She wondered briefly why Jacken never noticed it. She never wondered why she accepted her smells so easily. “This is a fine mod, Jacken, and it will do until we outpost or click on with a worldcorp.”
            Jacken stood up, furniture sliding away, walls dropping in density. Bacon began frying and the news was flashed to his palm. “This is a bachelor mod! It wasn’t meant for a family!” The smells changed, a distant humming underlying the morning rustles and Junibel guessed six seconds. It took four. “What options do you have?” asked Jacken, standing loosely against a denser wall.
            “If Rand-engTri is serious, then I have to find another outpost. But I’m only a 96th percentile, and with child I’d drop at least three pips for a year standard. I could return to GammaCorp, but their research is buggy with government funds and they’d do the mindscan. You know what happened last time.”
            He did, and he realized that he feared that more than failing her. It gave him a new view of the situation, and the room filed the sequence under “Review”.
            “Coffee reheating,” said the pot.
            “Office,” said Jacken, then added to her, “Do you mind?”
            “No,” she said, “We both think better that way.”
            The room flexed and shifted, panels appearing and fading, furnishings recast for attention. Jacken lost his pajama bottoms, muscular legs peeping briefly while business slacks, tapered to ankle and bright red, made their appearance. He grabbed a similarly-colored shirt from the overhead magtrac as Junibel’s nightie shifted to translucent, revealing a perfect figure as yet unmarked by child, then hidden by dress, bright yellow and green, with flared skirt and six dangling ribbons. Their shoes arrived and were slipped on. The center console was ready, the two thinscreens glowing in pale blue.
            “Wait, cherry,” said Jacken and flicked his right hand in a quick rotating gesture. The news flashed on between his hands and he quickly flicked holopages until he reached the mods. “Here, help me look,” he said and Junibel felt the warm tingle in her palm that the surgeon said would go away but never did.
            They searched. Jacken clapped his palms together needlessly, startling Junibel. “Nothing! Too expensive!”
            “Coffee’s ready,” said the pot.
            “Serve,” said Jacken harshly. The cup, with steaming black coffee, coalesced out of the console. Jacken sipped carefully, inhaling deeply, as Junibel flicked her wrist.
            “You’re right, tiger,” knowing he needed to hear it. “But we still have options.”
            “Like what? I can’t get off here and you can’t stay. There’s no halfway point between here and Fan-ji Station.”
            “True,” she replied, “but we don’t have to think of it as a physical halfway point. What about removing obstacles?”
            The room added wavesounds to the hum, blocked a call and recorded the surge within Junibel.
            “Do you mean the baby?” asked Jacken, trying to hide hope.
            “No! You know I want to carryout! How can you even think that?” gritted Junibel, surprised at the pain she felt.
            Jacken blushed, an uncommon sight. “You’re right. I didn’t mean it that way. But just for argument’s sake, would it be so bad to have it l-- incubated to term and then we go to Fan-Ji?”
            “Yes it would be!” Junibel breathed deeply, the scent of warm jasmine tickling her nose. She inhaled again, then said, “We’re bummed. No funds. And without Fan-Ji, we’ll be roaming the dirtside in a month. You know it, I know it, so what are we going to do about it?”
            The room lowered the lighting, focusing ambient light on the couple. Another cup coalesced on the console with mint tea, slightly sweet. The last funds etranned from their account for rent.
            “It’ll take me at least three months to be upped a couple of pips,” said Jacken. “I’m not one of those pluperfect freaks.”
            “Like our son?” said Junibel, smiling softly to take the sting out of her reproach.
            Jacken reached out to place a hand on Junibel’s firm abdomen. “Yeah, like Broneiri,” he said, smiling openly for the first time.
            “Hasquith,” corrected Junibel, and they laughed.
            The room blocked the call, then let it through. The widescreen flared on. “...ficient funds you have been rescheduled for upping to the next session, beginning September 7th standard. Please confirm your slot within 24 hours standard. Use your app number, full name and gencode for confirmation. Thank you.”
            Jacken sat frozen. “September?”
            Junibel smelled the changes, heard the waves silencing and knew this was the crucial moment. “Tiger? Tiger! We’ll make it! We’ll find a way!”
            The console warped, shrunk, bringing them within hug’s reach. “Get it lopped,” he said dully. “It’s the only way.”
            Junibel recoiled, felt the room dancing around her, shifting stimuli and conquered her anger through eden knows what gift. She embraced Jacken with all her might, struggling to give him what only she could, strength, and fighting for the life she wanted so much to have. “I will carryout and we will all be well. I need you to believe that.” Her voice softened, then broke. “Please.”
            Jacken struggled no less, then heaved a deep sob and hugged her back. “I’ll believe it,” he said, “I will. Carry him out and I’ll do everything I can for him and you and me.” His manner faltered, and the room felt the power between them. And then the room went away.
            Junibel felt her heart pound faster, the thudding almost drum-like. Jacken? “Jacken?”
            “Something’s wrong.”
            He held her at arm’s length, peering into her eyes. “What? What is it?”
            From all around them, a tinny weak voice said, “Mommy? Daddy? I’m here...”
            And the third mind emerged. Forever.

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