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…"

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