Friday, November 4, 2016

Remnants

Bright green leaves had begun slowly knitting together the canopy that would in a few short weeks shade the forest floor.  The smell of the cool damp forest drifted out onto the clay and gravel track, reminding Bode of sandy pine forests 300 miles to the north, where he hoped to arrive by month's end.  The small cart of trade goods clinked quietly along behind him as he bore the yoke across his shoulders.  He had traveled south with the first signs of spring, taking with him clay vessels that had been baked in the three hundred year old kiln his family had built way back in the high times.  His great, great... he couldn't quite keep the number of generations strait anymore, but his family had been making pottery along the banks of the creek ever since those amazing, mythical times when trips such as this were only a matter of days, not weeks and months.

The "high times"... Bode often wondered what all the ruins looked like full of people.  They were just dangerous places now, mostly taken by the surrounding jungle, or walled off sometime after the high times, maybe to keep something in, maybe to keep something out.  Generally, small villages were more successful, easier to pick up and move, or to build defenses around.  War with other groups was pretty common, but for the most part, there was a sort of peace for the past several decades.  Maybe it had to do with the sickness, maybe people were just tired of fighting.  All he knew was that there had been no raid on Foxhollow since his early teens, and that was a fine thing.

A troupe of raccoons waddled towards him, headed in the opposite direction along the road.  They stopped and sat up as he ambled past, waving a friendly hello.  The curious coons just watched, neither alarmed nor overly interested.

The oral tradition of Bode's people told that men once flew in machines, as well as rolled over the land at incredible speeds.  Bode had seen a small land machine once, rolling through a meadow.  A tinkerer from Tinesville had been steadily improving his tools and had made something called a "cyclical".  The man claimed he could travel 5 to 10 times as fast as a man on foot, or about as fast as a horse cantering, simply by the exertions of his own two legs.   It seemed an expensive contrivance, and a waste of time to Bode.  It didn't plow like a horse could, and it didn't haul like his cart could, which presently was stuffed with wine, preserves, smoking weed, and woven blankets, which carefully cocooned the fragile load.

Such a long trip was a bit of a venture.  He could have taken his pottery to the nearer towns, but such wares had been pouring out of Foxhollow for generations, and the value of the ornate stoneware had brought less and less in trade as time went on.  Bode's father had first established the Southern route with a large band of traders from other nearby towns, and the road they had cleared across the land had been maintained by a thriving trade for about 20 years before the sickness.  Now it was a narrow track, travelled with much less frequency, and there were more animals to deal with.  Between his bow and his two blades, Bode was well prepared for most of those, but every so often, a half-hearted bandit would present himself, offer terms, refuse for a time to take no for an answer, but quickly retreat when Bode unsheathed Marebreath.  The weapon, according to family tradition, had been crafted from a part of something called a "spring leaf" or "leaf spring"... memories were foggy on this point.  It had been tempered in the kiln by one of the more gifted metalsmiths in town and ground to a mirror finish.  The length of it was part of the intimidation factor, taking the form of what some might call a cutlass.

At this stage in the trek, the weary caravaner was not too far from Stone Bridge, an amazing structure from the high times that had fared unusually well over the centuries.  Similar things he had heard of in many places, especially to the East and West of Stone Bridge, but many of them had been destroyed or pulled down long before his grandfathers time.  Stone Bridge was a bridge made of steel and poured concrete, something his family had tried to duplicate for years but found the materials just weren't present in the regional geography to duplicate the right hardness.  Beneath the bridge was a vast inn crafted by hand from rubble by skilled craftsmen many generations prior with steel hammers and other tools legend said had been left functional for many life times after the high times.  It was a beautiful refuge in the wilderness along the great "state" as the nearly invisible road that would have run right through the inn in the old days, and still did in the carriage house, was called.

Smoke curled lazily from the chimneys at both ends of the inn as it came into sight, a good sign which told Bode enough travelers were staying at the inn to require both hearths to be in operation cooking meals and boiling soup.  He might have some luck lightening his load, or even sell the entire lot!  He pulled the cart into the stable area and checked it with Tins, the squirrely son of the owner, giving him an ornately painted strip of leather as payment for keeping his wares safe.  The smell of roasting deer and forest onion filled the air, bringing a broad smile to his face.

The old, massive, plate metal door swung noiselessly open on its gargantuan hinges, delicately brushing the hanging wind chimes to announce his presence as he ushered a stream of daylight into the hazy interior.  As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he located an empty table and sat his dusty, sweaty body down for a rest.  Arnt, the owner, swept across the room, stretching his arms wide.  "Bode!"

"Arnt, my old friend.  How goes it?"

"Well, my boy, well!  Business has been slowly picking up lately.  I'll tell you more after you've had something to drink and eat.  What can I provide?"

"Some of that deer I smell, and clean water would be just the thing."

"You'll have it!  You'll have it.  I'll be just a moment."  Arnt retreated behind the bar into the kitchen, attracting the gaze of another traveler in the corner.  His clothes were unusually clean and had a highly crafted look to them.  Compared to the skins and rough woven tartan Bode wore, the man looked almost royal, or something more orderly - tough but disciplined.  It gave Bode several seconds of puzzlement before his mind settled on the simple explanation that he was not a widely traveled as his father had been.

Art returned with a carved wide bowl filled side to side with cooked carrots, onions, and seasoned chunks of venison.  A stoneware picture, one sold by Bode to Arnt many years back, was set on the table along with a cup of like provenance and a small loaf of bread.  The delicious scent and sight almost brought bode to tears.  "Praise be to the Mighty, Arnt, this is a fit meal. I thank you, thank you deeply."

Arnt stood beaming as Bode lifted a bite of food on a wooden fork, poised to enjoy it. At that moment the man in the corner exploded into action rushing from behind his booth, wrenching the door open, and darting out into the light.

"What by Lore!" exclaimed Arnt.  Bode had frozen the moment the man began moving, his eyes alone following his path out the door.  He loaded the food into his mouth and began to chew as the door feel shut silently.

Speaking with his second bite in his cheek, he said "I think he must have needed to go badly."  Arnt wiped his hands on his apron and looked around, still a bit stunned.

"I knew there was something odd about that fellow when he came in.  He kept talking to his hand in whispers.  Strange.  I hope it is no bad omen."

"I would make nothing of it.", counseled Bode.  "He looked to me to be one of those men you would hear about in the old tales - a frighter? No.  A fighter.  His clothes looked tough. I suspect Marebreath would give him no concern, fine a blade as she be."

"Oh? And if a fighter is on the road, why be it so? It gives me worry, it does. I would spose there are more near by.  What tell you make of that then?"

Bode washed down more food with cold clear water, and paused the ritual stuffing of his gullet.  "Maybe just a band of men looking to make names?  Maybe something more.  But we all know, things is as things go, so I would give it no thought."

But he did.  That night, resting in the inn, every small detail about the man in the corner ran through his mind.  Why was he there at Stone Bridge?  Why had Arnt thought he was talking to his hand? Why the hurried departure?  Where was he from and how many like him were nearby?  Eventually he drifted off to a fitful sleep and disturbed dreams.

Two men stood in the road as he hauled his wares, dressed in slick green cloaks, wearing strange masks with overly large eyes and a strange bowl attached where the mouth should have been.  Smooth helmets that looked like stoneware, but dull and green, covered their heads.  They wore staves over their shoulders on straps.  As Bode approached them, a roar filled his ears and a great beast, or machine darkened the path as it passed overhead.  He became full of fear and fell to the ground, but the men only turned to watch the horrifying thing pass over.

When he woke in the morning, he had the strangest feeling that he knew what was going on around him but that he had forgotten something important.  As the dream faded, the shining bits of metal on the staves stuck with him well into the morning.  He knew they were familiar but he couldn't remember how or where from.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Hired Help

The gas lights flickered on the mausoleum despite the protection of the glass enclosures. Tate sat on the stone bench, hands resting on his ivory topped walnut cane, rocking it to and fro as he meditated on the inscription over the heavy iron doors.  "Smyth", the five six inch letters, carved in marble, declared with a silent authority. The letters followed the traditional form, except for the "y", which had a whimsical curl at the bottom which nearly made a complete circle.

The cane stopped rocking and he focussed his gaze on the center of the curl.  He dropped his right hand to his thigh, and pushed the brim of his silk hat up with the white duck head atop the cane, it's black glass eyes seeming to look on as in conference with its master.  His broom mustache cocked up to the right in a half smile, he rose and thoughtfully strode towards the doors of the tomb.

A cool fall breeze blew through the cemetery, carrying with it some of the first amber leaves that could be coaxed from their branches. Casually surveying the area to ensure he was in the company of only the dead, he began his analysis. Holding the cane by its base, he raised it above his head and gently tapped the stone below the "M".  It gave a solid, clear ringing tone in response.  Then he tapped the center of the curl, and as he suspected, it replied with a muffled "clack - clack".  Grinning widely, he took his leave, wrapping his long green coat around him as the breeze stiffened and cooled.  Mr. Peter's barometric glass would no doubt confirm that a storm was coming ashore.

***

"I know where he put it", Tate said into his hat to Mr. Peter, who was busily unpacking a hydrographic device that had arrived by coach that noon.

"Where who put what?", Peter queried rhetorically, somewhat annoyed, somewhat bored, and quite a bit resigned to Tate's frequent, often absurd, but always ultimately fascinating impositions.

The young Major left the shop with his parcel under his arm after his long pause in front of the display case that contained several sextants and a selection of finely crafted chronometers.  Tate's eyebrows cocked up, his eyes sought the left and right extremes of their orbits without so much as a quiver of his head and then returned to bore into Peter. "I know where Wallace hid Smyth's cipher."

Mr. Peter froze, his eyes darted up to meet Tate's intense gaze.  "Indeed. Truly? Yes, verily, you do know, don't you.  My word."

"I need a couple of your fantastic new surgical devices.  Something thin and sharp, and something else that can grip the smallest of protrusions."

"Ah, yes. I have something that should suit nicely.  Who or what is the patient?"

"I also need you to hold my stool."

"Your... you mean a stool.  Naturally."

Tate flashed a toothy grin. "Dinner at the club at seven?  We can return here for what we'll need and it won't take long for us sortie, delve, and fly back here with our prize for a well earned tumbler of that scotch I left in your care two weeks past."

"Best we restock that ahead of our celebration.  I had to medicate myself most severely Sunday eve."

"Myrtle?'

"Myrtle."

"Mercy on you, my dear Mr. Peter. You're more saint than sinner yet. Seven?"

"Bless you, seven at Black's it is Mr. Tate, not more than five past."

***

"Hold it steady now, Peter."

"If I can keep the soused pig's face steady in my gullet, I will do as you request.  The third remove was one too many."

Stretching up, Tate worked the scalpel around the circumference of the curl, loosening  bits of dried black caulk as he went.

"Forceps"

"Here you go, dull end please."

"Both ends are equally dull now, I fear. Thank you."

With the the tooth extracting forceps in hand, he grasped the edges of the small stone plug and gently pulled.  The marble disk came away easily, but he couldn't see what was behind it because he could not see directly into the cavity it had protected in the face of the stonework.

"Pen."

"Naught.  What for?"

"To probe.  Pipe?"

"Of course."  Peter handed up his second best pipe in exchange for the forceps.

Poking the stem of the pipe gingerly into the hole revealed a depth of no more than a half inch, precisely the thickness of the cut marble plug that now sat in the bottom of Tate's coat pocket.  Reaching up with his finger, he carefully felt inside the hole.  The back was smooth and cool.  He pressed gently and felt it give ever so slightly, but also press back on his finger as he withdrew it.

"Here's your pipe back."

"What have you discovered?"

"There's a pressure plate behind... was behind the plug.  I'm not sure what to make of it yet.  Wallace wasn't given to violence, was he?"

"No, I should think not.  He was troublesome, mischievous, tardy, droll, negligent, but not harsh, violent, or evil.  If anything I'd say he was more like a cat with a mouse... before eating it."

"If I were Wallace, and I knew that I, Tate, would eventually come along, following the crumbs he had left behind as for a dog, would I want to toy with me further, throw yet another obstacle up, engage in misdirection or... could we be at long last nearing the end of the chase?"

"Good Lord in Heaven, I do hope so.  Three years is a bit long for even you.  Wallace has been slowly composting in his grave these past 2 years and each clue has brought us undeniably here, to what should have been the first and now obvious place to look.  It's vintage Wallace.  He no doubt heartily laughs at us from beyond, and a well earned chortle it is, we're such a pair of dolts."

"Indeed.  A dolt would put me to shame today.  Very good.  Here it is then.  I think our pressure plate here is the cache.  I believe the cipher lies behind or within.  If I press very much harden, something exciting should happen... whether I get to keep my finger I suppose we shall learn."

"Pipe again?"

"No, finger it is."  Pressing firmer, Tate was rewarded with a click, and the plate sprang forward, ejecting a tube from the recess in the stone. Drawing it neatly out revealed a tinted glass cylinder with a roll of paper inside.

Peter gasped in relief and triumph.

Tate gave a sigh.  "It's sealed.  Shall we return?"

"Yes, yes!  Indeed!"

***

"Let's have that candle." Gently waving the end of the tube over the flame, Tate gradually melted the wax from around the plug in the end, and at last it surrendered to gravity and dropped onto the silver tray waiting below.  With a light tap, the tightly rolled paper tipped out into his palm.

Peters took a long draw from his glass, then sipped more moderately.

Carefully uncurling the sheaf of paper revealed another rolled up inside.  The inner piece was rather unique, to say the least.  A rainbow of colors had been used in a most startling manner, fading smoothly from one to the next, to impress one of the most intricately designed engravings either man had ever seen.  The paper appeared to be made with a high quantity of fibers, some of which were colored.  Most intriguing was the band or ribbon that was woven top to bottom through the right half of the highly detailed document.

"Is that some sort of bank note?"

"I don't know.  The language and markings are unfamiliar... I've never seen something so... breathtakingly complex and beautiful, but it's clearly a denomination of some sort.  100 somethings.  This chap on the reverse seems ordinary enough.  Hang on... look at this!  If I put the candle behind it, his likeness is also a watermark!"

"What's on the other sheet?"

"Let us see.  Hand me your glass.  The print is tiny in the extreme."  He held the paper at a distance from the large, hand ground magnifier.  "Wallace, you're mad. May you rot slowly."

"What is it?"

"Numbers.  And letters.  Thousands of them.  But... not all letters.   Hang on... yes, just so.  Only A through F.  Now what do you make of that?"

"As you thought, it's a cipher."

"No, I don't think so.  It's not the cipher, it's the message.  There's too much here to be a cryptographic key.  It's a long and encoded message... very long.  My goodness.  I'll go blind transcribing this."

"So, one through nine and A through F?"

"And naught.  Naught through F.  And several thousand of them packed tightly in long rows."

"Do you suppose one explains the other?"

"It must.  Why put them together else?  This bank note, I think it's not a foreign or unknown language.  I think it too is encoded.  I think this message, decodes this one.  But foremost, we need to figure out how to read this first message."

"I'll turn it over to young Babbage in the morning.  Let him copy it out neat in a ledger and then we can begin to work the puzzle."

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Intercepted


The sun was dipping towards the rosey horizon. Thin wisps of grey cloud tinged pink and back-lit stretching across the Western sky.  A cool breeze picked up out of the valley and whispered through the dry leaves on the trees along the road that followed the high bank.  The river shone like a string of molten steel, spilled across the wide basin by some celestial foundry.

Matt slung the rifle over his shoulder, heart still pounding, and thrust his cold hands deep into the pockets of his work coat, his left hand wrapping around a handful of bullets hastily deposited there earlier.  Standing straight, he stared down on the pair of carcasses. He could tell there was a lot of blood, and that he had been too late.  Rushing out the door had been unnecessary, the mare was long dead and the wolf had been feeding for a while before Matt had spotted the huddled pair from the rear window of the upstairs library.  An uncomfortable thought was quietly forming in the back of his mind, but refused to come into the light to make itself known.  Chewing his lip, he stepped off the road and picked his way down the slope into the pasture.

Once over the fence he was within 25 yards of the gruesome scene and could smell the bowels of the horse mixed with the scent of fresh manure.  The wolf lay hidden from view, having been deftly picked from atop the horse's haunches by Matt's single .308 round, fired from a kneeling position up on the road.  The supersonic bullet had easily pushed its way through the forehead of the predator and out the back of its neck before the sound had arrived, sending it slumping backwards.  As he came around the horse, the wolf lay there, as still as its prey, in the mess of entrails and blood.  The haunch of the horse had been gnawed and torn in several places, but there were otherwise no evident scratches or bites.

The thought in the back of Matt's mind began to grow but it still stubbornly refused to declare anything concrete.  He stepped closer to the horse and he felt a shockingly forceful tingle run through his body and reflexively he pulled the gun off of his shoulder and held it at the ready.  A single clean slice ran along the horse's flank, from just behind its front leg, down on an angle towards its belly.  From this cut it's organs had begun to spill and apparently it bled out at the same spot, without running, without being spooked into bolting, it had just died where it stood, apparently bleeding out quickly through its liver.

Matt crouched and began turning on the ball of his foot, scanning the terrain in an arc.  The wolf wasn't the killer, a person had done this purposely, close to the barn and the house, out here in the middle of nowhere, not long before the light would be failing, which it was presently.  He thought he could see an odd shape along the river bank that didn't belong, but it could just be a shrub, or a stump he had failed to notice before, or a person hunched low.

He now had the choice between tracking down the killer by moonlight or waiting till dawn and probably getting help.  The later choice seemed wiser, so he left the crime scene undisturbed and headed back to the house, rattled, uneasy, angry and intensely curious.

Companion


The urinal flushed slowly, the drain showed signs of having been snaked, long metallic scratches disappeared into darkness.  Only cold water issued forth from the faucet at a languid rate, no soap was found, the light buzzed dimly overhead.  All of these signs of decay had crept in over time, unnoticed, appearing over the years until the once shiny and proud little restaurant was a dingy hole that few would dare visit but those old customers with failing eyesight and indiscriminate olfactory sensibilities.

Frank looked at the stained linoleum floor beneath his feet as he fried another egg, perhaps the millionth, on a darkened griddle that heated unevenly and no amount of effort could really scrape clean.  A cockroach made a break from the darkness and darted between his worn and faded black shoes, eliciting mild amusement in the sleepy reaches of his mind.  Indifference had become such a constant companion that the weight of it on him, though heavier than chains, was comfortable and easy.  He flipped the egg sloppily onto the chipped ceramic plate and set it on the ledge, "order up".  His voice was gravelly, heavy with phlegm and constrained by the excess body weight he carried, giving it an unpleasant tone that only his patrons and employees could love.

It was at that moment that something new caught his eye.  Sitting on the other side of the diner was a old gentleman with thick glasses, unkempt hair and an untucked plaid shirt.  He was carefully taping a hand lettered sign to the wall of the diner in the booth he occupied.  Tammy, the long suffering waitress, took the solitary fried egg, priced at forty five cents, and place the plate in front of the gentleman.  She spoke with him quietly for a few minutes, he looking at his egg with great deliberation, she shaking her head, he looking at his sign, hanging his head, looking down, then after a moment, taking the sign down and handing it to her.  She put her hand on his shoulder and said something quiet and private to him that made him look up at her.

Frank could see a tear running down his face, but he was smiling broadly.  As Tammy turned towards him, he felt frozen in place.  Tears streamed down her face as well.  She came into the kitchen and handed him the sign without a word.

"Companion wanted.  Kind Person.  Live in home."  The address and phone number were local.  Frank looked over at the man who was gingerly dissecting his one egg and eating each bite with a dash of pepper.  He had a stack of photocopies of the sign with him.

Frank returned to the grill and scraped a clean spot about as clean as he could, pushing down hard enough to make the spatula squeak.  He cracked two more eggs and buttered a piece of toast.  He laid out three pieces of bacon and cooked them crisp but not burnt.

Tammy looked up 5 minutes later from wiping the counter.  The man with the signs was sipping his water as Frank exited his usual domain, carrying the plate himself, he set it down in front of the man and in his coarse voice said, "On the house, brother."  He looked over at Tammy and said, "bring us two coffees, Babe."  Tears flowed afresh from her eyes as she broke into a wide smile and set about pouring the coffee out into two stained and cracked mugs.

Frank sat down and looked the man in the face.  He recognized him.  He had seen him wandering the streets of town, picking up cans and trash, throwing out one and keeping the other to take to the scrappers.  He realized he had known this man for years, but had never really known him.  He wasn't homeless, just poor, simple and alone.  But not today.

Fracture


Joe pulled the zipper on his bomber jacket up all the way and shrugged his shoulders to raise the collar up as high as it would go.  The bitterly cold breeze had come out of nowhere on a clear, sunny fall morning, stealing away the warmth imparted by his morning cup of coffee.  Stepping out of the shadow of the platform into the sun warmed him slightly but tears were starting to form as he headed into the wind and up the street.  By the time he reached the brown door with the brass ring knocker, his nose and ear tips were rosy and his cheeks burned.  Winter's surprise arrival was but one abrupt change he would encounter that morning.

Looking over the park from the conference room window, a second steaming cup of coffee in hand, Joe took stock of the news he had just received.  It was almost seismic in scope, though he could not say it was entirely unexpected.  A flock of birds rose as a body from a leafless tree, heavy with small, desiccating fruits.  They wheeled around and then, at some seemingly prearranged point, split into two swarms of shimmering black clouds, one disappearing to the left, the other settling down again into another tree.  It was an apt representation of what had just transpired on his side of the glass.  The company was splitting up, some were leaving, others were going to be resettled, and it seemed to be completely whimsical in its genesis.

Revival


Looking out the rear of the old house opened up a panorama of oak and hickory trees, thick and tall, running for a half mile before yielding to the iridescent green of snowless pasture. Wood ducks and crows called to their mates amidst the few rustling leaves still clinging to the mostly bare branches. Winter had come upon the land quickly, but today a warm southern breeze brought a moment of peace and time to meditate upon the recently departed days of harvest before the solemn, cold gray took up full time residence for the coming half year.

Malcolm was not a pious man, but he was keenly thankful for what God had left him, and the spareness, the simplicity of that remnant was clearing away the decadent years of excess from his mind, gradually replacing the old thoughts with newer, more aware thoughts of gratitude and contemplation. He could feel the nearness of God growing daily through his own humbling poverty and modest means of daily survival.

It had been a hard two years since the general collapse and mass die off, and while an opportunistic will had propelled him through the darkest hours, it had also cost him a few shreds of his humanity that he wished he could reclaim, but now knew that only God could replace. Forgiveness, he realized, was as important as gratitude. In time, the work he had begun on the abandoned homestead would again bring abundance and prosperity, but he was determined now to not squander the blessings nor the labor, and would seek to make a haven for what few lost roaming travelers there still were wandering the echoes of the old world, trying to decide if it was worth erecting a new one. Malcolm thought he had a good answer to that question: it would just take time, patience, and most importantly a charity of spirit towards others that had been so completely absent in the later days of the old world that one could not help but mark its significant contribution to the fall.

Long Term


Stepping out of the of the cafe, the man almost ran into the short woman with wire frame glasses.  "I'm so sorry", he said.

She smiled and quickly turned her face away, but not quickly enough for her face not to trigger a flicker of recognition in his mind.  He turned to follow her retreat as she walked rigidly up the street.  Did he know her?  A mild sense of deja vu haunted him for the remainder of the day.

Several weeks passed by and again, he found himself blocking another anonymous account on social media that wanted to follow him.  This one had yet another cute picture and improbably paired name and set of interests, but he noticed that the interests of the seemingly bogus accounts got closer and closer to his own each time.  The sense of a recurring pattern nagged at him well into the night.

Time went by, he lived his life, shared fragments of it online, glimpses of a life lived well doing things he loved, thoughts and ideas and fragments of stories.  One day, many years later, he stepped out of the cafe and a middle age woman blocked his path.  That old sense of deja vu came rushing back with such force that his spine tingled.

"Who are you?" he asked, squinting in the hope that her face would register some clear memory.

"Hello, Mr. Smith.  I'm your biographer.  I've been following you for quite some time, with no small difficulty."  She handed him a beautifully embossed, leather bound hardcover book.  The title read "The Collected Writings of John Smith, an Unauthorized Biography".  His mouth fell open and he looked up to find she had retreated once again, up the street and stepped into a waiting driverless car, disappearing around the corner.

Sitting on a bench, he opened the cover and read the first page. "Hooray!  My first journal entry!" in text, just below a color photo of his barely legible 4th grade handwriting.  Page after page, all through school, love letters passed in class, angry tirades posted on the internet and then their corresponding edits, indexed against later posts, letters, and publicly spoken comments that expanded or contradicted each.

Tears fell from his face, and his body began to shake.  How had she had so much unfettered access to his life for so long without his knowledge?  Why did she do it?  Who commissioned the work?  Who else had a copy?

Throwaway

"Just disconnect the negative and positive power leads, and short them.  The system will reset and unlearn all previous input."

I thought about what the technician had just said, so casual, so devoid of emotion.  Earnestly, he was providing a valid remediation solution for a problem the harvester droid had picked up with its learning while working the field.  Yet another slab of concrete had been worked up by winter and had created an obstacle when the spring planting program had run three years ago, and the harvester had interpreted it as hard soil.  As a result, it had put a bit more work into getting that soil ready for the cover crop while it was harvesting and had damaged its discs and then furrowed too deeply, creating a low spot in the field.

We hadn't caught it until this year due to a cut budget and shortage of qualified staff to service the fleet.  Now we had a thoroughly damaged harvester rig and a big mud hole in the field with a very scratched up section of what might have once been a parking deck or pedestrian bridge.

The tech returned to his review of the systems but his recommendation remained with me for a moment.  The "learning" had taken time, millions of recorded data points made up the otherwise good programming our harvester had acquired during its service life. It knew what do do with all of our various soil conditions on our 7000 acre tract of old Detroit, and typically we would have gotten the concrete slab out of the way before it became a problem.  Now, with not enough hands to help work the farm or maintain the fleet of droids, we were paying the price.  And soon, our droid would pay the price as well, giving up it's meager awareness for the expedient correction of a problem that baked in software protections would prevent us from tweaking or correcting on our own.

I felt a sense of loss.  All of that time spent learning... gone with a hard reset.  It wasn't that I was anthropomorphizing the harvester, not much anyway, it was all the time that was going to be thrown away.  For want of more skilled help, we were taking a step back three years or more.  The cost would eventually be born by the customers on Luna and Mars, where most of the food we produced in "harsh rehabilitation zones" went after thorough processing, but they in turn would submit their expense reports to their various employers, who would in turn pad their bottom lines when it came time to sell their raw materials back to Earth... and our employers would look at the rising costs and determine that manpower had to be cut, again, rather than some other extravagance, and we'd have something else break next season.

Nova Rain


"What do you mean it's locked?"

Lt. Commander Frank Seldom drifted into the crew module with a look of concern etched on his face.  Russia and America had just "gone to war", probably touching off another real world war, over Russia's expanding empire in the Middle East.  Syria, Iraq and Jordan had been quickly mopped up in the months following the surprise use of three N bombs, wiping out most of ISIS along with millions of innocents literally in seconds.  Nova Russo now controlled some of the largest reserves of crude oil along with their vast natural gas fields, and apparently, that was not enough.

The U.S., arguing it's mandate to defend Lebanon, Israel and it's long time partner, Saudi Arabia, had drawn yet another ephemeral line in the sand, and it had been crossed with the conquest of Jordan.  Pressure at home was growing to prevent the literal, Biblical battle of Armageddon by keeping Russia out of Israel, and so no more bluffs could be played.  Withered, undermanned, underfunded, and increasingly alone, the US had to act.

"I checked everything this morning according to procedure and it was all good.  Sergei was behaving just like he has for the past 5 months, no hint, no glimmer."  Mission specialist Maria Blare had spent months on her space born livestock experiments, engrossed in her science, the rapidly shifting sands of political intrigue were moving faster than she cared to comprehend.

"And now we are prisoners in our own space station while a former Russian Air Force officer has control over the largest man made object in the sky." Frank bit his lip and grabbed a tether to stop his forward drift.  "Use the B channel and see if you can get in touch with our mission control, give them just the facts.  I'll see what I can figure out from here."

Retro rockets made a characteristic momentary boiling noise as a Progress cargo ship pushed itself away from one of the nearby docking rings.  The Commander looked out the viewport as the supply ship drifted towards earth, empty of it's cargo and full of trash.  Something else drifted into view from the Unity module causing him to curse under his breath.

"He just cut loose the life boat!"

"What the hell is he thinking?  Is he on board?"

"I don't know.  I'll make the call, get the camera, get pictures.  I don't know what good it will do, but maybe it will help later."

---

"Sir, NORAD reports 4 confirmed launches from Skrytaya Mesto.  Standing by to scramble intercept... "

The War Room fell into a sudden hush.  The President tented his fingers and frowned.  "Nukes?"

"Ah... there is a signature but NORAD says the trajectories are not going to bring these down soon.  Looks like orbital insertion.  Are they shooting down the space station?"

---

The robotic arm was in motion again. One experiment module had already been removed from the superstructure, and now it was working on a cargo pod that contained most of the food stores. The life boat had drifted off and successfully reentered the atmosphere, presumably with the one Russian Cosmonaut that had betrayed his fellow crew members by sealing them in their own little prison with a view.  Someone was controlling the station remotely.

Over the next hour, four new pods automatically docked with the station at the four vacant docking ports.  They were too small to be much in the way of weapons, very much looked like Progress cargo vehicles but with some sort of hopper or aperture on the back end.

---

"Sid, we've spent billions on the most advanced missile defense system the world has ever seen.  Why can't you shoot down four ICBMs for me?"

"Mr. President, we can shoot down anything with an inbound ballistic trajectory.  These are all, well, out-bound.  We can't touch them."

"Sir, if I may, Roger Eb, Pentagon, if I may, sir, we may be facing an asymmetrical nuclear threat."

"Explain, Mr Eb."

"We are in contact with our crew at the ISS and they confirm four pods have been docked with he station.  Our earlier signals along with the readings they are getting now seem to indicate the pods contain several nuclear warheads."

"Missiles?"

"No sir, you wouldn't launch a missile from space, it would incinerate on reentry.  We can send missiles near the edge of space but they travel at a much slower speed and can survive reentry.  Sir, my Team thinks these are just little bombs that the Russians are going to maybe sprinkle along as the ISS passes overhead."

"Little bombs, Mr. Eb, as in an orbiting swarm of briefcase bombs?"

"Something like that, sir."

Digging


Hard frost covered the fields and parked autos. A woodpecker alighted on the maple tree outside the window, listened intently, turning his head like a curious dog, hopped up the trunk a little and began pecking at a bit of decayed bark. Debris rained down as the little tree surgeon went to work extricating the infestation of borer larvae. The same fellow had, with no doubt good intention, hammered his beak against the metal flashing on the roof where the rising sun had warmed the structure, creating subtle sounds of expansion which the bird mistook for insects within, just moments before.

Bill thought the scene echoed his attempts to root out corruption in the company. Sometimes he blundered and made a showy, noisome pantomime of corporate security. But then there were the really good meaty days like this past Friday where careful surveillance and data gathering had pinpointed a wealth of destructive worms eating the company from within.

Feint

"I want you to resign."

A momentary chill silence fell in the room as the Speaker's mouth fell open, but the President raised his hand in a stalling gesture: "let me explain."

The Speaker took a sip of scotch on the rocks while maintaining a cool, level gaze at the President.  "I'm listening."

"I have little time, as you know, at least as you partly know.  Your colleagues in the Senate are preparing articles of impeachment, with a little help from my colleagues in the Senate.", he paused to appraise the impact of his words.  Seeing a meager, groping comprehension, he continued.  "I will resign as well, under overwhelming bipartisan pressure because it will be the right thing to do, a noble exit, heeding the will of the majority, clarifying my respect for "Democracy".  Do you understand."

"To an extent.  What about the Vice President?"

"Jim will have some travel difficulties this weekend." he said dismissively.  The Speaker set his glass down.

"So, you want me to resign, so that your 'colleagues' can help pick my successor, who will become President upon your resignation and, my God, this is ludicrous."

"You've almost got it.  Senator Jonas will appeal to you to rise to the occasion, not resign, and lead the nation.  Naturally, there will be bipartisan support.  Senator Binkle will speak for my party with some aplomb. You'll have little choice, politically or publicly, and your tendered resignation will remove any stain of collusion."

The Speaker sat stunned for a moment.  He folded his hands, looked up at the ceiling, close his mouth and looked back down at the President.  "And where are you going?"

"You are getting it, Bob." the president flashed one of his winning smiles. "General Secretary Wu is going to be, tragically, travelling with the Vice President.  Several nations that have supported my policies will petition me to take on the role as leader of the U.N."

The Speaker furrowed his brow and scratched his chin.  "That's largely a powerless position.  Why General Secretary of the UN? You've certainly got something bigger in mind."

"Of course I do.  Just watch your desk for a bill moving through the committees now, Mr. President.  Sign it when it arrives.  You'll understand fully then."

The Little Things

Editors Note: the following short story was inspired by some time the author spent entertaining children at a Christmas event.  The characters presented are entirely fictional but were inspired by a wide number of little moments observed over the course of many such events.


Paul sat with his back to the window pane, resting his frame on the narrow sill.  They came in throngs, young children with parents, grandparents, most stopped and stared for 5 minutes or more, sometimes their mouths unconsciously hung open, their gaze fixed upon the tiny model train with its tender and line of box cars trailing behind as it ran around the wide oval track.  Through the town, under the hill with the miniature cattle grazing upon it, across the glossy blue painted river, under a mountain and back out for another cannon ball shot through town.  The tiny people in the town never broke from their routine: cars sat at rail crossings, parked at the gas station, the store, the post office and waited eternally at the stop light.  A tractor was stuck in the middle of the field, in the middle of a furrow, with a tiny red hatted farmer merrily tending his plywood field.

It was usually the children who found Paul's smiling eyes watching them watch the train.  They would smile back and ask, "can I touch it?"  Paul would grin, shake his head and over the din of the little train say, "No, I'm sorry, it's older than I am so it's just to look at, not handle."  It was interesting to note that the boys often made for the train before asking, and the girls usually asked before doing anything.  It also struck him that the white children seemed content to watch, while it was the black children who were bold enough to ask to play, leaning on the partition, arms out stretched.

A round faced little girl with corn rows and pigtails looked decidedly downcast when she got the word, "not to handle."  Paul got up from his perch and came around the train table and squat down beside her. "What would you like to know about the train?"

"How does it feel?"

Paul reached over to a side line and took an orange and black box car off the track and set it on the partition wall between the children and the train table, where this little girl was presently the only spectator. "Go on, you can touch this one.  I brought it with me and it's not very old, but it is made the same way the others are."

"It's plastic!" She seemed so surprised and delighted, he had to chuckle.

"Yes, most are. The engines are heavy though so they can pull all of the cars around the track.  They are plastic and metal and have lead weights in them."

Her curiosity satisfied, she beamed and trotted off to her grandmother to report the interesting news.

A boy of about 7 ambled in alone, blond hair spilling into his eyes.  He didn't seem to see Paul, who had returned to his uncomfortable seat. He just leaned up against the partition, rested his chin on his hands and stared at the running train.  He stayed for over an hour and Paul began to wonder where his folks were.  The big train outside left every 30 minutes to take passengers around the park in a long loop, puffing steam and belching coal cinders into the air.

"How do you like the train?"  Paul asked.

The boy nodded, mouth shut, not smiling or looking up.

"Your folks here today or did you drive yourself?" The boy's eyes flickered up to meet Pauls and a smile spread across his face revealing a missing front tooth.

"Momma brought me.  Daddy's working."

The boy watched for another 20 minutes before Paul interrupted his meditations again, "Is your Mom still here or did she drop you off?"

"She's working over there.", he gestured towards the train depot and small hot dog cart where a petite blond girl, probably not much more than 20, was making hot dogs.

"Where's your dad work?"

"He drives a train.  He's gone most of the time. I got to ride with him once when I was real little."

"Miss him?"

"Yep."

The boy kept watching the train go around and around as Paul watched his imagination carry him along in the Engine riding on his Dad's knee.  Eventually the lunch rush subsided and the boy's mom called to him and he peeled himself away with some reluctance but admirable discipline.

Later that afternoon a bird like woman entered the museum.  She was older than Paul but her sprightly gait caught his eye with its unearthly quality.  She signed the guest book and went back out.  Paul wondered what sort of personality accompanied  a physical lightness of person so evident that you appeared to weigh nothing more than a feather.  She momentarily returned with a young lad in a wheelchair.  His hands were crumpled, his expression unusual and his gaze constantly wandered, maybe staring blindly or lacking comprehension, Paul couldn't tell.

She wheeled him over and set him where his gaze just cleared the partition and as the train would come along through the town nearest the spectator station, she would point and ask, "See the train, Davey?" "There it is, look at the train!"  Forced cheerfulness carried clearly over the rattle of the little train and its load.  The boy convulsed and slipped lower in his seat so that he could not see over the partition.  She set her jaw, and lifted him up again and almost sang, "there's the train! There it goes!". Again, the little man's gaze was lost on the wall behind and above Paul's head.  He smiled sympathetically at her, but she never looked at him.

Soon, she took Davey out to continue his big day at the train museum.  Paul hoped some of the images his eyes rested upon were interesting to him.  He thought he knew now why she was so frail.

A larger group came in comprised of teachers and children from the nearby city, a mix of black, white and latino.  One little girl wore a headscarf.  The children streamed in an a tangled happy mass but lined up neatly, shoulder to shoulder along the partition.  The head teacher asked Paul several overly simple questions regarding the train: "Which town is this?"  The model was of the very town they stood in, 60 years prior.  "How long have you worked here?" Paul had been volunteering for a year, retired from the auto factory.  "What does the train run on?"  Track.  The children giggled.

Paul turned it around and looking at a black boy with glasses who had been keenly watching the train and asked "what do you think this train runs on?"

"Electricity.  But the real one ran on coal."

"You're right!  Good.  Do you know  when the real steam engine last ran here in town?"

"Yup! 1934.  My granddad was a porter.  I know all about it.  He told me all about it when I was just a kid."  The boy went on to recite and impressive catalog of trivia that caused most of the children to begin to edge away from him and eventually the head teacher interrupted him. "-that's good enough, Grant.  Let's give the gentleman back the rest of his afternoon, shall we?"

The girls giggled, Grant smiled tolerantly, nodded politely to Paul and the whole troop headed out to the platform to catch their ride on the train, the last run of the day.

Paul set the throttle for the train to 'OFF' and drew the curtains around the table.  His job provided no monetary compensation, but he felt he had been exceptionally well paid this day.  The joy of the children clung to him like a warm vapor as he headed out to his parked car and echoed in his ears well past the time he finally laid his head on his pillow that night.

All that Remains

The air conditioning rumbled somewhere on the roof, sending minor but perceptible vibrations through Todd's feet and chair.  The wide open office had been built to accommodate 50 workers with bright airy cubicles featuring half walls topped with frosted glass partitions.  Now it was just three lonely souls keeping the queue of support requests in check, keeping the servers up, keeping up appearances that a once soaring small business was indeed still thriving, despite being a shell of its former self.

The "Hope Economy" had been something of a tsunami.  The early tremors that hinted that there was a far off undersea earthquake rattling the foundations of the economy was only the first widely ignored sign that problems were on the horizon.  But the wave of destruction had been hard to ignore.  Pressure had mounted first on sectors of the economy hit by the sudden collapse of the stock market that took an unusually long time to crawl out of its crater.  Then the downstream sectors in the economy, well advised ahead of time, none-the-less stumbled as though sucker punched on the street.

That was when things started to slide around the office. Being well diversified across many market segments had forestalled the impact, but eventually it was inescapable.  When the majority of customers had gone into crisis mode, the renewals of contracts had started petering out, new business hit a virtual wall, and existing customers started demanding more return for their investment.  Getting new money was all but impossible, one or two jobs did come in, but eventually, the irretrievable first freight car over the precipice began pulling the long train of economically linked realities into the abyss and along with the layoffs went the health insurance, the Christmas parties, the annual catalog merchandise splurging,  the free drinks and complimentary condiments in the kitchen.

From a high of forty eight highly skilled individuals, the ranks dwindled as finances dictated, and then the scent of blood in the water spread to the general population and the frenzy began as people began leaving the company for what appeared to be more solid employment.  But few of those jobs lasted as things withered everywhere.

Now it was just the three of them: the President, the VP, and Todd, and the President and VP were busy working on other opportunities, lining up multiple income streams to blunt the eventual final blows that were sure to come any day.  With great hesitation and long lingering loyalty to a company that was effectively dead, Todd had at last come to the acknowledgement that it was time to move on without the company.  He needed to move carefully, but decisively, and he needed to make his move soon.  What had been cordial lingering after the party had become something akin to an overstayed welcome.  It was time to make a polite excuse and head for the door.

Keep in Line


"Ok, and if you'll sign this....
... and this....
... and one more...
... OK - we are ready to release your rations to you for this week.  Please stand and recite the Oath to the President."

"I promise to honor and respect our kind and generous President, always."

"You missed one."

"Oh, I'm sorry. I promise to honor and respect our kind, generous and wise President, always."

"Was that a smirk?"

"What?! No!  I had an itch."

"It looked like a smirk.  Are you sure you are sincere in your gratitude to our President?"

"Of course I am!  Look, I'm just hungry like everyone else.  May I please have the bag of food now?"

"Your ration is issued in accordance with his benevolence... you do know that means you're duty bound to love him, don't you?"

"I do! I do!"

"Alright, I believe you... this time.  Here's your rations."

"It seems lighter than last time."

"Are you questioning his generosity and kindness??"

"No! No, God no!"

"WHO???"

"I - I mean... by his kindness, No!!"

"Don't let it happen again."

Looking Ahead

Editor's Note: While I wait for my junior writers to come up with things they want edited and published, I thought I would go ahead and copy over some of the short fiction I've written on Google+ as it's not as easy to find there as it is here.  

"But, what is it?"

"Basically?  A time dilation device."

"You... you built a time machine, in your garage?"

"No - no, not a time machine perse.  You see these large cylinders?  These are some of the largest permanent magnets modern technology can produce."

"There's gotta be a hundred of them."

"137.  These coils are just simple heavy gauge copper, thick enough to carry 880 volts of AC power."

"Thank you very much for agreeing to pay my electric bill.  I had no idea it would result in... this."

"Well, I needed two household mains for this.  But I think you'll agree it will be worth it."

"So, what, real, practical use does this have?"

"Watch."

Tiny LED's arranged in a circle on a custom printed circuit board began illuminating, one by one forming a light chase along all 137 indicators.  Power hummed through banks of capacitors and transformers as a low warbling hum began to fill the cluttered garage.

"Wait, shouldn't we be concerned about metal objects, you know, whizzing through the air, impaling hapless neighbors?"

"No, no... this uses a very specific pulse width modulation pattern that produces powerful peaks of EM with long troughs between them.  The result is a lensing of time space rather than a giant electromagnet.  It's more like artificial gravity in extremely small slices, at least that's what I hope."

Presently the air within the halo of magnetic cylinders began to form visible condensation like a small, soft, spherical cloud.  As it began to swirl turn like a spinning ball, it began to form a toroid, in the center of which the light was undulating from light to dark and back again.

"What's going on there?"

"We're seeing time, bent around in a loop of sorts and fed back on itself.  We're seeing the next several weeks at an accelerated rate.  It's the future."

"I'll be damned."

"I certainly hope not."

A flurry of bright bursts of light interrupted the darkness in the toroid.

"What was that?"

"I expect it's a spring thunderstorm flashing outside the window there. Just like a lightning flash would light up the dark garage at night, that light is travelling at a fixed rate through space, but when it comes to our time lens, it has to bend and compress, so we see it like a movie playing fast forward."

Presently orange light flashed over the image and the yard beyond the wall of the garage appeared.

"Um, I hate to be a wet blanket, but it appears your garage is going to burn to the ground in about 3 weeks."

"Damn.  I guess I better get the insurance up to date then."

"Why is the yard all black.  And where is Corbit Tower?  It should be visible over the hill there. What are we seeing?"

"I... it looks like I'll have more than a garage fire to worry about in three weeks.  We're getting nuked on May the 7th or there abouts."