Civil War

captain-america-civil-war-international-poster-excerpt

I finally saw “Civil War,” the umpteen zillionth movie in the unendable Avengers series.  It was quite enjoyable but there was one scene in which all the that-would-never-happen-ness came to a point.  The bad guy has just explained with utmost clarity and precision how and why he moved heaven and earth to set the Avengers against each other.  He knows he could never destroy them so he manipulates them into destroying each other.  “See?  That’s what I’m doing!  I’m playing you!”

To which Tony Stark, of all people says, “Great idea!” and starts wailing on Captain America.

I thought that really took the audience well past suspension of disbelief into delusional territory.  You’d have to be crazy to buy in to the premise that the smartest man in any given room would let himself be played.

Then I went to Facebook.

My my.  Such crazy!  Such eagerness to follow pipers!  Such happiness to march over cliffs while flipping off people who suggest you should maybe not march over a cliff!  It’s almost as if some unprecedented event had occurred, generating a big wave like an EM pulse that short circuited human brains and made everybody crazy.

You’d think we’d never had an election in this country.

But we have had some elections.  I remember one back in… 2008, I think it was.  You remember too, right?  That time when the country was doomed, DOOMED by the election of Barak Obama?  The republic absolutely, positively could not survive four years under an Obama administration.  Then the country was doomed all over again in 2012 and, I hate to say it but the political doomsayers told you so.  Here it is 2016 with all the churches turned into museums of socialist progress, every Bible safely burned along with every copy of the Constitution and Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia…

Oh, wait.  That didn’t happen.

There are many among us who believe that progress was made in positive directions over the last eight years.  There are many among us who believe that our country moved way too far in negative directions over the last eight years.  No matter what you believe, we still have a country and it still works.  The doomsayers were all full of it.

There are many among us who believe that progress will be made in a positive direction over the next four or eight years.  There are many among us who believe that our country will move way too far in a negative direction over the next four or eight years.  No matter what you believe, we will still have a country and it will still work.  The doomsayers are still full of it because doomsayers always are.

President Trump, who I did not support during the campaign, is neither a harbinger of doom nor the savior of the Republic.  Conservatives will not gain as much as they hope, liberals will not lose as much as they fear.  Sensible people will work with the new president where they can and oppose him when they must.  Mr. Trump never claimed to be a doctrinaire conservative. He will certainly propose some measures that will draw the ire of conservatives and advance some aspects of a progressive agenda.  Will Democrats work with him to advance the interests of their constituents or will they stick with the scorched earth tribal warfare which is the bread and butter of muck raking talking heads and duckspeakers on all sides?

Will left-wing yahoos continue to make common cause with right-wing yahoos to keep pots boiling over with fear and/or resentment?  How long will YOU let these people play you?

If your circle of friends is shrinking because of media-hyped political narratives, you are being played.

If you’re being suckered into placing tribal loyalty above personal relationships, YOU ARE BEING PLAYED.

If you’re jumping at the chance to cut off family members because they’re wrongthinkers, I can’t help you.  You may be too far gone.  But I can tell you YOU.  ARE BEING.  PLAYED.  The little man who convinced the mighty Avengers to duke it out is laughing at you.

For goodness sake, come up for air!  Go outside and play!  Go swap recipes with that old friend who Facebook just outed as a jack-booted Nazi or Commie saboteur.  Apologize to your wrong-winged mother or politically addle-minded kid.  Turn back into a person.  Stop being the stock character in the old war movie who endangers the crew of the damaged submarine because he panics.  It’ll be okay as long as everybody keeps their wits about them.

Honest, it will.

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The Sun Men

sunmen_2

Begin transmission.

I must report this quickly, before the next gravity surge crushes the sun station.  Will it ever be heard?

Five hundred years ago, during the reign of the Third Dark Moon Prince, the first sky man transformed gravity and ascended beyond the atmosphere.  Others followed; soon the planets of our star system were populated.

There were groups, too numerous to list, for and against the expansion.  One group on the furthest fringe warned about gods and angels, or devils and fairies or some such fantastic creatures.  I only know this because my wife…

No time for this diversion.  The readings are heading up.

It was my proposal!  For over a century Ether Corp. has operated the sun siphons, collecting the rare lights and pure fusibles which energize… energized our civilization.  But the sun is also rich in heavier elements, particularly essential metals.  I recognized the potential of the magnetic coupling effect and the exponential amplification possibilities of resonant neutron carrier beams.  Small scale tests…

Voices in the background, raised in panic.

“The lifeboats won’t boost you out of the gravity well!”

Sounds of struggles and screams.

She was right!  My wife was right!  When I showed her the drawings for the beam projector she just nodded the way she did about all of my work.  Then she noticed the title, “Sun Drill,” and she asked what it meant. I told her it was for mining the sun, thinking how impressed she’d be but she just got quiet…

“…secondary field rupture!  Did they get out?”

She finally told me what was on her mind.  I told her she was crazy.  “It will be no more than a pin pricking the surface of the world!” I told her.  I was angry.  “It can’t hurt anything!”

We fought about it for the twelve years it took to build the sun station.  I’m ashamed for what I put her through.  Ashamed!  She was out of her mind when I left last week.  “Don’t hurt them!” she cried.  “Don’t kill the sun men!”

The sun, a community of living beings!  And I… an assassin!

We powered up for the full intensity test and fired.  A hole, a stream of bright red, the sun flickered then went out.  Contraction and collapse started immediately.

The last of the sunlight has passed the home world by now.  My wife is frozen.  I know she stood in our garden and watched as her husband killed the sun, killed the planets and every living person.  I know she couldn’t bring herself to call me a fool.  I know her last thought…

End transmission.

 

“The Sun Men” first appeared in Bewildering Stories issue 447, September 12, 2011

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Sunlight in an Empty Room

sun-in-an-empty-room

Before the room was empty…

Joan slept with a nightstick under the pillow.  She never told the kids it was for burglars but that’s what they thought.  The older ones would catch on soon enough but by then it wouldn’t be much of a surprise.

She met Ronnie at a party and she wasn’t fooled for a minute.  He was smooth as glass and just as transparent.  But she liked him.  That’s what it came down to.  She liked his black wavy hair, his eyes that shone like dark water beneath a full November moon and that hint of an urban accent that set him apart from the lumbering local brutes roaming the streets from bar to bar in the depressed little steel town.  She liked the way he dressed as if his appearance was the fragrance that drew the bee.  Not one important thing attracted her but it was easy enough to forget everything she’d heard from mom, the nuns, the priest and her stuffy friends.

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.  One by one, Ronnie’s muscular coils wrapped around Joan, soft and warm at first, with the drowsy hunger in their shadows, dreaming of the satisfaction that even animals know comes only at the end of planning and disciplined execution over a stretch of time.  He waited until she was pregnant to marry her.  He waited until they were married before his words got hot and he pushed her around.  He waited until he was her sole source of food and shelter before he experimented with hitting her.  When she blamed herself he knew the way was clear.

She was all his.

She had three kids with another on the way before she ran out of breath and broke the surface into the sunlight of reality.  Echoes of the Catholic faith in which she’d been raised clung tightly to the principles of the Evangelical faith she’d adopted to satisfy his pious family but religion didn’t keep her imprisoned to the beast.  No.  It was the failure that she couldn’t face and the sadness of a loss which was purely imaginary.  Had anything less than survival been at stake she could’ve gone on and on, denying, excusing, pretending.

But survival was at stake.  If there was one thing the cold-blooded grip of the serpent had done for her it was to show her reality and not let her look away.

Now even the glow of the past was a filthy smudge on her mind and soul.  The few kind words he might have said to the kids were hardly even fig leaves for black eyes and twists of verbal knives plunged deep.  She had seen his heart and it wore the grin of the skull as it held out bouquets of flowers already dead upon graves.

She would not take refuge in lies, not even the soothing ones.  She would do nothing but walk the straight line that led through restraining orders, the gossip of neighbors, the recriminations of family, the painstaking plane crash of divorce.

Most of all, she would not permit herself to remember the nights and days when her most private dreams came true.

Now it was all as over as the law could make it.  There was nothing left to do but raise four kids on her own, rehabilitate her reputation on her own, get from here to the other end of life on her own.  But she could do these things now.  She was tested and strengthened.  She had cataloged her resources.  She was free and secure.

But she still felt beneath the pillow every night to make sure the nightstick was there.

She was sound asleep in the exact middle of the night when the drunken monster crashed through the door in the shadows, fortified against the magic spells of court-issued pieces of paper.  Her peaceful dream exploded as a crushing weight dropped upon her bed, hands like claws finding her throat as if drawn by magnets, garbled streams of senseless profanity rushing forth upon whiskey-fouled gales.  She saw oxygen-deprived visions of Heaven before she was even fully awake, with tears squeezed from her failing eyes.

But the stick was in her hand.

An exhausted rag doll conditioned by years of fear and doubt was no match for the wounded pride and muscled rage of a ravenous monster with nothing to lose.  Her hand had found the stick but not even survival could give her the strength to swing it.

Somewhere in the darkness a child cried.  A little boy would see his father choke the life out of his mother before facing the monster himself.

The thought was barely a fragment to her.  Protect.  The stick swung.  Ronnie screamed and rolled to the floor, taking Joan with him.  The stick swung again and the brute stopped moving.

~

It’s empty now.

The room has no memory.  The sunlight finds nothing but the peace of emptiness, the sparkle of floating dust, the endless succession of shadows sliding across slowly crumbling walls.  No stain of cruelty, no halo of love, no eternity to be won or lost.  Such things have always come and gone like the dying echoes of sound and fury, leaving nothing in their wake.

Nothing but ripples in the light.

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Support System

support-system

“Ok George,” read the message posted on the writers’ critique site.  “I’m still waiting for your analysis of my story ‘The Rockets Go Boom!’ but here are my comments about your piece.

“Given that prologues are never a good idea it would be superfluous to say that yours is too long.  What an info dump!  Try to reveal the setting and alien psychology through action rather than dialogue and exposition.  Show, don’t tell!

“Now, to the meat of the thing.  I found your alien protagonist to be rather… androgynous.  Sure, he’s married and all but your descriptions of his ‘luscious indigo eyes veined with silver’ and ‘hair infused with the light of the sun’ leave a definite impression, if you know what I mean.  And why the knock on religion?  Contrasting the enlightened, science-worshipping husband with the raving religious fanatic wife is a little over the top, don’t you think?  I know that kind of thing is all the rage in SJW land but couldn’t you try to be a little more original?  Not new, not sophisticated.

“So here’s what I read.  Reasonable, science-minded protagonist of ambiguous orientation (therefore probably oppressed) is backed into a corner by his greedy old corporate masters and harangued by his shrieking religious harpy wife who he probably married for cover.  Poor thing!  The inevitable result: his noble work is prostituted, his misused invention accidentally erases gravity and the sacred environment is destroyed by marauding capitalism.  Everybody’s fault but his.  Same old ‘traditional society sucks’ message.  Ho hum.  Now go read ‘Rockets!’”

George made some red marks and notes on the hard copy of his story.  He moved on to the next entry on the critique site.

“Hello George, this is Stephanie.  I read your story this morning while I was waiting for Po-Po at the groomer.  It was really good!  I just have a few suggestions, you know, a couple of little tweaks and maybe a question or two.

“I think the part at the beginning might be a little longer and more detailed than it needs to be.  I can’t imagine what ‘magnetic resonance coupling’ or ‘vestigial survival imperatives’ could mean but if they’re important you could show how.  You know, show, don’t tell.

“I have to get a little bit critical because speculative fiction is the literature of ideas so we should talk about ideas, right?  Right!

“Your blonde haired, blue eyed male protagonist is kind of a throwback and, frankly, a little offensive.  We have moved past ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane,’ haven’t we?  And just because it’s set on another planet doesn’t mean the parallels with a certain 20th century dictatorship aren’t obvious.  The only thing worse than the macho Aryan scientist is that wife!  You must’ve really strained your brain to turn a mousey religious ignoramus into the evenhanded voice of reason!  Maybe while she’s so busy being intelligent and logical she could take a minute or two to throw off the stifling patriarchy; then she could be a believable character but your idea that everything would be swell if Herr Science just obeyed little Miss Superstition and her sky daddy?  Puhleez!  Give me a break!!

“A really great story!  Keep up the good work.  Did you get a chance to read my story, ‘The Hard Kisses of My Soft Rage?’  It’s all about…”

George made a few more notes then snapped the cap onto the red pen.  “With Our Own Hands” was his gazillionth story and his first foray into the world of online writer’s groups.  It was destined to be his gazillionth rejection.  Now that he’d retired from teaching he had lots of time to write stories and send them out to dead ends.  Maybe enough was enough already.

“Hi Poppy!” chirped his fifteen-year-old granddaughter Amanda as she walked through the dining room on her way to the kitchen.  She often stopped by on her way home from school.  “Is that your story?  I read that yesterday.”

“Lucky you,” said George.

“I told you to stay off ‘Crit for Crit,’ didn’t I?” said Amanda, picking up the story.

“You sure did,” admitted George.  “All right, Asimov, what’s your analysis?”

“I like the part at the beginning where you explain how the engineers at this company use ‘thought pens’ to draw diagrams with their minds and how that ability developed because of their peculiar culture and psychology.  But some of them use them to play practical jokes or read other people’s minds just because they’re nosy jerks,” she said.

“You like that, huh?”

“Yeah.  People would really do that, wouldn’t they?  And then, the way the scientist discovers the relationship between energy and gravity with the alien scientific method and figures out how to use one to control the other.  I don’t think it would work that way but it’s cool in the story.”

“That’s what counts,” said George.  “Anything else?”

“I felt sorry for his wife.”

“Oh?” said George.  “How come?”

“Well,” said Amanda, “everybody thought she wanted to control him or boss him around but she didn’t.  She just wanted to warn him.  I mean, she didn’t even mind if he disagreed with her, just as long as he listened and understood what she said.  She knew she could be wrong but she could be right, too.  He listened to everybody but her.”

“Let that be a lesson!” said George.

“And at the end,” continued Amanda, “when he knows the world will fly apart in a few seconds and it’s his fault the only thing he wishes is that he could tell his wife he loves her and he’s sorry.  But he can’t.  It’s too late.  It… it made me cry.  A little.”

Yeah, me too thought George.

“And it was all because of pride, right?” she went on.  “I mean, the scientist let himself be overcome by the power of his idea and the influence of people with agendas instead of keeping it all in perspective.  He forgot to be a person.  Until it was too late.”

“So what would you say to Mr. Rocket and Ms. Soft Rage?” asked George, nodding at the screen.

Amanda scrolled through the two critiques.  Then, in a surprisingly convincing imitation of William Powell in Life With Father she said, “I’d tell ‘em… bah!

That caught George off guard and started one of those unstoppable fits of laughter.  “Your mom is making you watch old movies again, is she?” he said.

“She calls it cultural research,” said Amanda.  “Last night it was Dracula.  The book was better.”

“Speaking of which, you were working on a vampire story, weren’t you?” said George.  “When are you gonna let me read it?”

“Like, never!” said Amanda.  “It’s stupid!”

“Are your vampires pretty?  Do they sparkle?”

“Ew!” protested Amanda.  “My vampires are horrible!  They can read minds so they each pick a victim and torture them with their own worst fears until they go insane before they bite them.  Sometimes they don’t even want their blood because they like scaring people so much they forget they need it, so one guy figures out that maybe he can starve his vampire if he can be brave enough to stay afraid…  It’s a lame idea…  Hang on.”  Her purple phone was playing an Ed Sheeran song.

“Hi Mom.  I’m at Nana’s house yappin’ with Poppy.  Okay.”

She handed the story back to her grandfather.  “Gotta go.  See ya, Pops.  Bye, Nan!” she called toward the kitchen.

“Is Amanda here?” called George’s wife Jean from the kitchen.

“You just missed her,” said George, returning to his story.  Maybe the prologue was a bit much at that.  Obviously he needed to clarify some things about his characters.  After all, Mr. Rocket and Ms. Soft Rage both had solid resumes.  A number of their stories appeared in some of his target venues.  They must know a thing or two.  Maybe he should tear it down to the foundations and start over.  Maybe he should put it aside for a while, like all the experts recommended.

Maybe he should act his age and find another hobby.

In any case he owed replies to his two critics.  He found their stories to be virtually indistinguishable from any number of others.  I’m probably reading young work with old eyes, he thought to himself, but now that they’ve reviewed mine anything negative could just look like sour grapes.  Hell, it could even be sour grapes.  What to do?

“What did Amanda have to say?” asked Jean, coming from the kitchen to sit beside him.

“Oh, this and that,” said George.  “We talked about vampires and how they play on your fears as they suck the life out of you and how people should listen to each other.  You know, stuff like that.”

“She is one smart kid,” said Jean.

“Yeah, she is,” agreed George, scanning the critiques as he spoke.  “Hey, honey?  How do you spell bah?”

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Out of Sight

out-of-sight

“No, Mommy!” protested six-year old Sarah Reid.  “It’s too scary!  People will get scared!”

Beth Reid looked at her daughter’s eyes peering out from the holes cut in the old sheet.  The ghost costume was a Halloween classic and Sarah liked Casper the Friendly Ghost.  Seemed simple enough to a busy adult but kids were never simple.

“I know what to do,” said Beth as she rummaged through a desk drawer that was only opened to stuff in things that had no place else to go.  She soon found a big red Christmas bow, which she stuck on top of Sarah’s head.

“What do you think?” she asked hopefully as she held up a mirror.  “Now they’ll know you’re a friendly ghost, not a scary one.”

“Okay!” Sarah agreed as she picked up the plastic Jack-o-lantern with the open top, imagining the candy that would soon overflow.  “Let’s go!”

The eastern sky still held traces of ashy gray behind dark screens of skeletal tress as Beth and Sarah joined the parade of monsters, princesses, comic book characters and last-minute-anybody’s-guess presentations wandering along the suburban street.  The smoky smell of the fallen leaves swishing around the bottom of Sarah’s costume and the radiant, golden beams of candlelight shooting from the Jack-o-lanterns made thoughts of cackling witches and bristling black cats impossible to avoid.  The spooky chill it gave Sarah was, well, spooky but deliciously fun.

“Okay, baby,” said Beth as they came to Mrs. Jorgenson’s house, their first stop.  “Remember what I told you.  Ring the bell and shout, ‘Trick or treat!’ when she opens the door.  I’ll be watching.”

Sarah started up the walk but didn’t let go of Mom’s hand.  “Come with me,” she pleaded, pulling as hard as she could.

“All right,” agreed Beth.  She was in no hurry to not be needed.

The door flew open before Sarah could reach for the bell, releasing a flood of laughing, well-disguised characters of various shapes and sizes, all clutching bags starting to bulge with the evening’s haul.  “Hi Mrs. Reid!” chirped one or two as they passed.  “Hi Sarah!”

Sarah didn’t recognize any of them.  She hoped Mrs. Jorgenson hadn’t heard them call her name.

“My!” exclaimed gray-haired Mrs. Jorgenson, a slight, jovial woman who sometimes babysat Sarah and her brothers when Mom and Dad went out.  The heavy aroma of a dinner that included cabbage filled the little house and Sarah could see Mr. Jorgenson sitting in the dining room, reading a newspaper.  “What a pretty little ghost!  I like your bow,” she added as she slipped two candy bars into the Jack-o-lantern.  “Now let’s see.  You must be… Joey Fein?”

Sarah giggled.

“Melissa Stuart?”

“No!”

“I give up,” sighed Mrs. Jorgenson, virtually overcome by exasperation and bewilderment.  “Who is in there?”

“It’s Sarah!” she announced, struggling to lift the sheet without letting go of the Jack-o-lantern.

Sarah soon picked up on the confusion between what was genuine and what was pretend.  Mrs. Jorgenson certainly saw Mom standing there, yet she really seemed perplexed…

Sarah decided that confusion and good-natured deception must be part of the fun.

They went laughing from house to house, marveling at the transformation Halloween had wrought upon the neighborhood, stopping to guess at who lurked behind disguises or gab with neighbors, friends and classmates.  As the night went on, Sarah inched closer to flying solo up to the bright, friendly porches and doors but could never quite keep up her nerve.

Before long they found themselves around the corner and halfway down the block.  This street gave her a little shiver.  There was one house with a big, shaggy hedge and broken pavement that was scary even in the light of day.  In fact, all the kids were told to stay away from it.  They never went down the street by themselves and always walked on the other side.

“Hi, Beth,” called a voice from the darkness.  It was Mrs. Fein, with Joey in tow.  Sarah knew it was Joey because the helmet of his homemade Stormtrooper costume was falling apart and it was easy to see his face.

“Hi Rachel,” said Beth.  “Did you get that permission slip for the field trip?”

Sarah sighed, knowing the two of them would talk forever.  The wind was getting chilly and her pumpkin head was full and heavy.  It was time to go home.

“Can I go across the street, Mom?” asked Joey, who was old enough to do things like that with a minimum of supervision.  Permission was granted and Sarah was alone with the two forever-talkers.

That’s when she realized they stood at the foot of the broken pavement leading through a gap in the shaggy hedge and up to the dark old porch of the scary old house.

As the two moms talked and talked Sarah got an idea.  She’d been to a lot of strange houses that night, only to discover fun inside.  The spooky houses usually turned out to be the most fun of all.  Maybe this one was fun, too.

Getting up all the six-year-old nerve she could muster Sarah slipped away from the talking moms and glided up the walkway, feeling like a real ghost.  The sheet did its best to bunch itself up under her feet as she climbed the steps but she soon made her way to the darkened doorway and found the bell.

Beth and Rachel were shaken from their mom-talk trance by the blaze of the porch light and a little voice shouting, “Trick or treat!”

“Sarah?” called Beth.  “No, honey!  Not this house…”

It was too late.  The door opened.  A dark silhouette stood out against the light from within.

Beth and Rachel were on the porch with magical swiftness, hearts pounding, ready to face what they expected to find at the door.  They were surprised to see a stout, middle aged woman clutching a handkerchief.  Her eyes were red but she forced a smile as she spoke to her little visitor.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I don’t have any candy.”

Noticing the perplexed looks on the faces of the two mothers, the woman explained.  “You expected to find Charlie, didn’t you?  I’m his sister, Doris.  Charlie’s been sick.  I came down from Doylestown to stay with him three months ago.”

“Oh,” said Rachel.  “Well, we won’t bother you.  Come on, Sarah.”

“You don’t have to worry,” said Doris.  “Charlie passed away last night.  His doctor said the stress of the appeal was too much for him.  He always was sensitive.  Anyway, the conviction was overturned.  His name is coming off the registry.”

“I see,” said Beth coldly.  She had followed the media accounts of the case closely.  She was not happy with this piece of news.

“There was more to it than the news reports said,” Doris went on, her voice tense and exhausted.  “It wasn’t as simple as they made it out to be.”

“Is it ever?” challenged Beth.  “Come on, Sarah.”

Sarah wasn’t exactly sure what to do.  She knew this was serious and Mom was mad at the lady on the porch.  Mom told her not to talk to strangers.  Did she get the lady in trouble?

She took a Hershey bar from her Jack-o-lantern.  “Here, Mrs. Doris,” she said.  “Everybody should have candy on Halloween!”

“Thank you, dear,” said Doris.  “Thank you very much.”

“And here’s one for your brother,” said Sarah, handing over a Three Musketeers bar.

“Oh, but, I told you… my brother isn’t here.”

“If he’s a good brother he won’t mind if you have it,” said Sarah, who did not yet understand what passed away meant.  “Is he a good brother?”

The lady couldn’t answer.  She just nodded and went back into the house with her candy bars.

The mothers were quiet as could be as they walked down the broken pavement and back through the gap in the hedge.  Sarah couldn’t imagine what could keep them from talking.

“Fine!” Beth finally said.  “I’ll bring her a casserole tomorrow.  You have to bake her a pie!”

“I can do that,” replied Rachel.

They both acted mad but they were both going to make something delicious and bring it to the lady.  At first Sarah was confused but then she realized she had stumbled upon one of life’s great truths.  Grown-ups pretended way more than kids.

“Come on, Little Miss Sunshine,” said Beth, taking Sarah’s free hand and leading her back around the corner.  “It’s a school night and you still need a bath.”

Sarah hated baths but looked forward to the warm, sleepy feeling she got when she was all dried off and in her pajamas, ready for bed.  She had a whole pumpkin head full of candy.  The old, dark house was no longer a mysterious menace.  Mom and Mrs. Fein had a new neighbor.  And she hadn’t scared anybody.

It was a good night’s work.

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On High

venus

Jason Metz was sorry they’d all be dead before they were successful but that’s how the cookie of environmental science crumbled. Or maybe not.  Maybe some of the crackpot longevity studies back on Earth would turn up something and they could all get a hundred-year refill and live to see a nice little patch of cool green, thriving and happy on the blistering surface of Venus.

Coffee steamed lazily in the shafts of sunlight streaming through the ports looking out on the hazy upper Venusian atmosphere.  The commissary of NASA’s Venus Stratosphere Observer was full to capacity, which meant five or six people on a given shift, all trusting their lives to an assortment of silvery balloons, cables and ultra-light construction.  Jason was not the type to obsess over death but it was a hard thing not to think about as they floated high above the pit of hell, visible in all its boiling, acid-laced glory through the windows in the deck.

“Find any monsters yet?”

Jason looked up from the chaos beneath his feet to find Marcie Rothwell parking a sandwich and coffee on the other side of the tiny composite table.  Quarters were way too cramped for the formality of “Mind if I sit here?”  Jason missed such formalities.

“How many times do I have to tell you,” he said, moving his lunch to make space on the table.  “We’re making monsters, not hunting them.”

“They’ll need horns and pitchforks to make it down there,” she said with an oddly mirthless smile that crinkled the little crow’s feet just starting to show up at the corners of her cool gray eyes.  Short ash blonde hair framed a lean face that had spent a lot of time on orbit.  If anybody was born to look down from the heavens and study alien worlds it was Planetary Environmental Specialist Marcella Rothwell.

“We haven’t quite figured out how to engineer heat-resistant demons,” said Jason, “so adaptable armor will have to do and since we’re only working on bacteria I don’t see how pitchforks would be helpful.”

“Ah,” said Marcie, picking up the spongy little sandwich, the finest cuisine NASA had to offer.  “So you don’t want to seed the planet.  You want to infect it.”

“We figure, since it already has a fever, why not?  We sure can’t hurt anything.”

Jason held his breath, hoping he hadn’t made a mistake.  There was a bare-knuckle political fight in progress over treaties and protocols making early stage terraforming all but impossible on Mars.  No native life had been found so far and any terrestrial microbes carefully exposed to Martian conditions quickly died but the momentum was still with the preservationists.

Venus was a different story.  Surface conditions were so stunningly horrible that nobody believed anything could live there but the divide between pro-development and pro-preservation was deep and wide.  Jason and Marcie were not on the same side.

“We may never know,” said Marcie.  “If humans can engineer something that can withstand Venusian conditions why can’t nature?”

“As far as I know nature doesn’t have intelligent, self-replicating nanotechnology,” said Jason.  “Dr. Jordan’s concept is a kind of intelligent design with OCD. We make the bacteria as hardy as possible then protect it with an intelligent armor that monitors environmental conditions and the health and development of the organisms.  Over time the bacteria are exposed to harsher conditions and given a chance to adapt.  Eventually, we hope, they’ll fully adapt to the natural environment.”

“Nothing organic could adapt to Venusian temperatures,” said Marcie.

“Which is why we built the bacteria one molecule at a time using specialized materials wherever possible.  Surveys show that all the materials necessary for the organisms to ingest, metabolize and use for reproduction are present on the surface.”

“So you’re talking about self-replicating robots, not self-reproducing life, right?” said Marcie.

“No,” said Jason.  Ms. Rothwell had argued this case many times before.  Her favorite venue was on holo programs that specialized in pounding complex science into irrefutable slogans.  “The nucleus remains entirely organic.  Think of the rest of it as a collection of reproducible prosthetic components.  They make various functions possible but they don’t change the organism’s identity any more than an artificial liver changes the identity of a human being.  Look, even Jordan knows it’s a long shot but results in the lab have been promising.  He convinced the trustees at the University of Pennsylvania, they coughed up funding and convinced a couple of senators who in turn convinced NASA to make room for us aboard your lovely blimp of science.  So here we are.”  His voice trailed as he looked down into the miles of deadly atmosphere below.  “Yeah.”

“What are the wee beasties supposed to do down there?” asked Marcie.

“Survive,” said Jason.  “That’ll be success.  If they survive and mutate that will be dancing-in-the-street success.  If that happens we can make a case for designing an environment around them.”

“You mean like a tropical vacation spot for the super-rich?”  She was joking, of course.

“Hardly,” said Jason.  “A really outrageous, wild-eyed optimistic scenario would be regional cool zones in the four to five-hundred-degree Fahrenheit range.  We may be able to build human-rated habitats for such conditions.  Maybe future engineers will figure out ways to reduce the air pressure.  Or maybe we can make good use of the existing conditions.  Maybe we can engineer organisms to seek and ingest specific materials.  We could harvest minerals and chemicals instead of digging them up.  Or rather our great grandkids could.  No overnight success in this field.”

“Seems like an awful lot of trouble for such a long shot,” said Marcie.  “Why come all the way to Venus for something that probably can’t work?”

“It’s the only place we’re allowed to try,” said Jason sourly.

“Don’t look at me,” she said.  “I have convictions but no power.”

Influence is power, and you know it, thought Jason.  Marcie was one of the walls they’d had to blast through to get a spot on the blimp.  Dr. Jordan had some pretty elegant words for her but they stayed back on Earth with him.  Jason’s mission was to get along and get all the cooperation he could manage.

The abyss churned beneath his feet.

Half a year later…

Jason sipped his coffee as he waited for Jordan’s response to his last comment.  The communication delay between Venus and Earth was about six minutes.  Plenty of time to think, anticipate, consider.

And worry.

A lot had happened over the last six months.  The first attempt to land the organisms on target was a catastrophe.  If Jason didn’t know the organism’s limitations he might have concerns about biological contamination.  He’d had his hands full convincing Rothwell not to demand he be sent packing.

The second landing was a different story.  Everything worked.  The microscopic army landed, survived and got busy chewing up the semi-molten rock and turning it into more microbes.  So far he had identified three adaptive variations among the natives.  It would be years before they were ready to test full exposure to the natural environment but they had definitely achieved dancing-in-the-street status.

Even Marcie Rothwell couldn’t help dancing right along with him.  Now she joked about buying up Venusian real estate to build resorts for the super-rich.  Not that her actual convictions had changed.  She was still opposed.  She just couldn’t bring herself to rain on Jason’s tireless work and well-earned success.

No.  Dr. Jordan and Jason Metz had a bigger problem than philosophical resistance from the opposing camp.

Jason braced himself as the little tinkly tone announced the arrival of Jordan’s next message.

“It’s no good, Jason,” said Jordan.  “The new administration is making cuts across the board.  It’s the last nail for Martian terraforming.  The only reason they don’t cancel the entire Venus observation program is that it would cost more to bring everybody back than to just let the thing run.  You know what you have to do.”

He knew, all right.  Get all the data he could over the next twenty-four hours then uncork the gas to sterilize the surface habitats.  What started out as seeds to make the desert bloom now became a potential plague.  He thought about popping the lids on the habitats and letting the wee beasties take their chances but that would probably kill them faster than the ethylene oxide.

 

“I’m sorry they pulled the rug out,” said Marcie as Jason prepared to board the shuttle.  “It was a rotten thing to do.  But I can’t say I’m sorry about the microbes.  We have no business interfering with nature.  Watching and learning is enough.”

Jason had reams of replies to such reasoning but he was tired.   He wanted solid ground beneath his feet, traffic in the street outside his window and a good seat at a ball game.  No doubt Jordan would have a new plan by the time he landed but for now he’d had all the biology he could stand.

Well, almost all…

“You ever get to Philadelphia?” he asked.

“No,” said Marcie.  “But I’ve always wanted to see the Liberty Bell.”

“Look me up,” said Jason as he climbed through the hatch.  “The Liberty Bell takes five minutes, tops.  Then we can catch a Phillies game.  Or, if you really want to see some alien life come around New Years’.”

“What are you talking about?”  This time there was plenty of mirth in her smile.

“You’ll see,” he answered as he disappeared into the ship’s interior.  “Just come!”

~

“You are quiet and pensive,” Master Observer Galk remarked to his young assistant.  “The projection was accurate, was it not?”

The cloaked observation platform floated high above the north pole of the sun.  All human activity throughout the solar system was monitored, carefully cataloged and reported back to the home world.  The study had been going on for generations.

“Of course the projection was accurate,” answered Observer’s Apprentice Nen.  “The projections are never wrong.”

“But you had hopes in this case,” pressed Galk.  “You hoped they would ‘beat the odds,’ as some of them say, did you not?”

“I hoped they would not waste the opportunity to ensure their own survival.  That they should come so close, then simply decide not to…  It’s vexing.”

“Yes, it is,” agreed Galk.  He was not a sympathetic being but Nen’s frustration with humanity’s indecisive efforts at planetary expansion was understandable.  The observation team had identified an extra-solar asteroid speeding toward a collision with Earth.  There was plenty of time to develop habitats on the two nearby neighbors and evacuate a large portion of the population but only if efforts were pursued with purpose and coherence.

“Their engineered micro-organism has potential that even they don’t suspect,” continued Galk.  “But waste and vacillation are elements of their profile, as we have seen.  Their end is inevitable.  Their nature allows for no other outcome.”

“Their nature, or ours?”

Here it was, the confrontation Galk sought to provoke.  One of the tasks of a master was to teach his apprentices.  The unpleasant lessons were often the most essential.

“Go on,” he prodded.  “What about our nature?”

“Isn’t it obvious, Master?  We could warn them.”

“Nen,” said Galk, doing his best to assume a fatherly posture.  “You know the directive and you understand the purpose behind it.  We have no business interfering with nature.  Watching and learning is enough.”

“Exactly my point, Master,” replied Nen.  “We are social beings by nature.  We survive and advance through cooperation based on sympathy as well as enlightened self-interest.  Refusing to warn them is a violation, not merely of our own nature as a species but also of Nature itself.”

“You certainly recognize the inevitable chaos that would result if we applied such an ethic,” countered Galk.

“Have we evolved to value neatness as the supreme virtue?” rejoined Nen.  “Consider that which we find so vexing in the humans.  What you characterize as wastefulness and vacillation I would call simple timidity.  They cannot bring themselves to risk the consequences of bold engagement of their native capacities.  They retreat from their true nature because they are afraid of it.  It will cost them dearly.”

“What has any of that to do with us?” Galk asked smoothly.  “You indict us, yet their end would be exactly the same if chance and probability had not brought us here.  You… you castigate us for failing to supply that which you yourself acknowledge they lack.  How can you hold us responsible for their fate?”

“Because we are here, Master Galk.  And I do not hold us responsible.  I haven’t the authority.”

“Oh?”

“They watch their microbes,” said Nen as he gazed into his holo-void to watch a silvery craft blast out of its orbit around the smooth, white globe of Venus.  “We watch them.  God watches us.  He will not hold us guiltless.”

“Really, Nen.”  Galk could not suppress a sneer.  “Your superstition is your own affair.  It has no place in the solid world, where sound judgement and beneficial outcomes can only arise from clear thinking.”

“Like the benefits of a world smashed to atoms and the needless extinction of a brother species?  Such clear thinking perplexes me, Master Galk.”

“Maybe your God will save them!” jeered Galk, lacking any real answer to Nen’s challenge.  But such a display was unseemly and he regretted it.  Nen was a good man, after all, and deserved better.

“Besides,” he continued, adopting a conciliatory tone, “we are not masters of our own fate.  We carry out the will of the Collective.  It is all we can do.”

“It is all that timid men can do,” replied Nen, who was not above retaliating for Galk’s effrontery.  But he, too, was a civilized being and could not sustain such ragged-edged animus for long.

“Maybe I should have applied to the philosopher’s consortium,” he said with a self-deprecating sigh.

“No,” said Galk.  “You’re a first-rate observer, Nen.  A long, illustrious career awaits you.  Carry on.”

After Galk left the deck Nen reviewed the remainder of the day’s schedule.  It was time to make a final sweep of the crash site for the first attempted landing of the microbes.

The yellow cast of the acid-laden clouds lay upon the hellish landscape roasting in the clarity of the lower atmosphere.  Nen had never seen such a horrible place.  As the wreckage of the lander came into focus he wondered how any thinking being could hold out hope…

Thin streaks of green radiated from the shallow impact crater.  It was a miracle.

Nen sat back, feeling small and privileged at the same time.  It was humbling to realize that men had the freedom to deny their own nature but God did not.

He would interfere to His heart’s content.

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The Long Arm

1016-512

I knew better than to stop but I could not go on.  Hunger chewed like rats as I put my head down on the icy ground beneath the starless sky but at least there was no sign of her.

A few intact houses loomed over frosted piles of rubble.  All were dark but not all were abandoned.  A lingering smell of ash, ozone and burned flesh warned me I had wandered into a zap zone.  If I woke up before daybreak, I’d be okay.  The collection crews couldn’t risk working in the dark.

I could tell myself I didn’t mean to hurt that twelve-year-old girl, as if that made it all right.  But it wasn’t true.  I did exactly what I meant to do.

Now my plan was simple; run hard until I found food then run some more.  Somehow justice had gotten sharper, more urgent, more relentless since the biological menace from space had just about finished off the world.  The last cop on Earth would crawl over broken glass to shoot me down, coughing up blood and dropping body parts as the parasites of the red rain from God knows where ate him alive.

The squirming parasites killed almost everybody they infected, some slowly, most instantly.  But evidence was mounting that they had an even more disturbing effect on a few humans with an extremely rare blood chemistry.  Super immunity.  Tremendously extended life span and rapid healing.  All that science fiction stuff.  The super-immunes might just be the key to the survival of humanity.

Guess what kind of blood I have?

A mound of frozen mud that smelled like dead fish was my pillow for the night.  Humanity could take care of itself.  I didn’t care about saving humanity.  I cared about saving me.

A couple of tears dried on my cheeks as the black world vanished around me.

 

Falling!

I landed with a sickening crunch.  A man in a haz suit stood before me in a circular hatchway where flies streamed in with brown daylight then stopped buzzing.

“I’m not dead!” I screamed at him.  “I’m not dead!”

“Yes you are,” said the crewman.  He climbed in after me and pulled off his helmet as the hatch slammed behind him.  “So am I.”

“Wait!”  I scrambled over the pile of bodies, tripping over the fallen crewman who was already convulsing through the last seconds of his life.  “Let me out!” I shouted, pounding at the steel hatch until I broke some bones.  “Let me out!”  Muffled voices outside moved toward the front of the truck.  Doors slammed and we were on our way.

Once a collection crew crossed into a zone there was no going back to the “clean” world.  The risk of contamination was too great so they drugged up and rode with their cargo to the bitter end.  The crewman’s suicide told me there would be no more stops.

I was in for good.

The smell was beyond description and I wretched till I passed out.  When I came to the parasites were all over me, hoping on and off like fleas, wriggling across my eyeballs, swarming into every possible opening.

I changed my mind!  I was glad when I learned I was immune.  Not anymore!

Why won’t they kill me?

The truck hit a bump and bodies started convulsing with lazy serpentine motions.  It sounded like big snakes in the dark.  I don’t know how the biology works but the parasites somehow entangled themselves with the nervous system in order to establish a symbiotic relationship with their host.  This almost always failed, killing the intended host immediately but the creatures were adaptable.  Their ability to stimulate dead bodies had evolved over a short period of time.  They would eventually succeed in controlling living people.

I think I probably screamed for a while.  When I stopped I groped through the moving bodies until I found the crewman and ransacked his gear for rations.  He didn’t have any.  I cried until I nearly fainted and wished I’d never heard of cannibalism.

The air in the truck was hot and thick.  We didn’t have far to go but I hoped to God there was still time to die of suffocation.

I hoped I could die of suffocation.

We were headed for Two Mile Pit, so called because it was allegedly ten thousand feet deep.  It would be filled in with dirt and concrete and sealed off from the human race once all the bodies collected from the zap zones were dumped.  Collection crews patrolled the zones after they’d been flashed over by high-voltage arc blasters and irradiated.  Any bodies found in a zone were loaded into specially constructed trucks which were then driven down quarantined roadways and directly into the pit.  The zone was blasted again and placed off limits for the foreseeable future, maybe the rest of time.

It was hoped that this strategy would at least postpone the end of civilization but there was no guarantee.  As far as I knew there was only one guarantee of survival for the good people of good old planet Earth and he was starving in the back of an isolation truck picking up speed on its way to the edge of Two Mile Pit.

The only thing I could see in the dark was a little girl’s face.  If I could, I’d kill her again to make her go away.

We’re moving faster now.  We must be on the downgrade into the pit.  I’ve heard the drivers always open up the throttle and dive in full speed.  I can hear them screaming in the cab.  I can’t tell if they’re scared or glad it’s all over.

I can’t tell if I’m scared but I know it’s not all over.  The truck will fall hundreds of feet, maybe thousands, then crash.  Maybe the parasites from space will keep me alive but I hope not.  Not counting on it.  I’ll probably be killed and wake up in a brand new place more horrible than anything imaginable in this God forsaken hell of a dying world.  I don’t know what goes on in the afterlife but there’s one thing I’m sure of; a little girl will be there, waiting.  This time she won’t be alone and defenseless.  She won’t be at the mercy of a vicious, calculating beast.  Her soft brown eyes won’t be wet and wide with fear.

Mine will.

 

Constable Calon Frant stopped and listened, hoping to hear the telltale whine of a prosthetic leg.  The bandits were active again along the stretch between Hunktown and Yarbin.  He’d been tracking one for the last hour but the crook vanished as soon as he crossed the boundary into Deadfield.

That put Frant on edge.  The vast, brown expanse was virtually lifeless, affording few places to hide.  The suspect’s disappearance was unnerving.

Frant’s cybernetic brain interface buzzed softly at the back of his head, keeping his thoughts orderly as he swept the horizon with one natural eye and one robotic sensor.  The interface was standard equipment for all humans born since the end of the Thousand Years’ Horror, when disease and radioactive contamination reduced humanity to a gibbering, mutant shell of itself.  The Horror commenced soon after the fall of the Red Rain, leaving few alive and none able to function without the aid of prosthetic body parts and the mental organization provided by the interface.

Something moved in the distance.  It was a man, stumbling toward him.  Frant drew his truncheon and waited.

The man was unlike anything Frant had ever seen.  He was grotesquely un-mechanical.  No prosthetic limbs.  No eye replacements.  No brain interface.

“Stop there,” ordered the constable in a flat, official voice.  He was relieved by the man’s obedience.  Deadfield was full of ghosts and ghosts had no reason to fear law enforcement.

The man’s skin was blue and green and yellow and he stank like the bottom of a latrine.  At first he seemed dazed and bewildered.  He opened his mouth full of black teeth and spoke with a voice like rusty door hinges.  Frant couldn’t know that conversing with the dead was the only practice he’d had for the last sixteen hundred years.

“Where am I?”

“Deadfield.  Who are you?”  The constable was pretty sure this man was not his suspect.  “What are you?”

“Survivor,” the man answered.  He couldn’t possibly characterize the centuries spent healing from catastrophic burns, shattered bones and lacerations, digging through the airless darkness till his fingernails were torn away, gnawing the bones of the dead.  He tried starving himself to death.  He tried the most gruesome injuries.  He tried everything imaginable not to survive.

Now he was free on the parched brown earth with the gray light of a damp, overcast afternoon stinging his ancient eyes.

“Survivor,” repeated Frant impassively.  “You climbed from the pit?”  Such a thing had never happened.  It had never even been imagined but Constable Frant was sharp and lacked any facility for amazement.  No interface meant pre-Horror and the wretched thing standing before him was no ghost.  The constable knew every inch of the county except the inside of the pit.  There was no place else for the man to come from.

“I choose not to answer,” said the man.  A cop was a cop after all.

“Come with me,” ordered Frant.

“Oh no,” resisted the man.  “I know my…”

When he came to he was in manacles.  There was a knot on the side of his head and the big cybernetic peace officer had him by the ankle, dragging him through the dirt.

“Officer,” he called weakly.

“Constable,” corrected Frant.  He did not stop.

“Constable.  May I walk, please?”

“If you resist further I will incapacitate you irreparably,” warned Frant, dropping his foot.  “Tell me your name.”

“Dennis Sharkey.”  What harm could there be?  It had been centuries…

“Dennis Sharkey, you are under arrest for the murder of Alicia Fein, the last unsolved crime of the pre-Horror era.  You have no rights.  Cooperate fully or accept the consequences.”

“My God!  How…?”

“Your file was found in the ruins of the Pennsylvania State Police Headquarters during the re-establishment period following the Thousand Years’ Horror.  The case was left open as a memorial to the past.  Now it will be closed.”

“I want a lawyer.”

“What is a lawyer?”

“Great,” said Sharkey.  “What happens next?”

“Confinement, arraignment, trial, disconnection, burial,” answered the constable.

“Disconnection?” laughed Sharkey.  “What the hell does that mean?”

“The brain interface is disconnected and removed.  Death is usually instantaneous.  The prisoner is then placed in a casket and buried.”

“I don’t have a ‘brain interface,’” said Sharkey.  “So I guess I can’t be executed.”

“You are correct,” agreed Frant.  “That step of the process will be passed over.”

“Damn right!” gloated Sharkey.  Life in prison was a walk in the park compared to what he’d been through.  And how long would it really take him to escape?

The stench of the pit was clearing from his nostrils, giving way to the fresh, ozone laced air of the outside world.  It was amazing how quickly the centuries of confinement rolled away like a bad dream.  In the distance he saw trees, brown and shriveled but trees nonetheless, with little white houses spread beneath them.

He wondered how long he had actually been in the darkness.  He wondered what kinds of people he would meet.  He wondered if the parasites were still at work.

He wondered what the children were like.

 

“Dennis Sharkey, this court finds you guilty as charged.”

No surprise there.  His barrister told him what to expect.  They were called barristers instead of lawyers, hence poor, dumb Frant’s confusion.

Sharkey had lived among the cyborgs long enough to know they were deeply crazy.  When you expected them to act like people, they acted like robots.  When you expected them to act like robots they threw logic out the window and behaved like mental patients.  He was getting the hang of it but it would be some time before he could be a functioning member of their bizarre society.

“The court will now pronounce sentence,” continued His Honor, a waxen faced specimen with a fringe of white hair and two large, black sensor orbs serving as eyes.  “The prisoner is hereby sentenced to execution by disconnection and removal of the brain interface at dawn tomorrow, as mandated by law.  However, owing to the prisoner’s unique physiology the sentence cannot be carried out.  Interment to commence at 6:05 tomorrow morning.  Court is adjourned.”

Down came the gavel.

“Congratulations!” effused the portly barrister as he struggled out of his wig and robe.  “I’ve never seen Judge Yornt un-execute a convicted murderer.  An historic day, old man!  An historic day!”

“Thanks,” said Sharkey.  He was cleaner now, a little fatter and a little more at ease in his new world.  His natural color was slowly returning.  The county lock-up hadn’t done him a bit of harm.

“So I guess they’ll be moving me to another facility tomorrow?” he asked the barrister.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Internment to commence at 6:05 tomorrow,” repeated Sharkey.  “Imprisonment at another facility, right?”

“Yes,” affirmed the barrister.  “Exactly.  There’s a small plot at the edge of Deadfield they use.”

“Plot?  What… what do you mean?”

“Well, old man,” said the jovial barrister, still tickled with himself for his victory before the judge.  “Just because they can’t execute you doesn’t mean they can’t bury you!  The law requires it!”

Sharkey collapsed onto the hard bench behind the defense table.

“Oh yes,” the barrister went on.  “An iron casket covered with signs and symbols to keep your ghost nice and quiet.  Iron rusts through eventually, of course, but not to worry!  You’ll be deep enough, encased in poured concrete!  The ground will be sown with garlic and wolfsbane and the priest will come and a woman with flowers…”

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