By Order

chaos

My name is Vantu.  I am a composite man, a cyborg from a family of ignorant tradesmen toiling for bread in Region Three, where the tortured ground took less radiation and disease than other places during the Thousand Years’ Horror but still struggles to produce useful crops.  I am the only man in my family to complete my local schooling and go on to university.  I wish to be a scholar rather than a barrel wright.

When I started at the University of Dreams and Knowledge I was a dull, timid child of a man.  On the first day of my sophomore year a light broke within me, revealing another kind of man.  Here is what happened.

~

Quietly we followed the straight black path between the great shadowed blocks of the University of Dreams and Knowledge, the little whirs of our prosthetic limbs echoing, small as pebbles rolling through a mighty, foreboding canyon.  My roommate Kranji walked directly ahead of me in the required formation but as we approached the intersection at Omicron Hall an upperclassman turned onto the path ahead.  Kranji dropped back to walk abreast of me, forming the requisite equilateral triangle with the superior student in his yellow tunic at the forward apex, leading we two sophomores clad in green.  Thus we made our way, averting all mysterious catastrophes by counting the passing people and objects in multiples of three until a fourth pedestrian compelled the formation of a square.  Our silent counting continued in multiples of four.

Kranji has been my roommate since I started here at UDAK last year.  He comes from a small mining town to the west, somewhere out in Region Five.  Such places generally produce only miners and farmers but this particular town seems to be disproportionately represented here.  Their school must be superb.

Kranji is an unparalleled scholar and a natural mentor.  He is a good friend.

We arrived at the lecture hall precisely at our appointed time.  Like all buildings on campus the hall is a vast stony block with narrow lines of slit windows and a mosaic of orange and aqua tiles adorning the top quarter.  The images are nonrepresentational and apparently vary slightly from building to building.  Some of the art majors claim they can discern a conceptual narrative in these variations.  I cannot.  To me they conveyed nothing but an icy alien formlessness and a vague sense of menace.  I have seen them in nightmares.

Seating in the hall seems haphazard at first glance.  In reality the seats are arranged in complex patterns which include the X, Y and Z axes.  It is a test.  The student is expected to recognize his proper seat intuitively and indeed this is second nature for most but as I looked over the covertly ordered ranks I noticed one student with an expression of distress.  Some fool has misunderstood and taken his seat, leaving him stranded.

Black-robed Professor Hilber did not look up from the notes he had been studying since we entered but said simply, “4, 7, 2; explain yourself.”  A look of panic crossed the face of the young man in seat 4, 7, 2.  Before all eyes he rose and exchanged seats with his stranded classmate.  The professor did not pursue his demand for an explanation.  Grace for the first day of class, no doubt.

“Good morning, students,” greeted Professor Hilber, lifting his eyes from the glowing blue notes impressed upon their golden, metallic sheets.

“Good morning, Professor,” we answered as one.

So began the routine common to all classes since before the bloody mayhem of the Thousand Years’ Horror.  The syllabus, the lengthy codes for the brain etchers, the rules of verbal engagement, the grading standards and required punishments were all delivered without pause or repetition, uninterrupted by superfluous questions.  It was difficult to keep up with the professor’s rapid, flawless delivery but the assurance that my stalwart roommate would help me with it later kept me from succumbing to panic.

The greater part of our class time had elapsed as sunlight, dim and brassy slanted through the narrow window, slicing the room in half.  The professor, finished with his mundane instruction moved on to the subject of today’s session.

“Dobrik Snett, stand please,” said Professor Hilber.

The young man who had taken the wrong seat whirred quietly to his feet.  Perhaps he had not escaped the professor’s wrath after all.

“Who can tell me the significance of this young man’s actions at the beginning of class?” asked the professor.

No answers.

“Come, come.  You’re all sophomores so you’ve all mastered introductory psychological alignment,” said the professor.  “What was the overall effect of Mr. Snett’s mistake?”

“Confusion, sir,” answered a young woman.  Her blazing orange hair was a startling contrast to her deep green blouse.

“Confusion, yes,” approved the professor.

“Discomfort?” offered a student sitting behind and above me.

“Certainly,” affirmed Professor Hilber as he whirred quietly to his feet.

“Anger?” said another student.

“Anger, yes!” said the professor.  “How many were angry?”  Most raised their hands.

“How many were afraid?”

Hands rose slowly as awareness dawned.  Kranji’s hand remained on his desk.  I noticed his fingers drumming nervously; one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four…

“Why were you afraid?” asked the professor.  “A young man takes a wrong seat.  So what?  It’s not the end of the world.”

“We don’t know that, sir,” said the student behind me.  “I mean, that is…”

“You mean you didn’t know it until I said, ‘It’s not the end of the world.’”

“Exactly, sir,” answered the student with evident relief.

“I see your predicament.  We’ll talk about ways of knowing and sources of order in a moment but first we must discuss…”  The professor turned and wrote on the board behind him.  “Disorder.  Who can define it?”

“The natural tendency of all objects to repel all other objects,” said a young man at the back of the room.

“Ah, a material philosophy major!  Well done,” commended Professor Hilber.  “Who else?”

“The natural state of the unregulated human mind,” said another.

“Did all of you spend the summer reading ahead?” said the professor lightly.  I think he would have smiled if he was able.  “Very good, and much closer to the preferred definition for our purpose.  One more.”

“The negation of any ultimate governing principle,” answered another student.

“Good!” said the professor.  “Nicely nuanced.  Negation implies nullification of that which is in operation, whereas the absence of ultimate governing principles would be…”  More writing on the board.  The crystalline silence of the classroom was broken only by the soft whirs of the professor’s prosthetic arm.

“Chaos.  So, we have Mr. Snett’s actions, the action of one, the reaction of observers or the many and some talk about disorder and chaos.  Who would like to put it all together?”

The young woman with orange hair raised her hand.  “Mr. Snett’s action was out of order.  Where there is the negation of order there is no certainty.  The lack of certainty is the subjective correlate to the absence of governing principles, which is chaos.  Therefore, Mr. Snett’s action invited chaos and its attendant effects.”

“Indeed,” affirmed the professor.  “And how were your fears allayed?”

“Your intervention, sir,” the young woman fairly beamed.  “You provided the resolution.”

“And had I not intervened?”

Again the class was silent.

“Come, come,” chided the professor impatiently.  “Wrong answers are opportunities for learning but timidity will not be tolerated.  Speak up!”

“The many,” offered a young man to my left.  “Order would have to be restored by the many.”

“But the many are angry and afraid,” the professor reminded us.  “Can fear be a secure basis for order?”

“Is not fear the ground from which courage springs?” offered Kranji.

The professor seemed perplexed.  “Can you elaborate?  What is the connection between courage and order?”

“Is it not obvious that courage is a prerequisite of leadership?” continued Kranji.  “Must not a leader first be courageous?”

“So the many may not produce order,” surmised the professor, “but they may produce a leader who in turn serves as a source of order.  Excellent!”

I was not at all surprised that Kranji had thus distinguished himself so quickly.  How well I remember the struggles of my first months at the university and my dramatic improvement under his patient and uncompromising tutelage.  It is no exaggeration to say that I owed him my academic career.  The memorization of facts was no easier for him than for anyone but reasoning, the bridge from fact to concept to comprehensive philosophical construct was as natural to him as breathing.

Yet, despite his facility I knew that he was apprehensive about this class.  It was puzzling.

“Now, let us move on to…”  More writing.  “…ways of knowing and… sources of order.  How do we know things?” asked the professor.  “How is knowledge arranged to provide the order we need to function and advance?”

“We know things by direct experience,” someone answered.

“Yes we do,” acknowledged the professor.  “But ‘knowing things’ isn’t enough, is it?  What enables us to organize and make use of knowledge acquired through direct experience?”

“Intuition and subjective response,” replied the same student.

“Exactly,” approved the professor.  “So direct experience is a ‘way of knowing’ and our subjective response is a source of order.  What else?”

“Unquestioned assumptions.”

“Why unquestioned?” asked the professor.

“Simple assumptions are open to unspecified examination,” answered the orange-haired young woman.  “This places them beyond the jurisdiction of sources of order.”

“Interesting.  So what would be the source of order for unquestioned assumptions?” pursued the professor.

“Consensus, sir.”

“Ah!” approved the professor.  “So the many are not so helpless after all!  A leader can arise from the many but so can an organic order given the proper conditions.  Any others?”

“The declaration of authority, sir,” answered the student behind me.  “The source of order is the authority itself.”

“And a reliable source it is,” remarked the professor, obviously quite pleased with the answer.  “One more.”

Kranji had raised his right hand.  I could see the fingers of his left hand drumming nervously on his thigh under the desk.  I wondered why.

“Yes, Mr. Courageous Leader.”

“Directed investigation,” said Kranji.

“Directed investigation.  Now that is interesting.”  As he said this the professor’s expression changed, as if Kranji’s contribution might be more than interesting.  “Could you be more specific?”

The patch of weak sunlight had shifted to the prime quadrant where Kranji sat.  “The scientific method,” he said.

“The scientific method,” repeated the professor in a curiously thoughtful tone.  ”Indeed.”

Kranji shot me an odd sort of glance as if he stood at the edge of a precipice some distance away.  He didn’t look at me again.

“How many are familiar with the scientific method, or, more precisely, scientific methodologies?” asked the professor in an entirely new tone.”  “Come now, it would be shocking if you hadn’t heard of it.”

Hands rose slowly.

“Can anyone give us a quick outline of a scientific methodology?” said Professor Hilber, returning to the harsh, mechanical tone he had employed while explaining his rules and expectations.  “Mr. Snett, you’re a history major.  Can you enlighten us?”

“Well, sir,” began Snett, “It has to do with the observation of phenomena, the formulation of a theory to explain how the phenomena happen and the testing of the theory.”

“How is the theory tested?”

“The theory is used to predict what’ll happen,” said Snett.  “If the phenomena occur as the theory says they will the theory becomes… I forget what it’s called but it would be a source of order, sir.”

“Would it now?  Is anyone dissatisfied with Mr. Snett’s explanation?  No?”  He paused, drumming the fingers of his left hand on his desk, one, two, three, four, five, as if considering some radical departure from his planned agenda.

“Tell you what,” he said.  “I loathe suspense so let’s do this in one go.  Is there anyone in this class who believes the scientific method to be a reliable guide to… truth?”  He wrote the word on the board.  His writing was large and energetic.

Now I understood my friend, though I must confess I was shocked.  Why had he not confided in me?  How well had I really known him?

Having already declared himself by bringing up science Kranji raised his hand without hesitation.  Dobrik Snett followed boldly, as did two others, albeit with reluctance.

“I see,” said Professor Hilber.  “Well then, if you will consult your syllabus you will see that your first paper is due in two weeks.  The subject will be the root and rise of the horror genesis philosophy.  In addition, our four ‘scientists’ will each write an essay entitled, ‘Why I Have Rejected the Infantile Scientific Method’.  Now, to continue our discussion about ways of knowing and… yes, Mr. Snett?  What’s the matter, don’t care for your assignment?”

“In fact I don’t, sir,” acknowledged Snett, “but that’s neither here nor there.  I’m sure the four of us knew we’d be swimming upstream here at the university but is this sort of treatment really necessary, sir?”

“No, Mr. Snett,” answered Professor Hilber.  “It is not.  Nothing is necessary; that’s the point.”

“But sir, I thought that…”

“No you didn’t!” said the professor.  “You haven’t thought at all!  You’re just passing along whatever superstitions and mythology your parents have passed on to you.  Perfectly natural but that’s why we have a university.  Let’s see, you’re from Eastmine, out in Region Five, aren’t you?  Mines and farms!  Hardly an intellectual nerve center, don’t you agree?  You do understand that the scientific method is not the issue?”

“Then what is the issue, sir?” asked Kranji.  How far did he intend to take this?

“The issue, young man is the arrogance of certainty,” said Professor Hilber.  “Look, from what we have been able to surmise from the bits surviving the Horror the scientists of the past were just as committed to the fallacy of certainty as the moralists and religionists.  It’s no good saying they hedged their bets with probability; there’s no such thing.  A thing happens or it doesn’t; there’s no probably about it.  Besides, probability was generally applied to the most thoroughly tested hypotheses whereas the really big assumptions were held with the same baseless certainty as religious dogma.”

“Sir,” ventured Kranji, “you acknowledge that the evidence is scant and fragmentary.  How can you claim such certainty?”

“You heard your fellow ‘scientist’” said the professor.  “The purpose of the scientific method is to predict the future.  I think we can all agree the world has had enough of that.”

“But nothing could’ve predicted the Horror,” said Snett. “Nothing could’ve prepared us…”

“Exactly!” declared the professor.  “Now you’re getting it.  It was all figured out, wasn’t it?  Scientists, philosophers, religionists; everybody understood how the world worked.  Differences of emphasis, yes but order of some sort was assumed even by those who denied it.  It was validated through experimentation, divine revelation, logical reasoning and even subjective response.  And it was wrong, all of it!”

Even as he railed against the ancient heresies the echo of loss was unmistakable.

“The Horror took everything that we believed made us human,” lamented the professor as we listened in silence.  “No god stepped forth to protect the beings made in its image.  There were no scientific principles which enabled us to comprehend what was happening to us, let alone defend ourselves.  What man has always suspected but never had the courage to accept smashed through the brittle, decorative walls we’d constructed for ourselves.  To paraphrase Job, that which we most greatly feared came upon us.

“Listen carefully!” said the professor with fervor not often found in a university lecture hall.  “There is no truth beyond that which we choose to recognize.  It’s not hidden, waiting for us to persevere until we find it.  It’s just not there.  These… these attempted returns to the arrogant posturing of the past are delusional!  They can only lead us back to the chaos of the Horror.  Are you really so impaired that you can’t understand that?”

“Maybe that’s it, sir,” answered Kranji calmly.  His conviction was unshakable.  “Maybe I’m not smart enough to give up.  The Horror turned man inside out but not nature.  When my dad plants wheat, wheat comes up.  When the hen lays an egg we never get a goat.  The stars don’t drop from the sky.  Objects still fall down instead of up or over.  Always have, always will…”

“That’s it!  Right there, don’t you see it?” said Professor Hilber.  “‘Always have.’  Do you really know every event that’s ever occurred?  Can you know that a chicken has never hatched a goat?  Do you have the knowledge of the mythical One Almighty?  As for ‘always will…’  A little presumptuous, don’t you think?”

“No sir,” persisted Kranji.  “It is reasonable.”

I cannot lie.  I must confess that I too have considered these things despite their taboo nature, or maybe because of it.  I knew nothing of wheat or goats but the order of human relationships was inescapable.  If I neglected to test the water or read the dosimeters on schedule my father would swear and beat me.  A present action ensured a future result regardless of the uncertainty demanded by the horror genesis philosophy.

Nothing prevents the extrapolation of this natural order into every realm of existence but the academics have constructed an ersatz reality upon the contrived order of leadership and submission, closing off every avenue of inquiry. The modes of thinking derided by our professor come naturally to the human mind.  It is not at all difficult to conceive of a world founded upon a discernible transcendent order, perhaps presided over by an ultimate source of order.  Scientific inquiry is ideally suited to the task of systematic discovery and understanding.  Might not philosophical and religious reasoning reveal their answers as well?

Kranji saw this clearly.  His response was to fight…

“Ah, reasonable,” continued the professor.  “Let’s see if I can characterize reasonableness.  Today we observe that A + B = C.  Seed plus dirt equals wheat.  Being good scientists we observe this equation over a specified period and record our findings.  Every time we examine the statement A + B = C we find it to be true.  Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that tomorrow A + B will equal C.  Is that an acceptable characterization of reasonableness?”

“Limited,” said Kranji cautiously, “but not inaccurate.”

“So in your view reason is just another name for faith?” challenged Professor Hilber.

“I’m not sure I understand,” said Kranji.

“We have many working definitions for faith,” said the professor, addressing the class, “but none surpass the simple elegance, and therefore usefulness, of this verse from the old book.  ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.’  The ‘things hoped for’ part is subjective, of course.  Who knows or cares what others hope for?  But the ‘evidence of things unseen…’  Now that is a gigantic concept, a philosophical monster capable of devouring all who consider it, but like all truly great concepts its applications are limitlessly comprehensible and direct.  Can anything be more ‘unseen’ than the future?  Can certainty about the unseen future be called anything but faith?”

“This is sophistry,” protested Snett.  “The terms of this discussion are undefined.  When words can mean anything they mean nothing, sir.”

“Exactly,” I called out.  I did not look at Kranji as the light broke and I sprang from the edge of my own precipice.  “Mr. Snett is correct, sir.  If even the words common to us all are not to be trusted, what are we to do but look to an authority for order and security?”

“Well now,” approved the professor.  “That is insightful.”

Every hand was raised as the students, excited by the discussion, sought to make their contributions.  But our time was up.

As we rose in our ordered ranks the professor directed us to the assigned reading for the next class.  And then, looking directly at me he said, “Take this thought with you.  In a world established upon chaos faith and its twin brother reason are the most destructive delusions of all.”

The timid sun had retreated to the safety of clouds as we stepped onto the narrow black path.  Habit drove Kranji past me to take his customary place at the head of our line segment but as he passed I grabbed his shoulder and glared hotly.  My simple act of betrayal had remade me and he knew it.  Without a word Kranji took his new position behind me and we made our silent way, counting in multiples of two until we were joined by a third.

Looking up at the orange and aqua mosaics glowing eerily in the gloom beneath the overcast sky I began to hear the whispers of their devilish incantations.  Their ungodly chaos was indeed not of this earth; the nightmares they promised would be bottomless and exhilarating, crushing order, faith and reason beneath the furious stamp of their elemental banshee feet.

No more fearful counting for me.  I had found my source of order, the leader whose courage strengthened him to rebel against reality itself.  My path would follow the roaring lion, who walked about, seeking whom he may devour.

I was a new man.

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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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